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September 21, 2009


A student once threatened me with a bow-wielding Aragorn figurine after I dared to hint that, perhaps, the novels were not all that they could have been.

Although this question could be a post or essay in and of itself, I would still ask: What do you think The Lord of the Rings could have been?

(Bear in mind that this comes from a person who identifies more with the bow-wielding-Aragorn-figurine-wielding-student than with the Slough-of-Despond perspective, but I'm still curious.)


The point about the best not necessarily being in the line of greatest influence is an important one, and I suspect it's fairly common; I know that in philosophy this is often the case. In the early modern period Norris has the best attack on scholasticism (best informed, most careful, and most extensive); but it seems to have influenced nobody (they mostly just repeated the cliches Norris rises above). And so forth. We tend to muddle two kinds of importance together: importance in the historical network of causes and effects (extensiveness of influence) and importance relative to the full potential of the genre (comparative excellence as a thing of its kind), and you're right that we shouldn't.


LOTR: Well (opening my copy to a random page), there could have been less dialogue like the following: "'Saruman!' muttered Aragorn. 'But he shall not turn us back! Halt we must once more; for, see! even the Moon is falling into gathering cloud. But north lies our road between down and fen when day returns'" (TTT 418, HM 1-vol. ed.). I understand where he got the idea for this type of dialogue, but I found the result frequently tedious, mock-portentous, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious (as here). I'm perfectly happy to grant that the novel is brilliant world-building; unfortunately, for me, the prose doesn't match the conception. As I said, however, my opinion of the novel's prose has nothing to do with my estimate of its considerable importance.

Amateur Reader

I have extended, or, let's be honest, simpified, some of your idea's here. I actually wrote most of it before I saw your post. I had the same reaction as you in one sense - maybe literary history can help us out here.

Bourgeois Nerd

I can't say I ever really enjoyed reading LotR myself, so you're not alone. But then I like The Silmarillion and the appendices, so maybe my opinion is questionable.

You might find this interesting:

D G Myers


Since I nominated Beloved as the most overrated novel of all time, here is how I determined that it was rated highly. A search of the MLA Bibliography turns up 647 items in whole or in large part about the novel.

By comparison: a search for John Cheever returned 194 items; Bernard Malamud, 534; Alice Walker, 579; Peter Taylor (who won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction the year before Beloved), 135; Anne Tyler (who won the year after), 147.

Prima facie evidence of overrating, I would say.

Lindsey Sparks

LOTR just dragged on too long for me personally. I agree - I felt like I was in the Slough of Despond wading through some of the battle passages and pages and pages of description. I'm usually a big fan of description, but felt Tolkien went a bit overboard. I would find myself bored in the middle of a raging a battle. Not good.
I agree that Beloved is also overrated. I don't think it's even very well written, but it gets unbelievable amounts of attention and is taught on practically every college campus. I'd take The Color Purple anyday, or what about Their Eyes Were Watching God? Both have better plots, characters, and literary style, but they don't get the same type of attention.

Charles Lambert

This is fun. I thought Beloved was dreadful, and didn't even finish it, which is rare for me. It's good to see I'm not alone (though it wouldn't have changed my opinion of the book to discover otherwise...)


It surprises me that you don't consider what, to me, would be the logical way of 'rating' a conversion novel, i.e. how far did it succeed in converting its readers? By this standard I suspect Loss and Gain rates quite highly. Offhand I can't think of any RC converts to Anglicanism who directly attributed their conversion to reading the novel, but it ought to be possible to find some among the post-Newman generation of Oxford Tractarians. One scholar has pointed to parallels between Loss and Gain and G.M. Hopkins's letters at the time of his conversion, and speculated (plausibly, it seems to me) that 'Hopkins read that novel as he was contemplating his own conversion' (Bernadette Ward, Word as World: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins (2002), p.68 n.34).


That's a good point. Not sure where it would leave poor Grace Kennedy: several Victorians claimed that her anti-Catholic novel Father Clement converted them. To Catholicism.

D G Myers

After much thought, a two-weeks-deferred reply is here.

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