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Auden and Elvish

lord of the rings book review new york times

By Erin Overbey

Auden and Elvish

In 1926, a young W. H. Auden attended a lecture at Oxford, where he heard J. R. R. Tolkien recite a passage from “ Beowulf” so beautifully that he decided, right then and there, that Anglo-Saxon was a worthwhile academic pursuit. Auden became a close friend of Tolkien’s and an ardent champion of his work, defending him in public and in print against a host of early skeptics; he was one of the first serious writers (along with C. S. Lewis) to ask whether Tolkien’s narratives of heroic quests and imaginary worlds could be considered something more than simply escapist reading. This weekend, as many head to movie theatres to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Hobbit,” it’s easy to forget that there was a time when Tolkien’s work was largely confined to the ranks of children’s literature and cult fiction, and that it was Auden and others like him who helped legitimize Tolkien for today’s mainstream reader.

In the late nineteen-sixties, Tolkien’s books were just beginning to enjoy a renaissance on American campuses. “The Hobbit” had been published in 1937, followed by “The Fellowship of the Ring,” in 1954; then, in 1965, an unauthorized paperback version of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was released by Ace Books, renewing interest in the series. At universities across the country, Hobbits quickly become more popular than Salinger, Heller, or Vonnegut. (Drugs probably helped: in a 1967 Times interview, a U.C. Berkeley official said that the Tolkien phenomenon was “more than a campus craze; it’s like a drug dream.”)

Some early critics admired Tolkien’s intricate knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and his inspired updating of old Germanic themes. But most people still viewed his work as rambling, juvenile fantasy. The critic Edmund Wilson famously panned “The Lord of the Rings” as a “children’s book which has somehow gotten out of hand.” In The New Yorker ’ s 1954 Briefly Noted review of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the writer concluded that the novel had “the air of having been written as a hobby by a man with a ferreting imagination and a capacity for industry that will not allow him to stop inventing long after all the facts are down and the picture is clear.” The books, the reviews suggested, were driven by an essentially childish desire for a never-ending story.

Auden repeatedly challenged the idea that Tolkien’s work was only suitable for children. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own, Auden wrote in a 1956 review of the author’s work for the New York Times , but it’s a world “of intelligible law, not mere wish,” that represents our own reality. Moreover, Auden wrote, Tolkien’s moral sensibility was profoundly grownup, especially when it came to theological questions. “The Lord of the Rings,” he wrote, aimed to reconcile “two incompatible notions” we have about God. On the one hand, we envision “a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love”; on the other, we picture “a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand.” It’s a story about how, as we gain power, we lose freedom. “Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton,” Auden conceded, “but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.”

A decade after Auden wrote that review, a young Brooklyn high-school student named Richard Plotz founded a new group, the Tolkien Society of America. The seventeen-year-old Plotz was a junior at Erasmus Hall, and the group had their first meeting in February, near the statue of the alma mater on the Columbia University campus. Within a year, the organization’s membership had expanded to include people who weren’t in high school: doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and Army officers. The group held regular meetings throughout the five boroughs, on all matter of Tolkienalia.

In 1966, Plotz invited Auden, who was spending his winters in New York, to come speak at one of the Tolkien Society’s gatherings, and the New Yorker writer Gerald Jones covered the meeting for the magazine . The fifty-person meeting was held at Plotz’s family home, in Brooklyn, and it included a true cross section of Tolkien fandom; high-school kids, college professors, Plotz’s two younger brothers, and the author of “September 1, 1939.” Auden and the other guests were served non-alcoholic eggnog and cider, and a snack of fresh mushrooms, a favorite Hobbit dish. The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth. A contentious debate broke out between a high-school student, who argued that Middle-Earth was “essentially spherical,” and a professor at Queens College, who countered that Middle-Earth was “undoubtedly saucer-shaped.”

Then it was Auden’s turn. He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where “The Lord of the Rings” was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.” (That’s north as in Scandinavia, not Riverdale.) After his talk, Auden stayed and chatted with his fellow-fans. He looked, Jonas wrote, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.”

After Auden had left, one of Plotz’s high-school classmates spoke to Jonas about why he became a Tolkien fan. “I started reading it,” he said, “when a group of people at school started writing phrases like ‘Frodo lives’ all over the walls.” Another classmate agreed, saying that after being introduced to Tolkien, she started writing her notes in Elvish. “Even now,” she said, “I doodle in Elvish. It’s my means of expression.” (If it had been left to him, Tolkien once said, he would have written all his books in Elvish.) As the meeting broke up, Jonas observed what was surely an uncommonly successful attempt at Tolkien-themed romance: a girl and a boy sitting closely next to each other, the girl’s right hand holding a pen, while the boy’s hand clasped hers over it, as they traced, as one, the elegant lines of Elvish calligraphy.

In his reviews, Auden argued that Tolkien’s work wasn’t just rambling juvenilia; it was part of a literary tradition of reinterpreting ancient archetypes to create a modern mythology. Yet the rambling nature of Tolkien’s universe is part of what drew those nerdy Brooklyn students to his work. We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.

Photograph by Imagno/Getty.

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The Lore of the Rings

January 24, 2023

Amazon Studios

Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Elendil (Lloyd Owen) in the archive of the Hall of Law in Númenor, in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power , 2022

One September day in 1914, a young J.R.R. Tolkien, in his final undergraduate year at Oxford, came across an Old English advent poem called “Christ A.” Part of it reads, “Éalá Éarendel engla beorhtast/ofer middangeard monnum sended,” which he later rendered: “Hail Éarendel, brightest of angels/above the middle-earth sent unto men!” Safe in his aunt’s house in Nottinghamshire while battles raged on the continent, Tolkien took inspiration from this ode to the morning and evening star and wrote his own poem in modern English, “Éarendel the Mariner.” That poem was not published in his lifetime, but after it came the stories that would become The Silmarillion , The Hobbit , and The Lord of the Rings , which in turn inspired, to varying degrees, Earthsea , Star Wars , Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter , The Wheel of Time , The Witcher , Game of Thrones , and so on, an apostolic succession of fantasy.

The latest in the line is The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power . Amazon Studios does not have the rights to The Silmarillion , the posthumous collection of Tolkien’s mythology that serves as a sort of bible for Middle-earth, nor is it adapting The Lord of the Rings , Tolkien’s 1954 novel about the hobbit Frodo’s quest to save Middle-earth by destroying the One Ring, which holds the power of the Dark Lord Sauron. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy still looms too large. Instead, the showrunners, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, have crafted a prequel, set thousands of years before the events of the three-volume novel and drawn from bits of lore in its prologue, “Concerning Hobbits,” and extensive appendices on Middle-earth history and culture. It’s an undertaking not dissimilar from Tolkien’s own reworking of “Christ A,” spinning out a narrative from a few textual scraps—the kind of academic exercise an Oxford professor of Old English could appreciate.

It’s a pity the show doesn’t extend the same scholarly pleasures to its viewers. Its narrative conceits are those of big-budget TV: the so-called mystery boxes popularized by shows like Lost . What is the sigil that the elf warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) finds carved in her dead brother’s flesh? Who is the stranger (Daniel Weyman) who falls from the sky and ends up living among a nomadic clan of proto-hobbits? Which character is really Sauron? Will the mortal Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) kiss? The show hurries along toward the inevitable revelations: the sigil turns out to be a map of Sauron’s realm of Mordor; the magical stranger is almost certainly the wizard Gandalf; Sauron himself is the roguish drifter Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), who has a Forrest Gump–like ability to accidentally be in the right place at the right time. Beyond a few delightful glimpses of ancient hobbit culture, there is little sense of a deep past that can be excavated through careful reading.

