In 1997, Lord of the Rings was voted, to the chagrin of some critics, the greatest book of the twentieth century in a poll run by major British booksellers. Despite some negative criticism, Lord of the Rings has been a steady best-seller since the first volume was published in 1954, and a campus craze in the sixties and early seventies. The extensive fantasy sections in today's bookstores, from Terry Brooks to Terry Pratchett, are all its children, as are, if George Lucas is to be believed, the Star Wars films.
On the surface, a combination of popular acclaim and critical disquiet is a baffling response to the work of an Oxford professor saturated in the study of language development and early medieval literature. Still, it is perhaps this crossing of characters and situations common to epic and folktale with a judicious use of novelistic technique that accounts for both its popularity with the reading public and the hostility of some critics, whose literary culture is too centered in the avant-garde to be comfortable with a work that reaches so deeply into medieval literature and which rejects, however thoughtfully, moral relativism. Despite its roots in medieval literature, Lord of the Rings places its characters and its readers on a collision course with modern moral dilemmas of knowledge and power. Tolkien poses these modern problems with absolute ethical principles and a belief in both an overarching providence and the importance of human choice. These ethical absolutes are, however, at least partially expressed in terms of a new type of hero, one which does not supplant the old epic hero but which complements it. Although Tolkien always insisted that Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, it is apparent that the Ruling Ring and the destruction of the natural world that flows from the desire for its power are a reflection of Tolkien's concern for humanity's ability to destroy both itself and the earth. That Tolkien chooses a course of total rejection of such knowledge and power is perhaps one of the unconscious sources of some critics' reaction to the work. Such a rejection strikes at the heart of the concept of progress as it has developed in western civilization.
In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has demonstrated the evolution of a literary world. In The Hobbit, often considered a prologue to the trilogy, he created a fascinating kind of being with no parallel in literature; in the trilogy he expands his single hobbit hero into four hobbit companions and an interesting assortment of helpers and enemies. Readers who were captivated by Bilbo in The Hobbit will encounter him again in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of the trilogy. Bilbo's nephew Frodo is a more developed character than Bilbo and therefore even more absorbing to watch in action. The trilogy exemplifies Tolkien's power to sustain a central adventure through three volumes, each divided into two books. Each of the six books builds up to its own climactic ending, but an intricate system of interlacing allows the reader to move easily with the characters as the author fills in more details about the geography of Middle-earth, the history of its inhabitants, and the progress of the quest.
One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them.
The expansive background against which the central action takes place conveys a sense of the universality of the conflict between good and evil. In this world everyone needs the support of others in overcoming obstacles and in doing good. Many of the background sections treat the nature of evil as a distortion of what could have been good. Basic to the history of the One Ring is...
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Book 1 Summary
In Lord of the Rings, the inhabitants of Middle Earth join to save themselves from enslavement by the malevolent Sauron. Centuries before, Sauron forged a Ring, putting much of his power into it, to control through a series of lesser rings, men, dwarves, and elves. Some men fell into his power, but an alliance of men and elves defeated him, and the Ring was cut from his hand. It should have been destroyed, but a human prince, Isildur, took it. Isildur was slain, and the Ring fell into a river. There, the hobbit-like Deagol eventually found it. His friend Sméagol killed Deagol for the Ring. From Sméagol it passed to Bilbo Baggins, who, innocent of its powers and dangers, takes it back to his home and eventually leaves it to his cousin and heir Frodo Baggins. Once it is understood what the Ring is, and that Sauron is trying to recover it, it becomes clear that it must be destroyed. It can, however, only be destroyed in the same fire in which it was forged, the volcano Orodruin deep in Sauron's realm. It appears a rash and hopeless mission, requiring that the last forces of Middle Earth fight and act as a decoy while sending Sauron's ultimate weapon back into the heart of his realm. The very unlikelihood of the mission confuses Sauron. The Ring is destroyed in an act of providential irony, but not without enormous loss and a fundamental change to Middle Earth.
The Lord of the Rings is preceded...
