The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Millennium edition book spines

Thoughts on Re-reading The Lord of the Rings

With so many books to be read, I no longer re-read much. But every few years, I can’t resist re-reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent the last month doing just that.

I bought the 1965 Ballantine paperback edition in 1973 and read it to tatters. I received the Millennium edition as a gift, and have relied on that one since.

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Millennium edition and 1965 Ballantine paperback edition
My two copies of The Lord of the Rings

Here are some thoughts that came up as I read. Some are new; others were reinforced by this latest reading.

  • The passing and loss of beauty and magic is an underlying theme of the story. I suspect it was due to Tolkien living through the relentless transition of his world from agrarian to industrial. The Shire represents his romantic ideal of rural bliss, just as the slag heaps and ruined lands of Mordor, and the endlessly revolving iron wheels and thudding hammers in Saruman’s Isengard, are its antithesis.
  • The hierarchy of races (elves at the top, orcs at the bottom) bothered me more than in previous readings. It’s reflected in almost every conversation; the noblest sentiments are invariably expressed by Gandalf, Legolas, or Aragorn. Gimli, the hobbits, and most humans are in the middle, with swarthy, ill-favoured types at the bottom of the pile. While it’s possible to descend (think Denethor and especially Saruman), there is no redemption for those whose race places them beyond the pale.
  • I was struck once more by the scarcity of female characters. Galadriel and Eowyn are the only ones that count. They are great characters, but vastly outnumbered by males. Even worse, women in Middle-earth don’t seem to have many options beyond domesticity. Look at Arwen, for example. Aragorn fights for his kingdom, but she’s stuck in Rivendell working on the banner for him, and doesn’t even get to deliver it in person. Instead, she herself is delivered to Aragorn by her father, along with the scepter of Annuminas. This hasn’t bothered me in my many readings, but from a present-day perspective, it seems wrong.
  • Sauron is never seen, except for that roving Eye. Sometimes he seems more like a natural phenomenon than an embodied entity. The volcanic spewings of Mount Doom are almost an extension of him.
  • The descriptions of the region called Ithilien sound like Italy. (Yes, I know “ithil” means “moon,” just as “anor,” as in “Anorien,” refers to the sun.)
  • The High Elven language reminds me of Finnish. Not that I know Finnish, but there’s something about the words that reminds me of what I saw of that language in my cataloguing days.
  • The invented languages of Middle-earth add a depth and richness to the story. I was particularly fascinated by the idea that the book is a translation into English from a language called Westron or the Common Speech. The “real” language does not therefore appear, except as a few tantalizing fragments at the end of Appendix F, where we learn that hobbits in Westron are banakil, which means “halfling.”
  • Sometimes it seems that Gandalf knows exactly how things will turn out, if all the key individuals manage to do their parts. This time around, I was more aware of his role as stage-manager rather than actor. At the same time, the scene where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli recognize him after his return from the dead is one of my favourites.
  • Frodo seems surprisingly weak and defeatist, especially in the latter stages of the quest. He would have failed if not for Sam, who in some ways is the real hero. And to be fair, even wretched Gollum deserves some credit. Some compare the effect of the Ring to drug addiction. That perspective certainly sheds light on the link between Frodo and Gollum, incomprehensible to Sam. An interesting treatise on this may be found HERE.
  • I couldn’t help but wonder about the economic realities of Rivendell and Lothlorien. But of course they don’t matter, because those places are sustained by the magic of the Three Rings, which passes away after the One is destroyed.
  • For those left behind, the departure of those who sail to the West at the end is the same as death. They pass away into the West, never to be seen again, even though they presumably go to everlasting bliss.
  • The ending, therefore, is sad, but it’s “a sadness … blessed and without bitterness,” as the narrator says in the closing pages.
  • Despite the above reservations, two scenes in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields still bring me to tears: the one where Eowyn and Merry resist and defeat the Nazgul King, and the one where Eomer fights on “to hope’s end … and to heart’s breaking,” and sees the standard made by Arwen unfurled on the black ship he thought was the enemy’s.

It’s still a great read. And few other books with such wide popular appeal have also inspired scholarly articles and (I’m sure) many theses.

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Millennium edition and 1965 Ballantine paperback edition

I was compelled to read the book again after listening to the soundtrack of the movie version (which I have never seen). Having heard bits of the music over the years, I actually bought the set of three CDs. I have to say, it didn’t exceed my expectations. Apologies to composer Howard Shore (a fellow Canadian), but it sounds just like movie music. Except for one track: “Gollum’s Song,” performed by Emiliana Torrini. The lyrics do not appear anywhere in the book, but they certainly express Gollum’s sadness and complexity.

