The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
The Lord of the Rings, the seminal work of modern fantasy, was first published in sections only as a concession to its length; the division of the work into the three volumes familiar to most readers bears no relation to the development of the story. J. R. R. Tolkien himself divided the work into six numbered but untitled books, two of which appear in each volume. Although The Lord of the Rings was begun as a sequel to Tolkien’s popular 1938 children’s book The Hobbit, it so dwarfs the earlier volume in both seriousness and scope as to have reversed the relationship. The Hobbit, though successful in its own right, is now considered primarily as a “prequel” to the longer work.
The length and complexity of The Lord of the Rings are such as to defy brief plot summary. The main action concerns Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, a member of a diminutive, rural, peace-loving race that lives in the northern land of the Shire. From his Uncle Bilbo, the hero of The Hobbit, Frodo inherits a magic ring that confers invisibility on the wearer.
Frodo learns, however, that his heirloom is far more than a toy: The wizard Gandalf explains that it is in fact the Master Ring created by the malevolent Dark Lord, Sauron, ages before. Sauron, a powerful spirit who presides over the hellish kingdom of Mordor in the far east of Middle-earth, invested the Ring with much of his original power, and he has been hunting...
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The Lord of the Rings (The Sixties in America)
The trilogy that featured Middle-earth, the fantasy world created by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, became mandatory reading for many in the 1960’s. The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1955), and The Return of the King (1956). Its already significant popularity grew when Ballantine Books issued a paperback edition in 1968.
The Lord of the Rings, or the Tolkien trilogy, describes the struggle between good and evil in Middle-earth, a place that is simpler and more honest than the real world yet contains many of the concerns that troubled people in the 1960’s. Greed, suspicion, and vanity haunt many of the characters. The evil that must be conquered is chiefly one of mind control, but it also entails destruction of the natural world. Tolkien, who was a Medieval scholar, used his familiarity with myth, language, and feudal society to create an entire world, complete with languages, theology, and political and geographical realities. In Tolkien’s world, all beings control their own destinies and must freely choose their fate, often with bittersweet results. All must confront the lure and destructiveness of total power, represented by the Ring.
In the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard Gandalf discovers that a simple ring carries an overwhelming power that could be used to dominate...
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Tolkien is often approached with the expectation that he was a typical child of late Victorian and Edwardian England, and deeply embedded in the British intellectual establishment. He was in some ways, however, atypical. His Catholicism, passion for Philology, profound love and respect for the earth, and distrust of the benefits of technology, particularly that of the internal combustion engine, made him a potentially uneasy member of his society. Even as the atomic bomb was being developed, the Ring was emerging in his narrative as the technology that cannot be harnessed, but must be destroyed, the source of unlimited power that corrupts and destroys even the best and highest. His picture of the Shire, which works as a society because justice and law are internalized rather than imposed, while admittedly ideal, is an ideal that has more in common with the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy than Imperial or Post-Imperial Britain. Far from being an imperialist, Tolkien was the champion of the local, wherever it was, as is clear from Aragorn's treatment of Rohan, the Woses and the Shire. He identified deeply with the West Midlands of England and spent much of his scholarly life working on its medieval texts, which he felt preserved a literary language and a sense of worth and identity through the dark days of Norman French domination.
Tolkien's passion for language emerged in his earliest...
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Physically Middle-earth resembles modern Earth. It is the inhabitants that add the touch of unreality that a reader expects in what Tolkien calls a "secondary" world. In making a world for his hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, ents, orcs, ringwraiths, and other unusual beings, Tolkien assumes the creative rights which he says in his essay "On Fairy-stories" belong to the storymaker: the right to be free with nature; to use the world as a basis to make something new, while giving this new world its principles of inner consistency. Much of this mythology and history of Middle-earth comes through songs that pervade the narrative, but a more organized "history," complete with dates for the four ages of Middle-earth and genealogies of major families of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and human beings, is included as an appendix to the third volume.
