22 May 2013

Review: The War of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

Hardcover, 197 pages
Published 2000 (originally 1955)
Acquired February 2011
Read May 2013
The War of the Ring: Being the Fifth Book of The Lord of the Rings
by J. R. R. Tolkien

Each installment of The Lord of the Rings escalates over the previous one: The Ring Sets Out sees very little action happening in the Shire, The Ring Goes South features the Fellowship in some encounters, and The Treason of Isengard moves us to the scale of battles. The War of the Ring, as the title promises, brings us up to all-out war. (However, there's no Ring, oddly enough.) The entire book depicts one long battle, beginning with its buildup, spending several chapters on its actual duration, and then its aftermath. As someone who is not super-into heroic fantasy, I was trepidatious when I realized this, but it turned out to work (more on that later).

The other way in which each installment has shifted is viewpoint characters over time. The Ring Sets Out is driven by Frodo, while The Ring Goes South adds the other members of the Fellowship. The Treason of Isengard removes Frodo and Sam so we just have Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, with occasional peaks at Merry and Pippin. The War of the Ring largely removes Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as viewpoint characters-- meaning it's largely the Merry and Pippin show! This was what really made this big epic battle work, to tell it from the perspective of two ordinary hobbits.

The War of the Ring's best moments are, as a result, the ones in Pippin's plotline. Pippin has come a long way from the "fool of a Took" that Gandalf used to berate in The Ring Goes South; his service in Minas Tirith comprises one of the best subplots in The Lord of the Rings so far. I was impressed with the newfound maturity he demonstrates in offering his service; it's a very touching moment. All of his interactions with the Gondor military men are great (I love the rumors that spread about warrior-hobbits) and his struggle to stop Denethor from killing Faramir is fantastic. Poor Faramir! You're still the best, no matter what your dad says. The scenes where Denethor tries to kill Faramir and then dies himself are chilling, and though the films let me know that Faramir wouldn't be dying, I can't deny a sensation of suspense at the whole sequence.

Merry gets his own action, of course, contributing to the death of the Witch-King of Angmar. Can I say, though, that the revelation that Éowyn is secretly riding with the Rohirrim is kinda anticlimactic in the novels? She's had like three lines of dialogue as herself. And those happened two books ago. And then Pippin gets in again at the end, which layers a couple good cliffhangers: have Frodo and Sam been killed over in The End of the Third Age, which is happening simultaneously? Is Pippin about to die (even though he's just killed a troll, the little bad-ass)?

There are times where it's men riding horses in manly ways (though Tolkien subverts that) or Aragon talking to ghosts or pirates or something (seriously what was that?), but on the whole The War of the Ring makes an enjoyable masterpiece of fantasy warfare, and I am looking forward to the conclusion. Can't believe I'm there already!

(So is it just a coincidence that Denethor and Théoden are near-anagrams? They're like the same guy. In that they're both old kings.)

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