101 comments

  1. I know you haven’t seen the movie Audrey, but after seeing the movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I was unable to read the book without seeing the movie characters. This seems to be one of the disadvantages of seeing a movie based on a book which you then read. It gives your imagination an easy way out. What do you think?

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Denzil, I read Lord of the Rings in high school, back in the dark ages. For years, supposedly no movie was made because they did not want the characters to be portrayed as other than how the reader imagined them. I saw the movie several times and waited with bated breath for the next one to be released I was pleased with both and like Audrey, LOTR is a book I re-read from time to time I love Audey’s analysis of it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree Denzil, I used to almost religiously read The Hobbit & Lotr every year but after watching the movies, which I loved , could only see those faces. There are bits though that did not make it to the film 😁

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Audrey, I admire you for your regular re-reading of the whole series. I read it as a young teenager, loved it but haven’t wanted to return to it since in case my feelings for it change! Wow! Your in-depth analysis of your thoughts about Lord of the Rings this time round is fascinating. As for the film, my husband has watched it but I know it would take over the images within my mind from the actual book!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Hi Audrey,

    I began rereading this one myself last year, but regret to say I found myself distracted, and it went back on the TBRA pile. I’m not very good at re-reading either, nowadays – a sense of so much to do and not enough time. You’ve drawn some interesting points which certainly add layers to my own interpretation of the books, and I can see now more clearly of a reflection of the times in which the books were written. You’re right, it’s hard to overlook the sexism and class structure that was also a part of that society, and which fits uncomfortably now. It suggests we have moved perhaps a little way in the right direction after all. The passing of beauty and magic from the world were strong themes I too picked up on, and lent the story, for me, its abiding sense of nostalgia for a more noble and heroic age.

    It’s an epic work, and quite an undertaking for the reader, well done!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Your analysis brought back memories of the series. I haven’t read it since I was a teen. I agree with you about the caste system (hm, is that what I should call it?) and the ring/drugs. And Frodo/Sam, too.

    I tried reading The Hobbit when I was 11 and couldn’t get through it. I thought it was boring. Then peer pressure had me trying again when I was a few years older, and I loved it. Go figure. I guess I wasn’t mature enough to understand the story or something when I was younger.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I found The Hobbit to be a bit turgid and slow. It was like Tolkien was trying to write a children’s book without really having a clue what children enjoy. But one chapter comes to life and is indispensable to LotR and that’s the chapter where Bilbo obtains (or steals) the Ring from Gollum. Sort of sets the rest of the epic in motion.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, I wonder if Tolkien was inspired by that (and other things) to make Bilbo, Gollum, and the Ring the germ of the epic.
          You mentioned in an earlier comment that Tolkien was a Catholic. I seem to remember that his friend C.S. Lewis rejected Christianity and rediscovered it later in life. I imagine some of the discussions that must have taken place between those two at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford!

          Liked by 4 people

          1. I read the Humphrey Carpenter biography sometime after reading Tolkien. Also, one of the Inklings was Charles Williams, who also wrote some very interesting fantasies. Have you ever read any of those? I read several but I can’t remember much about them and I think I read library copies and don’t own them. I think I read Descent into Hell, because I remember it was the first time I encounterd a doppelganger. For a list of his works see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_(British_writer)#Fiction

