The Lord of the Rings is one of the penultimate fantasy series. Without its influence, many of the concepts and tropes we see in fantasy today would not be present. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien, the series has captivated fans for decades, receiving the highest of critical acclaim. Three books, published from July 1954 to October 1955, comprise the series. They are The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Below, you will find information on setting, characters, magic, and the epic series’ general plot. Also present is information on Tolkien and the reception and popularity of the series over the years.
Tolkien, more than any other fantasy author, created a whole new world to tell his story. The world in which The Lord of the Rings takes place is named Arda. Middle-Earth, a main continent of Arda, is where the story takes place, with some reference given to the other parts of the world during the books’ events.
Middle Earth is a greatly divided continent. Many nations, consisting of several different races, occupy the land and vie for territory. Tolkien intended for Arda to be a corollary to earth, just in a fictional, fantastical time. Middle-Earth, using this thought process, would correspond to Eurasia. Much of the world remains unknown and unmapped by the kingdoms that hold power during these books. Places like the far south and east would correspond to Africa and Far East Asia in our world.
The Shire is home to the Hobbits, a gentle, small race not prone to violence or infighting. Hobbits have a love of dirt and earth and in peace and quiet. They love all things that grow. The Shire is a quaint place, one that has not seen violence or strife for years. Hobbits are a somewhat insular community as well, outsiders generally viewed with suspicion, this suspicion stemming from a belief that other people bring trouble with them.
A kingdom of men, these people are hardy folk, known for their horsemanship. Their horses are the best in the world. A cavalry charge by the Rohirrimis considered to be one of the deadliest military maneuvers in Middle-Earth. The Rohirrim live in smaller cities than in their counterpart, Gondor, and are much more spread out. The Rohirrim have one fortress, The Hornburg, which they retreat to in times of great danger.
Gondor is one of the kingdoms established by the Dunedain in the Second Age of the world. Gondor is one of the main reasons Sauron’s power has been held in check for years. They beat back the tides of Sauron’s dark forces, killing legions of orcs and sacrificing thousands of men. Gondorians are known for their fortresses, their capital city, Minas Tirith, a tiered city fortress built into a mountain.
One of the two high-elven kingdoms left in Middle-Earth, Imladris, also called Rivendell, is home to Elrond, a powerful, ancient elf. Rivendell is a key location in The Lord of the Rings. Without the elves’ help, the overarching quest of the series would have failed before it truly began.
The second of the high-elven kingdoms, Lothlorien, is the home of Galadriel, the Lady of Light, and Celeborn, her husband. Lothlorien is protected from the evils of the world by Galadriel and her Ring, Nenya. She uses its power to prevent any evil from crossing into her lands. Lothlorien and Rivendell combined to help the Rohirrim in their darkest hour, aiding them in beating back hordes of Uruk-Hai.
Mordor, the seat of evil in the world and home to the Dark Lord Sauron. Set on three sides by a massive mountain range, Mordor is an impenetrable fortress of darkness, a blight upon the world. Within Mordor, Sauron breeds tens of thousands of orcs, making ready his armies to wage war upon Middle-Earth.
Frodo Baggins – A Hobbit, nephew of Bilbo Baggins, who is chosen to hold the Ring of Power and destroy it
Samwise Gamgee – Frodo’s gardener who accompanies him on his quest to destroy the One Ring. Without Sam, Frodo would have failed a dozen times over.
MeriadocBrandybuck – A friend to Frodo and a companion on the quest to destroy the One Ring. Merry, as he likes to be called, was instrumental in killing the Witch King of Angmar
Peregrin Took – A friend to Frodo and a companion on the quest to destroy the One Ring. Curious and impulsive, Pippin, as he likes to be called, earned a Gondorian knighthood for his valiant service in battle.
Gandalf – One of the Istari sent by the Valar to aid the peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron. Forbidden to use his full power, Gandalf instead acts as a guide and mentor to Frodo during the quest to destroy the One Ring. Later, he aided Gondor and Rohan in beating back the hordes of Mordor.
Legolas – An elven prince of the Wood Elves, Legolas accompanies Frodo to destroy the One Ring. He aids Gondor and Rohan in defeating Mordor as well.
Gimli – A high-ranking dwarf who accompanies Frodo on his quest to destroy the One Ring. After the quest is over, he travels with Legolas and eventually becomes the first dwarf to go to the Undying Lands.
Boromir – Son of the Steward of Gondor, Boromir is one of Frodo’s companions. Taken by the Ring, he attempts to take it from Frodo. He redeems himself in death, defending Merry and Pippin until his final breath.
Aragorn – One of the last of the Dunedain, Aragorn is the heir of Isildur and Gondor’s rightful King. Without him, Saruman and Sauron would have won and spread their evil over all of Middle-Earth.
Saruman – The leader of the Istari, he is swayed by Sauron to join his side and turns to darkness. Saruman creates the Uruk-Hai, a perfected form of orcs, and wages war over much of Middle-Earth.