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Point of View
Tolkien in the Prologue to Lord of the Rings adopts a common literary convention: he has 'translated' it from Bilbo and Frodo's own Red Book of Westmarch. For long stretches of Lord of the Rings the point of view is third person, but there are important flashes of omniscience. These flashes derive from a complex set of circumstances rooted in the convention of translation from an autobiographical account, not a wavering of approach. What a character is thinking is usually revealed by means of words or actions. Where omniscience occurs, the mind involved is usually Frodo's. In the narrative of the debate before the company leaves Lórien, Boromir's thought is revealed by his words and actions, while the reader is taken into Frodo's mind. A more complex example occurs when Frodo's struggle with the eye of Sauron is reported. When Frodo puts on the Ring, the narrator becomes fully omniscient, but the ground has been carefully prepared for this effect of the Ring. If readers will accept that the 'real' authors are part of the action and one of those authors has the heightened awareness born of the Ring, it will not be strange to find that at times that we know the mind of Frodo, Sam or even, at the end, the reaction of Sauron himself.
Tolkien wrote of Middle Earth in the Prologue to Lord of the Rings: "Those days, the Third Age of Middle Earth are now long past, and the...
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Tolkien's use of techniques garnered from medieval literature has already been discussed in detail. Suffice to say that what was true of Tolkien's technique in The Hobbit is even more evident in The Lord of the Rings. What is new to Tolkien's masterpiece, however, is scope. With the exception of Austin Tappan Wright, author of Islandia (1942), no fantasy writer had ever created a world which was anywhere near as detailed as is Tolkien's Middle-earth. Indeed, the entire tradition of putting maps and appendices on languages, calendars, histories, and cultures in the back of fantasy novels stems almost entirely from The Lord of the Rings, whose last volume contains more than one hundred and twenty pages of such material. It can even be argued that Tolkien's subsequent posthumous best seller The Silmarillion (1977), along with the many volumes of literary fragments published by Christopher Tolkien since 1980, are themselves nothing more than extended appendices to The Lord of the Rings.
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At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien deliberately links the trilogy to its predecessor, The Hobbit. He describes the return of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Ring and, in the prologue, he expands the nature of hobbits and summarizes the story of Bilbo and Gollum. The narrative at first continues the light spoken tone of the earlier novel, but as it develops, this tone recedes, only occasionally bursting forth in the words and actions of the irrepressible hobbits.
The author creates two major challenges for himself in structuring the three volumes: deepening the story's historical dimensions and uniting the many narrative strands. To make Frodo's quest part of a more cosmic struggle, Tolkien continues evolving the history of Middle-earth, using Gandalf and Elrond to relate the ancient history of Sauron, the Lord of the Rings, and supplying many glimpses of the mythological and legendary past through songs, allusions, and tales told by elves, dwarves, ents, and mortals. Tolkien allows information to seep through gradually. The Black Riders, for example, appear several times, each time causing deeper dread in the hobbits, before they are identified as the Ringwraiths. Aragorn's nobility also impresses itself on the reader in stages, not only through his historical deeds but also through revelations about his descent from legendary heroes. The destruction of the Ring and the crowning of Aragorn complete a chain of events stretching...
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Frodo makes important discoveries about the world very much as Bilbo did in The Hobbit (1937), but in The Lord of the Rings the ante has been upped considerably. The range of cultures to which Frodo must adjust has been greatly enlarged, as has the importance of that adjustment. Where Bilbo confronted the existence of evil on a relatively limited scale in the person of the dragon Smaug, Frodo must confront an absolute, all-consuming evil in Sauron. Although Bilbo was forced to grow and change, he and his allies were defined as essentially good throughout The Hobbit. The evil that Bilbo confronted was exterior to him. In The Lord of the Rings, however, Frodo quickly discovers that the evil he must do battle with is both exterior, in the person of Sauron and his minions, and interior, in his own easily corrupted desire to gain control of the situation. Even Gandalf, he is told, is corruptible. Nothing is certain. What the author may be dealing with here, although Tolkien, again, has denied any explicit connection, is the result of World War II. Although Tolkien had fought in World War I, his experience of the horror of trench warfare did little to darken The Hobbit. The evil in that book is, when all is said and done, manageable. Readers never really doubt the heroes1 ability to conquer. Such is not the case in The Lord of the Rings. In that book readers very much doubt whether Frodo can succeed, can conquer both Sauron and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions for The Silmarillion
Most people come to this book only after having read The Lord of the Rings and it seems likely that the primary interest to be found in The Silmarillion lies in its ability to shed light on that novel. Discussion might focus on the extent to which reading The Silmarillion effects understanding of The Lord of the Rings and, more specifically, on what information contained in The Silmarillion is most relevant to Tolkien's earlier fiction.
