J.R.R. Tolkien began working on what would eventually become the world depicted so beautifully in The Lord of the Rings while convalescing after the Battle of the Somme, during WWI. Over the subsequent thirty-some years, he would expand his creation to include multiple fully-developed languages, and a fully-realized legendarium that covered thousands of years of history and numerous cultures. It is a singularly amazing achievement, unrivaled by any single creator of whom I am familiar. His works have influenced just about every fantasy author over the last 70 years. Tolkien is inescapable.
So what is there for the reviewer to say?
I don’t know how to review these books.
To start, I’ll say these are some of the first books to get me into reading. I’ve never been a particularly fast reader, and I remember devouring these books. They went everywhere with me. I read them on the bus, and in between classes. I ignored my friends at lunch because the beauty I found in these pages sustained me far more than their company. I stayed up way too late on school nights trying to squeeze in a few more pages before finally having to shut my eyes. And, in the roughly 25 years that have passed since I first read these books, I’ve been trying to recapture this magic – rarely succeeding.
When the movies came out I was in college – and I was equally enraptured by them. Being able to see the story play out on a 70 foot screen was a magnificent experience – and one I don’t think myself likely to ever duplicate. Perhaps just as meaningful – my sister read the books for the first time to get into the spirit of the movies. I’d begged her to read them after I fell in love, but she wasn’t interested. So to have her finally share the experience with me was special.
And though I’ve probably seen the movies a dozen times, I’ve never really revisited the books. Part of my reticence, I think, is because of how long it takes to get to the meat of the story. But part of it is the belief that you can never recapture your youth, which is where I feel these books belong. They aren’t an experience for me any longer. They are a memory: meant to be felt more than lived; returned to over and over, but only in thought.
So there’s a bit of sadness for me, here. The sadness of knowing that I’ll never be 14 again. The sadness of knowing that I’ll never be able to experience The Lord of the Rings for the first time again. The sadness that only comes when you’ve experienced something so achingly beautiful that the bland reality of everyday life leaves you insensate.
I know these books better than I know the Bible, and they’ve impacted my soul more completely than any holy writ.
The Lord of the Rings is magic. And closing the book at the end is like removing light from the world. I am left colder, and everything around me is dim. But I am better for having lived for a time in its radiance, because the memory will always be with me.