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Tom Bombadil was a lot of fun, but I read that when they were making the movie, they had to cut something, and Tom really had no organic role to play in the plot, so they left him on the cutting room foor.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Some writing pundits might label Tom a “darling.” But the quest might have ended early if not for him. And it was in his house that Frodo had his visionary dream of sailing into the West. Tom is a multi-dimensional character. I wonder what he and Gandalf talked about after the quest was achieved.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m happy that it gives you so much pleasure. I remember picking up the Ace (unauthorized) version of the first book, and passing on it. After that, it got to be too cool for me to read it back then. I have read the Hobbit, and since tried, but didn’t get too far into Lord of the Rings. My 13 year old granddaughter will tell you, or anyone else, that if you’re going to watch the movie, watch the full director’s cut with all the deleted scenes. She has, several times. And I believe that she’s read the books as well.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’ve mentioned many times that LotR was my chief inspiration for beginning to write fiction. I read it several times in quick succession in 1969 and again later. Tolkien was a medievalist and student of many languages, particularly Anglo-Saxon (also Finnish), so it’s understandable that he didn’t write about Wonder Woman characters. Also, he was a Catholic, I believe, and there is always a Christian vibe in the book. To me Sauron is Satan, a primal force for evil, as you said. Also, re the movie, it was OK, but one thing ruined it for me. In the book as Frodo prepares to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom, he says (and I had to go look this up): “I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” In other words, he uses his free will not to destroy it – humans (and hobbits) have free will and at the end he chooses evil. That’s why he has to lose his finger as Gollum intervenes (evil destroys itself). Frodo has to pay a price, not only by losing a finger, but to be unable to remain in his beloved Shire. The movie changed what Frodo said – they cut the line, “I will not do this deed.” I can’t remember now exactly how they rewrote it but it negated the whole thrust of the tale for me. They had perfect dialogue and they messed it up. Terribly disappointed in that.
    Btw, I have the same set of paperbacks that you have, also in rather frayed condition!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. As I recall, Sauron also lost a finger when he lost the Ring. Isildur cut it off, right? Artifacts of power exact a price.
      One can spend hours reading people’s thoughts on this work, both casual and analytical. I can see how it inspired you to write!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t remember that about Sauron, actually. As I mentioned elsewhere, it was the elves’ immortality that inspired me to write about what it would really be like to be immortal. The only fruit of that which I’ve published is The Blessing of Krozem.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I read these books multiple times in my youth, but it’s probably been twenty years since the last time. I’ve watched all the movies, have the director’s cuts on DVD under our TV. But I haven’t watched those in quite awhile. The time commitment is just too great. 😉

    I don’t know that I’ll ever re-read the books. i’m afraid I’d be disappointed after all these years away from them. And, as others have pointed out, having seen the movies, the mental images I will have will be based on the movie rather than my imagination fueled by Tolkien’s words.

    If it makes any difference, I greatly enjoyed the movies. It was wonderful to see this story up on the big screen and I thought Peter Jackson’s interpretation was faithful to Tolkien’s tale.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Brilliant analysis, Audrey. As I am writing this, I am listening to Handel’s Water Music which I love, but I keep thinking about European imperialism as both a wondrous and monstrous thing that we are still living with. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is another book that I still read every few years, although now I can read it on Project Gutenberg. Did you ever see the movie a few years back on Tolkiens’ younger days? It does a fairly decent study of showing the impact of WWI on his later works and his fascination with languages as a boy and while at Oxford. I think that fascinating was a major impetus for his LOTR worlds.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. No, I haven’t seen that movie. (I’m bad at movies; too many books to read–and write).
      But yes, Prof. T. was a master of languages, and he did serve in WWI, which must have had a profound effect. I’ve read that the Dead Marshes part of LotR was based on that.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Interesting observations, Audrey. I haven’t read the whole series, just saw the movies, so I’m not in a position to comment. But I do like your interpretation, and yes, the limited roles for women was pretty evident in the movies as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I like your analysis Audrey. Sounds spot on, especially the part about Sam being the true hero. If I read the books when I was young, they didn’t stick with me. When the first of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy came out I then went back to read it. I’ll stick with the movies. I’ve seen them all a few times. I love the story but found the text to be heavy, overly weighted with scenery and poetry in made up languages. If I’m going to soak in that much scenery, give me sweeping visuals. Of course the screenwriters made much more of the women’s parts than Tolkein ever did, so not “canon” but it works for me.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. They’re certainly epic movies, JeanMarie. Listening to the soundtrack, I wondered why it didn’t incorporate some of the songs and poems from the text itself. Maybe not enough popular appeal, especially for those made up languages…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to stand up for “those made up languages”! That’s where I first discovered and fell in love with conlanging! And I never looked back!

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, thank you! But Tolkien is master of us all! There are thousands of conlangers out there and most of them are trained linguists, something I’m not. My mother was a Romance language major in college and she loved language and grammar, so I came to that interest early and studied several “real” languages, but I never took an academic linguistics course. One of my online friends published a book full of created languages spoken by extraterrstrials – check it out and see my review there: https://www.amazon.com/Road-Among-Stars-InterStellar-Commonwealth-ebook/dp/B07DJ35N4Z/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1MKLE0IOYJQY4&keywords=A.+Walker+Scott+No+road+among+the+stars&qid=1643725746&s=books&sprefix=a.+walker+scott+no+road+among+the+stars%2Cstripbooks%2C159&sr=1-2

            Liked by 1 person

  11. Very astute analysis Audrey. Good points raised.

    When it came to fantasy sagas Tolkien was a magnificent world-builder; the standard everyone since has aimed for. His had such depth and texture, which is why all parodies fall flat.
    That said I have to admit to preferring dramatisations, be they radio plays, films or audio book readings, for there is so much material for an actor to work with. Probably my innate impatience got in the way of the reading of the books (that and the sudden page or so of song or poetry by one character or another)….The BBC radio players of The Hobbit (1968) and LOTR (1981- 26 30 minute episodes
    And being of his time women did take a back-seat in the tales, which is why I like the dramatisations, actors and directors make a great deal more of Eowyn and Arwen.

