The Lord of the Rings can be a polarizing topic, largely because it has so many devoted fans. It has been almost 70 years since the books were first published, so there’s no shortage of opinions on their virtues and shortcomings.
I believe some illumination on the root of The Lord of the Rings’s fandom might explain why people have strong feelings about Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Amazon’s new Rings of Power TV show, and the various other hot topics adjoining the books. So, I’ve fielded some firsthand data on why people claim affinity with The Lord of the Rings, looking through 200 different reader reviews to gather primary accounts of readers’ experiences.
To see my methods in full, skip to the end. Let me just be clear that I’ve gathered data on why people like the books—not any other media officially or unofficially associated with the lore of Middle-earth.
Here’s what I’ve found.
The Top Reasons Readers Love the The Lord of the Rings Books
Across the 200 reviews I studied, readers gave a total of 401 reasons for loving the books. While I found a decent measure of variety in why people love these books, there were some obvious recurring themes:
Here’s a closer look at the top five categories of reader response, plus a few other findings.
1. The Characters (81 responses)
More than 40% of positive reviews showered love on the characters. Believe it or not, I was pretty sure this would be the winner long before I looked at the data.
Readers praised both the underdog characters like Frodo and Sam (Sam especially), but they also love specific iconic scenes starring numerous other characters. Many readers mentioning transportation, heroism, and theme also indicated love for the characters. For the purposes of this article, I didn’t code these references as mentioning characters, but I think it’s safe to say there are even more reviewers than the 40% I found who would also list characters among their chief reasons to love The Lord of the Rings, making it the clearest reason by far that readers keep coming back to this series.
2. The quality of being the absolute BEST in epic fantasy or literature itself (63 responses)
Well over 25% of reviews call The Lord of the Rings the greatest work of fantasy, if not the finest work of literature in English or any other language.
Few reviews spelled out why they hold this precise belief, so this is a unique category. Whereas other categories were often layered—for instance, readers typically mentioned both heroism and the cast of characters within the same review—the quality of being the absolute best often appeared as the whole substance of the review.
As such, I think it’s safe to say some of these reviewers were just lazy and didn’t want to write things out. Furthermore, I’d weight this number a little lower in the overall list of reasons, even though it occurred so often in the data.
3. Potential for / enjoyment from rereadability (48 responses)
Nearly 25% of reviews mention that this is not their first time reading The Lord of the Rings. More than half of these reviews mentioned that the reviewer had, in fact, read the series many times.
My overall conclusions from this finding are that a) readers really love The Lord of the Rings; b) there’s clearly something unique here that invites readers to come back again and again; but also c) that only a work that has been published nearly 70 years could have such a strong corps of readers who’ve read it again and again. Readers just haven’t had as much time to reread all of a newer authors’ works.
It’s worth mentioning that having multiple globally newsworthy media tie-ins—which always spur renewed interest in the books—clearly hasn’t hurt the series’ potential for being read and reread.
4. Transportation of the reader (35 responses)
Many reader accounts (close to 20%) indicated feeling like they were present in Middle-earth when they opened the pages of the books. These readers talk about losing track of time, feeling emotional connections to the people and events of the story, and being truly sad to reach the end of the series and must return to their own lives. Quite a few readers attribute this to Tolkien’s rich world-building and vivid imagery, so there’s some clear overlap between transportation and other topics at work here.
5. World-building depth and creativity (34 responses)
It goes perhaps without saying that Tolkien’s breadth of world-building is almost totally unmatched across the landscape of fantasy worlds. It’s likewise no surprise that so many readers find themselves immersed in the story and uncover new gems every time they reread the series. There’s just a lot there to make the story come to life.
That said, world-building was also one of the two biggest complaints across positive (four and five-star) reviews: Many readers want less, just because they don’t believe they need everything Tolkien offers.
Additional Observations on The Lord of the Rings
Even if world-building and transportation were summed together, readers’ love for the characters in The Lord of the Rings is the clear leader, categorically. Readers have long praised Tolkien’s characters to the heavens, with the likes of Samwise Gamgee and Aragorn appearing especially often in the tomes of reader responses. It’s also worth noting that Éowyn was the character mentioned next most often—and her scene with the Witch-king of Angmar was the single scene mentioned most often throughout all reviews studied.
