Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is one of the most influential books ever written. In the decades since it’s publication, it has become a cultural powerhouse, inspiring blockbuster movies, video games, toy lines, and helping to give birth to the enduringly popular epic fantasy genre. Despite it’s venerability, however, Lord of the Rings holds up. Even now, when many of it’s knockoffs and imitators can seem portentous and dreary, Tolkien’s masterpiece retains a freshness, a clarity, that distinguishes it from the many, many other works of fantasy that have followed in it’s footsteps. Why is this? Part of the answer is, of course, that Tolkien was a genuinely great writer, but I think it’s worth examining Lord of theRings‘s rather unique relationship to and treatment of Lore. “Lore”, used here to refer to the backstory, mythology, world-building, and background details, is an integral part of epic fantasy. It’s one of the things that the genre is best known for (or most notorious for, depending on your perspective), and Lord of the Rings is the quintessential example of this. After all, Tolkien spent literally most of his life working on the lore and mythic backstory to his novels. His son, Christopher Tolkien, spent most of his life publishing and editing it. That massive compendium of Lore is one of the key distinguishing features of the book. And yet!
One of the fascinating things about Lord of the Rings is that when you’re reading it, it’s very clear that there’s a huge mythic corpus that underlies the story but most of it is never actually explained. There is surprisingly little exposition! If you read it after having read The Silmarillion, you’ll notice dozens of references and allusions to events and characters from the history of Middle-Earth. But these are rarely unpacked for the benefit of the audience or, most importantly, particularly relevant to the plot. It’s a violation of the rule of Chekov’s Gun, on a truly massive scale. But it works.
It is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic moments in the Lord of the Rings movies. The Battle of Helm’s Deep has been raging all night, and the beleaguered Rohirrim under King Théoden are hard-pressed. Saruman’s Uruk-hai have breached the Deeping Wall, forcing the defenders to fall back to the citadel of the Hornburg. As the creatures of darkness batter down the doors, Théoden and Aragorn lead their few remaining soldiers on a forlorn hope, charging out the front gates on a sally, determined to die well in battle. But just as the Uruk-hai surround them and all hope seems lost, Gandolf appears on a hill to the East, accompanied by Éomer and several thousand horsemen. They charge down a steep hill, driving straight through the Uruk-hai pike phalanx and shattering Saruman’s army, routing the survivors and sending them fleeing into the forest of Hurons, where the trees devour them. It is a great victory, won at the last moment, and Rohan is saved from slavery. It is also one of the most ridiculous, preposterous, ahistorical displays of knightly propaganda I have ever had the misfortune to witness.
I think I first read Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s one of those books that you can get something new out of every time you revisit, and despite the fact that it inspired a whole host of less-than-stellar imitations and derivatives that dominated fantasy for decades it remains startlingly great; deeper and more complex than the stale stereotypes it gave birth to would suggest. Famously, Tolkien was a linguist and a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature who wrote fantasy as much for an excuse to create his own language as for the story. Even when not lecturing the reader on the differences between Quenya and Sindarin, Lord of the Rings retains a scholarly air to it. There’s a self-conscious archaism, a deliberate element of throwback. The books are written in the style of the ancient epics Tolkien loved, and that comes through very well. Especially in the degree of metafiction included in the text.
The conceit that Tolkien retained (more or less) throughout his writings on Middle-Earth was that he was not an author, he was a translator. “Middle-Earth” was not another planet or dimension, it was a lost epoch of our history that he was researching. In some ways, this was fairly perfunctory. Maps of Middle-Earth, for example, cannot be made to match maps of Europe by any real means. But Tolkien never gave up on this concept, and metatextual elements are woven throughout his novels to a degree I’m not sure people fully appreciate.