J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)
How do you introduce a masterpiece like The Lord of the Rings? For a long time this was my favourite novel and, along with the Final Fantasy games on Playstation, became a major inspiration for me to start writing fantasy novels of my own. I consider Tolkien’s work to be fantasy at its very best. There have been many imitations but none have come quite as close as this epic story. The likes of Terry Pratchett have taken fantasy in a new direction rather than try and recreate Tolkien, something I am also trying to do with my own novels.
If you’ve never read The Lord of the Rings or seen Peter Jackson’s excellent trilogy of film adaptations (2001-3) then allow me to offer some enlightenment. The story begins with Bilbo Baggins, protagonist of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), celebrating his 111th birthday. He leaves his home in the Shire mysteriously entrusting all his belongings, including a ring, to his nephew and heir, Frodo. Years later Frodo is visited by the wizard Gandalf who informs him the ring he possesses is in fact the One Ring, forged centuries ago by Sauron, the Dark Lord and ruler of the land of Mordor. Having been previously defeated and seemingly killed, Sauron has since re-emerged in spirit, manifest as a lidless eye, surrounded by flames and perched atop his fortress, Baradur. When Sauron’s frightening Black Riders come to the Shire searching for the ring, Frodo must set out on a journey that leads him to the elven kingdom of Rivendell. In a long council conducted by the elven leader Elrond, Frodo is given the task of travelling into the heart of Sauron’s realm to the volcano, Mount Doom, where he must throw the ring into the lava where it was first forged, the only means that it can be destroyed. A Fellowship of nine – four hobbits, a wizard, an elf, a dwarf and two men – begins the journey but their encounters with Sauron’s forces see them quickly divide and numerous stories play out as war is fought throughout Middle Earth, while Frodo and his loyal friend, Sam, journey to Mordor to destroy the ring.
Tolkien’s work has often been praised more for the world of Middle Earth rather than the characters. His detail is striking with the likes of the calm and rural setting of the Shire, the terrifying path through the mines of Moria, the sumptuous elven kingdom of Lothlorien and finally Mordor where an exhausted Frodo and Sam must risk everything to enter all remaining vivid in your memory long after you’ve turned the page. An intricate map accompanies the novels and even traces the journey of the respective members of the Fellowship of the Ring. Middle Earth becomes imprinted in your mind and after multiple readings I can still picture many of the landmarks clearly.
A novel that beat Pride and Prejudice to no.1 in Britain’s Big Read a few years ago, The Lord of the Rings almost didn’t happen. After the success of The Hobbit Tolkien was asked for a sequel but couldn’t comprehend what else he could write about hobbits. When he did come up with something, he was more focussed on another work The Silmarillion (1977) which he originally intended to publish alongside The Lord of the Rings as one epic covering the War of the Jewels and the War of the Ring in the First and Third Ages of Middle Earth respectively. The first book in Tolkien’s novel clearly shows signs of his struggle with the story with some chapters devoted to four hobbits singing in the woods before they encounter Tom Bombadill. Tolkien was plodding along trying to find a direction for the story. I’ve known people who abandoned the novel at this stage. Part One – The Fellowship of the Ring – is the most challenging of the trilogy but once you begin The Towers the pace becomes frenetic and exciting.
The One Ring that forms the focal point of the novel is a fascinating trinket of evil that Frodo must bear. Its hold over the many races is so great that friends and family would gladly kill one another to possess it. The longer Frodo bears Sauron’s ring the heavier it becomes on a chain around his neck and the more his desire for it increases, leaving a dilemma at the end – can Frodo destroy something he has grown to love? Returning from The Hobbit is Gollum or Smeagol, a former bearer of the ring for centuries, who pursues Frodo and Sam desperate to be reunited with the object of his obsession. Gollum is a terrific character, unpredictable and pitiful in equal measure. Though the adventures of the Fellowship makes for enthralling reading the best parts of the novel are when we follow the progress of Frodo and Sam and you can really feel their fatigue and despair as they come to the end of their journey.
I could write a hundred blogs about The Lord of the Rings and still not do justice to the novel. Set in an unforgettable world in Middle Earth, throwing a quartet of peaceful hobbits into an epic battle between good and evil, and having some great set pieces – Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog or Sam’s battle against Shelob – the novel simply gets better on repeat reading. I would never strive to write a fantasy novel like The Lord of the Rings but if a novel of mine could have half of the success of Tolkien then I’ll die a very happy man.
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