Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that “A book should teach us to enjoy life or to endure it.” J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings teaches both. It also fits the dictum of another writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, “And this is the particular triumph of the artist—not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to convince, but to enchant.” Tolkien has been compared to Lodovico Ariosto and to Edmund Spenser. Indeed, he belongs to the tradition of writers of epic and romance going back to the days of Homer. His work is deeply rooted in the great literature of the past and seems likely itself to be a hardy survivor resistant to time. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Celeborn the Elf King (no doubt speaking for his author) warns against despising the lore that has survived from distant years, for old wives’ tales may be the repositories of needful wisdom.
Although The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, each volume of which bears a different title, it is really a single, continuous tale. The author is in complete control of his copious material. He creates a consistent world with a sharply realized geography that includes maps; he works out a many-centuried time scheme and summarizes the chronology in an appendix to the third volume, The Return of the King (1955). With fertile inventiveness, Tolkien launches an amazing number of well-drawn, believable characters, places, and events. If there are any loose ends in the three volumes, they are so minor as to be negligible. The book has been pronounced an allegory; with equal certainty it has been pronounced not an allegory. At any rate, it is a gigantic myth of the struggle between good and evil.
The author first presents his invented creatures, the hobbits or halflings, in an early book, The Hobbit, to which The Lord of the Rings is a sequel, but a sequel with significant differences. Hobbits are small, furry-footed humanoids with a delight in simple pleasures and a dislike of the uncomfortable responsibilities of heroism. They share the world with human beings, wizards, elves, dwarfs, trolls, orcs, and other creatures. Although many of these creatures are not the usual figures of the contemporary novel, thoughtful readers can find applications to inhabitants and events of their world, which has its share of traitors, malice-driven demidevils, and time-servers, yet is not completely destitute of heroes and individuals of goodwill. Of the three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring has the widest variation in tone: After beginning with comedy and domestic comfort, it moves into high adventure, peril, and sorrow. Occasional verses appear in the pages, but Tolkien’s...
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