Lord of the Rings Pie Chart

The Lord of the Rings is a seminal work of fantasy, but if it suffers from a fault, that fault would be pacing. For those who have read it, how long to you think the story spends in the Shire at the very beginning? Twenty pages? Fifty? My copy has this line on page 108 (shortly into chapter VI):

‘There!’ said Merry. ‘You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest.’

This same edition is 1008 pages long, including all three books. The Shire therefore takes up 10.7% of the book. It’s not as if nothing happens while the story is in the Shire. There is Bilbo’s birthday (and subsequent disappearance), the discovery of the identity of his ring, and Frodo’s journey out of the Shire, including being chased by Black Riders. But when you consider all that happens in the whole of the story, the Shire is just a toe dipped in the water. For reference, consider the following pacing elements:

  • They meet ‘Strider’ (Aragorn) on page 153
  • The Council of Elrond (where the Fellowship is formed) on page 233
  • They cross the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm on page 323 (after a 1-page encounter with a Balrog)

Things pick up after there, but the Fellowship of the Ring ends on page 398. How many writers do you think can get away with having the first 25% of a novel consist of background and travel by foot. And as for balance, consider this: the section with Tom Bombadil (as awesome as he may be) is 29 pages long; the discovery of a Balrog, the encounter on the bridge, and subsequent demise of Gandalf the Grey takes just over a page in total.

What I would caution is that you are not J.R.R. Tolkien. Don’t think for a moment that you’re going to get away with anything he does, in prose or pacing, world-building or conlangs. He is his own creature, and all who imitate him will suffer by the comparison. At worst your imitation will come across cheaply and shabbily, trying to stand on the shoulders of a giant now laid to rest. At best, your work will seem stuffy and outdated, which Tolkien’s certainly does. But while The Lord of the Rings would be edited much differently if it were new today, it holds an air of gravitas that shrugs aside modern convention.

What I would advise: Keep your pace moving, and give pages to the important parts of the story.

The Lord of the Rings was #2 on Goodreads’ list of Top Five Abandoned Classics. I can only imagine that most of those who abandoned it never made it out of the Shire.