After recently watching the Peter Jackson directed Lord of the Rings movies again, I decided it was high time for a reread of the books as well. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for them the first time as a lad of 14 years. The story moves fairly slowly, as it is infused with the lore of Middle Earth, poems, songs and vivid descriptions, and with the action segments short and rarely more than two pages long. But as a more mature reader, I find that to be enjoyable pace.

Fantasy writers can learn a great deal from Tokein’s “world building” techniques. The beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring has a lengthy description of the hobbit folk and The Shire. But after the starting place for the world of Middle Earth is established, the world is painted with careful brush strokes, mostly in conversations between characters. It grows organically, unlike some fantasy stories where everything seems haphazardly constructed. We never get the impression that Mr. Tokein simply added anything to move the plot forward, because the story’s fabric is so seamless.

The perennial temptation for fantasy writers is to use magic to get themselves out of the corners they write themselves into. Although the series is named for a magical ring controlled by a dark spirit of sorcery, magic remains the seasoning, rather than the main course. This makes the world much like our own in many ways with just enough otherworldliness to really make it come to life.

But Tolkein’s true genius is the way he encourages the reader to exercise their imagination; most notable to me are descriptions of the everyday magic that surrounds us in nature. The moors, trees, forests, and mountains are portrayed in the series as ever full of life, just as they are in our own world if we take time to look. I’m not overly familiar with Mr. Tolkein’s biography, but I can guess he must have done a good deal of walking around the European countryside, especially the British Isles, and taking all the beauty he saw while adding (or simply noticing?) a veneer of myth and magic to it. Much like Europe, with its ruined castles, Roman viaducts, and henges, there are hints of other sagas that predate the Fellowship of the Ring’s quest. Some of these histories are merely alluded to, others are explained, but many are there to pique our thoughts, to create our own stories. In the same way, creatures like the balrog, the Watcher, the trolls, orcs and goblins are not extensively described, at least in the trilogy itself. This leaves plenty of room for the reader to run free, to see the wizards and hobbits and such roaming the countryside they already knew.

JRR Tolkien did not like allegory, but that’s probably why themes of good and evil, the corrupting influence of power, the least of people becoming the most important, and heroism work so well, because they simply found their way into the story without being placed so overtly. The series is an amazing accomplishment, with so many things fit deftly together: a fantasy world with its own history, multiple complex characters, detailed descriptions, all while telling the story of an epic journey against the background of multifaceted war. These books are the types that deserve to be reread throughout a lifetime to discover something new each time.

PS While the movies made a few minor mistakes, any criticism comparing the movies to the books should really be considered a criticism of the limitations of the medium of film itself, because the movies are very true to the source material, albeit with some chapters edited out.