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charlesstork

Underwhelmed by Tolkien

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I got into fantasy when Game of Thrones came out on HBO. In the years since, I've read fantasy series almost exclusively, about 100 books or so. I felt like it was weird that I had read all of this fantasy but had never read LoTR. So I finally decided to take the plunge. After getting through The Hobbit and FoTR, I bailed out. They're....just not that good. They seem kind of simplistic and boring, after having read Martin/Erikson/Bakker/Hobb etc... I can completely understand how they were fantastic for their time, and that fantasy would not be where it was today without having had Tolkien to build upon. But it's just been done so much better by this point. If I strip away the historical significance and evaluate them solely for how enjoyable they were to read, I come away not very impressed. Am I completely out to lunch here? Do people really enjoy the books themselves, without giving them extra credit for their standing as fantasy classics?

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You are far from being the only one who feels that way. It was the first fantasy series that I read, and while I was awed by the fact that I was reading The LoTR, they still often felt tedious.

Maybe Citizen Kane is a good analogy: undoubtedly brilliant and revolutionary movie for it's time, but modern viewer will probably find it boring and won't understand what's all the fuss is about, because they saw it's best pieces in many other movies made since.

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I'm firmly in this camp. Have tried to read LOTR countless times and I usually give up by the time they get to Tom Bombadil.

 

My mother absolutely adores the series and reads it all through at least once a year.

 

It's just not for me.

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Yes, I found it supremely enjoyable, very different from what I had been expecting, emotionally moving, and life-altering.  But then I hadn't spent years reading fantasy/science fiction where similar topics had been done to death, with varying degrees of success. 

The trilogy is indeed flawed - the Tom Bombadil section sticks out, famously - but like an old lover, I'm thoroughly attached to it, warts and all. 

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I think this is a common and understandable reaction from most new readers of fantasy, but what cannot be denied is that LOTR has aged incredibly well, and while the majority of current faves will be a dim memory 50 years from now i will go out on a thin limb and predict that LOTR will still be relevant then..

I can remember my first time reading these books and the Silmarillion vividly, i am talking about time and place, thats the impact that they had on me.

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I'm re-reading it now for the first time in 15 years, coincidentally. My thoughts don't match with yours- I was worried I was gonna find it dry and dull with things in the interim that I've read, but that's not been true at all, I've been tearing through it- but what I am finding is that while Tolkien's entire package still holds up really well, different aspects of what he does have been done better by other authors, which does leave the book leaving less of an immediate impression than it did even though he still does those things well. So for example the battle scenes don't feel as epic coz I've read Erikson. The monsters are a mite less impressive coz I've read Mieville. The prose isn't quite as evocative for me as Wolfe. The awe for the awe-inspiring 'special' characters has been done better by his student Guy Gavriel Kay, and the troubled tension of the likes of Denethor and Boromir has been outdone by Martin.
But altogether I'm still having a great time.

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For me, the main issue is that a lot of the characters don't particularly interest me. I struggled through quite a few of the bits with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. I'd prefer it if the books were a lot more hobbit centric, them (particularly Sam) and Gollum were the really interesting characters to me. 

I think a big problem is expectations. LotR is talked about so reverently you expect to be blown away the whole time. I recommend The Hobbit- I enjoyed more than I expected, probably because my expectations were a lot lower. 

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On 9/9/2018 at 11:49 AM, charlesstork said:

If I strip away the historical significance and evaluate them solely for how enjoyable they were to read, I come away not very impressed. Am I completely out to lunch here?

Wait, do you seriously want people to try to argue against your opinion?  Can I convince you that you should like chocolate better than vanilla?  I mean, I'm sure it is a fact that you didn't enjoy reading it.  By the same token, it is a fact that others have read it and enjoyed it.

On 9/9/2018 at 11:49 AM, charlesstork said:

Do people really enjoy the books themselves, without giving them extra credit for their standing as fantasy classics?

