On Tor.com over the last couple of years, Kate Nepveu has been taking us through a chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Lord of the Rings. In each post she would give a brief summary of the action as well as some commentary.
It’s been a great project and it’s just come to an end in the last week or so. I’ve really enjoyed following along with the posts, although I have to admit not with the re-read. Last time I re-read the books was timed with the release of each of the films.
There’s an index of all the relevant posts here.
And a little bit from the very first post, way back in December 2008:
I decided to re-read Lord of the Rings and post about each chapter in 2006. I believe the last time I read it was at the end of 1997, when I purchased my current paperbacks* in London on a term abroad and, I think, started re-reading on the plane home. I certainly had not read it since summer 2001, when I started keeping a book log.
For all that it had been years since I’d last read it, I still wanted a way to come to it fresh. I first read LotR sometime in elementary school, and there was a period of several years where I literally re-read it annually. I also have a good memory for text, and so this long and close familiarity made it difficult to see what was actually on the page. For a similar reason, I’d previously listened to The Hobbit as an audiobook. But the production’s portrayal of the characters just didn’t match mine, and I decided that the problem would only be worse for LotR because of the movies.
(When I read, I usually neither hear nor see what’s described on the page. Instead I experience the book in some intermediate space between words on a page and movies in my mind, which is effectively impossible to describe. (Stephen King’s phrase, “falling through the page,” is accurate but not helpful.) However, I will hear and see suitable references provided by others.)
Instead, then, I decided to post about each chapter as I read it, hoping that this would remind me to read closely. I also read several critical works, looking for fresh approaches. However, because I was re-reading on my own time and schedule, the project eventually fell by the wayside.
When I was recently on maternity leave, I decided to go back to the re-read as a bite-sized method of getting some intellectual stimulation. I started by reading some additional critical works, and in the meantime, I asked Tor if they’d be interested in hosting the chapter-by-chapter re-read.
And the very last, just this past week:
What I Learned About the Book
I’m really delighted to say that the re-read showed me that LotR is a much better book than I had recognized.
The main revelation to me was the prose, which previously I had not noticed and had vaguely assumed was nothing to write home about. Every time I found that I was wrong, I just wriggled in delight: both the paragraph-level examples of brilliant rhythm, and the sheer beauty of some sections. (Without re-reading the entire re-read to refresh my memory–because seriously, recursive much?–I think my favorite still might be Tom’s description of the history of the Barrow-downs, all the way back in Fellowship I.7.)
Other happy surprises were the big-picture structure of the book, which I hadn’t consciously broken down before; discovering Denethor in all his psychologically realistic complexity; glorying in the entire first book of Return of the King, which is now my favorite; and “Well, I’m back,” which was not previously my go-to example for bittersweet perfection.
I’m still not convinced that the pacing of the book always worked as well as it could, especially early on. I have a new-found conviction that putting almost everything Aragorn and Arwen in an Appendix was a really terrible idea. And I will never stop wishing that Tolkien did more with the female characters. But the re-read did what I hoped it would: it let me rediscover a book that had become too familiar to me, and what I found was better than I’d hoped.