The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien - Essay

J. R. R. Tolkien


The Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien

The following entry presents criticism on Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).

A leading philologist of his day, Tolkien was an Oxford University professor who, along with Oxford colleagues C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, helped revive popular interest in the medieval romance and the fantastic tale. Tolkien is best known for his epic fantasy/romance trilogy of novels, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien gained a reputation during the 1960s and 1970s as a cult figure among youths disillusioned with war and the technological age; his continuing popularity evidences his ability to evoke the oppressive realities of modern life while drawing audiences into a fantasy world. Many critics claim that the success of Tolkien's trilogy has made possible the contemporary revival of “sword and sorcery” literature.

Plot and Major Characters

The Lord of the Rings charts the adventures of the inhabitants of Middle Earth, a complex fictional world with fantastical characters and a complete language crafted by Tolkien. The goal of Tolkien's literary life was ultimately to infuse his fairy stories with such exquisitely formulated detail of character, action, philosophy, and religion that they would be as “real” as the most factual nonfiction. Taken together, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with its prelude The Hobbit (1937)—which is based on bedtime stories Tolkien had created for his children—encompasses ten thousand years of Middle Earth history and includes an encyclopedic mythology inspired by but entirely separate from that of the human species. Peopled with a vast array of beings, including hobbits, elves, dwarves, and orcs, as well as the men of Westernesse, Middle Earth is arguably the most comprehensive imaginary world created by a writer in English, other than John Milton's heaven and hell. While not technically a part of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, which is considered a children's story and lacks much of the psychological depth of the trilogy, begins the story of the rings with the reluctant efforts of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to recover a treasure stolen by a dragon. During the course of his mission, the hobbit discovers a magical ring which, among other powers, can render its bearer invisible. The ability to disappear helps Bilbo fulfill his quest; however, the ring's less obvious faculties prompt the malevolent Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, to seek it. The hobbits' attempt to deny Sauron unlimited power is the focal point of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which consists of the novels The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). In these books Bilbo's nephew Frodo takes over the elderly Bilbo's quest, as Bilbo passes the ring on to Frodo in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring. At this point the wizard Gandalf, who orchestrates many of the adventures in Middle Earth, tells Frodo that the ring has far more important powers than he suspects—that it may, in fact, hold the key to the world's fate. Throughout the trilogy, Tolkien rejects such traditional heroic attributes as strength, size, and bravado. Instead, he has Gandalf deliberately choose the reluctant hobbit heroes, who are small, humble, and unassuming, to guard the ring and thereby prevail against evil.

Major Themes

Despite Tolkien's protests to the contrary, The Lord of the Rings does evoke themes both from earlier literary archetypes and the development of modern culture in the twentieth century. Critics have found echoes from various works of epic and medieval literature, including The Iliad, The Song of Roland, Beowulf, The Elder Edda, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien's work as an Oxford scholar of early literature suggests that he, perhaps even subconsciously, was influenced by the adventure and mythology of these texts. But The Lord of the Rings also appears to address issues specific to the twentieth century, particularly the sense of loss, despair, and alienation that came as a result of the two World Wars. Many have read the trilogy as an allegory of the history of modern Europe, especially the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany. Others see it as a Christian allegory. Tolkien always denied that his books were either allegorical or topical in nature, maintaining that the events that occurred in Middle Earth predate any historical occurrences that Western humans could be aware of. Nevertheless, most critics find that, particularly because The Lord of the Rings was written roughly between 1939 and 1949 and because of Tolkien's own experiences serving in World War I, the influence of the catastrophic events of the twentieth century must have been inevitable.