Yes.  If you are not interested in, or don't like moral relativism; if you enjoy fantastic moral clarity; or a number of other reasons (I can't think of off the top of my head, because I am no Tolkien scholar) you could perfectly well enjoy reading the books outside their simple designation as "classics."

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Well, the Hobbit is a children's novel and everyone pretty much agrees that Fellowship can be a slog.  The next two installments are absolutely wonderful and I can't really understand how anyone could disparage them.  I too read them when I was younger, but feel they've aged extremely well and despite setting the standard for fantasy, are not incredibly tropey.  

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I came fairly late to both the Hobbit (at 14 or 16, but I don't know) and LotR (at about 20). The Sil and some of the other stuff in my mid-twenties (probably the time I was most invested in the stuff, with several re-reads) I liked them both and I guess I still do. But I was never really the type to obsessively re-read stuff (after my teenage years which was before Tolkien), so I cannot even say how I would like them now. I hardly knew any fantasy before them (I guess two of the Narnia books and a few other odds, none of the well known authors or series).

I used to find the Hobbit quite impressive in the way it starts as a children's book and becomes ever more serious in tone and themes as the journey progresses.

As for flaws, there are some but this is true for almost all other fantasy I have read and overall Tolkien holds up very well for me. To me his certainly is the only world in all of fantasy that feels "rounded" and deep enough for me. And while the tone of his narrative is fairly "dry" (not in the Sil of course) it is better prose than e.g. Martin (the last two SoIaF books should never have been seen the light in their actual form without severe editing) or what I have read of the often pretentious Bakker (he has a few good bits but plenty of bathos and involuntarily comical passages). Of Wolfe I mainly know the New Sun tetralogy, which I found brilliant but over-ambitious. It is just too different, never creates the moods I love in Tolkien and the depths of Wolfe feel over-constructed at times. Jack Vance can be very good at times and some of his are probably as close as Tolkien to my ideal how heroic fantasy should be but what I have read is overall also flawed.

Tolkien's books are not as character-driven like a lot of more recent fantasy, so some expectations are bound to be disappointed because of this fact.

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I read the whole LOTR trilogy in my native language some 15 years ago or so, and I remember thinking it was quite a brick. And also that the film adaptations were so good that you don't really lose out on much if you don't read the books.

Now I got the English version for Christmas last year, and I think it was quite nice to try to read the books in the original language - but my read is still around 100 pages in, the book quickly put down again whenever I try to read more, and I keep pushing it back in the queue of books I'm reading.

To put my thoughts I got from the re-read attempt in seven words: Just shut up about the elves already!

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I first read Rings aged nine, and it became my first great literary love (I read The Hobbit a few years later, and found it disappointed my expectations). It's a slow-starting book, yes, but once past Bree, I think things come together much better. If you stopped after Fellowship, I'd still suggest giving The Two Towers and The Return of the King a try - they aren't long books by fantasy standards.

Then there's The Silmarillion. I came to this in my teens, and initially struggled with it (the Music, et al, is not light reading), but as an adult I consider it the best of Tolkien's works, and my favourite book, full stop.

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Like in The Hobbit, I think of the slow start as a feature, not a bug. (In The Hobbit it is not mainly pace but tone with the avuncular narrator fading into the background later on.)

At least some of this beginning is needed to connect with The Hobbit and besides that, it used to work for me as a very slow acceleration. With the end of "Fellowship" we have reached a good pace and this is almost doubled in TTT when the narrative splits between Frodo and Sam and the others.

And although it has been while since I read them, in my recollection many long fantasy books have very slow starts (and not only starts), e.g. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn or the confusing triple beginning of the first Bakker. And maybe I am dense but I found the in medias res beginning of The Black Company far more confusing and more irritating than any slow start.

