What is The Lord of the Rings?
On the surface, The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy tale about Wizards and Elves, magic rings, and a dark lord who seeks to dominate the world. So far, so standard. We, as jaded twenty-first-century readers, have seen this a million times before to the point where we’re getting tired of reading about Wizards and Elves. We constantly search for novelty- new ways of telling old stories, tales from parts of the world overlooked by the publishing industry, and new voices from groups and cultures ignored until now. This search for novelty is a good thing. We must evolve, or else we’ll stagnate. But in a world where Wizards and Elves are old hat and books published ten or even five years ago are considered to be aging and passé, how does a 60+-year-old book remain relevant and fresh?
We can gain some insight from Tolkien’s own words. In the preface to the 1966 edition, he says, “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appearing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault” (LotR, xvi, 1991). Critics will sneer at the use of ‘amuse’ and ‘delight’ in this declaration and call The Lord of the Rings mere ‘escapism’. Tolkien, however, embraced this notion of escapism. As the Twentieth Century progressed around him, it became more mechanized, more paved over, and less green. He fought in World War I and saw two of his sons fight in World War II. He was, from an early age, surrounded by death: his father died when he was four, his mother when he was twelve, and by the close of World War I, all but one of his close friends were dead. Is it any wonder why he might have sought an escape, no matter how temporary?
Escape is something we all seek. We need the occasional break from the insanity the world flings at us. But a steady diet of fluffy rom-coms, heist flicks, and shallow stories will eventually wear thin. Deep down, we want our stories to have meaning. Humanity is a race of storytellers, and it is the deepest stories are the ones that resonate across the decades. In his lecture series, Rings, Swords, and Monsters, Dr. Michael Drout talks about how audiences viewed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films as stories speaking directly to the post-9/11 world, despite the fact that production began on the movie trilogy before 2001, and the books were written half a century earlier.
Literary trends come and go, and books considered edgy now will seem passé in five years. But the deeper stories, the ones that speak to themes like life and death, friendship and loyalty, the endless struggle against evil, and holding onto hope in the midst of despair, these are the ones that will endure. They mean something. They teach us about the world around us. But most importantly, they teach us something about ourselves– that no matter how small we are, we can be brave and honest and true, and that these values are more powerful than swords and more valuable than a mountain full of gold.