So there’s this hobbit. You may have heard of him. He is unwisely chosen to venture beyond the gates of hell to destroy a powerful ring on which the fate of Middle Earth depends—a quest that should ABSOLUTELY kill him but doesn’t. He’s joined by a few burdensome, incompetent fools, mainly to emphasize that these are unlikely heroes (like most British protagonists), and a few legendary warriors, seemingly to lend a little credibility to the expedition.
Oh, and there’s a wizard. But don’t get excited; he does precisely nothing.
There are some pretty blatant problems within this widely praised and beloved narrative—and because it’s more fun to mock than to revere, I’m going to skip gleefully past its merits and picnic among its many flaws.
Problem #1: Length
Really, Tolkien? Three novel-length volumes to finish one story? Take a cue from Strunk & White and edit.
I take issue with the length particularly because there is an apparently deliberate effort to drag the story out at times—but that’s another problem. (It’s Problem #4, actually.)
For now I’ll say only that I could easily overlook the page count if Tolkien simply treated The Lord of the Rings as a series instead of a multi-volume novel. But as it stands, if we consider the actual plot content of this epic novel, the length is totally unnecessary—as well as a major contributor to Problem #2.
Problem #2: Pacing
Halfway through Fellowship, I checked the handy little map of Middle Earth to see how far our dear hobbits had come, since they’d finally—FINALLY—reached Rivendell. As it turns out, Rivendell is exactly one inch away from the Shire. Imagine my despair. Imagine me weeping into my tea and cursing the name of Baggins. Imagine me slowly, inevitably, succumbing to madness like Gollum under the influence of The Precious.
Problem #3: Narrative Priority
Tolkien spends much, much, MUCH longer describing meals than battle scenes.
Read that sentence over again, very slowly, until it sinks in.
Also, was LOTR intended to be a musical? Because Tolkien breaks into song every five minutes. I’m surprised Disney didn’t take over the film script and turn Frodo into a lovable hunchback.
Problem #4: Long-winded Style
The only thing more tedious than the hobbits’ journey across Middle Earth is Tolkien’s manner of describing it. Consider this excerpt:
“And then they talked for many times half an hour.”
Seriously, Tolkien, WTF is this? A lesson in superfluity? Just say they talked for several hours, or for a long time. Or, better yet, let us assume they had important things to discuss, since they’re trying to save the world, or something—I can’t quite be sure because you haven’t gotten around to telling us yet.
Problem #5: Female Disappearing Act
Where are all the women??? Since there are no plot-related circumstances that conveniently remove women from the story (like in Lord of the Flies), we can only infer that either half the population of Middle Earth is missing (or invisible), or Tolkien just doesn’t think women have very much to contribute to his thousand-page tale. Based on their representation throughout the saga, there is apparently only a small handful of females in the entirety of Middle Earth, and they are all useless.
All of the major LOTR characters are men. Most of the minor characters are men. Here is a comprehensive list of Tolkien’s female characters:
- Arwen. Elf. Does nothing, ever.
- Galadriel. Elf. Wise, beautiful, creepy. Has a swan boat and lots of male friends.
- Eowyn. Human. Falls in love at first sight with Aragorn, then does nothing, ever, except become a punch line.
- Shelob. Enormous arachnid-like creature with hundreds of eyes. Does not even manage to kill Frodo and Sam—two small, starving hobbits with zero fighting skills.
- Rosie Cotton. Hobbit. Marries Sam, because [???].
And for those of you inclined to argue that “women didn’t fight in medieval wars!” I’d like to remind you that this isn’t history. This is fantasy. Tolkien could write his fictional wars however the Middle Hell he wanted to. He could have had flying raccoons attacking hipster vampires while a pale pirate elf cheerleader twirled arrow batons.
Problem #6: Too Much Happening Beyond the Text
Tolkien creates this incredibly detailed world—languages and all—but can’t seem to find a way to relate all of the relevant aspects of that world even within this long, long book. He insists on including irrelevant, excessive information just because he thought of it. Readers do not want to refer to a map every other paragraph or keep charts of the eleventy-seven names given to every individual character. And appendices? Plural? Fuck you, Tolkien.
Problem #7: Immature Worldview
LOTR is downright childish in its lack of nuance. Evil characters are supremely, definitively evil, and good characters are inherently, eternally good. No one is remotely realistic; everyone is either idealized or caricaturized. Yes, some of them have mythical character backgrounds, but so few have any depth. Worse writers than Tolkien have tackled the grey areas of human nature, and juggled the weight of individuality, much more compellingly.
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.
“As for me,” said Boromir, “my way home lies onward and not back.”
Beyond the shadows we may meet again!
Forth rode the king, fear behind him, fate before him.