Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 4, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LORD OF THE RINGS....Congratulations to LSU, etc. etc. I'd say more, but I'm afraid I just can't get my heart into it.

So let's change the subject. I thought Return of the King was pretty good. In fact, I thought it was better than the book. But then, I thought all three movies were better than the books.

It's a funny thing, but despite the fact that science fiction and fantasy are my genre fiction of choice, I never liked Lord of the Rings. I read it once about 25 years ago and found myself bored by it. Then I read it again after Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001 and I was mildly bored all over again.

Why? I'm not sure, but I think it was the lack of a good villain. Sauron, of course, is just a malevolent spirit of some kind who never speaks and seems to have no reason for existence at all, and the hordes of orcs are likewise flat and uninteresting. Why do any of them do what they do? Merely because they are evil, apparently.

Compare that to similar epics like Star Wars, in which the Darth Vader is far more interesting than the protagonists, or David Eddings' Belgariad, which might be derivative and slight, but does provide genuine motivation and pathos for its various villains. There's just none of that in Lord of the Rings, and one-sided battles really aren't that interesting.

So while I suppose I admire Lord of the Rings for being the father of modern epic fantasy, I wouldn't take it to a desert island with me. And while the films suffer from the same sterile villainy problem how could they not? the direction and special effects were terrific and partly made up for it.

I've always had other questions about the books, of course, chief among them being the rings themselves: Why do they exist? Why did the elves make them? What power do they have? What happened to the dwarves' rings? How was Sauron able to make a single ring more powerful than all the rest of them? What actual power does the One Ring have, anyway? How is it that Sauron was so inept at tracking down his wayward ring? And so on.

But my biggest gripe, I think, is with Gandalf. As a wizard, he really sucks, doesn't he? Sure, he killed a few magical creatures here and there, but basically he displayed virtually no magic power at all and really didn't do an awful lot of sharp thinking either. Was he keeping his magical powers in reserve, or what? It just seems that a wizard ought to have better ways of helping the cause than wading into a sea of orcs with a sword. I'm just saying.

UPDATE: Answers to my questions are in the comments. Apparently the whole backstory is contained in other books, which I think is cheating a bit, but there you have it. If you don't feel like scrolling through the entire thread, SSJPabs at 2:56 AM has a very good summary.

Kevin Drum 9:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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