The Lord of the Rings the genre-defining fantasy book, so since everyone has read it (or at least seen the movies), this review will simply discuss the book. I first read it the day I turned 13—my parents said I could not read it until I turned 13, so that morning I started it as soon as I got up. Must have been a Saturday. It does not seem to lose anything over the years, and it really is still my standard for what a book, especially fantasy should be.
One of the things I have been trying to figure out over the years is how Tolkien was able to write something so rich. Originally I thought it was just good world-building; Watership Down also has a similar flavor. But The Way of Kings (and, thus far, three sequels) by Brandon Sanderson does have thorough world-building, but it is missing whatever Tolkien has. But more recently—influenced by Bret Devereux’s epic analysis of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, I have come to think that an essential part was the fact that Tolkien was an old-English scholar. As Devereux points out, Tolkien gets details right like how far an army can move, and what is outside the walls of an ancient city (not empty grassland like in the movies!)
As a historian Tolkien understood the cultural values of ancient societies. Pillars of the Earth and The Name of the Wind are both set in a medieval setting, but the values of the characters are modern, and it never quite fits. Tolkien is able to create multiple societies that feel natural. The hobbits are obviously his native England, and when I visited the Cotswolds it was pretty clear that the Shire was kind of an idealized form of this life. Rohan is Anglo-Saxon England, which is visible both by the Anglo-Saxon flavor of the words, but also the nature of the society. The kingship is rustic; Théoden lives in a fairly dark wooden hall, like what one would see in Beowulf, not in the glorious stone of Minas Tirith. The society is clearly much smaller, and thus it has a kinship-centric nature to it. There is clearly a societal value for war, as Théoden redeems his years of dotterage under Wormtongue by being unafraid to lead the army to aid Gondor, and falling valiantly in battle. So much is this a value that Théowyn, having been rejected by Aragorn, chooses to die in honorable battle, something no American woman I know would even consider.
Gondor is probably taken from the medieval vision of proper functioning of society. The founders of Gondor were skilled at building beautiful structures (as were the medievals, witness the glorious cathedrals still standing after almost a millenium), for one. Gondor is clearly a more bureaucratic state than Rohan; while the ruling family does occupy the head positions, authority is positional, and orders are followed because of loyalty to the position, not because of the loyalty of kinship like in Rohan. The king is beloved, but that is because the king sees his job as administering the country for the good of the people. Aragorn, in fact, proves this in his decades of thankless service with the Dunedain of protecting the Shire (among other things) as Strider. This is what kings do: kings serve the good of the people. This is also why the king commands loyalty: the men under both Aragorn and Faramir fiercely loyal because their leader is not serving himself but is serving the group. This is also in contrast to what frequently happened in real life, where the king runs the country as his personal property.
The Elves do not seem to have a clear lineage. The elves seem to have some derivation from nature spirits, since they are immortal and they are tied to Middle-Earth, unlike Men who are mortal and, judging from Aragorn’s last words to Arwen, have an after-life outside of the physical world. Thus, elves love the natural world and cultivate it. Yet, that is why they have a pain that Men do not: their natural world is fading away, both because the power of the rings is gone and therefore their ability to augment the natural beauty, but also because the trend in Middle-Earth is for nature to become scarred. In fact, if Rings of Power work like Sauron’s One Ring seems to have, they are created by placing your natural powers in the ring so that they become amplified, at the risk of losing the power completely if the ring is destroyed. This gives meaning to how Sauron betrayed them: he taught them a skill that made it seem like the risk of losing their power was safe, but in fact his ring would control theirs; thus either their powers were under Sauron’s control, unavailable for use if they took off the rings, or destroyed if they One Ring which controlled them was destroyed. And thus they quickly became tired of Middle-Earth after the One Ring was destroyed, because they could no longer create the beauty they once had, yet they are bound to the physical earth. And thus, those that stayed in Middle-Earth instead of sailing away dwindled away into the something like the elves of English legend.
Yet the Elves were also High, just like the men of Gondor, so they also take from the Middle Ages. Gonder seems to be the kingly, governmental side, while the Elves may be infused with the artistic and monastic elements. There is no religion as such in Middle-Earth, but the elves do love knowledge and craftsmanship, both of which I associate with the monasteries as a whole. Like a monastic community, the elves seem to have retreated from the world, cloistering themselves in woodlands and the valleys of Rivendell. But like the courtly arts, the elves also love song. However, the songs are not the medieval songs of courtly love, although relationships between men and women seem to be have somewhat of that expectation. The songs seem to be a little more Anglo-Saxon, being about history, containing perhaps the oral history of the elves.