Critical Reception

Initial critical reception to The Lord of the Rings varied. While some reviewers expressed dissatisfaction with the story's great length and one-dimensional characters, the majority enjoyed Tolkien's enchanting descriptions and lively sense of adventure. Religious, Freudian, allegorical, and political interpretations of the trilogy soon appeared, but Tolkien generally rejected such explications. He maintained that The Lord of the Rings was conceived with “no allegorical intentions …, moral, religious, or political,” but he also denied that the trilogy is a work of escapism: “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. … The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live.” Tolkien contended that his story was “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration,” a “religious and Catholic work” whose spiritual aspects were “absorbed into the story and symbolism.” Tolkien concluded, “The stories were made … to provide a world for the languages rather than the reverse.” Largely because of its fantasy elements and its seemingly anti-war themes, the trilogy was absorbed into popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and references to it appeared in music and materials related to the psychedelic drug scene. Interest in The Lord of the Rings was renewed in the early twenty-first century, with the release of a series of award-winning films based on the novels.

Principal Works

A Middle English Vocabulary (glossary) 1922

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translator; with E. V. Gordon] (poetry) 1925

The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again (novel) 1937

Farmer Giles of Ham (short stories) 1949

The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (novel) 1954

The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings (novel) 1954

The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (novel) 1955

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (poetry) 1962

Tree and Leaf [includes “On Fairy-Stories” and “Leaf by Niggle”] (essay and short story) 1964

*The Lord of the Rings [foreword by Tolkien] (novel) 1966

The Tolkien Reader (poetry and short stories) 1966

The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle (lyrics) 1967

Smith of Wooton Major (novel) 1967

The Father Christmas Letters (novel) 1976

The Silmarillion (novel) 1977

Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth (short stories) 1980

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (letters) 1981

The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (essays) 1983

Bilbo's Last Song (verse) 1990

*This trilogy includes the novels The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955).

Hugh T. Keenan (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Keenan, Hugh T. “The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings: A Struggle for Life.” In Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, pp. 62-80. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Keenan finds that the appeal of The Lord of the Rings for adults lies largely in the trilogy's examination of existential issues and the psychology of childhood.]

Long before The Lord of the Rings became popular with children, educated readers began taking it enthusiastically and seriously. But how could mature readers take to the melodramatic...

(The entire section is 5947 words.)

Marion Zimmer Bradley (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Bradley, Marion Zimmer. “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship.” In Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, pp. 109-27. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Bradley explores the expression of emotion in The Lord of the Rings in its most prevalent form: the love and admiration of young males for older, powerful father figures.]

Love is the dominant emotion in The Lord of the Rings, and love in the form of hero worship is particularly evident in the relationship between Aragorn and the other characters and between Frodo and...

(The entire section is 5982 words.)

R. J. Reilly (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Reilly, R. J. “Tolkien and the Fairy Story.” In Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, pp. 128-50. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Reilly analyzes The Lord of the Rings in terms of Tolkien's theory of the fairy story.]

When J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, appeared some seven years ago, it accomplished on a modest scale the sort of critical controversy which The Waste Land and Ulysses had occasioned a generation earlier. Like them, it could not be easily reviewed; it was...

(The entire section is 7445 words.)

William Ready (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Ready, William. “Man for Tolkien.” In The Tolkien Relation: A Personal Inquiry, pp. 115-31. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1968.

[In the following essay, Ready examines Tolkien's thoughts on human nature as they appear in The Lord of the Rings.]

Man is hard to handle. A free agent, often he rejects what he thinks of as the Good, let alone good wizards like Gandalf—good men. For as long as Man lives Nature and all beyond relate to him. But there is something in Man, divine and diabolic, that rejects this. When his malign desire embraces Nature, it is to subdue it and harness it to his will. When his good desire woos it, it is often to escape his manhood...

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Gloriana St. Clair (essay date spring 1979)

SOURCE: St. Clair, Gloriana. “The Lord of the Rings as Saga.” Mythlore 6, no. 2 (spring 1979): 11-16.

[In the following essay, St. Clair presents arguments against placing The Lord of the Rings as a fairy story, an epic, and a romance, and instead contends that the trilogy is most similar to the genre of the traditional saga.]

