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Why I Like “Harry Potter” Better than “Lord of the Rings”

Harrypotter1LordoftheringsI’m not arguing that “Harry Potter” is actually — in some objective sense — better than “Lord of the Rings.” (If it even makes sense to say “in some objective sense” when you’re talking about art.) I get that “Lord of the Rings” is probably Great Art, and I’m not sure that “Harry Potter” is. (Talk to me in a hundred years, when we see if kids are still reading it.)

What I’m saying is that I enjoy “Harry Potter” immeasurably more than “Lord of the Rings.” With “Harry Potter,” I eagerly look forward to each new installment in the series. I re-read the books frequently and with pleasure; I have an extensive memory of the story, and can discuss its finer points at length; and I have an elaborate and probably unhealthy fantasy life centering around the Potterverse.

“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand, I slogged through twenty years ago out of a sense of duty. I found it tedious and unengaging, and skimmed through long sections of it; I’ve never had the slightest desire to re-read it even once; I have only the vaguest memory of the general outline of the plot (ring, Mordor, lots of battles, yada yada yada); and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than four or five characters — and that only because those names get tossed around so much in conversation. (Yes, my friends are nerds.) “Lord of the Rings” is like Wagner or Bob Dylan to me — I recognize and acknowledge its greatness, without actually liking or enjoying it.

And I think this is a defensible position.

So I’m going to defend it.

Here’s what I think “Harry Potter” has that “Lord of the Rings” doesn’t.

Snape1. Moral complexity. I may be being unfair here — like I said, I have only the vaguest memory of “Lord of the Rings” — but the characters in LOTR seemed to line up into clearly distinguished Good Guy/Bad Guy camps. Who then proceed to fight each other. For three long books. With the exception of Frodo — and are we ever really in doubt that he’ll do the right thing? — the battle of good against evil is always external. Evil is Out There, and you kill it with an axe or something.

“Harry Potter,” on the other hand, has genuine moral complexity. The battle against evil is often internal, and the right thing to do isn’t always clear. Good people do bad things, and not always for good reasons, and sometimes with serious consequences. Bad people turn out to have surprisingly decent and sympathetic sides to them. And perhaps more importantly, there’s a continuum of good and bad. There are people who are jerks but aren’t actually evil — and in some cases who have strong and important good tendencies, or who are at least understandable and somewhat sympathetic. And there are people who are likable but weak and selfish, and who screw up a lot. Forget comparing it to other juvenile literature — there’s more moral complexity and shades of gray in “Harry Potter” than there is in most adult fiction.

Corneliusfudge2. Political relevance. There are times when “Harry Potter” reads like Chomsky for kids. In “Harry Potter,” people in government ignore real threats that they don’t want to deal with; magnify fake threats to make it look like they’re taking action; use fear-mongering to solidify their power; make alliances of convenience with people they know are evil; serve their rich friends instead of the people they’re governing; manipulate and even censor the press; and use the education of children as an opportunity for propaganda. The book is like a civics lesson at the most left-wing junior high you can imagine.

“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand… well, I suppose it’s not fair to critique the books for creating an entirely fresh and imaginary world. That’s one of its strengths, after all. But I didn’t feel that LOTR shed any light at all on my life and the world I live in. This is just a personal preference, but I strongly prefer fiction — including fantasy/sci-fi — that has some relevance and connection to me and my world. Sure, I like escapism, I like being taken out of my life… but I like being taken out of my life for the purpose of stepping back and getting perspective on it. I didn’t get that from “Lord of the Rings”… and I get it in trumps from “Harry Potter.”

Hermione3. Female characters. There’s been some debate about whether the Harry Potter books are sexist. And I’ll grant that the female characters in “Harry Potter” — and their place in the story — have some problematic aspects.

But here’s the thing about female characters in “Harry Potter”:

It has some.

More than a couple, even.

And those female characters aren’t just sidelines or afterthoughts. They’re central to the plot, they’re in positions of strength and authority, and they take an active role in making things happen. There are times when “Harry Potter” is a bit of a testosterone-fest… but compared to “Lord of the Rings,” it’s freakin’ Adrienne Rich.

Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What do you think? Arguments, agreements, questions, outraged objections, and other comments are cheerfully encouraged.

Comments

  1. says

    OK, let’s take these one at a time. All my humble opinion, natch.
    1. Harry Potter isn’t so much morally complex as morally muddled; Rowling doesn’t seem to have any more interest in a coherent moral vision than she does in sensible plots or the rules of Quidditch. So we have Harry’s family, who are far more one-dimensionally evil than any characters in Tolkien; wizard schoolteachers blithely sponsoring simulated death ordeals for their students so that the action can be spiced up with a little moral peril; and guess what, Snape’s not really the bad guy. Again.
    Yes, she has some flawed characters, but not, it seems to me, any more, or better handled, than is typical.
    It’s true that morality in LOTR is somewhat simpler than in life, but that’s because it’s not about figuring out the right thing, but about how hard it can be to do the right thing even when you know what it is–which seems a reasonable theme for a book written immediately after WWII.
    2. It’s usually a bad idea to mix politics and fantasy (as opposed to satire), because it simultaneously weakens the political critique and the credibility of the secondary world. Ursula K. LeGuin nailed this in her essay “From Elfland To Poughkeepsie.” It can be done, with a sufficiently deft touch; unfortunately, a deft touch is exactly what Rowling lacks.
    3. I have to concede this one, but Tolkien isn’t quite as bad as you probably remember–one of his female characters is a great power in the world (and withstands the temptation of the Ring), and another puts on men’s armor, kicks ass, and takes names.
    Here’s my #4: imaginative power. LOTR is brilliantly obsessive, wildly original, and (mostly) beautifully written, and Middle-Earth is solid and real. HP, on the other hand, is a clunky mass of indifferently deployed cliches that doesn’t hold up well even against its direct competition/half-digested sources, such as LeGuin, Diana Wynne Jones, or Phillip Pullman. It just seems as if she’s making it up as she goes.
    That said, HP slides by on charm for the first few books, and given that it’s a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon, it must have something on the ball, even if it’s not to my taste.