This is partly a problem of translation. Contemporary television drives its narratives with its characters, by their arcs and inner conflicts. Tolkien’s characters remain largely static; it’s the world around them that changes. The concerns of the novel are civilizational rather than individual. What Aragorn thinks or wants in his personal life matters far less than the fact that he is descended from kings of Arnor, and before it Númenor and Beleriand. His fitness for the throne of Gondor is never in doubt, neither to himself nor to the reader. He’s simply the last pebble in a royal landslide that has been slowly rolling over Middle-earth for millennia.

The reader encounters this history in ruins and snippets of legendary songs. Galadriel speaks of her wanderings before the fall of the kingdoms of Nargothrond and Gondolin. Treebeard, an ancient tree-like creature, reminisces about long-lost forests and departed Entwives. Merry, whose hobbit-memory is not as long, wonders at the strange, weather-worn statues that line the path to Dunharrow in Rohan. Even the earthy Samwise sings about the death of the elf-king Gil-galad (played by Benjamin Walker in The Rings of Power ). The songs, in particular, may seem like digressions or page-fillers, especially those sung in fictional languages, but they also provide a sense of Middle-earth’s cultures and history, stretching back into “the deeps of time.” The effect is like Tolkien’s description of the mines of Moria, where, “in the pale ray” of Gandalf’s illuminated staff, Frodo sees “glimpses of stairs and arches, and of other passages and tunnels, sloping up, or running steeply down, or opening blankly dark on either side. It was bewildering beyond hope of remembering.”

lord of the rings book review new york times

Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power , 2022

The novel evokes a wanderlust to go back and take those untrodden paths, but since its world exists only on paper all further discovery must be textual. In other words, it requires research. Payne and McKay understand the academic aspect of Tolkien’s work. Twice during the season, Galadriel goes to archives (one in the mortal kingdom of Númenor, another in the Elven Eregion) in search of the truth about Sauron. But there will be no flipping through card catalogs or paging through dusty tomes for our heroine—she has orcs to eviscerate. Galadriel has librarians pull the scrolls for her. Like the show itself, she’s afraid to sit still.

Tolkien’s books feature plenty of battles, but they also reflect the joys and pains of academic work. The Lord of the Rings is a novel “in which the scholarly rituals [are] observed; in which you flipped from index to text to appendix, cross-referring to maps,” as Jenny Turner wrote in 2001 in the London Review of Books . The book becomes, in her words, “a machine for the evocation of scholarly frisson. The thrills are the thrills of knowledge hidden, knowledge uncovered, knowledge that slips away.” Tolkien’s wizards are scholars first and sorcerers second. They each have areas of expertise and are renowned for their wisdom. And unlike Amazon’s Galadriel, they do their own research. Gandalf seeks out the history of the One Ring in the “hoards” of Gondor’s archives (a scene Jackson wisely kept in The Fellowship of the Ring , having Ian McKellen smoking a pipe and shuffling through piles of musty pages), while the arrogant Saruman turns traitor to the forces of good after delving too deep into the archives in an attempt to learn “the arts of the Enemy.” Tolkien’s greatest paean to academic pleasure is in the sprawling elf haven Rivendell, run by the “lore-master” Elrond and hidden in an alpine valley, which in The Silmarillion is described as “a refuge for the weary and the oppressed, and a treasury of good counsel and wise lore.” In Tolkien, refuge and research are bound together.

Tolkien’s brief respite at his aunt’s house, where he wrote “Éarendel the Mariner,” could not last. He belonged to what Angela Carter later described as “that generation for whom history [had] already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France,” and soon he was on his way to the front. He fought at the Somme, a battle in which nearly 20,000 British soldiers, including one of his closest friends, were killed on the first day. He got lucky: he soon contracted trench fever in the lice-infested dugouts and was sent home to recuperate.

The Somme haunts Middle-earth, which is pocked with broken and drowned lands. “This is Mordor,” Frodo remarks on the ruins of his beloved home Bag-End when he returns to a scarred, occupied Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings . After the war, Tolkien transformed Éarendel the Mariner from a celestial sailor into a warden on eternal watch, sailing over the Walls of Night to guard against the return of Morgoth, the Great Enemy, from out of the Void. The Rings of Power alludes to these wartime experiences. Early in the first episode, Galadriel wanders a devastated battlefield reminiscent of the Western Front. “We learned many words for death,” she says, and the show takes pains to demonstrate some of them in detail: stabbings, hackings, slashings, burnings, and decapitations. This is the visual language of contemporary prestige fantasy shows like Game of Thrones . Galadriel dispatches a snow-troll with John Wick–like elan—a far cry from the more measured violence of the novel, in which the soldier Faramir tells Frodo, after a battle against Sauron’s forces in his homeland of Gondor, “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

lord of the rings book review new york times

Galadriel and Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power , 2022

After the war Tolkien returned to academic work, first at the Oxford English Dictionary as a researcher and then as a professor at Leeds and Oxford. Besides enthralling some students, like W.H. Auden, and boring others, like Kingsley Amis, with his lectures on Old English, he translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other Middle English texts. His greatest contribution to scholarship remains his 1936 lecture “ Beowulf : The Monsters and the Critics,” which recast the Old English saga as a work of art rather than a historical document that served only as “a quarry of fact and fancy.” 1

To ennoble history and legend was also part of Tolkien’s fictional project: his books are stuffed with allusions to Old English texts. Bilbo’s burglary of Smaug’s hoard in The Hobbit mirrors a scene in Beowulf . Aragorn quotes a poem from Rohan that echoes the elegy “The Wanderer.” Elrond’s father is none other than Eärendil the Mariner. They also provide their own store of fictional lore. You can stop reading The Lord of the Rings when Samwise says, “Well, I’m back” by his hearth, or you can keep going, depending on how much you want to know about various elvish scripts and runes, or the differences between the calendars used in the Shire and the ones used in Númenor, or the fact that Merry Brandybuck’s actual name, in one of Tolkien’s invented languages, is “Kalimac Brandagamba.” “By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices,” Auden wrote, “he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle-earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world.”

This lore is essential to the structure and ultimate pleasure of the novel. Tolkien’s great theme is loss, the “inevitable overthrow in Time,” as he put it in his Beowulf lecture, fated for all cultures and civilizations. The reader can hardly be expected to feel that loss without some sense of its width and depth. Even the most casual reader can feel, as Frodo does in Galadriel’s forest of Lothlórien, that she has “stepped over a bridge of time…and was now walking in a world that was no more.”

The appendices are only the first step out the door. In the years after Tolkien’s death, in 1973, his son Christopher compiled, edited, and published a huge quantity of his father’s writing, starting with The Silmarillion in 1977 and later the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth . These books are labors of love. Much of what Tolkien left behind was disorganized and incongruent. He frequently switched characters’ names, rewrote and then left unfinished parts of stories and poems that contradicted what he’d written before, and changed his mind about such fundamental concepts as the origin of orcs, the nature of the sun and moon, and even the shape of the earth. Out of the drafts and notes, Christopher could have created any number of Silmarillion s.

