The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
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I’m a big fantasy fan, and you have to give Tolkien props for practically creating the genre. In all honesty, though, I’ve always found the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to be a bit slow. While I enjoy poetic imagery and can understand the desire to wax lyrical, sometimes I get a little irritated at the sheer wordiness of this series. Every time I revisit these books, I remember why I prefer authors like Neil Gaiman or R.R. Martin for my fantasy fix. The Fellowship of the Rings is well-written and enjoyable, especially in the last few chapters, when the action really picks up. But be warned — you have to slog through quite a bit of speech-making, pointless discussion, and long descriptions of travel to get to that point.
Even so, this is a classic of the genre, and should be read and experienced by any fantasy lover at least once. A point to keep in mind is that The Lord of the Rings was published at the tail end of an era in which books had been the predominant form of entertainment for centuries. In 1954, television was not yet common in every home, and while films were available, they were a theater-only treat. In a sense, Tolkien is one of the last authors to write in the same literary style as Dickens, Twain, Austen, and the Bronte sisters (though obviously in a different genre).
Authors today — even authors of epic fantasy — write differently. They know they have to compete with the internet, television, movies on demand, and mobile devices. Plots come at a faster pace these days, and the action and reaction occurs in swift succession. There is no time or desire for writers who begin their books with long, meandering paragraphs and tend towards tangential writing. In order to be a success, the book must immediately grab and hold the attention, and keep it throughout. I’m not saying any of this is bad — I’m just pointing out that Tolkien was writing for a much different audience. Reading his books requires cultivating a different frame of mind.
That challenge is largely ameliorated by the second book, though — The Two Towers and Return of the King chronicle the bulk of the action, so pacing picks up quite a bit. Long story short: The entire series is a bastion of the fantasy genre, and a must-read for any fantasy fan. Luckily, by the end of the first book, the pace starts picking up. By the second book, it’s whipping right along, and the third book is also a great read.
As a side note, I have recently learned that the estate of Tolkien is apparently displeased with Peter Jackson’s film rendition of his work. That makes me feel a little odd in my high recommendation of the films, since Tolkein’s descendants apparently feel they’re not at all representative of his work. Still, I really do feel like the films do a good job of representing the tone and feel of these books, and I generally do not like films based on books I’ve read. I believe the total of films based on books I’ve read that I actually like is somewhere at 5 (if you count each LoTR installment separately) — the other two are Stardust and The Princess Bride.