  2. says

    A worthy opponent!
    Hi, Tim. I’m so glad you wrote in: you were, in fact, the imaginary LOTR defender I was arguing with in my head when I wrote this post in the first place, and I’m thrilled that you took the time to comment.
    So anyway. All also IMHO. And spoiler alert: many spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read all six Harry Potter books.
    1. I don’t agree that Rowling’s world view is morally muddled (at least, not mostly). I think the world she’s created is morally muddled — but then so is the world we live in. I think her moral perspective on that muddle is — with some notable exceptions — generally pretty clear.
    I agree that Harry’s family is boringly one-dimensional (although Harry’s aunt and the turn she takes in Book 6 was one of the characters I was thinking of when I cited “bad people with surprisingly decent sides”). Actually, I think Voldemort himself is a better example of a character who’s so evil that he’s boring. I think the back-story we get about him in Book 6 makes him somewhat more interesting (where we see him as essentially a clinical sociopath from a very early age) — but on the whole, he’s so evil as to be a caricature.
    My point, though, isn’t that all the characters in HP are morally complex. They aren’t. My point is that many, many of them are. Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Ron Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, Percy Weasley, Hagrid, even Dumbledore, and probably most importantly Harry himself… the book is loaded with central characters whose ethical behavior is complicated and evolving and drawn in shifting shades of gray. I didn’t get that from LOTR… and it’s one of the primary things I look for in fiction.
    And I think the moral complexity of Snape goes far beyond “Harry keeps thinking he’s the bad guy but he keeps turning out not to be.” I’ve found Snape to be one of the most morally interesting and morally multi-layered characters I’ve read in a while (although admittedly, I don’t read much fiction of late.) In the broad strokes and in the larger fight, he’s basically a good guy who’s fighting hard on the right side (although that was obviously called into serious question in Book 6, and we’ll have to wait until Book 7 for the question to be resolved)… but on the other hand, in the way he treats people in his everyday life, he’s a sadistic jerk who abuses his power… but on the other hand, when you find out more about his back-story, his behavior becomes a lot more understandable and he becomes a lot more sympathetic… but on the other hand, adults are supposed to get over their back-story, and his behavior is pretty much indefensible no matter what his back-story is… but on the other hand, he clearly struggles hard to be a good person and to redeem himself, often against his own inclinations and feelings… but on the other hand, he seems to lack a basic empathy and compassion for other people, which is at the heart of morality… (On the other hand, he’s played by Alan Rickman, who makes me want to grovel at his feet trembling and begging for forgiveness for any bad things I might have done and secretly praying that forgiveness doesn’t come too quickly… which automatically makes the character a lot more sympathetic… but I digress.) Anyway. Snape interesting. The most interesting character in the series, I think.
    I do see your point about LOTR being about how hard it is to do the right thing. I just think there has to be a more interesting way to explore that than a battle, and then another battle, and then another battle, and then another battle, and then another battle. More interesting to me, anyway.
    As far as the simulated death ordeals go… I definitely concede that point. What I can say? That was in Book 4, which is a largely indefensible low point in the series and which I pretty much try to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s sort of like being a Buffy fan and trying to act as if Season 7 never happened.
    2. I haven’t read the essay of which you speak (I’d like to). But it surprises me tremendously to hear that Ursula K. LeGuin argued against mixing politics and fantasy, since I think she’s one of the writers who does it most skillfully. “The Dispossessed,” “The Left Hand of Darkness,” “The Word for World is Forest,” even parts of Earthsea… much of what resonates so much for me about these stories is the political/social perspective they provide, and how they make the human dimension of politics so clear.
    Anyway, I’m not sure what to say about this in general, except that I don’t agree. I think one of the things fantasy and sci-fi can be best at is providing that otherworldly perspective on our own world — including political and social perspective. And when it comes to making the human dimensions of politics clear… one of the things I like best about Harry Potter is the way it explores a child’s experience of the larger social and political world… and the way it explores what an upsetting — and necessary — part of maturity and growing-up it is when you realize that the political world is fucked up and adults don’t know what the hell they’re doing. (That’s actually one of the things I like best about HP compared to lots of other kid-lit serieses — instead of putting the children in a weird temporal stasis where everyone stays the same age forever through a dozen books or more, the books are about growing up, about the aspect of childhood that is change, rapid and often unsettling change.)
    3. Two important female characters. Whoopie. Thanks, Tolkein. Harry Potter has well over a half a dozen who are central to the story… and many, many more who are peripheral but still quite vivid.
    To be fair, I do get that it’s somewhat messed-up to criticize a book written in the 1940s for not having the sexual politics of the 2000’s. But again, I’m not arguing some “objective whatever that means when you’re talking about art” greatness, in which you have to take into account the social context in which it was created. I’m arguing “why I find it deeply satisfying,” in which you don’t have to take into account jack.
    All of that being said…
    4. While I think you’re needlessly harsh on Harry Potter, I heartily agree that it’s flawed — often seriously so, more than just your typical “If vampires don’t breathe, how do they smoke?” and “Why is it dangerous to beam within your own ship but safe to beam to another ship?” and “The rules of Quidditch are stupid and make so sense” nitpicking. And I think LOTR probably is the greater work. That’s not really my point.
    My point is this: I think it’s possible for a thoughtful, reasonable person to find HP’s flaws forgivable, and its strengths deeply appealing and satisfying. And I think it’s possible for a thoughtful and reasonable person to find LOTR’s flaws unignorably irritating, and its strengths not very interesting. A lot of this is just personal preference — I find moral complexity to be one of the most compelling aspects of fiction, and I find battle scenes almost universally tedious. But I do think it’s possible for a love of Harry Potter to be more serious, and more defensible, than just “I like Hermione because she has a kitty” and “Alan Rickman is hot.”
    Which brings me to my own Number Four point, which I inexplicably neglected to mention in my original posting:
    4. Alan Rickman is hot.
    Way more than Viggo Mortensen.

  3. Rebecca says

    Just wanted to chime in here a little about HP and politics (though “chime” is probably the wrong word, since everyone knows I couldn’t carry a tune in even a large bucket).
    As an educator, the politics of Order of the Phoenix (which is otherwise my least favorite of the series) seemed painfully apt in the summer of 2003. Teachers at Hogwarts were watching what they said and living in fear for their jobs; at a real school, I had just been “consolidated” out of my position in part because I encouraged the students in anti-war activism. At Hogwarts, Defense Against the Black Arts, which had once taught useful skills and rewarded fast, original thinking, now taught only rote memorization of government approved lessons; in SF public schools, teachers were being forced to teach “scripted” curricula, involving a great deal of repetition and no critical thinking. Suffice to say, Order of the Phoenix was anything but escapism for me when it came out. Even now, rereading it brings back harsh memories of that summer and makes me worry about the state of education in the US.
    So is that what fantasy literature is supposed to do? I suppose not, but, like the afore-mentioned “The Dispossessed,” the book makes me think, which is something I rather like to do.
    And I’ve only read the first of the LOTR books, because that one was so freaking boring I could hardly remember not to leave it on the train.

  4. says

    I’m glad you titled this “Why I LIKE HP Better Than LOTR” rather than “Why HP IS Better…”
    I admit it’s a matter of taste. I read books 1-3 and never understood the appeal. I saw movies 1-4 and don’t get it. Even with Alan Rickman. Sorry.
    I’m not going to attack Potter, though, since I can see why people might like it, even though I don’t. But I do have a few responses concerning your opinion of Lord of the Rings. (The book, now, not the movies. Even with Viggo Mortensen.)
    1. Moral complexity. This is a matter of perspective, I think. I believe there is moral complexity to be found in LOTR. However, in my opinion, it is not between the forces of Mordor and those of the West. I don’t think it was ever Tolkien’s intention to present the forces of Mordor as a moral comparison to his other characters.
    Instead, we have Boromir wanting the Ring to defend his people; the Choices of Master Samwise (does he abandon Frodo, or abandon the Quest?); Denethor’s and Theoden’s different reactions to the apparent hopelessness of fighting against Mordor; Galadriel’s test when she is offered the Ring; Eowyn’s decision to disobey her king and uncle in order to defend those she loves and to escape her barren life; and of course Frodo and Gollum. I could go on, I suppose. Think of Saruman and Wormtongue: even they were given choices, very late in the game, to turn away from the path of evil. Tolkien was a committed Christian, and the idea that it is never too late was, I think, very important to him. There is a lot of internal moral struggle. It is the overwhelming power of total evil Out There that makes the inner moral struggle of the characters so vital.
    The whole moral situation and scale of LOTR is very different from Potter, and more on the ground of fable or parable, so I can see why you might prefer Rowling’s more character-driven style; but I don’t think you can say there is no moral complexity in LOTR.
    2. Political Relevance. Lord Denethor says things like, “We should have this thing [the Ring]. Not to use, certainly, but to hide away, to be used only in the greatest need and final extremity
 we stand in defense of all the Free Peoples, and if we fall, there will be no defense elsewhere
”
    I’m not saying it’s Chomskey, but if you can’t find political meaning in the debates at the Council of Elrond or at Minas Tirith, you really aren’t trying very hard. Maybe it’s not relevant to our lives right now, but it was written in the 1940’s & 50’s, after all. And with G.W. Bush in the White House, it seems more relevant every day.
    As for “battle scenes”, I have always found it interesting that Tolkien, unlike most authors in the heroic-fantasy genre, preferentially picks small, powerless male characters as his viewpoint characters in battle scenes, and contrives to have them knocked on the head or otherwise stunned as soon as he possibly can, and then gives us a summary of the action later. (He was himself a WWI veteran.)
    (By the way, I don’t think Ursula Le Guin ever argued against mixing fantasy with politics. I just think she disliked the way some 70’s fantasy authors were doing it.)
    3. Female characters. I will gladly admit this. Tolkien had a problem with women. Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn. Not a lot to choose from, there. Only Galadriel is a real force, and she is too perfect to be real; only Eowyn is convincing, and she is forced off-stage after her only moment of action.
    4. Alan Rickman is not Snape. He is much, much better looking than Snape. Rickman could bench-press Snape. Snape should look more like, oh, Steve Buscemi with a goatee and no sleep for about three days. With a voice like Boris Karloff. (I didn’t like the HP books, but I liked them better than the movies.)

