A commercial for Amazon’s forthcoming TV series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, aired during this year’s Super Bowl, racked up a record 257 million views online in 24 hours. The series promises to return viewers to the fantasy world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth—a world previously seen on screen in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (released 2001–2003) and The Hobbit (released 2012–2014)—but it will be a kind of prequel—set in a time before the events depicted in those films.
Given the size and enthusiasm of The Lord of the Rings’ fanbase, it is unsurprising that Amazon has invested what industry watchers have estimated as hundreds of millions of dollars to enable them to produce the series—even though the storyline will not be solely based on the book itself but will draw on material in various Tolkien appendices, lesser-known works and unpublished—even unfinished—manuscripts. The current level of enthusiasm for the world of Middle Earth would have been hard to predict back in 1955, when the final volume of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—a sequel to his 1937 children’s book, The Hobbit—was published. Although many critics of the time praised the trilogy, others weren’t entirely sure what to make of it. For one thing, back then, a long fantasy novel intended for adult readers—though Tolkien called it a “heroic romance”—was a strange thing. For another, some reviewers found it dull, flat, wooden, pretentious and, most of all, juvenile: they complained about the absence of politics, sex—and anything else that they thought could possibly hold the interest of an adult audience.
For example, in a scathing 1956 review entitled “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!,” the essayist and critic Edmund Wilson wrote that “Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form”; he calls The Lord of the Rings “a children’s book which had somehow got out of hand.” And, in 1961, Philip Toynbee wrote in the London Observer that he was relieved to find that the popularity of these “dull, ill-written, whimsical and childish” books seemed to be fading: “Most of his more ardent supporters were soon beginning to sell out their shares in Professor Tolkien, and to-day those books have passed into a merciful oblivion.”
Toynbee’s assessment has not aged well. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is estimated to have sold at least 150 million copies, making it one of the most commercially successful works of literature of all time. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of it are some of the highest-grossing movies of all time. And its popularity has held even in the face of mega-franchises launched decades later, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. It is a behemoth.
Yet The Lord of the Rings is a very demanding read. For one thing, the full saga is extremely long, totalling more than 576,000 words. (Among classic novels, only Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past are longer.) For another—reflecting Tolkien’s fascination with philology—it is packed with hundreds of invented names (which famously prompted Tolkien’s friend Hugo Dyson to blurt out, while listening to Tolkien read a draft aloud, “Oh God, not another fucking elf!”). Different characters call people and places by different names. The action often moves slowly, and sometimes stops altogether while the characters discuss the etymology of local place names and maybe sing a song or two. Some entire passages are in fictional languages, and some of those are left untranslated. And because the work purports to be a history there are many references to past people and events—but these are never explained to the reader. “I know them and their names,” says Gimli, the dwarf of three mountains,
For under them lies Khazad-dum, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirak-zigil and Bundushathur. There the Misty Mountains divide, and between their arms lies the deep-shadowed valley which we cannot forget: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, which the Elves call Nanduhirion.
Most of these names never reappear. Gimli doesn’t explain why the dwarves “cannot forget … Azanulbizar” And the other characters don’t ask. You don’t know? Well, then, you should have paid more attention in school, shouldn’t you?
Most writers of historical and fantasy fiction tend to give their characters some modern or everyday attributes to help readers relate to them. Tolkien deliberately does not. His characters are not of our democratic and egalitarian age: they are full of talk about the purity of bloodlines and the lineages of ancient weapons. “In this elvish sheath dwells the Blade that was Broken and has been made again,” Aragorn warns the guard at King Théoden’s hall, as he lays aside his sword, Andúril, at the guard’s request. “Telchar first wrought it in the deeps of time. Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil’s sword save Elendil’s heir.” In the guard’s position, we might be tempted to say something like “whatever, mate, just leave the sword here.” But instead, the guard steps back and looks at Aragorn with amazement.
(This scene is a deliberate echo of a passage in Beowulf, in which the titular hero arrives at King Hrothgar’s hall of Heorot. Tolkien translated that epic poem while working to secure a professorship in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and his prose often draws on it—both in content and in style.)
Many of Tolkien’s contemporaries assumed that he must have meant the trilogy to be understood as an allegory—either a political one, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) or a religious one, like C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)—presumably because they could think of no other reason why an erudite man of mature years would write half a million words about a make-believe world. Tolkien disavowed this assumption, writing in the foreword to The Lord of Rings that he “cordially” disliked allegory. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life he found himself having to respond to people who claimed that they had discovered the book’s real message and meaning. For example, Åke Ohlmarks, the book’s Swedish translator suggested that the Dark Lord Sauron was based on Josef Stalin, in response to which Tolkien wrote, “I utterly repudiate any such ‘reading,’ which angers me.” Likewise, to a fan, he wrote, “To ask if the Orcs ‘are’ Communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs.”
Tolkien may not have been quite as intransigently opposed to allegory as he made out—his short story “Leaf by Niggle” is openly allegorical, and he uses allegory in his famous essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”—but we can take him at his word that The Lord of the Rings is not allegorical. Although the trilogy seems to have been influenced by events in Tolkien’s life (including World War II, during which much of it was written), there is no evidence that it had any direct relation to those events. Rather, Tolkien seems to have hoped that readers in any era would find it applicable to their own times. And clearly, many of them have.
Imagining Middle Earth
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is an immersive world, and he was able to make it seem real. He uses a number of techniques to achieve this. For example, he mined Germanic mythology and English folklore for tropes that were well known to his contemporaries and using those tropes in his creations gave them a faint glow of familiarity. He believed that place names, nursey rhymes and fairy tales preserved traces of old legends that had otherwise gone unrecorded and been forgotten. For example, Tolkien suspected that traditional stories told to children about elves who live at the bottom of the garden might be remnants of Dark Age legends about powerful mythical beings. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he writes about the “rationalisation” which “transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip and shrink behind a blade of grass.”