There was one element of The Lord of the Rings that seemed odd to me as an American, but which was cleared up on visiting England. I could not see how the elves could have credibly riding through the Shire unnoticed, even if they kept to the woods in twilight. It is because the English landscape is different. There are lots of little woods on the borders of farm property, sometimes only two or three trees in depth, but extending the length of the property. Furthermore, England has hundreds of miles of walking trails which cut through people’s property. They largely stick to the woods, but occasionally cross a field. It is believable that one could travel the entirety of the country, keeping to the wooded areas as much as possible, and it is quite likely you would not be seen. This is in contrast with the US, where there is usually either a field or woods (or houses), but not really both, and old traveling way was paved into a road; it is not really feasible to travel long distances unless you use a road. Plus, much of the US is flat plain, where even the cloaks of Lorien would be hard-pressed to stop you from standing out against the sky.
Another element that seemed odd was that the magic disappears. After the War of the Ring was won, Gandalf (and presumably other the two remaining wizards) and the Elves leave Middle-Earth. The Dúnedain, the descendants of the Numenorians that founded Gondor, have waned, and while Aragorn is fairly pure-blooded, clearly his heirs are not going to match the powers of his forefathers. Furthermore, there is a clear pattern that people of the early ages were more powerful than those of the later ages. The interesting thing is that this also shows up in other English-derived fantasy, most notably Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, where the House of Don leaves, and Eilonwy feels a sharp pain and her magically light bauble goes dark.
I believe the solution is that Tolkien was writing myth at some level. Originally he wanted to create a mythology for Britain, and while he apparently abandoned that idea, much of it lives on. One of the characteristics of mythological stories is that they are origin-stories of a people, and they ancestors are always larger than life. As the history progressed to the present, people became more normal, because of course the recent past has to be congruent with the present. The pre-flood Sumerian rulers ruled for tens of thousands of years, but by the time they got to historical kings, they were ruling for quite normal lengths. There is a similar pattern in the lists of patriarchs in Genesis, although the lengths of the early patriarchs was quite reasonable compared to the Sumerian list. Likewise, the first three Emperors of China lived similarly lengthy lives. You can even see the mythologizing process happening with the American founding story: our founders believed so strongly in individual freedom that they fought a war and enshrined in it our constitution that all men are equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. George Washington was the hero who was so honest he never told a lie, and so competent that he beat the world superpower. Reality was a little messier: some of the freedom was simply economic, some was a political expectation that since they all moved from England they should be treated equally and not as if by a colonial power; it glosses over the not-high-minded compromises made with respect to the slaves who were deprived of liberty and pursuit of happiness; while Washington was an able general, he also got help from England’s rival superpower, France; nor was Washington (or many of the other founders) so Christian as the parallel American Christian myth would believe: many were deists, and while Washington sometimes went to an Anglican service, he always slipped out before communion (which is the whole purpose of the service). Anyway, the magic leaves Middle-Earth because Gilgamesh and Hercules must live in the distant past, because we messy moderns no longer have Magic and Heroes, all we have are messy people.
The largest effect The Lord of Rings has had on me is a desire for that mythical world. Unlike the Greek or even Celtic myths, Tolkien’s world is accessible to me, albeit strange and alien. Here is a detailed picture of a world that lives out my values: love of learning, love of beauty, love of nature, excellence in craftsmanship, and integrity, although Tolkien’s characters would probably consider “honor” to encompass integrity. Coming to the end is sad because all those things (except integrity in Aragorn, and the craftsmanship of the dwaves) are ended. In daily living in modern-day America these things are harder to come by, especially love learning and love of beauty, and so the desire becomes somewhat dormant. Tolkien presents a society, particularly the Elves, where these are not diminished at all, and awakens my hunger. Fortunately for me, time works in the other direction because we look forward to the New Heavens and New Earth, populated by a people who willing choose the life of love, and purged of sin, which lives for me at the inevitable expense of others. Still, I wish I could be Bilbo in Rivendell, but I cannot. Yet, Middle-Earth without the decay strikes me as the way things should be, and so it serves as sort of a haunting-beauty of what the world could be like. Unlike Middle-Earth, where the evil is because of Morgoth’s dissonance in the creation song, we create our own balrogs as every day we choose short-term gratification over creating something beautiful we may never see the fruits of, which as a culture we no longer even have a vision beyond ourselves. Yet, while we will never have a perfect society, still, we can choose to value other things, and we can choose to be a culture that values beauty, craftsmanship, and integrity/honor.