It is hard to overstate the importance of The Lord of the Rings to the development of modern fantasy. The work, the subject of cultish ardor in the first years following publication, rocketed to worldwide popularity in the mid-1960’s. Counterculture readers embraced its exaltation of nature and simple living above progress and the will to power; fans of adventure stories were captivated by its headlong pace; and scholars began to appreciate the extraordinary craft with which Tolkien, over a period of decades, had constructed his imagined world. It is not too much to say that virtually every subsequent fantasy writer owes Tolkien a substantial debt, either directly as inspiration (dozens of lesser works are clearly modeled on Tolkien’s) or indirectly for having vastly expanded the audience—and market—for adult fantasy.
The Lord of the Rings has accumulated a substantial body of scholarship, from the appreciative work of such early enthusiasts as W. H. Auden through more recent formalist approaches. The book has also generated a popular companion literature in the form of reference works, illustrative texts, glossaries, and assorted “guides.” The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s own lengthy mythology of Middle-earth, was published in 1977 but failed to attract a large readership.
Interpretation of so massive a work is a daunting task. Tolkien took pains to refute the popular early views that the Ring was meant to suggest the atomic bomb and that the East-West struggles of Middle-earth were modeled on the political order of either World War II or the Cold War. He noted that he had begun the story decades in advance of such developments and added that he “cordially” disliked such allegory. He further denied that The Lord of the Rings had an intended “meaning,” asserting that in writing it he had wished primarily to tell a riveting story that would enthrall readers. The prolonged popularity and enduring influence of his masterwork attest his success.