I may have watched the Lord of the Rings films. This may have spurred me on to continue rereading the books (with, admittedly, some encouragement from flatmate and his entirely mistaken views on the peoples of Middle Earth). Which may have led to rewatching the films in their extended editions…
Turns out I might quite like Tolkien these days. Eleven year old me would be stunned*. I’d best read the Silmarillion while this lasts.
As it happens, I have at least always fairly enjoyed the films, and the second one has always very much been my favourite, so I’m not entirely surprised I enjoyed The Two Towers more than I did The Fellowship of the Ring. tTT also has the benefit of not having one part that I still definitely dislike – Tom Bombadil. I don’t know if that’s film-based indoctrination or just common sense, but he remains annoying, okay? But what this (and all the other things since I read tFotR) means is that I actually, fully and genuinely enjoyed reading tTT. I was annoyed when I had to read other things instead of it. I liked how the characters changed and grew, and where the story went. I liked the world-building. All the things I’m supposed to like about what Tolkien has done, I did. I feel like I have come to this party awfully late… but, well, at least I’m here.
I said this when I reread tFotR, but I’ll say it again because I think it’s truer even for tTT: I think having a degree in Classics has given me a much greater degree of patience for what Tolkien is trying to do than I had as a child. For all that I was a voracious and dedicated reader even then, what I was not so much was willing to or capable of appreciating that Tolkien was drawing on all the many things he was drawing on. Child-me wanted a fun story. She wanted escapism and immersion, and if you’re not a particularly patient eleven year old, well… maybe LotR is not going to do that for you. But 27 year old me has read epic and even Greek comedy (alas), and so is willing to persevere with something not immediately accessible and try to see it for what it is trying to achieve, not how it matches up to her standards for enjoyable escapist literature. I also now actually appreciate all the work he did with all the languages** and the world building, which is why I really think I should read the Silmarillion. Because if anything, this is what I’m here for, more than I am with a lot of other books (see: me bitching about any Classic SF ever)… which is surprising.
But even leaving that aside… they are just good books.
If I had to pick a fault, the bit with Gollum/Frodo/Sam does drag on a bit… but then you get to Faramir, who remains a lovely human being and much to be adored (with or without David Wenham’s lovely face), so even that seems worth it. Though you get it to the detriment of all the goings on outside of their little sphere, which I was rather enjoying in the first half of the book. Helm’s Deep remains cool… and you have shenanigans with Isengard… and ents! Who could not love the ents? I understand why we need to focus on Frodo and his quest, and the burden it is slowly becoming/his realisation of what it means to be a ringbearer and to have taken on the quest he has… but at the same time, I really was rather enjoying the slowly drawn together threads of peril going on across Middle Earth. I wanted more of that. And I suppose it does also seem to cut abruptly short at the end… but it’s the awkward middle book of a trilogy… aren’t they all supposed to be weirdly paced? I am fairly sure that’s just an actual rule.
None of this really matters though. Because what does matter is it feels properly dramatic in a way I never really appreciated. What child-me dismissed as slow and dull and boring, adult-me is going “oooh suspense!” to. The whole world being in peril is a trope I’m now completely used to in my fantasy. Oh look, here we go, if this happens everyone might die, what a calamity, yawn. In SF, reading the cult classics, the progenitors of the tropes… I always find them less than what’s come since… I appreciate more what’s been built on top of them than the original. The opposite is true here. The more I reread of Tolkien, the more I’m thinking that everyone else is a pale comparison and why on earth was I bothering with them when this existed… because it is just better. Yay, an inexplicable exception to a trend I was quite happily getting used to being true about my reading. Either I’m going to have to dismiss this as “epic fantasy is just different, ok”, or “actually that isn’t a trend for me and I was just drawing unhelpful lines”. I don’t actually know what the answer is, but it’s going to bug me until I figure it out (i.e. enjoy me rambling about it again when I read The Return of the King).
I suppose… Tolkien stands as the pioneering work in the epic fantasy tradition far more than I believe any of the seminal SF works I’ve read stand in their tradition. Neuromancer brought about the rise of Cyberpunk, but that’s not the same as… well… setting the tone for basically all of fantasy. Tolkien is just different. So all this comparison has been utterly pointless.
I’m never going to be one of the people who loves Tolkien best of all the things. I’m not going to remember the name of every elf and his grandfather, or have encyclopaedic knowledge of the geography of Middle Earth. But I appreciate him a lot more than I ever did, and my taste has reached the point where “appreciate” and “enjoy” have started to come closer to one another. So I enjoy him too. Even though a small part of me enjoyed being the one person in a room who disliked LoTR, just to be contrary. It’s beautiful stuff, and, unlike a lot of seminal works of SF, stands up well against all that’s come since. It’s still a good story, still great writing, still a fantastic world… and I’m not sure most of the big genre-defining works I’ve read other than this can really say that, when compared to their children and grandchildren.
I’ll doubtless read tRotK fairly soon, and may well move on to the Silmarillion, if I can. But at the moment, I’m heading back to Iain M. Banks, and will hopefully inflict my views on Matter on you shortly.
* In fairness, 27 year old me is genuinely quite surprised at the extent to which my tastes have changed over the years. I’m not quite sure how or why this has happened, but I’ve started liking a lot more of the things generally accepted to be good. Maybe I was just a horrible, contrary child.
** It is not unlikely that I will try to teach myself one of the elf languages. Someone should probably stop me before that happens.