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Token Talkin’ Tolkien Threadkin


The metal babble flees!
My impression is that it's like the paragraphs of lineages, mythology, history, etc. from LotR as a whole book. Brr, no thanks!


target for faraway laughter
Fellowship has the largest ratio of diversions/sidequests/people sitting and talking to travel/action/doing important plot stuff.
That's exactly it. Dialogue is more interesting than battles, and characters are more important than events. Plus, Fellowship has the greatest ratio of Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger, the most underrated of all hobbits.

Paul le Fou

24/7 lofi hip hop man to study/relax to
My impression is that it's like the paragraphs of lineages, mythology, history, etc. from LotR as a whole book. Brr, no thanks!
It's a mythohistorical book of legends and stories. Approach it the same way you might approach the Bible and it's easier to address - not just pick it up and read it cover to cover, but digest some of the history and stories, reference with appendices, take it in chunks, skip around if you like.

Not that I've been able to do any of that myself, but that's my understanding.


You do have to approach the Silmarillion as a weird historical text, but it has some great stories hidden away in it. The story of Beren and Lúthien is fantastic.
I think The Silmarillion works as a cover-to-cover read and its difficulty is overstated, but its structure is closer to a classical epic and requires similar skills as a reader.

It's fairly well known that's Tolkien's approach to LotR was to create an imaginary mythology, but formally those books are written more like an early 20th century novel than an actual epic. And a lot of the elements people are talking about here as creating difficulties for reading LotR proper are basically pretty common elements of late 19th or early 20th century literary novels. They stand out mostly because so much of what imitated Tolkien took the content but not the form, telling similar stories but presented as popular fiction.

In The Silmarillion, he's creating imaginary mythology in both form and content. Compared to actually reading an epic, it's pretty short and breezy and makes a lot of concessions to what a modern reader might expect. But it's still a pretty thorough formal experiment, and it requires you to encounter it on its own terms, much like you would need to if you wanted to read The Mahabharata or The Iliad or something. And this is much, much farther from popular fiction than the early 20th century literary novel formal approach of LotR.

The Silmarillion presents itself as a somewhat alien text, and I think it does it successfully enough that it creates a reading experience that feels similarly rewarding to reading a book from hundreds of years ago, but much shorter and easier (in part because it's written in contemporary English by a great prose stylist). If you can read an epic for pleasure, I think you can read The Silmarillion for pleasure.

But, on the other hand, if you're going to engage in a text this way, maybe it's a better use of your limited time to make the effort to read a real epic, unless you're really into Tolkien or the world of LotR. On the other other hand, if you haven't read any epics, for a LotR reader The Silmarillion could function like a set of training wheels to see if actual epics might be a genre you might enjoy.


Red Plane
I kinda forgot about this thread, but I’m still reading the books - a bit over halfway through the two towers now.

I had a lot of thoughts about class in these books when I started. The most obvious thing I think is Sam’s relationship to Frodo. I think maybe I needed Tolkien’s upbringing in a society with pretty clear class structures to fully get it early on - I basically thought Sam was Frodo’s neighbour who did some work for him, but it gradually becomes clear there’s a master/servant relationship going on. You sort of wonder what Sam is getting out of his end of it, particularly once the journey starts. Pippin and Merry are clearly toffs and basically useless, which is a bit of a change from the other toffs - the class structures of this world seem to have a basis in (in-world) fact: Aragorn is the rightful king not just because he’s descended from ancient kings but also because he’s just better than regular folk. The king of Rohan, once he stands himself up, becomes majestic. I guess Boromir might be a counter-argument, in that he’s also of high social rank but comes off as a braggart and is frequently shown in a poor light. Maybe my view on that was influenced by my memory of the end of his part of the story. Perhaps this is explained by the framing of the story: I think the novel is supposed to be Bilbo’s history of events, based on what the survivors tell him about it? Which makes me wonder if Pippin will survive, since most scenes relating to him are told from Merry’s perspective (or was it the other way around?).

I have been reading the songs. Some of them are a bit challenging. My favourites are Sam’s. Actually my favourite character is probably Sam, maybe because he’s the only commoner of any significance in the book so far and I’ve overthought the class stuff.
Samwise Gamgee really is the true hero of Lord of the Rings, and Sean Astin's performance in the films made an already legendary character even better.


excused from moderation duty
Staff member
I think you can get an awful lot out of The Lord of the Rings and related works by considering them in light of the author's life.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist and linguist by profession and by inclination. In his day job, he translated foundational texts like The Greene Knight, Beowulf, and the Biblical book of Job. Like many academics in that field, he succumbed to the temptation to develop some constructed languages as a way of exploring his theories of language.

Central to Tolkien's linguistic ideas was, as I understand it, that language does not exist in a vacuum. Note that I'm paraphrasing very liberally here. A language is far more than just a grammar and a vocabulary used to exchange information, but rather is the medium of culture. A language cannot be adequately understood separately from the (written and oral) literature that conveys a culture among the language's speakers. A people understands who they are by telling stories in their own words, and all - the people, the stories, the identity, and the words - are necessary to really understand the language.