Tolkien’s original aim in his fiction was to craft a “a body of more or less connected legend…which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country,” which he felt lacked one beyond, as he wrote in a 1951 letter, “impoverished chap-book stuff.” This mythology would not be a political project like Virgil’s Aeneid , which tied Rome’s foundation to ancient Greek civilization, but an artistic attempt to capture “the tone and quality I desired, somewhat cool and clear…redolent of our ‘air.’” It was a particular and old air. The Englands of Dickens, Austen, Fielding, Milton, or even Chaucer are nowhere to be found. Instead, Tolkien’s is the England of the anonymous poets who wrote Beowulf and Pearl , largely bygone even by the time the English language settled into a familiar form, swamped by the Norman Conquests, great vowel shifts, gunpowder, and paper. There was no returning to that England, Tolkien knew, just as his characters could never return to the drowned lands of Beleriand and Númenor. “As the poet looks back into the past,” he wrote of Beowulf , “surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’) ends in night.” His project was to delay that night while he could—to preserve, not restore, what he felt was that older country’s “elusive beauty.”

lord of the rings book review new york times

Princess Disa (Sophia Nomvete) singing a funerary song in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power , 2022

In the course of a few decades Tolkien achieved, quite by accident, what the Old English scribes, singers, and poets had taken centuries to create: a large, confused, and contradictory body of myths and legends. The mythology is unstable, snapping into whatever form one happens to be reading. Far from being frustrating, this has allowed for nearly endless exploration and debate: academic Tolkien journals, conferences, and societies—not to mention fan fiction, up to and including The Rings of Power —have sprouted around the world.

Amazon wants its own mythology, but for the same reason that Disney purchased Marvel and revived Star Wars and HBO spun off Game of Thrones into House of the Dragon : there’s money to be made. However good their intentions, the showrunners’ ultimate task is to mine Tolkien’s works in order to create and expand the franchise. Tolkien’s “machine for the evocation of scholarly frisson” has been turned into an assembly line. The goal is to keep the machine running for as long as it is profitable, with no natural end in sight.

The Rings of Power does add its own bit of lore. In the fifth episode, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) recounts the legend of “The Roots of Hithaeglir,” according to which a lightning-struck tree creates the ore mithril, a powerful metal used in weapons and armor like the mail-shirt Frodo wears. Elrond calls the story “apocryphal,” a nod to the fact that it was invented whole-cloth for the show. It’s one of the writers’ attempts to tie various parts of Tolkien’s unwieldy legendarium together, in the same way that the show has Galadriel share a sea-tossed raft with Sauron and witness the creation of Mordor. Mithril, it is explained, is suffused with the light of a Silmaril, a holy jewel that can prevent the downfall of the Elves, who are otherwise due to suddenly “fade” in a matter of months (the show never tells us why or how).

This is an imperative of the contemporary franchise: everything must be connected somehow in an endless feedback loop (or ring). This is usually achieved through “fan service,” knowing winks and nods to characters and events the audience already knows, but an overreliance on such references seals the worlds off, and the air in them soon turns stale. There is no room for the organic happenstance of real life, for the inexplicable and strange, like Tolkien’s immortal weirdos Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, who were jettisoned from Jackson’s adaptation.

The show’s conceit about mithril also misunderstands the elegiac character of Tolkien’s novel. In the final episode, the elves create three rings—“Three Rings for the Elven kings under the sky,” in Tolkien’s lore—from mithril to stop the cataclysmic fading of their race (a fate clumsily literalized by diseased leaves falling from a magic tree). The Rings provide a convenient cure to the season’s contrived crisis, whereas in the book they were created, in Elrond’s words, for “understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained.” The tragedy is that the destruction of the One Ring, the only act that can save Middle-earth, will also mean the destruction of the Three, and “many fair things will fade and be forgotten.” The elves, like their creator did, understand that dwindling is inevitable. They just want to slow it and enjoy their works while they can, before they become, as Frodo thinks of Galadriel, “present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.”

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Spotlight on 'The Lord of the Rings'

lord of the rings book review new york times

'The Two Towers' By ELVIS MITCHELL Peter Jackson's devotion to the spirit of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy manifests itself in gripping, intense fashion for the second of the film adaptations. (Dec. 18, 2002) • Go to | Movie Details | Trailers | Write a Review

BOOK REVIEWS 'The Return of the King' By W. H. AUDEN The demands made on the writer's powers in an epic as long as "The Lord of the Rings" are enormous, but I can only say that Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them. (Jan. 22, 1956)

'The Two Towers' By DONALD BARR It is an extraordinary work-pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all. (May 1, 1955)

'The Fellowship of the Ring' By W. H. AUDEN Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than "The Fellowship of the Ring." (Oct. 31, 1954)

'The Hobbit' By ANNE T. EATON All those, young or old, who love a fine adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take "The Hobbit" to their hearts. (March 13, 1938)

DVD & VIDEO A First Take on 'Ring,' Part 2 By PETER M. NICHOLS In content and promotional impact, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a multifaceted machine (Aug. 29, 2003)

The Best DVD's of 2002 By PETER M. NICHOLS A special extended edition of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" was hands down the best DVD of 2002. (Jan. 3, 2003)

Once More Around With 'The Rings' By PETER M. NICHOLS If there's such a thing as the perfect DVD movie, it has to be "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." (Nov. 8, 2002)

ARTICLES Once You Dress an Elf, a Samurai's Easy By RUTH LA FERLA Despite being folded and manipulated like paper flowers, costumes designed by Ngila Dickson are strikingly fluid. (Nov. 2, 2003) • Slide Show: A Tailor to Two Empires

New Zealand, Land of the 'Rings,' Markets Itself By JAMES BROOKE The success of the "Lord of the Rings," filmed in New Zealand, has spurred New Zealanders to market their nation as a tourist destination. (Dec. 31, 2002)

Writers on Writing: Middle Earth Enchants a Returning Pilgrim By By KATHRYN KRAMER As a grown-up reader, I found myself astonished by the unflagging quality of the prose, the range of Tolkien's descriptive powers, by how integrally involved the plot is with the landscape. (Dec. 30, 2002)

Rushes: Propaganda and 'Lord of the Rings' By KAREN DURBIN For all the proto-multiculturalism of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, in the current climate it's impossible not to experience Peter Jackson's "Two Towers" as war propaganda of unnerving power. (Dec. 15, 2002)

The Quest of 'The Ring': Draw Novices, Not Just Fans By RICK LYMAN The creators of "The Lord of the Rings" have sought to please both fervent fans of Tolkien's work and those unfamiliar with his mythic world. (Dec. 24, 2001)

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An Aside | New York Times review of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (1954)

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by JRR Tolkien

Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called “The Hobbit” which, in my opinion, is one of the best children’s stories of this century. In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues the imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70. For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present. All Quests are concerned with some numinous Object, the Waters of Life, the Grail, buried treasure etc.; normally this is a good Object which it is the Hero’s task to find or to rescue from the Enemy, but the Ring of Mr. Tolkien’s story was made by the Enemy and is so dangerous that even the good cannot use it without being corrupted.

The New York Times, a long-running and respected newspaper (that, you know, shapes the book industry with its list of bestselling books), has dug out and posted the 1954 review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring , the first volume of his legendary Lord of the Rings .

There’s a fair bit of space devoted to simply retreading over the plot, which is mildly amusing now that Tolkien’s ideas and archetypes are now so staid and need no explanation in this day and age.

In addition to the Hobbits, there are Elves who are wise and good, Dwarves who are skillful and good on the whole, and Men, some warriors, some wizards, who are good or bad. The present incarnation of the Enemy is Sauron, Lord of Barad-Dur, the Dark Tower in the Land of Mordor. Assisting him are the Orcs, wolves and other horrid creatures and, of course, such men as his power attracts or overawes. Landscape, climate and atmosphere are northern, reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas.

