The Lord of the Rings: A Five-Minute Guide
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. - Inscription on the One Ring
I've seen The Lord of the Rings. You've seen The Lord of the Rings. He/she/we have seen The Lord of the Rings. Probably the best fantasy film-series of all time, Peter Jackson's adaptation is a world-renowned icon.
But what about those pesky books?
If you're daunted by the idea of picking up The Fellowship of the Ring and beginning your journey through Tolkien's greatest masterpiece, you're not alone. The world of Middle-Earth is a complicated space with its own history, politics, and values - often ones very different from those seen in Peter Jackson's films. Fortunately, if you're looking to get a quick handle on the world of The Lord of the Rings before delving too deeply (and possibly awakening something slumbering in the darkness) you've come to the right place. Here's the five-minute guide with everything a beginner needs to know when tackling The Lord of the Rings.
One of the truly remarkable things about Tolkien's story is that it chooses as its central heroic figures individuals both physically and magically unimpressive. The four Hobbits - Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo - are all of them more or less "ordinary folk" like many readers. They enjoy good food and beer, like to goof around on occasion, and tend to be overlooked by the "great men" of Middle-Earth. The Hobbits are there for us to identify with as readers, journeying along in the unfamiliar places of Middle-Earth and seeing both new wonders and new horrors.
At the same time, though, it can be helpful for us to remember that since we are most like the Hobbits, everyone else in Middle-Earth is...well...bigger. Don't look for an Aragorn unsure of his destiny and shying back from the kingship here, you won't find it. Here's how Tolkien describes the scene, for instance, when Aragorn is surrounded and vastly outnumbered at the Battle of Helm's Deep:
"Depart, or not one of you will be spared. Not one will be left alive to take back tidings to the North. You do not know your peril" So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn...that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulder to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. (Two Towers 64)
The human, elven, and dwarven heroes of Tolkien's stories are all of them larger-than-life in a way that their film counterparts simply cannot match. When reading The Lord of the Rings, then, it can be helpful to remember that we are not supposed to even try to relate to characters like Aragorn, Legolas, or even Boromir. These heroes are paragons for us to admire, incarnations of virtues, not entirely unlike mythic heroes of the ancient past. So if you ever begin to feel a bit small when reading, just remember that we are seeing everything, in our own way, through the Hobbits' eyes.
It's Elf Magic, Sam
For fans of other classic fantasy series (be it Harry Potter or Eragon/Inheritance) Tolkien's way of writing magic can be especially difficult. Usually, when reading modern fantasy, there are concrete and almost scientific rules for how magic functions. Not so in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Is magic present? Definitely. Figures like Sauron, Galadriel, and even Faramir use magic in amazing ways to shape the world around them. Sometimes that magic wields terrible power, as in the case of Sauron's One Ring. Other times, it seems to be a more practical sort of issue, as when Faramir gives Frodo and Sam a pair of walking sticks with a virtue of "finding and returning" to their carriers (141). So just exactly how does magic work?
Well, it's complicated. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's mysterious. Magic is definitely associated with language, and magical acts are almost always accompanied by either spoken words or even songs, but it isn't exactly the words which are themselves important. If we remember that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic who preferred to attend the Mass in Latin, we can garner a sort of sense for the connection between language and magical power in his own universe. The sacred words of the Mystery of Communion, for example, don't hold any special power to transform bread into the Body of Christ. Rather, there is a mysterious role the words play in the ritual, wherein the real power at play is something far, far greater--God Himself. In a similar though not at all identical way, the real "power" at play in The Lord of the Rings seems to be the one who is speaking the words, rather than the words themselves.
No Dwarf Women?!?
Not only are there no dwarf women in The Lord of the Rings, there are hardly any female characters at all (and the ones who are present don't tend to be very involved). Why is that? Well, it's not really very clear. As the chapters which follow Eowyn of Rohan reveal, Tolkien had no qualms about the idea of the heroic female warrior. Yet despite the prominent role of this individual, women in Tolkien are largely relegated to the behind-the-scenes work of the story...which is to say that they are basically kept out of the story entirely.
Some readers may find this aspect of Middle-Earth off-putting, and rightly so. Unfortunately, there's not really anywhere in Tolkien's mythos that "fixes" this problem. The Hobbit has no female characters at all and The Silmarillion is not much better. With The Lord of The Rings, then, it helps to know what you're getting into.
One Book to Rule them All
Tackling The Lord of the Rings books can feel like a daunting task to many fans of the films, but it doesn't have to be that way. Above all, just keep reading. Let the flow of the story carry you (even if you forget a name or two) across the wide landscapes of Middle-Earth on Frodo's epic journey. There's a reason Tolkien's text is one of the best-selling-books of all time. The Lord of the Rings is a story for young and old to enjoy, one that showcases new riches with every read.
And that's the five-minute guide to The Lord of the Rings.