The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Lord of the Rings, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins inherits the magic ring that his uncle, Bilbo, found on a journey many years previously (the story of which is told in Tolkien’s first novel, The Hobbit). The ring turns out to be more powerful and dangerous than they could have imagined, and Frodo sets out on a perilous mission to destroy it.
Though The Lord of the Rings is technically a sequel, you’d hardly know it. The difference in tone between it and The Hobbit is striking. The Hobbit is a children’s book. TLOTR is not. Each can stand on its own. Both are equally good.
I am also a fan of the recent movie adaptations of TLOTR that were directed by Peter Jackson. Reading through the reviews of the movies on Amazon.com or similar websites, you will find the occasional diatribe by a fan of the book. Those reviewers are purists, angry over every little change to the actions, words, and motivations of the characters. I don’t share their wrath, and I hold no grudges against the screenwriters. Some changes were necessary, no getting around it. Tolkien’s honest, simple way of writing makes for lovely reading, but he told stories the way he liked them himself, and he seems to have been fond of old, long-winded mythical tales. As a result, his story-telling is often slow, occasionally to the point of tediousness. The story as he told it is far too long for three movies (even three very long movies) so the action had to be pushed along. I say kudos to Jackson for turning such a slow tale into an eminently watchable, action-packed trio of movies.
So you might wonder why, after daring to use the word “tediousness” in my description of Tolkien’s story-telling, that I still give it an A+ grade. It is because TLOTR is an inventive, epic, and exciting tale. It practically spawned an entire of genre of fiction. Even now, almost 60 years later, writers are still trying to imitate it and usually, sad to say, utterly failing to capture the spirit. When you read Tolkien, you can feel the joy with which he built his fictional world and the inventiveness that produced Bilbo, Frodo, Gollum, Gandalf, Tom Bombadil, the Ents, and Aragorn, just to name a few. So many wonderful characters and creations sprang from Tolkien’s mind. Hardly anyone in the whole history of fiction has given us so much. Most authors just cannot match him, and woe to they who try and fail.
Though I myself don’t think Tolkien’s writing is perfect, I am always surprised (and often annoyed) by other peoples’ negative opinions of his work. For example, I reviewed a book about C.S. Lewis Narnia series not too long ago. It was The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller. Since Lewis and Tolkien were good friends, Miller often mentioned Tolkien. I think my opinion of her book was somewhat colored by what she said about him. Even though she claimed to like his work, she also bashed it. She said,
Tolkien’s freakishly prodigious powers of invention could not supply the book with what four years of studying English literature had led me to expect from a great novel. . . . I had read Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Absalom, Absalom! and Crime and Punishment—to name just three books with related themes—and knew they sounded depths that Tolkien never touched.
I, too, studied English literature, and I think I understand what she is saying. She’s right, and yet she’s not. There are different types of stories, and they serve different purposes. It is not always wise or instructive to compare the merits of one against the other. Apples and oranges, so to speak. I would not say that TLOTR is the greatest book I have ever read, but it is among the best I have ever read. Nothing beats it for escapist reading. I believe that’s as important in its own way as those “depths that Tolkien never reached.” There are, in fact, times when I don’t want those kinds of depths. Sometimes I just want to marvel over talking trees, or feel reassured by the strength of Frodo and Sam’s friendship, or vicariously shrink in fear from the Ringwraiths while I snuggle safely in my own bed. That’s worth an A+ to me.
Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle
This is a sequel to Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which is the very humorous story of how he and his wife relocated to Provence and all the difficulties and cultural differences they encountered along the way. Though Toujours is not as good, I think it would make an excellent epilogue to the original if read directly afterward.
Artemis Fowl: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer
The Artemis Fowl books are like candy. You eat them quickly, enjoy them at the time, but hardly remember the experience later except that you might say, if prompted, that they were yummy. That’s OK, because as I mentioned above in my review of TLOTR, different books serve different purposes. But even in the realms of junk food there are good candies and not-so-good candies, and I’m afraid that the Artemis Fowl books are starting to taste like that cheap Easter candy that looks like chocolate but doesn’t taste half as good. The last book of the series that I really enjoyed was The Lost Colony. The following book, The Time Paradox, was a disappointment. This one was worse, and I do not recommend it.