I have this feeling that my review of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy has to be super long, like in accordance with the length of the books. But are the books really that long? Let’s do a little comparison.
Each of the books (The Hobbit and then the trilogy proper: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) runs normally between 300 and 500 pages, making the grand total around 1300-1800 (depending on the edition). Some of the longest books around (that you’ve heard of, anyway) are Dream of the Red Chamber at 2339 pages (which I just bought, incidentally), Les Miserables at 1462 (which I’ve read), Atlas Shrugged at 1088 (which I’ve also read), and Infinite Jest at 1104 (which I have not read). Don Quixote is around 1605, Bleak House 960, The Stand 1152, The Pillars of the Earth 816, The Three Muskateers 700, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame 940. (Of course, reading time and word count can vary widely based on the type of writing, the typeset, font size, margins etc. These numbers will just give you an idea.) You always hear about those super long Russian novels, and some of those weigh in at 1296 (War and Peace), 864 (Anna Karenina), and 718 (Crime and Punishment). If you can believe it, there are some single novels that run up to 13,000 pages, but those are of such extreme length you probably haven’t heard of them. A long fantasy series might set your back 5000 pages. As for popular series, Harry Potter weighs in at 4400, A Song of Ice and Fire around 7500 (if it were complete), Twilight 2200, Inheritance Cycle 3000, and The Chronicles of Narnia 1300.
So, while The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (plus The Hobbit) is pretty long at maybe 1500 pages, Don Quixote is longer in a single book, and The Stand and War and Peace are similar sizes. The Chronicles of Narnia is also of similar length. Other fantasy series generally run much longer, actually, with Harry Potter (which I re-read constantly) nearly tripling the length and the popular A Song of Ice and Fire (unfinished series) approaching a whopping 7000 pages.
(For a list of long books worth reading, click HERE.)
Why did I just break that all down? Because I wanted to. And also because the length of the books is at the heart of why I hadn’t read them before. It is a little absurd that I hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings. They have been on our bookshelves (in three editions) since I got married. I have watched all the movies, at least a few times, including during Lord of the Rings marathons with the kids. We own them all, of course. Although I came very late to the fantasy game, I have been reading and enjoying (and even writing) fantasy for a good ten years, now. Why had I overlooked the classic of fantasy writing?
The truth is, I picked it up a long, long time ago. I started reading it. I got bogged down in description and underwhelmed with plot. I thought, “This series is so long to be plodding along in,” and I put it down. I almost wondered if I had put it down forever.
Now, before you get all mad at me, let me explain something: I don’t know what book it was that I picked up to begin on so long ago: it could have been The Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring, or even The Simarillion. After having read the entire Hobbit and trilogy, I am wondering if perhaps, not know that I was doing, it was The Simarillion that I picked up, thinking it was The Hobbit (the prequel, as it were). The Simarillion is bogged down in details and lacks a plot, best I can tell. It seems to me an amalgam of world-building extras that Tolkein’s son just couldn’t do without publishing, posthumously. It might be a real treat for people who are SO into Tolkein, but I’m not going to read it. If anything, I’ll just re-read The Hobbit and the trilogy.
Because, yes, it was good. I have now read it and am qualified to say that it wasn’t grueling to read. It was not steeped in detail or in description, at all. It is a slightly older style of writing, but there was plenty of action and a fair amount of character development. People grew. War. Death. Alliances. Enemies. Even a little romance. (I did notice, as I read, that these books are certainly masculine, in more ways than the obvious. I actually liked this about them, and filed that away in my recommendation-brain-file.)
One thing that surprised me was the awesome breadth of Tolkein’s creation that would become standard in the fantasy genre. I felt a little ripped off from all my Harry Potter reading, because, let’s face it, J.K. Rowling owes a heck of a lot to Tolkein (and perhaps George McDonald in turn), from plot points to finicky details. I suppose most everyone in fantasy does, which is super interesting to me. I can’t think of another genre that so religiously sticks to an unspoken contract to deal in tradition.
I’m not adding The Lord of the Rings to my favorite book list, just because it’s not my favorite. But I will be adding it to my runners up list, because it is an excellent series. The stories themselves: that’s where the gems truly are. But the writing aint half-bad, either. It is the series with my favorite character of all time, after all, which is—altogether now—Sam Gamgee. Has there ever been a braver, humbler, more loyal, and more resilient character than Frodo’s unlikely sidekick? As for Gollum: while you don’t exactly love him, I appreciate him as one of the more complex characters I have read. (Amazingly, while many would construct their tales in reaction to Tolkein, he somehow has this undercurrent that is anything but typical.) And the moral of the story, you drink down without even noticing you’re doing so. You’ll learn deep down that great things come in small packages and that hope, relationship, and the small things have a power over darkness that it cannot, in the end, overcome. (But darkness does happen and some battles are lost.)
If you enjoy fantasy, you’ve probably already read this series. If not, get on it. It is a timeless classic, even great reading for those who have seen all the movies multiple times. It’s a stupendous book to put in a teen’s hands, especially if that teen in male, but either way. If you want to try out fantasy or you don’t discriminate in your genres, this is also the book for you. It’s a timeless classic and I highly recommend it.
As for the movies, I did a very short review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug some time ago. It said about what I would say about all the series: watch it. It’s long, but it’s full of great CG and captures the real spirit of the books, characters, and story. The movies, like the books, are sure to be classics. And I prefer to watch the movies NOT in the order they were made. In other words, watch all three Hobbits first, and then the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Be forewarned: the trilogy is better than the somewhat drawn-out Hobbit series (one book into three movies). And don’t do the extended versions unless you later discover you’re a geek and would like to go back and watch them.