How fantasy crept back into the cultural mainstream

Tolkien saw the great epics as vestiges of lost eras, with philology as the means to recover them. The structure and texture of the languages, he believed, contained worlds that could be reconstituted through reading. Tolkien applied the same principle to his works; he wanted his epics to sound authentic, like translations of lost sagas in arcane tongues, and so he constructed the whole or parts of 14 languages to serve as the vital font of the world he called Middle-earth. Tolkien started working on his linguistic inventions long before any of his stories took shape. Indeed, he wrote, "The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. I should have preferred to write in 'Elvish.'"

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was published in 1937. Although well-received as a children's book, The Hobbitwas not popular at first and didn't begin winning an audience until years later. Tolkien spent more than a decade writing his next novel, The Lord of the Rings, which was published in three parts between 1954 and 1955. It, too, caught on slowly, not taking off until the mid-1960s, when the books worked their way into the reading list of the counterculture movement. By 1965, enthusiasm for The Lord of the Ringsstampeded across British and American campuses. At UC Irvine, students briefly rallied behind an effort to name the school's mascot the Hobbit. That honor ultimately went to the anteater, but the university's first undergrad-housing community was christened Middle Earth. To this day, hundreds of UCI students live in dorms with such Tolkien-inspired names as the Shire, Mirkwood, Oakenshield and Rivendell.

At other universities, bookstores couldn't stock the tome fast enough. One store manager, unable to keep the books on his shelves, said the phenomenon was "more than a fad; it's like a drug dream."

It was a dream of another world. The Lord of the Rings begins with hobbits, a race of diminutive, lazy sorts whose greatest pleasures are eating and leisure. The novel tells the story of Frodo, a humble hobbit from the bucolic Shire, an Eden-like quarter of Middle-earth where the greatest danger he faces is the scheming of his relatives over the inheritance from Bilbo, the now-aged hero from The Hobbit who disappears on his eleventy-first birthday. In that inheritance is a ring, which turns out not to be just any ring but The One Ring—the original ring of power created by the Dark Lord Sauron several millennia earlier. Needless to say, Sauron wants his ring back, and if he gets it, all hell will break loose—literally. In fact, by the second chapter, it's starting to break loose already, and Frodo soon discovers he must destroy the ring, beginning an adventure that takes him across the landscape of Middle-earth, on encounters with wights in their barrows, elves in the treetops, and orcs in the deep as he makes his way toward the infernos of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor.

The counterculture embraced Tolkien because his stories were about marginalized protagonists defeating evil on a grand scale. People liked Frodo—and the adventuring party he gathers (the fellowship in the title of part one)—because they are idealized anti-heroes. They are outside the establishment, and yet the world's fate rests on their shoulders. Tolkien himself identified with hobbits, and he saw Frodo as a sort of Everyman: he wanted readers, as one fantasy fan described to me, to "look at Frodo and say, 'Frodo is us.'"

If Frodo is an anti-hero, he's also on an anti-quest because The Lord of the Rings is an epic about the renunciation of power, rather than its conquest. Despite the danger Frodo faces, he cannot use the ring without risking the corruption of soul and letting the world fall under the dominion of Sauron despite his good intentions. In the high scientism and Cold War anxiety of the 1960s, readers saw the ring as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, technology, even material progress itself. Add to that the pluralism of the fellowship and the environmentalism of Tolkien's sylvan world, and people found a lot of Earthly sociopolitical inspiration in Middle-earth.

But the allure of this world runs deeper than the novel's putative applicability to the political ideals of the day. It springs from the very nature of fantasy—as Tolkien knew well. The purpose of his kind of storytelling, he wrote, was "to create a Secondary World" inside which "your mind can enter." Too often, he thought, fantasy was used "frivolously," but when a true Secondary World is created, then you have that rare fulfillment of the craft—what Tolkien described as "story-making in its most primary and potent mode." For many scholars, Tolkien's Secondary World is the key to modern fantasy fiction. It is an internally consistent but impossible place—an autonomous fantasyland that the "spectator can fully enter." It is also the place where almost the entirety of post-Tolkien fantasy literature unfolds.

When you talk to serious Tolkien fans and ask them why they like The Lord of the Rings, they'll often say something like "because it's real." That authenticity is felt because Tolkien intended it. He wanted the reader "to get inside the story and take it as an actual history." For Tolkien, a Secondary World must be comprehensive or else it will remain merely fanciful. Indeed, he spent much of his life cataloging the entire 30,000-year history of Arda, the larger world in which Middle-earth resides. As the master astronomer, geographer, ethnographer and librarian of Arda, he worked out every detail, from genealogy to alternate constellations to botanical details about the flora.

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