The Return of the King Visual Companion by Jude Fisher

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them in, and in the darkness bind them.
— J.R.R. Tolkien

You can hardly walk into a bookstore this season without being deluged with Lord of the Rings film tie-ins. Weapon and armor companions, film location guides, J.R.R. Tolkien biographies. It’s enough to make the average Tolkien purist run screaming for the exit.

Then again, this no-holds-barred marketing campaign should take no one by surprise. The LOTR publicity machine got a running start with the release of Fellowship of the Ring, and now that the third and final film has finally hit theatres, the blitz has reached a feverish — and predictable — crescendo. While it’s to be expected, the lengths to which the film’s marketers will go to cross-promote the trilogy have truly astounded me. I half expected Legolas the Elf to become a contestant on American Idol, or a picture of Frodo to end up on my milk carton: “Have you seen this Hobbit?”

If the characters’ distinctive mugs can be plastered upon potato chip packages and inserted into mobile phone commercials, I suppose a Return of the King Visual Companion seems almost classy in comparison, although I’ve never seen much point to a visual companion guide to a film — especially a film adaptation of a book. I’m especially cautious when the source material is as vast, and as resistant to easy summary, as Tolkien’s.

In fairness, however, the publishers of the Return of the King Visual Companion have made every effort to inject some independent value into this hardcover effort. You can’t exactly fault the author’s credentials; Jude Fisher, who also wrote the trilogy’s previous two companion guides, is herself the author of several fantasy epics. With a master’s degree in Scandinavian studies, I can hardly imagine a more qualified scribe. She even bears the official stamp of approval from the filmmakers themselves, as she appears in the extras on The Two Towers extended version DVD, discussing Tolkien’s inspiration and motivation.

Even more importantly for a visual companion, the art direction here pays fair tribute to the film’s awesome visual impact. That’s a useful thing when every stunning movie image flashes by before the average viewer can assimilate it. And with luscious, evocative movie stills accompanying detailed maps and rich illustrations, a reader who hasn’t yet seen the film will anticipate a viewing all the more.

Unfortunately, the accompanying text doesn’t make the same impact. It’s obvious that Fisher was torn between giving a straightforward account of the film’s plot and wanting to stay true to the awe and poetry in Tolkien’s own masterwork. But since she can’t have it both ways, her language will strike most readers as unnecessarily stilted and pretentious. If Fisher’s text is a let-down, though, perhaps it’s to be expected. No author could replicate the grandeur and complexity of Tolkien’s 1000-plus-page odyssey with such limited space, nor would she even be allowed to try. After all, this is a visual companion to a movie about a book. So the words that go along with the images are really only incidental.

Actually, Fisher should be commended for clearly synthesizing the storyline of Return of the King, taking special care to remind readers of the events of the first two films. In fact, that’s more than I can say for Peter Jackson, who by necessity had to omit from his film a ton of vital information from the book due to constraints of running time. Here, there’s no such constraint. So Fisher takes proper advantage of her medium by including some crucial backstory and informative tidbits that were left on Jackson’s cutting room floor.

For example, many of Return of the King’s viewers were likely left unsatisfied by the sketchy explanation of the White Tree of Gondor, which appeared in a vision of one major character. Gandalf the wizard remarks about it in a scant one sentence, but Fisher affords it an entire page here. Her description may even enlighten some readers of the book who never quite grasped the tree’s significance. And Fisher explains the pterodactyl-like “fell beasts” that appear in the climactic battle sequence who were absent from the first film. It turns out that they are replacement mounts for Fellowship’s thwarted Ringwraiths, whose horses were destroyed in a flood produced in Fellowship by elf-princess Arwen. Who knew?

While this book is clearly directed at a mass audience, I have a feeling that it will mostly appeal to two camps: young children, who will appreciate a clear summary of the film’s often confusing plot, and adults who tried — but failed — to get into Tolkien’s book. Otherwise, why choose a watered-down Cliff Notes version over the real thing — the epic novel that inspired all this fuss in the first place?

My advice? Buy Tolkien’s classic for your children, and bypass this pretty-but-simple guide altogether. If your kids aren’t yet up to the task of plowing through Tolkien’s colossal tale, beg them to attempt it again when they’re a little older. Personally, I’d give anything to go back and read The Lord of the Rings for the very first time all over again.