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Book 2 Summary
The Fellowship of the Ring: Book 2
The hobbits and Aragorn reach Rivendell with the Ringwraiths closing in. There a council of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits is held. They decide the Ring is too dangerous either to use or to hide. It must be destroyed. Frodo offers to take and destroy it in the fire where it was forged. With him go Gandalf, Aragorn, and Boromir, son of the Steward of Gondor, for mankind; Legolas, son of Mirkwood' s Elf-king, for the elves; Gimli, son of Gloin of the Lonely Mountain for the dwarves; Sam, Merry, and Pippin for the hobbits. Gandalf leads them until, thwarted in their attempt to cross the mountains, he takes them underground through the mines of Moria. There he falls in battle to an evil creature from the earth's depths. Aragorn takes over leadership of the band, guiding them to the elven kingdom of Lórien where its queen Galadriel tests their resolve and gives each a gift, then sends them down the river Anduin to the Rauros falls. There they must decide whether to turn east towards Sauron's realm or go with Boromir to the aid of Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor. Already they realize Gollum is following them. When it becomes clear Frodo will continue the apparently hopeless quest to destroy the Ring, Boromir tries to take the Ring. Frodo, horrified at the Ring's effect, leaves the others. Sam insists on coming with him. Orcs from Mordor and from the renegade wizard Saruman attack while the rest search for Frodo...
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Book 3 Summary
The Two Towers: Book 3
Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas return at Boromir's horn call, but arrive only in time for Boromir to confess to trying to take the Ring and to beg Aragorn to save his people. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli start in pursuit of the Orcs. The three are overtaken by a troop of horsemen, the Riders of Rohan, led by Eomer, nephew of their King. Eomer tells them that he and his men overtook a band of Orcs at the edge of the great forest of Fangorn and slaughtered them. He lends them horses to search for their friends on the condition that they come to his uncle's court afterwards to justify his help. The hobbits, however, have escaped and met Treebeard the Ent, the master of the forest. Hearing their story, Treebeard decides the time has come to move against Sauruman who has begun to imitate Sauron, destroying or enslaving everything within his reach. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas reach the forest where Gandalf, sent back from the dead to finish his work, meets them. He tells them that the hobbits are safe and have found allies: the Ents. They travel to the court of Theoden, king of Rohan. The wizard turns the king from the despair induced by the insinuations of Grima, the king's councilor, Saruman's agent. They and the Ents help Rohan fight off Saruman's invasion, and then go with Theoden to confront Saruman, now besieged by the Ents. There they are reunited with Merry and Pippin. Saruman refuses to give up his bid for power; Gandalf...
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Book 4 Summary
The Two Towers: Book 4
Frodo and Sam are found by Gollum, whom Frodo befriends, almost winning him over from his malice. Gollum leads them through the desolation around Mordor, but they discover that they cannot enter its "Black Gate." Gollum offers to show them another, hidden way. As they journey there, a scouting party under command of Boromir's younger brother, Faramir, catches them. Faramir learns of the Ring and their plans, but resists any temptation to seize it. He gives them supplies and warns them that Gollum's secret way, the Spider's Pass, is more dangerous than Gollum has said. They follow Gollum, however, having no other choice. A monstrous spider, Shelob, bites Frodo. Sam thinks he is dead and...
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Book 5 Summary
The Return of the King: Book 5
Pippin and Gandalf reach Gondor and meet Denethor, the ruling steward. Denethor questions Pippin closely about his dead son. He is not happy with what he hears. He resents Aragorn and believes the Ring should be used to defeat Sauron. Pippin, who admired Boromir, offers his sword to Denethor who accepts him as one of his guardsmen. Meanwhile Aragorn has been joined by a small band of his kinsmen. He takes leave of King Theoden and rides for the Paths of the Dead to demand the help of a ghostly army cursed to have no peace until they fight against Sauron. Gimli and Legolas go with him. Longing for glory and in love with Aragorn, Éowyn, niece of Theoden and regent in his absence,...
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Book 6 Summary
The Return of the King: Book 6
Sam rescues Frodo from the Orcs, helped by their in-fighting and the power of Galadriel's gift. He hands Frodo back the Ring, and they travel on, still shadowed by Gollum. They abandon their few possessions as they abandon their hope of doing anything more than destroying the Ring. The landscape grows increasingly bleak as they approach the volcano, Orodruin. Frodo grows weaker and Sam carries him when he can no longer walk. Gollum catches up with them and knocks both of them down. Frodo rises with sudden strength and orders Gollum out of his path: "Begone and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom,'' and walks up the...
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