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    The Lord of the Rings

    “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

    Last month I finally got to see The Return of the King, the third installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time – from the opening scene in which Gollum (then Smeagol) murdered his cousin; through an intense hour-long epic battle scene that made George Lucas’ clone war battle look like child’s play; to the scene in which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum climb the steep stairs of Cirith Ungol and proceed through Shelob’s Lair into Mordor. (I’m terribly afraid of heights and don’t like spiders either!) When I walked out of the theater after 3 hours and 20 minutes, I felt like I had personally been on the trek to Mount Doom!

    In the Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord Sauron has gathered the Rings of Power with which he will be able to rule the world. But he lacks the one Ruling Ring that he created in ages past, which fell into the hands of hobbit Bilbo Baggins. The ring is entrusted to the care of Bilbo’s young nephew, Frodo Baggins. Frodo must make a perilous journey across Middle Earth to the Cracks of Doom. That is the only way to destroy the ring forever and foil Sauron’s evil plan.

    J.R.R. Tolkien's multi-volume literary masterpiece begins with a prelude work called The Hobbit, followed by the Lord of the Rings trilogy consisting of: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It is this trilogy that concerns the mission of Frodo Baggins and his companions. These stories will be enjoyed by anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, travel, poetry, language, philosophy, theology, history, myths, legends, fairy tales, or great literature.

    Tolkien is a tradition in our family. When my husband was in high school, he read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to his two younger brothers as well as several times by himself. Now a father, he has read them to our two older sons. As long-time Tolkien fans, we were among the first to hear that a Lord of the Rings movie was in the making. We wondered, of course, if the movie would live up to our high expectations, remembering those silly 1970’s animated cartoons of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Return of the King.

    In spite of a few changes which made my husband exclaim "That's not the way it happened!" or "That wasn't in the book!" we weren’t disappointed in the overall quality of Peter Jackson’s movie version. Naturally, a film adaptation of such an immense storyline will have to be condensed, but the major themes and plot elements remain faithful to the original. As literature lovers, we’re pleased that significant portions of dialogue are taken directly from the book.

    Every last detail of The Lord of the Rings sets the highest standards for cinematic excellence, from the casting to the screenplay to the props and scenery, as well as the special effects – utilizing both computer graphics and old camera tricks (i.e., to make the actors playing hobbits and dwarves appear smaller than elves and humans). As former Star Wars fans, we can say that Lord of the Rings is far superior to anything that even George Lucas has done. The Lord of the Rings appeals to a much wider audience than Lucas’ space fantasy and will continue to be cherished for generations to come.

    The Two Towers movie contained some character and background development that was lacking in The Fellowship of the Ring (but which was later added to the special extended edition DVD). The Return of the King is the triumphant culmination of the trilogy. (Although it left out what happens to the villainous wizard Saruman in the end, that will supposedly be included in the upcoming DVD.)

    Did You Know…?
    Christopher Lee (Saruman) actually met J.R.R. Tolkien at a pub in Oxford back in the 1950’s!

    Harry Potter vs. The Lord of the Rings

    After all the fuss over Harry Potter, it’s wonderful to have a revival of interest in the classic Lord of the Rings. My hope is that everyone who reads Harry Potter will go on to read Tolkien and realize that Lord of the Rings is infinitely better, both as well-written literature and as a well-crafted fantasy story. John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) said that when compared side by side, Lord of the Rings has "a texture, a depth, and a moral dimension making Potter a bit slight." Without a doubt, the scope and magnitude of The Lord of the Rings is breathtaking. This isn’t surprising, since Tolkien spent nearly 15 years in its creation. (J.K. Rowling spent only about a third of that time on her 5-book series.) The Lord of the Rings is simply the best sword-and-sorcery tale ever.

    Tolkien created an intricately detailed realistic world with its own ancient history, languages, and spectacular scenery. An artist as well as an author with an amazing imagination, Tolkien even designed maps and drew illustrations. Tolkien’s facts, such as the appearance of constellations in the night sky, are scientifically accurate. His characters travel for long distances by walking, rowing, or riding over a variety of terrain in all kinds of weather. Even if you’ve never gone hiking, you will know exactly how they feel when tired, lost, wet, and longing for some good food and drink.

    Tolkien, much more than just a talented writer, was truly a master of language. Tolkien's words are so musical and well-chosen, they are a joy to read and hear. Besides inventing whole languages, Tolkien perfectly matched the characters with their speech - from the self-assuredness of Tom Bombadil, who speaks in iambic pentameter (and who unfortunately was axed from the movie), to the plain-spoken Gaffer, Frodo's gardener. Other characters speak various types of prose and poetry, including those who have hardened hearts and use harsh language.

