I started reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time while in high school. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding the series, so I wanted to find out for myself what people love about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. So, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started reading. To my dismay, I did not understand a word of it. This was distressing because I prided myself on being well-read. After all, I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader (but probably understood only 60% of it). I just couldn’t get into the story. The plot and language went way over my head. I expected The Lord of the Rings to read like the Harry Potter series, but they didn’t.
Because it is not in my nature to throw in the towel and give up, I decided to try reading The Fellowship of the Ring again a few years later. I finally finished the first book, but I still had no idea what went on. I knew that Frodo and his friends were trying to destroy an invisibility ring. That much was obvious. But there were so many different lands and names. I couldn’t keep track of them all. I never thought to consult the map of Middle-Earth that was so conveniently placed at the start of the book.
During my sophomore year of college, I visited the education library and embarrassingly admitted to the librarian that I found The Lord of the Rings confusing and dense. She suggested I start with The Hobbit, and so I did. People often ask on forums whether The Hobbit should be read before the trilogy. My answer is a strong yes! The Lord of the Rings is not really a plot-driven story. Tolkien created a world, and the more you learn about the world, the more you can appreciate the trilogy. That year, I finished reading Tolkien’s novels for the first time. But I didn’t fully appreciate them. While I enjoyed reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could not wait for The Return of the King to end. Looking back, I realize now that I did not approach the books with the right mentality.
Frodo Baggins’ journey to Middle Earth is really a pilgrimage. People go on a pilgrimage to reach a particular destination like the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But if the pilgrims are truly invested in the journey, what inevitably happens is that they come to discover much about themselves and about life. Frodo knew from the beginning that his journey to Mordor would be fraught with peril, but neither he nor his friends understood the sort of evil they were up against. Only Gandalf truly understood. In my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, I focused much on the characters themselves. Gandalf is wise because he realizes that he is not essentially different than Saruman. He knows that if he handled the ring, he too would fall under it’s influence. Gandalf does not think he is invincible. I was struck by Tolkien’s commentary on the nature of true wisdom. I have always loved Sam and Aragorn, but I noticed Pippin’s character development for the first time. At the start of the journey, he is quite a foolish, silly hobbit. Gandalf wants to strangle him because Pippin always seems to land the Fellowship into trouble. But while, in Gondor, so many others fall into despair, Pippin shows great courage and selflessness. Thanks to Pippin, Faramir is saved from death.
I have written much about the themes in Tolkien’s books in my previous posts. I did, however, leave out a discussion of the Catholic themes in the books. I did this for a reason. Tolkien was quite clear that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It’s not even a thought supposition like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. There are Catholic elements in the trilogy because Tolkien viewed the world through that lens. For example, I do see the Virgin Mary in Galadriel and the Eucharist in the lembas, but it is wrong to say that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical. God is only mentioned once in the trilogy, and it is not clear who is supposed to be the Christ-figure (if there is one at all). I can’t deny, however, that the books have a special place in my heart because of the themes that are explored – themes that are much a part of my faith. Whether these themes are explored in similar ways in the other religions of the world I can’t say.
Remember that I said that I wanted The Return of the King to end the first time I read it. Well, this time around, I wanted more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage. I tend to shy away from adult fantasy novels because they often include very graphic sex scenes. Even when the sex scenes are brief or not graphic, I usually find romance quite boring. But the romance in The Lord of the Rings is based on love and respect, not lust. How rare is such romance in the fantasy genre and how refreshing! It is no secret that the love between Aragorn and Arwen was based on Tolkien’s love for his wife, Edith.
I can now say with absolute certainty that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy series ever written. I am so glad that I did not give up on the books. They are truly a masterpiece!