Being a fully paid-up and card-carrying nerdy speccy no mates social outcast who associates with more of the same, I know a lot of people who are very, very keen on this book/radio play/film series/hideous animated movie/vast sprawling fandom. Not just my nerdy speccy friends, either; some of the mysteriously less nerdy speccy friends, and my in-laws (who are ageing hippies), with whom I had a vague discussion about Lord of the Rings over Christmas and tried, full of earnestness and sweet sherry, to explain my dislike for it.
The facts in the case are this: mad keen on The Hobbit as a stripling, I naturally attempted to progress onto Lord of the Rings aged 7 or so, made it to the end of the first chapter and decided that I was bored and everything was rubbish and I hated Frodo. About twelve years later the first film came out, I went to see it, and was neither moved nor unmoved – but finally succeeded n powering through the book.
My conclusions were then:
- I still hated Frodo
- It was very, very dull for long stretches
- Smeagol was the only character I liked
- Gandalf is a total dick
Since then I’ve tried and failed to justify my dislike for Lord of the Rings to a long line of interrogators, some more angry or understanding than others. A variety of the more glib replies include:
- I just hate horses a lot
- Maybe if he acknowledged that the glorious countryside is full of cow poo and midges…
- Fucking elves
- It’s racist
- Destiny bores me
- I just hate Tolkien’s endless banging on
- If I wanted to read an Icelandic Saga I’d just read a saga
- It’s no Beowulf
- It’s sexist
- I hate trees
All of these complaints are theoretically true, but they don’t add up to the bigger picture of antipathy, the way that whatever turned in the heads of young readers picking up this fantastically weighty and rich tome for the first time and inspired them completely failed to reach me.
I do dislike horses; I grew up on and around Dartmoor
, which seems to lend itself either to a healthy appreciation of horsekind or a jaundiced hatred of the selfish kicking biting poo-producers (this is in no way related to being cornered on a boulder in a bog on a school trip by a malevolent Dartmoor pony). I am ambivalent toward trees. And while I despise elves, it hasn’t always been the case (indeed, the first “novel” I ever yanked from my awful head featured some fairly prominently), and while I have always
despised “destiny” as a literary conceit or a life one, that’s hardly been enough to put me off other books.
As to rambling on, well. I like Gormenghast
. There have been whole other fantasy worlds which appealed to me at various points in my life: as a young teenager I was crazily into the Pern
books of Anne McCaffrey, and I’ve maintained a long-running (if slowly diminishing) love of Terry Pratchett’s world-renowned Discworld books
. I even spent an embarrassing period in mid-adolescence devouring Dan Abnett’s contribution to the canon of Warhammer novelisations
, although these were notably more concise and full of sex and death than Tolkien (probably why they appealed to me). What I’m saying here is that I have liked, and continue to like (Miéville
, for example) fantasy fiction, which to all intents and purposes in the Western canon of literature was supposedly birthed from the prodigious mindloins of Professor JRR Tolkien.
So why like trickling-down of influence, but not the spring that is the source?
Because as ideas pass through minds they take on some of the character of the minds they pass through. I like Goethe’s Faust
, dislike Marlowe’s Dr Faustus
, and loved Pratchett’s Eric
, which draws on both in parody, even though all three are essentially the same story (and indeed, The Picture of Dorian Gray
, which draws on the same story, and toward which I am ambivalent). The essential, central, archetypal story expressed in Lord of the Rings
is a marrying of several very well-trodden narrative paths, classics of their kind, and ones with which I have grown inordinately bored. They could be given fresh life, fresh direction – but that was never Tolkien’s intention.
There are then, the less flippant excuses: I was too read (perhaps neither “well” nor “widely”, but certain at least of my taste) by the time I finally came to Lord of the Rings, and too accustomed to the more concise, pared-down version of Tolkien in The Hobbit when I first reached for it as a child; by 19 I had begun to appreciate not the grand archetypes of literature (which countless classes have required me to identify, study, and apply, but have failed to make me appreciate on an emotional level) but more complex portraits of individuals; I grew up in a time-withered facsimile of the English country idyll that Tolkien hearkened back to when he wrote of the Shire, and I moved to London precisely to escape the living entombment it represented; and though, like JRR and many others since, I grew up on myths and legends too, I wondered far more often what we were not told about the “traitors” than I cared about the great lines of descent and the supposed “nobility” of bloodlines.
When my in-laws picked up Lord of the Rings, it opened a door for them, spoke to something magical which fitted perfectly with the revolutions in thought they were experiencing. When my friends picked up Lord of the Rings, it wove poetry around their minds and gave them new worlds and strong moral guidance about the corrupting influence of power, and stirred their imaginations.
When I picked up Lord of the Rings I felt like I was being forced on one of those interminable school trips to Dartmoor that we were forced on every six weeks or so to look at bloody mineshafts, in the company of some deeply sanctimonious men who hadn’t packed enough sandwiches and liked singing more than anyone could possibly tolerate (and not even fun songs about footballers being killed with rubber bands). Off we tramped, through apparently unending travel brochures for Middle Earth, to face a pantomime baddie behind a series of end-of-level bosses for the reward of a country dance and some crappy tobacco.
It didn’t appeal then, and it doesn’t now. The idea that I could have read, understood, acknowledged the craft involved in the writing of it and still not like it
may well continue to flabberghast my LARP-ing, Quenya
-tattooed friends into incoherent anger, but the fact remains; and I, in my turn, will accept that they’re never going to “get” my terrible affinity for gruesome detective novels.
Since throwing off Birdsong in a huff, I’ve moved onto reading In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells on my Kindle (which I am finally, cautiously, beginning to accept as a member of my household electronics instead of a microchip-bearing pain in the fundament) and am enjoying it a lot more.