“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
— The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The website TV Tropes has “‘Seinfeld’ is Unfunny” as one of its tropes. It describes how certain productions were so revolutionary and influential that when they’re revisited, they seem dated. It’s named for how influential the show Seinfeld was, but it seems dated or derivative when someone sees it for the first time now. I can confirm seeing this effect in action when my Gen-Z kids see something like Seinfeld or M*A*S*H.
This was on my mind as I recently reread The Lord of the Rings in preparation for a journey to finally tackle The Silmarillion. So much of what has become the fantasy genre we know originates from The Lord of the Rings.
In this post, I’ll be sharing my impressions from this reread. I’m not going to assume everyone has read the books and with the Peter Jackson films 20-years old now, assuming having seen them might not be as safe as it once was. So while I’ll be discussing the overall storyline, I’ll avoid diving into great detail or giving away the ending or character fates. Also, I’ll be considering the work the way Tolkien considered it—though best known as a trilogy, Professor Tolkien wrote it as a single volume, internally divided into six “books” plus appendices.
The Lord of the Rings is the sequel to the far less serious book, The Hobbit. In it, the aforementioned hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is enlisted by the wizard Gandalf to help a group of dwarfs liberate their lost home, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug. Over the course of this adventure, he comes upon a magic ring that, when worn, grants invisibility.
The Lord of the Rings reveals that Bilbo’s ring was actually a powerful artifact—the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to give him mastery over other Rings of Power. At the end of the last age, he had been thought destroyed, and the ring had come into the possession of a king, Isildur, who avenged his father Elendil’s death by apparently slaying Sauron. Unwilling to destroy the ring, he was later slain by orcs, and the ring was lost until, centuries later, it came into the possession of the creature Gollum, who lost the ring to Bilbo. In the hands of someone unaware of its power or unable to use it, all it can apparently do is turn its wearer invisible, though it becomes clear it also grants long life. Though it is now wholesome longevity—as the years’ pass, Bilbo describes it as feeling “stretched out.”
Tolkien slowly reveals this background at the start of The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Bilbo’s nephew and heir, Frodo Baggins. Bilbo vanishes, apparently for good, at his 111th birthday party, departing the Hobbit land of the Shire, apparently forever, passing on his possessions—including the ring—to Frodo.
As the novel progresses, the tone slowly shifts. It begins with a tone similar to that of The Hobbit, but as the story progresses, it becomes an epic tale of the final stands of kingdoms, of vast battles, war, and destruction. With some of his friends Frodo, many years after Bilbo’s departure, flees the Shire, closely pursued by Sauron’s servants, the Ringwraiths. Rereading the book, I’m amazed at just how damn terrifying the Ringwraiths are. The first part of the book lets you feel just how out of their league Frodo and his companions are—even when protected, Frodo barely survives an encounter with them and suffers a wound whose effects he will feel for the rest of his life.
Reaching a place of relative safety Frodo attends a great council of the “good guys”—with representatives from the races of men, dwarfs, and elves—along with Frodo and his hobbit companions. They learn the ring can be destroyed by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom, within Sauron’s realm of Mordor.
The Fellowship of the Ring, a company of nine, is formed to escort the ringbearer on his quest to destroy the ring. The tale takes the fellowship into lost dwarven cities, through magical forests, the waning kingdom of Gondor, on the borders of Sauron’s realm, and Mordor itself. The company is split in two and further split as the story progresses. They encounter allies when least expected and begin to learn just how powerful the One Ring is—and the corrupting effect it has on those who wear it and covet it. One such coveter is Gollum, who lives still and desperately wants it back.
What I’ve described seems clichéd—an ancient enemy wanting to retrieve an artifact it put much of its power in, a hero starting small and going out into a wider world, etc. And while epic fantasy has always existed—Tolkien was, for example, well familiar with Beowulf, even translating it—Tolkien gave us the modern fantasy novel. And a huge inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons and countless other RPGs.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing Tolkien did was inject so much detail into his world. Several appendices at the end of the novel provide many details of the world of Middle Earth and its cultures. Tolkien developed languages and a long history for Middle Earth. We hear songs and tales of those ancient days throughout the story, often with snippets of elvish (of which Tolkien developed multiple languages). For some, those tales and songs are the best part; for others, they tend to get glossed over.
I think it holds up remarkably well over half a century later. It remains a great tale, and all that worldbuilding gives a feel of a world that has endured for millennia, though one on the cusp of great change, with things both beautiful and horrible soon to pass from the world. It is also a tale of perseverance and holding onto hope, as Frodo, primarily accompanied by his servant, Sam, keep on going in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Though small of stature, Hobbits are shown to have great reserves, and Frodo and Sam keep going and going when giving up would seem to be both understandable and reasonable. At points, they are literally crawling through the wastelands of Mordor. And while Mordor may be a wasteland, it is not an empty one, with Sauron’s orcs and men marching to war against Gondor.
If Frodo is determined, Sam is determination personified. Wanting little more in life than to tend his garden, Sam never ever gives up, and as the weight of bearing the ring increases the closer they get to Mount Doom, he keeps Frodo going.
I also greatly enjoyed how important doing the right thing and showing kindness are in The Lord of the Rings. In both it and The Hobbit, the protagonists have chances to kill Gollum but choose not to out of pity. The smart thing to do would clearly have been to kill the treacherous creature. It’s a route I suspect most gamers would take. But as the tale progresses, the pity they show becomes vital.
Certain things in The Lord of the Rings show Tolkien to be “a man of his time” and have not aged all that well. Beings like orcs read like a western European’s nightmare vision of foreigners —and Tolkien himself wrestled with the idea of an “evil race” in a cosmology that emphasized free will and the choice to do good or evil. There are few female characters, though we are presented with an incredibly brave warrior in Eowyn and a very powerful elf queen in Galadriel. And thankfully, Tolkien had no place in his ideology or worldview for the racial eugenics of places like Nazi Germany. As a white cisgender male, I’m always hesitant to give a “pass” to fellow white cisgender men, but at the very least, I don’t come close to cringing when thinking of Tolkien’s attitudes as opposed to someone like HP Lovecraft.
Circling back to my original examination of The Lord of the Rings, my reread reminded me of just why this work is so influential in the fantasy genre, whether in prose, film, or RPGs. Professor Tolkien gave us a world that feels like it could have been. It is bursting with history and legends, tales of the past that have consequences millennia later. It predicted RPG-ers’ love of details, giving us the prototype for a campaign sourcebook in the book’s appendices—detailing histories, legends, languages, calendars, etc. Dungeons & Dragons had many parents besides Lord of the Rings, but its influence is unmistakable.
~ Daniel Stack
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