    Tolkien had a similarly wise understanding of human nature and insight into the human heart. This makes his character development true to life. The main characters are also very admirable in the way they overcome cowardly self-preservation to model heroic self-sacrifice. Tolkien obviously loved the characters that he made so believable, and readers will also. Consequently, each subsequent reading is like returning to visit old friends.

    The Lord of the Rings and the Bible

    Some people feel it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they read something. Yet wouldn’t it be better to read high quality literature that is not only entertaining, but morally and spiritually enlightening as well? Fantasy is an excellent genre for demonstrating the epic battle between the extremes of good and evil. A devout Roman Catholic, it was Tolkien’s faith that fueled his imagination. While theology is not obvious in Tolkien’s saga – and he insisted that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory of the gospel as some suggested – nevertheless, his writing is morally and theologically sound.

    Concerned parents don’t have to worry about moral relativism or ambiguity in Tolkien’s stories. The reality of pure evil exists, along with a distinct difference between right and wrong. The characters always act on their own free will, and even wizards can make errors in judgment. Additionally, wizardry is portrayed as being powerful and dangerous, not as harmless stereotypical magic. The magical powers of the ring, although attractive, are ultimately evil. Gandalf and the elves use their magical powers in very limited ways, and the folly of attempting to fight evil with magic is clearly emphasized. So instead of being charmed by the idea of crystal balls and spells tending toward witchcraft, kids will be more wary of such things after reading Lord of the Rings.

    While Tolkien urges his readers to choose good, the characters that do choose evil are tempted, fall, and have a chance to repent. It is actually a combination of weakness, suffering, and mercy which resolves the plot. The Lord of the Rings is a tale of hope, redemption, and faith against all odds. Even in characters with magical skills, their goodness comes from a sense of service, patience, and humility. The characters solve most of their problems through courage, wisdom, and persistence.

    Book vs. Movie

    If you think The Lord of the Rings movie is good, you will find that the book is even richer and more complex. The complicated plot is easier to follow and the events make more sense once you’ve read the book and then watch the movie. However, even if you've never read the original books by Tolkien, you will still like the Lord of the Rings movie. A word of warning, though, for families with young children: the movie contains one frightening episode after another; whereas in the book more time elapses between those scary scenes, giving the reader a chance to recover! I recommend reading the books even if you don’t intend to see the movie.

    Tolkien’s works are ideal for family read-alouds, as they are enjoyed by adults and children of all ages. However, do keep in mind that parts of the story can be extremely intense and scary for young children. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s word pictures are ideal for developing imaginations, while a series of cliff-hangers and surprise confrontations maintain interest. Teenagers in particular should be encouraged to enter into this unique reading experience, because it will help them to become wiser readers and develop an enthusiasm for fine literature.

    Tolkien’s books are not dumbed down in any way, yet the saga’s readability throughout its epic length helps even reluctant readers to progress, providing a sense of achievement and confidence to tackle other long works. In fact, The Lord of the Rings is a key book that teachers and librarians suggest to young adults as a steppingstone to adult literature. Moreover, as with any work of timeless value, these stories can be re-read at different stages in your life, and they become more precious with each reading. Tolkien created a rich mine of wisdom and imagery that we can glean from throughout our lives. No wonder The Lord of the Rings is regarded as the world's most popular work of fiction!

    Memorable Quotes

    Frodo lamented to Gandalf, “I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf replied, “So do all that live to see these times, but that is not for you to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” And Galadriel said to Frodo, "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

    LOTR Discussion Questions

    1. The main character, a humble hobbit named Frodo, finds himself unexpectedly thrust into a story much larger than he is, as he sets off on a mission to save the world. Do you think we are all part of a greater design that gives meaning, purpose and direction to life?

    2. The dark lord, Sauron, seeks to gain evil control over all. Do you believe there is a battle between ultimate good and evil in the world today?

    3. As the story unfolds, Frodo appears to be an unlikely hero since he is not overly wise or strong. What do you think it takes to be a hero?

    4. John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) says “Sometimes you've got to stand up and fight for what you believe in.” Have you ever fought for something that’s important to you?

    5. A major theme in The Lord of the Rings focuses on the sacrifices of friendship and helping others. If you were called upon to endure pain and suffering or risk your life in order to help a friend, would you be willing to do so?