One of the most useful aspects of literary criticism is to establish and to assign genres. Placing a modern work, like The Lord of the Rings, in its proper categories helps the reader to understand both the mechanics and the meaning of the work. Various critics have designated The Lord of the Rings a fairy-story, a...

(The entire section is 6019 words.)

Jared Lobdell (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Lobdell, Jared. “Defining The Lord of the Rings: An Adventure Story in the Edwardian Mode.” In England and Always: Tolkien's World of the Rings, pp. 3-25. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981.

[In the following essay, Lobdell discusses elements of Lord of the Rings that coincide with the Edwardian adventure story.]

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. …
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

“Beyond the Wild Wood comes...

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Jared Lobdell (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Lobdell, Jared. “Tolkien's Genius: Mind, Tongue, Tale—and Trees.” In England and Always: Tolkien's World of the Rings, pp. 73-91. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981.

[In the following essay, Lobdell discusses the widespread appeal of The Lord of the Rings.]

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
History is now and England.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

God gives all men all earth to love
But since man's heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove...

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Douglas A. Burger (essay date summer 1984)

SOURCE: Burger, Douglas A. “The Uses of the Past in The Lord of the Rings.Kansas Quarterly 16, no. 3 (summer 1984): 23-8.

[In the following essay, Burger finds Tolkien's allusions to ancient and medieval tales in The Lord of the Rings to be intended as modernized instructional and moral stories.]

Unhindered by the realist's obligation to reflect ordinary, day-to-day life, the fantasist has the special freedom to give form to a fictional world which reflects his own keenest interest and his most profound wishes. Thus when J. R. R. Tolkien turns to fantasy, it is in no way surprising that his work should be deeply indebted to the past, particularly to...

(The entire section is 3057 words.)

Catherine Madsen (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Madsen, Catherine. “Light from an Invisible Lamp: Natural Religion in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 14, no. 3 (spring 1988): 43-7.

[In the following essay, Madsen argues against interpretations of The Lord of the Rings that locate the trilogy as a specifically Christian allegory and contends instead that it is informed by a nonspecific religiosity.]

It was in 1971 that a reader wrote to Tolkien, calling himself “an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling” and saying how profoundly he had been moved by The Lord of the Rings. “You,” he said, “create a world in which some sort of faith...

(The entire section is 5550 words.)

J. R. Wytenbroek (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Wytenbroek, J. R. “Apocalyptic Vision in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 14, no. 4 (summer 1988): 7-12.

[In the following essay, Wytenbroek locates elements of both the biblical and the Old Norse vision of the end of the world in The Lord of the Rings.]

The title of my paper is “Apocalyptic Vision in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” and in it I shall refer to both the Christian view of the apocalypse, as presented primarily in the book of Revelations, and the Norse vision of Ragnarok, as presented in both the Prose and Elder Eddas. Both the Biblical and Norse visions of the last days of the world are very sketchy and open...

(The entire section is 6070 words.)

William Edwin Bettridge (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Bettridge, William Edwin. “Tolkien's ‘New’ Mythology.” Mythlore 16, no. 4 (summer 1990): 27-31.

[In the following essay, Bettridge distinguishes between myth and allegory and shows the ways in which Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings a mythology.]

Myth, as the folklorist and the student of literature normally understand it, is the presentation of dramatic and supernatural episodes to explain and interpret natural events, to make concrete and meaningful and particular an otherwise abstract and difficult perception of man or a cosmic view. It may, in its various forms, explain or raise questions about such fundamental issues as creation,...

(The entire section is 5524 words.)

Stephen Potts (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Potts, Stephen. “The Many Faces of the Hero in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 17, no. 4 (summer 1991): 4-11.

[In the following essay, Potts delineates the various “hero cycles” and applies them to The Lord of the Rings.]

