The Lord of the Rings [The Hobbit (1937), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King] (1948)
Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium
Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in
1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown
I believe the Lord of the Rings to be the greatest fiction of the 20th Century and perhaps the greatest of all time. The failure to include it on the Modern Library Top 100 is completely inexplicable. Happily, the Amazon Top 100, which was voted on by actual readers, put it at number one. Allow me to offer the reasons, both objective and personal, why I think that is it's rightful place on any list.
When we speak of authors as gods, or more likely they speak of themselves as such, there is of course an element of hyperbole, but it accompanies a kernel of truth. Within the boundaries of their fiction, authors are in fact Creators and wield godlike powers. They define reality, control events, decide who lives and who dies. The best of them create characters and situations that the reader genuinely cares about and a very few of them, the best of the best, create characters and situations which seem to exist beyond the bounds of the story. To take an easy example, there is Sherlock Holmes. Not only do many people simply assume that he actually existed, not only did readers demand that he be brought back from the dead, there is a continual flow of further adventures and prequels being written all the time. Holmes is so "real" to us that an author can write about his childhood or his old age and easily carry us along because in our guts we feel that he enjoyed such phases of life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character whom we feel must have had a past and a future independent of the tales the author left us. This is truly a remarkable accomplishment.
On the other hand, consider Leopold Bloom from James Joyce's Ulysses (see Orrin's review). Because the entire novel is technique and artifice it is impossible to imagine a Bloom who exists outside of the author's head. He has no past or future because Joyce didn't write them. This in itself does not make Ulysses a bad book--there are plenty of other reasons that it is a bad book. It is certainly possible to create a great book or a great protagonist within these bounds. Holden Caufield, for instance, is a great character and Catcher in the Rye a great book (see Orrin's review), but he is unimaginable as an adult. Though memorable and sympathetic, his existence is intrinsically enmeshed within this particular novel.
All of which is by way of introduction to what is perhaps the greatest feat of creative imagination in all of literature, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien created not merely one or two characters who seem to have an external existence, he created an entire world, several races, entire languages, mythologies, songs, poetry, and so on, until finally it comes to seem that he is merely the historian of a separate world, rather than it's Creator. The thoroughness with which he realizes his unique vision gives to his fiction a texture and a substance which may never be equaled. He was able to achieve this remarkable effect in large part by spending years working on the background elements of his story before ever turning his attention to the main narrative thread. For example, dwarves are a common enough staple of fantasy and fairy tales, but because Tolkien had spent years developing a dwarvish language and writing a history of the dwarves and imagining a dwarvish mythology, when we come upon a dwarf in Middle Earth, he seems not to be a convenient imaginary figure but an actual being with his own life story, racial history and tongue. This is likewise true for the elves, the hobbits, even the orcs--a pretty amazing achievement.
All of this would suffice to rank these books among the world's greatest, even if he just put the characters through some fairly pedestrian paces, just some standard quest or adventure. But Tolkien's has a much higher ambition here. His religious influences and aims are well understood and I'll not dwell on them here. I'm more interested in the way the stories function as democratic myth. The great tension in the series is not truly between good and evil, rather it derives from the capacity of power to corrupt good people. Elves and men and dwarves and even Gandalf must all struggle, some successfully, some not, against the temptation to take the ring of power themselves. Each is able to imagine that committing acts of short term evil will allow them to act for what they perceive as the greater good. But in fact it is only the lowly hobbits, Sam and Frodo, with no aspirations towards greatness, who can wield power selflessly and even they ultimately require divine intervention to finally destroy the ring. This political understanding further elevates the series and provides it with a message that resonates with our experience, particularly in the 20th Century. The various races who are tempted by the ring resemble New Dealers and Bolsheviks and Maoists, each of them thinking that they are uniquely capable of using power toward good ends, failing to perceive that the seductive qualities of power itself is warping their souls. In the end, in Middle Earth as on Earth, only the humble folk should be trusted with power and even they bear watching.
