Los Angeles Times
October 23, 2001
Lord of Literature
It began, as many things do, in a bar. An Oxford pub, circa 1940, called the Eagle and Child, or the Bird and the Baby to the locals. At Tuesday luncheons, one table was occupied by an odd assortment of men--a couple of middle-aged dons, a writer or two or three--who smoked and drank and read to each other from scratched-out, scrawled-down pages. The Inklings they called themselves.
Beery meetings of would-be writers are neither rare nor famously productive--it has been said that many fine books have been lost in bars, talked into oblivion. But this was not the case at the Bird and the Baby, where, through a fug of pipe smoke and stout, J.R.R. Tolkien worked his way through the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings. Begun as a sequel to his children's book The Hobbit, it became instead the ber fantasy, the epic tale of another hobbit (a pint-sized humanish creature) who, aided and thwarted by men, dwarves, elves and wizards, seeks to destroy the Ring of Doom and save Middle-earth from the evil Dark Lord.
As a group, the Inklings were remarkably prolific -- core members included Charles Williams and Tolkien's college-mate C.S. Lewis -- but no other novel produced by anyone in the group, or, some argue, by any other writer of the time, has had the impact and influence of The Lord of the Rings. The product of 17 years of writing and a lifetime of scholarship and thought -- Tolkien was 60 when it was published -- the trilogy defined fantasy as a genre and left a legacy Homeric in its catalog. From Dungeons and Dragons to Dune, from the computer game Myst and all its knockoffs to the Star Wars series, the influence of Tolkien's themes, characters and devices continues to resonate. Without Tolkien, some believe, there might be no Ursula Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut or even Thomas Pynchon. Without his hero, Frodo Baggins, there would probably have been no Harry Potter.