Tolkien initially set out to write a mythology for England: “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story … which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country,” he tells Milton Waldman in a letter probably written in 1951. But as his creation grew, he unmoored it, made it self-contained, and filled it with beings of his own invention—such as Gollum, one of his most memorable characters, for whom there is no known model. And yet the book includes some traces of the legends that originally inspired him. For example, when the elves leave Middle Earth to sail into the west, they land at the port of Avallónë in the Undying Lands. Although Tolkien gives Avallónë an in-universe etymology, explaining that it means “outer island” in the High Elven language, the name clearly evokes the Avalon of Arthurian legend—the island to which King Arthur is taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann.
Because of Tolkien’s meticulous attention to etymology, it is impossible to write about Middle Earth without also writing about language. Some writers who create fantasy worlds are moved by a love of history and a desire to write histories of their own. Others begin by playfully drawing invented maps. Still others bring well-known characters from ancient mythologies into our modern world. But Tolkien’s inspiration was primarily his love of language. As a child he was fascinated by the Welsh names he saw on coal trucks, and in a 1953 letter to W. H. Auden he likened his experience of stumbling across a Finnish grammar book as a teenager to “discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tested before”. He also developed a lifelong fascination with Gothic—a fragmentary and little-known Germanic language spoken during the Dark Ages. In the words of the scholar Tom Shippey, it “haunted” Tolkien. These real-world languages inspired him to create fabricated ones, which, in turn, inspired him to create a world in which those languages could grow and spread. Building this language-rich legendarium became his life’s work, which began in 1916, as he lay in a field hospital on the western front, and which continued to engage him until a few weeks before his death in 1973.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses language to make his fantasy world seem real. Take place names, for example. In his descriptions of the comfortably familiar “Shire,” the place names are in modern English: the Hill, Bywater, Tookland. As our heroes travel eastwards, they shift into older English and Welsh. Bree, for example, is an Anglicisation of bryn, the Welsh word for hill. And as they venture into more hostile and unfamiliar lands, the place names shift again: now they are words in Tolkien’s invented languages. These languages have a structure, consistency and history, just as real languages do. For example, many English words that end in d have a German equivalent ending in t—bed/Bett, good/gut, flood/Flut—and this pattern is a result of their divergent evolution from a common ancestor. Similarly, Tolkien’s two main Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin, have a common origin and differ in predictable ways: Quenya words usually end in vowels and use s in places where their Sindarin equivalents use th, so that the Elven-King of Doriath is called Elwë Singollo in Quenya and Elu Thingol in Sindarin. Tolkien even wrote an essay on the th–s split, called “The Shibboleth of Fëanor.”
Such linguistic details add layers of realism, like lacquer on wood, even though most readers do not consciously notice them. And Tolkien’s unexplained names, places and events have the same effect. As Tolkien puts it in a 1963 letter to a reader, Colonel Worskett,
Part of the attraction of [The Lord of the Rings] is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist … To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.
These details may seem extraneous, but the book wouldn’t be The Lord of the Rings without them. Tolkien challenges his readers by giving them the impression that they should be familiar with the places, languages and events he describes. And in accepting the challenge, they are drawn into Middle Earth.
If Tolkien had done nothing more than create a richly textured, realistic fantasy world, that might have been enough to attract readers who are already fantasy and science fiction aficionados. But he might never have attracted such a large following if he hadn’t also created Hobbits. As many Tolkien fans know, he came up with the idea of Hobbits when he was marking exam papers one warm day in the early 1930s and came across a sheet of paper that a student had left blank; on a whim, he scribbled on it: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” He later explained that, at that point, he had had no idea what a Hobbit was. Still, he set out to supply this mysterious word with an etymology, finally settling on the Old English words hol, meaning hole, and bytlan, to build. It was only right and proper that a hole-builder should live in a hole, and Tolkien was satisfied. Over time, Hobbits came into focus in his mind: they were short human-like creatures who kept to themselves and loved peace and quiet, greenery and good food. They reminded Tolkien of his rural Edwardian childhood; he thought of them as inhabitants of an idealised version of pre-industrial England. Hobbits are not Tolkien’s only whimsical creation—the talking dog Garm in Farmer Giles of Ham (1949) has his moments—but they are by far his most successful.
Many fantasy writers show us their worlds through the eyes of great kings or wizards. But we are shown Middle Earth through the eyes of Hobbits. We share their sense of wonder, fear and delight as the terrible and beautiful attributes of their world emerge slowly from the mist. We don’t mind that the other characters are archaic and archetypal, because we have Hobbits to keep us company. Hobbits are indispensable to Middle Earth’s popular appeal, which is probably why the screenwriters of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power have worked them into the story even though they don’t feature in its source material.
Amazon’s TV series will certainly depart from its source material in ways that are likely to make Tolkien fans wince (indeed, many have already done so in response to the teaser trailer). But whether the series is a success or a failure, it is unlikely to be the last story we see about Middle Earth—whether in a film or on TV—especially beginning in the 2040s, when the US and European copyrights on Tolkien’s works expire and they enter the public domain.
Many fantasy writers have set out to follow in Tolkien’s footsteps, but none have reached quite the same heights. His winning formula—create an intricately detailed world, present it with confidence, and provide readers with a relatable character to help them enter into it—is easy to summarise, but extremely hard to execute. It was Tolkien’s unusual combination of knowledge, experience, interest and talent that enabled his strange and complicated book to break with literary conventions, defy expectations and become one of the most popular works of literature of all time.