Some questions have such clear answers that you know your answer the moment you hear or read it. These are of the “Who was the better James Bond: Connery or Dalton?” sort. You might even blink a few times to make sure you read the question correctly. This is not what the Great Geek Debates are all about. They are about the deep, soul-searching, tough questions — not quite Sophie’s Choice-tough, but nearly so. They challenge you to determine, once and for all, what kind of geek you truly are.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings became the gold standard of fantasy novels almost immediately upon its publication in the mid-1950s. Every fantasy novel that has been published since owes something to it; in some the influence is obvious, and in some less so, of course. And it’s hard to know what to say about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books that hasn’t been said a million times already, but suffice it to say that, even if you don’t like it, you cannot argue with the fact that, with over 400 million copies sold and translation into 67 languages, they are clearly the most popular fantasy novels ever written. So, vastly different stories they may be, but the comparison is yet valid.
Now, I happen to be among those who love both. I read The Hobbit when I was a little kid and LotR when I was in high school, and then reread them quite a few times thereafter. Then in early 1998, I heard about the first Harry Potter book’s success in the U.K., and ordered the British edition so I could see what all the fuss was about before the U.S. edition came out later that year. I was hooked, and bought each book as soon as it was available, reading through even the astonishingly long ones quickly. As a geek dad, I have read The Hobbit with my young kids, and have just begun reading the sixth Harry Potter book with them; when they’re older, they will be encouraged to read LotR.
Because I haven’t the space to write a treatise on the subject, I must therefore select certain criteria on which to base a judgment of which series I would choose, if I had to. There will be spoilers further on for those who have not read all seven of the Harry Potter books (and for those who haven’t read the LotR books or seen the movies, which might be a few people, I suppose); you’ve been warned.
1. World – The Harry Potter stories are so accessible largely because they take place in a world very like our own, only with one huge twist; whereas LotR takes place in Middle-earth, which has certain similarities to the world we know, but is mostly wildly different. In fact, I would argue (and I know I am far from the first to do so) that on a significant level it is Middle-earth that LotR is really about: the characters and events are mostly important in how they shape the world, and it is the richness of the world that is the biggest reason for the story’s success. So, essentially, the Harry Potter stories have a very accessible world, and one that therefore it is very much easier to pretend you are a part of (my children running around the house yelling “Stupefy” and “Expelliarmus” at each other at least once a day is testament to that). But as neat as that world is, it pales against the richness of Middle-earth. Advantage: LotR.
2. Characters – I would certainly not be the first to note the similarities between some of the main players in both stories. Certainly some of the parallels (Gandalf/Dumbledore, Frodo/Harry, Sam/Ron, Sauron/Voldemort) are obvious, but of those only Gandalf/Dumbledore and Sam/Ron interest me much. (As for the others: Harry begins the series as an (almost) eleven-year-old boy and ends it having just become an adult, whereas Frodo begins LotR at age 33, and their personalities are wildly different; and both Sauron and Voldemort are too one-dimensional to be worth comparing.) Gandalf and Dumbledore interests me primarily because, while it seems such a valid comparison, it is in fact not at all, for Dumbledore, though very long-lived, is most definitely human, and when he dies he stays dead; conversely, Gandalf is a member of the Istari in human form, has been on Middle-earth for around 2,000 years by the time LotR begins, and gets resurrected after dying in the fight with the Balrog. Much as I love Gandalf, I always found Dumbledore a much richer character, with many levels of complexity. As for Sam and Ron, well, Sam wins that one because Ron’s a bit too goofy, and Sam is the most heroic character in LotR, for my money. Overall, though, much as LotR is about Middle-earth, the Harry Potter books are about their characters. That’s why my wife, a grown woman, shed actual tears when Fred Weasley was killed, and why the books are named after the main hero, as opposed to LotR, which is named after the main villain. Advantage: Harry Potter.
3. Influence – As I mentioned above, The Lord of the Rings has influenced every fantasy novel since, and that includes the Harry Potter books. It’s too soon to know what the long-term influence of the Harry Potter books will be, but so far their stratospheric success has prompted the publication of quite a few fantasy novels for young readers that otherwise would likely never have seen the light of day. I confess not to having
read any of them, but from the reviews I’ve read the world is not a significantly richer place for their presence. Even if they were great works of literature, however, they would still owe something to LotR as well as Harry Potter, anyway. You may say it’s unfair to include a category in which Harry Potter must so clearly lose, but I think it would be unfair to LotR not to include something that so clearly delineates its importance in the history of fiction writing. Advantage: LotR.
4. Movies – Yes, I know, it’s not fair to judge a book by the movies made of it. But I am not merely judging the books, but the stories themselves, and it is undeniable that there are a great many people whose only interaction with either LotR or the Harry Potter series will be with the movies — sad, yes, but undeniable. Now, of course, there are more Harry Potter films than LotR films, and some of the Potter films are very good, some are decent, and some of them are only mediocre. None of them, though, has ever even been considered for, much less won, the Oscar for Best Picture. Seriously, anyone who thinks there’s much of a contest here needs to watch the LotR films a few more times, this time with their eyes open. Advantage: LotR.
I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more categories to compare without even trying hard, but I’m going to leave it there for now, with The Lord of the Rings the clear victor. If there’s enough interest in the comments, I’ll write a part 2 to this Great Geek Debate next week. In the meantime, what do you think?