The Dwarves are skillful? Orcs and horrid creatures fighting on the side of the evil lord? Oh my! It’s interesting to see that the author of the review picked up on Tolkien’s regard for Iceland and its myths, something that anyone who’s familiar with Tolkien will know influenced him significantly. As a hivemind, we Fantasy fans always like to point to Toklien as the prototype for creating a faux-medieval European Fantasy world, so it’s curious to see that this wasn’t an immediate distinction upon the publication of the novel.

Also catching my eye:

Lastly, if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

A high-falutin’ newspaper that recognizes one of the main strengths of Fantasy literature? Say it ain’t so! If only the ‘literary’ critics in the 21st century were so perceptive. Thank goodness for the Lev Grossmans of the world.

The whole review is worth reading and a fun way to re-acquaint with a genre classic.

What I find amusing is that you don’t seem to know who W.H. Auden is ;)

Classic criticism is one area I claim no knowledge of! I suppose that’s something I should remedy at some point.

Auden is certainly worth reading, but I wonder if Edmund Wilson’s scathing review of LotR will emerge next. He too was a prominent 20th century critic, more well-known for that than Auden was for his literary criticism. Both are certainly going to have their supporters and detractors.

I’ll do my best to hunt down Wilson’s review. Would be interesting now to compare and contrast the two with 55+ years of reflection.

Aidan, Auden is famous as a poet much more than as a critic – you might look up Funeral Blues, which is my personal favorite.

Classic criticism is one area I claim no knowledge of!

Obviously, otherwise you’d know that Auden’s championing of The Lord of the Rings is one of the first major voices in support of its place as a major work of literature – and one of only a few such voices to do so from within the mainstream literary establishment. You could not have picked a worse example of the NYT’s alleged snobbery towards genre.

@Abiagil — I was using Auden’s review as an example of the NYT’s snobbery? I thought I was celebrating a fun/interesting piece of positive criticism on one of the genre’s most beloved novels. Funny, that.

Aidan: I’m sorry, I took your tone as sarcastic. Apologies.

Thanks for posting this. This is an important moment in the history of fantasy literature criticism worth returning to. I think the ambivalence characteristic of the reviews of the time–not just Auden’s and Wilson’s, but many others–are an important text for understanding the position of genre literature in the Anglo-American literary academy generally. I think Auden’s notable exuberance derives from the fact that he realizes that a “new tradition” was being founded in Tolkien. The anxiety of Wilson is no less an acknowledgement of the emergence of a new tradtion; and yet–and yet! it also derives from his frustration with a western literary tradition that had in large part become, dare I say, exhausted? absurd? excessively academic and formalistic? elitist? ahistorical?

[…] addthis_product = 'wpp-261'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};I hadn’t seen this before.  It’s the New York Times original review of Fellowship of the Ring.  This is definitely […]

lord of the rings book review new york times

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The Fall of Númenor covers the same period as Amazon’s Rings of Power series.

The Fall of Númenor by JRR Tolkien review – masterful world-building from the father of fantasy

Following Amazon’s Rings of Power series, this beautiful compendium of Tolkien’s Second Age of Middle-earth stories offers the ideal palate cleanser

T he Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a contender for the biggest TV event this year, and the show’s estimated 100 million-strong audience represents a huge number of potential new readers. This book covers the same fictional period in Middle-earth history, the Second Age. If you want the genuine Tolkien version of the era, here it is in one rather beautiful package. And it could also be the palate cleanser you crave if you disliked the show and prefer to go back to the authentic flavour of Middle-earth and the doomed island nation of Númenor.

“Go back” is right. The book marshals material hitherto scattered through many posthumous publications from 1977’s The Silmarillion onwards. In this, it broadly follows recent editions by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who died in 2020. Editor Brian Sibley made the superb 1981 BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and knows his Tolkien. Ending long before that story of questing hobbits, the Second Age runs from the end of the mythological Silmarillion and the defeat of primal dark lord Morgoth to the epochal but temporary defeat of his successor Sauron. That’s three-and-a-half millennia.

So The Fall of Númenor is not a single story. Mostly it interweaves complex events and motives into what Tolkien called “feigned history”. Immortals such as Sauron and the elf-queen Galadriel crop up throughout, but most of the mortal players rise and return to dust in a page or two. Yet this is a literary strength, because mortality itself is the undertow drawing Númenor slowly but inexorably towards disaster.

An opening survey of the land and its denizens is best read for its sheer delight in world-building, of which Tolkien remains the acknowledged master. Created as a reward for mortals who helped defeat Morgoth, Tolkien’s Númenor owes much to Thomas More’s Utopia . To the happy Númenoreans, “all things, including the Sea, were friendly”. Bears dance for sheer pleasure; the fox leaves the hens alone; hunters hunt only at need.

The second act is a novelette, a take on the Norse myth of Njord and Skadi. Tar-Aldarion, seafaring heir to Númenor’s sceptre, courts and weds the wilful land-lover Erendis. If there is anyone still convinced that Tolkien wrote only for adolescent boys (a common criticism at one time), this tale should give them pause. With its sharp social observation and trenchant dialogue, it could almost have been written by Ursula K Le Guin. Erendis skewers male privilege brilliantly: Númenor’s men only show anger, she observes, “when they become aware, suddenly, that there are other wills in the world beside their own”. And she urges her daughter: “Do not bend … bend a little, and they will bend you further until you are bowed down.” But, denied almost all agency by an overwhelming patriarchy, Erendis has to choose between royal servitude and bitter isolation. In his self-indulgent voyaging, her absent husband seems a boy indeed – until we learn about the real, existential danger that has kept him away.

Though sadly unfinished, the tale of Aldarion and Erendis sets the stage for parallel tracks forward: in Middle-earth, the rise of Sauron with the creation of the Rings of Power; and in Númenor, a nightmarish tilt from utopia to dystopia. A jeremiad against wilfully self-destructive greed, the book brings us to a pitch of dread. And the climax – engineered by Sauron as puppeteer of a craven king – is an Atlantean cataclysm.

Fearful about 2022 and what’s to come? You will find uncomfortable resonances here. They reflect Tolkien’s anxieties about dictatorships and the approach of war when he first developed the story in 1936–7. Those fears are palpably immediate in part of another unfinished novelette, The Lost Road, included as an appendix.

Narrative flow is halting at times because The Fall of Númenor uses the chronology at the back of The Lord of the Rings as its structuring framework. But this book could show the Folio Society a thing or two. Veteran Middle-earth illustrator Alan Lee provides a dozen powerful paintings inside, and a generous scattering of exquisite pencil sketches. His figures live; the architecture of his towers and temples forms a kind of running commentary; even his frames are fascinating. His cover is an apocalyptic panorama as terrifying as any John Martin painting.

Physically beautiful and sometimes overwhelming in its power, this book is a grand compendium of all Tolkien said about the period when the foundations of The Lord of the Rings are laid – the era that Amazon attempts to dramatise in The Rings of Power.

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I can’t pretend to have enjoyed the show wholeheartedly. Too often the high dialogue of elves sinks to banality. Undeniably spectacular moments are undermined by plot mechanics – in the case of the eruption of Mount Doom, literally so. The Amazon team have failed to learn a primary Tolkienian lesson: never explain how magic and enchantment work. To paraphrase Frodo Baggins, the show sometimes looks fair but feels foul.

The action is compressed into the final years of the period, with Galadriel squeezed in wherever possible – but then few TV companies would have the courage to build a cast of characters who mostly died of old age before the next season. No one would put millions behind a story as subtle as Aldarion and Erendis – and actually Amazon can’t, anyway; the adaptation rights include almost none of the wealth of detail contained in this book, but only what little The Lord of the Rings itself says about the Second Age. So the screenwriters must actively avoid telling the same story Tolkien tells, while trying to sound like him. And no one tells a story like him.

