It's winter, which means I'm thinking about The Lord of the Rings. Again. The holiday releases of Peter Jackson's film trilogy means I'll forever associate cold weather, short days, and warm fires with Middle-earth and Frodo's journey to Mt. Doom. So, this February, I decided it was time to reprint my Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog feature exploring why The Lord of the Rings has remained so relevant decades after its release, and how it's a different story every time we read it.
This is part of my ongoing initiative to archive my work at Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, which sadly shut down a few years ago.
“There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
I know, I know: it’s not exactly an uncommon opinion. But if I’m being completely honest, it’s a fact I’ve struggled with over the years, and only really come to accept recently.
As it did for many readers, The Lord of the Rings (and its prequel, The Hobbit) introduced me to fantasy fiction. From Tolkien, I moved on to Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvatore, then graduated to Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, and George R.R. Martin.
As I transitioned between those authors, moving from the idyllic forests of Middle-earth and bright rolling hills of Brooks’ Four Lands to the grimmer fantasy worlds of Hobb and Martin, I began to doubt my love of Tolkien’s epic: his world is sort of basic, isn’t it? Really, elves, goblins, giants, and trolls?
His writing is a little dry, isn’t it? Not as much wit as Martin, and the character relationships aren’t nearly so deep as Hobb’s.
All these decades later, the books can be generously called “problematic,” can’t they? Coded racism, literal black and white morality, a near-total lack of female characters with agency.
And really, aren’t the hobbits sort of childish? I prefer heroes with chest hair (in addition to toe hair) and a foul tongue. Don’t I?
Turns out, I don’t. Not always.
As an adult, I’m less keen on convincing myself I like something due to its popularity or lack thereof. And with its rich history, warm characters, and prose that is poetic or simple when it needs to be, I have rediscovered the beauty of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I now return there every couple of years. It’s comfort food, mostly, but each time I journey into Hobbiton and beyond alongside the Bagginses, it has changed; because I’m not the person I was the last time I visited.
I was 11 years old when I first read The Lord of the Rings. Twenty-two years ago. I’ve changed a lot in the years since. A lot. My daughter is closer to being an 11 year old than I am, and she’s still learning how to talk. What is it that gives The Lord of the Rings life after so many years? Why do we still love it 60 years after it was first published?
During my most recent reread, I thought a lot about these questions, and discovered several facets of the story that separate the book from other, forgotten tomes. Large or small, Tolkien made many choices that helped the novels stand the test of time and become true classics.
Middle-earth and Beyond
Middle-earth is my home-away-from-home. Setting foot in the Shire is the literary equivalent of a warm hug.
Decades and decades later, there might be secondary worlds that are more complex, with more breadth to their cultures or more nuanced economic and religious systems, but Middle-earth still feels real in a way few secondary worlds manage. During this recent reread, I began to recognize the methods that Tolkien uses to accomplish this feat, and why it’s so important to the book’s endurability.
Tolkien spends a lot of time—a noticeably unusual amount of time, in fact—exploring the idylls of the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring. Even after the action picks up, he pauses for languid stays in Rivendell and Lorien. Like oases, these sections of the novels slow time to a snail’s crawl (perhaps literally, in the case of Lorien), and offer the reader time to breathe after a strikingly dramatic moment (Frodo v. Witch King of Angmar, Gandalf v. Durin’s Bane).
In many ways, this approach is the opposite of that modern fantasy tends to prefer. Take George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire, and the grimdark movement in general. In these narratives, Good™ exists, but its presence is fleeting, and easily shattered. Worlds are relentlessly bent toward breaking the protagonists (who are often irredeemably flawed themselves). It’s almost impossible for me to become emotionally invested in these bleak stories, even as I’m enjoying them at a plot-level. Tolkien, on the other hand, fills The Lord of the Rings with so many moments of rest and respite—of genuine goodness and hope—that I care deeply about the world, and the Fellowship’s quest to save it from Sauron’s dark intentions.
There are many examples of Tolkien taking a moment to let Middle-earth swell with life and beauty, but one looms largest: Frodo stands just outside the gates of Moria, tragedy still fresh upon him, looks upon the great Elven realm of Lorien.
The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain. (The Fellowship of the Ring)
I read that, and it springs to life in my mind. I dream of living there, and ache for the loss of what once was, and what it could have been.
Tolkien created a world you’d love so much, you’d care when it was threatened. It hurts to see darkness fall—but it’s so much harder to become genuinely invested in a world that is already dark, with no memory of light to guide the way. Tolkien knew that, and that’s why, after countless rereads, I’m still so eager to return to Middle-earth.
