Since The Hobbit films are coming out in the ever-approaching future, I decided to recruit someone to go to the movie with me (my little brother) by making them watch the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings with me. That sparked an interest in rereading the series for the 165th time (not kidding), but the first time in six years.
When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I was ten years old. I was already reading Dickens, Poe, and Shakespeare on a regular basis. I’d also already becoming a Harry Potter devotee. At that time of my life, not only was Tolkien a genius but The Lord of the Rings was the greatest piece of literature of all time, and since it only took me a few hours to read in entirety, I read it 164 times in four years.
I read other Tolkien works, of course. I’ve read nearly everything he ever wrote at this point. And Tolkien is still a genius. However, with more practiced literary eyes, I can honestly say that while the creation of Middle-Earth and it’s tale is one of the greatest feats of all of literature, The Lord of the Rings is not the greatest piece of literature of all time.
Rather than my 3-4 hours it used to take me to read the trilogy, it took me an hour and a half this time. The style is appreciated, elaborating things through dialogue, where the characters themselves often describe events or places. The narration is relatively bare. This isn’t a flaw, though. It’s a very common tool, and one that those of us who read a lot of plays certainly appreciate. But Tolkien didn’t mean for these tales to be great pieces of literature, they were folk tales. The characters work things out by saying them aloud, even when it’s neither realistic nor necessary for them to do so, for the audience to understand. It’s an effective tool, one he uses on purpose, but it’s a far cry from the narration-heavy work of Dickens and Tolstoy.
The language is simple. And, take this from someone who has read the books in multiple languages, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But when you’re sitting a high school or middle school student down and trying to increase their knowledge of vocabulary and complex sentence structure, you’d be better off having them read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, which I’m actually starting my brother on instead of Tolkien’s works.
I started reading those two series at the same time, actually. The more I reread Jordan’s work, of which the final book has yet to be released, the more I see how it’s taken that world-creation Tolkien began and taken it to the next literary level, beyond the world of folklore (and the Kalevala’s by my bedside, so I’m not dissing folklore) and into the world of grand, intricate literature as it was really given to us for the first time by Charles Dickens so artfully, so many years ago.
Am I never going to reread Tolkien again? Of course not. Am I saying never read Tolkien? Absolutely not. But don’t go into reading these great books thinking it’s akin to the classics you’re reading in school. It’s got a different sort of value, a rebirth of a long-lost tradition. If you want leisure reading that will prepare you for the SATs, this probably isn’t it, and you’d be better off with Jordan. Maybe this is just the literature major in me, but this re-visitation of the literary love of my youth (other than Dickens) has left me wondering how I ever saw it on the same level as Shakespeare and Poe. The only explanation is that rough, unpracticed readership is more ready to recognize greatness as greatness, and not compare and categorize.
Perhaps I was wiser then.