I first read Lord of the Rings in...seventh grade? The summer between seventh and eight grade, I think. I can't recall if this was before or after I had seen the movies. Possibly before? I had already read the Hobbit by this point, accompanied by the surprisingly good video game which I found for 5 bucks on the clearance rack at T.J. Maxx, and if I had a dime for every meaningful computer game of early-adolescence found on said rack I would have 20 cents. Not a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice.)
This is a long way of saying that it has been a very long time since I have properly read Lord of the Rings. I know I tried a reread a few (read: probably 6 or 7) years ago and ended up stalled around Midgewater. My Hobbit re-read in the impossible halcyon days of 2018 was quite enjoyable, and I have finally decided to follow it up.
Preamble finally over.
As with my prior Avatar rewatch post, there's not going to be much overarching organization, just topics according to the rhythm of my own thoughts, many of which are noncontinuous since they deal with themes that stretch across the books.
Fellowship of the Ring
Folks don't give Tolkien enough credit for how funny he can be, when he
wants. Everyone knows the birthday party, of course, but special notice
needs to go to Gandalf responding to Saruman's shimmering rainbow robes
with "I liked the white ones better." This is repeated in every other
interaction they havem to my delight. Saruman is dunked on at every
chance, by everyone, and it is great.
The picaresque adventure-types we would expect in The Hobbit (talking foxes, barrow mounds, Bombadil and the like) are attributed to Bilbo as the in-universe author, which I agree with. Unfortunately, as I came to find out later, Frodo is significantly less entertaining. It's a rocky tonal and pacing start when compared to what is to come after.
The defining idea throughout this re-read is that Middle-Earth is empty. It's in the tail spiral of complete population collapse. Some people will say that there's plenty of stuff we don't see just offscreen, and I'm sympathetic to that, but I don't believe it. There are too many times where it is explicitly said that there is nothing there - Anfalas is prime coastline and there's no one living there, the lands between Isengard and the Shire are empty. There are major rivers that have no human habitation on them at all, and any cities that might once have been there have fallen into ruin.
It's thematically appropriate, and it low-key bugs me.
The Shire and Bree feel like they are not only from a different setting, but a completely different universe, inexplicably severed from their surroundings with how developed they are. They'd be less out of place if Eriador was still functioning, but it isn't and so
Eriador has never recovered from the collapse of Arnor and the plague, all right...but the entire point of the Shire is that it's safe and out of the way, right? So, naturally, people are going to migrate there.
Sauron is only able to get as far as he does because he is almost entirely unopposed. He's so weak without the Ring that he needs a plague, the departure of the elves, the complete collapse of every kingdom in Eriador, the loss of multiple Gondorian city states and the downfall of major dwarven strongholds in order to even begin to start his offensive.
Tolkien did not understand history. He was very good at landscapes and languages, but he hadn't a clue about history.
Gondor had been without a king for 969 years, and Numenor had been gone for a full 3141 by the time Aragorn returns, and let me tell you that is literally, and not figuratively, the equivalent of some rando showing up in London, tomorrow, proclaiming that he's the king of England because he's a descendant of Edward the Confessor, and then trying to reclaim the glory of Mycenaean Greece.
It's one of those cases (as so often happens in fantasy), where not providing hard numbers would have eliminated the problem entirely. Gondor hasn't had a king in A Long While. The Numenorians collapsed a Long Long Time Ago. Let the reader fill in gaps and make it work in a way that's appropriate to them. The Hobbit avoided this problem, and the depopulation one too, by just not concretely saying anything about it - you can fill in the gaps with Eriador as it was in the Hobbit.
With the numbers included, it becomes this weird land of "nothing ever changes". Which is weird because the day-to-day timekeeping stuff is fascinating and part of the really fun logistics side of the quest.
**The way Gandalf talks about the Wise and the White Council says to me that there are WAY more than 5 wizards, and I'm disappointed that this is not actually the case.
