With the arrival of the much hyped trilogy of multi million dollar movies, few people will not have heard of this near legendary series of books by now. Most people will even have an idea of the plot. Fantasy world, darkness looms, elves, dwarves, hobbits and fans on the internet bitching because they left out poor Tom Bombadil. As a result, I intend to focus less on the plot and more on a kind of literary review or critique. In the hopes of informing you, dear reader, as to what you are getting yourself into by reading this epic. Additionally, this is because, I read the trilogy when I was a teenager and have only had the most cursory of glances since then. I know the books well, but specifics are not my strong point. The trilogy consists of the books "Fellowship of the Ring", which details a little of the background story regarding the all powerful 'one ring' and the formation of the Fellowship who hope to bring about it's (rather convoluted) destruction, "The Two Towers", which covers more escapades from the various members of the fellowship and chronicles the commencement of the war of the ring and "Return of the King" which rounds it all off in a nice little (if rather turgid and long-winded) bundle.
As far as fantasy epics go, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the most famous by far. It has also become something of a yardstick of fantasy literature against which other novels are measured. To be quite honest, the books are not really deserving of this praise. The writing is a little too twee and comfortable. Despite the apparent burgeoning evil of Sauron's impending conquest, the reader can't help getting the feeling that the novel is something akin to P G Wodehouse and that, while the antics of the cast are, momentarily, exciting, everything will be sorted out in time for tea. Tolkein's characters are similarly twee and somewhat two-dimensional. Sam Gamgee who, until the book gets going has had little to do with his life other than, presumably, checking the turnip harvest, eat, smoke, sleep and moon over various halfling wenches, is unbelievably stoic, determined and practical when adventuring with his friend in the darkest parts of middle earth. It seems Tolkein likes to polarise his characters - his "good guys" are unfeasibly good, his "bad guys" insanely bad and nowhere in the three novels is there even a hint why that is the case. Nowhere in the book are there any strong or important female characters, either. Galadriel, while purportedly powerful and influential, does very little to further the story. Arwen appears much less than in the films - don't expect any ludicrous romance with Aragorn (also known as Strider) here - and is, again, minor and inconsequential. Character development was obviously not high on the author's list of priorities.
Tolkein, being a linguist, has understandably concentrated on the things that interest him. This results in a number of interesting appendices to the books which are very informative regarding the etymology of the elven language - but this does nothing to make the book any less stodgy. Which is the next problem. Tolkein does seem to get bogged down in irrelevant details. Paragraphs are spent detailing the quality of the cakes at Bilbo's party, but very little is revealed about other, more important elements. Equally, in the third book, "Return of the King" an age seems to be spent with Frodo and Sam heading towards Mount Doom to destroy the ring. We are told how Frodo feels the ring getting heavier and becoming more of a strain to him, but frankly I was past caring by the time they arrived. I actually got to the point where I really did not want to read anymore, as I was just so bored with the final few chapters. In the end, I really had to force myself to read. Not a good ending. If you are looking to get into fantasy literature, I would suggest Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" trilogy, Micheal Moorcock's Chronicles of Elric, or his Corum books, or even David Waylander or Druss chronicles. That said, if you really want to read Tolkein as a definitive, yet somehow lacking piece of fantasy literature (or just to say you have) then prepare yourself for a disappointing and unneccessarily hard going read.