Lord of the Rings holds a place in my heart that will never be taken by any other book. Although I’ve mentioned here and there on this blog that it’s long been one of my favourites, I don’t think I’ve ever unpacked exactly why I love it so much. I thought I’d do so here. Now, in case the title wasn’t sufficiently clear, I am not going to even attempt objectivity here. I am not going to engage with any of the criticisms that could be made of Tolkien. This post is a thank you to Lord of the Rings, and to Tolkien, for having brought so much joy into my life on so many occasions.
I first read the LOTR trilogy aged around 15. Some of my peers had become fond of the films–and by “fond”, I mean “disconcertingly large Orlando Bloom posters all over the school cloakroom”. I was nothing if not snobbish, however, so I asked for the books for Christmas and intentionally snubbed the adaptations. Although I no longer have those editions of the books (I lent them to my brother, and therefore some things that should not have been forgotten were lost), I clearly recall them. My parents did the job properly, and bought me these incredibly beautiful 50th anniversary collector’s editions.
I started reading them right away, obviously, and I had almost finished The Fellowship of the Ring by the end of Christmas Day. Certainly I had read the whole trilogy by the time New Year came, and I was knee-deep and happy in appendices about fictional languages. Even though I had always been an avid reader, I loved Middle-earth in a way that I had never loved Malory Towers or Aramanth or even Narnia, which probably came the closest. I think I raced through the books about four times that year, and at least once a year throughout the rest of my teens. At that age, I did not cry nearly as easily as I do now, but there were many scenes throughout that reduced me to emotional rubble. I was fascinated by the many family trees in the appendices, and I learnt all about the history of pipeweed, and basically I was a diehard fan in a way that I have never quite been for anything else.
Among other qualities, Lord of the Rings is shot through with tiny kindnesses*. I recently began rereading them for the first time since I was about nineteen, and there are so many small scenes of generosity and friendship and fun. For example, once Aragorn and the hobbits arrive at Rivendell, Bilbo asks the former to come and help him revise the wording of a song. He refers to this as “urgent”. Even though Aragorn has been pursued by hooded wraiths on horses for the past umpteen days, and has been deprived of his throne, and finally has the chance to speak with his lady love from whom he is normally separated–he smiles and agrees immediately. Similarly, this is evident throughout the FOTR chapter A Conspiracy Unmasked. It contains a wonderful quote from Merry, my favourite character, which has inexplicably not become one of the famous quotes from the trilogy. Frodo comments that, since his friends have been conspiring, it doesn’t seem that he can trust anyone. Merry responds:
It all depends on what you want… You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours — closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway, there it is… We are horribly afraid — but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.
Of course, the plot of Lord of the Rings is one of its biggest selling points. Equally, Tolkien’s worldbuilding is maybe the best that any author’s ever done. However, the fact that I love the book so much is primarily down to these remarkable friendships–those are what drew me in and kept me around. On top of the friendships between the hobbits, consider the way that Gandalf, a Busy and Important Wizard, shows up at Bilbo’s birthday party just to do the fireworks. Or, for example, the friendship between Legolas and Gimli, in which two people overcome mutual prejudice and suspicion to become brothers-in-arms. Kindness and gentleness crop up again and again, and they are always shown to be effective weapons against darkness and fear. I’m hoping to do a whole post casting a more analytical eye over Tolkien’s treatment of friendships once I’ve finished my reread, but for now, I just wanted to acknowledge that I love these characters partly because of how much they love each other.
Perhaps I can best explain my affection for this trilogy by saying that I think they are, for me, what the Harry Potter series is for so many other readers. I read them while I was a teenager, at exactly the right age to be completely absorbed in the story. I was engrossed in the world, I knew all of the backstory, I tried to learn the languages. I still own more than one Gandalf t-shirt. My first time reading the novels coincided with us beginning to have decent internet access, so I went on forums, I wrote dreadful fanfiction which is mercifully lost to the sands of time, and I just loved the stuffing out of everything connected to Middle-earth. As a teenager, I was lonely and miserable and completely convinced I was failing at life. Lord of the Rings did not cure that, of course–what cured it was the grace of God, and adulthood, and making actual-for-real friends. However, it did provide me with a reliable source of joy through some of the saddest times of my life. The extraordinary friendships depicted in the books, especially between the hobbits, sustained me when I did not believe I had any of my own. I am so grateful that Tolkien created this wonderful universe and peopled it with characters like these.
*The books, not the films. Although I did eventually watch and enjoy them, I think this is one area that the films get totally wrong.