People will (rightfully) use orcs as the entry point into talking about Tolkien's issues with race. But, Orcs don't actually appear until Moria and we hardly get to see them up close until Two Towers, so before we even get to that we have to deal with the yikes description of a southerner in Bree.
During the Council of Elrond, Boromir describes the Numenoreans as having "mingled with the blood of lesser men."
This line is repeated from that point on through the rest of the books.
John. John. The Numenoreans were so fucked up that Eru Illuvatar Themself said "fuck this island in particular" and dropped them to the bottom of the ocean. That's their cultural legacy. Pissing off God literally more than Morgoth and a couple colonial states that should by this point have hardly any shared cultural traits or values with Numenor at all.
Not to mention that, spoilers, blood is NOT supposed to come out of there.
This, I think, is honestly worse that the orcs. The orc situation is bad, mind you, but the orcs have the advantage of their underlying deal, as it were (that is "this is what being crushed under the military-industrial complex will do to people") being rock fucking solid. More to follow, there.
The approach to Rivendell, despite Frodo's injury, is remarkably low-tension.
I was none too fond of the elves as a kid, and I am happy to report that in this one particular case, young me was spot on the money. The elves of Middle-Earth are awful. They sit in their cloisters singing the same old songs about the Good Old Days and not only do they not help, they actively make things worse by delaying the Fellowship - between Rivendell and Lothlorien they waste a full 3 months. Granted this can all be swung as recovery time, and I can accept that, but I'd accept it more if it wasn't elves.
The border of Lothlorien is fifteen miles from Moria, and the jackasses offered no aid whatsoever for its reclamation, nor the Battle for Dimrill Dale, despite the fact that a secure cross mountain highway directly benefits them. They just sat there and let Durin and his people die.
Yeah Gimli, you tell those elves to go to hell. Racist bastards.
My favorite part of the books on this re-read is this: from Rivendell onwards, every step of the quest is the result of a reasoned choice. Characters discuss their options and figure out their course of action according to what they know and what's changed in their circumstances. The opposition reacts, and the plans change. There is a consistent thoughtfulness here that most fantasy lacks. It's a game of logistics.
What do we do with the ring? Well, we can't destroy it. We can't use it. There aren't any surviving dragons that could destroy it. We can't take it into the West because we're liable to be cut off before we get there. We could throw it in the ocean, but there are things down there. Can't give it to Bombadil because he'll lose it.
But then they try crossing the mountains in January so...points for trying.
Actually on that note, the way they talk and from the landscape we see, it appears that Middle-Earth has generally snowless winters.
I do very much like how it is explicit from the forming of the Fellowship that the others are not bound to Frodo's task except by their own will. They all have their own things to do. Again, the logistics side comes into play.
Of all the Tolkienisms that have been stolen and copied over the years, the one I can't fault anyone for stealing are the Nazgul. They're a great tool. High potential, low development - very glad we ended up with the 10 That Were Taken, eventually.
I did not remember Beren and Luthien getting thrown in here, that's neat. Honestly I didn't remember most or all of the Silmarillion stuff that gets bandied about.
Barrow-downs are a spooky interlude but I am not a fan, the pacing is whack. Would have worked better in The Hobbit. Bree feels like it's definitely from another book.
A strong part of Tolkien's worldbuilding is that he is very good at describing landscapes and very good at factoring in travel times. None of his imitators learned this lesson, so now we are stuck with the modern fantasy mileau and that's another rant
Book Saruman is a techbro. He has none of the stateliness we associate with the character through Lee's performance, he's just raw "we've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas" and "what if we dIsRuPt ThE mArKeT?", and "nooooooooooooooo! it is YOU who are victimizing ME! How dare you confront me with the fact that my uruk-hai have laid waste to the townships of rohan! Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!"
He's Bezos/Zuckerberg/Musk/Dorsey, except as a wizard. Gandalf constantly dunking on him is a treat.
The elven monopoly on lembas bread was the major contributing factor to the delayed recovery of the human population of Eriador and the Wilderlands in the wake of the Great Plague, thus paving the way for the return of Sauron. In this essay I will...