  5. says

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful post, DB. You may well be right: I may be being unfair about the moral complexity and political relevance of LOTR. Just a couple of quick specific comments.
    “Denethor’s and Theoden’s different reactions to the apparent hopelessness of fighting against Mordor…”
    “Think of Saruman and Wormtongue…”
    “If you can’t find political meaning in the debates at the Council of Elrond or at Minas Tirith, you really aren’t trying very hard.”
    You’re assuming that I have a level of detail in my memory about these books that I absolutely do not have. Again, I read LOTR 20 years ago, and very little of it stuck with me. Frodo, Mordor, ring; battles, battles, battles. That’s pretty much it.
    But… well, that’s kind of my point. For me, LOTR was — as Reverend Lovejoy says about the Bible — a twelve-hundred-page sleeping pill. I think Rebecca hit the nail on the head: if I hadn’t felt that as a fantasy/sci-fi reader I was in some way obligated to finish the thing, I wouldn’t have made it past the first hundred pages. It didn’t grab my imagination, and it didn’t stick with me at all. Harry Potter just resonates with me more. Maybe it is because it’s on a more human and character-driven scale rather than, as you put it, a fable or parable — I just find it easier to identify with.
    Which, ultimately, is in all likelihood entirely a matter of taste, and largely inexplicable. (Fun to argue about, though.)
    I do agree that the HP movies are nowhere near as good as the books. But I don’t agree that Alan Rickman is not Snape. Alan Rickman is what made me (a) really begin to get Snape as an interesting and potentially sympathetic character, and (b) have unspeakable and obsessive fantasies about him.
    I do like the idea of recasting Snape as Steve Buscemi, though. And I may be revealing myself as a far sicker bastard that I already have… but I actually think Steve Buscemi is hot, too.

  6. stephen says

    I think the final measurement of a piece of literatures value is in if you enjoy it. to that end, if you enjoy long, dry pedagogy and incredibly complex writing no series of books can possible match the lord of the rings trilogy. not even “war and peace” or “pilgrims progress” can compare with the sheer massive dullness of the lord of the rings. Not even a rings junkie can deny these facts with any hope of remaining credible. I think, however, you are denying yourself a great deal of pleasure and understanding of the rings books. As I have taken great pleasure from the things I have read of yours, please allow me to show you a perspective that will make the rings books perhaps a bit more palatable.
    consider the fact that you comment on what many people would consider to be obscene and lewd, (porn, vibrators, other miscellaneous sex toys and behaviors). Sixty years ago you would have been shunned and publicly ridiculed for the mere suggestion that women have a right to get off just as much as men do. Times have changed. Holding tolkien to the same light as rowling does not do him justice. The most lethal war the world had yet seen was over, and the world still remembered the conflict in very black and white terms. aggression showed up bearing the sign of death and had every intention of crushing all dissent and tearing the beating heart of all americans out of our chests via our assholes. the world was black and white. if you look at the rings books from the very real perspective that evil can not just hurt us and get away with it, but can kill us all if we let it, the moral barometer of the story makes more sense. the conflict in rowlings stories is more engaging to a modern audience because her evildoers are stealthy, striking where we are weakest and most vulnerable, using fear and mistrust rather than the edge of a blade or the muzzle of a rifle. watch the evening news and it becomes immidiately obvious where Rowling draws her evil creatures from. as a comparative, watch any porn movie you like (make sure it is one you actually like, life it too short to suffer bad smut), then look at some of the more ribald paintings from Van Stuck, or Adolphe Bougereau. these men painted sex in an incredibly deep and sensuous fashion, but it would take a great deal of effort for any of it to get you off (not to mention thrown out of the museum). However the base material for seriously hot sex exists in the paintings. If you really try placing yourself into the mindset that evil can crush us all if we do the wrong thing, or even all the right things, that sometimes sacrifice and valor are nothing against such endless outpourings of hate, you will find a new engagement with the lord of the rings trilogy. If you cannot think that way, consider the knowledge you can’t to be a great gift. the world was not allways so secure.
    your second option for enjoying the rings books more now is that the movies have provided what tolkien failed to, namely faces to go with all the names and places. if you wanted to wander with legolas, you might wonder what color his hair was. to my memory tolkien never told us.
    Try to read the rings books again if you like (you do, from your writings have a certain masochistic streak). you may find that maturity will yield the perspective to appreciate and perhaps, enjoy them a bit more.
    All these things being said, I read both the potter books and the rings books with equal joy, sometimes you want twinkies, and sometimes you want a whole fire roasted luau boar complete with half naked polynesian dancers and the scent of roasting flesh and salt air. Both are enjoyable, and neither one will satisfy the craving for the other.

  7. says

    —(By the way, I don’t think Ursula Le Guin ever argued against mixing fantasy with politics. I just think she disliked the way some 70’s fantasy authors were doing it.)—
    I reread the essay today, and you’re quite right. She’s not against politics per se, but creeping mundanity–it’s just that her most vivid example is explicitly political.
    —I think one of the things fantasy and sci-fi can be best at is providing that otherworldly perspective on our own world — including political and social perspective.—
    I agree completely. I probably didn’t make myself clear enough; I meant politics in a very narrow sense, to mean the actual sausage-making process. Something like The Left Hand of Darkness is political in a completely different sense, of which I heartily approve.
    —Frodo, Mordor, ring; battles, battles, battles.—
    There really aren’t that many battles. Most people I know who find LOTR dull object to the endless landscape descriptions!
    —With the exception of Frodo — and are we ever really in doubt that he’ll do the right thing?—
    Not sure how I missed this before, but in fact Frodo doesn’t do the right thing, and it’s kind of a big deal. Actually, I think that that right there absolves LOTR of charges of moral simplicity.
    In the same LeGuin book, I found this:
    “Critics have been hard on Tolkien for his ‘simplisticness,’ his division of the inhabitants of Middle Earth into the good people and the evil people. And indeed he does this, and his good people tend to be entirely good, though with endearing frailties, whil his Orcs and other villains are altogether nasty. But all this is a judgment by daylight ethics, by conventional standards of virtue and vice. When you look at the story as a psychic journey, you see something quite different, and very strange. You see then a group of bright figures, each one with its black shadow. Against the Elves, the Orcs. Against Aragorn, the Black Rider. Against Gandalf, Saruman. And above all, against Frodo, Gollum. Against him–and with him.
    “It is truly complex, because both the figures are already doubled. Sam is, in part, Frodo’s shadow, his inferior part. Gollum is two people, too, in a more direct, schizophrenic sense; he’s always talking to himself, Slinker talking to Stinker, Sam calls it. Sam understand Gollum very well, though he won’t admimt it and won’t accept Gollum as Frodo does, letting Gollum be their guide, trusting him. Frodo and Gollum are not only both hobbits; they are the same person–and Frodo knows it. Frodo and Sam are the bright side, Smeagol-Gollum the shadow side. In the end Sam and Smeagol, the lesser figures, drop away, and all that is left is Frodo and Gollum, at the end of thelong quest. And it is Frodo the good who fails, who at the last moment claims the Ring of Power for himself; and it is Gollum the evil who achieves the quest, destroying the Ring, and himself with it…. When you look at it that way, can you call it a simple story? I suppose so. Oedipus Rex is a fairly simple story, too. But it is not simplistic. It is the kind of story that can be told only by one who has turned and faced his shadow and looked into the dark.”
    Take that, freaking Adrienne Rich! (Actually, I quite like Adrienne Rich.)

