Printed and re-printed more than 150 million times, existing in thirty-eight translations of foreign languages, spawning a variety of scholarship, prompting viral graffiti (Frodo lives!), having a museum, providing the impetus for multiple films, adaptations, and a host of derivative literature (for better and worse), and having millions of millions of fans around the world, its fair to say The Lord of the Rings has made its mark in the world of literature. A watershed event, the novel put epic fantasy on the map half a century ago and remains the seminal influence on the genre.
But the book had different beginnings. Tolkien’s finished manuscript languished in a drawer for about a decade. Epic fantasy’s lack of presence in the market the major decision point, no editor was willing to take the risk of publishing such a massive tome at a time when fantasy was thought dead in the aftermath of the pulp era. Giving in to publisher request, Tolkien eventually conceded to the book being broken into sections, paving the way for The Lord of the Rings to be released as most readers are familiar today: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Perhaps surprising, the books were not an immediate success. A word-of-mouth movement in the UK, however, combined with the sales and distribution of non-copyrighted versions in the US, set the book squarely on the road to success, a facet pushed over the brink by the overwhelming popularity of Peter Jackson’s films at the turn of the millennium.
But why The Lord of the Rings is such a success is not an easy question to answer. In total roughly 1,000 pages, it’s not to be absorbed in one or two evenings’ sittings, rather many. The language growing more archaic by the year, it’s also not an easily digested read. Much of the grammar and sentence structure adhering to former iterations of English, the narrative requires more effort than the average modern work to grasp meaning. And lastly, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the book, is its tone and aim. Romantic by form rather than content, the obvious juxtaposition: golden virtue vs. unquenchable evil, can be frustrating for those looking for less abstract anchors to reality. Making the most of the genre’s tropes, the book is true high fantasy.
The story of a simple hobbit who has a tremendous burden placed upon him, The Lord of the Rings is at heart a quest fantasy. Spanning an entire land, the journey taken by Frodo and the band which unites around him to destroy the ring of power is rich with detail. War, ancient prophecies, heroes, the perennial value of nature, and myth are the groundwork upon which the story is laid, while in the story, elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, goblins, and ents fill epic battles, duels of wizardry, haunted passages, mountainous traverses, ancient towers, cities of old, and dark lands in Middle Earth. The supernatural does exist, but spells and wizardry are light in comparison to the world of fantastical creatures and cultures Frodo encounters. Tolkien trying to keep things subtle, the young hobbit’s perseverance and test of moral fortitude remain the focus despite that the land coming alive around he and his faithful companion, Sam Gamgee, as they march to the fires of Mt. Doom, the great burning eye of Sauron seeking them every step of the way.
But for as much as The Lord of the Rings is just a story, there are a couple of elements which give it a layer of depth. Foremost among them is the lengths to which Tolkien went to build the world and weave background details. A philologist by profession, Tolkien created whole languages, including scripts (offsprings of a hobby) and embedded them intermittently in his story. Appearing in more than glimpses and hints, he also created a history and mythology for Middle Earth. Detailed in a separate book entitled The Silmarillion, the fictional past comes alive, tying events as they are to a meta-history. (Fully tragic in tone, The Silmarillion is salt to The Lord of the Rings’ pepper, and well worth a read for anyone wanting to see the dark side of Middle Earth.)
Accordingly, the themes of The Lord of the Rings are along mythic lines. In polar fashion, numerous dualities are presented. The temptations of the ring are juxtaposed with so-called real power, i.e. power backed by wisdom rather than a desire for dominance. The difference between hope and despair is featured in the clash of Gandalf and Saruman. The mortality of men vs. the immortality of the elves creates numerous differences in viewpoint. But the strongest duality is perhaps fate vs. free will. While men and Sauron’s minions rage on the battlefield, Frodo’s mind is torn thinking of the responsibility of the ring. Oscillating harder with every step toward the burning eye, the reader never knows till the very end what will become of matters, Frodo’s freedom of choice never a certainty. Honor, virtue, the vitality of nature, courage, and numerous other lofty ideals fleshing out the remainder of the tale, the book’s scope is undoubtedly epic.
As with any work garnering such fame, The Lord of the Rings has its share of criticism. Michael Moorcock’s essay “Epic Pooh” semi-famously denounces the work as a romantic fairy tale lacking depth. More particularly, he points out the lack of realistic outcomes and adherence to pertinent social situations which comment on the human condition. A fair observation, the black and white nature of the morals, particularly the faceless essence of evil (literally and figuratively) do little to contemporize the story. To be fair to Tolkien, however, one of the story’s root ideas is the confirmation of fundamental human virtues in times mankind is threatened by highly irrational ideals. Tolkien a veteran, he saw WWI & II more as a clash of ideas than a tragedy of soldiers dying left and right—as Moorcock might have it. Standing in stark contrast to the selfish and vain quest for power which Sauron wages, Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and remainder of their allies fight for the freedom of all, altruism their banner. As was the case with Hitler, sometimes the evil of humanity transcends life to the point of being abstract. Thus, despite the fairness of Moorcock’s reading, there are situations—as rare as they may be when looked at through the window of everyday life—in which Tolkien’s presentation of story is relevant. Criticisms regarding feminism and social elitism, well, suffice to say, Tolkien did leave the door rather wide open…
In the end, The Lord of the Rings is classic storytelling as good as it gets. Tolkien’s style bringing to life a kaleidoscope of fantastical beings in a Medieval land, those willing to suspend their disbelief are in for a real treat—one of the greatest in all of literature if the first paragraph of this review is taken into account. Quests, battles, magic, and peoples of myth—fantasy has never seen the likes of Tolkien’s tale, and never will again. Bursting with imagination, the book is rich in dialogue and description. The list of derivative works (direct and indirect) too numerous to include here, The Lord of the Rings has affected the fantasy landscape in unquantifiable fashion and is at bare minimum worth a read to throw one more opinion on the mountainous pile—just like this review.