I thought that providing my own history with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien might be helpful when approaching this rereading project, but I thought a long essay where I drone on about myself would quickly grow boring, so I asked a friend to give me some questions relevant to my own experiences with the books and my views of them.
I should add that, because of the longevity of Tolkien’s stories and the popularity of the Peter Jackson films, I am assuming that most of my readers have at least a passing familiarity with their plots and stories, particularly that of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For the three of you who have managed to avoid the books, movies, and many many pop-culture references, be warned: there will be spoilers in this post and many of the other posts for the LotR Reread Project from here on.
My first encounter with J.R.R Tolkien was an old, worn library copy of The Hobbit. This was also my introduction to fantasy. Can you tell us a bit about the first Tolkien book you read and how it impacted you?
The first Tolkien book I ever read was The Hobbit. I was eleven years old, and a friend who sat next to me in school couldn’t stop talking about it. Because he and I shared a lot of interests and because I wanted to see what he was so excited about, I checked out The Hobbit from the school library. I was immediately hooked and wanted to read more about hobbits. I found three more books by J.R.R. Tolkien in my school library so I checked them out, too, and have been obsessed ever since.
When I was younger The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings helped me learn about bravery and kindness and kindled a love for fantasy and all things medieval. As I get older, the themes of holding onto hope in the face of despair and the necessity of ordinary people being decent and good are more important than ever. I have always loved the beauty of Tolkien’s writing, and I will be the first to admit that it has made me picky about the prose and word usage in every other book I read.
Do you have a preferred or suggested reading order of Tolkien’s books? If so, can you elaborate on this?
If you look at the chronological order (not publication order), then you would start with The Silmarillion, then The Hobbit, and end with The Lord of the Rings. But thanks to its high, mythological style, The Silmarillion is not easy to get through. I would recommend starting where most people do- with The Hobbit. Because it was written for children, its tone is much lighter and yet it tells a series of stories that get deeper and deeper as you go along. Then read The Lord of the Rings, which has a higher style, but is still easy enough to get through. If you find that The Lord of the Rings only makes you want to read more about Middle-earth, then continue on to The Silmarillion.
If you want to take a deeper dive into Tolkien’s legendarium, consider this reading order:
The Lord of the Rings
The Children of Hurin
Beren and Lúthien
The Fall of Gondolin
The Lord of the Rings
With this order, you come to have a deeper understanding of the full history of Middle-earth and the people who made the history hinted at in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These stories are rarely happy, though, so prepare yourself for some tragic endings. I would also recommend the other books published both during Tolkien’s lifetime and those published posthumously, such as Roverandom, Farmer Giles of Ham, or The Smith of Wootton Major. There is a twelve-volume series called The History of Middle-earth that draws on the hundreds of manuscripts Tolkien left behind about the people, languages, cultures, and history of Middle-earth, but most of those are probably best left to the most ardent of Tolkien’s devotees.
While Tolkien intended for LotR to originally be released as a single volume, we know that it was eventually published as three (divided into multiple books). Which volume is your favorite and why?
My favorite volume has changed over the years. The Fellowship of the Ring was my favorite when I was younger because of the hobbits, Rivendell, Moria, and Lothlorien. These were adventures unlike anything I’d read before, and they stayed in my memory when other settings in other books faded away. In college, my favorite volume was The Two Towers. I found Book Four (where the narrative shifts back to Frodo and Sam) to be compelling in its psychological aspects– what was the Ring doing to Frodo’s mind? How did it change his view of Gollum? How was being back in the presence of the Ring affecting Gollum? Was Gollum redeemable, in spite of hundreds of years of corruption by the Ring?
These days, I go back and forth between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King. I’ve always loved the Elves and their settings, but the sense of loss and sadness they experience, knowing that the world they have loved for centuries, is about to change forever and they will not be a part of it is both compelling and heartbreaking. On the other hand, The Return of the King contains some of the most powerful writing in the entire work. The charge of the Rohirrim brings tears to my eyes, no matter what format I encounter it in– book, movie, film soundtrack– and the climactic, shocking scene in Mount Doom somehow manages to come as a surprise, no matter how many times I read it.
I have seen a lot a discussion debating the lack of female characters in Tolkien’s work. What are your own thoughts on this?
While it is true that there are few women in Tolkien’s major works, the ones who are there are decisive, intelligent, and proactive. None of them need rescuing, and while none are content to sit back and let things happen to them, they aren’t presented as flawless pinnacles of womanhood, especially if you look deeply into The Silmarillion, the work closest to Tolkien’s heart. Women like Melian, Haleth, Aredhel, and Morwen shape the history of Middle-earth as profoundly as any man. Lúthien Tinúviel, the Elf-woman one of the legendarium’s primary stories revolves around, follows her beloved Beren into all dangers and contends with the likes of Sauron and his ancient master, Morgoth, and bring them both to their knees.
In the later ages of Middle-earth, women once again play major roles. By the end of the Third Age (when The Lord of the Rings) takes place, Galadriel is one of the most powerful beings in the whole of Middle-earth. She is a keeper of one of the three Elven rings, artifacts that maintain the power of the Elves against the might of Sauron. With her power and will, she defends the realm of Lothlorien against the darkness, and yet, had she taken the One Ring when Frodo offered it to her, she would have overthrown Sauron himself and become a dark queen, ruling over Middle-earth in his place. But she passes the test, and so the world does not fall. She provides shelter, food, and healing to the company and provides them with gifts that aid them in their quest.
Another great woman in The Lord of the Rings is Éowyn, a shieldmaiden of Rohan and a warrior in her own right. She has been fighting despair for many years, and when she learns that Aragorn does not return her love, she loses all hope and seeks glory and possible death in a hopeless battle, just like her brother Éomer and her uncle, King Theoden. Either destiny or chance brings her face to face with the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. It is said that no man may kill him, but Éowyn, a woman, kills him with the help of Merry the hobbit and helps to turn the tide of the Battle of the Pelennor fields. Though many deride her eventual decision to put away the sword and become a healer, I think her decision is a noble one.
