Hap­py Tolkien Read­ing Day, folks. Held on March 25, this is gen­er­al­ly the time each year that I decide to re-read at least one of the nov­els relat­ed to Tolkien’s Mid­dle Earth (I nor­mal­ly choose The Hob­bit; it has always been my per­son­al favorite). J.R.R. Tolkien is a pret­ty amaz­ing dude who did a whole lot with his life. He served dur­ing the first World War and began to write many of his sto­ries while injured. He stud­ied lin­guis­tics and his­to­ry, both of which inspired his works.

Hey, I get it. I’m not here to learn about some Eng­lish dude. I want to read about orcs and gob­lins!”

How rude, infor­mal read­er. But, alas, let’s talk books. Well I am talk­ing. Typ­ing tech­ni­cal­ly. You get it.

The father of high fantasy

J.R.R. Tolkien (source)

Nev­er read a drop of Tolkien before? I would start with The Hob­bit (1937). The Hob­bit is a won­der­ful sto­ry, a fan­ta­sy nov­el writ­ten, in a lot of ways, like a his­tor­i­cal epic (this trend is always present in Tolkien’s work, and I would wager it is the rea­son his sto­ries are so well done). It is a children’s nov­el pri­mar­i­ly, and that lends to its cred­it. Many of us read it when we were young, and the themes of adven­ture, excite­ment, and fear help us remem­ber a time when we also saw the world as Mr. Bil­bo Bag­gins does: fright­en­ing­ly large and excit­ing. This book has a sooth­ing qual­i­ty around it and tru­ly puts me at ease. The char­ac­ters are all very real, which is essen­tial for a world that isn’t. If we can’t relate to any­one, why should we care? If some­one is the best at every­thing and has no faults, then I will stop read­ing.

Uh, what about Gan­dalf?” you may ask. Oh dear read­er, Gan­dalf has to be great and pow­er­ful and mys­te­ri­ous. He alien­ates us, the read­ers, to a degree. Also all the wiz­ard real­ly does is set pine cones on fire, so how great is he? The ver­sion you buy most any­where will not be the orig­i­nal. Tolkien edit­ed it when The Lord of the Rings was being made so it fit in with the world (hel­lo ret­con).

I won’t take offense if you duck out now and go read The Hob­bit. I am half tempt­ed to. But for those who want some­thing a bit meatier and meant for adult audi­ences, then how about this lit­tle ol’ col­lec­tion called The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955)? Three dif­fer­ent books each made up of two parts, it will take a bit to read, but the jour­ney is worth it.

Hey guy, I watched the movies. I know the sto­ry.” Hey, I hate to be that guy who goes on and on about how the books are bet­ter than the movies (I don’t hate to be that guy), but that is what I am going to do. The movies had this prob­lem where they had to fit 20 hours of con­tent into a sin­gle movie. And they had to make it more excit­ing for the typ­i­cal movie-going audi­ence. And while the movie has an amaz­ing sound­track, won­der­ful cin­e­matog­ra­phy, and a great cast, there’s just some stuff that didn’t trans­late.

Let’s take one of my favorite book sce­nes. Strid­er (yes, Strid­er) is dis­cussing the Last Alliance of Men and Elves and becomes lost in his thoughts. “Sud­den­ly, a low voice mur­mured:

Gil-gal­ad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sad­ly sing;
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Moun­tains and the Sea.

His sword was long, his lance was keen.
His shin­ing helm afar was seen;
the count­less stars of heaven’s field
were mir­rored in his sil­ver shield.

But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into dark­ness fell his star
in Mor­dor where the shad­ows are.”