Finally, to my subjective reasons. If my Mom is to be believed, and I think we can trust her on this one, it was around 5th grade that I really became a reader. As I recall, my teacher Mrs. Deakens got me going on books about explorers. Like any young boy I was captivated by such tales of adventure. I devoured comic books swashbucklers and science fiction. I read every Doc Savage I could get my hands on, Tarzan (see Orrin's review), John Carter of Mars, Conan, and any other pulp fiction I could find. Meanwhile, our neighbor, Mark Farris, read the same books over and over again in an unending cycle--the Chronicles of Narnia (see Orrin's review) straight through, then the Lord of the Rings from start to finish and back to Narnia--and he swore by them. Now the Narnia books weren't too daunting. each one is pretty slender, so I managed them. But the Lord of the Rings offers quite an imposing structure to the kid who contemplates reading it. Taken together the four books are what? maybe 1700 or so pages? Well, of course I did eventually screw up my courage and tackle this daunting task and not only was I ensorceled by the story, but having finished I was naturally inordinately proud of myself. Add that sense of self satisfaction into the mix and I'd imagine that for most kids who read the series at a certain age it inevitably becomes their favorite. In fact, I'd like to get these kids who are so enraptured by the Harry Potter books (see Orrin's review) and make sure that they continue on through C.S. Lewis and on to Tolkien. The Potter books are fun; Tolkien is sublime.
See also:Science Fiction & Fantasy
Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels
Library Journal: Top 150 of the Century
New York Public Library's Books of the Century
The Image Top 100 Books of the Century
World Magazine Top 100 of the Century
-Letter To Milton Waldman (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1951)
-ESSAY: Tolkien's Ring: When immortality is not enough (Spengler, 1/05/04, Asia Times)
-LECTURE: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: J.R.R.TOLKIEN, CATHOLICISM AND THE USE OF ALLEGORY (David (Lord) Alton at the Catholic Society of Bath University and Bath Spa University College on Thursday 20th of February 2003)
-ESSAY: THE RETURN OF THE KING: TOLKIEN AND THE NEW MEDIEVALISM: The obsession with power, will and hierarchy in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings fuels its dangerous topicality: a vindication and veneration of empire. (K.A. DILDAY, OpenDemocracy) -ESSAY: THE RING AND THE RINGS: Wagner vs. Tolkien (ALEX ROSS, 2003-12-15, The New Yorker)
Book-related and General Links:
-The J.R.R. Tolkien Information Page
-The Tolkien Timeline
-One Ring - The Complete Guide to Tolkien Resources
-The Tolkien Society
-The Hobbit and Gollum: "The Riddle Game" by Tom Kirk
-The Hobbit Site
-TOLKIEN "THE HOBBIT" QUOTES
-The World of J.R.R. Tolkien
-A History and Complete Chronology of Númenor
-The Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor
-The Last Homely House (Aaron Fuegi)
-ESSAY: Lord of the Rings Inspired by an Ancient Epic (Brian Handwerk, December 18, 2002, National Geographic News)
-ESSAY : Mordor, he wrote... : The Lord of The Rings is set to rival Star Wars, both at the box office and as a mythic portrayal of the battle of good and evil. So it's time we recognised the qualities of Tolkien's book as well (Neil Spencer, December 9, 2001, The Observer)
-ESSAY : The Battle of the Books : No contest. Tolkien runs rings around Potter. (BRIAN M. CARNEY, November 30, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
-ESSAY : The Fellowship of the Ring : Wherein an Oxford don and his ragtag army of fans turn a fairy tale about hobbits into the ultimate virtual world. Can any movie ever do it justice? (Erik Davis, October 2001, Wired)
-ESSAY : Y«'Tolkien was not a writer' : Y«What is the secret of The Lord of the Rings' appeal? Re-reading the books in the run up to the film, AN Wilson found a surprising answer SOME time ago, in one of his witty columns in The Telegraph, Andrew Marr repeated a story of CS Lewis, in his college rooms at Oxford, listening to JRR Tolkien reading aloud from The Lord of the Rings, and interrupting with: "Oh no! Not another f***ing elf!" (A.N. Wilson, November 2001, Daily Telegraph)
