Why the Lord of the Rings Matters

Here’s a column I wrote in The Daily Union, Junction City, Kansas.

From The Daily Union, Dec. 14, 2003:

By Linda Gilmore
The Daily Union

I am a Tolkien nut. I admit it. I feel like I should be standing in front of a 12-step group, saying, “Hi, my name is Linda, and I’m a ‘Lord of the Rings’ fanatic.”

Most of my family is the same way. I’m one of those people who has read “The Lord of the Rings” more times than I can count. We have multiple copies of the books, from battered paperbacks to the single-volume hardbound-in-red slipcover edition. My husband and I actually named rooms in one of our first apartments after places in the books. I know, it might seem weird.

Just in case any readers are not sure what I’m talking about, “The Lord of the Rings” is an epic fantasy in three parts by a British professor named J.R.R. Tolkien. The three volumes — released that way in the 1950s because one volume would have been too long and expensive — are “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.”

The film director Peter Jackson has made a movie version, also in three parts, of “The Lord of the Rings,” and the movies have been released one each year since 2001. The final installment, “The Return of the King,” opens Wednesday.

I know I’m going to go see “The Return of the King” when it comes out. I probably won’t stand in line for it the day it opens; I have to work that day and the next. But I want to see it while it’s still in the theater.

I have some concerns, though. I was disappointed with some of the changes in “The Two Towers,” and so I worry that things will have been changed in the final movie that will leave me even more disappointed.

I could get carried away here and go into detail about what I did and did not like in the first two movies, but only equally rabid Tolkien fans would care. Besides, we bought the extended version DVD when it came out a few weeks ago, and I’ve watched it and all the appendices. I now know why the scriptwriters did what they did, and I’ve grown more forgiving of the changes.

But watching the movies and thinking about their relation to the books has made me think about my perception of “The Lord of the Rings” and why it even matters. Because really, after all, it’s just a story — and a rather long and involved story at that.

When I read “The Lord of the Rings,” I sometimes find myself copy-editing Tolkien. He could have used some editing. His descriptions go on and on and on, and he includes songs and poems in Elvish (a language he invented) but doesn’t always include translations. The book has lots of characters, some of whom are undeveloped. The action could be tighter in places. The few romantic interests are mostly outside the storyline. But Tolkien treated his few female characters well. They are strong and even heroic.

Of my three favorite writers of fantasy and science fiction — Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Ursula LeGuin — Tolkien is probably the weakest stylistically. And yet I go back to “The Lord of the Rings” on an annual basis. Why?

Because Tolkien invented a world — Middle Earth — and a people — hobbits — that captured my imagination. When I first read “The Hobbit,” a prelude to the other books, I was in high school. I had never come across anything like it. From the first line — “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” — I was hooked.

Tolkien managed to weave his love of myth and language into an invention so complete and compelling that I wanted Middle Earth to be a real place.

But besides developing a fascinating world, Tolkien created some memorable characters, especially the hobbits. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Sam and Merry and Pippin are pulled from their comfort zones and thrust into a larger conflict. And even though hobbits are a small, quiet people, their actions shape the course of their world.

While “The Lord of the Rings” is an epic adventure, it also tells a story of friendship and loyalty and choosing what’s right even when it seems hopeless. Frodo and Sam embody the kind of friendship that many of us only dream of. Sam, especially, finds hidden reserves of courage to sustain him and Frodo on their dangerous, almost hopeless, journey. The best part of the movies has been the faithful portrayal of Frodo and Sam’s relationship.

Like many of Tolkien’s fans, I see a lot of myself in the hobbits. I like regular meals and a comfortable bed, and adventures often seem “nasty, uncomfortable things.” But the hobbits survive their adventures, and become stronger because of them. They eventually return to their homes ready for the challenges that confront them.

That’s why the books, and the movies, matter. When I read “The Lord of the Rings,” I am reminded of what’s most important in my life and encouraged to keep on with my own life’s journey.

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