The overall breakdown of favored attributes is different depending on the book. For instance, reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring were less likely to talk about the battles or the sense of hope present in the text, as compared to the following two volumes. Also, reviews of The Return of the King were much more likely to say something to the effect of “this is the best fantasy series ever” than reviews of the other two books were.
Bonus Findings: Outliers and Common Complaints From Readers Who Love the Books
The most common complaint throughout positive reviews is that the books are slow. I haven’t studied what people who hate the books are likely to hate, but I think it’s validating to share that readers get tired of the long descriptions—and specifically the poetry—even among the most loyal cohorts of fandom. So you’re totally allowed to say that the books are sometimes slow, no matter how much of a devotee you are.
In addition to the reasons listed above, outlying readers (one each) also mentioned the following as their reasons for loving the work:
- That The Lord of the Rings got them to read other books
- That they loved the complexity of the interwoven plots and lore
- That the wizards are awesome
An analysis of 200 reader reviews can’t truly capture everything fans love. Numerous fan reviews say, in fact, that they can’t explain why they love the books so much. The number of repeated, impassioned references to the same topics, however, truly does elucidate a lot of the enduring power The Lords of the Rings embodies for its readers.
If you’d like to take a look at how I went through my data-gathering and analysis, read on!
Summary of Methods
Here’s a moderately detailed breakdown at how I went about my analysis.
- I analyzed 200 reader reviews in total: 64 each for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and 72 of The Return of the King
- I only studied 4 and 5-star reviews, using these numeric rankings as markers that the readers really do love (or at least seriously like) the books
- My bald assumption is that if readers don’t love a book, they won’t give it more than 3 stars
- I farmed my reviews across Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes and Noble, weighting for the platforms with more reviews. In essence, I studied about 50 each from Amazon versus 10-15 each from Goodreads and 8-12 each from Barnes and Noble.
- One one hand, this accounts for the different volume of reviews available on each. Amazon has the most reviews of the three, followed by Goodreads, with Barnes and Noble housing the smallest corpus of reviews.
- I also chose to work across platforms because the mode of review is VERY different on each. For instance, Goodreads reviews were often written as miniature pieces of fan fiction (no lie).
- I chose to use public-facing reviews as a sort of marker of the reader community’s values. Because I was working entirely with self-reported data, you have to take it all with a grain of salt, but I believe it’s about as accurate as any qualitative fandom data can be.
- As I analyzed each review, I qualitatively coded the texts to find common threads, terms, topics, etc. represented above. While I’ve maintained the data unique to each book in the series, I lumped it all cumulatively together for purposes of my actual analysis.
- I essentially avoided doing any sentiment analysis, since the free form of a review doesn’t account for how much each reader rated each different thing they loved. Basically, if they say “the characters are amazing,” I coded it as a single point for the “characters” topic. So readers might in fact love the world-building much more than they love the characters; it’s just that more unique readers mentioned the characters than anything else.
- Many reviews log multiple points (characters, prose, world-building, etc.), while some only had one.
- I ignored any reviews that said the books were great without saying at least something specific about them.
- I also had to toss some reviews out, by nature of the product review system; some were only describing the physical product itself and not the substance of the books. So I discarded about 70 reviews that just mentioned the book cover being scratched, the delivery packaging being trashy, the cover art being amazing, etc.
- During my analysis, I also compared side-by-side to see whether reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes and Noble noted readers noted different categories across each book. Basically, readers said the same things in every platform—though, oddly enough, reviewers were much more likely to describe how hot Orlando Bloom was in Barnes and Noble reviews and much more likely to praise Gandalf or Éowyn in Goodreads reviews.
- While the substance of reviews stayed consistent across platforms, the style and length of reviews varied immensely. Suffice it to say that the review platform does play a role in making the review itself different.
Thanks for reading to the end!
Sign up for the newsletter to get more nerdy content like this in your inbox.