– Getting into the serious stuff
This time, you will be introduced to a whole new set of characters, places, environments, creatures – you name it.
‘The Lord of the Rings’ is mostly known as being split into 3 volumes (note: not books) and 6 books (2 in every volume). The three volumes are entitled: ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’ – so far so good.
The story takes over from the events of ‘The Hobbit’, with Frodo Baggins as the main character – being involved in a similar quest (but far more dangerous) to Bilbo – his distant cousin. Readers will witness the return of established characters: such as Gandalf and Elrond; as well as familiar locations.
Approaching this massive novel after ‘The Hobbit’, might seem daunting; thankfully, as soon as you begin reading the first chapter from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, the story seems to lead on from the former book’s final page. Indeed, the story-telling flows smoothly from one narrative to the next.
It is a fact that the style of writing is a bit more elaborate than that of ‘The Hobbit’, however, Tolkien cleverly evolves and progresses it – starting from the simple establishment of characters and expanding them further – building up the more complex and larger concepts as the story unfolds.
So don’t worry, once you get started you’ll find yourself unwilling to stop reading …
In ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Middle-earth is expanded significantly and readers follow a completely different trail across its vast lands from the adventures of Bilbo.
It will be immediately apparent how Tolkien painstakingly went into extreme detail to flesh out the history and purpose of all his characters and environments – and it won’t be long before readers unaccustomed to Tolkien’s immense imagination will find themselves lost or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material present to them.
Again, don’t worry …
– The beauties beyond the narrative
By now you should know that I’m a great fan of forewords, maps, appendices and indexes (who isn’t, anyway?). In ‘The Lord of the Rings’, you’ll find no lack of these.
Apart from the text itself, readers are given a wealth of extra material that will make any Middle-earth fan drool under the expansive threads of these hundreds of pages.
Yes, you read that right: “hundreds of pages”.
Indeed, counting the Foreword at the beginning of either the single-volume edition or the three separate ones, you’ll get an extensive Prologue before ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. It reintroduces the readers to the race of Hobbits and provides a brief summary of the events of ‘The Hobbit’ that serve as a continuation into this novel.
This is particularly useful to those hard-headed readers who have ignored my advice on reading ‘The Hobbit’ first, before embarking on ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Still, whether or not you know ‘The Hobbit’ inside out, I urge you to read the prologue with care as it sets the first few notions of the entire story.
After successfully reading all three volumes, you are faced with a large chunk of ‘The Return of the King’ filled with Appendices.
More tempting than any Ring of Power, these texts will satisfy any Tolkien fan wanting to know more about anything under Middle-earth’s sun. Information on the different races, genealogy trees, two sets of timelines covering the Second and Third Ages, notes on the Shire calendar, an introduction into the Elvish and Dwarvish writing systems and a short essay on the different languages in Middle-earth.
In short, another book in itself. This is an absolute treasure trove if you want to learn more about the story in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
You’re bound to spend ages just trying to decipher the front cover’s Dwarvish runes or Tengwar (that is the Elvish equivalent), using the guides provided. Or even finding your way through dates and family ties between different characters.
This is one of the main qualities that makes ‘The Lord of the Rings’ so appealing. Apart from the story itself, by going through all this material, you become an active participant, a treasure hunter – and not just a passive reader. You are being invited on a journey that you yourself can weave and develop.
After that, there’s a very helpful index section that has been carefully categorized and lists all the characters, places, creatures and events – giving references to the volume and page numbers on where they have been mentioned in the text.
No wonder I said “hundreds of pages” earlier on …
And I’ve said nothing about the maps. Following a similar fashion to that of ‘The Hobbit’, this time you’ll find no less than 7 of these.
At the start of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, you get a one-page map of the Shire (which is also useful whilst reading ‘The Hobbit’). It maps out all the major locations in detail with respect to that particular area of Middle-earth.
The next set of maps are located at the end of the book (a copy of these can also be found in any of the three separate volumes of the text). The first of these is a general map of Middle-earth. Here you can explore the landscape from a wide perspective – sketching out the distances between the Shire and Erebor or Rohan to Mordor.
However, this map does not list all of the place names, nor mark all of the landscape features: such as rivers, hills, etc.
In order to analyze this map further, you’ll need to use the 4 successive diagrams that basically grab a section of the general map and expand it significantly – detailing all the names and appropriate features.
Finally, the last map is spread across two pages depicting the Gondor-Mordor area. Contour lines clarify the different heights of the land, clearly distinguishing between mountainous and low-lying areas (a gold mine to any budding cartographers).
Sounds beautiful doesn’t it? It’s even more amazing when you witness it firsthand.
– What to own …
Which reminds me: which edition should one acquire?
There’s literally tons of editions available to choose from and I won’t go into specifics. However, I would like to comment on the differences between having three separate volumes or one single book.
Some people might find that having the three volumes as separate books, is an easier way (psychologically) to go through them – rather than a bulky book of over a thousand pages.
On the other hand, some readers prefer to have at their disposal the entire completed work within one cover.
Again, it’s up to you … (just make sure you have all the maps, appendices and index within).
Personally, I prefer the one-volume edition for the same reason of having available all of the text, along with the appendices and index. It allows me to sift between the story I’m reading and any references I want to make to timelines, family lineages or others.
– So should I watch the films first?
I won’t be the judge in this matter either. That is entirely up to you. Whatever the decision however, I still would urge you to look at the films. Sure, you may find a lot of “missing” stuff or shifted timelines and dialogue segments, but the heart of the story is still very much there.
Furthermore, speaking from a “film-firster” perspective (that is, I’ve watched the films before reading the books, folks), some concepts which may have proved difficult to grasp at first, were easily tackled thanks to certain moments in the films.
Moreover, the cinematic medium (whilst, yes, it may restrict your own imagination of the world and its characters) will help you in visualizing a few of the more complicated environment descriptions found here and there in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – at least, it worked for me.
So again, whether you decided to watch the films first or later (thus becoming a “book-firster” in that case), both books and films complement each other as different types of media proposing the same story.
That said, the book is always THE book.
-Proceed with a strong dose of ‘Determination’
We’ve been through this already. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a daring step from ‘The Hobbit’, however, if you set your mind to the task of reading it (and find yourself constantly referring to the maps and appendices as guidelines), you’ll be finished in no time …
But I’ll stop here now as I still need to finish reading the last few chapters of ‘The Return of the King’ … again.
(Illustration by John Howe)