July 9, 2001
New Life for Reign of
The reading world is divided into two groups: those who have read The Lord of the Rings and those who haven't.
Those in the first group number in the tens of millions, and through their pocketbooks and preferences as expressed in purchases and reader polls, they make the case that J. R. R. Tolkien's 47-year-old heroic fantasy about the passing of the Third Age of Middle-earth is the greatest book of the 20th Century.
For those readers, the last few months of 2001 will be a time of enormous expectation. The first of three new film treatments of LOTR from New Line Cinema will debut in theaters Dec. 19, and judging from the 40-second trailer and a longer version that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the filmmakers got it right.
The marketing promotion that will precede the debut of "The Fellowship of the Ring," the movie of the first book in the trilogy, will be ubiquitous. For instance, we already are being urged to save Sept. 22 to celebrate the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
And with no more encouragement than comes from hearing the names of the characters and the places in Middle-earth, millions most certainly will reread the trilogy and discover to their satisfaction that yes, The Lord of the Rings is as brilliant and inspiring today as it was at the first reading.
Houghton Mifflin makes things easy with this two-inch-thick single softcover volume containing the complete trilogy about the quest to destroy a certain ring that gives its wearer extraordinary power over life, but which inevitably corrupts and ruins, even the most virtuous.
As for those readers in the second group, the ones who haven't read The Lord of the Rings, the marketing hype will serve only to confirm that LOTR is a mindless children's fantasy about swords and sorcery kept alive by socially inept adults with easily stimulated imaginations.
However, if this renewed interest in the trilogy has piqued the interest of some non-readers who are considering another run at it, let me offer some encouragement. For instance, don't be put off by the first 40 pages of The Fellowship of the Ring. I discovered over the 35 years that I have proselytized LOTR, the single biggest obstacle for first-time readers is the initial chapter, "A Long-Expected Party," in which Tolkien recounts recounts how Bilbo Baggins,the Hobbit who discovered the ring power years earlier, prepares to celebrate his birthday.
The opening sentence reads: "When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." Too cute. Too childish. Too mannered.
And Tolkien would agree. The Oxford linguist had no clear idea when he began The Fellowship of the Ring that the narrative would take him to the end of time. He initially conceived Middle Earth as a place where particular beings--hobbits, elves, dwarves, men, wizards, orcs, trolls--spoke various languages, and he invented a narrative to give them something to talk about.
As the first book opens, Tolkien had not yet imagined the treachery of Saruman the rogue wizard, the stirring Muster of Rohan or even the battle before the Gates of Mordor. In the first chapter, Tolkien was ambling through a tale for his son, begun when Christopher was a child and at the time was serving in the British armed forces in World War II.
It isn't until well into the first volume that the heroic quest begins to take shape, and Tolkien creates a new genre of fantasy. Once a reader reaches that point, there's no putting down the book.
Tolkien's achievement is twofold.
First, he creates a fictional world as intensely realized as a savvy travel guide to a foreign land. Beginning with languages, he populates his world with a diverse array of beings consistent in their history, speech and behavior--complete with maps, giving the fictional landscape a reality that surpasses its predecessors, including the legends of King Arthur, Beowulf and Alice.
Second, Tolkien narrates an heroic quest that probes deeper than any before it, because it examines the central issue of all great fiction: the nature of evil. That theme is carried by a narrative in which the fate of the world is at stake, and it falls to an unlikely and reluctant Hobbit to complete the quest, aided by a fellowship from Middle-earth and created by Tolkien with his unerring eye for psychological detail and his ear for elegant, inspiring prose that makes the hair on your arms stand up.
As profound as the underlying theme is, the narrative level is as spectacular. A World War I combatant himself, Tolkien draws heavily on his own experience as well as the legends to create scenes of battle that make the book itself shake. Treachery and loyalty; ethereal beauty and hideous deprivation; courage and cowardice are dramatized in a what-happens-next narrative that can't be put off.
Ultimately, the forces of good prevail, although they have exhausted their resources, and the Third Age ends. It's this simple conclusion that has engenered such intense dislike for The Lord of the Rings, because Tolkien creates unambiguous heroes in his characters, dramatizes the triumph of good, and celebrates the strength of self-reliance.
For many Tolkien critics--E. B. White in America, Anthony Burgess in England--these virtues were passe in the postwar period, and Tolkien was viciously attacked for being shallow and unsophisticated.
But in fact Tolkien saw much deeper than they. Orcs, rogue wizards and wraiths don't exist in the real world. But the evil and treachery they wreak most certainly do, and Tolkien's acute eye allows us to see them, too, in their new form.
And we get a great, exciting narrative to boot.
Dan Miller, business editor of the Sun-Times, first read The Lord of the Rings in 1965.