Why I keep reading The Lord of the Rings over and over again

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… as well as The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and his other works.

This applies pretty much to any kind of book and book lover out there.

What really compels one to read the same book time and time again, when they already know the outcome?

Since this post also serves as a kind of self-reflective examination, I thought best to write it down as a monologue between myself, to try and understand what moves one to re-read a favourite piece of literature over and over. It reminds me of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which three individuals discuss differing views on the orbit of the Earth and the Sun.

In this case, since only I can try to understand my own self, I have to conduct such a discussion introspectively.

As I am writing this post, I truly have no answer to the question I posed in the title. I am hoping that by the end of the monologue, I’ll get to some clarification.

In honour of Galileo’s work, here’s the title of my brief discourse.

Dialogue Concerning the Love of Reading Tolkien

The scene takes place between the Skeptic and the Enthusiast, who both meet in a silent, grassy valley with a swift stream traversing from East to West. A solitary path running down into the valley leads towards a stone bridge that leaps over the stream and leads away towards the distant mountains beyond. Before the bridge is a small wooden bench on which sits the Enthusiast, quietly reading a battered copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Sneaking up from behind is the Skeptic, who opens the debate … 

Skeptic: Not again! This is, what, your 10th time you’re reading that?

Enthusiast: Why not? I enjoy it.

Skeptic: What’s there to enjoy when you know what’s going to happen on every page?

Enthusiast: I don’t know. There’s just something fascinating about the writing.

The Skeptic walks forward and sits down on the bench beside the Enthusiast.

Skeptic: Listen, I’m not saying it’s not any good. But there’s other great literature to enjoy.

Enthusiast: No doubt, and I do enjoy other literature. It’s just that I also like to re-read great literature.

Skeptic: Re-read? One more re-read and you’ll memorise it by heart before long!

The Enthusiast ignores the remarks and attempts to continue reading.

Skeptic: Give me Plato, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Orwell, Woolf, Alighieri. There are so many other great authors to learn from.

Enthusiast: And they are all exceptional in their own right. But nothing hits me like Tolkien does. His words are like a clear glass of water for a thirsty reader.

Skeptic: Tsk! Anyways, what’s to love about this book?

The Enthusiast explodes with passionate energy …

Enthusiast: The living and breathing details of a fantasy world; the depth of history; the intricacies of the narrative; the range of characters; the eloquence of writing; the beauty of the languages; the simplest of words that make you ponder on life and move you to tears!

Skeptic: Fair enough, fair enough! But you must admit it gets tiring and tedious once you find yourself going through the same book for the nth time.

Enthusiast: No, because every time I pick up this book, I discover something new, something I missed the last time I read it. It fills me with wonder and delight as I re-tread old roads with familiar characters. I fear for their safety in one chapter as I did the other previous ten times. I laugh at an incident I know is going to happen a few pages in advance. I still laugh when I get to it because every time I read the passage, it is like a new experience: a new journey with the same characters and situations. Every time I go on this journey, I learn more and more about the story, the author and myself: the way I read, the way I see the characters, the way I live it. I look forward to revisiting familiar places and re-exploring the beauties of a world beyond our own.

Skeptic: But you run the risk of losing yourself completely in a fictitious reality.

Enthusiast: The beauty of reading and re-reading such a work is precisely that of knowing when you’re stepping from your own real world into a fantasy one. This book is like a key, a key to a door which opens on a path that leads you beyond reality. But a key works both ways. When you’ve been through the perils of adventure and you are being called home, you use this key to walk wearily, but enthusiastically, back through the door and safely into your own world. As you close the book you also close the door until the next read.

The Skeptic is left with mouth wide open. The Enthusiast smiles, closes the book and stands up, before walking towards the bridge and crossing the stream towards the distant mountains …

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11 thoughts on “Why I keep reading The Lord of the Rings over and over again

  1. No one asks why anybody “re-listens” to a favorite piece of music. Or even re-reads a piece of poetry.

    If we ask it about re-reading a novel that has to be because we think “finding out what happens” is the main interest in a novel. With some types of books that is pretty much the case, but with many there are a lot of other enjoyments to be had, the same as with listening to music, or for that matter eating a favorite meal.

    It’s true one can get jaded with overexposure, and personally it’s a good few years since I last read LOTR from cover to cover. But the same could be said about albums that I’d still name among my all-time-faves. I haven’t listened to a Pink Floyd or Beatles album recently either.

      • I must admit I do envy anyone who has yet to experience reading it for the first time though. The events at the Bridge of Khazad Dum or in the Pelennor Fields can’t have quite the same emotional impact on a re-reading. But they still do have considerable impact, even when you already know many of the lines by heart, just like with songs.

  2. The great Thomas Mann writes in his foreword of The Magic Mountain that his book needs several rereads.
    Rereading is the key to reading, in my humble opinion :).

  3. I love this. I think we re-read good books like LOTR over and over not because they change, but because we have changed. A truly great book has enough layers and nuance that, when we return to it older and wiser, we pick up completely different components of the writing. And perhaps, when we feel jaded, they remind us of those deeper emotional truths that we have forgotten.

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