Hear me out – I have a long time beef with this great work of literature, after reading it numerous times.
Lord of the Rings saga starts great, it reads great, it is a wonderful tale of a different world. From the start of Fellowship of the Ring until early parts of the Two Towers, is an engaging, captivating, thrilling and inspiring story of ordinary or seemingly ordinary people sailing through grand events that are happening in their world. They struggle, they fight, they endure. They have happy moments and dreadful moments. They help each other and in spirit of camaraderie, push forward. You understand them, empathize with them, feel happiness for their triumphs and feel sadness when they suffer. Moreover, despite being fantasy characters in an obviously fantasy world, they feel like real characters. Real people, if you will.
These parts of this masterpiece are the best parts.
A fantasy world that is so close to home that it feels real
It all starts in the shire. An idyllic place in which polite people live in spotless happiness. There are tales of dangerous places and adventures outside their world, but they are far away, even unreal to the extent of feeling mythical.
You have Frodo and his friends. Young, rebellious fellows. They have their own affairs and strong sentiments. But nothing you can not empathize with.
Then comes in Gandalf. He is a quirky weird old man, or he appears to be. He has some shady side to his character, you feel – like how every other hobbit does…
Then he gets involved in Frodo’s affairs… You think that this man will stir trouble. He does.
Suddenly these ordinary feeling people get thrown into a big adventure against forces which are much more powerful than them. Their idyllic, oblivious life is rocked by little revelations. There is a danger and lurking darkness impending, but they don’t know what it is, they can’t make out how big it is. Yet, they each resolve to support each other and fight against this unknown, despite knowing they are little people going against what is possibly a storm.
Aragon makes his appearance. A shady fellow, sturdy too. He looks and feels ragged, but he feels like he can be trusted. They become unlikely allies. Then they set on a journey that has real perils and unknowns which they must face. Through perseverance, luck and hardship they succeed in reaching their destination, Rivendell.
A magical world is revealed to them. But you can still empathize with it – elegant, poetic people – elves – in a fantasy world that is so ancient and ethereal. Its evidently a fairy setting, but still feels close to home.
Here they meet major personas like Elrond, Boromir, Legolas and so on. These are all nobility and important personas, but they still feel like people with the responsibilities of governing, administrating things. They don’t hit so far off home. We have such people in ordinary life, in our own reality.
At this point they create a group of misfits, who swear to help each other to fight against great evil. They resolve to play their little roles in grand happening of events of their time.
Now they set on an even more perilous journey, this time knowing the great perils that lay ahead.
They help each other. They endure. They suffer. They push forward at all costs.
They face and meet mythical characters of great power, they pull through difficulties through use of their talents and their cooperation.
From Hobbits to Aragorn, from Boromir to Legolas to Gimli, even Gandalf, they feel like ordinary people who are trying to fulfill their small responsibilities in the great scheme of things. Despite you know that they are obviously not ordinary, since one is a Wizard, the other is an Elf, 4 little people who are called Hobbits and a dwarf, they do feel ordinary because the struggle they go through and the feelings they feel are ordinary feelings.
That’s why it feels so real, because you subconsciously feel that that is how it is in our real world. We sympathize.
All the while Gandalf falls into the abyss, Boromir dies, Pippin and Merry get captured, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli decide to save their companions, the chase, the forest, meeting Treebeard…
All feels like ordinary people, ordinary feelings which you can empathize with.
Then it all goes south…
“And they were kingly come, and lordly in speech”…
From the start of Two Towers, after the destruction of Isengard and return of Gandalf, something happens…
The entire narrative turns into a narrative of aristocracy, pomp and circumstance, lieges, loyalty to lieges and bravery in that loyalty, deference and humility of the vassals and subjects to their lord.
Lineages are cited, adjectives are used, every so often this or that character is described as ‘lordly’ or ‘kingly’, and that they are “kingly come and lordly in their speech”…
Easy to empathize emotions go out of the window. A set of emotions which belong to mid to late medieval European aristocracy, emotions which were extremely distant and irrelevant to the ordinary people of that time, emotions which are even more inapplicable to our life in contemporary times come into the scene.
Pippin, Merry become gimped vassals who become merely vehicles or literary devices to facilitate certain important events. After this point what validates their characters is their unwitting mistakes or deeds triggering events to further the plot, or their perseverance in their oaths to their new lieges and bravery in that loyalty and self-sacrifice for their aristocratic superiors amusing and encouraging their de facto owners…
Gone are their own characters, strong traits. These people, who have grown up in a society which knows nothing of hierarchical aristocratic culture, suddenly transform into good little footmen as if their ancestors have been guarding the door of a feudal lord for generations. Their mischievous, curious and emotional characters are replaced by the traits of an obedient, subservient footmen, their aims and desires become as little as serving their lord even at the cost of their lives.
Even Gimli, Legolas are relegated into tertiary characters, despite they are nobility themselves. Apparently, they are not kingly come and lordly in speech enough to necessitate such pomp and circumstance or proper due narrative.