There's a mention, in the orc search party out of Moria, of something with a bent back, hands near the ground, beastlike but definitely not an animal, and I never want to learn what this creepypasta-ass monster actually is. It's too good, I refuse to let it be ruined. (Note: It's Gollum. But for a moment I didn't realize that and it was the coolest thing.
Overall... this is definitely the weakest of the three, especially the non-Moria parts post Rivendell. It's weird how the part that the book is named after is both so short and the most boring of it all.
- Orcs aren't even encountered until <100 pages from the end.
- I think the Bridge scene is better in the film, even though my opinion on Jackson's trilogy has cooled over time significantly.
- Trolls have scaly green hide and no toes.
- Saruman's rainbow robe. We were ROBBED!
- The Nazgul can speak in full sentences, I find this weird.
- Shire is bizarrely the most settled non-gondor territory. I do not buy that the Rangers were able to do so much for it, or at least, i don't like that they were able to do so much without being integrated into the society around the shire. Give me a struggling but still extant Eriador, I mean to say.
- Sam's is a major third wheel in Fellowship, which is weird when we are so used to him as he is later.
Wow, Fellowship jumps right into Two Towers - the ball is rolling right out of the gate. This gets kept up for the next two books
If Tolkien had just stayed with "Orcs are elves who are cops" the fantasy genre would have a lot fewer issues than it does. Honestly, it's not even a hard fix. Orcs already act monstrous, they don't actually need to look it. Melkor and Sauron likely tried making orcs more beautiful than elves as an ego trip, and failed, so we would feasibly get some uncanny valley type deal.
The primary physical differences would be the result of the malnutrition, industrial pollution, and repeated physical trauma the define life in Mordor. Orcs & elves should be very clearly related in visual adaptations. The elves from Hellboy II would be a good starting point.
Okay so orcs are described as having dark skin and epicanthic folds.
Orcs are elves + fascism.
Fascism does not cause dark skin and epicanthic folds
ERGO elves also have dark skin and epicanthic folds.
I am going to blame Gygax much more than Tolkien for the modern state of affairs vis a vis orcs.
Sauron was slick and competent in Numenor, and now he's real sloppy. Who is to say that Sauron is even conscious at this point? (Note - later developments in the books vis a vis tactics seem to indicate yes, but intelligence can exist without awareness) Without the Ring he might very well just be a mindless automated function, the azathoth of Barad-Dur. A decaying security AI in the grips of rampancy, mindlessly maximizing paperclips except the paperclips are orcs.
Which is horrifying.
Treebeard remains the best. "I must cool myself and think; for it is easier to shout STOP! than to do it." Out here dispensing the truth.
I imagined him a lot less tree-like than the movies did, this time around. Closer to how the trolls are imagined (which makes sense) - big, stout, big bush of hair like moss, brown skin thick like an elephant's - but not actually a tree.
The entwives introduced agriculture to humanity. This is a very small and passed-over detail, despite being easy top five for "things that are important" in the entire setting.
What if the population collapse is because the soil quality of Middle Earth is super-poor? Before the sinking of Beleriand most of the inner continent would have been high steppe, tundra or desert, what with all the mountains casting rain shadows (double or even triple in some areas!) Without the entwives to assist, its no wonder that no one lives here - the only fertile areas are on the Gondorian coast and western Eriador. The elves are useless because they have no agriculture knowhow - Treebeard mentions that they aren't particularly enthusiastic about growing things. Lack of entwives = doom
Tolkien doggedly refuses to give us an adequate description of the Nazgul's flying mounts, and I don't find it to be particularly evocative or inspiring - if I took away what I recognize them as in the movies, they were just a shadowy black cloud until the very end, but not the cool or menacing kind.
They can apparently cover ~600 miles in less than 6 hours and this feels weird.
I was honestly bored with the arrival in Edoras up through Helm's Deep. I feel like Wormtongue's presence turns the initial sequence in Edoras into a farce and nothing would be lost if Theoden's hostility was just ordinary stress, grief, and despair.
