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 it since it was taken from him in battle ages before. Should Sauron recover the Ring, Gandalf warns, he would become sufficiently powerful to overwhelm Middle-earth, plunging it into an age of darkness.
Frodo and three hobbit companions, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, set out for Rivendell, a distant haven protected by Elrond, a wise and mighty elf king. Gandalf has been called away on urgent business, and Frodo and his friends must begin the long journey through the wilderness alone. They are pursued by the Ringwraiths, terrifying, ghostlike servants of Sauron who are drawn by the Ring itself. Along the way, the hobbits receive the aid of Strider, a man expert in the ways of the wild. The party reaches Rivendell just ahead of the Ringwraiths, who wound Frodo and attempt to possess his spirit.
At Rivendell, Frodo is healed by Elrond, and a council of representatives of the free peoples (hobbits, men, elves, and dwarves) debates the fate of the Ring. Some advocate using its power to defeat Sauron, whose armies of orcs and trolls threaten to overrun Middle-earth. Gandalf, though, explains that the Ring cannot be used for such a purpose without causing the wielder to set himself up as a new Dark Lord; the Ring’s colossal power inevitably corrupts. Moreover, the Ring cannot be destroyed by conventional means: Only the volcanic fires of Mordor’s Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged, can unmake it. Frodo volunteers to undertake the seemingly hopeless quest of carrying the Ring to the fire in the heart of the enemy’s realm, and the council agrees, detecting the hand of fate in Frodo’s selection.
Frodo and eight companions, including Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, and Strider—who has been revealed to be Aragorn, heir to the ancient kings of Middle-earth—set out on the quest. Also in the company are Legolas, an elf, Gimli, a dwarf, and Boromir, a man from the southern kingdom of Gondor, the principal bulwark against Sauron’s forces.
The company journeys south in the middle of winter. Unable to cross a mountain range, they attempt to pass through Moria, a subterranean realm created by dwarves but long since taken over by evil creatures. In Moria, the company is nearly captured by hosts of orcs and trolls. In guarding their flight, Gandalf is pulled into an abyss while fighting a Balrog, a powerful demon.
Escaping to the elven realm of Lothlórien, the company is equipped with boats, in which they travel down the River Anduin. Frodo comes to the decision that he cannot allow his friends to accompany him on the harrowing trip into Mordor, and he steals away from...
(The entire section is 10,059 words.)