Virtually countless are the heroes available to the student of mythology and mythic fantasy, and all but countless the studies and theories attempting to interpret these heroes. As long as mythic and fantastic tales have been seriously gathered and analyzed—that is, roughly since the Brothers Grimm published their Kinder-und Hausmärchen in the era of Napoleon—folklorists and mythographers have been struck by the...

(The entire section is 7699 words.)

Elizabeth Arthur (essay date autumn 1991)

SOURCE: Arthur, Elizabeth. “Above All Shadows Rides the Sun: Gollum as Hero.” Mythlore 18, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 19-27.

[In the following essay, Arthur contends that Gollum is a hero in the sense that he is Tolkien's most complex and human-like character.]

Long after, but still very long ago, there lived by the banks of the great river on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people. I guess they were of hobbit-kind; akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors, for they loved the River, and often swam in it, or made little boats of reeds. There was among them a family of high repute, for it was large and wealthier...

(The entire section is 9052 words.)

Charles W. Nelson (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Nelson, Charles W. “The Sins of Middle-earth: Tolkien's Use of Medieval Allegory.” In J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, edited by George Clark and Daniel Timmons, pp. 83-94. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Nelson examines the ways in which the characters in The Lord of the Rings personify various sins and virtues in the traditions of medieval allegory.]

During the Council of Elrond, the elven lord declares that “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so” (The Fellowship of the Ring [FR] 350). This statement reflects Tolkien's version of creation in...

(The entire section is 6138 words.)

Jane Chance (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Chance, Jane. “Knowledge, Language, and Power: The Two Towers.” In The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, rev. ed., pp. 59-94. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Chance examines the effects of the characters' relative level of articulateness in The Two Towers.]


The Two Towers, [Towers] as much as any of the three parts of The Lord of the Rings, [LotR] dramatizes the power of language to change, control, dominate—and release. The diminution of intelligent life subverted by its own desires is reflected in the simple baby talk of Gollum...

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Jane Chance (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Chance, Jane. “The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's Epic.” In Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, rev. ed., pp. 141-83. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Chance examines the tension in Lord of the Rings between the values of the age of Germanic heroism and those of the later Christian age.]

But as the earliest Tales are seen through Elvish eyes, as it were, this last great Tale, coming down from myth and legend to the earth, is seen mainly through the eyes of Hobbits: it thus becomes in fact anthropocentric. But through Hobbits, not Men so-called, because the last Tale is to exemplify...

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T. A. Shippey (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Shippey, T. A. “The Lord of the Rings (3): The Mythic Dimension.” In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, pp. 161-225. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

[In the following essay, Shippey finds mythic-allegorical elements in The Lord of the Rings relating to events of the twentieth century, although contends that the trilogy is not an allegory of World War II.]


In the ‘Foreword’ to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect...

(The entire section is 22557 words.)

C. N. Sue Abromaitis (essay date January-February 2002)

SOURCE: Abromaitis, C. N. Sue. “The Distant Mirror of Middle-Earth: The Sacramental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien.” Touchstone 15, no. 1 (January-February 2002): 33-9.

[In the following essay, Abromaitis discusses Tolkien's spiritual optimism in his writings.]

Most notable about J. R. R. Tolkien's books is the imagination that created their world. Tolkien himself reflects upon the use of the creative imagination, believing that man, made in God's image and likeness, shares in the work of God's creation. At the same time Tolkien is quite aware of his being in a fallen world, one in which he is working against the zeitgeist.

This spirit of the age...

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Further Reading


Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998, 242 p.

Critical biography that discusses Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth; includes an “Index of Characters and Places in Tolkien's Middle Earth.”


Callaway, David. “Gollum: A Misunderstood Hero.” Mythlore 10, no. 3 (winter 1984): 14-17, 22.

Argues that Gollum represents the battle between good and evil and may therefore be considered a heroic figure.

Clark, George, and Dan Timmons, editors. J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth....

(The entire section is 469 words.)