  8. says

    First, I want to say: I love all of you. This is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Next topic: the Smurf/Rainbow Brite controversy!
    I do still hold my basic position that Harry Potter, deeply flawed though it is, is a worthwhile, serious, multi-layered, intensely satisfying series with a lot of interesting stuff going on, and that loving it passionately is a defensible position. And I still hold my position that a reasonable book-loving person could be bored to screaming by LOTR. But I am now convinced that I was mistaken about LOTR’s moral simplicity and political irrelevance. Again, I haven’t read it for 20 years, and even then I didn’t read it very carefully after the first 100 pages or so, since I wasn’t enjoying it. Mea culpa.
    I’m getting more and more drawn to the idea that the main difference between the two works has to do with the eras in which they were conceived and written: the difference between the WWII world and the 9/11 world. (Stephen, I loved your comments and have been thinking about them all day — although I don’t agree that Harry Potter is the equivalent of Twinkies!) I think this difference may well be a lot of why I respond to the one and not the other. It’s not that I find no emotional resonance in literature about WWII — I love “Man in the High Castle,” for instance, and “Maus” of course — but the LOTR approach to the issues somehow doesn’t grab me.
    Actually, I think there’s another important way that the books’ different eras shape their moral and political outlooks so differently. Being in the UK and America in WWII meant essentially being on the side of the angels. Of course the Allies had some serious “we have to keep the ring to protect ourselves against evil” moments — internment camps and Nagasaki immediately leap to mind. But on the whole, the Allies were the Good Guys.
    But living in the UK or America today means living in the belly of the beast. It puts us in the position where just living our lives — paying taxes, driving cars, buying stuff — means participating in a fundamentally evil system, and even contributing to it.
    And I think that’s a big part of why Harry Potter is so resonant for me. My moral issues are less about “How do you find the strength and goodness in yourself to battle against evil?” and more about “How do you manage to be a good person and still participate in the world?” And the moral questions and quandaries presented in Harry Potter — personal, character-driven, human-scaled, gray-shaded, complicated, often unclear as to what’s right and wrong, with important battles both small and large and both external and internal — have an intense connection with my own.
    All that being said… I appreciate the invitation to give LOTR another try, Stephen, but I really don’t think I’m going to. Yes, I’m a sexual masochist, but I’m not a literary one (although I am a cinematic one — I once went out of my way to see a double feature of “Tango and Cash” and “Lambada!”), and I think life is too short to re-read 1200-page books that I didn’t like the first time around. I appreciate the thought, though.
    Oh, and re the Alan Rickman question: The more I think about it, the more I think Steve Buscemi wouldn’t work as Snape — and Alan Rickman does, despite being too good-looking for the role. Steve Buscemi’s characters tend to be twitchy and gabby and high-strung, often with a wide streak of gooberish incompetence… and that’s all wrong for Snape. Snape is creepy, but he isn’t twitchy: he’s self-possessed, self-controlled, powerful, authoritative, and singularly skillful at his craft, with the ability to silence a room simply with a look. Of course, he’s also a cruel, sadistic control freak, who takes gleeful pleasure in abusing his power and authority… excuse me, I have to leave right now. Bye.

  9. Dan W says

    Much like you Greta, I gave up after one shot, but in reverse — I was good for the first Harry Potter book, and then…. well, I won’t say I found it as bad as “The Phantom Menace”, but much like SWI:TPM, I was actively disinterested in following up with the rest of the series.
    Essentially, I found Harry Potter to be an English Cozy murder mystery wrapped up with some fantasy trappings. If Agatha Christie had seen the Matrix and decided to re-write it in an English Boarding school, we would have ended up with a similar product. (Perhaps Snape would have been modeled after Hercule Poirot.) (Both Snape and Poirot share the same relentless and cheerfully sadistic nature.)
    By contrast, I find the LOTR to be a much richer experience emotionally. I absolutely disagree with LeGuin’s idea that the good people are absolutely good: many of the Elves are, to put a fine point on it, cowards who prefer to flee back to the West rather than face Sauron. The men and hobbits of the Far West can’t be bothered to face up the troubles of Gondor until the conflict comes to their borders: much like people of any time and any era, they adopt an actively disinterested apathy rather than face a terrifying present. (Certainly a behavior seen in our own day.) Even Tom Bombadil, who seems to be an avatar embodying a very ancient power, would rather make dandelion wine than engage in a conflict with evil.
    The essential note of LOTR is that the greatness of the conflict will alter things forever. “Winning” will in many ways be as bad as losing. The choice for the Elves is humiliating flight, death, or a wasting away. The choice for humans is slavery or death. As is always the case in war, the choice is not between horror and honor, the choice is between evil or necessary evil.
    I could go on and on, and that’s precisely the point about the richness of the series: I have yet to touch on Frodo’s inability to carry out his mission, Saruman’s treason, or the Steward of Gondor’s delusion that he is being “rational” when in fact he has been deceived. Nor have I touched on the idea that magic brings suffering, or how a less powerful enemy nearly wins because of his ability to foster disunity and hatred within his opposition, nor have I touched on the idea that beauty may be worth dying for as an essential good.
    It’s not that I’m going to keep Katy and Lexi from reading Harry Potter, but I will bet you $20 that by the time Lexi is 16, Harry Potter is not going to be an enduring classic, it’s going to be one of those things that people were into at the turn of the century.

  10. stephen says

    sorry, I suppose I did kind of intimate that harry potter was a twinkie. I like twinkies, that should count for something……
    The world war 2 comparison becomes much more clear when you realise tolkein was a war veteran.
    replacement snape list
    1. malcolm mcdowell – ugly and very mentally unstable
    2. christopher walken – creepy looking, LIKES playing crazy killer type people.
    3. colin farrell – not ugly or creepy, but has a good accent for the work. good intensity
    4. Hugo Weaving – accent, odd looking but not too bad, intense psycotics very well.
    feel free to blaze away at my picks, if you must.
    Rainbow brite would totally kick the smurfs asses, and you know it.

  11. says

    Hm. Ben Kingsley, maybe? I like all of yours (except Walken, I don’t think he could handle the accent), and Malcolm McDowell especially I think has potential. But actually, I’m having more fun thinking of grotesquely bad miscastings. Jerry Seinfeld? Jean-Claude Van Damme? Benny Hill? Ron Jeremy?
    Come to think of it, this isn’t the first time Alan Rickman has been too good-looking for his role. One of my main problems with “Sense and Sensibility” (apart from the fact that I don’t like the story — for an Austen-head, I’m weirdly picky about her books) was the casting of Colonel Brandon. The idea of the decent, good-hearted, milquetoasty, somewhat stodgy, kind of boring middle-aged suitor being played by Alan Rickman is too absurd to contemplate. Please.
    And no way! Smurfs rock!
    P.S. I’m doing well, SPF. Enjoying the hell out of this conversation, among other things. How’s about you?

  12. says

    Actually, come to think of it, there is one other fairly important thing Harry Potter has that I don’t remember getting from LOTR — and that’s a sense of humor. What about it, LOTR fans — am I being unfair again? Is there humor in LOTR that I don’t remember? Humor isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for me in art — I’m a Nick Cave fan, for God’s sake — but it sure does help.

  13. Dan W says

    Yep, that’s a fair point. LOTR has some *traces* of humor, mostly in the first part of the first book, but it’s pretty much three volumes of sacrifice, dismay, discomfort, and death.
    Now, why I love LOTR and loathe loathe loathe Cold Mountain, which could be similarly described, is anyone’s guess.
    As far as alterna-Snapes go, I would have to say that Alan Rickman has defined the part. It makes as little sense to posit what other actor could play the role as it would to ask who else besides Mel Blanc could be Bugs Bunny.
    Query: am I a hypocrite for happily watching bits of the Harry Potter movies for free on TV when I can’t be bothered to read the books? Or is this a case, like “Get Shorty” or “The Ten Commandments” where the movie is just better?

  14. says

    —sacrifice, dismay, discomfort, and death—
    Beauty and adventure, too!
    “The Hobbit” has a fair amount of humor. If you ever decided to give Tolkien another whirl (not that you necessarily should), that might be a better place to start. Or the short story “Smith of Wooton Major”, for an even lower commitment.

  15. says

    Re: Humor in Lord of the Rings:
    Well, I have to agree the HP books are funnier. It depends on your point of view, though. The hobbits are always good for a chuckle. The fact that after every one of those Titanic Battles on which the Whole Fate Of The World Depends, Merry or Pippin immediately goes looking for breakfast and a good smoke, is worth a smile, IMHO. And let’s not forget Gimli and Legolas with their odd-couple friendship/competition. The humor in LOTR is mostly relief, though. There’s nothing like the wonderful throwaway lines in Rowling, where on the way to something else she’ll drop in a mention that someone “blew himself up again”, or “was still vomiting slugs,”
    or whatever.
    I agree with the other posters that the Hobbit is a better book for those who don’t care for the loooong descriptive passages and lots and lots of references to ancient history and “Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.” Also more humor. Everything I really like about LOTR is there in “The Hobbit”, without many of its drawbacks.