We're thrown into the tail end of a completely different story, and since we never knew Grima before his corruption, it makes Theoden look like an idiot. I tuned out throughout this section.
And then they let him go...
Like I can understand the whole emphasis on mercy and not jumping to violence but you found an enemy spy in your camp and you are going to send him back? I know he kills Saruman in the end but that is a stretch too far for me. Gollum being key to destroying the Ring I can buy, but the same deal a second time with a much less interesting character is a bit much.
The Battle of Helm's Deep, thought, is the first part of the series that I really don't like. I can and will gripe about elves but this bit is actually poorly written, I feel - muddied, confusing, and baffling of pace.
"Was Gandalf's choice to leave Saruman alive moral?" is certainly a conundrum. Certainly it's within character, but it does raise the question of "what if your mercy now creates more suffering later?"
I love the horrific descriptions of the areas just outside the Black Gate. That scene also mentions the "maggot-folk" or "maggot men" of Mordor, which I am choosing to interpret literally.
Sam finally gets to steal the show, it's damn time.
I can never figure out the positioning and environment of the conversation of the two orcs at the very end. Like, how is Sam able to hear them when there's stone wall between them and they're moving away from him?
I do like that convo, though, of the orcs going "yeah once the war's over let's bail with some of the lads and live the highwayman life"
Sneaking suspicion that JRRT did not like spiders. Very subtle, blink and you'll miss it.
I keep thinking about how Shadow of War featured sexy lady Shelob and I am beginning to think that no one at Monolith ever actually read the actual Cirith Ungol sequence. Not that humanform Shelob would be impossible, but the sexiness quotient of a true-to-character interpretation would be a relatively niche appeal and they were too huge of cowards to actually do it.
Return of the King
Let us never forget that Eowyn's first lines of dialogue are telling Aragorn that he's full of shit and being 110% right.
The army of the dead does feel pretty conveniantly placed, here. But the first 2/3rds of the book is lightning fast anyway. No rest, everyone is on the march.
No one ever talks about Ioreth and that's a damn shame - she's a return to the Hobbitish small town humor of the beginning of the book So everyone just went and forgot how the denoument of return of the king features a chatty old lady providing color commentary on the situation to her cousin from out of town. I demand justice for Ioreth in all future adaptations
I find it worth note how we've had the theme of pity as a positive thing since very near the beginning - Gandalf espousing it early and often and Frodo picking it up later - but the narrative is also willing to let that be challenged and willing to let characters
Eowyn explicitly does not want your pity. She holds that ground against Aragorn, the literal walking Christ-the-Redeeming-King metaphor, and the narrative does not contrive to undermine her. She's bitter - she had to watch her uncle fall into reclusive paranoia
while her homeland was nearly destroyed by orcs incursions, only to then
be brushed aside when she comes forward and volunteers herself to
fight - and her bitterness is not waved away as foolishness. (how many authors would fail here, turn her just into the overly-emotional woman? Too many, I feel)
And she only gets let go of that bitter death-wish when she meets Faramir who is willing to meet her where she is, as an equal and not talk down to her.
I appreciate her character (Faramir too) even more now, I think.
No one ever talks about those scenes, and that's twice a shame.
I imagine statues of Sauron in his prime, beautiful and arrayed in magnificent garb, half-destroyed by the roadsides of Mordor. One of many reminders that he is trying to make for himself a paradise, but breaks everything he touches.
Much of the Frodo and Sam scenes in the latter two books are just them walking, with few notable encounters. I actually really like this - you're at the very end - what else is there to say?
I also think splitting their quest away from the battle (instead of the more modern interlaced POV chapters) works way better then that alternative. Again, it makes it feel like the world is filled with events and actors all of their own rather than a puppet show.
The scene with Ghan-Buri-Ghan is one that I'll be spending a lot of time unpacking - because it admits, straight up, that Rohan / Gondor are guilty of horrific acts against the indigenous peoples of ME. The narrative admits it, but doesn't internalize it.
