J.R.R. Tolkien is my favorite fantasy author, by a huge margin. So of course I had to do a page about him! :)
Ironically, it was my fantasy-disdaining mother who introduced me to him. She was forced to read The Hobbit back in school and thought it might be something her nerdy, D&D loving son would enjoy. She certainly (snort) was right! :}
Since then I have been slowly but steadily building my Tolkien and Middle Earth collection. It's been costly, but rewarding. Read on!
Here's a list of the Tolkien books that I've read, in my recommended order of reading. I include a quick review of each, and the number of times (in parentheses) that I've read it.
- The Hobbit (3x)
- The diamond in the rough. This was the debut of what I call the Tolkien Formula. All of the changes in tone packed into one little book make for a schitzophenic read. However, as with most of Tolkien's work, there are plenty of brilliantly memorable moments to make up for the occasional stylistic awkwardness.
- Lord of the Rings (3x)
- The diamond. LotR is in many ways a remake of the Hobbit, stretched out over five or six times as many pages. This time around, the shifting of the mood and focus are much smoother, though ultimately more extreme. There are also more memorable moments than you can shake an Ent at!
- The Silmarillion (2x)
- The rough. This is a hard book to digest. As other people have noted, it reads more like the Bible or a historical mythology book than the light, fun fantasy novels you're probably used to. Memorable moments? Hmmm... Yes, there are, but many of them are better accounted in Unfinished Tales.
- Unfinished Tales (1x)
- The extended dance mix. I really enjoyed this one. It takes scenes touched on in The Silmarillion and later books and flushes them out into more user-friendly narrations. The tone doesn't get as cozy as the Shire portions of The Hobbit and LotR, but it is still great fun to read. You pretty much have to read the three "real" books first (list above) since there are lots of references to them.
- The Tolkien Reader (1x)
- The B sides. This is my least favorite Tolkien book. It doesn't have much to do with Middle Earth, except the silly poems in the end, and I'm no poetry buff. "Farmer Giles of Ham" was decent but Tolkien's essay on fairy tales was a bit over my non-English major head.
For over a decade, I could only dream about what it would be like to watch (or make) a live action Lord of the Rings movie. Thanks to Peter Jackson, that dream became a reality in the early 2000s. I wonder if other Tolkien movies will follow?
- Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings triology
- I love 'em, so much that I've paid for them four times: theater, theatrical DVD, extended DVD, and extended Blu-Ray. I've watched all the extras (twice for the extended) and most of the commentaries. I've also bought four books about the making of the movies!
Special effects were (for the most part) seamless, acting was (for the most part) great, and the plot was (for the most part) faithful to the book. I think the only recurring thing I didn't like were the sentimental add-ons (to get girls into the theater?): too much love story, too much Frodo-vs-Sam drama, too many fake deaths (is Frodo dead yet???). I wish Jackson had cut out the fake drama and put back in Bombadil, the Barrow Downs, and other cool things. But oh well. Maybe in another few decades someone will to do a completely faithful version of the movie, or maybe Jackson will pull a Lucas and perform some tweakings in a few years.
However, I don't want to sound too negative about Jackson's version: overall, I loved it; it's probably my movie [trilogy] of all time (especially if you include the extras).
- The animated version
- Um. I remember not liking it very much. But it inspired me to read the books.
During my junior year of college, one of my hallmates told me he had Lord of the Rings on tape (the BBC version). At first I was skeptical about it, since I had seen the animated LotR moved and wasn't impressed. However, when my friend finally convinved me one evening to listen to the first tape (there are several), I thought it was great! I even got my girlfriend to come listen the next evening, and then made copies of all the tapes for myself.
- The Hobbit (BBC, 4 hrs)
- Nice humor and sound effects. Follows the book rather closely. A good warm-up to LotR.
- Lord of the Rings (BBC, 12 hrs)
- Brilliantly done. The accents and music are great, though the sound effects are a little dated (this was done in the 70s). The only section missing from the book is Tom Bombadil, whom the producers reckoned did not contribute significantly to the plot. Highly recommended.