  16. says

    —if you enjoy long, dry pedagogy and incredibly complex writing no series of books can possible match the lord of the rings trilogy… Not even a rings junkie can deny these facts with any hope of remaining credible.—
    I have to respond to this, being a “Rings” junkie…
    I have always really regretted the appendices to LOTR.
    One of the chief delights of reading The Hobbit as a child was the sense that this was some vast, unexplored world, and that its limits stretched beyond the page I was reading. That it was, in some sense, *knowable*, and probably known (to Professor Tolkien), but that I myself would never uncover its mysteries. I loved that.
    Then, there at the end of LOTR volume III, were the Appendices. The History of Gondor. The settlement of the Shire. The Kings of the Mark. You get the idea. *THUD* Here’s your encyclopedia.
    It’s like all of those sourcebooks they have published for Stars Wars. If every last place is mapped, charted and named, every last year of history is written, every last bit of lore filled in, where’s the magic? Where’s the sense of a world, when you can find its margins?
    So I, “Rings” junkie that I am, do in fact dislike the pedagogy in the books. I wish Prof. Tolkien had worn his learning more lightly. *He* needed to know all this stuff. He shouldn’t have told *us* so much of it. (I also dislike the Silmarillion, and haven’t read any of the other stuff published posthumously.)

  17. Ingrid says

    Sorry, but I couldn’t let the comment about Steve Buscemi’s “twitchiness” slide. Doesn’t anyone besides me remember his performance as Nick in “Parting Glances”? He played a man with AIDS in 1986 (I repeat, 1986)and managed to convey intelligence, sadness, fear, anger, serenity, and humor, all without a single twitch. Plus he somehow managed to do all that while avoiding Ali McGraw Syndrome, AKA the Noble Terminally Ill Person Whose Death Will Teach the Rest of Us About Life. That said, I wouldn’t cast him as Snape, but mostly because I can’t picture him doing the accent.

  18. says

    Good point about Steve Buscemi. I was thinking about the more recent Buscemi of Fargo/Living in Oblivion/Reservoir Dogs. But he was very self-possessed in Parting Glances (and wonderful in every other way you mentioned). Still can’t see him as Snape, though.
    And to answer your question, Dan: no, the movies are most emphatically not better than the books. The movies are fun and cute… but you can’t turn an 800-page book into a 2-hour movie without losing a huge amount of complexity and depth. Especially when you’re making a special-effects extravaganza.
    I’ve had an analogy on my mind for the last few days, actually. I was realizing that a *huge* amount of what I really like in Harry Potter comes from Books 5 and 6, which is where both the morality and the politics start to get seriously interesting.
    So my analogy: I think the Harry Potter series is a bit like the Beatles. It started out as a charming, entertaining, much-better-than-average bit of pop that somehow tapped into a major artery of the zeitgeist… and, with some ups and downs, it’s evolved over time into something approaching Serious Art — flawed, inconsistent, often clumsy, and with a reach often exceeding its grasp, but still worthwhile and satisfying to a serious audience.
    And even though Wagner is probably Greater Art, I still like the Beatles better.
    P.S. I’ll take that bet, Dan. I don’t know if kids will still be reading Harry Potter in 100 years, but I’ll definitely bet $20 that they will in 15.

  19. Dan W says

    You’re on for that bet Greta, if for nothing other than the pure pleasure of having an external mechanism that requires us to stay in touch over the years and miles.
    I like the Beatles analogy, and it oddly fits with Rowling’s announced intentions to bump off more main characters — as the Beatles took on other life interests, they changed a great deal over time, starting from Liverpudlian bar brawlers sojourning in Germany to idential suit wearing happy boys to their own creative immolation in the making of the Abbey Road album.
    It seems that Rowlings started the chemistry off in one direction and then is allowing/forcing the protagonist set to change over time.
    Or as a writing teacher of mine once said, “when in doubt, kill off one of your characters.”

  20. Alan Winston says

    Enjoyed reading this discussion. Most of the points I would have made have been made. I finally read LotR, after bouncing off it repeatedly in high school, just before the first movie came out, and I found parts of it very moving. (The sam/frodo/gollum insanely long trek part.) I quite liked the movies, and was surprised how Viggo Mortensen, who looked _really_ skanky in the trailer, could end up embodying kingly nobility. (But he’s not hotter than Alan Rickman. Liv Tyler is hotter than Alan Rickman. Elijah Wood has unearthly beauty. Some people in my house think Orlando Bloom (as Legolas, but _only_ as Legolas) is awfully hot.)
    Had to address the important issues. That said, JRRT was writing a saga, and he explicitly denied it was allegorical (or at least that he was writing about the Bomb). He’s attempting to explore a bunch of, basically, medieval concerns: The nature of nobility, how to be a good King, the proper relationship of a master and body servant, even. It’s not modern, it’s not meant to be modern, and you have to get your head in that place to appreciate it. JR is writing a series of novels, each of which has to have its own resolved story, with narrative pleasures that are accessible even if this is the only book you’ve read. If both authors succeed 100% in their projects, Rowling books will be more fun.
    (I really don’t think, incidentally, that there’s half-digested bits of Diana Wynne Jones in HP. Rather, HP borrows the background from the British school-story genre, which flourished there but not here, and I thnk JR constructed the magical stuff herself. She’s not writing for fantasy fans who can accept without worrying about it that there are spells and magical strength, etc, etc; she explains how _everything_ works, which sometimes allows some mystery-type plot solutions, but also allows the non-fantasy reader time to suspend disbelief. They’re cannily written.

  21. Anonymous says

    Well, I guess I simply don’t understand why so many people are so keen on comparing the two series? My personal opinion is that these stories were created in the mind of their author, and that they would share their own fantasy with the world is a gift to all of us. We should not abuse this by comparing, belittling, or over-analizing their imaginative stories.

  22. says

    Well, speaking as a writer: I would be thrilled beyond measure to have people critiquing my writing to the degree that we’ve been doing here. I think comparing-and-contrasting and other kinds of analysis of art can contribute to our understanding and appreciation of it. I feel like I now get “Lord of the Rings” and its appeal much better than when I read it 20 years ago. And I feel like I have a much clearer sense of why I find “Harry Potter so compelling. I don’t think analyzing art diminishes it (it can, but it doesn’t inherently). I think it enhances it.

  23. sexposfemme says

    Doin’ great. Inspiring blogsite as usual, I love the one about Dan Savage.

  24. Laura D says

    Just found out about a band called Harry and the Potters who are on a national tour, playing at libraries. They will be at the SF main library on July 22nd. I can’t get the tunes on their website to play on my computer, but I’m tempted to go check them out.
    Here’s their website.
    http://www.eskimolabs.com/hp/news.htm

  25. says

    Did somebody call Malcolm McDowell “ugly”??? How am I supposed to take this debate seriously? He wasn’t Alex in A Clockwork Orange for nothing (not to mention “If…”) See ya!!

  26. Rachel Rosenburg says

    There is one other thing I’d like to add, that Harry Potter has which Lord of the Rings does not; inner beauty.
    In Lord of the Rings, love is only about physical beauty (Aragorn and Arwyn’s love at first sight, for example). Everything that LOOKS ugly, like Orcs or giant spiders, are pure evil. Things that are on the side of good have to LOOK beautiful to our culture (the perfect elves, all three of the main female characters, and so on).
    Harry Potter teaches just the opposite. Characters will first have a relationship with some one they find “hot”, and it doesn’t work out. Then they will get to know someone else better, and find a much better companion who might not be a “hunk” or a “babe”. (Harry starting with Cho, then ending up with Ginny; Ron first liking Fluer, then Hermione.)
    Plenty of characters seem frightening at first but turn out to be our favorites (Hagrid, Serius). And some of the creepiest villains are physically attractive (Bellatrix Lestrange, Tom Riddle Jr.)
    Lord of the Rings is a great series because of what it’s symbols stand for. Harry Potter is good because it’s easier to relate to our own lives.

