When my boyfriend hands me his copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, his face pinches with emotion. We’re 20 and in the stage of love where we want to share everything with each other. This, he says, is the greatest thing you’ll ever read. I’m surprised by the book’s thickness but excited to finally delve into the grand tale of elves and wizards I keep hearing about—it’ll be a nice change from the John Irving marathon I’ve been on for the past year. I stuff the book in my purse and my purse becomes the shape and weight of a brick. I can’t wait to read it, I say.
I never make it past the prologue.
Peter Jackson’s film adaptation hits theatres that Christmas and I’m dragged along to the three-hour saga by my boyfriend and a group of friends one step below costuming themselves in Middle Earthling garb. They talk excitedly in their seats about characters whose names all sound the same to me, and I sit stoic, arms folded, already bored.
Gold-plated title credits appear on the screen, a violin sings a minored melody, and Cate Blanchett’s voice blooms the story of the ring of power. The War of the Last Alliance unfolds in front of me: mountains, sharp and obscured in a dark fog, littered by armies of snarling orcs and poised elves; the high-pitched scrape of sword on sword, a choir chanting, the bass thrumming in my chest. An iron-clad evil lord emerges from the shadows and erases lives with a single sweep of his arm. I’m immediately sucked in. I go back to see the movie two days later and again a week after that.
The Two Towers comes out the next holiday season. I join the same group of friends on opening night and this time I participate in the excited talk. By the time The Return of the King hits the following year, I consider wearing elvish robes to the screening.
I buy the DVDs, watch Tolkien documentaries, and whistle to the soundtrack. Quotes from the films interrupt my thoughts, offering cheesy life advice at opportune times. (There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for!) My best friend and I start a ten-year tradition of watching the extended editions every winter, and I strong-arm family members who haven’t seen the movies to watch them. I even convince my new, Chekhov-loving, wizard-loathing partner to sit through the 11 hours of extended high fantasy. This, I say to him, is the greatest thing you’ll ever see.
But I don’t return to the books, the birthplace and bible of Middle Earth, and for 12 long years a dissonance grows silently in the shadows of my gut.
Last spring, a particularly disengaged student of mine approached me after a class in which I spontaneously used a Lord of the Rings reference as an example of a persuasive speech (Aragorn at the Black Gates). You’re a Tolkien fan, she says, eyeing me with amazement. I had no idea. I nod, guilt stinging my insides. I don’t tell her I haven’t read the books.
By the time The Return of the King hits the following year, I consider wearing elvish robes to the screening.
Not three days later, I come across a used box set of the books in Kensington Market and I know what I have to do. The books are calling to me like the ring to Sauron. Before I start reading, I remind myself that 12-year-olds can get through Tolkien texts and that there are things I actually look forward to knowing, like why Legolas can float up oliphaunts, why Arwen’s fate is tied to the ring, and what’s the deal with the eagles not flying Frodo and gang to Mount Doom from the beginning.
I plow through the prologue with Gollum-like determination. Hobbits, Hobbiton, hobbit history, hobbit taxonomy, famous hobbits. I start the first chapter and do my best to stay afloat in the sea of characters and places. Old Took, Old Holman, Old Noakes, Old Master Gorbadoc, Old Gaffer Gamgee, the Old Forest, Bywater, Buckland, Brandy Hall, Brandywine River, the Sandymans, the Brandybucks, the Bagginses, the Sackville-Bagginses, the Boffins, the Grubs, the Chubs, the Burrowses, the Bracegirdles, the Brockhouses, the Goodbodies, the Hornblowers, the Proudfoots. I take a break. Chapter two: the Grey Havens, the Blue Mountains, Mirkwood, the North Moors, Northfarthing, Eregion, Gil-galad. I take another break. I slog through chapters three, four, and five. I meet Tom Bombadil, a character entirely absent from the movies. He starts singing and I stop for good.
As those who’ve experienced the books know, Tolkien’s novels read less as a fictional tale than as a history—he’s not simply telling a story, he’s building a world with detailed genealogy, rich culture, diverse species, intricate languages, songs, geography, and cultural practices. This world-building is what makes him a genius. It’s also what loses me as a reader. Plot threads drown in tertiary character shout-outs, Bombadil songs, and backstories that breed like wanton bunnies. To fully grasp the work, I feel I need to draw out complex family trees, study maps of Middle Earth, and take a course in Sindarin. That’s a lot of work to understand a world that doesn’t really exist.
