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.
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.
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.