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lord of the rings book review new york times

Read W. H. Auden’s 1954 review of The Fellowship of the Ring .

Dan Sheehan

Sixty-nine ( nice , but in Elvish) years ago this week, the godfather of high fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, published the first novel in a proposed three-volume epic “largely concerned with hobbits.”

The Fellowship of the Ring has, in the decades since publication, shifted over 150 million copies and spawned perhaps the most successful film trilogy (when box office numbers generated, Oscars won, and rave reviews received are all taken into account) of all time.

Long before it became the most iconic novel in the now-storied history of the genre, however, it was reviewed in the pages of the New York Times by no less a literary critic than W. H. Auden.

Here’s what the “Funeral Blues” author had to say about Frodo and Co.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

“Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called The Hobbit which, in my opinion, is one of the best children’s stories of this century. In The Fellowship of the Ring , which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues the imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70. For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present. All Quests are concerned with some numinous Object, the Waters of Life, the Grail, buried treasure etc.; normally this is a good Object which it is the Hero’s task to find or to rescue from the Enemy, but the Ring of Mr. Tolkien’s story was made by the Enemy and is so dangerous that even the good cannot use it without being corrupted.

“The hero, Frodo Baggins, belongs to a race of beings called hobbits, who may be only three feet high; have hairy feet and prefer to live in underground houses, but in their thinking and sensibility resemble very closely those arcadian rustics who inhabit so many British detective stories. I think some readers may find the opening chapter a little shy-making, but they must not let themselves be put off, for, once the story gets moving, this initial archness disappears.

For over a thousand years the hobbits have been living a peaceful existence in a fertile district called the Shire, incurious about the world outside. Actually, the latter is rather sinister; towns have fallen to ruins, roads into disrepair, fertile fields have returned to wilderness, wild beasts and evil beings on the prowl, and travel is difficult and dangerous. In addition to the Hobbits, there are Elves who are wise and good, Dwarves who are skillful and good on the whole, and Men, some warriors, some wizards, who are good or bad. The present incarnation of the Enemy is Sauron, Lord of Barad-Dur, the Dark Tower in the Land of Mordor. Assisting him are the Orcs, wolves and other horrid creatures and, of course, such men as his power attracts or overawes. Landscape, climate and atmosphere are northern, reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas.

The first thing that one asks is that the adventure should be various and exciting; in this respect Mr. Tolkien’s invention is unflagging, and, on the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, The Fellowship of the Ring is at least as good as The Thirty-Nine Steps . Of any imaginary world the reader demands that it seem real, and the standard of realism demanded today is much stricter than in the time, say, of Malory. Mr. Tolkien is fortunate in possessing an amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description; by the time one has finished his book one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one’s own childhood.

Lastly, if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring .”

–W. H. Auden, The New York Times , October 31, 1954

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The Fall of Númenor by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Brian Sibley. Cover by Alan Lee

HarperCollins have announced that a new Tolkien publication, The Fall of Númenor , will be published on 10th November 2022. Edited by well-known Tolkien expert Brian Sibley, the book collects together J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings of the Second Age.

The book brings many of Tolkien’s writings together, and uses The Tale of Years in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings in order to present the content in an order and a style that works well for readers. This convenient volume will tell the story from the foundations of Númenor, the forging of the Rings, and the Last Alliance against Sauron that ended the Second Age. Sibley has gone through the entire published works by Tolkien, and provides new introductions and commentaries to bring all the pieces of Tolkien’s original content together.

The book also comes with 11 colour images (10 and the cover), and dozens of pencil sketches by renowned Tolkien artist Alan Lee. Entirely new artwork that has been described as Lee’s “best work yet”. The book, due out in hardback and deluxe on 10th November 2022, is conveniently timed to coincide with Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power which is being released this September, and which is also set in the Second Age. This autumn will also see new editions of The Silmarillion and The Complete Guide to Middle-earth .

Speaking to The Tolkien Society exclusively, Brian Sibley said :

As my many friends in the Tolkien Society will understand, it has been a great honour to have been entrusted with the task of bringing together J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings (under the editorship of Christopher Tolkien) relating to the dramatic history spanning the Second Age of Middle-earth. I hope that this opportunity to read, as a single narrative, an account of those years, will provide a new appreciation of how the monumental events of the Second Age were to impact on those told in The Lord of the Rings . Also for Tolkien aficionados, there is the glorious gift of ten new colour plates by Alan Lee, featuring scenes – such as the building of Barad-dûr and Galadriel leading the Elves through Khazad-dûm – that this master illustrator hasn’t previously had the opportunity to depict.

Commenting on the news, Tolkien Society Chair Shaun Gunner said:

This is an absolute delight for Tolkien fans to enjoy. Whether you’re new to Tolkien’s works through the Amazon series or been an avid reader for decades, this edition will take you through the “dark age” of the Second Age and show a different side of Middle-earth to the one familiar to all of us – and all illustrated by Alan Lee! This isn’t just about Sauron and the forging of the Rings, this is about the rise and fall of the great island kingdom of Númenor, and the history that underpins the world of The Lord of the Rings we all know and love. If you love Tolkien, or if you love the Amazon series, this book is for you.

The Fall of Númenor is published in hardback and deluxe editions on 10th November 2022.

Press release

HarperCollins is proud to announce the publication in November 2022 of THE FALL OF NÚMENOR by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by writer and Tolkien expert, Brian Sibley, and illustrated by acclaimed artist, Alan Lee. The book will be published globally by HarperCollins Publishers and in other languages by numerous Tolkien publishers worldwide.

Presenting for the first time in one volume the events of the Second Age as written by J.R.R. Tolkien and originally and masterfully edited for publication by Christopher Tolkien, this new volume will include pencil drawings and colour paintings by Alan Lee, who also illustrated The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and went on to win an Academy Award for his work on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

J.R.R. Tolkien famously described the Second Age of Middle-earth as a ‘dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told’. And for many years readers would need to be content with the tantalizing glimpses of it found within the pages of The Lord of the Rings and its appendices.

It was not until Christopher Tolkien presented The Silmarillion for publication in 1977 that a fuller story could be told for, though much of its content concerned the First Age of Middle-earth, there were at its close two key works that revealed the tumultuous events concerning the rise and fall of the island-kingdom of Númenor, the Forging of the Rings of Power, the building of the Barad-dûr and the rise of Sauron, and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.

Christopher Tolkien provided even greater insight into the Second Age in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth in 1980, and expanded upon this in his magisterial 12-volume History of Middle-earth , in which he presented and discussed a wealth of further tales written by his father, many in draft form.

Now, using ‘The Tale of Years’ in The Lord of the Rings as a starting point, Brian Sibley has assembled from the various published texts in a way that tells for the very first time in one volume the tale of the Second Age of Middle-earth, whose events would ultimately lead to the Third Age, and the War of the Ring, as told in The Lord of the Rings .

The Hobbit was first published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings in 1954 – 5. Each has since gone on to become a beloved classic of literature and an international bestseller translated into more than 70 languages, collectively selling more than 150,000,000 copies worldwide. Published in 1977, The Silmarillion sold more than one million copies in its first year of publication and has gone on to be translated into almost 40 languages.

Brian Sibley says: ‘Since the first publication of The Silmarillion forty-five years ago, I have passionately followed Christopher Tolkien’s meticulous curation and scholarship in publishing a formidable history of his father’s writings on Middle-earth. I am honoured to be adding to that authoritative library with The Fall of Númenor . I hope that, in drawing together many of the threads from the tales of the Second Age into a single work, readers will discover – or rediscover – the rich tapestry of characters and events that are a prelude to the drama of the War of the Ring as is told in The Lord of the Rings .

