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Tom Shippey, ‘The Lord of the Rings, Book of the Century’

Tom Shippey investigates the reasons for the appeal of The Lord of the Rings, one of the best-loved literary works of the last century. Is it due to the links between reality and history, to its creative qualities or to the intrinsic nature of this ‘labour of love’?

The Lord of the Rings is the best-loved work of fiction of the twentieth century. This claim is based not only on sales figures, impressive though these are, but on readers’ reactions. Many who have read The Lord of the Rings read it again and again, sometimes making an annual event of it. Others make a point of reading it out loud to their children, or grandchildren. A common response is to finish it, and then try to write something like it: a number of prominent modern writers of fantasy have admitted that that is how their careers started. One declared that she felt disheartened on finishing it, because she feared she would never again find anything that would satisfy her in the same way. This success has been achieved not by media hype, not by conformity to fashion, and certainly not with the assistance of the educational establishment. It is the result of genuine, sincere, popular response, as unexpected as unpredicted.

One of the reasons for the work’s appeal must be the creation of Middle-earth itself, a new imaginative continent which seems to await yet further exploration. Middle-earth is crowded with civilizations and species, Gondor and the Riders, elves and dwarves and ents and trolls, all of them with their own histories which — one feels, as one is meant to feel — could all provide yet more tales and yet more histories. It is crowded with marvels as well, Mirkwood and Fangorn, the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, Lothlórien and the Dead Marshes, the Paths of the Dead and Moria and the Cracks of Doom. Who would not want to vacation in Ithilien, to hike the trails of Hollin or visit (suitably Ranger-escorted) Deadmen’s Dike, once Kings’ Norbury, or Fornost Erain? Round the edges of the seen, furthermore, cluster the half-seen: the barrow-wights, Old Man Willow and the Huorns, Bombadil and Goldberry and the beings who send the snow on cruel Caradhras. The questions raised by the story provoke further stories, as do the many stories which are hinted at, half-told in the course of the work: stories of Gil-galad, of Beren, of Durin, of the cats of Queen Berúthiel. Middle-earth has proved inexhaustible.

Tolkien’s illustration of mallorn trees in Lothlórien.

Tolkien would have been the first to agree that Middle-earth was not entirely his invention, for it integrates many elements of the folk-traditions of England and the ancient Northern world of which Tolkien knew so much. One feature of his imagination which was completely novel, however, is the race of hobbits, significantly unmentioned in the records of the elves, not known even to the ents, with their card-index memories. Hobbits are unexpected creatures to find in epic fantasy, being small, notably non-aggressive — no hobbit has ever intentionally killed another hobbit in the whole history of the Shire — and furthermore quite without special skills in magic or in martial arts. The best that can be said of them — and it is quite enough — is that they don’t give up, and their sense of humor can never be quashed for very long, not even in Mordor, in the hands of the orcs, or on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. They provide an entirely new model of heroism for the twentieth century.

At the same time, and in a century whose literary modes have often been ironic, skeptical, or disillusioned, The Lord of the Rings has taken on the task of presenting much more traditional models of heroism. The competition here is intense, ranging from Achilles in the Iliad through Aeneas to Beowulf and Roland and Lancelot, indeed encompassing much of early literary history. Yet Aragorn and Boromir and Éomer, all in their different ways, do not suffer in the comparison. The death of Théoden King in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is unmatched for bravura, and for pathos. Many readers have seen The Lord of the Rings as a rallying-cry against disillusionment, loss of faith and loss of hope. “Still, we must keep up our courage,” says Gandalf, and he has inspired many in the real world to do just that.

Bird’s eye view of Mordor and Mount Doom

The real world is furthermore never very far from The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s life was overshadowed by two world wars, and the rise of the great dictatorships. Tolkien’s work addresses major questions: what are the origins of evil? How does it come back after every defeat? What is the point of resisting it, if it seems irrepressible? At the heart of his work is the conviction that no-one can be trusted with the Ring, not Gandalf nor Galadriel, not even (in the end) Frodo. Anyone who starts to use the Ring will turn into a Ringwraith in the end. No good intentions will last. The applicability of this to the twentieth century, and beyond, is obvious, and has convinced many readers. Readers also increasingly see in it prophetic warnings about dangers to the environment. On the positive side, it could be said that although the work contains no overt Christian statement, and very little reference to religion of any kind, it nevertheless through its entire and extremely complex structure is making a consistent argument about the nature of Providence: Gandalf is both a steward and a messenger, and there is a strong sense that there are powers at work from outside Middle-earth, though they operate through what seems to us to be chance, and without diminishing the free will, and the responsibility, of the characters.

A final point to make about The Lord of the Rings is that although it has been imitated more often than any other literary work of its time, it remains one of a kind. What is its genre? It has many of the qualities of epic, especially the sense of loss, of the passing of an era, which marks its quietly understated ending. It could be seen as a quest-romance — except that instead of setting out in search of something, the Fellowship of the Ring is dedicated to throwing something away. Arguably, The Lord of the Rings is an enormous fairy tale (in a sense defined in his essay On Fairy-stories), massively over-developed and equipped with maps and appendices and indexes. But it is told in the manner of a modern novel, full of detail, full of conversations and minor characters, if with far more deliberate stylistic variation than any other novel provides. It should not be forgotten that as well as everything else, The Lord of the Rings contains some sixty poems and songs, in many styles and several languages. All this, it might be thought, is much more than was necessary to create even a bestseller. But The Lord of the Rings was not designed to be a bestseller. It was from the start a labour of love — love of Middle-earth, of the folk-traditions Tolkien meticulously re-imagined, of a way of life in Tolkien’s time under repeated desperate threat, and not only from outside. It is this love which has been reciprocated by so many readers.