    The Hobbit CD-ROM Game

    Would you like to assume the role of Bilbo Baggins and go on the great adventure that started it all? Set in the world of Middle Earth, this one player action/strategy game follows the story of Tolkien's Hobbit, the prelude to Lord of the Rings. Meet famous characters such as Gollum, Gandalf, Thorin, Dwarves, etc. while battling Spiders, Trolls, Goblins, wolves, Wargs, Stone-Giants, Smaug, and more. This game is enjoyable for all ages. My 8-year-old and 13-year-old sons as well as my husband all played it, and my 3-year-old enjoyed watching. I don’t normally like PC games made by Sierra, but this one is very well done with great music, voices, and gameplay. It even uses actual quotes from the book! The graphics are rich and the animation is cute. You start out in Hobbiton, where you practice walking around and gathering supplies. Then you travel through places like Mirkwood Forest and Lonely Mountain, collecting gems for courage and health. Some of the puzzles you have to solve are pretty challenging, and in between there are lots of neat places to explore. You get to use the ring to become invisible and you also get to wield the legendary sword, Sting! I don't usually recommend computer games to accompany a literature study, but this one makes for a pleasant diversion allowing you to re-live the events from the book (once you've read the whole thing of course). The game is faithful to the story and lets you experience the adventure first-hand. (The only discrepancy is that in the game Bilbo looks like a teenager but in the book he was 50!)

    About the Author

    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 in South Africa. His memories of Africa, though limited, were vivid (especially a scary encounter with a large hairy spider!) and influenced his later writing to some extent. Following his father's death from rheumatic fever in 1896, he and his younger brother were taken to England by their mother. They made their home in the country outside of Birmingham, just across the border from Wales.

    Ronald’s love of nature and the rural landscape can be clearly seen in both his writings and in his drawings. Likewise, young Ronald's linguistic imagination was engaged by the sight of coal trucks going to and from destinations like "Nantyglo", "Penrhiwceiber" and "Senghenydd." After his mother died when Ronald was twelve, he and his brother became wards of a kind priest. Ronald mastered Latin and Greek, and became competent in a number of other ancient and modern languages. He even made up his own “fairy” and “elvish” languages, purely for fun.

    Tolkien studied the Classics, Language and Literature at Exeter College, Oxford, where he specialized in Old and Middle English. After graduating, Tolkien married Edith Bratt, whom he had known when they both lived in Birmingham. Still a newlywed, Tolkien enlisted in the World War. As soon as the war was over, Tolkien was hired as Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary), which was then in preparation. He also began to write mythological and legendary tales in which his elves appeared in their first form. Originally called The Book of Lost Tales, it eventually became known as The Silmarillion.

    In 1920, Tolkien became Associate Professor in English at the University of Leeds. In 1925, he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford. Besides being an expert linguist, Tolkien’s career was further distinguished by his enthusiastic and lively teaching. Tolkien also founded a literary club called "The Inklings." One member who became a close friend of his was C.S. Lewis, author of the popular Chronicles of Narnia children’s fantasy series.

    Tolkien’s family, now consisting of three sons and a daughter, encouraged his imagination. But the making of The Hobbit came about quite by accident. According to Tolkien, one day when he was grading essay exams, he discovered that a student had left one page of an answer-book blank. On this page, for no particular reason, Tolkien wrote "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." From this sentence grew a tale that he developed and told to his children.

    First published in 1937, The Hobbit has been on children's recommended reading lists ever since. It was such an immediate success that the publisher asked Tolkien to write a sequel. He did, but it took twelve years to complete. Over 1,000 pages in length, Lord of the Rings was finally published in three installments during 1954-55. Literary critics downgraded it as “a children´s book which has somehow got out of hand.” Nevertheless, Tolkien’s enormous public appeal popularized fantasy literature among both adults and children.

    During the 1960’s, Tolkien became well-liked by the "counter-culture" mainly due to his concern with environmental issues. By 1968, Lord of the Rings had become a cult-like fantasy favorite. After Tolkien died in 1973, his original mythological legend, The Silmarillion, was edited and published in 1977 by his son Christopher. In the late 1990’s, Tolkien came to the top of several polls which asked readers to vote for the greatest book of the 20th century. The master language scholar would be pleased to know his books have been translated into many different languages. The Lord of the Rings is considered to be the world's most popular work of fiction.

    Websites (The Official Lord of the Rings Movie Website) (The history, myth, and culture that inspired the novel.) (Interactive atlas of Middle-earth with an index of places.) (Embark upon a journey that takes you across Tolkien’s Middle Earth at this interactive website. Your tour guide is the famed wizard Gandalf. Along the way, you will encounter games, fan fiction, music, original artwork, and much more.) (Lord of the Rings Literary Quiz: How much do you know about Bilbo, Frodo, and friends?) (Quotes and sound clips from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.) (Lord of the Rings site for and by Tolkien Fanatics: the writer, the books, the movies, guided tours, art, a quiz, and more.) (A fan-created website featuring News, Art Gallery, Reading Room, Quotes, Poetry, Humor, Links, Message Boards, and more.)

    (Click here to order a reprint of this article.)

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    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
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