A Study in Heresy: the top five flawed elements in The Lord of the Rings
As you may have noticed, I’m something of a Tolkien fanboy. But believe it or not, I am not a drooling, mindless fanboy: as much as I will defend my favourite author from undeserved slings and arrows, I do acknowledge that The Lord of the Rings is not a completely perfect work. So as a thought experiment/something a bit different, I decided to come up with a top five list, focusing on aspects of the book I genuinely think are problematic, or at least sub-par. In the event, I did one better: managing not just a top five, but an honorary mention too. Oh well. I can always comfort myself with the knowledge that The Silmarillion is better anyway.
Honorary mention: The Eagles
No, it’s not that old one about the Eagles flying the Ring to Mount Doom. That can be explained away as a matter of secrecy (giant birds are easy to spot and intercept), or as a matter of corruption (Eagles are as presumably as vulnerable to the Ring as most other sentient beings). No, rather they get a mention here for overuse: Tolkien having Eagles rescue his heroes from tight spots is rather like J.K. Rowling having Harry Potter use expelliarmus against Death Eaters. It’s a go-to narrative solution that is just too damn convenient (Tolkien realised this himself, referring to the Eagles as a dangerous machine), and while it initially has a nice mythological reference (Väinämöinen from Kalevala), it soon becomes old-hat if viewed in conjunction with Tolkien’s other work – perhaps the only example where reading Tolkien beyond The Lord of the Rings has a detrimental result. If we include The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, the Eagles carry Fingon, Maedhros, Fingolfin’s corpse, Húrin, Huor, Gandalf, Bilbo, thirteen dwarves, Gandalf again, Gandalf a third time, Gandalf a fourth time, Frodo, and Sam. Thank goodness for Shadowfax providing another in-story means of transportation or these birds would be a veritable taxi service.
This one also has the added bonus of inflicting one of the worst lines of the book: “Praise them with great praise!” Ugh.
Now onto the list proper:
5. Tom Bombadil
The one and (thank Eru) only Tom Bombadil. A quite common choice for people’s least favourite Tolkien character (though, as we shall see, not mine); it is easy to see why. Tom is a silly spouter of nonsense verse:
Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
Then he sidetracks the story from what had been a tense Buchan-esque chase across country. We go from scary Black Riders hunting our protagonists to hanging out with a strange guy in yellow gumboots, a guy with minimal significance in the overall scheme of things. What saves him from a higher ranking is that parts of his story – the hobbits’ strange dreams in his house, the adventure with the Barrow Wight – are genuinely interesting.
The sad thing is that the idea of Tom is brilliant. Someone falling quite outside all the cosmological rules (who is he? What is he?). An ancient, powerful, and mysterious figure overlooked by all. Someone completely neutral with respect to the world outside, to the point where the Ring does not affect him. A strange “green man”-esque figure whom you could imagine fitting into folklore were he less inherently silly. The platonic ideal of Tom Bombadil is refreshingly different, and while Peter Jackson made the right choice in cutting him, he has a place in the book. If only Tolkien had executed it better.
4. The Texas Chain-Orc Massacre
The Two Towers ends on a magnificent cliff-hanger. It is hard to imagine the agony that readers in the mid-1950s must have experienced in waiting for the (delayed) publication of The Return of the King. Poor Frodo, still suffering the effects of Shelob’s poison, has been captured by Orcs. Sam has the Ring, of course, but he isn’t going anywhere without his master.
A shame then that the means of resolving this cliff-hanger – the Orcs literally massacring each other down to two survivors – enables Sam to waltz into the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and rescue Frodo. The in-story explanation is that the Orcs were fighting over Frodo’s mithril coat, and, to be fair, mindless violence is as Orkish as swearing. My issue is that, as presented, it feels a tad contrived: the mithril coat isn’t something like the Ring, which twists and devours, it is just a pretty bit of harmless bling (and what were they going to do with it anyway? Sell it? To whom?). Also, compare the dispute between Uglúk and Grishnakh over Merry and Pippin – there is the awkward tension of competing interests, but they don’t suddenly get homicidal like Gorbag and Shagrat (both of whom are otherwise portrayed as competent).
Perhaps I am being a bit harsh here: it is possible to see how a couple of hot-heads came to blows, with everyone else dragged in to support “their” guy. It doesn’t massively violate the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, given what we know of Orcs. But it is still a bit too neat and tidy as a cliff-hanger resolution for my tastes: a victory over self-massacring villains doesn’t feel particularly satisfying.
3. Gildor Inglorion
Yes, people hate Tom Bombadil. At least one person I know has it in for Bergil son of Beregond. Me? My single-most loathed character in Tolkien’s work is Gildor Inglorion, the Elf who drives the Black Rider away from the hobbits early on in the book.
