After months of being barraged by friends to grab a copy of The Lord of the Rings, I finally gave in and decided to read the trilogy. It starts off simply enough, and a fabulous fantasy world is slowly constructed around the reader, carefully helping him through the many levels of the story. The first book is interesting, engaging, and exciting. The second book was slower, harder to read, harder to retain interest in, and by the time I got to the third book, it was like I was wading through a bog. Needless to say, I had lost interest. I found the meticulous detail tiring and unnecessary, the lengthy explanations of the simplest actions wearisome and found myself flipping through pages, trying to figure out how long it would take for me to complete the chapter.
The Harry Potter series are easier to relate to mostly because they take place in a world very similar to our own, only amplified with magic and a few new creatures. It’s not much of a stretch for our imaginations. On the other hand, LOTR’s adventures take place in Middle-earth, which is wildly different, with only a few similarities. It is a vast world, riddled with diversity, strengths, weaknesses, and above all, millions of shades of color. In fact, Middle-earth acts as a game board, the fundamental landscape against which all the adventures of Bilbo, Aragon and Gandalf take place. Some even argue that the books are really about Middle-earth, and that the characters are secondary – important in how they affect and change that world.
One reason Harry Potter stories are easier to like – it’s essentially a beautiful, happy world, full of sparkles and the loving Weasley family, only periodically interrupted by a bad guy. The stories are primarily focused with a narrow lens – Harry and Hogwarts. In a way that the Potter novels never did, LOTR encompassed a wide-lens view of a variety of different creatures, communities, ways of life. Part of its genius rests in how well-organized it is for such a large scale endeavor. The story is told from different perspectives, in different places, at different times. With Harry, we follow him around on his adventure, seeing what he sees, and only what he sees. The idea that possibly, we could all by Muggles, surrounded by a magical world. Could Aragon be around the corner? No. Could Harry Potter’s grandson be around the corner? Who knows. It’s much easier, but lacks that beauty that LOTR has so successfully harnessed. Tolkein invented a completely new language, “The Elvish Tongue”, which includes a number of dialects such as the one spoken in Mordor (he was a linguist as well as code breaker in WWI). Did you know there is not one race or person in LOTR that doesn’t have its own written history? Did you know that “The History of Middle Earth” includes every event leading up to his biggest series, LOTR and afterwards as well?
Maybe my generation no longer has the patience to appreciate what has been lauded as “one of the very few works of genius in recent literature” by the New Republic. Maybe we have become too addicted to the ease with which we can flip through television channels, podcasts, songs on our iPods, to understand the joy that comes from fully absorbing and understanding a work of literature. With our camera phones and BBM, we hardly know what it is to wait. And as they say, good things come with time.
But J. K. Rowling would beg to differ. I grew up with Harry Potter – loving it, living it, dreaming it. I had every book the second was available. I poured over them, night and day, in anticipation of what happens next. I was one of those kids who pretended their pencils were wands, and went around ‘bewitching’ everything around me. I yearned to be as beautiful as Fleur Delacour and have eyes as green as Harry’s. I wanted to be as smart as Hermoine and as ingenious as Fred and George. When Dumbledore died, I ran to my mother, novel in hand and eyes wide with dismay. My friends and I would have long debates about what the next book would bring – would Harry actually die this time? Was Neville Longbottom the real Chosen One?
LOTR became the gold standard of the fantasy book genre when it was published back in the 1950s, and almost every fantasy novel since then can be said to have some similarities. The Potter books certainly have some parallels as far as the characters are concerned: Gandalf/Dumbledore, Sam/Ron, /Harry, Sauron/Voldemort. However, there are some differences that may contribute to why I fell in love with HP while trudging through LOTR. Harry begins the series as an eleven-year-old boy – close to the age most of his fans were – and ends it having just become an adult – again, in sync with his fan base, whereas our beloved Frodo begins LOTR at age 33 (old man status: reached). This also gave Harry the advantage of being crushable for the little girls – I mean, green eyes, black hair, tragic past and amazing powers? How did all those little pre-teen girls stand a chance, especially once the movies (although terrible) came out. Maybe LOTR lost out because it was written at a time when society hadn’t, as a whole, fallen quite so far into the gutter as it has these days. It’s also to remember here that Tolkein wasn’t writing for a children/young adult audience. Overall, though, just as much as LOTR is about Middle-earth, it’s languages, races and legends, the Harry Potter books are focused on their characters, and why the books are named after the main hero, as opposed to the history that is LOTR, which is named after the main villain.
I don’t know if it was the easy prose, or the dream-come-true atmosphere of Hogwarts, but Harry held my interest through 7 books. Lord of the Rings? Not so much. I may just be the only person in the world writing a negative review of the Lord of the Rings, but I’ve got to be honest. It just didn’t captivate me the way I expected it to. Maybe I had just heard so much about how great it was that I expected too much. Maybe I wanted another Harry Potter-magical moment, something that is now long gone, along with my magic pencils and childhood fantasies. Maybe I’m too grown up, or not grown up enough.
In a way very similar to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, the LOTR books demand focus, determination to finish them – loyalty. With Harry Potter, it’s the fast-paced action and adrenaline rushes that keep you reading. In LOTR you need to analyze, form opinions and actually think about things – the characters are far more complex and developed. Some easy examples are Gollum, Éowyn and Boromir and Denethor. They were certainly not one-dimensional. Harry Potter himself often comes off as a horribly clichéd boy, orphaned, newly found to be magical, living with horrible relatives and filled with just a bit too much teenage angst. At Hogwarts, you know the Weasleys are good guys and Voldemort is a bad guy. The only real character twists come towards the end of the series with Snape and Dumbledore.
Either way, the trilogy is written in meticulous (or artistic) style, and though there’s many loose ends – so much is vague – the lengthy appendices make up for that. The hard to pronounce names just made it more awkward for me, but reflect the true diversity and un-seamless nature of the real world. Here’s to bold-faced honesty: I did not like The Lord of the Rings, but I understand why most people do, and I think maybe I just wasn’t ready to invest the attention it needs when I read it.