- Lord of the Rings (NPR, 12 hrs)
- I didn't like this one as much. The accents are very American and sound awkward at times. While I was making myself a backup of it, I did notice that it seems quite similar to the BBC version in content. I don't think I'd recommend getting both versions. Unless you are a semi-completist like me!
- Tolkien reading excerpts from his stories (? hrs)
- Tolkien has a very warm, comfortable voice. He sounds like a mix of how I would imagine Gandalf and Bilbo sounding. It's neat to hear him, but since these are just excerpts, it's hard to get into them.
If you like games, check out my Games site, where I have a section on Tolkien.
Even if you're not into games, you might want to check out some of the games below (especially MERP and MECCG) for the artwork, which is tremendous!
- Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) (down as of 2008-05-18)
- Iron Crown Enterprise (ICE) made really cool MERP modules, back when they had the Middle Earth license. They were also situated right behind my dad's works, so I got lots of modules for cheap! I loved looking through the modules; there's lots of history and maps and descriptions of Middle Earth. I have actually never played the game itself, not being much of a role player anymore, but people who have played it seem to like it a lot. It appears to be far more complex than D&D, and thus harder for casual gamers to get into.
- Middle Earth: Collectable Card Game (MECCG)
- This one I've played, and it's great! Much more fun for me than Magic: the Gathering, which is too narrowly focused. MECCG is for people list me who like to "explore" instead of just attack, attack, attack.
- Tales of Middle Earth (TOME)
- This roguelike seems to be the most faithful to the books. Don't look for fancy art here, just addictive ASCII-based dungeon crawling!
Somehow over the years (before the Peter Jackson movies), I collected lots of Middle Earth maps and calendars. I got many of them from a fellow Tolkien fan at my dad's work :) and others from ICE's dumpster. :)
Once the movie came out, Middle Earth merchandise exploded. Ka-boom! So this section is no longer interesting. :)
6. Tolkien Formula
Here's some of my observations about Tolkien's writing habits.
One of the unique characteristics of Tolkien's writing is the degree to which he implements tonal changes in his story. Take The Hobbit for example:
The story opens rather cozy and childish, in shiny happy Hobbiton. Most of the focus is on harmless old Bilbo and such trivialities (to us but not to him) as smoke rings. Tolkien takes lots of time to interject humor and dialog early on in the story, making not only the characters and setting, but the plot itself at that point seem rather comicky and frivolous. (You can almost hear the Smurf music in the background...)
However, as Bilbo on his adventure gets father away from home, the tone gets steadily more sinister and serious: animals die and then unfamiliar people die, and then friends die. The focus shifts to warriors and kings and huge battles; Bilbo becomes a mere spectator. There is very little humor and even dialog is scant. Tolkien's language becomes more archaic and terse, less "fun."
Then, when the fighting is over and the adventurers return home, the tone settles back into pots and pans and quiet "civilian" life. The denoument lasts longer than most other "epic" books, and Tolkien uses these last couple chapters (yes, plural) to milk every ounce of wistful nostalgia from us. It's extremely effective; one of the hardest books to put away with a dry eye is Lord of the Rings, which has the longest denoument of any book I've read (well, except perhaps the Bible).
Note: I'll put more here in a bit.
Note: Yeah, right! I said that back in 1996!
7. Recommended Links
Now that Lord of the Rings is super-popular (thanks to the Peter Jackson movies), I bet there are thousands of Tolkien-related sites out there. I bet you can find tons of neat pages via google; as of 2007-01-16, googling for "Tolkien" yields 17,800,000 hits.
Anyway, here's a tiny, tiny list of Tolkien related pages that I think are entertaining for long-term (pre-Jackson) Tolkien fans:
- The Tolkien Trail
- Tolkien-inspired music, fan fiction, artwork, riddles, a nice-looking forum, and a browser-based "choose your own adventure" type game.