How can a person believe that and then still attempt to construct an artificial language? By constructing all of those necessary parts. He didn't just invent a grammar and a vocabulary. He invented legends, invented the people who understood themselves through those legends, invented the history of that people that provided the backdrop for those legends. And it wasn't just one language, but a whole slew of them, all originating in an invented world populated by multiple peoples. These processes of mythopoeia and glossopoeia were intertwined, and he continued them throughout his life, keeping the overwhelming majority of it private.

So the first, most important element of the Middle-Earth legendarium is that it is all about the language. When reading his work, you should revel in the prose and drink in the poetry. It's meant to be read aloud; The Hobbit began as a bedtime story he would narrate to his children. It's not merely that the rhythms of spoken English are part of the text, but that the rhythms of the text are part of spoken English.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien positions himself as the localizer into English of a tome, "The Red Book of Westmarch," which had been diegetically assembled by some anonymous denizen of Middle-Earth, who had themselves produced it by compiling and transcribing a number of texts, the bulk of which were attributed to the characters Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. This was a popular conceit in 19th- and early 20th-century fantasy literature, but it also reflects how absolutely crucial he considered it that the authorship of a text be placed in some historical context. Who wrote this book? What language did they write it in? What world was conveyed to that person through that language?

In order to create a fantasy with richness and depth, according to his own theories, the story had to be placed in a context. Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam wrote the book, but what legends native to the language that they wrote the book in helped them understand their place in their world? One of the most memorable qualities of The Lord of the Rings is best described by the professor himself: "Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist." And the great wonder is that all of that large history actually existed, in the form of a copious assemblage of half-finished manuscripts.

The Silmarillion is a massive summary of the timeline of the world in which The Lord of the Rings takes place, including summaries of the three or four tales that were formative to the auctorial voice of the Red Book. This book is full of fascinating stories, but it isn't much of a novel by itself. If you're looking for a novel, in recent years, fully elaborated versions of them were assembled from various drafts: The Children of Húrin, The Fall of Gondolin, and Beren and Lúthien. They're all great, though they are as much works of historiography as fantasy fiction. Christopher Tolkien, in his capacity as "literary executor," painstakingly reconciled multiple incomplete drafts of each story, and devotes extensive parts of these books to a description of his decisions, if that's what you're into.

The other thing that's important to understand about Tolkien is his experiences in war, and the other other thing that's important is that he was incredibly Catholic. But that's a post for another day.
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excused from moderation duty
Staff member
One cool thing about the massive fucking treasure trove of drafts that J.R.R. Tolkien left behind and Christopher Tolkien painstakingly restored is that there's so much more. One of my favorites is this unused epilogue of The Lord of the Rings, which is simply very sweet, but was excluded for continuity reasons.

To give you a sense of how the spoken cadence of the text enriches it, here's Tolkien reading aloud some excerpts.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien positions himself as the localizer into English of a tome, "The Red Book of Westmarch," which had been diegetically assembled by some anonymous denizen of Middle-Earth, who had themselves produced it by compiling and transcribing a number of texts, the bulk of which were attributed to the characters Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. This was a popular conceit in 19th- and early 20th-century fantasy literature

I just want to add that this isn't limited to fantasy literature, either! It was a common device for literary novels in this era to be presented with a frame story about being a found document. Probably the most well known example of this to Americans might be The Scarlet Letter, although unfortunately a lot of high school English teachers have students skip that frame story, so many might not even know this even if they technically did read most of the book.


Red Plane
I just finished the appendices and put my LotR back on the shelf, quite a while after finishing the main text and with quite a bit of appendix skipped over. Reading them was kind of like going to the wiki, which I did a few times when someone would pop up in the narrative and I’d have no idea who they were or what they were talking about - usually it’d be a character or place I knew but under one of their other names.

Something that struck me during the last parts of the book was that the orcs were in some ways the most relatable characters - everyone else is talking in fancy language, the orcs are just squabbling. Aside from the violence, their speech and behaviour seemed much more familiar. Tolkien talks in the appendix about deliberately changing the way the characters speak to fit who and where they are, but it seems unlikely this was what he had in mind.


excused from moderation duty
Staff member
Tolkien deliberately represented ("translated") Orc speech as having a distinctly contemporary cadence. They lead nasty, brutish lives under a tyranny that is not merely authoritarian but bureaucratic and industrial. Sauron is a modernist, drawn to the Enemy because of his desire to impose organization and rationality onto the world. And orcs act like anybody does who is living down to the kind of world Sauron would create.

While diegetically, he never settled on a morally and theologically satisfying origin for the race of orcs, one thing that is evident in his letters is that outside of Middle-Earth he considered orc-ness to be a spiritual condition - one which was abundant in the world he saw around him. Nazis, for instance, he called orcs.
I've been really enjoying the Bag End Book Club (link is to an RSS feed for your podcatcher of choice), a thoughtful but not overly serious discussion of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a few chapters at a time. They're on The Two Towers now. I think they present a good model of how to read and enjoy these books, for people who struggle with the pacing, etc.

Two of the four hosts are Jackson and Em of the (in my opinion excellent) Great Gundam Project, so if you have strong opinions about them either way, do or don't listen as appropriate.