Alan Lee says: ‘ It is a pleasure to be able to explore the Second Age in more detail, and learn more about those shadowy and ancient events, alliances and disasters that eventually led to the Third Age stories we are more familiar with. Wherever I had the opportunity when working on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit , I tried to imbue pictures and designs with an appropriate antiquity, an overlayering of history and of echoes of those older stories, and The Fall of Númenor has proved a perfect opportunity to dig a little deeper into the rich history of Middle-earth.’

The Fall of Númenor will be published by HarperCollins with a simultaneous global publication date of November 2022, and subsequently in translation around the world.

The streaming series, The Rings of Power , set during the Second Age of Middle-earth, will be released by Amazon Prime in September 2022.

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No One Brought Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Books to Life Quite Like Bernard Hill

Hill's performance grounds the Lord of the Rings franchise in more ways than one.

The Big Picture

  • Bernard Hill's portrayal of King Théoden in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was deeply human and impactful.
  • Théoden faced tragedy but defended his people valiantly against great odds.
  • Hill's performance in The Return of the King is a franchise standout, showcasing love and compassion.

Bernard Hill sadly passed away earlier this month at the age of 79. The renowned English-born actor has hundreds of credits under his belt, but he's likely best known for his portrayal of Captain Smith in Titanic and his iconic turn as King Théoden in The Lord of the Rings . When reminiscing on the characters from Peter Jackson 's original trilogy, it's easy to gravitate toward the leading members of the Fellowship as the figures who convey the core themes.

That's entirely valid; Frodo ( Elijah Wood ), Aragorn ( Viggo Mortensen ), Gandalf ( Ian McKellen ), and, perhaps most of all, Samwise ( Sean Astin ) each embody the deepest aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien 's story . Every character elegantly carries their weight, ultimately, as all great writing should mandate. That said, Bernard Hill's Théoden holds a special place in the films, and there's no better time than now to pay tribute to Hill's performance and dig deeper into how Théoden breathes life into the humanity of The Lord of the Rings .

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

While Frodo and Sam edge closer to Mordor with the help of the shifty Gollum, the divided fellowship makes a stand against Sauron's new ally, Saruman, and his hordes of Isengard.

Bernard Hill's Théoden Faces the Ultimate Tragedy in 'The Two Towers'

Even having only appeared in two out of three films, Théoden carried some of the most resonantly human beats of the narrative, delivered through Hill's impeccable skill and with some of the films' most impactful lines . His story begins with tragedy in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers . When we meet Théoden, he is gripped by a spell from Saruman ( Christopher Lee ), and his kingdom of Rohan has fallen under dark times. Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas ( Orlando Bloom ), and Gimli ( John Rhys-Davies ), recently separated from their Fellowship companions, have stopped on the journey at the halls of Edoras, where Gandalf the White promptly frees Théoden from the enchantment. The relief is swiftly vanquished, however, as Théoden is informed that his only child, Théodred ( Paris Howe Strewe ), was killed in an Orc ambush while he was lost in Saruman's magic.

"No parent should have to bury their child," Théoden said softly, standing with Gandalf over the grave of his son. Left now with only his niece, Éowyn ( Miranda Otto ), and nephew, Éomer ( Karl Urban ), Theoden's direct bloodline has halted. The proud, self-sufficient people of Rohan have been without a functioning king for some time, and the corruption of Saruman led to the banishment of Éomer and his Rohirrim warriors . The defenses of Rohan are weak, and Saruman's army is encroaching. While Gandalf sets out in an attempt to retrieve Éomer and the Rohirrim, the refugees of Rohan flee to Helm's Deep.

Despite His Enormous Loss, King Théoden Leads His People

Théoden was set up to have every right to seclude himself and give up on the world. Moreover, as felt and uttered by nearly everyone seeking refuge in Helm's Deep, the odds were severely stacked against them. All the same, Théoden remained steadfast. Rohan valiantly resisted Isengard, and The Battle of Helm's Deep was won — and not before Hill let out his famous war cry, "Forth Eorlingas!" — a sound that will forever be ingrained in the memory of every Lord of the Rings devotee.

When Gondor, Rohan's neighboring kingdom of men, is the next to face evil's siege in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King , Théoden continues his righteous path. "Gondor calls for aid," he's alerted, after the famous Beacons of Minas Tirith sequence. "And Rohan will answer," Théoden returns. Every ounce of Théoden is covered in honor, integrity, and an unwavering devotion to doing right by the people of the world , even if it comes with a heavy cost.

Bernard Hill's 'The Return of the King' Performance Is a Franchise Standout

In The Return of the King , Hill's unique sensibility is put on full display, serving some of the most touching scenes along with what is undeniably among the greatest speeches in film history. From the harrowing defense of Helm's Deep to the salvation of Gondor, Théoden represents humanity's perseverance against terrible odds, all while retaining love and compassion amid mortality . No relationship better embodies this love than the bond between Théoden and Éowyn. Before Aragorn parts ways with the people of Rohan, Éowyn all but outright confesses her love for him. "I cannot give you what you seek," Aragorn responds, mercifully squashing her hope.

Peter Jackson Refused To Make This Change to the Lord of the Rings

In the following scene, Théoden approaches Éowyn to inform her that he's charged the people of Rohan to follow her rule in succession "if the battle goes ill." Éowyn stands stoicly and broken. "What other duty would you have me do, my lord?" she replies. Next, Bernard Hill offers a moment so soft and understated that it could otherwise get lost in the epic , if not for Hill's masterful way of speaking directly to the heart. "Duty?" he wonders aloud back. "No. I would have you smile again... not grieve for those whose time has come." It's impossible, now, to watch this without imagining Hill speaking to all of us who miss him dearly. In fact, in a recent tribute to the late actor , co-star Billy Boyd said, "I don’t think anyone spoke Tolkien’s words as great as Bernard did."

The Battle of Pelennor Fields follows, which is forever bolstered by Théoden's triumphant speech that turned the tide of the war. Hill's passing may make it more painful to witness him perform Théoden's death at the latter end of the battle , but it can also be accepted as a gift. In a beautiful resolution to Théoden's arc, he uses his final breaths to comfort Éowyn. "I know your face," he says, mirroring his first words to her upon emerging from Saruman's spell. "You have to let me go." Although we have to let you go from this world, Bernard Hill, there's solace to be found in the lasting grace you offered in life.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is available to watch on Max in the U.S.

WATCH ON MAX

lord of the rings book review new york times

Retro Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Is the Definitive Tolkien Adaptation

A dapting J.R.R. Tolkien's epic saga The Lord of the Rings into feature films is daunting in any era, especially in a time where Peter Jackson's trilogy remains the high fantasy's definitive cinematic version. Nearly a quarter-century since filming began over more than 430 days in New Zealand, these movies are still as timeless as the books that inspired them. While other adaptations of Tolkien's work come and go, there will always be a special place in fans' hearts for these massive labors of love.

For the longest time, Jackson wanted to make The Lord of the Rings into a film or two. He went through years of development hell with the now-defunct Miramax Films, Universal Pictures and others before finally finding a partner in New Line Cinema. Unlike typically short-sighted studios, New Line Cinema encouraged Jackson to make a complete trilogy, and film all three movies back-to-back. This gave the editors and special effects wizards at WETA Workshop time to fine-tune their contributions, especially to The Two Towers and The Return of the King . Audiences knew the moment they bought tickets for the first showings of The Fellowship of the Ring that they would see a complete version of Tolkien's masterpiece, though perhaps not as perfect as they would like.

