Students of the Ring are somewhat unkindly referred to by those who do not share their passion, as nerds, with that genteelly amused and dismissive tolerance often reserved for rabid Trekkies. Yet in all my years reading Tolkien’s saga, I’ve never heard anyone, even the dismissive, make a single dent into the sheer volume of what Tolkien put together to underpin The Lord of The Rings (aside from snidely asking whether the guy didn’t have a life). The tales of the Elder days, the histories, the languages, the cultures and characteristics of the races and lands is without peer or precedent in the world of fantasy literature.
This is partly what gives the journey of Sam and Frodo to Mordor, and the varied travels and travails of the other Walkers in the Fellowship, such a solid grounding. It is all the more impressive because Tolkien used the entire history of Middle Earth, and all its relics, as backdrop rather than something right up front. One feels, as one reads, that one is caught up in a grand cycle of conflict between good and evil that has been going on for eons. As Lucas did in Star Wars by calling it Episode IV, Tolkien’s masterstroke was to set his tale in the end of an age, before its beginning and middle had been told, and this allowed him to place the ruins and memories of a vanished, shattered glory all over his tale (in a way I felt he and Robert Howard, who wrote about Conan, shared similarities here).
It has been somewhat superciliously said that the world is divided into “those who have read LOTR, and those who have not,” which I find particularly condescending towards the “nots” – one could equally say that about the part of the world that has never read “Ramayana,” “The Tale of Genji,” “Beowulf”, or Dickens, or the Koran. But there is no question in my mind that in the realm of fantasy, all subsequent writers had him as their cross to bear, and borrowed from the capital he created almost single handedly – elves, wizards, kings, dark monsters, heroic quests, fierce battles, a carefully created world complete in history and geographical detail, multiple volumes of a really long story (Robert Jordan continues to reign as the champion in this area, with Martin coming on strong).
Where Tolkien diverges from the standard is in the key element of the saga – the ring. In most fantasy works or heroic legends, the Quest revolves around finding a numinous object – this can be a physical thing, or knowledge or power, or even a person. This theme is as old as the hills. But in LOTR, the object has already been found, and its power known, its history understood. The purpose of the quest in this case is to destroy it so others may not be tempted to use it, and so that the creator of the object is, to all intents and purposes, vanquished.
The plot can be summarized as follows: in “The Hobbit” a childish precursor to LOTR, Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit (something akin to a gnome, I would say) finds the ring. In LOTR Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, identifies the ring as The One Ring of Sauron (the archenemy), and Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, his gardener Sam, two friends Merry and Pippin, accompanied by a ranger called Strider, go to the home of the elves and attend the council of Elrond where it is decided that the ring will be destroyed. Nine walkers set out, and after a series of dangers, the group breaks up: Frodo and Sam head towards Mordor, the land of Sauron, while Pippin and Merry are captured by orcs (goblins) and chased by Strider (now known to be a descendant of kings), a dwarf named Gimli, and an elf called Legolas. The coming of each subgroup precipitates events that lead to the next and at the end…well, for those reading this who are “nots” I leave it to you to find out what happens. Since most people reading this will have already read the series, I doubt I need to, anyway, and for those who haven’t why spoil their enjoyment of initial discovery?
Tolkien lovingly described the lands through which his characters moved – this is part of what gives Middle-earth its charm and potency – he was long known as a quasi-Luddite. Partly this came from his memories of the unspoiled countryside of his youth, partly from his traumatic memories of the Great War. He had at best a tolerance for modern technology, but one can see he mistrusted (even feared) the way it changed both land and man. It is no coincidence that Treebeard described Saruman as having a mind of gears and wheels.
His creation of middle earth, however, had less to do with a desire to be an environmental activist, than to write a fictional mythology of Britain. His notebooks date back to the Great War years: in the decades that followed he wrote a creation legend, a history of the various Ages, the coming of the elves and their revolt against the Valar, the coming of men and creation (and destruction) of Numenor, the rings of power…all this in depth of detail and volume that is simply staggering. “The Hobbit” was, like Richard Adams’s seminal work “Watership Down” written for his children, and when it was published in 1937 it created a market for deeper work where none except pulps had been before (Howard and Lovecraft spring to mind), and this encouraged Tolkien to write something longer, more detailed…more serious (for, let’s face it, “The Hobbit” is slim pickings and occasionally amateurish, in spite of all its hints of deeper and darker matters).
Since its publication in the 1950s, LOTR has been one of the most successful books of its kind ever written, legitimized an oft-derided branch of fiction, spawned a massive subculture, three live-action films with two more on the way (not forgetting Ralph Bakshi’s animated work) and a veritable orc-host of other writers. It’s not a perfect book, of course — many have commented on weaknesses of character development, roles of women and archaic writing form (and too many songs). Yet these quibbles do not detract from one of the seminal works of modern letters, something unselfconsciously deep and dark and grand and noble, a book that makes no pains to be too psychologically subtle or emotionally complex, and one that is so deeply rooted in the bedrock of our cultural memories, that it remains the touchstone without which none of its many successors can be properly understood.