In many instances, Tolkien draws back from the central narrative to give readers a peek at the wider world—from Ghân-buri-Ghân and the Drúedain’s hatred of orcs, to whispers of war assailing the dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain, to the mass exodus of the elves, who face a crisis of faith and choose to abandon Middle-earth once-and-for-all. These elements touch on Frodo’s quest only briefly (if at all), but they play an irreplaceable role in painting a picture of a world at war. The Lord of the Rings is as much a narrative of Middle-earth versus the inevitable destructive tendencies of its people, as it is about the Fellowship’s quest to destroy the Ring.
From the knights of Dol Amroth, the Haradrim, and the fighters and refugees from Pelargir and Lebennin, to the grim Dúnedain of the North, the great mûmakil, we glimpse so many of Middle-earth’s corners, drawn together on one side of the war or the other—but, at the same time, Tolkien barely touches upon the details of these people and nations. This could be criticized as paper-thin worldbuilding, but, instead, Tolkien’s deft hand and tremendously thorough appendices turn these unanswered questions into opportunities to showcase the vastness of the setting and the breadth and complexity of its people. The focus first on the Shire, then Rohan, and finally Gondor, all the while hinting at peril in the greater world, makes Middle-earth feel like one of the largest, most well lived-in worlds in all of fantasy.
One of my favourite moments in the entire trilogy is when Merry and Pippin—relaxing at Isengard post-flood, but before Wormtongue tries to brain Gandalf with a Palantír—find a barrel of Longbottom Leaf among the flotsam and jetsam of the wreckage:
“After the Ents had gone we felt tired, and hungry. But we did not grumble – our labours had been well rewarded. It was through our search for man-food that Pippin discovered the prize of all the flotsam, those Hornblower barrels. ‘Pipe-weed is better after food,’ said Pippin; that is how the situation arose.”
“We understand it all perfectly now,” said Gimli.
“All except one thing,” said Aragorn: “leaf from the Southfarthing in Isengard. The more I consider it, the more curious I find it. I have never been in Isengard, but I have journeyed in this land, and I know well the empty countries that lie between Rohan and the Shire. Neither goods nor folk have passed that way for many a long year, not openly. Saruman had secret dealings with someone in the Shire, I guess. Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Théoden’s. Was there a date on the barrels?”
“Yes,” said Pippin. “It was the 1417 crop, that is last year’s; no, the year before, of course, now: a good year.”
“Ah well, whatever evil was afoot is over now, I hope; or else it is beyond our reach at present,” said Aragorn. “Yet I think I shall mention it to Gandalf, small matter though it may seem among his great affairs.” (The Two Towers)
How does a barrel of the Shire’s best Pipe-weed end up at Isengard? Of course, the answer is later revealed, but Tolkien plants this little niggling doubt early, during a moment that is otherwise comforting and jovial. Not only does this suggest trade between different regions, but it is also the first hint of what’s happening in the Shire, as Saruman begins his pillage.
Middle-earth lives and breathes between the lines Tolkien committed to the page.
“Her song released the sudden spring”
Admit it: you skip the poems and songs. It’s fine. You’re not alone. We all do it.
You’re there for Gollum’s antics, Legolas’s dreamy gaze, Aragorn’s five o’clock shadow (which would count as a full-on beard on most people), Gandalf throwing down with a Balrog despite looking like your grandpa. There’s a ton of cool stuff in The Lord of the Rings, and if elves singing while traipsing through the forest is the price you must pay to get it, that’s okay.
Those poems and songs, and art in general, are an efficient method Tolkien uses to imbue Middle-earth with an incredible historical breadth and depth. Art is inherent to human culture. It’s the way we process a universe that hides so many of its secrets from us. By filling Middle-earth with art, Tolkien shows readers how the people of Middle-earth (man, elf, dwarf, hobbit, and even orcs) keep history and communicate across time. It’s used by the characters to bond, to teach, to persevere, to understand. Ultimately the history revealed by those poems and songs—whether it’s the tale of Beren and Lúthien, or a crumb of Shire culture—make Middle-earth worth saving, even more than it already was.
Art knows no boundaries. It’s created in the home. It’s created on the battlefield. It’s created in hospitals. It’s created in schools. It’s created everywhere. A world in peril is full of art—the dreams, fears, love, effort, and creativity of its people.
Art is worth fighting for.
The Virtues of Master Samwise
Samwise Gamgee, stalwart gardener, is the real hero of The Lord of the Rings.
There, I said it.
From the curly hair on his head to the curly hair on his toes, Sam represents irrepressible valor and faith. He truly believes good wills out, and hard work paves the way. He’s humble, but his appreciation for life’s finest is bottomless. Even on the literal doorsteps of Mount Doom, Sam is overwhelmed by the great things he saw along the way, and touched by his luck in having experienced so much more of the world than he ever entertained, even in his wildest dreams.