  27. JimV says

    “…many of the Elves are, to put a fine point on it, cowards who prefer to flee back to the West rather than face Sauron”
    A mortal chooses to call those Elves “cowards” who leave this Middle Earth to return home to the Undying Lands. Does he not know that when the last ships leave the Grey Havens – and those ships are preparing now – that those who remain will share the Doom of Men, will fade, grow small, and be forgotten? Will never again sing the Song of Spring as the Great Trees flower, hand in hand with their friends and kin? Does he not know that worse may befall, that the acursed orcs are degenerate descendents of once-proud Elves, who fell beneath the Shadow, and were twisted by it? That Sauron himself was once a bright spirit, before he fell beneath the Great Shadow of Morogoth?
    Does he not know that it was not by the will of the Elves, that the One Ring survived the Great War with Sauron? Having stood guard against the wolves at the gate, while humankind squalled and quarreled in its crib, must now the Elves sacrifice more of their dwindling numbers to rescue humans from their own folly? Morogoth has been banished from the world until Time’s End. Must more be done before humans know the meaning of gratitude?
    Nor would this battle be the last, even if the Ring can be destroyed, which is but a faint hope. Elven seers have seen these words from far ages of Middle Earth yet to come, proof that the honeyed words of Sauron’s ilk will continue to cozen the hearts of men and draw them to the Shadow, long after the Elves have faded from the world:
    “I was well aware of the context. But if I make the context clear, [] and his fellows will find something else to attack. Better to give them what appears a minor slip-up, let them attack that, and then show how they’re acting in bad faith because they have ignored the gist.”
    (http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2007/03/darwin_on_the_irish.php)
    Honor those Elves who will stand to the last against Sauron and the Shadow of which he is but a small shade, but begrudge not those who, after long battles, chose at last to find peace for themselves and their descendents. Is this not also why humans fight?

  28. says

    Oh yeah? you don’t remember more than 4 names in lotr, what about harry potter? all about spells, and i am sick of seeing harry potter run in a forest with monsters chasing him, and what about the evil guys, you said the evil guys of hp were more evil than lotr, well did you forget all the deaths that were caused without mercy in lotr, you are a disgrace to even compare a piece of crap (hp) with a great work of art (lotr), and dont forget of copyright! Yeh right you think that rowling didn’t copy “dobby” from lotr’s gollum.So go take a hike.

  29. anaum says

    well guys watevar u sya.. one this is ESTABLISHED that lotr is far more better than hp.. i’ve read all the books of hp.. they were gud but no match for lotr.. and yes i do agree wid the characters but wat abt the spells… and as far as popularity is concernedd we will see that after 50 yrs for lotr is 50yrs old… and still FAMOUS … ON MI PART !S ok bye

  30. says

    Excellent debate; there are some sections in LOTR, especially in book 3 that are unbearably pompous and sound like they’re lifted from the Bible, using Biblical sounding language (If my memory serves, there’s even a lot of ‘praise him with great praise’ in regard to the return of the king; book 3)… but now, one character from HP everyone forgets, who I’m a fan of, and wanted so much to be redeemed but wasn’t – Draco Malfoy. If there was any character who was used and abused it was Draco. Used by his father and the Death Eaters, manipulated and terrorised, why didn’t JK redeem Draco? A character whose potential was never reached, who descended into nothing but a tool to act as Harry’s antagonist, to contrast with Harry’s own goodness. Draco popped in when a bit of bad-guy nuance was needed, then disappears for long shots, and never was fulfilled at the end. I really wanted Draco to come forward in the end as an ally to Harry in the final Hogwarts battle. He surely didn’t have to turn all sweet, but to join with H, R, and H to bring Voldemort to his end, when he had been so long abused by him and the Death Eaters. The trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione, that symbol of wholeness in the magic 3, could have been boosted by the 4th player, Draco, who was consistently left out. Having said that, I too prefer HP to LOTR, but only now, after many years of being a LOTR reader have I grown tired of its inherent pomposity, its Christian mythology translated into fantasy (if the elves aren’t angels, and the fallen bad guy Satan, or Lucifer, then I’m a monkey’s uncle, and let’s face it, I am…) but overall, the slog to get to the end, HP is so much more fun.
    the moral too is about prejudice against those who don’t fit in with the so called norm. the Muggles are well, Muggles and seem dimwitted and stupid, whereas within the Wizarding World, the mudbloods are to be despised and persecuted. And as for females characters; well, who was it who preforms all the best magic right from the beginning if not Hermione? From fixing Harry’s glasses with occulus repario (or something like that) to her door opening spells, her clever ideas and working out all the problems, brewing the Polly Juice Potion, punching Draco in the nose, and generally figuring everything out, Harry and Ron wouldn’t have survived book one without her. Hermione was indispensable. Imagine the books without her. Who would have solved all the riddles and clues? Harry barely raises his wand through the whole series compared to Hermione; she really was the brightest witch of her age…

  31. says

    I think you should read Tom Shippey’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.” It is quite an interesting case, even if you end up disagreeing with it. I think, though, you’ll change your mind about the relevance of LotR after reading this book.

  32. El Matador says

    Well, I didn’t read all the comments right down to the very bottom, so I don’t know if what I am about to say has already been covered, but here it is anyway.
    The arguments for each franchise that I have seen seem to be purely based on opinion. But, what I have to support my argument is factual, tangible, and indesputable (sp?) “evidence,” if you will, that the Lord of the Rings, namely the movies, are vastly superior to the Harry Potter movies. I will not discuss the books because it has been some time since I have read LOTR, (although I have been eagerly pouring over all sorts of books about LOTR) and I have never even read HP.
    I’ll get right to my main point. The Oscar Academy Awards. These are the difinitive awards which relate to cinematography, and signify the uttermost excelence in film-making upon their bestowal. It has taken the Harry Potter franchise five movies to win…oh, about ZERO academy awards. I will take a few liberties and assume that the next film will win none as well. But, the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, took only three movies to win seventeen academy awards. SEVENTEEN! That’s alot you know. It is actually the most academy awards any film trilogy has ever won, by a long shot. And most of these were not second-hand awards, either. We’re talking about such awards as “Best Director,” “Best Picture,” “Best Musical Score,” “Best Adapted Screenplay,” “Best Digital Editing,” etc. The Fellowship won four Oscars; the Two Towers won two, which, in the grand scheme of movies, is pretty good, but pale in comparison to the eleven academy awards won by the Return of the King. To elaborate on that, I must add that this is the all-time record. It is the most academy awards that any film in history has ever won. It has been accomplished twice before this, by Titanic, and by a much older movie, Ben-Hur. Apart from the amazing feat of actually winning eleven Oscars, the Return of the King set the new all-time record for the biggest academy award “sweep” in history. “Sweep” signifies winning every catagory in which a movie was nominated. To me it feels that not enough people know this information, especially people infatuated by Harry Potter, so I think that it will serve to cast LOTR in a new light of reverence, even if no one should enjoy it any more than you have (or haven’t). But, the unprecedented success of the Lord of the Rings at the academy awards clearly shows that a lot more care, attention to detail, cinematogrophic skill, and emotion went into these films than went into the Harry Potter films.
    Apart from the Oscars, the Lord of the Rings was also more successful than Harry Potter at the box office. It is, as one should expect by now, the most successful motion picture trilogy of all time. Here are some numbers, in comparison to other trilogies of the same era, which includes the first three Harry Potter movies:
    The Lord of the Rings film trilogy: $2.916 billion
    Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (as of December 4, 2007): $2.79 billion
    Harry Potter film series (first 3 movies): $2.643 billion
    Spider-Man trilogy: $2.496 billion
    Star Wars: Episodes I, II, and III: $2.415 billion
    Folks, I think that speaks for itself. You can have your opinions, but as shown by all the factual evidence hitherto presented, the Lord of the Rings films are immensely superior to the Harry Potter films, especially in the more important category of the Academy Awards. (The way I see it, box office earnings represent the hype surrounding a movie, whereas the Academy Awards represent a film’s true quality and success).
    And if anyone is interested in my opinion, I think the “Rings” films are much cooler and definitely more epic than the “Potter” films. May I mention that the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is currently the largest battle ever produced on film? C’mon, people, a righteous fight-to-the-death with 200,000 orcs -(and that is an exact number from the literature)- I think that just screams “EPIC” like nothing else.
    So there you have it. All of my reasons why the Lord of the Rings FILMS (not books) are better than the Harry Potter ones.