It seems to me that building Middle Earth has become a collective process, a shared experience, enjoyed in many different renderings and visions.
The historical-text writing style makes me feel like I’m experiencing the story through cellophane, disconnected from the fleshiness of the characters and their journey. I have trouble feeling the synergy of Frodo and Sam that the movies offer through nuanced gesturing and meaningful eye locks.
The sad truth is this: because I started tackling the book after seeing the movies dozens of times, Jackson’s interpretations of events feel more right to me. Yikes, right? I can almost hear die-hard Tolkien fans cursing me in Quenya. In the films, the high stakes are set from the beginning, which creates immediate propulsion. The book feels draggy to me. It doesn’t sit well that Frodo stays in the Shire for a full 17 years after Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday bash, and is almost 50 when the journey actually begins. I don’t get the point of Tom Bombadil, Fatty Bolger, or why Frodo and his hobbits have to meet and spend the night with elves in Southfarthing. While I’m aware that the story I know is an incomplete one, these “detours” feel terribly frustrating.
I hide the books away, tight in their box under my bed, and wonder just how tacky it is to consider myself an LOTR fan if I refuse to get through the books. Perhaps I shouldn’t care and mostly I don’t. But I do a little.
I spend the night scouring LOTR forums to find threads related to my query amongst the razor-edge debates of Middle Earth minutiae. When I don’t find what I’m looking for, I create an LOTR-sounding handle (Éofaraboromir) and type into the abyss, “I love the LOTR movies, but can’t get into the books. Am I still a real fan?”
I go to bed nervous at the vitriol that might spew as I sleep. Tolkien fans scare me a little, especially those who refer to themselves as the “Old Guard” (LOTR purists disgusted by adaptions that stray in any way from the works of Tolkien).
When I check the forum the next day, there are 25 comments. Most are surprisingly gentle. Some assume I’m quite young and encourage me to try again with the books when I’m older. Some speak of their own difficulties getting through the books the first time through. Most offer advice to continue with the reading: skip the Ent poetry and Elvish songs, or points in the book where characters go on about their traditions. Ignore Tom Bombadil. Try to make it to Rivendell, as things pick up after that. Listen to the audiobooks.
Although some of the posts are perhaps a little unintentionally condescending, all are friendly but one. Mr_necromancer tells me that I’m most certainly not an LOTR fan, but a Peter Jackson fan, that I have no clue of the wider legendarium and thus, ultimately, I don’t know the truth. (The fake truth, I assume, because Middle Earth isn’t real.)
In many ways, I get where he’s coming from—reading LOTR is an accomplishment and gives one a specific breadth of knowledge beyond the movies. But must I be consigned to Jackson-only fan territory? Aren’t book fans and movie fans both fans of Tolkien’s imagination? Aren’t worlds more of an organism than an artifact?
I love the LOTR movies, but can’t get into the books. Am I still a real fan?
Does Middle Earth not breathe and evolve through ongoing fan discussions, video games, live action role playing, cartoons, heavy metal album covers, visual art, and yes, Jackson’s film adaptations? It seems to me that building Middle Earth has become a collective process, a shared experience, enjoyed in many different renderings and visions. Can book and movie fans not stand alongside each other like elves and men in the battle of Dagorlad?
I propose this to mr_necromancer. He doesn’t like the idea.
I want to love Tolkien’s books, but I can’t. I love the world he created, the characters, and the journey. I just don’t like the way he writes them. I don’t need the tangents, the maps, and Tom Bombadil. I don’t care about the Great Balrog Wing Debate of ’05. I like that one of the few female characters, Arwen, has a stronger presence in the movies instead of being relegated to an appendix as a love-sick elf. I prefer Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf (whose off-beat sense of humour and “oh fuck” face slay me in the movies) to the stern and wooden Gandalf of the books. I like the heavy, meaningful looks between Sean Astin’s Samwise and Elijah Wood’s Frodo.
Perhaps there will come a day when I carve out the time and patience to read the books and roll around in all the Middle Earth legendarium, but, as Aragorn says (at least in the movies), “It is not this day,” and I’m okay with that.
Kate Gies teaches creative non-fiction, public speaking, and creative arts at George Brown College. Her work has most recently appeared in Word Riot and is forthcoming in The Conium Review, where she was a finalist in the Innovative Short Fiction Contest. She lives in Toronto.