Though Tolkien was not the first or most critically-acclaimed fantasy writer, he remains the most beloved and influential, even though “Lord of the Rings” is decades old. And though the genre has spread and grown in directions that Tolkien could never have imagined, “The Lord of the Rings” has a unique power and prestige that few other works can rival. It quietly created the fantasy genre as we know it, set the tone for most fantasy ever since, topped many “best book” polls, and helped spawn such entertainment phenomena as “Star Wars.”
Following up on events in “The Hobbit,” “The Fellowship of the Ring” stars the quiet, good-natured hobbit Frodo Baggins, who has inherited a golden Ring that allows its user to become invisible. But his friend, Gandalf the wizard, informs Frodo that the Ring is really the Ring of Power, a tiny invulnerable token that the demonic Dark Lord Sauron has poured his essence and power into. And if Sauron can regain the Ring, he will be able to conquer Middle-Earth. Aghast, Frodo joins a fellowship of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Men and a wizard, to go to the one place where the Ring can be destroyed: Mount Doom.
“The Two Towers” begins directly after “Fellowship,” after Frodo Baggins flees with his friend Sam into Mordor, with no one to protect them. His cousins Merry and Pippin are kidnapped by orcs from the renegade wizard Saruman. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli begin a frenetic search for the hobbits, and receive unexpected help from unlikely allies. Meanwhile, the Ring weighs more heavily on Frodo, as he is forced to get help from one of the people he most despised: the Ring’s slave Gollum.
“Return of the King” brings the trilogy to an action-packed, slam-bang and ultimately poignant finale. Sam barely rescues Frodo from Sauron’s orcs, and the two resume their journey to Mount Doom, barely escaping Sauron’s forces. As Aragorn leads the desperate battle against Sauron’s armies at the city of Minas Tirith, Frodo falls increasingly under the seductive spell of the Ring.
“Lord of the Rings” is indeed a powerful book, speaking to virtually everyone who has read it. J.R.R. Tolkien drew from legends and myths, ranging from the ancient Norse mythology to more recent legends, mingled with his love of the British country folk and his Roman Catholic beliefs. Though there are no direct linkages or lessons in the trilogy, Tolkien probably drew on his experiences in World War I for the ravaged battlefields and breakneck action sequences. His beliefs are equally misty but present: they fueled the ethics of the good guys, the fall of formerly-good wizard Saruman, and the themes of temptation, redemption, evil and good that run through every character.
Frodo Baggins is an everyman hero, who dreams of adventure but begins to treasure the simple, boring life that he had once he is deprived of it. His deteriotation is saddening, all the more so because he is aware of it. Sam Gamgee is his loyal gardener, a shy young hobbit who grows in confidence and courage. Gandalf is the quintessential wizard — crabby, kindly, powerful, with a hidden unique streak that elevates him over the usual. Merry and Pippin start out a bit flaky, but are matured by their harrowing experiences. Aragorn is noble, kind, kingly, and intelligent, but with darker streaks in his personality that make him ultimately human. Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf initially grate on each other, but overcome their prejudices to become close friends.
And it has an ever-expanding circle of likable, well-developed characters, such as the warrior-woman Eowyn, who struggles against devastating depression and the restrictions put on her by her gender, the kindly and slow-moving Treebeard, and many of the people of Rohan and Gondor.
Tolkien’s writing is evocative and descriptive, though not to extremes; Mordor, for example, is best described through the way that Sam and Frodo react to it. The dialogue can range from goofy and hilarious (Legolas and Gimli have a very funny competition to see who can kill more orcs) to solemn and archaic, or to some combination of the two. And the pacing is gradual but necessary — readers with short attention spans won’t be able to handle this story. If they can handle sprawling, epic tales, then probably they can.
Even after all the years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” still rules the fantasy genre and has become an integral part of modern literature. It’s an epic for all ages, and few books have even come close to equalling it.