[Sam] put aside his orc-gear; and he took out all the things in his pack. Somehow each of them had become dear to him, if only because he had borne them so far with so much toil. Hardest of all it was to part with his cooking-gear. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of casting it away.
“Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?” he said. “And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?”
“No, I am afraid not, Sam,” said Frodo. “At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them.” (Return of the King)
As Sam despairs of the responsibilities he carries, and dreams of home, of Rosie Cotton, his Gaffer, and Bag End, he draws strength from his loyalty and dedication. This is the portrait of a selfless hero:
Even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue. (Return of the King)
Sam, being a hobbit, grew up a person of humble origins and humbler aspirations. He was a gardener at Bag End, like his father before him, which was all he wanted of life. He came from a people that valued leisure and slow living. It’s very likely that Frodo and Sam’s experience in Mordor is the most difficult and treacherous task faced by any hobbit. Ever. And Sam—simple straightforward Samwise Gamgee—literally carries Frodo on his back to make sure that they see the end, even though he is certain that there is nothing for them beyond the Cracks of Doom.
Where Frodo inherits his great responsibility, and has no choice but to carry the Ring to Mount Doom, Samwise is there every step of the way—by choice and dedication. Within Mordor, the great land of the Ring’s creator, he returns to Frodo with only the slightest hesitation. He is driven by nothing more than his desire to do good by his promise to the Council of Elrond, but, most importantly, to Mr. Frodo, who he pledged loyalty to long before setting foot in Rivendell. When he says to Frodo, “Let me carry it a bit for you, Master,” he is not trying to take the ring for himself (unlike Boromir), but to lift the burden from his friend.
With their supplies dwindling, and Mount Doom towering, still Sam’s courage and generosity is strong:
At their last halt he sank down and said: “I’m thirsty, Sam,” and did not speak again. Sam gave him a mouthful of water; only one more mouthful remained. He went without himself; and now as once more the night of Mordor closed over them, through all his thoughts came the memory of water; and every brook or stream or fount that he had ever seen, under green willow-shades or twinkling in the sun, danced and rippled for his torment behind the blindness of his eyes. He felt the cool mud about his toes as he paddled in the Pool at Bywater with Jolly Cotton and Tom and Nibs, and their sister Rosie. “But that was years ago,” he sighed, “and far away. The way back, if there is one, goes past the mountain.” (Return of the King)
By my mark, such selflessness is the mark of a true hero, and Samwise Gamgee bleeds for others, while never once asking for anything in return except that which he has always had. “I’ll get there, if I leave everything but my bones behind,” says Sam to himself, while Frodo is delirious under the ring’s weight. “And I’ll carry Mr. Frodo up myself, if it breaks my back and heart.” (Return of the King)
Perhaps Tolkien intended for readers to root for Sam at the end. As the novel reaches its climax, the final stretches are told through Sam’s eyes, and we see on display his worry and hope, his compassion for his master, his desire to do right, and return home to those he loves. It is all heroic in a way that we never quite see from any other character throughout the novel.
“It would be the death of you to come with me, Sam,” said Frodo, “and I could not have borne that.”
“Not as certain as being left behind,” said Sam.
“But I am going to Mordor.”
“I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.” (Fellowship of the Ring)
One could argue of heroics for so many of the other characters who face down the might of Mordor: Eowyn and Merry breaking the shackles of a repressive society before defeating the Witch King; Beregond committing treason to save Faramir; Gandalf’s tireless assault against Sauron’s forces; Arwen’s sacrifice; Frodo carrying the equivalent of an active nuclear bomb around his neck into the depths of Hell. The good guys win because so many of them are willing to go beyond their limits to achieve their goals and protect those who cannot defend themselves. Sam is not only the hero of The Lord of the Rings.
Frodo fails; Gandalf manipulates his allies without shame; Aragorn’s battle is within himself as much as on the fields of Pellenor; Arwen abandons her people. Samwise Gamgee perseveres until the last, and is justly rewarded a place alongside the other Ringbearers in the Undying Lands. An unimpeachable hero.
The Scouring of Our Hearts
Two elements of The Lord of the Rings that I see most commonly criticized—the slow opening to The Fellowship of the Ring and the post-climax “Scouring of the Shire”—are also, in my opinion, the foremost reasons why the novel has endured and inspired for over 60 years. One thing that Tolkien does better than any other epic fantasist I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) is invest the reader in the world, so that its peril feels even greater—like something clawing at the back of your neck as you’re reading. Those two derided plotlines are vitally important to accomplishing this, and they offer a lesson for all epic fantasy writers—a lesson that I fear has been forgotten.
