Few, if any, books come close to being as beloved—or as ubiquitous—as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which have enabled millions of fans to escape through the hobbit hole to a magical world where the forces of good and evil are clearly defined.
Best-sellers for decades, they became even more popular on the heels of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning lm adaptations. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best trilogies ever written, with over 150 million copies sold. This, combined with the commercial success of its Academy- Award winning motion picture adaptation, has helped transform The Lord of the Rings into a household name. Throughout, fans have not only read the books, they’ve engaged with them, building one of the most active and creative fan communities in the world. The response to Tolkien’s work has been nothing short of astonishing. In fact, it would be accurate to label it a cultural phenomenon. Even 30 years after the author’s death in 1973, his books are hugely popular.
According to Time magazine, 11 million copies were sold in 2001 in the United States alone. Sales worldwide approach a staggering 50 million copies, thanks in large part to the enormous success of the movie trilogy based on them. As a result of his stories, Tolkien is credited with helping to create the literary genre known as fantasy.
Tolkien’s writings about that imaginary world captivated succeeding generations like few books had ever done. Borrowing from ancient literature and mythology, he gave life to his own brand of elves, dwarves, fairies, goblins and trolls, and to some new creatures he called “hobbits.”
This latter race of small people became the core of the story as they attempted to save their world from the ultimate evil. Tolkien, who was a professor of both Anglo-Saxon Language, drew upon influences like Beowulf and Norse mythology to find his idea for Middle Earth and all of its unique properties. Daniel Nozick’s essay, “Arthurian Influence on The Lord of the Rings,” traces Tolkien’s use of Arthurian legend and the Holy Grail through The Lord of the Rings by examining major parallels between characters and plot devices. Nozick examines King Arthur embodied within Aragorn and Frodo, and the One Ring versus the Holy Grail. He posits that The Lord of the Rings and Arthurian legend teach the same moral from opposing sides – power is self-destructive if used for selfish purposes.
Since their appearance in the 1950s, Tolkien’s books have inspired readers to see parallels between events in the story and ancient mythology. But, there are also connections of the real world today. Readers have drawn conclusions connecting the story to different political environments and time periods, as well as many allusions linking The Lord of the Rings to religion. The debate as to what Tolkien meant by his stories continued up to the author’s death in 1973. Since that time, primarily as a result of the successful release of the movies, The Lord of the Rings has gained a new generation of fans and converts. And like their parents (or grandparents) before them, this generation has found their own meanings in the books.