  33. Bachalon says

    Greta,
    Hello. Long time listener, first time caller (so to speak). Having read this whole thing, I feel a pressing need to say a few things. First, I think you approached LotR from the wrong place. It sounds to me like you saw it as a chore to be done, in the sense that you read it only for completeness of genre rather than a genuine curiosity as to the series that is pretty much responsible for what we know to day as fantasy (even though authors like Deeping, Dunsany, Morris, Peake, and MacDonald were doing this long before Tolkien and Lews published).
    With that out of the way, I’m genuinely curious to know your thoughts on the final book. I’ll admit I’ve only read the first 3 books (and though that endeavor began as curiosity about the books, it quickly became something I dreaded doing), but from what I’ve read of the 7th book, it didn’t make me want to complete it.
    My problems with the series are many, but I won’t get into them just yet.
    Last, I want to thank you for all your thoughts on such a diverse amount of topics, and to thank you for reading one insignificant comment out of the many you’ve received.

  34. Iain B says

    Jumping in a bit late here — very recent reader and my evening is rapidly disappearing as I devour the back issues.
    Anyway, to take issue with Rachel Rosenburg’s comment: Yes, it is often true that the beautiful are good and the ugly are evil in Tolkien’s world, but not always.
    Consider Saruman, who appears wise and grandfatherly, and is described as having a beautiful and seductive voice; or Boromir, a brave, strong and handsome knight. Both turn to evil.
    On the other hand there is at least some good in the wretched Gollum. Another example is Ghan-buri-ghan, a very minor and very ugly character who nonetheless displayed great nobility.
    And let’s not forget the dwarves. I always liked them; they aren’t hideously ugly, but not gorgeous either. The elves lounge around all day admiring the trees and composing poetry, the dwarves are practical builders. Yet Gimli the dwarf does appreciate beauty when he sees it in the Glittering Caves… and he moons over Galadriel like a lovesick teenager but hey, no one is perfect.

  35. Julie paradox says

    [directed to this site from someone on Slactivist]
    Greta Christina, have you seen the film “An awfully big adventure”? It has Alan Rickman in, and for the first – oooh, felt like half an hour but was probably only 2 minutes – that he’s on he doesn’t say a word, simply rides a motorbike.
    I slid off the (low) sofa and sat on the floor going “pant, pant”
    ;-)

  36. Tinker says

    Greta,
    You have finally pushed enough buttons to force me to comment.
    Been reading your stuff on Blowfish for years, aways figured you for a fellow traveler, but really, HARRY POTTER?
    Lets just agree that Tolkien was more obsessed,(and I feel, more skilled, but you may not/need not agree) than whats-her-name. (no, I do NOT remember her name, no its not a commentary on anything, as a few years ago I had a series of strokes, my doctor says 4 but who’s counting?
    So I genuinely do not remember the small stuff from minute to minute.
    Good and Evil in Middle Earth. He wrote this on the verge of WWII, and it undoubtedly affected his story. Hobbits were identified as the ENGLISH Yeoman stock that he particularly admired, and the other side has to be defined as some approximation of the nazis (or maybe just Germans(?). Now it must be said that he was aware that many people were in fact sympathetic to the Nazi cause, and if that doesn’t define ambiguous morality I do not know it. My take on it is, if JRRT wrote simplified characters, it was a definite choice to make the story stronger. The man that created generations of characters (for his own amusement mostly, but to make the story more textured, possibly, even likely). So, I figure you read this magnificent story, and, well, hated it. Thats okay. I read Les Miserables, and frankly thought he showed every sign of an author paid by the word (and found out that was the case — the story was written for serial news paper publishing first. And they paid the man by the word (or maybe column-inches).
    But the story is important in a way I do not see Harry Potter as being.
    It’s a part of our culture, a story that we all sort of know, but not all the details, precisely the way you remember LoTR. It stands up across generations, has stood the “test” of time.
    Yes, I am an adult male geek, a programmer (from the first generation of programmers to take formal training in CS/IT), and a Roleplaying gamer for the last 35-40 years.
    So I love every thing about it (except that it made some stories unreadable, for me (Elfstones of Shannnara, anyone?). I bought several copies of his book, and flung them all violently away from me, as TOO DERIVATIVE to be accorded any respect. Sorry. And I read stories about magic colleges (A Scholar of Magics?) that did the same for Harry Potter, though I have not turned into a serial book buyer/flinger the way Elfstones made me.
    So, relax, don’t worry. (Have a home brew.)

  37. says

    I too would like to know Greta’s take on the seventh book – especally because of what it did for me. I got a copy of the first Harry Potter book for my eleventh birthday (just to give that context, I’m seventeen), and I was a fan – maybe even a rabid one – for quite a while after. I went to the first move in a cloak and pointy had (and was oh so very disappointed), I was at a release party for Goblet of Fire at Borders, I own all of the books in hardcover, I used to be able to recite huge chunks of the first books off by heart (including the entire first chapter of the first book). Just some background on how much I liked the series. (Though I always have and always will loathe the movies. SO inaccurate. Ugh. Don’t even get me started. PEEVES!)
    Anyway. The seventh book. It completely turned me off of the entire franchise. For a variety of reasons, none of which I remember in much detail anymore, because frankly, I’ve started writing over the information about HP in my mind as smething I don’t care enough about to let it take up space. but a) she killed off half the goddamn characters, b) she turned the books from lighthearted and funny to dark, like the movies changed with the new director, and c) what the FUCK is up with that epilogue? Seriously, it’s offensive. “Oh yeah they all got married and had babies and lived happily ever after”. Fuck off.
    And on the LotR front – I liked Hobbit, I read the first two annd a half books and got bored to tears halfway through the last one. (No, I can’t remember the order of the names. I can’t for harry potter either. So sue me). have only recently finally seen the movies though, and realy enjoyed them.
    Just my (lengthly) two cents!

  38. says

    I’ve never read Harry Potter. I probably shall someday, so I skipped over some of the posts which were prefaced with spoilers.
    I’m interested in the discussion about morality in literature. One of my favourite authors is the fascinating, excellent, and deeply moral Terry Pratchett. The Nome Trillogy for young children (which can also be read as a sweeping attack on religion) is an excellent place to start, and Johnny and the Bomb has been described as “the great anti-racist screed of our time”.
    He’s most famous, of course, for his Discworld books, which are a little hard to recommend. The later ones are definitely better, but if you want to have a clue what’s going on, you’re better off reading them in order.
    He has a deep and profound moral vision, which comes into its own in Night Watch and A Hat Full of Sky (the latter is in the Discworld for younger readers series).
    ***
    Back onto Tolkein.
    I love the unexplained vistas in LotR. The star-glass Galadriel gives to Frodo has light from the Silmaril which ended up in the sky (the other two ended in the sea and the ground, of course). What does this mean? Nothing, but it’s beautiful.
    That’s why you should read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion in that order, and then read the first two again. They become completely different books.
    My most recent Tolkien book to have read is The Children of Húrin. *shrug*
    Tolkien’s morality is, as has already been said, more about the difficulty of doing the right thing, rather than the difficulty of deciding what the right thing is. We face both trials in our lives.
    And some in LotR, like some in Night Watch, did far more than their duty. They did what they didn’t have to do.
    I’ve also read His Dark Materials recently, and was blown away by the power of the writing. But I still think Pratchett has more moral power than Pullman.
    Meanwhile, what do we all think of Pullman’s critique of Lewis? I give you the excellent essay Lipstick on my Scholar.
    TRiG.

