John Ronald Reuel Tolkien amused his four children with bedtime stories, tales, and pictures, and his love of storytelling led to the creation of The Hobbit, begun in 1930 and published in 1937. Written for children, the book introduced Middle Earth and its inhabitants, primarily hobbits, dwarves, elves, a wizard, and men. The great Ring of Power central to The Lord of the Rings is secondary in The Hobbit's story of the conquest of a dragon and the capture of his hoard of gold. A main theme of The Lord of the Rings, that of small folk doing great deeds, is presaged in Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who begrudgingly leaves his comfortable home, confronts challenges and dangers, and acquires the Ring. Upon the success of The Hobbit, illustrated by Tolkien, his publishers requested a sequel, and Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings.
Although Tolkien is most famous for his Lord of the Rings, his prolific writing career began in childhood and was lifelong. His poetry, tales, critical essays, linguistic work, and translations and editions of medieval literature appeared in magazines, scholarly journals, encyclopedias, and other publications. Tolkien's consuming passion, however, was the creation of a myth for England, the Silmarillion, which he began in 1917 as "The Book of Lost Tales." Although he worked on it his entire life, it was never completed. It was edited posthumously by Tolkien's son Christopher and was published in 1977.
Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings in 1937. A medievalist, he drew on Norse and Old and Middle English literature to populate his imaginary world. Middle Earth, which is imbued with verisimilitude, is home to many types of beings, each with its own culture, history, and language. Tolkien continuously revised his epic tale of confederated free peoples saving their world from subjugation, and the subsequent passing of an age before it was finally published in the mid-1950s. Originally a single work, The Lord of the Rings was divided by the publisher into three volumes, now known as the Trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). Seemingly a simple tale of good against evil, The Lord of the Rings also encompasses the themes of technology versus nature, fate, free will and moral choice, power, mortality, cultural diversity, heroism, and human potential, the complexities of which engage adult readers. Although many people read The Lord of the Rings in their youth, they experience it differently upon rereading the books as adults. Rather than just enjoying the tale of adventure and quest, they also become involved in the larger issues and are more aware of its dark nature.
The Lord of the Rings offers to everyone the escape, recovery, and consolation that Tolkien perceived as an elemental function of the fairy tale, as well as the hope that the most unassuming person can become a hero through bravery, loyalty, and love. Perhaps the story's greatest appeal to all readers is the presence of the magical: not sleight of hand but the shimmering light of the majestic elves, the wisdom and sight beyond mortal vision, and the power of words, all seemingly lost to the modern world. Historical context also plays a role in readers' attraction to The Lord of the Rings; for example, the cult-like response in America on college campuses upon the (unauthorized) publication of the books in 1965 coincided with a cultural movement characterized by a desire for peace and empowerment in a time of disillusionment.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been translated into many languages and media, including radio, audio recordings, and film. Director Peter Jackson made an award-winning movie version of The Lord of the Rings, in three segments following the volume order; the first was released in 2001 and the others followed in consecutive years. Reactions were mixed among viewers who were familiar with the books. Some, particularly adolescents, objected to the plot changes, while others felt the films were as faithful as possible, and many praised them for sparking a new interest in the books.
See also: Children's Literature.
Carpenter, Humphrey. 2000. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hammond, Wayne G., and Christina Scull. 2000. J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Tolkien, J. R. R. 2000. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
GEORGE W. TUMA