Friday Fun: Kate Nepveu's stupendously wonderful Lord of the Rings re-read

On 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.


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Kate, I'm like you. I've read the trilogy around 17 or 18 times, going through a five or six year run once reading it once a year. I've read the Silmarillion probably 20 times. It's even better, imo.

Thanks for the comments. I admit I've only read The Silmarillion once, way back when I was 20 or something like that. I'll have to take another look at that one too.

The story of Beren and Luthien from the Silmarillion could just about support its own screen treatment: not as complex as LoTR (of course), but perhaps more complex (or at least darker) than The Hobbit (even though not as long). Its briefer length means it wouldn't have to be cut down as much as those two, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.