Tonight, I was looking through my old posts to see if I had any unfinished series that I should continue on. About three and a half years ago I wrote the first part of a review of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie series. I called it “Tolkien: A Very, Very Long Story – Part 1 – On the Screen vs. the Mind’s Eye.” That’s a good name for a review of the Jackson films. But going over it, I realized that starting with the films would short circuit an enormous amount of material in the books that I would much rather discuss first. So that is what I’m going to do. When I get back to the movies, I’ll reference these posts on the books as a baseline for my opinions on Tolkien and his remarkable creation.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I read the Lord of the Rings over fifty years ago. Over time some of my opinions of the work have changed somewhat. But my enjoyment of the story remains intact. The world building that Tolkien did provides the reader with depth and scope to enjoy the story on several levels. There is the quest for the destruction of the Ring. There is the story of Aragorn. There is the fading of the elves and the other non-human beings. There is the mission of the wizards. There is the Shire. And most of all there is the War of the Ring. And under all these themes we have the panorama of Middle Earth. The quaint Shire, the lonely wilds of Eriador, the harrowing heights and abysmal depths of the Misty Mountains. The grassland of Rohan, the grandeur of Gondor and the shadowy horror of Mordor. Tolkien brings all these things alive in our minds. And he populates this world with a crowd of characters of all manner of creatures. We have several kinds of men and we have several kinds of elves. We have dwarves and hobbits. There are wizards and orcs and trolls and ents. There are undead creatures and intelligent animals of several types; wargs (a kind of wolf), eagles and even an ancient and giant spider.
All of these creatures, wizards, elves, dwarves and orcs are now common characters in all the fantasy books and movies around. But people forget that Tolkien was the one who resurrected these creatures from fairy tales and returned them to the level of mythical creatures full of menace and wonder. The Lord of the Rings was the template for every epic fantasy, both well-written or awful that has emerged in the last half century. And not taking anything away from some well-crafted creations that some talented writers have produced, none of them has displaced Middle Earth as the touchstone of this particular type of fantasy world. Because Middle Earth is the creation of a worldview that incorporates the myths of northwest Europe and imbues them with the moral philosophy inherited from medieval Christianity. The Shire is Britain. Rohan is the Germanic Tribes. Gondor is the legendary Roman Empire, once spanning Middle Earth from Britain to the Near East now ceding territory to younger tribes and hedged in by Eastern and Southern foes. Mordor is the infidel barbarism at the edges of the world. Tolkien was a gifted philologist and historian of medieval Europe with a deep and wide knowledge of its literature and folklore. And he was a devout Christian.
This re-imagining of European history with the non-human peoples and the angelic and demonic creatures that are analogs of Christian theology make a very powerful mythic background to fill out the story of Frodo and his friends. And that is the point I want to make in this introduction. In future installments I’ll give my thoughts on various aspects of Tolkien’s story. Since they’re my opinions I won’t apologize if I commit any sins against the Tolkien orthodoxies. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a very long time so I feel I have the right to have my say. But I also welcome comments both agreeing and disagreeing with my opinions.