Internalizing it would, of course, obliterate Aragorn's plot, and honestly I don't see much of a loss there. The Houses of Healing go hard on the Christ-King symbology, despite the fact that christ-king symbology is, to put it bluntly, a cavalcade of horrors visited on the world
Denethor's despair comes back to the phrase "the West has failed" - and he's not wrong. Gondor and Rohan are invasive, colonial powers dying a slow death because they were a bunch of bastards.
Could Sauron have risen again, if Gondor and Harad were allies? If the Dunlanders were able to settle properly in Eriador and rebuild?
Tolkien generally supports the motif of "friendships across cultural boundaries = good, insularity = bad" through the book, but it's hamstrung by Numenor and its imperialist legacy painted as worthwhile
Maybe Aragorn could be an imposter - there is no heir to Isildur, but he's taken it upon himself to mantle that position to undo much of the damage. Maybe make him a dunlander, or druadain, or of mixed parentage.
Honestly, I don't think it would be very hard for Sauron to get the Easterlings, Haradrim, Khandish on his side. Just point vaguely westward and say: "The Valar abandoned you, the elves never gave a shit about you, and their lapdogs the Gondorians have been fucking you over for centuries."
Scene where Beregond is showing Pippin around Minas Tirith is very good, gives us a ground-floor look at the defense of the city.
Orc soldiers have ID numbers. I feel this is important to note.
Giving Sauron a physical appearence in the films was an enormous mistake. He works as a Presence, full stop.
The Scouring of the Shire is absolutely vital for this series and everyone who says elsewise is wrong. There can be no going there without coming back again, and you need to be able to see the changes that have been wrought both on the characters and on their home.
I like how the orcs had a sort of affectionate name for Saruman. It feels appropriate from them, even: the closest they can get to expressing fondness is just "old man". You can imagine certain veterans in the ranks also called sharku, simply for surviving so long.
Sam and Rosie end up having 13 children. Just a fun bit of trivia.
Honestly, I like Adunaic much more than any of the elvish languages, despite appearing nowhere in the actual books. I wish there was more material.
A Brief Aside on the Movies
Watched a couple scenes during reread, specifically Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields. I think they are aging poorly, both through oversaturation and through what they are as films. (Howard Shore's soundtrack is technically good, but I find that it doesn't thematically fit with lotR very well at all (too much brass, definitely too much reliance of leitmotif), and I'd take an Austin Wintory LotR soundtrack over Shore's any day of the week.
Thankfully we have Banner Saga, which is the only piece of media that I feel actually gets LotR on a meaningful emotional level. Some of the songs on that ost track 1:1 to moments in LotR.
Remember kids, the true meaning of Lord of the Rings is:
"Cops are bad and funded by fascists, go get your mates together and do a direct action, then go plant a tree. Several trees, in fact. This is really important. Fascists bad and pathetic, trees good and cool."
Goofs aside, this reread has made it very clear that, for all the copying that Tolkien has gotten over the years, very, very few people have actually figured out, or even bothered to recognize, the emotional and moral core of the series. Anything pulling from D&D is starting on the wrong foot to begin with, and you can just watch the stumbling away from what is good and beautiful in his works to focus on the least important, and often weakest, aspects of it.
Because the end of the day it's got jack all to do with elves and dwarves and halflings and orcs and wizards and kings and giant eagles and so on and so forth. All of this material is great and fine and good in its place, but it overlooks and ignores, potentially intentionally, what lies underneath - that fascism will make monsters of us all and be the death of everything if we do not fight it, that we must care for the trees, that no one is immune to the self-destructive lure of power, that industrial war is a machine of endless horrors, that if we are to survive at all there must be solidarity across cultural and social lines.
But then nerds get involved and it's all "wow cool worldbuilding" (only works because of the themes) or "but it's so morally black and white" (it's about fascism and ecological devastation of course it's fucking black and white) and that's how we end up with Brandon Sanderikson Grrimartin.
Can't ever trust nerds not to miss the point.
I greatly enjoyed my time returning to the series, and there is likely a great deal of stuff that didn't make it here out of lack of space or energy. Leave what I missed in the comments below, I still have much to say.