The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein
Last week’s Friday Book Feature was #26 of the All TIME 100 Novels list and since we are one quarter of the way through that list I’m going to take a break from it and feature books from another great list; the Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read.
The Lord of the Rings is one of the best selling novels ever written. It is a hugely popular high fantasy trilogy published in 1954. After the success of The Hobbit in 1937 Tolkein was persuaded by his publishers to write “a new hobbit” book which he began writing in December 1937. At the time Tolkein had a full time academic position at the Pembroke College, Oxford and writing of Lord of the Rings was slow going. It took him from 1937 to 1949 to write the books on and off. Originally Tolkein planned for The Lord of the Rings to be the first volume of a two volume set with the second being The Silmarillion but his publishers rejected that idea. Instead, they marketed his book as a three volume set. Tolkein’s novel was made up of six books so each of the three volumes contained two books. The original manuscripts, totalling 9250 pages, are now in the JRR Tolkien Collection at the Marquette University. (wikipedia)
The three books that make up the The Lord of the Rings are; The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. They are filled with wonderful characters, beautiful landscapes, and incredible adventures. The trilogy has been widely translated (about 38 languages) and is beloved by readers all over the globe. Fans have been so taken by the world Tolkein created that it has heavily impacted popular culture. Tolkein’s huge success with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has led him to be called the ‘father’ of modern fantasy literature.
Another element that has fascinated readers is the elvish language in Tolkein’s books. Tolkein was a philologist who was influenced by the Welsh language. In his essay, English and Welsh, he said:
“If I may once more refer to my work. The Lord of the Rings, in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modelled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical). This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.”
Tolkein’s books were not only imbued with the magic of his interest in language but also by his interest in the great Norse Sagas and Old English literature. In fact it may be of interest to Tolkein lovers that back between 1920 and 1926 Tolkein completed a translation of the epic Beowulf from the Old English to Modern English which remained unpublished until 2014. It is entitled Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. The translation is followed by a 200 page commentary which formed the basis of his acclaimed 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. I have yet to read Beowulf for myself, long since on my TBR, and I’m going to try and get this translation for myself.
Despite the success of The Lord of the Rings there were those that criticised the work. Tolkein was a member of a literary group called the Inklings and even within this group there were critics. Inkling member Hugo Dyson apparently ‘complained loudly at its reading’. However, long time friend and fellow Inkling, C S Lewis said: “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”
Speaking of hearts, I found this detail so lovely: Tolkein’s wife Edith was apparently the inspiration for the characters Lúthien Tinúviel and Arwen Evenstar. Tolkein is said to often have referred to Edith as “my Lúthien”. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien is the story of the love and adventures of the mortal man Beren and the immortal Elf-maiden Lúthien. In The Lord of the Rings her story is told to Frodo by Aragorn. Wikipedia makes mention of a moment between Tolkein and Edith which inspired him to write the meeting of these fictional characters and their love:
While Tolkien was stationed at Kingston upon Hull, he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock: “We walked in a wood where hemlock was growing, a sea of white flowers.” This incident inspired the account of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien.
Tolkein and Edith are buried together and below their names on their headstone are the names Beren and Lúthien – a testament to their love!
In Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. After Beren was captured by the forces of the dark lord Morgoth, Lúthien rode to his rescue upon the talking wolfhound Huan. Ultimately, when Beren was slain in battle against the demonic wolf Carcharoth, Lúthien, like Orpheus, approached the Valar gods and persuaded them to restore her beloved to life. Shortly after his wife’s death, Tolkien wrote the following in a letter to their son Christopher.
“I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire […]”
I have loved Tolkein’s world ever since my dad’s nightly readings of The Hobbit when I was a child. If you have not already, I highly recommend reading these books.