What is there to say about these books that has not already been said? I suppose everyone who loves this story has their own personal story of how they discovered them. My story is actually rather regretful. I think it was 5th or 6th grade when I first picked up the Hobbit and I gave up after only a few pages. It seems my days of loving fantasy were still in the future…
Oddly, I don’t recall when I first read the series. My failure to read it was around 1991 and it was ten years later when the movies came out. By then, I had read them and loved them. I assume at some point in high school I tried again and this time read them through. I knew the story well enough to notice the way Tolkien had influenced Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, when I began reading that in 1998.
Unlike my #1 book (stay tuned!) then, this book grew on me slowly. But once it took hold, it gripped me. It became the bar by which I measure all other fantasy stories. Further, over the years I delved deeper into Tolkien. The Silmarillion has already made my list, but I also read his essay On Fairy Stories as well as his letters and other stories. For me, Tolkien’s stories are wonderful because they can be enjoyed simply as stories. Yet if you let them, they teach lessons and leave markers you cannot forget when you move through your real life. Further, the stories are a window into an entire way of looking at the world and humanity’s purpose in it.
This is why the comparison’s between Tolkien and Martin fail, to me. Tolkien was consciously engaging in sub-creation, creating a myth for England. He believed that God was Creator and humans, in God’s image, were meant to be sub-creators. In this, he engaged in world-building. World-building is an obvious legacy of Tolkien, seen in all his successors in fantasy from Jordan to Martin to Sanderson and more. But Tolkien’s world is one of myth. Some things are left to the imagination. Martin, it seems to me, is making an effort to write a modern novel that fills in every single detail, answers every question and leaves little to the reader’s speculation. This is why Martin’s fourth and fifth book failed – the primary story (if there is one) is lost in an avalanche of unnecessary and uninteresting peripheral characters.
In Tolkien, you know you are part of a deeper world. If you want, you can dive deeper into that world in other books. These books though keep you focused on the characters you never forget – Bilbo and Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf and all the rest. Tolkien’s masterpiece hits you on so many levels and sticks with you in a way that few other books do. For that reason, its one of my top two.
*Yes, I recognize I put two books together at number two. But I figured tying them together allowed me to include other books rather than making my entire top 10 Tolkien and CS Lewis!