1. It was suggested above that The Silmarillion is in many ways a religious text. Middle Earth's equivalent of the Bible. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement? What similarities do you see between The Silmarillion and the Bible, the Koran, or other religious works?
2. The Silmarillion refers to events that take place long before the action of The Lord of the Rings and was, for the most part, written well before Tolkien's great novel. To what extent would The Silmarillion have stood on its own if Tolkien had been able to publish it first, in 1937? Does the book in fact have value independent of The Lord of the Rings, or is it exclusively of interest as a commentary on Tolkien's masterpiece?
3. The Silmarillion reveals that Gandalf, Saruman, and the other wizards are actually something much closer to angels than to mere human beings with magical powers. If you were to re-read The Lord of the...
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Ideas for Group Discussions for The Lord of the Rings
The bildungsroman concept discussed in connection with The Hobbit above is perhaps even more relevant to The Lord of the Rings. This is true, in part, because we discover what happened to Bilbo in later life. Some of the ramifications of his adventures are not entirely clear at the end of The Hobbit. More importantly, however, the concept of the bildungsroman is even more relevant to Frodo Baggins, the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, than it was to Bilbo in The Hobbit. Frodo actually is a young man when his novel opens. Although like Bilbo, he is far from impoverished, he also is something of a misfit, an outsider. When he leaves the relative safety of the Shire for the dangers of the outside world, he faces moral decisions of a complexity far beyond those which Bilbo had to deal with. When he returns to the Shire, transformed by his adventures, he stays awhile, but must ultimately leave again. Those who have borne the Ring are permanently changed by it.
It is the nature of the traditional bildungsroman, however, that the protagonist's adventures are usually personal, of consequence only to him and his immediate circle. Rarely do the bildungsroman hero's decisions have a major impact on the larger world around him. This is not entirely the case in The Hobbit and it is certainly not the case in The Lord of the Rings. Upon Frodo's moral courage hinges the fate of the entire Middle-earth. Much room for fertile discussion will be found in a...
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Compare and Contrast
Early Twentieth Century: Tolkien's secondary school education is centered on the language and literature of Greece and Rome. He is expected not only to be able to read and write both languages, but to be able to speak them with some fluency. Debating in Latin was common, and in Classical Greek not unknown.
Today: Science and technical subjects have moved to the heart of the curriculum in English-speaking countries, and few students receive a similarly thorough training even in their mother tongue.
Early Twentieth Century: The society that Tolkien depicts is an essentially self-sufficient one, in which families grow their own food and most goods are produced locally by craftsmen. Trade, when mentioned, is usually in luxuries: wine, pipeweed, and dwarf-made toys. In Tolkien's own childhood in the English country side, this life-style would have not have seemed like the stuff of fairy-tales, but very close to people's own experience.
Today: Nearly all goods are mass-produced, often on a world-wide scale of distribution, and even the production of meals from basic ingredients is being superceded by ready prepared foods.
Early Twentieth Century: There is a strong antipathy among many British people towards Catholics. Mrs. Tolkien's conversion distances her and her children from both her own and her husband's family. Her sister, who is...
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Topics for Discussion
1. How does Tolkien develop the nature of the Black Riders so that their identity as Ringwraiths does not come as a surprise?
2. Many characters convey pieces of information at the Council of Elrond. Information about the history of the Ring, about events that have happened more recently, or about their own presence at the Council. What information is new to the reader?
3. What shows that the Ring has no effect on Tom Bombadil? What is later given as an explanation for this? Why is Gandalf unwilling to entrust the Ring to Tom?
4. When Frodo offers his Ring to Galadriel, she refuses it, as had Gandalf and Aragom. Why does she refuse it? How do the three elven Rings, one of which she wears, differ from the other Rings of Power?
5. Pippin, Aragorn, and Denethor all use one of the palantiri. What happens in each case? What accounts for the different effects that the palantiri have on Denethor and Aragorn?