Now, Gildor, in contrast to Frodo and his friends, knows exactly what this Black Rider is, and what its appearance means. He also knows that Frodo is on an urgent mission, fleeing the safety of The Shire to the dangerous lands beyond, without the guidance of Gandalf. He further knows that Frodo and three other hobbits have no great skill in arms or magic: they’re a group of little people who can do little more than hide from enemies – and at this point, they don’t even have the weapons from the Barrow.
So what does Gildor do? Bearing in mind that he is at least centuries and probably millennia old (belonging to the House of Finrod is pretty ambiguous)… his trip to the Grey Havens can wait, and indeed he turns up again at the Havens at the very end of the book some three years later. This is an Elf with time on his hands. Logic would therefore dictate that he accompany Frodo to Rivendell, or at least Bree, to ensure the hobbits’ safety: deliver them to Aragorn or Elrond in person, then head back to the Havens. But he doesn’t – he sends word to Tom Bombadil, et al, of Frodo’s plight (way to leave the fate of Middle-earth in the hands of better men), then skips away, job done.
Just imagine the conversation Galadriel and Elrond would have had with Gildor had the Ringwraiths caught Frodo before Bree.
This is one of those rare occasions where I almost feel sorry for Peter Jackson. Almost. Dealing with the Weathertop plothole is really a nasty dilemma whichever way you slice it – would you rather have the Ringwraiths look weak or incompetent? (Jackson went with them looking weak, with the infamous Nazgûl-on-fire scene).
The root of the issue is this: why on earth didn’t the Witch-King and friends continue to press the attack? Weathertop was near-perfect for them: it was night, Aragorn and the four hobbits were far from aid… all they had to do was grab the unconscious Frodo, and run. Given the magnitude of the prize on offer – their master’s victory – one would think the Ringwraiths would be prepared to risk a little fire, and as impressive as Aragorn is, he is just one man, outnumbered, with no ability to run or hide. Frodo’s spiritual resistance is a bit moot once he falls unconscious.
Instead, the Nazgûl conveniently and idiotically opt to retreat, allowing the Ringbearer to escape. They pin all their hopes on the Morgul knife-shard piercing Frodo’s heart and sending him over to their world, which is not only a convoluted scheme (Voldemort would be proud), but risky. Every mile Frodo gets closer to Rivendell, the more likely that he (and the Ring) will escape their clutches. And we know how that worked out. Never mind the self-massacring Orcs, the Nazgûl as villains who run away for the protagonists’ convenience is not one of Tolkien’s finer moments.
1. Arwen Undómiel
Lastly, we come to what I consider the single greatest flaw in The Lord of the Rings: Arwen. You can tell something is up when you go looking for online pictures of this character and all you find are images of Liv Tyler from the Jackson films. The character as portrayed in the book is a non-entity, and stands out from Tolkien’s general tendency to make his female characters powerful and memorable.
Yes, there is a bit of backstory in Appendix A, detailing how Aragorn fell in love with Arwen aged twenty, and how Elrond forbade any marriage until Aragorn was King of both Arnor and Gondor (Tolkien’s own relationship with his wife and male authority figures hovers in the background of his fiction). But the Appendices don’t tell us very much about Arwen as a person, beyond her decision to sacrifice immortal life for Aragorn: she is simply turned into a trophy, to reward our young man for his heroic deeds. Worse, she is a weak xeroxed version of the far more interesting and active Lúthien Tinúviel: a love interest who also sacrifices immortality for a mortal man. The difference is that Lúthien refuses to act as a mere trophy, and plays an active role in Beren’s Quest for the Silmaril. Lúthien not only defeats First Age Sauron, but also literally topples Morgoth from his throne via her singing, and then later moves Mandos himself to pity. Does Arwen so much as ride to the Morannon and shout taunts at Sauron? No, she sews a banner. That’s it.
A common fan preference is that Aragorn ought to end up with Éowyn instead. While Éowyn is undoubtedly a more interesting character, I think that would have been a mistake: part of what makes Éowyn so memorable is the incredibly unhealthy nature of her desires. She sees Aragorn as an escape from her mundane, “caged” existence, and when she discovers that she cannot have him, she rides to Pelennor Fields as a death wish. Eventually she realises that life has more to offer than death, but the point is that Éowyn’s arc would have been undercut had she ended up with Aragorn. Arwen, whose marriage to Aragorn allows a temporary reunification of Man and Elf, while exploring that most Tolkienian theme of Death, is a much better choice at a thematic level. It’s just a crying shame that Tolkien wrote the character the way he did.