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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

“A mortal who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes invisible permanently…”

~Tolkien

These books of mine are worn to tatters. Of course, since the movies came out, everybody knows the story, but for me, I am of the superior group that discovered Tolkien long before Peter Jackson took hold of the books and gave them his vision. Not saying anything about his vision; which was very good and reasonably true to the story, but I read these over and over from the time I was eleven and Tolkien’s initials are tattooed on my back mainly because I consider him a genius and I enjoy having geniuses initials tattooed on my person.

In other words, I love him best, but not for reasons you might think.

His writing style is ver’ ver’ British, of course. He hems and hahs his way through the story using lengthy dialogue and even lengthier description. Modern audiences usually find him a trifle dull. Truthfully, Fellowship is the dullest book of the series. Not a lot of action goes down for the first 300 or so pages, but it sets up the story so we know whats going on after Bilbo takes off and Gandalf discovers the true nature of the Ring and Gollum’s history.

I really like it when Tolkien is describing the subtle changes that are slowly touching on the Shire. Strangers are passing through, Elves are leaving Middle-Earth, all the evil creatures are gathering, and Mordor is rising from the ashes.

This is why I love Tolkien. He is king of tension and drama. Fellowship is the book which gave the movie all of its best lines. I wish it need not have happened in my time, says Frodo and, I will take the ring, though I do not know the way. Every time I read this book I am quite abruptly transported to a true master storyteller’s world. I do not use that phrase lightly. Master. Storyteller.

Before Tolkien, I’m not sure there really were master storytellers who could invent a story, base it cleverly in mythology, and then spend the rest of their life perfecting it. John Ronald did spend most of his life creating Middle Earth and telling himself, then us, its history and legends. Are there writers like this any more? In our world of NYT’s cheap bestsellers and so much fantasy fiction that just seems over-dramatic, clapped together without much thought, and fails to touch us — to send us — in any way.

I don’t read much fantasy fiction, which some of you might find surprising. But the snobbish truth is because I find so much of it lacking. Tolkien was Master, the others that came after him could never emulate him, no matter what the publicists say. There are others, sure, like Robin McKinley and Gregory McGuire, who re-work fairy-tales and blow everyone out of the water with their originality and wonderful language. And I love them. I do. I love Robin McKinley’s books so much it amounts to an obsession. But not in the same way. I admire a lot of different kinds of writers, but let’s just say that what I have read after JRR, when it comes to a stab at epic fantasy, I might enjoy on a surface level, but I would never get the author’s initials tattooed on me.  We’ll leave it there.

My favorite legend of Tolkien goes as follows:

Tolkien spent most of his life putting the story of Beren and Luthien into different forms. The story goes that Beren is a mortal man who falls in love with Luthien, an elf-maiden. Her father disapproves and sends Beren on some impossible tasks. After many difficulties, the two lovers are united and live out their lives as mortal.

Tolkien made it into an epic poem that he never finished. He wrote the story of it into the Lord of the Rings. It was the central part to his life; he based it on many things; Welsh legend and Norse mythology, and his own love story.

Tolkien and his wife’s headstones read as follows:

Edith Mary Tolkien, Luthien, 1889-1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973

I suppose, when I think of Tolkien as a genius, and when I worship him as a master storyteller, it’s really the idea of him having such a place to write from; a story that grew and developed until it consumed his world and he became it. It’s what separates him from other writers. I know that fantasy writers tend to half-live their works. It is necessary to spend some time in your dream world, so that you can translate it for the people who dont speak the language. Tolkien had a passion for his world that carried over into this one. That’s why he’s great. That’s why he speaks to us, decade after decade. It’s why I class him as the Master, like his Tom Bombadil; Master of wood and water, but JRR Tolkien was Master of the Imagination and the Pen.

“Just say it,” said Spencer Tracy to a young actor: “Just SAY the words.” In other words, don’t say the lines-say the sentences. It was the key to his acting. Tracy was considered one of the finest actors of all time because he understood the crucial thing about acting…and not only understood it, but could do it as well; Speak the lines as if you thought them first. As if the lines were your words and no one else’s.

Tolkien is kind of like that, with his writing. He just tells the story. Just tells it, as if he knew it, before he knew anything else; as if it were imprinted on his heart.

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Filed under Epic Novels, Fantasy, Literature