-PROFILE : Letters reveal Tolkien as a grouchy Hobbit (Cahal Milmo, 02 November 2001, Independent uk)
-ESSAY : Lord of the words (02 November 2001, Independent uk)
-ESSAY : Finding God in 'The Lord of the Rings' (Jim Ware, Family.org)
-ESSAY: The Fairy Tales of J.R.R. Tolkien: Roverandom, Farmer Giles, Smith of Wootton Major
-ESSAY : Kicking the Hobbit (Chris Mooney, The American Prospect)
-ESSAY : The book of the century : Although its popularity is unparalleled, intellectuals dismiss "The Lord of the Rings" as boyish fantasy. Now one scholar defends J.R.R. Tolkien's "true myth" as a modern masterpiece (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
-DISCUSSION: Why The Lord of the Rings Is Dangerous: The authors of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth talk about the Christian life in Faerie.: A conversation between Brad Birzer and Mark Eddy Smith (Christianity Today)
-Songs and Poems from The Lord of the Rings
-Online Study Guide: The Hobbit (Sparknotes)
-ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Patrick Gardner, Spark Notes)
-Literary Research Guide: J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 - 1973)
-TEACHER'S GUIDE: The Hobbit (Robert Foster)
-REVIEW: Secular Hobbitism (W. H. Auden, NY Times)
-REVIEW: Janet Adam Smith: Does Frodo Live?, NY Review of Books
Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R.R. Tolkien by Paul H. Kocher
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. III: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
-REVIEW: The Hobbit J. R. R. Tolkien Illustrated by Alan Lee (James Seidman, SF Site)
-ESSAY: Lord of the Rings (Terry Pratchett, Washington Post Book World)
-REVIEW: THE BOOK OF LOST TALES Part One. By J. R. R. Tolkien LANGUAGE AND PREHISTORY OF THE ELVES (Barbara Tritel, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: THE LETTERS OF J.R.R.TOLKIEN Selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (D.J.R. Bruckner, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Roverandom A Forgotten Tolkien Tale (David Grayson, January Magazine)
-REVIEW: Tolkien, J. R. R. Roverandom (Booklist)
-ESSAY: Flaming Swords and Wizards' Orbs (Edward Rothstein, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century By Tom Shippey (Patricia Bernstein, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of J. R. R. TOLKIEN: THE MAN WHO CREATED THE LORD OF THE RINGS by Michael Coren (NANCY SCHIEFER, London Free Press)
-BOOK LIST : Beyond Hobbits : A Defense of Fantasy with a Reading List (Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World)
-TheOneRing.net[tm]| Lord of the Rings Movie News and Rumors
-Lord Of The Rings Movie / Hobbit Movie Fact /Rumor Roundup (xenite)
-REVIEW: The Hobbit (Stomp Tokyo)
-REVIEW : of The Lord of the Rings : Fellowship of the Ring (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
: of The Lord of the Rings : Fellowship of the Ring (Richard Corliss,
Also just so you know, LOTR came out in 1954 (FOTR and TTT) and 1955 (TROTK). Where you got this 1948 date is beyond me.
- Gene Ray
- Jan-12-2007, 09:58
"Because the entire novel is technique and artifice it is impossible to imagine a Bloom who exists outside of the author's head. He has no past or future because Joyce didn't write them."
I do not worship James Joyce, his writing style, or "Ulysses," but the *fact* of the matter is, regardless of whatever you think of these things, there is *extensive* backstory in "Ulysses."
Because I don't like spouting negative slop on the Internet, I'll say something nice: "Lord Of The Rings" is good, and Tolkien's imagination is stunning and massively influential, though each individual book has a slow time getting started.
- Gene Ray
- Dec-04-2006, 21:20
oh yeah.. and with what authority do you judge ulysses again? seems to me you never actually finished reading it. i suppose, however, that it does make you look exceptionally dashing and intelligent to include it in your little essay. cripes, man. who the hell writes comparitively between a work of tolkein's and one of joyce's? especially when he's never finished reading the latter?
a damn good literary critic, that's who.
- May-14-2003, 04:42
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