One year ago, I read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series for the first time. Curled up in the warm glow of the Christmas tree, I don't know what took me so long.
I've adored the LOTR films since I saw them, though I confess my first watch — just like my first read — was also incredibly late, more than a decade after the first film was released. The Fellowship of the Ring celebrates its 20th anniversary Dec. 19.
I've since seen the trilogy's extended cuts — all 11-plus hours — countless times. For our household and so many others, the cinematic series is emblematic of lazy weekends snuggled up on the couch. After becoming so familiar with the films, I put off reading the source material. Friends told me it was a slog. (Besides, reading something you already know is usually not very exciting.)
I knew the films' director Peter Jackson took creative liberties, but until I cracked open the books last winter, I was blind to just how much had to be left out, even in the extended releases.
Reading the books only added a deeper sense of appreciation to both works: Tolkien's magnificent prose, world-building and characters, and Jackson's and his cast's nearly flawless interpretations of them.
My LOTR reading journey began unexpectedly, like Frodo Baggins' quest into the darkness of Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power.
During a late-2020 shopping pilgrimage to a local vintage shop, I stumbled upon an early-1970s paperback of the series' first two installments: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. The printings happened to exactly match my partner Will's own tattered set, passed to him by his late father. But because those copies are too fragile for much handling, I decided to purchase my own (albeit incomplete) set as motivation to finally dive in.
I spent the following dark winter weeks devouring every word. Reading the books was an even richer experience than the films, more so than I ever imagined. While purists may chide me for picturing the film's legendary cast as I read their characters on the page, it only enriched the story for me. My heart leapt each time I recognized a line of dialogue transferred directly from page to screen. I nearly wept with joy when my favorite line of all time was discovered, on page 82 of The Fellowship:
"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
As for the scenes and characters that didn't make it into Jackson's retelling, well, there are many. But I now comprehend fellow fans' disappointment over the inimitable Tom Bombadil's omission.
Perhaps what surprised me most, however, while reading The Lord of the Rings is that I didn't find it tedious or sluggish. Quite the opposite: Tolkien is a true master of epic storytelling. I finished the final chapter of The Return of the King, "The Grey Havens," early this year in a epiphanic trance over the timeless relevance Tolkien's tale holds, reveling in the pure joy of discovering his fully realized fantasy world, and the lasting impact it will continue to have on human culture and creativity. ♦