These two lavishly illustrated books, published just in advance of the release of the final part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, based on J. R. R. Tolkien's novels, were the first pictures of the film seen by LOTR addicts. Now that the film itself has appeared, how do they stand up?
Not too well, in the case of The Return of the King: Visual Companion . As the final book of the series, it recaps events beginning with the forming of the fellowship in Rivendell in the first film, then proceeds to a summary of the events of the third film. But what is immediately noticeable is that the book has to keep its cards close to its chest so as not to spoil any surprises in the third film. Therefore the narrative with the pictures is at best sketchy. While we are privy to the gist of the plot, anything one might truly want to know seems to have been deliberately omitted. Instead the book offers wordy descriptions of things already described countless times (not least by Tolkien) since the release of the first film two years ago - the section on the Nazgul being the most obvious example. Soft-focus sections about "Hobbits as heroes" and "Heroic deeds" are more than a little tiresome and, moreover, deflect interest away from sections that improve one's understanding of the film. In my view, it would have been better in a "visual companion" to a spectacular film, especially a film adapted from a well-known book, simply to show images from the film with short captions and leave the telling of the story to Tolkien's novels, which have far more space and time. After all, this is a book about a film, rather than a book about a book, and the visuals are the main attraction.
Nevertheless, there are some good double-page glossy photos featuring all the old favourites from the first two films, combined with smaller photos of new characters and a number of highlights from the final film. There are some new faces, too, such as the latest addition to the Numenorians, Denethor, the steward of Gondor. But there is no image of Aragorn confronting the king of the dead, a truly astounding encounter in the film.
And in the section on Shelob, one of the most eagerly awaited FX characters, there is no picture of her! This seems to encapsulate the entire mood of the book, which is: "We'd love to show you this, but..."
The same cannot be said of Weapons and Warfare , a bigger book at pains to cover the tiniest minutiae of the Second Age. The cover proclaims proudly that the foreword is by Christopher Lee, but upon reading the seven paragraphs, one discovers that only one refers to the book itself.
Dipping in, you quickly discover that there are people who see LOTR not only as a book and a film but also a lifestyle, and, almost as quickly, that you do not wish to be one of them. Under the "Armour" section of "The orcs of Moria", for instance, you read that "there is a theory that the orcs of Moria sought to remake themselves in the image of the Balrog as they perceived it. This can be seen when comparing examples of their armour with the written and illustrated descriptions that exist of the hopefully now-extinct demon spirit. The helmet ( top ) consists of two pieces..." The subject matter of the book is self-explanatory; it is a handbook on how to arm yourself in Middle Earth, depending on who you are. There are in-depth studies of most of the main characters and their weapons of choice, ranging from the different lengths of flight of Legolas' arrows to the material of Aragorn's jerkin (leather). Much is made of the many battles that have "taken place" in Middle Earth, but herein lies a problem.
For all but the hard core of cultists, it will be difficult to see this as a real "history book" when the battle pictures are typically of Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen pouting and looking windswept. Without doubt, the book is aimed at LOTR fundamentalists, for whom it will be a must-have.
For the other 95 per cent of LOTR fans, what are the selling points? Unfortunately, the book contains hardly anything about how the films were made, but there are a lot of captivating photographs of life in Middle Earth, many of which are not film stills but taken from never-before-seen footage. And the author's writing style sometimes descends rather appealingly into self-parody, with lines such as: "Like all Rangers, Aragorn avoided metal armour because the weight would have been more a hindrance than a help."
I concede that in relatively small, 30-page chunks the fervour that the author shows for his cause is compelling. But try reading more than this at one go, and most of us will feel a strong urge to stop and go and do something very, very manly and definitively "non-nerdy".
Toby Sprigings is a self-confessed addict of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Visual Companion
Author - Jude Fisher
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 71
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 00 711626 8