  39. readerman says

    Greta,
    I agree with your assessment of the writers’ relative merits. The difference strikes me as so pronounced that you barely needed to develop it in such detail, I think. In brief, I think there are two issues:
    a. Writing ability. Rowling is lively and amusing; Tolkien is wooden and preachy.
    b. Weltanschauung. Rowling seems to believe that life is worth living, even in the worst of days; Tolkien’s reaction to WWI was to lose all hope and yearn for a regression to the simpler days of ancient mythology.
    Yes–Tolkien did not really create the magic rings or the hobbits or Middle Earth. He did not make up any of the plots, or any of the elements thereof. He did not even make up the names of the characters, although he sometimes scrambled them. (For example, “Gandalf” was a originally dwarf name, according to “The Prose Edda” by Snorri Sturlusson.)
    All this Tolkien borrowed and adapted, often with little modification, from the sagas, the oral prose works which dominated the Scandinavian world. What sagas survive were generally preserved in Iceland and are not of course contemporary to the composition of the works. But Tolkien was a meticulous scholar, and he knew these works well.
    In my view, Tolkien’s only meaningful contribution (apart from his contribution to lexicography, which was great) consists in reminding the world of these great stories, even if the world came to think of them as Tolkien’s, and today remains as ignorant about their origin as before.
    So he does deserve credit for bringing these wonderful legends back to the forefront of the modern cultural consciousness, but I sure wish he had made them more palatable.
    For an amusing account of how painfully awful Tolkien’s writing is, I would recommend Edmund Wilson’s essay on Tolkien:
    http://jrrvf.ifrance.com/sda/critiques/the_nation.html

  40. JHoge says

    @readerman
    Yes, Tolkien drew influence from folk tales and Norse/Scandinavian mythologies, but his presentation of such stories is much different, much more rich, and actually builds upon the ideas of said stories. In fact, I will say that his stories are uniquely his own, and show but mere influences of the literature he had studied. Also, many, no, most, of his stories are entirely his own.
    To correct your (odd?) assumption of Tolkien’s reaction to WWI, he did not “lose all hope.” In fact, I’d like to know where you got that interpretation from. It is very strange and far from the truth. Anyway, Tolkien was a devout Catholic, never lost faith in his beliefs, actually CONVERTED C.S. Lewis to Christianity from atheism, and wrote his stories as a means of creating a world and people with which to develop his invented languages (which also borrowed some root terms and meanings from old English and such, but where, for the most part, clearly his own inventions). He created Elves and Dwarves and different races in order to give life to his languages. His first ideas for Arda and it’s tales were written on the back of military notes in tents while in WWI.
    And as far as Tolkien’s contribution….*sigh* oh boy…are you unaware of how important his literature is and has been to the entire world of fantasy writing? His books are the golden standard by which all fantasy writing is (and should be) judged. J.R.R. Tolkien is the undisputed king of the fantasy genre. His world, filled to the brim with meticulous detail and creativity, a wonderful history of peoples and events, is incomparable to anything else. It’s no wonder that his LotR books would be, by far, the most successful book-to-film trilogy adaptation in cinematic history. This is because no other fantasy world is even close to being as wonderfully and beautifully fleshed-out as Middle Earth (Arda, to include the entire world proper).
    The man was unquestionably an absolute genius. So what if some people find reading his work difficult. Great literature shouldn’t be easy to read. How dare you belittle the man’s creativity, motives, and contribution to the literary world, no, the world in general as we know it.
    What would fantasy enjoyment be if Tolkien hadn’t written his books? I shudder to think.

  41. Bob says

    You are retarded. You say you cannot accurately judge between the two in a lot of areas due to your vague memory of Lord of the Rings yet you still judge them both. Is it not possible that your reading interests have changed over your lifetime? Had you read Harry Potter the time you read LOTR, you might have had equal feelings. Stop being a hypocrite and reread LOTR. It is utterly fantastic.

  42. cathy says

    I never did find HP very interested and I loved Tolkien as a child (Yes, I was that eight year old who read LOTR and gave morbid lectures about egyptian mummification). And I will defend that even though he had very few female characters, the ones that actually make ‘on screen’ appearances are fairly interesting (and why has no one mentioned my beloved hilarious Lobella Sackville-Baggins?), but there is something that Tolkien consistently does extremely poorly at: race. I remember feeling confused and uncomfortable at the fact Sauron’s army is composed of black people and the only other characters described as dark live in tribes in the woods are are portrayed as hideous (the noble savage stereotype fits pretty neatly). I did love Tolkien, but I really could have done without the really obvious racism.

  43. Jennifer Burdoo says

    I know this is long after the original post, but I found it fascinating and wanted to chime in. Greta, I think your problem may be that you wanted LOTR to be, well, an adventure novel. When it really isn’t. If you want something similar in nature to Harry Potter, The Hobbit is much closer. Not just in reading level, but in plot structure. It’s designed to be enjoyed by children, and it has a somewhat more straightforward plot than LOTR (which it was only shoehorned into after the fact). Ultimately, LOTR is an academic exercise, and academics are likely to get more enjoyment out of it than casual readers (and for different reasons — for one thing, it helps to appreciate poetic language.) Tolkien wrote it for two reasons:
    1) As an excuse to construct languages.
    2) As an attempt to build a specifically Anglo-Saxon, English-language mythos akin to classic Greek, Roman and Norse myths. There’s King Arthur, I guess, but it doesn’t involve gods and demigods the way, say, the Odyssey does.
    This is obvious especially in the Silmarillion, the overarching “in-universe” myth. It even reads rather like the Bible — similar cadence, rhythm and language. It and LOTR are much more “adult” than The Hobbit or Harry Potter. Not in the sense of better, but in the sense of theme, language and for that matter, sheer length and complexity. The two are not really comparable.
    The Hobbit and HP are. I don’t know if you’ve read the Hobbit, but I suspect you’d enjoy it, for some of the same reasons you like Harry Potter.

  44. Azkyroth says

    Greta, if you do decide to reread LOTR, you’ll be pleased to note that huge swaths of “Book” 1 and 6 have not a damn thing to do with the story and can be guiltlessly skipped (as the film adaptation did).

  45. CW says

    @Martha
    Yes! Finally, someone else who recognizes how great the Tiffany Aching series is.
    Honestly the closest thing I have to a bible, i.e. a book that describes what it is to be a Good Person, is A Hat Full of Sky.
    Well, ok, fine. It might have to duke it out with Nation (also by Terry Pratchett).

  46. says

    Firstly, I’ll just say that without Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter probably wouldn’t even be as good. Rowling borrows so much from LOTR, it’s uncanny.
    Moral complexity: Where do I begin? We have Smeagol/Gollum, who struggles with the good and bad side of himself. Throughout the LOTR trilogy, one wonders where Frodo and Sam stand because one moment Gollum is helping them, and the next he is sabotaging them.
    We also have Frodo, who is affected by the ring several times. The climax where he finally reaches Mount Doom, only to succumb to evil and wear the ring shows as much. He may have been the “good guy”, but he also struggled with evil.
    There’s also Grima Wormtongue, a “bad guy” who was bought by Saruman to poison King Theoden. When he sees the army that Saruman has assembled to kill Men, he is visibly shocked and saddened. He sticks by Saruman regardless… and ends up killing him. Another person struggling with good and evil.
    Then there’s Boromir, son of Denethor, who was a member of the Fellowship and had promised to protect Frodo. He ended up trying to take the ring from Frodo and was “the bad guy”. However, he realised his mistakes and died trying to save Pippin and Merry.
    There’s also Faramir, brother of Boromir, who captures Sam and Frodo and wants to kill Smeagol. After discovering that Frodo has the ring of power, he orders the ring to be taken to his father, Denethor. He has to struggle with trying to gain his father’s favour, which could lead to the doom of men, or letting Frodo go and never be favourable in his father’s eyes.
    I could go on and on about this, but my comment is already too long.
    Political relevance: How can you say LOTR has no political relevance in a time when there is so much war going on? Look at Frodo, for instance. Although the Shire has been saved, he says it’s not saved for him. Some wounds just don’t heal that easily. Can you not see how that could be a statement on the post-traumatic stress or shellshock that soldiers experience after war?
    Female characters: Hahaha! Tolkien’s females are not an afterthought either.
    Arwen helps get Frodo to safety after he is stabbed by the Nazgul. Without her, he probably would’ve died… and who knows how the mission would’ve gone thereafter. Not to mention how she convinced her father to remake the sword that was broken, leading Aragorn to his destiny as a king.
    Lady Galadriel is in a position of power as well, not some woman just thrust in there.
    There’s also Eowyn, a total badass who not only helps lead the people to Helm’s Deep, but also takes on the Witch-King, whom no man can kill. Fortunately, she’s not a man and brings him to his end.
    Seriously… if you’re going to criticise something, at least make sure you know enough about it, and not from some distant memories.

  47. mika says

    With all due respect, I think there are multi-dimensional characters in Lord of the Rings if you look for them. For all of his treachery, can you really lump gollum in with the villains, considering his back story, and that he does, on multiple occasions, save the lives of Frodo and Sam (whom he detests)–and it’s not merely part of a scheme to overpower them in the end. And can you really lump Boromir in with the heroes after he’s visibly corrupted by the ring and turns on his own? And can you call him a villain after he sacrifices himself for Merry and Pippin’s sake? Those two characters aren’t alone, either. Frodo becomes extremely more complex as the ring takes his toll on him.

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