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Most of the derivative fantasy after Tolkien is more concerned with telling a pulpy adventure story, no matter how in-depth or complicated the story may be: ASoIaF is no exception to this. And that is not a bad thing, by any means. But Tolkien was foremost a philologist and scholar with a profound interest in linguistics and this is incredibly apparent in the world he created, and in the way he wrote his pulpy adventure story in more literal emulation of classical epics.

The Hobbit is intended for a younger audience and the beginning of the Fellowship is somewhat a slog. I bounced off it several times when I was younger and finally powered through in my first year of college and realized just what I'd been missing, especially as a lifelong writer and lover of RPGs.

Edited by odium

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To expand on Aceluby's point above, one aspect of reading Tolkien subsequent to reading some modern works is that the modern works will re-use some element of The Hobbit or The LOTR, and the contemporary will view the original use backwards through the lens of time.  Tolkien established story elements that would (particularly in the 1980s) be over-used by later writers.  That is not to say that Tolkien was the first writer to ever feature a magic ring or a party of adventurers or a Special Sword, etc., but he put them into the form and made widely popular what we recognize as Fantasy today.

As an analogy, consider a teenager today who watches Aliens for the first time, or who reads Starship Troopers for the first time.  The Armored Space Marine concept will seem stale or normal to that reader or viewer, whereas the reader who picked up the first hardcover book or bought a ticket to see the film in the theater would not likely have encountered previously The Armored Space Marine as a trope in every other video game, TV show, etc.

Novelty of a concept makes for a significant difference in the reader's experience, I would argue.  So if you read The LOTR before you pick up (insert more recent Fantasy author here), the Tolkien work is likely to have a larger significance for you.  And I would argue, you will appreciate the later authors' efforts more deeply as well.

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Quote

I come away not very impressed. Am I completely out to lunch here? Do people really enjoy the books themselves, without giving them extra credit for their standing as fantasy classics?

If you don't like it, you don't like it.  Why are you seeking external validation for something you don't like?

But if you told me I was going to be exiled to a deserted island with only Game of Thrones or Tolkien, I'd choose Tolkien every time.  I also like saurkraut on my pepperoni pizza.  Different strokes for different folks.

For me, Tolkien's writing style is both challenging and rewarding.  It is rich flavorful writing.  A lot of entertainment fiction is written in a way that only supports the movement of the plot.  I've read many novels which seem to be very well loved for their plot, but the writing itself is often very poor and utilitarian.  I think its similiar to how poetry has largely fallen out of favor (which I personally attribute to the university style analysis which destroys the enjoyment of a well turned phrase), excluding its use in music.

When I read a book for its plot, I doubt I'll ever read it again.  But poetic language can be enjoyed again and again.

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Tolkien (almost-literary fiction) = prose, verse, lore. Tolkien-derivative modern fantasy (genre fiction) = plot, pace, suspense, mystery etc. The kinds of enjoyment I get from the former and latter (both huge in their own right) largely don't overlap, so wouldn't necessarily think appreciating one of them is a good indication you'll like the other.

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21 hours ago, Kyll.Ing. said:

I read the whole LOTR trilogy in my native language some 15 years ago or so, and I remember thinking it was quite a brick. And also that the film adaptations were so good that you don't really lose out on much if you don't read the books.

Now I got the English version for Christmas last year, and I think it was quite nice to try to read the books in the original language - but my read is still around 100 pages in, the book quickly put down again whenever I try to read more, and I keep pushing it back in the queue of books I'm reading.

To put my thoughts I got from the re-read attempt in seven words: Just shut up about the elves already!

HM, I feel like even if you're a fan of the film's it's wrong to say you don't miss anything. The film's are thematically very different to the books and vthe difference leads the omission or alteration of some significant material (e.g. paths of the dead, much of the siege of Minas Tirith, the entire scouring of the shire).  You also misss the rather beautiful prose too. I'm not shy in admitting I'm not a fan of the film's (especially the latter two) but I don't feel like this colours my belief that there is much to miss out on by not reading the books

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