I reread Lord of the Rings every few years, partly out of delight and partly to gain greater familiarity with the text. After Fellowship, events get blurry, not helped by the movies. There is no time like the present, particularly this one, to start my third reread.
I just wrapped up Fellowship of the Ring. It is the easiest one to follow, as the narrative does not jump much between sections.
Fellowship is extremely well-paced and those who bemoan how it contains so much walking probably haven’t read it since they were young and knew everything. The first part of the journey proper, the flight to Bree, is an adventure in the mode of The Hobbit and is so delightful that I can’t be angry or bogged down by it. I get why people are mad the movies skipped it.
Important plot and world-building things happen here, too. It becomes clear what the size, history , and peril of the world actually are, making the Shire all the more precious. Pippin and Merry get their swords, with their great heritage, which for Merry in particular are vital for future great deeds. The nature of the Ring is made clearer and clearer. The true terror of the Ringwraiths is showcased and we also get our first feel for the elves.
The Council of Elrond gets a bad rap, too, and I admit to deciding to go to bed at a break in it. It’s interesting though, and not as draggy as the jokes go. There needs to be a discussion of what to do with the Ring and everyone needs to know what the current circumstances are and all the options on the table.
Tolkien leaves no stone unturned. You, move-watcher ask, why the eagles did not fly the Ring to Mordor but it’s made clear in Gandalf’s tale of escape that the eagles are entities with their own motives and they would not do that. Why didn’t they give Tom Bombadil the Ring for safekeeping? Addressed. Tolkien’s loose ends are few.
As far as writing goes, one thing that’s clear is that Tolkien breaks all the rules. Fellowship is largely written in third-person omnipotent. He jumps into people’s heads all the time. The whole front half of the book meanders and there’s parts of the book where the characters are just sort of observing. It works, thanks to his skill and care and plot structure. The Lord of the Rings books are real art, neither calculated entertainment nor amateur dabbling. (I think, today, they’d be dismissed as the latter by the publishing powers that be; they like more calculation, you see).
With two rereads under my belt and working on a third, I can tell you that the movies are wonderful but deeply flawed. Perhaps, as the late great Christopher Tolkien held, they cannot truly be adapted. I think the flaw may stem primarily from Jackson’s own limited experiences and the limits of the medium.
Jackson and much of the entertainment industry, I think, have very limited experience with the different people of the world for all they travel. I don’t mean different looking people or even different cultures. I mean different kinds.
I think, but cannot in any way verify, that Merry and Pippin are tributes to some of the friends Tolkien lost in the Great War. There’s a sort of loving easiness to the way they are written, that I think there’s an echo of beloved and lost ones in them. I could be wrong. I’m not sure it was the intent even if it’s true. They decided to go on the Quest out of great loyalty and courage, come what may, but they had no idea what they were in for. It reminds me of how Tolkien and his friends ended up going to war.
Merry and Pippin are a of certain kind of young man who exists, small town princelings, aristocratic in their domain but prepared and willing to take on responsibility in the future. They have both the roguish nature of country boys with and the noble aspirations of squires. It’s not something you encounter often anymore, though I think Merry and Pippin are like one of my cousins. The movie version isn’t like this, but it’s more familiar to most modern people, that of mischievous teenagers who have to be forced to grow up. In the books, Merry and Pippin are already growing up. If they are reluctant, it’s from very legitimate fear of physical harm, not anything adolescent.
Generally, the movies give characters too much of that adolescent tentativeness. Aragorn was excellently cast, but the movie downplays his already proven leadership and his embrace of a frightening and perhaps fatal destiny. Again, movie Aragorn is a more familiar type. Sam is really the only character that should be like this, because he has much less social status than anyone else in the Fellowship. I think he and Merry and Pippin are around the same age, but being a member of a great house involves responsibilities not taught to or expected from a groundskeeper. Sam, though, has hidden depths and I think the movies capture him perfectly.
Arwen replacing Glorfindel was a cinematic necessity. You needed more interaction than you get in the books to make that love story make sense and there’s no way a movie could include their tale from the appendices and stay coherent. There’s not really anywhere else to fit her in the story, either.
Lothlórien could have been done better. Rivendell, too. Cinematic limitations, maybe, but also I think a limited sense of imaginative wonder. Jackson likes landscapes that largely actually exist. It seems to be how his mind works. The most magnificently imaginative location in the movies, visually, is Minas Tirith. Not much choice there. Perhaps I’m shortchanging him.
On to The Two Towers!
A last thought for these times: