John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was a bank manager. After his father’s death, four-year-old Ronald, his younger brother, and mother settled in Sarehole, a village in the West Midlands of England. Tolkien retained an idealized image of the Sarehole Mill, the old mill pool with its overhanging willow tree, a nearby tempting mushroom patch, and clusters of cottages-all of which later figured in his picture of Hobbiton. At this time young Ronald was already discovering two interests that were to shape his life: languages and stories about imaginative places. When his mother moved the family to Birmingham, the trains and factories created a much more forbidding atmosphere, one from which he later encouraged people to “escape” through imaginative literature.
Physically Middle-earth resembles modern Earth. It is the inhabitants that add the touch of unreality that a reader expects in what Tolkien calls a “secondary” world. In making a world for his hobbits, elves, wizards, dwarves, ents, orcs, ringwraiths, and other unusual beings, Tolkien assumes the creative rights which he says in his essay “On Fairy-stories” belong to the storymaker: the right to be free with nature; to use the world as a basis to make something new, while giving this new world its principles of inner consistency. Much of this mythology and history of Middle-earth comes through songs that pervade the narrative, but a more organized “history,” complete with dates for the four ages of Middle-earth and genealogies of major families of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and human beings, is included as an appendix to the third volume.
The enduring conflict between good and evil is the underlying theme of the trilogy, but Tolkien develops others in connection with it. He explores the positive and negative sides of power, the nature of heroism, and the role of friendship. To Frodo Baggins, favorite nephew of the ring-finder Bilbo Baggins, is entrusted the task of saving Middle-earth from the control of the master of evil, Sauron. Frodo’s task reverses the basic quest pattern: instead of finding a treasure, Frodo is sent to destroy what Sauron values above all-the One Ring. Sauron had poured much of his power into the One Ring to strengthen his control over the nineteen Rings of Power. Of these nineteen rings, only the Three made by the elves for themselves have never been touched by Sauron and his evil. The Seven, originally distributed to dwarf leaders, have been destroyed and do not affect events in the trilogy. The major concentration of evil confronted by Frodo comes from the Ringwraiths, or Nazgul, who are men enslaved by Sauron through the Nine Rings.
At the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien deliberately links the trilogy to its predecessor, The Hobbit. He describes the return of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the Ring and, in the prologue, he expands the nature of hobbits and summarizes the story of Bilbo and Gollum. The narrative at first continues the light spoken tone of the earlier novel, but as it develops, this tone recedes, only occasionally bursting forth in the words and actions of the irrepressible hobbits.
In his preface to the trilogy, Tolkien distinguishes between allegory and applicability in literature. While he disclaims having imposed any allegorical significance on his story, he asserts the right of readers to apply the story as they see fit. In light of this disclaimer, it seems contrary to his intention to interpret The Lord of the Rings as political or social allegory, as some critics have done. On the other hand, readers in all generations can apply to their own age some of the overall principles embodied in the trilogy. The fact, for example, that elves, dwarves, hobbits, and human beings can set aside “racial” differences to work together for the welfare of Middle-earth can be extended to a hope that modern human races can set aside their differences, no more deeply embedded than the distrust between dwarves and elves.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How does Tolkien develop the nature of the Black Riders so that their identity as Ringwraiths does not come as a surprise?
The Lord of the Rings continues the story of the ring of invisibility found by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit; it also draws on material published later in Tolkien’s mythology of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion. The Hobbit in tone and characterization resembles an extended fairy tale which children as well as adults can enjoy and understand. In this narrative Tolkien lays the groundwork for the ring motif in the trilogy, but as far as Bilbo and the reader are concerned the ring at this stage conveys no power other than that of invisibility. By what seems an accident Bilbo finds the ring and is able to use it to help his thirteen dwarf friends reclaim their ancestral treasure from the dragon Smaug. The previous owner of the ring, Gollum, and its creator, Sauron, try to recover the ring throughout the trilogy. The Silmarillion provides a more cosmic introduction to the trilogy, but it can probably be better appreciated by one who is already familiar with The Lord of The Rings.