6. In the trilogy many characters and objects have powers beyond the "natural." Such supernatural powers are part of the inner consistency of Middie-earth. The most pervasive of these elements are the Rings of Power, the palantiri, and Gandalf. Select three or four other supernatural objects or characters and show how they fit into Tolkien's concepts of Middle-earth.
7. Tolkien often shows how evil can unintentionally work for good. How is this demonstrated by Grishnakh? By Grima?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Throughout the trilogy Tolkien uses foreshadowing and flashbacks to draw the scattered events of his narrative together. Select at least eight scenes and events in the trilogy (drawing from all three volumes) and show how Tolkien uses these techniques effectively.
2. Songs and verses play a major part in the trilogy, both artistically and structurally. Referring to sections from all three volumes, identify several different types of songs and verses and explain their relevance to the overall narrative and their function in the creation of settings and characters.
3. Even though Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf are the "heroes" of the trilogy, Samwise Gamgee is in many ways more "real." Analyze the development of Sam's character. How does Tolkien make him such an appealing character? How does Sam change during the quest?
4. Tolkien stated his preference for "history, true or feigned" as a subject for his writing. Among the "historical" devices incorporated into the trilogy is the set of appendices at the end of The Return of the King. How does "The Numenorean Kings" in the first appendix throw light on situations in the trilogy?
5. Select one of the places in Middle-earth (e.g., Mordor, Lorien, the Shire) and explain some of the laws or principles that operate there. Compare it with our world. What are the abilities which animate and inanimate beings have there, and what customs or situations are taken as a matter...
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Topics for Further Study
J. R. R. Tolkien's lifelong interest in Philology, the study of change and development in language, is one of the foundations of his narrative. Research a study of comparative languages, particularly as it applies to a language family that interests you culturally.
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has attracted the work of many illustrators. Tolkien himself was a gifted amateur illustrator and a number of his illustrations for his stories have been published. Study Tolkien's illustrations and discuss the ideas, artistic movements, and individual artists that you believe may have entered into his style.
Tolkien served in the trenches in World War I during the Somme offensive. Look at both his biography and at narratives of the battle of the Somme and attempt to find reflections of his experiences in Lord of the Rings.
For a time in 1965-66, Tolkien and his publishers were involved in a battle with Ace books over their unapproved paperback edition of Lord of the Rings. Investigate the history of copyright laws, and discuss the long running problems of British authors with American copyright laws.
Some critics have noticed the similarity between the society Tolkien drew in the Shire and the social ideas of William Morris. Study the ideas of Morris about work, art, and society, and discuss the extent to which the picture Tolkien draws of the Shire agrees...
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Although The Lord of the Rings is clearly a work for adults and The Hobbit just as clearly a work for children (although beloved by adults), they really are of a piece and their literary precedents are, for the most part, identical. To the extent that they differ, The Hobbit can be said to owe somewhat more to the folk tradition, whereas The Lord of the Rings can be seen as more heavily indebted to the medieval chronicle and the high romance tradition of Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory. Scholars seeking out the works which influenced Tolkien, however, have turned up innumerable allusions to Spenser, Tasso, Shakespeare, Milton, and other writers.
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The Lord of the Rings continues the story of the ring of invisibility found by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit; it also draws on material published later in Tolkien's mythology of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion. The Hobbit in tone and characterization resembles an extended fairy tale which children as well as adults can enjoy and understand. In this narrative Tolkien lays the groundwork for the ring motif in the trilogy, but as far as Bilbo and the reader are concerned the ring at this stage conveys no power other than that of invisibility. By what seems an accident Bilbo finds the ring and is able to use it to help his thirteen dwarf friends reclaim their ancestral treasure from the dragon Smaug. The previous owner of the ring, Gollum, and its creator, Sauron, try to recover the ring throughout the trilogy. The Silmarillion provides a more cosmic introduction to the trilogy, but it can probably be better appreciated by one who is already familiar with The Lord of The Rings.
In The Silmarillion Tolkien presents the myths and legends underlying the creation of Middle-earth and its inhabitants, especially the elves. Much of The Silmarillion is summarized in the appendix to the trilogy and in the many songs about the elves and about the ancestors of Elrond and Aragom. The third volume of the trilogy. The Return of the King, tells of the reforging of bonds between the elven and human lines whose stories form...
