landmark works of fantasy: Lord of the Rings

That being, of course, the trilogy comprising Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King, although I think that the divisions are somewhat arbitrary. It’s just that publishers even to this day have trouble producing a workable book of more than 1,000 pages. The binding tends to crumple under its own weight.

Just in case there’s anyone reading this who does not know the basic plot of Lord of the Rings: Set in the fictitious Middle Earth, this is an Epic Quest to destroy the Source of Ultimate Evil. In times long past, Sauron created several rings of great power–three for elves, seven for dwarves and nine for men with one most powerful ring capable of controlling them all. (Keep an eye on this last singular ring; it’s a crucial plot point.) This ring, kept by Sauron, was lost in a battle with Isildur and found, many years later, by one Bilbo Baggins. As The Lord of the Rings begins, Bilbo hands off all his earthly possessions (including the ring) to his cousin/nephew/adopted son, Frodo, and retires to live with the elves. Upon Powerful Wizard Gandalf’s discovery that Bilbo’s seemingly innocuous ring of invisibility is, in fact, that Long Lost (and extremely singular) Ring of Power, Frodo is sent packing one jump ahead of the Ringwraiths. A mission, well intentioned but short lived, is set up to take said ring to Mount Doom, the volcanic cauldron of which is the only source of heat sufficient to destroy the ring….and the race between the good guys and the bad guys is on. The Fellowship (good guys) is forced to split up long before they manage a fraction of their trip, as a result of attacks from and ensuing pursuit by orcs, Nazgul and Uruk-hai–the minions of the bad guys. (Do good guys ever have minions?) Many complicated adventures, battles and deaths ensue, but at long last the ring is destroyed, along with the bad guys.

Lost yet? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. This is one of the few times I’d suggest watching the movie(s) before reading the book, specifically Peter Jackson’s version. Trust me, if you’ve never read the book, it will make a lot more sense that way; I wish I’d had the movies beforehand and I’m a decent reader. The common gripe leveled against the trilogy by disappointed readers, that it’s overly detailed, is absolutely correct. Tolkien stops at every possible opportunity for a bit of world building, and as a result, his book does drag a bit. No: it drags a lot; that said, I’ll forgive him about 75% of his world building efforts, seeing as how he was unknowingly setting up the backstory for anyone subsequently writing about magic artifacts, quests and such like. It’s a brilliant retelling of European folklore and legends, particularly Norse, and it’s probably the longest single work of fiction I’ll ever read voluntarily.

If you want a fast moving book with lots of action, try Stephen Donaldson, George R.R. Martin or Terry Brooks, but if you want to see what those authors based their works on, you need to read The Lord of the Rings. No way around it; sorry. It’s one of the (forgive the pun) foundation works of modern science fiction/fantasy, along with Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. After 60 years, it may seem to be trite and unimaginative compared to modern fantasy. Keep in mind, though, that Tolkien originated (or popularized) many of those tropes now so common in modern fantasy: the long lost king, the quest to destroy a magic artifact, the mysterious wizard, gruff malicious stupid trolls and proud aristocratic elves. It’s cliched now. Not when it was written.

I’ve been avoiding writing about the obvious warhorses in various genres because, frankly, they’ve been covered in far greater and more scholarly analytic detail than I could ever manage. That said, it occurred to me that I might want to make clear what I’m using as the yardstick against which I measure all subsequent representatives of the genre…and for epic fantasy adventure, it’s Lord of the Rings. Is he the only landmark author in fantasy? No. He’s not even the first; William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and Mervyn Peake all predate him by years or decades. Is he even the best? Well, tastes vary, but I’d say that yes, even today he’s at least influential. How many fifty year old books get blockbuster movies made about them?


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