As Good as The Lord of the Rings
An Epic Failure of Comparison
  

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

 

August 2011

  
As good as — ?

No. It isn't.

That's the short answer. Whichever modern fantasy novel or series which is compared favorably with J.R.R. Tolkien's prose epic, The Lord of the Rings, is in sober fact not as good as Tolkien's, almost certainly is not even in the same league as Tolkien's as a work of artistic creation, and sadly, probably only gains embarrassment by the explicit comparison.

How often have you glanced at the book-jacket or paperback cover praise for a fantasy "epic" of some sort, or read a book review, and seen a favorable comparison of the work at hand with The Lord of the Rings? I have, too many times.

The publishers may send out a dozen or fifty pre-release copies of a book to reviewers and other authors, figuring correctly that some will like it and say so, and perhaps a few will like it exceedingly and say so. It is this praise which the prospective buyer will be shown. A sharp practice, perhaps, but not reprehensible.

The problem is the hyperbole. It is not deserved, and the false comparison diminishes the deserved repute of what truly is great.
  

When I first read The Hobbit (published 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (published 1954-1955), checked out from my high-school library, I didn't know anyone personally who had read them. But I was bowled over, and knew I was in the presence of unique literature: good, powerful, and exquisitely presented.

Within a few years, I was telling people that in several centuries' time, The Lord of the Rings would be ranked with John Milton's poetical epic, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674). As I recall, those I told this were doubtful or nonplussed, whether they were fans of Tolkien or not. I still maintain that Tolkien belongs in the league of the great novels and epics in English, and holds its own among the greats of world literature.
  

I name no lesser titles here because it isn't my purpose to single out a particular book or a few of them, whether they are popular favorites or best-sellers or virtually forgotten. Nor do I want to hurt any reader's feelings about some cherished favorite. I wish just to recall a sense of proportion and perspective to claims of greatness.

As readers, we abandon some of our acuity when we accept a comparison that a run-of-the-mill fantasy is "as good as The Lord of the Rings". A novel needn't be an out-and-out maggotorium to be unworthy of such a comparison. Too often I open a book at random, read a paragraph or a page, and see that the praises sung on the cover must have been generated by rolling many-sided dice printed with superlatives. I'm not speaking here of close reading, slowly soaking in the text. Or with a critic's or reviewer's heightened attention to some theme aspiring to grandeur. No, more's the pity: just a casual reading of some random paragraphs or pages is enough for the book to betray itself: epic fail.

Tolkienesque books and other fantasies there are a-plenty, and more will be written. Many of these are enjoyable, some are quite good. But before we rate them among the very best, or accept a claim that they are "as good as The Lord of the Rings", we might pause and reflect whether such a comparison does justice to our perceptions and perspective, or to literature.

  

© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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