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The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle are poems by Tolkien, with music by Donald Swann, recorded on Caedmon Records in 1967. Poems and Songs of Middle Earth were also recorded in the same year. William Elven performs.
'The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins' was recorded by Leonard Nimoy.
Lord of the Rings was made into an animated film released in 1978, directed by Ralph Bakshi.
The Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson, is to be released as three separate live action movies beginning in 2001. There is a trailer/ preview available on the internet.
"Harvard Lampoon'' published a parody of The Lord of the Rings entitled Bored of the Rings in 1969.
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What Do I Read Next?
Tolkien's first published fiction in 1937 was The Hobbit, subtitled or There and Back Again. It was written as a freestanding children's story within the world of Middle Earth. It became, however, with significant revisions of the Ring finding episode, the prelude for the whole of Lord of the Rings.
Although J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion was published posthumously in 1977, he was working on it as early as 1917. It is a narrative of the Elder Days, beginning with Eru, the One, Ilúvatar, the creator, and ending with the downfall of Númenor and the changing of the world so that there was no longer a straight passage to the Deathless lands. Unlike The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, it makes little or no use of modern novelistic conventions. Christopher Tolkien writes in the Foreword that the material ‘‘became the vehicle of his profoundest reflections. In his later writing, mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical preoccupations: 'from which arose incompatibilities of tone.'’’
Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham published in 1949 includes a gentle send-up of scholarship and ironic observations on the perennial faults of central government in a hilarious tale of a talking dog, a short-sighted giant, a clever but unlucky dragon, and a...
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For Further Reference
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. In this definitive biography of Tolkien, Carpenter traces the many influences that affected Tolkien's writing while avoiding, as much as possible, literary judgments.
Crabbe, Kathryn F. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. In the chapter, "The Quest as Legend: The Lord of the Rings," Crabbe considers the book from the standpoint of tone, the nature of heroes and heroism, and the concepts of good and evil, and she discusses the place of differing languages in Middle-earth.
Day, David. A Tolkien Bestiary. New York: Ballantine, 1979. The index is often needed to locate items that can be listed under different names. It is an illustrated glossary of places and creatures in Middle-earth.
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983. Flieger's study is based on the belief that The Lord of the Rings cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the mythology that underlies it, and that the trilogy is a fragment of the continuing history of Middle-earth.
Fonstad, Karen Wynn. The Atlas of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Chronologies, maps of Middle-earth at different periods in its creation and development, and maps of places relevant to the journeys of the fellows visualize the progression of the narrative....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adams, Robert M., "The Hobbit Habit," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 168—175.
Aldritch, Kevin, “The Sense of Time in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, Harper Collins, 1999, pp. 86-91.
Auden, W. H., "The Quest Hero," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 40-61.
-----, "At the end of the Quest, Victory," in New York Times Book Review, January 22, 1956, p. 5.
Basney, Lionel, "Myth, History, and Time in The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien New Critical Perspectives, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University Press of Kentucky, 1981, pp. 8-18.
Beagle, Peter S., "Tolkien's Magic Ring," in The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine Books, 1966, pp. ix—xv.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer, "Men, Halflings, and Hero-Worship," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 109-127.
Brewer, Derek S., "The Lord of the Rings as Romance," in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, Cornell University Press, 1979, pp. 249-64.
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Bibliography (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Birzer, Bradley. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003. Argues that The Lord of the Rings is a “sublimely mystical Passion Play” in which myth is “sanctified” by expressing eternal (Christian) truths.
Caldecott, Stratford. The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind “The Lord of the Rings.” New York: Crossroad, 2005. Suggests that Tolkien’s Catholic spirituality “illuminates” his writing, and the Christian virtues of the heroes in The Lord of the Rings purify the reader without proselytizing.
Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998. A biography of Tolkien emphasizing the role of his Catholic spirituality in developing his myth.
Wood, Ralph C. The Gospel According to Tolkien. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Explores Tolkien’s fiction as an “embedded gospel” providing an answer to the moral dilemmas of the twentieth century.
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