Gollum – Once known as Smeagol, Gollum was taken by the One Ring hundreds of years ago. He craves it and always wants it back. He had some small redemption due to Frodo’s help but eventually turned back to his evil, selfish ways.
Magic in Lord of the Rings is nebulous at best. Differing from other fantasy series, magic has no formal explanation given to it, no hard structure. Thus, it can be dubbed a soft-magic system. Like many soft-magic systems, magic seemingly just happens. No obvious explanation is given beyond the fact that a person using magic can simply do the things they do. One of the pitfalls of a soft-magic system is the temptation to turn it into a Deus Ex Machina. If you are unfamiliar with this term, it merely means that magic is often used to get characters out of tricky situations and save them from untimely harm. A character can suddenly do something to protect himself or advance the plot out of nowhere, the explanation given: magic.
Lord of the Rings avoids this pitfall spectacularly. Not everyone can use magic, including most of the main characters. Those that can, namely, Gandalf, are limited in what they are allowed to do. Gandalf is a Maiar, essentially, a minor god. Many of the troubles faced in the story could have been solved by his power quite quickly. But he is not supposed to use his power in this way. It is not his purpose in Middle-Earth. This limitation prevents him from performing a Deus Ex Machina.
Magic, what little of it seen, seems to be based either off the world, will, and words of power. Perhaps a combination of the three. Gandalf has several scenes where he uses incantations to perform minor feats of magic. He is known to be able to read the thoughts and memories of different people as well. Magic in the world presents itself in a variety of ways. Perhaps one of the more dramatic is the enchanted river surrounding Rivendell. This river wards off the Nazgul, and helps provide safe passage to Frodo and his companions.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892. From a young age, he had a gift with languages and words. After serving as a second lieutenant during World War I, he obtained a degree and a teaching position as an Assistant Lexicographer on the New English Dictionary (the “Oxford English Dictionary”). During past years, he had begun crafting what would become Elven languages and the initial version of many of the stories present in the Quenta Silmarillion.
Tolkien eventually applied for a vacant teaching position at Oxford and was accepted as a professor. Here he met many contemporaries, which were significant influences on his writing. He also joined “The Inklings,” a group of people interested in writing and prose. A notable member of The Inklings was C.S. Lewis.
Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. It was wildly popular, and Tolkien was requested to write a sequel. His first attempt at a sequel was the Quenta Silmarillion or the Silmarillion for short. It was rejected, a request made for a “second Hobbit.” Tolkien obliged and, for the next 16 years, developed the world of Middle-Earth in greater detail and wrote The Lord of the Rings.
Initial reviews of the book were mixed. Some were incredibly in favor of the new series, claiming it to be a groundbreaking masterpiece. Others decried its characters and makeup. But the world outside the realm of critics adored the books. Beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, The Lord of the Rings became a worldwide phenomenon. Due to many people coming to gawk at him or his house and constant questions directed at him over the phone regarding the series, Tolkien had to change his address and his phone number eventually.
After Tolkien died in 1973, the Silmarillion was finally published. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, was responsible for editing and publishing the work. Christopher also compiled many unfinished and unpublished tales of Middle-Earth, calling it Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth.
The Lord of the Rings follows the general plot of defeating a great evil threatening the world. While today this may seem cliché, when the books were first published, nothing like it had ever been seen. The scale on which this fantasy world operated was unprecedented.
The story follows Frodo Baggins, the young nephew of Bilbo Baggins, after inheriting the One Ring of Power from Bilbo. He is hunted by the Nazgul, servants of the Dark Lord Sauron. He makes his way to safety with the Elves, aided by the wizard Gandalf and three Hobbit companions, Samwise Gamgee, MeriadocBrandybuck, and Peregrin Took. There, a quest is proposed—one to destroy the One Ring, ending Sauron’s threat to Middle-Earth forever.
The books follow this quest and the many twists and turns it takes. Full-scale battles are fought. Characters like Aragorn must face their destiny. And courage and honor must take precedence before anything else in this desperate, epic tale of bravery and sacrifice.
The Lord of the Rings was a smashing success. Both The Hobbit and this series remain on the reading lists of nearly every school around the world. The Lord of the Rings has been nominated as several countries’ most beloved books several times, including the 2000s.
After decades of demand, The Lord of the Rings was brought to life on movie screens. Peter Jackson directed a trilogy of movies, filmed over several years, that would become some of the most critically acclaimed movies ever. Fun fact, the combined movies come in at a whopping 11 1/2 hours with the Two Towers being one of the longest Hollywood movies ever made.
People around the world loved the trilogy. The Return of the King’s adaptation was, for a time, the highest-grossing movie in history. It also is one of the only fantasy movies to ever win an Oscar for best picture. Not only that, but The Return of the King ties for the record of most Oscars won, sharing the title with Ben-Hur and Titanic. The movies and books are both beloved to this day. Countless people worldwide still pick the books up for the first time and get lost in Tolkien’s magical world.