There’s a lot to unpack when reading through the Middle Earth series – and not only because of the layers upon layers of fictional history and legends that Tolkien crams into his writing.
For starters, I think it’s very important to the reading to remember that Tolkien was imitating a writing form. He wasn’t trying to write a compelling novel, but rather trying to write his own edda. So, yes, the books are long and sometimes tortuous in their discussion of historical setting and their impromptu song breaks, but it works within the context of what Tolkien was doing.
Part of that is that there’s very little in the way of charactertization. Characters have very little personality of their own, but rather stand in as representations of their ideals or race. We get hints of depth, such as the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, but that’s really about it. In the hands of another writer, I would probably call it amateurish, but Tolkien manages to make it work – perhaps unfortunately, since these books spawned generations of crappy fantasy authors who seemed to think that travel writing with the occasional monster popping out from the bushes is an adequate substitute for plot and rounded characters.
There were issues with race and gender in the series. More than a few critics have pointed out the rather conspicuous absence of female characters (except for the unreachable goddess-like pedestal-dwellers like Galadriel and Arwen). In the whole series, the only real foreground character was Eowyn, and her story arc was more than a little problematic, as I discussed in my review of The Return of the King.
I touched on race when I reviewed The Hobbit, and the rather obvious tie between dwarves and Jews, and what it means when Thorin Oakenshield is so blinded by gold-lust that he is willing to forego fairness and put his life – and the lives of his followers – at risk. In the same book, we’re introduced to the goblins (later retconned into a form of orc), which is a race of beings that are simply and irredeemably evil – an obviously problematic notion.
(Though I will give Tolkien credit that he tried to address racism in his portrayal of the relationship between Gimli and Legolas – and have I mentioned that before? I really liked it!)
All of these criticisms are legitimate, and they do make the books problematic. But they are still enjoyable. So I think I’m just going to have to give a nod to the How to be a fan of problematic things article over at Social Justice League and leave it at that.
The songs. Oh, the songs. When discussing Tolkien among friends, the most common criticism I heard was that people hate the songs, and usually skip them entirely. Personally, I divided them into two categories: The hobbit songs, and everyone else’s songs. The hobbit songs are fantastic, and I really enjoyed them – even to the point of trying to memorize a few verses of some. All the other songs, however, bored me to tears. Especially the elvish ones. Have I mentioned how much I hate the elves?
Over and over again in my reading, I was struck by the age of things in Middle Earth. The world itself is full of history, and it seems that the characters can’t spit in any direction without hitting some rock or scrap of land with historical significance. It makes the environment very rich and gives it a feeling of being anchored in place and time.
But age kept coming up with characters as well. Throughout the narrative, we’re told the ages of nearly every important character we meet, and almost all of them are quite old. This was rather conspicuous when I’m so accustomed to reading about young characters – thirty being already on the outside range for a protagonist in a story that isn’t specifically about being/getting old. So when Aragorn, who might be termed the romantic lead, is said to be in his 80s, it really is striking.
And then there’s the multitude of races that live so long, and the elevation of immortal races. It felt very personal, like being/getting older and eventual mortality were things that Tolkien had very much on his mind. Or maybe it had to do with his religious beliefs, I don’t know (speaking of, anyone notice the total absence of religion in Middle Earth? Other than pipe-weed, no one in the stories is ever shown to worship anything, and while some of the races/cultures do seem to have rituals, none are given any kind of spiritual significance. I found this rather interesting given Tolkien’s well-known friendship with C.S. Lewis.).
Lastly, I listened to the series on audiobook and I found that to be thoroughly enjoyable. The reader was fantastic and had the perfect voice for the job, and he would actually sing the songs. I feel like the Middle Earth books really do fare much better when read aloud, and I highly recommend listening to the audiobooks if you are thinking of reading (or re-reading) the series.
I had fun, and I’m glad to have finally read this classic, but I’ll admit that I’m rather glad it’s finally over. Those were looong books and it was hard to keep myself interested, particularly towards the end. But now I can officially cross it off my bucket list and I’m pleased.
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