J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is the second `Middle-Earth' novel to be published under license to GameQuest Inc., creators of the ever-popular Realms of Middle-Earth fantasy role-playing game system. Enthusiasts of the game, many of whom were somewhat disappointed by the first novel, The Hobbit, have awaited this long-touted `sequel' with some anticipation: but unfortunately, The Lord of the Rings proves not to have been worth the wait.
For one thing, someone should point out to Tolkien that in `series' novels of this type, readers get to enjoy a particular cast of characters, and want to read more of their adventures. Those who enjoyed Bilbo Baggins in the first book will be disappointed early on: the titular hero of The Hobbit disappears out of the story about half-way through the first chapter, and while he does make the occasional appearance thereafter, he is in no way the hero of this one. Nor are any of his dwarf companions from The Hobbit much in evidence: Gloin does make a brief appearance, but also not for long, and in any case Gloin was never a particularly interesting character in the first novel (where the adventure party consisted of altogether too many dwarves, most of whom were indistinguishable from one another).
The only characters who do provide any continuity between the two novels are the slimy subterranean Gollum (whose character has here undergone a major transformation); the half-elven loremaster Elrond, as extraneous to this novel as he was to the first; and Gandalf, the wizard who was mostly absent throughout The Hobbit, and whose character is one of the major faults of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien just doesn't seem to understand how characters generated by a role-playing game system work, particularly wizards. Gandalf has at his disposal precious few of the spells detailed in the Realms of Middle-Earth `Thaumaturge's Tome'. Count them: he has two First-Level Wizard spells - a Make Magic Fire spell, and a Strike Evil Forces With White Lightning spell (both of which he uses twice - the only time spells are used more than once); and two Second-Level Wizard spells: a Reveal Secret Doors spell, and a Bind Great Horses To Your Service spell. That's it: the sole sum of his magic, it would appear. In particular, just about anyone who's ever played a Realms of Middle-Earth game will hope that Gandalf has an Immunity From Corruption By Evil Magic Items spell, particularly since that would make the plot so much simpler. The story-line concerns the discovery that the magic ring found by Bilbo in The Hobbit, and now belonging to his cousin Frodo, is actually incredibly corrupt, and that it must be destroyed before the Dark Lord Sauron gets hold of it. If only Tolkien had read through the list of spells contained in the `Thaumaturge's Tome', he could have given the ring to Gandalf to destroy then and there, and thus spared us much of the interminable plot which follows.
Hope in fact does flicker that Gandalf will learn a few useful Third-Level spells when, a few chapters into the book, he sets off to meet with Saruman, head of the order of wizards: unfortunately, this turns out not to be the case. In fact, Gandalf discovers that Saruman has turned traitor, and is held captive by him; which raises another problem. Enthusiasts of the role-playing game would be forgiven for thinking that Gandalf was a Second-Level Wizard, just out of his apprenticeship, but no: with blatant disregard for the rules of the role-playing game, Tolkien expects us to believe that Gandalf is not only a member of the White Council, but ultimately a more powerful wizard than Saruman.
Unfortunately, this kind of silliness is compelled by Tolkien's plot, which has been plagiarised, almost incident by incident, from that masterpiece of modern fantasy, The Blade of Bannara by Jerry Crookes. In fact, the legions of Crookes fans throughout the world will quickly be able to predict what is going to happen on the next page of The Lord of the Rings, because they've read it all before. The courageous diminutive hero who flees his rustic home with his friends, pursued by the servants of the Dark Lord; the enigmatic man who helps them and who is revealed to be the heir to the long-deserted throne of a great kingdom; the battle between the wizard and an evil spirit of the underworld which ends in the wizard's death (Gandalf is later resurrected, more powerful than before - except, of course, in regard to the spells at his disposal); even the sub-plot of the traitorous Saruman and his downfall: all of these and many, many more are incidents in The Lord of the Rings which will provoke a feeling of deja vu in readers of The Blade of Bannara.
There's nothing wrong with this, of course, if one is a writer of the caliber of Jerry Crookes: unfortunately, Tolkien is not. It is not only the conventions of the series novel, or of the role-playing game tie-in, which Tolkien ignores: he writes in total ignorance of the kind of thing which readers throughout the world have come to expect from fantasy novels. There are no voluptuous sword-maidens, for example. The only two female characters of any note are an Elvish queen who struggles valiantly against her desire for the magic ring; and a gloomy mortal princess who falls chastely in love with the King-to-be mortal hero, and then disappointingly weds someone else. Though this latter character does get to trade blows with an evil Wraith in the service of the Dark Lord, she does so in drag, disguised as a male knight of Rohan: so there's no real scope for descriptions of her nubile limbs and heaving bosom during the battle. Adult fantasy fans will be profoundly disappointed.
Tolkien also violates the cardinal rule of role-playing games by dividing his adventure party, ultimately into three groups: there's one that sets about the main quest, and two which go off to sort out various complicated sets of business in the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan. Even so, it's mostly talk, and not much sword-play: only three massed battles, and a couple of skirmishes between the adventure party and various foes. The shortage of magic has been noted already: how anyone could hope to win a battle or skirmish without magic is not explained. Instead of real excitement therefore we have a lot of minor characters, and a whole lot of talk about the events of a long-distant past; and lots of dull descriptions of landscapes and characters' thoughts and feelings. To make matters worse, Tolkien pads out the considerable length of the book with extensive appendices. These are not even appendices of the kind you could use to develop a good game scenario, such as weapons statistics or encounter charts. Tolkien supplies us with dull chronologies, and details of the `languages' spoken by the different races of Middle-Earth. The average Realms of Middle-Earth ready-to-play scenario runs to about one-tenth the length of Tolkien's appendices, and has far more useful information.
Finally, there's little or no whacky humour, Jerry Cratchitt- style. In fact, the novel is far too grim for anyone's taste, and it ends on a depressingly down-beat note. The forces of evil having been vanquished for the time being, readers have come to expect their heroes to return to their homes to await the next call to defend the world from the shadow of darkness in the next book in the series. Instead of this venerable convention, we have the hobbits returning to their native land of the Shire, only to find that evil has sprouted there in their absence. Absurdly enough, this evil resembles some of the evils of our world (a nascent secret police, a remote and autocratic bureaucracy, centralised and collectivised control of the economy, a concentration camp system in its infancy) - as if anyone wanted serious `social commentary' in a fantasy novel! And even though they defeat this manifestation of evil in a far-too-sombre penultimate chapter, Frodo is too enervated by his struggle to be able to settle down and await the next call to save the world. He and Gandalf (and the Elves, whose powers are rather pointlessly `waning') depart for some kind of Avalon across the seas where they can find healing and rest from their labours. The only consolation in any of this might be that we can expect no more dreary sequels, but (judging by the end-papers of the book), Tolkien has already got together a whole volume of `background mythology' - expanding on those interminable appendices, no doubt - which he's called The Silmarillion. Judging by that title alone, I suspect a carbon copy of David Meddings' The Melgariad is coming our way.
A final note: the book is too long. There's so much good fantasy out there that no-one's really going to want to wade through a thousand-odd pages of this kind of second-rate derivative stuff. It's hard to know who GameQuest Inc., thought would shell out money for this waste of good paper. Fans of the Realms of Middle-Earth game will find The Lord of the Rings too inconsistent with the role-playing system they know and love, while those who don't know the game won't be inspired to buy the rule-books. GameQuest Inc., if they want this series to continue, should dump this Tolkien guy and get one of the people who write for WyvernSpear to do the job instead.