And concluding my ever-surprising Lord of the Rings reread, a final surprise: The Return of the King is my favourite book of the three, by simultaneously a clear and rather close margin, actually.
For the first half of the book, it is far and away the best. It has some brilliant, beautiful scenes, wonderfully described, and just some of the best happenings of the story. All the setup work has been done in The Two Towers, and so we can get some resolution and plot just… getting on with it. We lead in with one of my favourite scenes from the films – the warning beacons of Gondor, which is… less dramatic in the book but still a beautiful image. And then it just keeps getting better. We have the Battle of Pelennor Fields… which would have been pretty brilliant just on paper, and then I have the images from the film… but, much like I’ve said of the other two books, my knowledge/memory of the film is all over this, and if anything more so here. Every time someone said something that had been quoted in the film, I could only hear it in the voice of the actor… which is pretty bad for Aragorn speaking when the armies mass in front of Gondor, because it’s the bit of the film where Viggo Mortensen does a really strange accent that I find pretty funny every time I hear it. Gravitas entirely undermined. It does sadden me that I have the films down in my brain as the default versions, but then again, they are such good films…
My only problem with The Return of the King is the second half of the book. Well, it’s two problems really. Firstly – too much Sam and Frodo. Less so than the film, actually, where I tend to fast forward those bits, but it’s still the bit of the story I find the least enthralling, and it remains so in print. I didn’t ever consider skipping, and I never stopped enjoying reading the book… but it’s just not as good. And then the story just doesn’t know when to stop. I have mixed feelings about the Scouring of the Shire, too. It’s a fun bit, and I enjoyed reading it, but I do feel it mucks up any sense of solemnity the end of the book might have had. The piling on of one ending after another gives it more a sense of fizzling out than a grand or dramatic close, which is I think what I would have wanted, and what reading the rest of the books feel it demands.
But these are mild criticisms at most. They are firmly in “I didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest“, which is rather different from not enjoying at all.
On the positive side, I don’t have much to say that I’ve not already said for The Two Towers. It is beautifully written, Tolkien does have a wonderful knack for world-building, and he ties everything together so well with the style he’s writing. It’s not hugely character driven, but that feels ok because of the style it’s invoking, and even when not being, he manages to bring me characters I love anyway. I adore Faramir and can’t help but like Legolas and Elrond… though I don’t like Eowyn as much as I feel I ought to. Merry and Pippin too remain favourites. And for all that I do think the ending peters out gently, it’s not really a bad ending. It cares about tying up all the loose ends, and I do care about that too. I want to know what happens to everyone and who rules where, and did they ever find Saruman and so on. Maybe I’d have preferred it in appendices (I’ll admit, I’m still reading those), but it’s not so bad in the story format either, so I’m not really going to complain.
Unlike every other genre-defining book I’ve read, I think, I now fully see why Tolkien holds the place in the canon that he does. I honestly don’t think I’ve read anything newer that does what he does better, in a way I don’t think is true of things like Dune or Neuromancer or any of the other older classics. They all stand as the originators (or near as) upon which others have improved. Tolkien is the archetype to which everything else tries to live up. I mean, that’s not to say this is my favourite series ever – I have other books I dearly love – but of the epic fantasy genre, I don’t know that I can think of anything that really comes close to Tolkien.
I could go into the reasons for that, because I do have some thoughts on why it is, but then this post would end up even longer than the one about the Trojan War book, and I think I should mostly avoid that. Besides, I’m fairly sure anyone reading this already has their own opinions on Tolkien. So instead I’ll point out that the abiding thing that has been sticking with me from reading these is that I really really want to learn one of his constructed languages, because of the worldbuilding of the books. And I hate conlangs*. But I’m so sucked into the world he’s built I want to engage with it more, not just in story form, but in all the ways it is available to me. Yes, I want to read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and everything else there is to read… but I also want to go read trivia and appendices and backstory and conlangs and just… submerge myself in the world he’s created because it is so successful. And I think that’s about as much as I’m ever going to get from a fantasy novel. Though I’ll recant that if one ever drives me to write fanfiction (spoilers: not gonna happen).
As I have said before, past-me was a fool, and I’m very glad to have reread LotR and had a chance to see how my changed tastes have moved on and can enjoy them. They’ll never be my favourite, because I don’t and never will have the nostalgia for them that many do, but I can see myself continuing to engage with them, both in terms of reading more, reading about… and just reading again at some future time. So they’re definitely up there in the list, even if not at the very top. I’m happy with this**.
Next up, briefly back to comforting crime drama, then a reread of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes for bookclub.
* No really, I do. They annoy the hell out of me. Esperanto can go… do an impolite thing I probably shouldn’t attach my name to in a public space.
** I should probably be grateful to flatmate about all this, as it’s ultimately his fault that I ended up rereading them. Not saying I am… but I probably should be.