Even with the extended cuts of the films running up to four hours in length (and almost 12 hours for a full viewing), certain elements and characters from the books aren't present in the movies. Still, Peter Jackson's vision delivered a story that feels complete just the same. The Lord of the Rings trilogy drove viewers to the books and, more importantly, back to the movies to be watched again and again .

The Lord of the Rings’ Characters Are Equally Lovable & Memorable

The lord of the rings: merry and pippin's best quotes.

Despite the near-universal acclaim for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, some book purists resented the changes made to the characters. These changes usually pertained to added comic relief and grounding the characters on screen. Gandalf, for example, was always authoritative and crafty in the books. But in the films, his more serious side was saved for Gandalf the White. When he was still Gandalf the Gray, he was a fun and wise wizard. He was also uncertain at times, even taking a backseat to other members in the Fellowship. Similarly, Gimli and Legolas are both powerful and formidable warriors in the books, while the films turned them into sources of humor at heavy emotional times.

It's wrong to see these changes and additions as an insult to their characters. It goes without saying that books and films are two wildly different media, so what works on the written page may not look as good on the big screen. Audience expectations about everything from jokes to tension and suspense are different, too. Unlike the characters on the page who were limited to what Tolkien wrote almost a century ago, the actors who embodied the likes of Aragorn and Denethor elevated their written counterparts. These actors' choices and nuances brought life to the books' characters rather than diminished them.

The Fellowship's characterizations in The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked for these movies and endeared them to viewers. Gandalf, Gimili, Legolas and everyone else became almost inseparable from the actors who portrayed them because of this. It's come to the point where those who read the books after seeing the films first may think the ones on the page often act "out of character." Yet, book adaptations are never (and should never be) one-to-one. By being distinct from their literary counterparts, the Fellowship simultaneously became Tolkien's and Jackson's creations. This was a good thing, since the movies gave fans two amazing versions of some of fantasy literature's most iconic and influential heroes and villains.

The Lord of the Rings’ Visual Effects Still Hold up by Today’s Standards

10 deadliest places in the lord of the rings, ranked.

Another fantasy film series often gets credit for the advancements made in the 21st Century's visual effects. George Lucas's Star Wars prequels helped develop digital techniques still used today. This new style of filmmaking only get better as technology gets better and better. However, the folks at WETA Workshop were also pioneers in this space,. Rather than competing with Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), they collaborated. A supervisor from ILM was "loaned" to WETA, according to a July 1999 post from The One Ring, to help The Lord of the Rings' effects team in creating computer-generated sets and the fully-digital and motion-capture character Gollum.

And just like the Star Wars films, The Lord of the Rings didn't solely rely on digital magic to bring Middle-Earth to life. Along with the digital wonders of the then-new millennium, WETA Workshop used miniatures, prosthetic makeup, detailed props and intricate costumes to make everything in the films as authentic as possible . This is why, even on 4K UHD screens, the Battle of Helm's Deep still looks as impressive as it did two decades ago on the big screen. It's not just the action set pieces either. Quiet moments with the tiny Hobbits running from the terrifying Nazgul riders on Fellbeasts still play with viewers used to more modern and cutting-edge effects.

The time WETA's VFX producers had to perfect their work is evident in every frame. The only time the special effects "stick out" was during the many appendices and special featurettes on the trilogy's home releases . A huge part of what makes Jackson's trilogy work -- and kept other directors from attempting to adapt Tolkien's saga earlier -- is how well the fantastical looks "real" in these movies. It's a testatment to the hard work and sheer talent that the practical and digital effects artits poured into the trilogy that their version of Middle-Earth is still considered to be the gold standard that all new high fantasies are measured agasint.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Is Still J.R.R. Tolkien’s Story at Its Core

What are the dead marshes in lord of the rings.

Jackson admitted he wanted to make his own fantasy epic a few times in the many hours of making-of special features on The Lord of the Rings's home release. What stopped him from doing so, and thus engaging in a years-long battle for rights and funding with producers and studios, was that all his ideas ended up being derivative of Tolkien's story. While some characters may act differently than they do on the page (or were missing altogether), the movies' story is still the one Tolkien put to paper so many decades ago . How well Jackson and the actors captured Tolkien's vision while also making the necessary adjustments is another reason why this trilogy is so timeless.

When Frodo left Samwise Gamgee behind after being tricked by Gollum or when Boromir died to give Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took a chance to escape, viewers were rapt and full of emotion, no matter how many times they saw it. The films deliver a modernized version of The Lord of the Rings that lost none of its epic stature and heart. Even though Middle-Earth's fate was at risk, the characters' stakes in each installment were still personal and compelling enough that viewers remain moved by them. Viewers never lost sight of the Fellowship's individual journeys, even against the backdrop of some of the greatest war scenes ever put to film. Everything that the trilogy's thousands of cast and crew accomplished wouldn't mean as much as it does now if it wasn't done in service to telling Tolkien's story as honestly and completely as possible.

There remains plenty of room for new stories based on Tolkien's work, like Prime Video's prequel series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the prequel trilogy based on The Hobbit, or the proposed sequels and prequels from Warner Bros. Discovery . However, Tolkien's best tale is that of Frodo and the Fellowship traveling across Middle Earth to face the greatest evil their world had ever known. The richness of the characters' relationships and what they must endure to save life itself anchored this story . Jackson and company worked hard to make it work, and they succeeded. But it's Tolkien's story itself that truly made each new viewing of the trilogy special.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Was gothmog actually an orc in the lord of the rings.

From the original Star Wars in 1977 to Dune: Part Two which was just released to high acclaim this year, the experience of seeing a film for the first time on a big screen can affect someone deeply. However, what makes those movies and The Lord of the Rings trilogy still great even decades after their initial releases was more than a memory of a night at the theater. Whether on a big, fancy TV or a phone's screen, these movies really make people feel something. The characters and the settings get into viewers' imaginations and hearts, and stay with them for the rest of their lives.

One could point to dozens of things that make The Lord of the Rings trilogy an excellent piece of filmmaking. It is technically proficient, laden with meticulous artistry, and the affection the cast and crew had for the material is evident on screen. Everyone has their favorite story moment or piece of filmmaking in the trilogy, such as Gandalf the Grey's rebirth as Gandalf the White or the Rohirim's charge in Pelennor Fields. It's also very easy to put one's favorite above the rest. But like one of Gandalf's conjurings , the trilogy's real magic is how there's not one single element that serves as a lynchpin. Every bit of the trilogy is intertwined and vital. There were no loose ends, and nobody stole the show. The trilogy would never have worked as well as it did if Howard Shore's music, WETA's effects or even just one of the many brilliant performances were missing. The Lord of the Rings was the kind of artistic feat that was truly a once in a lifetime collaboration.

Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings to give people a fantastical world where they could escape to and reflect about life on their own leisure. Jackson's trilogy brought that world that only lived in people's imaginations to life in a way that nobody expected. Now, even those who never read the books know of Middle-Earth's majesty, and the legends of its heroes. There will be other adaptations of Tolkien's work in the future, but it's difficult to see how any of them could age as perfectly as Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is currently streaming on Max.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is a series of epic fantasy adventure films and television series based on J. R. R. Tolkien's novels. The films follow the adventures of humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits and more in Middle-earth.