Though the female characters of Tolkien’s legendarium generally stay within the traditional roles assigned to women, they are not unimportant afterthoughts. Their feminine contributions are only minor if you assume the inferiority of “women’s work”. Galadriel and her ladies made the cloaks that helped hide the members of the Fellowship from their enemies, and the lembas she provided helped Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they pursued the orcs into Rohan, and then kept Frodo and Sam from starving during the last push to Mt. Doom.
As for Éowyn’s decision to become a healer… I have heard many deride her choice, as though she is settling for becoming some benign, somewhat idle nursemaid. This ignores the fact that a war has just been fought, and despite their victory, many soldiers will be dealing with terrible injuries, both physical and mental, for a long time. It also ignores the fact that there was a saying in Gondor that “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known”. Aragorn’s healing skills are a mark of his nobility. Why, then, are Éowyn’s skills derided? Given Tolkien’s experiences during World War I and his thoughts on war and ‘martial glory’ later in his life, I believe that he valued healers and the work they did and so Éowyn’s decision to become a healer was ennobling and not to be derided.
Though their numbers are few, the women in Tolkien’s stories are full beings, far deeper and more influential than the ‘strong female character’ trope generally allows for and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Do you feel that there are strong elements of Catholicism present in LotR and Tolkien’s writing? Many fans feel that his devotion is present and represented throughout the stories. What are your thoughts on this?
Religious ideas are definitely present in Tolkien’s works. This is especially apparent at the beginning of The Silmarillion when the one god, Eru Iluvatar, speaks the world into being just as the Christian God does in the book of Genesis. This creation experiences a time of perfection, but then one of Iluvatar’s servants, Melkor, seeks more power than he has been given and falls from grace, just as Lucifer does in Christian lore. This is where the overt similarities end, I think. Though the ideas of sin and saviors are there, they are not mentioned outright. The dark figure of Melkor and the Elf, Fëanor, do terrible things but Tolkien never mentions ‘sin’. They both are prideful and greedy, but they are not described as ‘sinful’. Sin was a Christian notion, and Tolkien saw his work as a sub-creation, a founding myth that took elements from Anglo Saxon tales like Beowulf and The Pearl and sort of united them in a series of stories that could explain the origins of the stories and the languages they were originally told in.
So while The Lord of the Rings does not talk about sin and is not an allegory of religious stories (and it definitely is not an allegory of WWII), it does contain many religious concepts without mentioning gods or specific religious beliefs. Themes of mercy and decency, loyalty and love, holding onto hope in the face of despair, and sacrifice for the greater good are found in religions around the world, and they are central to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien also spent years investigating the notion of the search for immortality and what being immortal would mean. His Elves are immortal, yes, but must linger on through endless centuries until they fade. Men must die, but death is Iluvatar’s gift to mankind. It is a release from the endless trials and pain we face in life.
As a non-religious person, I appreciate how Tolkien brought his religious values and ideas into his work without proselytizing or creating an allegory that forces a particular message onto the reader. His refusal to turn his work into an extended allegory has allowed readers from a variety of cultural backgrounds and religions from around to world to read his work and apply the ideas to their own lives.
Who is your favorite Middle-earth inhabitant and why? What makes them successful as a character?
“Think of your best friends, and then pick a favorite”. That’s what this question feels like. But I’ll give it a shot.
My favorites have changed through the years, though characters like Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf have always been near the top. When I first read The Lord of the Rings, I loved Pippin because he seemed a lot like me, and I liked Legolas because he was an Elf and I liked Elves (this was before the Peter Jackson movies). Later on, I preferred Aragorn to Legolas, and while I have always liked Gimli well enough, he has never been a favorite. I’ve loved Faramir and especially Éowyn since college, but now that I’ve been listening to The Prancing Pony Podcast and listened to their deep dive into The Silmarillion, characters like Lúthien and Eärendil are rising in my esteem.
But I’ll reach into the mix and pick one character. Let’s say Frodo. He is a well-to-do young hobbit, well educated and open-minded when it comes to people from outside the borders of the Shire. Gandalf– a wise being in his own right– considers him to be the best hobbit in all the Shire. But while Frodo loves Bag-End and all the fields and little rivers in the Shire, he leaves all it behind to take the One Ring away and keep his fellow hobbits safe from the dark forces. Frodo is a good and decent person who has courage and internal strength, so seeing the effect that the One Ring has upon him throughout the story is fascinating. For example, in the chapter ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ he is wearing the Ring and senses the Eye of Sauron seeking him. Two thoughts come to his mind, ‘Never, never!’ and ‘Verily, I come, I come to you’, and he cannot tell if both thoughts are his own or not. After his failure to destroy the Ring at the very last, he internalizes his own guilt at not being strong enough to overcome the Ring’s will and seems to fade away in the eyes of the Shire-hobbits, who don’t realize what he has done and what he has sacrificed to save them all. Ultimately, he realizes that in spite of everything he has done for the Shire, he cannot remain there. His hurts are too grievous and too deep for that, and so he leaves with the Elves and goes into the West to find healing in the Undying Lands.
In spite of all the fantasy novels I have read since I first came across The Lord of the Rings, I have yet to find another story where one of the heroes undergoes such a profound psychological journey. I also find it curious that, although Frodo carries a sword, Sting, he rarely uses it and gives it to Sam once they reach Mordor. Frodo’s lack of martial skills, his small stature as a hobbit, and his ordinary nature make him a unique hero in a genre filled with princes and princesses and other noble heroes.