    Naturally when discuss The Middle Earth sagas everyone has to resist the urge to write pages and pages. I’ll just put in three points then:
    1. The true hero is no doubt Sam; while everyone else is getting hysterical about the ring and Frodo is turning into Gollum, Sam finds it and just hands it back to Frodo like any other misplaced object. Tolkien it is said based Sam as a tribute to the ordinary British soldier of WWI.
    2. ‘The Hobbit’, as I understand it, Tolkien wrote this as a type of children’s book whereas LOTR was for adults; hence the problem folk have when reading the two; I prefer the former, easier and slightly ‘fun’ read.
    3. When the battle hardened hobbits return to the Shire and find it taken over. Then are taunted by ‘Sharkey’s thugs, I am thinking ‘Guys…You really don’t want to mess with these particular hobbits. Trust me on this’

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, it’s impossible that WWI would not have made a huge impression on Tolkien and informed his subsequent writings.
      Since listening to “Gollum’s Song,” I’ve done some poking around on the internet and found ideas about his role. Not a nice person by any means, but his evil deeds and the reasons for them different from those of Sauron.
      Thugs are still with us, sadly. Many parts of the world could use a good scouring!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That they could, scour, scour.
        Talking of the impressions of war. A theory broke out that the Ring Trilogy was all about WWII.
        Tolkien scathingly replied that had it been about WWII, the Ring would have been seized by one party or another, used to advantage of that party, while the Hobbits would have been betrayed and subjugated by said holders of the Ring. He obviously had very strong views about the way WWII had ended.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I have to confess to not reading the book the whole way through; perhaps the single volume paperback I was lent was too heavy and I was relieved when the owner was going away to university and wanted it back. But the fact that so many people are fascinated by the world he created is fascinating in itself. Tolkien actually holidayed and later lived and died in Bournemouth, so I have a tenuous connection there. I am intrigued as to what it was like to be Mrs. Tolkien. She apparently resented being ‘forced’ to become a catholic and was jealous of his attachment to CS Lewis, whose books I am a fan of.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I’ve read Lord Of The Rings many times, though not in the last 15 years or so. I must re-read it. My copy consists of individual books from three different editions, which I really need to rectify! I was absolutely captivated by both this book and Tolkien’s wider milieu as a kid – started with The Hobbit and went from there. I watched the movies – had to, they were filmed in the city where I live and at the time there was no security. The set for Minas Tirith was built full scale not far from where I was living, in full view of a main highway. I even learned how Jackson and Boyens had adapted it, directly from Phillipa Boyens. Interesting stuff.

    And yet, as you say, there is much about LOTR now that seems – well, dated. I suppose that isn’t surprising: Tolkien was of his time, over a century ago. The values and social assumptions of that day are not those of the twenty-first century. For me, much of LOTR and the mythology is steeped in the First World War, which was one of the key shaping forces in Tolkien’s life: everything from the idle chatter between orcs as Sauron’s forces marched, to the Dead Marshes (a near-exact description of the Western Front environment) and the jealousies of those with short life-spans for those whose lives are longer (another WW1 trench phenomenon). The book gains significant depth when seen from that perspective, quite apart from all the other depths to it – including those invented languages (of which I believe his High Elvish was, indeed, sprung from Finnish). Simply tremendous.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, I can see the films would be a must-see for someone who was right there when they were being made. And your point about lifespans is a good one. Also people who survived WWI but with diminished quality of life.
      The book’s faults have never prevented me from enjoying it and finding much in it to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Poor Frodo always struck me as the wrong hobbit at the wrong time in the wrong place … with the wrong uncle! 😀 … he was a bit like Harry Potter, I suppose … they both never could’ve defeated evil without the help of many others … which is perhaps a good thing. evil can only flourish in isolation (even though it gathers other evil to it like flies on a carcass, it doesn’t operate with the same dynamic), but to do ‘good’ one needs allies.
    Perhaps that’s why it only takes a moment’s inattention to break something, but conscious will, commitment, and a certain amount of courage, to create something. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, breaking is much easier than making. And it occurs to me that doing good often takes cooperation and compromise, whereas evil relies on brute force.
      Thanks for contributing your thoughts here!