Created by J.R.R. Tolkien

First Film The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

Latest Film The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Genre Action-Adventure, Fantasy

Where to Stream Max, Hulu, Prime Video

  • Meticulous flimmaking on every level
  • Iconic performances bring to life recognizable characters
  • Visual effects that hold up 20 years later.
  • Still missing some key characters and settings from the books
  • Extended editions are essential, making the trilogy a very long watch
  • Sets impossibly high standard for future Tolkien adaptatations

Retro Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Is the Definitive Tolkien Adaptation

IMAGES

  1. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition

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  2. The lord of the rings book set

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  3. The Lord of the Rings

    lord of the rings book review new york times

  4. Lord Of The Rings Books In Order

    lord of the rings book review new york times

  5. Lord of the Rings: Illustrated by the Author

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  6. Review: The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

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VIDEO

  1. TWO TOWERS

  2. I massacred a Lord of the Rings book to make this #shorts

  3. TWO TOWERS

  4. Lord of the Rings Audiobook: Book 1 Chapter 4, Read by Andy Serkis

  5. Our first time watching THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING 2001 blind movie reaction!

  6. Lord of the Rings TWO TOWERS

COMMENTS

  1. Notes From the Book Review Archives

    Notes From the Book Review Archives. In this week's issue, Lauren Christensen, an editor at the Book Review, revisits the languages of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. In his 1954 review of ...

  2. The Hero Is a Hobbit

    The hero, Frodo Baggins, belongs to a race of beings called hobbits, who may be only three feet high; have hairy feet and prefer to live in underground houses, but in their thinking and sensibility resemble very closely those arcadian rustics who inhabit so many British detective stories. I think some readers may find the opening chapter a ...

  3. At the End of the Quest, Victory

    At the End of the Quest, Victory. Being the Third Part of "The Lord of the Rings." By J. R. R. Tolkien. In "The Return of the King," Frodo Baggins fulfills his Quest, the realm of Sauron is ended forever, the Third Age is over and J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" complete. I rarely remember a book about which I have had such ...

  4. Featured Author: J. R. R. Tolkien

    A reporter interviewed the 18-year-old founder of The Tolkien Society of America, who says the fan club's meetings included discussions of "the theogony and the geography of Middle-earth" and an occasional imaginary sword fight. J. R. R. Tolkien Dead at 81; Wrote 'The Lord of the Rings' (1973) Tolkien's obituary said that he created "the ...

  5. Inside the List

    Inside the List. LORD OF THE LIST: Forty years after his death, in 1973, J. R. R. Tolkien is on the hardcover fiction list again, this time with "The Fall of Arthur," an unfinished epic poem ...

  6. 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power ...

    James Poniewozik, The New York Times's chief television critic, writes that in the early going, the series "does not reinvent the ring.". It does, however, "add a few new filigrees," he ...

  7. Tolkien: Tedious or Tremendous?

    In this week's issue, Adam Gopnik considers how J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" set the template for the fantasy genre, creating what …

  8. The World of Tolkien

    The World of Tolkien. By J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The power and beauty of J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" guarantees in advance the importance and interest of "The Silmarillion," his account of all that happened earlier in his imaginary kingdoms of towers, dwarfs, elves and men.

  9. 'The Rings of Power' Review: Shiny, Not Yet Precious

    One day, fate serves one up in the form of a meteor. In its burning crater she finds a mysterious stranger (Daniel Weyman) with wizardly tendencies, whose identity remains a riddle. ( Speak ...

  10. Auden and Elvish

    Auden and Elvish. By Erin Overbey. December 14, 2012. In 1926, a young W. H. Auden attended a lecture at Oxford, where he heard J. R. R. Tolkien recite a passage from " Beowulf" so beautifully ...

  11. The New York Times:

    J. R. R. Tolkien Dead at 81; Wrote 'The Lord of the Rings' By THE NEW YORK TIMES (Sept. 3, 1973) J. R. R. Tolkien, linguist, scholar and author of "The Lord of the Rings," died today in Bournemouth. He was 81 years old. ... BOOK REVIEW | 'THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING' The Hero Is a Hobbit By W. H. AUDEN (Oct. 31, ...

  12. The Lore of the Rings

    The Lore of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien's fiction is suffused with the pleasures of scholarship and study. Amazon's new franchise The Rings of Power can't sit still. One September day in 1914, a young J.R.R. Tolkien, in his final undergraduate year at Oxford, came across an Old English advent poem called "Christ A." Part of it reads ...

  13. The New York Times > Movies > Spotlight on 'The Lord of the Rings'

    Viggo Mortensen as King Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the final movie in the trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien's novels. The last chapter of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a meticulous and prodigious vision, the product of impressive craft and energy. (Dec. 16, 2003) Peter Jackson's devotion to the ...

  14. The Lord of the Rings

    The Lord of the Rings is an epic high-fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.Set in Middle-earth, the story began as a sequel to Tolkien's earlier work, The Hobbit, but eventually developed into a much larger work.The writing began in 1937, and was published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best-selling books ever written, with over 150 million copies sold.

  15. How 'Lord of the Rings' Became 'Star Wars' for Millennial Women

    Dec. 19, 2021. Shortly after the release of the final installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the film critic Caryn James pondered in these very pages whether women were "just bored ...

  16. An Aside

    The New York Times, a long-running and respected newspaper (that, you know, shapes the book industry with its list of bestselling books), has dug out and posted the 1954 review of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of his legendary Lord of the Rings. There's a fair bit of space devoted to simply retreading over ...

  17. The Fall of Númenor by JRR Tolkien review

    T he Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a contender for the biggest TV event this year, and the show's estimated 100 million-strong audience represents a huge number of potential new ...

  18. Read W. H. Auden's 1954 review of The Fellowship of the Ring

    Sixty-nine (nice, but in Elvish) years ago this week, the godfather of high fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, published the first novel in a proposed three-volume epic "largely concerned with hobbits." The Fellowship of the Ring has, in the decades since publication, shifted over 150 million copies and spawned perhaps the most successful film trilogy (when […]

  19. Book Review

    Instead of 3 separate reviews, this will be a review of the whole book as J.R.R. Tolkien had written it as a single novel. The reason it was published as 3 volumes was due to post-war paper shortages. 'Sauron, the Dark Lord, has gathered to him all the Rings of Power - the means by which he intends to rule Middle-earth.

  20. New Tolkien book: <em>The Fall of Númenor</em> to be published

    The book, due out in hardback and deluxe on 10th November 2022, is conveniently timed to coincide with Amazon's The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power which is being released this September, and which is also set in the Second Age. This autumn will also see new editions of The Silmarillion and The Complete Guide to Middle-earth.

  21. 9 Books to Read If You Love The Lord of the Rings

    The Name of the Wind. 5. A New York Times bestseller you'll never forget. $22.00 save 55%. $9.99 at Amazon. Often credited with redefining the genre, The Name of the Wind feels like one of the ...

  22. Literary reception of The Lord of the Rings

    J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) was an English Roman Catholic writer, poet, philologist, and academic, best known as the author of the high fantasy works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.. In 1954-55, The Lord of the Rings was published. In 1957, it was awarded the International Fantasy Award.The publication of the Ace Books and Ballantine paperbacks in the United States helped it to ...

  23. 6 New Books We Recommend This Week

    LONG ISLANDColm Tóibín. More than a decade after Tóibín introduced us to Eilis Lacey, the finely wrought Irish émigré heroine of his novel "Brooklyn," he's conjured her again, this ...

  24. Nobody Brought Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Books to Life ...

    The Big Picture. Bernard Hill's portrayal of King Théoden in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was deeply human and impactful. Théoden faced tragedy but defended his people valiantly against great ...

  25. Retro Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Is the Definitive ...

    10 /10. The Lord of the Rings is a series of epic fantasy adventure films and television series based on J. R. R. Tolkien's novels. The films follow the adventures of humans, elves, dwarves ...