Aragorn is transformed from a shady but reliable, mysterious character into everyone’s future lord, totally changing in character, manner of speech, even the feeling he has around his persona. This person who lived decades over decades as a ragged ranger, suddenly transforms into a pumped up aristocrat who seems to have lived his entire life in a upstuck court in a high castle. Even if he had spent his childhood in such places, you subconsciously know that after decades of a life of outdoors, war, hardship and struggle, someone just cant switch his or her character in a few weeks as he does.
The transformation of the characters are so sudden and so strong that it becomes difficult not to disassociate from them…
And when you dissociate from the characters who took you through this journey for that long, accompanied with a narrative that totally changes from a narrative of easy to empathize, real-feeling characters and their struggle against great odds to some narrative that seems to be centered on praising and pumping up aristocratic traits and their owners to the sky, suddenly the book loses its grasp on your mind and heart.
You can’t empathize anymore, because you are totally an outsider to the feelings, joys and troubles of aristocracy. That entire world is totally foreign to you – now, in our modern time and even more so for the medieval feudal aristocracy that inspires that narrative.
Now you are looking at a totally foreign world, to which you have no means of entry due to not having any common ground. You had human feelings as your common ground – a very powerful common ground – which directly put you into these people’s minds and hearts, made you feel as if you were a member of their group. But now entire reality just got shattered.
It feels even more unreal because the major characters that are put forward feel like a caricatured, simplified drones whose entire purpose of being is to embody the best ideals of feudal aristocracy. Eowyn has some conflict in her heart and some doubts but she poetically resigns to her fate at the ultimate end by letting go of Aragorn, all the while not failing to fulfill the role of a shieldmaiden out of a Viking saga, the entire point of honesty and integrity of Faramir is to be loyal to his liege at the end – be that his father or Aragorn, and from Aragorn himself you can gleam no human feelings like how someone who spent his entire life fighting against great evil would inevitably exhibit going through that many events which eventually unfold into their triumph… Even Gandalf transforms into a facilitator and usher of feudal pomp, circumstance and lineage instead of the great mysterious wizard he is…
These make it quite difficult to get captivated by the narrative, and it becomes somewhat a drag to push through the rest of the book after that point. Something which I felt every time I read through the entire trilogy.
How could Lord of the Rings have been
The grander events and their reality, and their aristocratic/feudal component could easily be narrated in the background, without overriding every single one of the characters and the entire world.
The characters could retain their actual personas who they had all the way through Fellowship of the Ring, but this time they would keep being themselves in a greater setting where there were kings, lords and ladies.
It could even be to the extent it was during the battle at Helm’s Deep, where “Theoden King” was a king, but the aristocracy and feudalism did not overshadow everything else.
Pippin and Merry still could get into the service of one feudal lord each, but without losing their entire character, upbringing, culture and being reduced to small feudal drones. They could have been misfits who were in circumstances and in a culture which they did not relate to – which they did not – and they could have gone through their struggle and their quest while being out of place in that aristocratic feudal culture, but still following through their promise and their camaraderie. Which, would create a lot of easy to empathize events and narratives as literary devices too.
Gimli and Legolas would stay the distinct characters they are, and not reduced to merely an unlikely set of friends whose main task was to compete and provide some variety. Their cultural, personal characters could contrast with the circumstances they are in, and these would produce even richer narrative in the backdrop of the grander events.
Gandalf could keep his role of outworldly, now-not-so-mysterious-but-still-mysterious Wizard character, and he could have led things through the viewpoint of a mystical wizard, instead of being the usher of feudal lineage and heraldry he was made into as a ‘messenger of heavens which distribute divine authority to feudal lords’. No need to even say that there are much more literary devices, sub-narratives present in such a setting in which Gandalf keeps his character, even as he turns into Gandalf the White and transforms somewhat into a more outworldy character.
The only ones saved from this disastrous transformation of narrative are Frodo and Samwise, who separated from the entire rest of the world. Because they are in a journey and in an environment where there is no potential place for aristocracy or feudalism, they are spared this slight.
But, a caricaturization and a simplification happen there too – these two characters are also reduced to conveyors of mainly suffering and loyalty, even more so there is a small amount of lord-liege relationship going on in between Frodo and Gollum too. However despite everything, there are much more human emotions in their chapters, and it makes their journey much more bearable to read – despite an overdone amount of suffering and despair.
All of these would combine into a much richer, much more easy to empathize, ‘real’ feeling atmosphere and ‘real’ feeling events in a fantasy setting and it could captivate and pull us through the rest of the trilogy just like it does for the first installment.
Alas, it isn’t so…
And we know why – Tolkien had great sympathy for monarchy, namely the medieval, feudal kind.
Emotional Monarchy in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.
Why Tolkien Liked Monarchy–and Anarchy
One can at least sympathize, then, with Tolkien’s view of monarchy. … A king–a king without any real power, that is–is such an ennoblingly arbitrary, such a tender and organically human institution. It is easy to give our loyalty to someone whose only claim on it is an accident of heredity, because then it is a free gesture of spontaneous affection that requires no element of self-deception, and that does not involve the humiliation of having to ask to be ruled.
And Lord of the Rings was written – at least after a certain point – under strong influence from those sympathies. That is possibly the reason why this work, which reads as a great fantasy novel up to a certain point, transforms into almost something else afterwards…
What do you think?