Gil-Galad from the movie

Gil-Gal­ad screen time: about 3 sec­onds? (source)

This is nar­rat­ed by none oth­er than Sam­wise Gamgee, who is fas­ci­nat­ed by elves but doesn’t even know if they are real. Strid­er goes into it more, but I hope you get the point by now. This one snip­pet devel­oped mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters all at once, in many dif­fer­ent ways. We know Strid­er is even more mys­te­ri­ous and knowl­edge­able than before, we know Sam wants to believe in some­thing mag­i­cal about the world, and we know this world is filled with estab­lished poems and sad tales. This poem has a beau­ti­ful sad­ness to it, which has stuck with me since the day I read it. And the­se sto­ries are mag­i­cal because moments like this hap­pen every­where. The­se very real char­ac­ters, whom we relate to, live and fight and hope and dream, and die, and we feel for them. It feels more real than most fic­tion because of this. While I do enjoy the movies, this is one of the things it gets wrong (not out of choice I am sure, but neces­si­ty. You only have so much time).

Char­ac­ter devel­op­ment isn’t plot, Mr. Man” you may say. Well let’s assume you are right. I did promise sig­nif­i­cant plot dis­crep­an­cies between the films and books. Let’s look at one (I don’t want to spoil too much if you haven’t read the books yet). Gen­er­al­ly the same stuff hap­pens, but in dif­fer­ent ways. In the film The Return of the King, Aragorn leaves with Lego­las and Gim­li for no real rea­son and asks a bunch of ghosts to kill the bad guys in a city. Well ok, may­be I am over­sim­pli­fy­ing a tad, how­ev­er this has stuck with me since I saw the film. Aragon doesn’t real­ly deserve this vic­to­ry; it is given to him. Kings should earn their king­ship, birthrights are what the bad guys have. At the end of The Two Tow­ers book, Strid­er meets some fel­low rangers. He, Gim­li, Lego­las, and the rangers meet some ghosts. Because they are ghosts (you know, incor­po­re­al) and can’t real­ly touch stuff, they scare a bunch of Southrons off of their boats, which Strid­er and co. use to approach Minas Tirith from the back and they lib­er­ate the city. They do it. They fight and die and earn the vic­to­ry. When Strid­er becomes Aragorn, becom­ing king, you feel he is the right­ful heir and has escaped the curse of Isil­dur. This is the kind of depth you can only get from read­ing the book.

Watercolor of the lonely mountain

Tolkien’s paint­ings have this lev­el of charm that you just don’t see any­more (source)

Wait.…you read the­se four books and you want some­thing else? Well, on the Tolkien nerd flow­chart, we now go to two dif­fer­ent books: The Sil­mar­il­lion and Unfin­ished Tales. The­se books were nev­er fin­ished. Christo­pher Tolkien, J.R.R.‘s son, edit­ed and pub­lished the­se sto­ries (and most of his oth­er short sto­ries, let­ters, and poem col­lec­tions which are also worth look­ing up). The Sil­mar­il­lion is a his­to­ry book, make no mis­take. But it is a his­to­ry book about elves and their relat­ed adven­tures. Many of the sce­nes added to The Hob­bit movies came from The Sil­mar­il­lion. It goes in to a lot of detail of who Gan­dalf and the relat­ed wiz­ards are and what they do as well. There is so much con­tent I can’t even scratch the sur­face, so I hope that you will take a look. Unfin­ished Tales is basi­cal­ly a book of short sto­ries and drafts. It is an odd read because going in you know what you are read­ing will nev­er be fin­ished, but it isn’t a bad one.

You can’t tell me that he didn’t write any­thing else?!? I read all of this 10 times!” Look, dear read­er, I feel you. Sad­ly, as the elves left for the Grey Havens, our jour­ney is com­ing to a close. Tolkien has many crit­i­cal essays writ­ten involv­ing old poems and epics. He knew his stuff well, and if you are a fan of Arthuri­an leg­ends and such, worth a read to see where his inspi­ra­tion comes from. Many poems and sto­ries here and there involve Mid­dle Earth, as well, but, alas, that will be left for you to find.

Con­grat­u­la­tions if you made it this far, but don’t you have some­thing to read by now? I know I do. Time to find some Old Toby and my own Glam­dring. Now where did I put that Light­ing Brand.….


So, what do you think?