      Like

  15. Hi Audrey, I opened this to read the other day, got distracted, and then forgot all about it [Sigh!]. Anyhow, I found it now and I enjoyed your thoughts very much. I am sure that Tolkien had very Victorian ideas about women and I always accept that the ruling ideas and beliefs of the period of writing will be prominent in any classic book I read. Leo Tolstoy doesn’t have much time for women either in War and Peace. Some of his depictions are most unflattering to our sex. I always believed Sam was the real hero and not Frodo. Frodo was a wimp and I found him quite irritating. I loved Gollum, he was a great character. There seemed to be redemption for him until the end when all was lost for him. A great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The “social” issues (race hierarchy and lack of female characters, etc.) never got in the way of my enjoyment of the story, but I felt I had to mention them. I think Frodo’s problem was the Ring. It sucked a lot out of him and made him a no-fun character. Gollum was tougher by contrast, but sort of pickled by his lust for the Ring. Ah well, it’s a great book!
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I have a special place in my heart for this series, Audrey, since it propelled me into a love of reading. I haven’t read it again, afraid I won’t enjoy it as much as that magical first time. Perhaps I’m missing out. 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Great article.

    I’m also doing a re-read (well, I’m listening to the excellent Andy Serkis audiobooks) and one thing I’ve noticed is how absent Eowyn is in The Two Towers.

    I’m not entirely sure she speaks, or rather if she does, it’s very little. In contrast, the movies do an awesome job with her character – she’s cold at times, but heroic and forthright.

    Have you ever listened to the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings by the way? It’s phenomenal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      Eowyn’s scenes are brief, but important. Like when Aragorn goes off to the Paths of the Dead and she says that those who go with him do so because they love him.
      Yes, I did hear that BBC adaptation on radio here in Canada, back in the 1980s. I remember tuning in faithfully and enjoying it very much.
      Thanks for your comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I first read The Lord of the Rings back in the 70’s, in my university days, and I’ve re-read it a couple of times since. What I liked about the movies was that they seemed to stay true to what /I/ felt/remembered of the books. And I loved Gollum. In fact, techie me was flabbergasted to learn that Gollum was /not/ a real person in a Gollum-suit! Imho, still one of the best examples of CG every created.
    I also love Gollum’s theme. I hadn’t heard it before, and it raised goosebumps. Now I’m going to have to re-read the books and try to get my hands on the DVDs as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. You make me want to read the story and try to get more out of it. As a teen, I was only interested in the action. I reread the hobbit a few months ago, and I was appalled by Bilbo’s behavior throughout the story. At the end, he was hailed as a hero, but he seemed more like the thief he pretended to be. Those movies though, I saw them in December when I was home sick, those movies were great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmm, I’ll have to take another look at The Hobbit, but I do see your point. He was working for the dwarves, but sneaked over to the other side. And the way he acquired the Ring from Gollum was a bit iffy. But that just adds complexity to his character and the subsequent epic.
      I have to admit, I’m sort of tempted by the movies…
      Thanks for your comments, Jeff!

      Like

  20. I first read Lord of the Rings as a child, and it’s been one of my favourite re-reads ever since. I love the way we never actually see Sauron – somehow, it makes him even more scary! The similarity of Gollum to a drug addict only struck me when I re-read it as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This really got me to reexamine how I see the LOTR, especially in terms of bottom races that can’t repent or be better. Wow. As for female characters, one thing I loved about the movies is that they gave Arwen more depth and a bigger, more active role. In the books, it always bothered me that she was barely there.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I have also started re-reading these books and will likely write a little piece of my own in the near future. I am always fascinated by the comments about the ‘lack of female characters’ in this book as a genuine critique. It always seems odd to me and I wonder exactly what people expect. Sure, it is a male-dominanted story but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad by any standard. At least it shouldn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Certainly, nothing in LotR indicates belittles women in any way. As you say, most of the characters happen to be male. Also consider the social milieu of the time in which Tolkien was writing. And Galadriel is a powerful female character and important to the background of the story. It’s not an issue for me as a reader, but I mentioned it in my post because it has been noted.
      Thanks for your comment, Jeremy!

      Like

      1. Thank you for reply, Audrey! I understand your points and I wanted to also add that in no way would I feel that the story would be lesser if Tolkien had included more women in the story, he just didn’t and I don’t think it’s a valid critique of his book. If readers check out his other work there are instances of matriarchs that are just not on the forefront of his most popular work, LOTR which I do think is a shame.

        People should read Beren and Lúthien. That’s the Arwen people would probably want!

        Liked by 1 person

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