From George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, epic fantasy places an enormous weight on its world building. Not only are these authors creating rich characters, complex plots, and intricate magic systems, but they’re also, quite literally, creating a world contained within ink and parchment. Whether it’s Sauron, the Others, or the forces of the Dark One, some sort of evil threatens the land—disrupting the romantic idyll. Our heroes must venture forth and, through strength of arms, perseverance of soul, or sharpness of tongue, defeat those who seem invincible. However, while defeating the big bad is the core of the novel, the actual goal of the heroes is to save the land that they love and ensure peace and prosperity for their descendants—and, so, it’s important for the reader to also love that land.
The meandering opening to The Lord of the Rings—where we’re introduced to the Shire in intimate detail, and spend chapters lost in the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs (neither of which have any major effects on the plot, save Merry’s Westernesse blade, with which he stabs the Witch-king)—gives us time to fall in love with the goodness in the world. Even Old Man Willow seems like an comfortable companion by the time the hobbits return from the war. It takes several chapters and dozens of pages before we’re even introduced to the idea there is a world-ending threat in the offing, but it’s a pleasure just to spend time in the Shire.By the time the threat finally appears, we already care deeply.
This is what makes the final stages of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom so tragic and heartbreaking: they believe even if they succeed in destroying the Ring, they will not see the future they have given to the world. Sam accepts this and perseveres, because he places the future of the Shire and those he loves above his own selfishness. I’m not sure Frodo, who ultimately claims the Ring for his own, was ever able to accept the possibility of a fair and beautiful future—evidenced by his eventual departure from the land he helped save.
You expect the hobbits’ homecoming to be joyous, but instead the Shire is under siege by “ruffians” and the rule of law (not to mention the guarantee of second breakfast) has crumbled. As they near the Shire’s border, Merry is glad that Gandalf is with them to sort it out. Gandalf, however, has different ideas:
“I am with you at the present,” said Gandalf, “but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, no to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.” (Return of the King)
The hobbits fled the Shire with little experience in conflict or warfare, but having passed through some of the most dangerous and evil parts of the world, they return with skills few other hobbits possess. The changes affecting the hobbits are certainly physical (thanks to the Ent-draught, Merry and Pippin are some of the largest hobbits on record), and their prowess and martial ability improved, but they are also mentally and spiritually stronger. They (and Sam most of all) are imbued with an utterly powerful belief in themselves—because they have accomplished the impossible. Gandalf knows this, and sets them off on their own, to reclaim their homeland and become leaders within their community.
Many epic fantasies spend hundreds or thousands of pages showing us the middle of the conflict—the bits with all the tragedy and battles, the failures and victories—because that’s where the bulk of the plot is found. The Lord of the Ring‘s “plot” was satisfied when Gollum fell into the Crack of Doom and the Ring was destroyed, and Tolkien could very easily have closed with a “happily ever after,” but he was not content to do so.
Instead, he knew true satisfaction would come only from showing readers two things: 1) that life goes on, even after the main quest is complete, and 2) that the hobbits have grown and changed to the extent they are no longer youngsters being dragged along behind the adults, but the heroes of their own stories. So much of epic fantasy forgets to make us care about the worlds it has built, and part of doing that is showing how things have improved as the result of the quests and battles. It makes the costs and sacrifices along the way that much more powerful when you see what they have purchased. And it’s why I consider the opening and closing portions of The Lord of the Rings nearly perfect.
A Million Reasons, and One
I’ve been rereading this book since adolescence. It’s impossible to undertake such a task and not be changed along the way. Each time I pick it up, it’s a new story, and I appreciate Tolkien’s vision in a new way. When I was younger, I needed adventure and possibility. As a teenager, I needed assurance. As a twenty-something, I needed hope. And now, as an adult, I need a world I can believe is worth saving. I learn something new about myself each time I visit Middle-earth.
This time around, The Lord of the Rings seemed remarkable to me because of Tolkien’s invincible hope for a better world; for Samwise Gamgee’s heroism; for the poetry, songs, and histories of Middle-earth. Next time, as a different person, I will experience and appreciate something new about the Fellowship’s journey. It’s inevitable. The reasons we still read The Lord of the Rings are countless—there are as many reasons as there are readers. One thing is certain, though: it ignites our imagination and challenges us to climb Mount Doom with our friends on our backs, and to make sure we don’t forget about the better world ahead.
Why do you read The Lord of the Rings?
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
- How Terry Brooks Saved Epic Fantasy (Aidan Moher—Medium)
- Dragonlance changed how we read fantasy (Andrew Liptak — Transfrer Orbit)
- The origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth (The History Press)
- What Tolkien Knew About Love (Jennifer Finney Boylan — The New York Times)
- If You've Never Read Lord of the Rings, Today's the Day to Start (Graeme McMillan — Wired)
Tolkien was my gateway to fantasy fiction, but many other readers were introduced by different authors and worlds. Who helped you discover your favourite genre? And what keeps their writing relevant all these years later? Let me know on Twitter!
There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!