Why Middle-earth Matters

GandalfIf you’re a history and military buff like me, The Lord of the Rings is a story tailor made for you: two massive armies facing each other on the battlefield about to be locked in combat. Now…just substitute Patton for a wizard in flowing white robes, the Nazis for a hideous race of creatures called Orcs, and Europe for Middle-earth.

Okay, that’s a wee bit simplistic (and not actually accurate…although written in spurts between 1937 and 1952, Tolkien always said that Lord of the Rings should never be read as an allegory for World War II.)

But what is it that has caused The Lord of the Rings to have sold over 150 million copies and to be translated into almost 40 languages? For me, it’s that feeling of real history, which gives Lord of the Rings its life. JRR Tolkien was obsessive about documenting his universe with dates, family trees, maps and indexes….hell, he even threw in a creation story. If it wasn’t for the fact that the characters are elves, dwarves, hobbits and wizards you’d think you were submersed in a history textbook.

So in Clash of the Gods, the goal was to figure out where all this inspiration came from. Much of The Lord of the Rings is about good overcoming evil, and Tolkien’s devout Catholicism provides the backbone. Comparisons of Frodo’s quest to Christ are plainly seen, but I think the most interesting tidbits are the ones found in Beowulf and other Norse myths. Tolkien doesn’t really hide in lifting almost exactly scenes from classic tales. The transformation of Smeagol into the creature Gollum almost exactly mirrors a tale in the Norse Volsunga Saga; and scenes like Bilbo stealing a cup in The Hobbit are directly lifted from Beowulf.
But more than any gods or monsters from ancient myth, I think it’s the personal pain that Tolkien suffered which gives The Lord of the Rings its foothold in reality. As a soldier in World War I, Tolkien was right in the middle of the action, watching friends killed and mutilated right in front of his eyes. When Tolkien writes about the same kind of suffering for Frodo there is a ring of truth that isn’t found in any other kind of fantasy writing.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me that Tolkien stole stuff from tales of the past…that’s pretty what all writers do. But what he did was to make it his own and transform it into something new. A feat which many writers attempt, but few do successfully.

So I’m off to re-read The Lord of the Rings…150 million people can’t be wrong.

– Ted Poole, KPI Writer and Producer


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