“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Frodo is, of course, speaking for his creator JRR Tolkien – a very reluctant hero. When the First World War broke out, Tolkien was happily reading English Literature at Exeter College, Oxford. He had started out in 1911 reading Classics but then changed course – one of the various accidents of fate that probably saved his life. What it meant was that his entry into the army was deferred till after his graduation, thus enabling him to miss out on the first two years of combat.
Isn’t it just marvellous that so fine and noble and unimpeachably conservative a message happens to be buried in one of the biggest and most gripping bestsellers ever written?
Perversely, this was quite a brave decision. As Tolkien later told his son, “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage”. But he endured the disapproval of his friends and family, collected his first class degree, and finally, very reluctantly, bid farewell to his beloved wife Edith and set off for war in June 1916, as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Ghastly it may have been for all concerned – “junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then ... it was like a death” – but it was the making of the man and the author. It turned what could have been a slightly twee, overlong, fusty children’s book into an epic trilogy about good and evil, about the clash of civilisations, about man (and hobbit, elf and dwarf) in extremis, about doing the right thing even if it kills you. War was the Mount Doom furnace that forged The Lord of the Rings into a modern classic.
It’s not by any means perfect, though. Fans will tell you that they love it, warts and all – even the lengthy section at the end when the quest is long over and Tolkien will insist on laboriously putting every last detail of the characters’ afterlife to bed. Also, nary a chapter can pass without some cheery soul or other breaking into often-lengthy song or verse. Unless you’re very patient, you’ll either skip these or do what I did and listen to the excellent audiobook version (narrated by Rob Inglis) where the songs allow you to drift off for a few moments till the action begins anew.
The trilogy’s flaws – charming mannerisms if you prefer – are, of course, a reflection of its author’s preoccupations with language and literature, most notably Old English and Old Norse. His archaic diction and sentence structure have about them the whiff of Beowulf; so too, do his characters’ fondness for feasting and speechifying, and their acute consciousness of history and tradition and lore.
Frodo is Tolkien’s Everyman: the chap who doesn’t want to do his bit but has to because, as Gandalf so wisely observes, we have to make the moral choices appropriate to the times in which we live.
What really rocked Professor Tolkien’s boat, you sense, was the excuse to construct entirely new languages (Quenya, spoken by the elves, is a mixture of Finnish, Latin, Greek and ancient German) and elaborate histories, like the one preceding the novels’ events, involving Isildur, Sauron and the lost ring.
What this does is to give Tolkien’s work the most extraordinary depth and resonance: his creation is rooted in more than 2000 years’ worth of invented history; his various races speak in exotic, philologically plausible tongues. Not least among Tolkien’s many achievements, then, is to have set the bar almost impossibly high for all subsequent fantasy fiction. Would Game of Thrones have been anywhere near as good if it hadn’t been for Tolkien’s pioneering brilliance?
The story itself borrows from fictive archetypes with which, again, Tolkien the literary scholar would have been well familiar. As Christopher Booker has noted, the Ring trilogy collects all seven of the basic plots: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; the Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth. In other words, it’s like all the greatest stories in history rolled into one.
What this does is to give Tolkien’s work the most extraordinary depth and resonance: his creation is rooted in more than 2000 years’ worth of invented history; his various races speak in exotic, philologically plausible tongues.
At its heart are Frodo Baggins and his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee (a stoical, dutiful, good-humoured, earthy sort created as a tribute to the ordinary soldiers Tolkien got to know in the trenches) on their quest to save Middle Earth – i.e. Western Civilisation – from the darkest threat it has ever known and then return to their bucolic idyll in The Shire. This “little guy saves the world” is a hugely satisfying theme; hence the subsequent popularity of Star Wars, The Matrix and, of course, the Harry Potter series.
Frodo is Tolkien’s Everyman: the chap who doesn’t want to do his bit but has to because, as Gandalf so wisely observes, we have to make the moral choices appropriate to the times in which we live. Isn’t it just marvellous that so fine and noble and unimpeachably conservative a message happens to be buried in one of the biggest and most gripping bestsellers ever written?