This is a somewhat more difficult review to write than its predecessors, in large part because it is the culmination of not only a triology, but arguably one of the most influential trilogies ever written. It also contains a very lengthy appendices, separate from the story, which seek to shed some light on the language, geography, and lineages mentioned in the story proper.
This book, perhaps most among the three, will surprise those who are only familiar with the movie. It doesn’t end with the destruction of the ring, but rather with the “scouring of the Shire,” when the returning hobbits liberate their homeland from the influence of Saruman.
What really got me about the book with how completely uninterested Tolkien was with the usual conventions of plot. The romantic subplot between Aragorn and Arwen? Not there. Aragorn mentions something to Galadriel in the first book, and they do end up being wed at the end, but otherwise there is nothing: no terse scenes with Arwen and Elrond, no heartwrenching partings of Arwen and Aragorn. Similarly, the pacing and division of the dual narratives is awkward at times, and the pacing inconsistent, but of course none of this is of any particular concern. Tolkien cared about his culture and cosmology. Tolkien wasn’t the first fantasy writer by any means, but he is almost without argument considered the sire of modern fantasy, and that’s odd to think about when reading this trilogy, because modern fantasy is very much about certain storytelling conventions.
Reading The Lord of the Rings was like reading Beowulf: it’s that heavily influenced by Nordic culture. Many of the fantasy names that Tolkien uses are derived from Nordic languages, and he liberally includes kennings, in grand Nordic tradition. It is grieving, though, that I needed to keep consulting internet sources (which are more complete than the appendix) to figure out what the hell was being talked about. This is also somewhat ironic, when you consider that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, was writing at length about pagan tradition.
One must remember that Lord of the Rings represents only the final piece in a much larger legendarium, made up otherwise primarily of histories and fairy tales which tell of the origins of Middle-earth and its first and second ages. Everything makes a lot more sense with a bit of background reading, and as Tolkien was primarily concerned with this history, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read some of his other works, some of which was released posthumously.
In short, The Lord of the Rings is one of those things that everyone, I think, fantasy fan or not, should read, simply because it’s such an important part of the literary canon. Tolkien’s words are like poetry, and it’s a fascinating sort of retelling of pagan literature for people who would otherwise never read Konungasögur in their entire lives.