Skip to comments.Happy Birthday, ‘Lord Of The Rings’
Posted on 07/29/2014 3:38:10 AM PDT by Perdogg
Sixty years ago today, The Fellowship of the Ring, part one of J.R.R. Tolkiens masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, was published in the United Kingdom.
Tolkien conceived of the novel as one book, not three. He would have preferred for its approximately 1,200 to 1,500 pages (depending on the edition) to appear between just one set of covers. But his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, decided to mete out the fantasy narrative and release it as a trilogy over 15 months. The Two Towers came out in November, 1954, and The Return of the King hit bookstore shelves the following October.
The trilogy decision was prescient and would become the forebear of the generation-spanning Star Wars sequels, the blockbuster Harry Potter series and the Game of Thrones franchise that is thriving today in bookstores (and on cable). Among Tolkiens gifts, arguably (and what his publisher was, no doubt, betting on), was his ability to create a richly-imagined world in which a reader might want to linger for months on end, until the next in the series was issued, and then go back again and again.
With Tolkien, theres always a fuzzy corner of the map, a village or forest or sea, or a character or sub-plot we want to know more about, but cant, because Tolkien didnt write it.
What accounts for Middle-earths appeal? And why do so many readers want to make a return visit?
Though detailed most extensively in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkiens fantastical Middle-earth is the thru-line in several of his works, from The Hobbit, published in 1937, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which came out in 1962, to the posthumously-published The Silmarillion, which appeared in 1977. Each story, poem, appendix and unfinished tale adds further layers and echoes to Middle-earth. Like concentric circles, each of Tolkiens books overlaps to create his legendarium.
That legendarium seems real. Its rules and history, even its geography and weather, are plausible. The appendices to The Return of the King list family trees, Annals of the Kings and Rulers, and glossaries for Elvish and Dwarvish, Tolkiens invented languages. In some places, bloodlines, legends and myths that Tolkien spread over thousands of years get full descriptive treatment; in others, theyre merely hinted at. This means that for every tale fully told, there are a dozen other tales that are suggested. With Tolkien, theres always a fuzzy corner of the map, a village or forest or sea, or a character or sub-plot we want to know more about, but cant, because Tolkien didnt write it.
That gap between what Tolkien made explicit and what he merely hinted at is his genius. As we yearn for more, we fill in the unknowns ourselves, charging our imaginations with the task of taking us there.
In a bare-bones timeline at the back of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien hints at further adventures of the major characters. He is clever, even mischievous, about drawing us in with ambiguity. Phrases such as, it is said or, there is no record of, keep readers guessing. Legolas and Gimli may have sailed off across the seas. Or they may not have. We dont know, and thats part of what draws us closer to his flickering storytelling fire.
We cant travel to [Tolkien's] magical realms, embark on epic quests, feel the weight of ancient rivalries or wage good wars. But he makes us want to.
As fantasy, Lord of the Rings manages the neat trick of ringing true.
Middle-earth maybe be filled with dwarves, hobbits, elves and orcs, but they seem human. Like the protagonists of any work of fiction, they have desires and motivations and complexities. They get entangled in complicated plots. The novels themes of good and evil, fellowship and corruption, sacrifice and treachery, are universal.
And in spite of his efforts to make the fantasy relatable, Tolkien also understood that its the un-real that grabs our attention. This cant happen to you, the author seems to suggest, but I want to you to dream that it might. We cant travel to his magical realms, embark on epic quests, feel the weight of ancient rivalries or wage good wars. But he makes us want to.
This push and pull, this drawing us in while keeping us at arms length, is what makes his Middle-earth all the more enticing.
As Bilbo Baggins once sang:
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began Now far ahead the Road has gone And I must follow, if I can.
May we keep following you, J.R.R. Tolkien.
And Happy Birthday, Lord of the Rings.
It is unfortunate FR hosts such garbage as this.
Happy Birthday indeed.
Agreed. Leave any time you like.
This author makes some excellent points about the appeal of Tolkien’s oeuvre, but he should have mentioned the glorious compound-complex sentences.
In before the Orcs... Oops. I guess not.
Actually, the remarkable thing that separates Tolkien from the great majority of science fiction and fantasy literature is that “Tolkien did write it.”
Most fantasy books and movies simply toss in throwaway lines like “Ah, that is no ordinary sword, that is the great Sword of Polywoggle!” when it becomes a convenient plot device for the hero to find a powerful sword.
Tolkien did not put anything into LOTR that he did not think through and write out for himself the private backstory. He carefully constructed thousands of years of history for the characters and their ancestors, of which often only a few brief lines make it into the text. He constructed the grammar and vocabulary for entire languages (language was his profession and a lifelong love of his), and characters speak different dialects of those languages.
The reason that his literary world seems to have remarkable depth is that the depth really existed, even if the reader did not see it all. Thus, we can be moved to tears by Elrond’s separation from his daughter Arwen through her marriage to the hero Aragorn, even though we know only a little bit of his tragic family history. Or the temptation of the wise Galadriel to seize Ring for her own, and the rejection of that temptation seems real, even though we have only the smallest glimpse of her as a fiery leader of the Elven exiles in her youth.
Much of the backstory was only published after Tolkien’s death, through the efforts of his son Christopher to organize and publish his father’s writings. In his letters, Tolkien made clear that he considered it cheating to refer to events or character’s when he didn’t have a clear idea of their story. In one letter to a reader he admits with regret that the one time he had cheated like this was in a reference to ‘Queen Berthea’s cats’, but then he goes on to provide that story.
Tolkien was a conservative politically and a devout Catholic. His writings are remarkably relevant today, because even when the forces of darkness seem overwhelming, and our leaders seem to betray us (Saruman), to be mired in dispair (Denethor), to be taken away to soon (Gandalf), or to be ignored (Aragorn), Tolkien holds out the hope that inner strength can be revived and tapped (Theoden), and that the ultimate hope for our world lies not in our leaders but in the quiet courageous actions of simple folk.
I've read these books >15 times
The threads of Wonder, Kindness, Honor, Bravery
also Hatred, Fear, Pride, Covetousness
Woven into an alternate Universe that is deeply conceived
and Powerfully Wrought
Teaches lessons about the Human Condition
not easily expressed in Classic Fiction
One of the greatest “True Myth” writers of all time. We love and miss you J.R.R.
Wow I never knew he spent so much time creating back stories for his characters.
I’m sorry it’s not clear to me from what you posted here: are these back stories published?
LOTR seems like Ancient Literature, as it has the cadence and aura of time -honored myth and legend.
And yet, it is two years YOUNGER than me!
That makes me feel OLD! LOL!
If you want the “backstory” to all of Tolkien’s legendarium, read the Silmarillion. It is tedious beyond belief but it catalogs all the threads, tales, relationships, and legacies from the Trilogy, along with dozens you’ve never heard of.
And when you’re done with that, read all of the stuff that Christopher Tolkien has compiled that shows the earlier drafts and see how the concept of the world and the history evolved over about 50 years of his father’s writing.
all good points and reasons I love Tolkien’s work so much.
Oh, not that bad. Some parts are as dull as the slow sections of the Old Testament, but even in those passages, there will be a well-turned phrase or a sharp bit of irony to keep you going until the fighting starts again.
The language is intentionally grandiose and mythic, but you get used to it, just as you get used to Dumas or Tolstoy after a hundred pages or so.
I have to admit, Tolkien has spoiled me when it comes to good literature and especially fantasy. Nothing else really compares.
Gene Wolfe wrote an awesome Tolkien essay a while ago. I guess he wrote Tolkien in the mid 60s and Tolkien wrote back, pretty cool stuff.
Or Stephen king.