There is good literature, and then there is great literature. Lord of the Rings has been hailed as one of the greatest literary successes of all time. But why is it so?
First, the themes:
Redemption: One of the most consistent themes seen throughout the Lord of the Rings is the idea of redemption: that even if you have fallen you have the chance to still do what you can and ultimately define your destiny. Throughout the trilogy several characters fall or already have fallen. Boromir is seduced by the ring and gives in, trying to take it from Frodo, who only escaped by putting on the Ring and running away. Although Boromir is distraught at seemingly dooming the Fellowship, he ultimately redeems himself by sacrificing himself to defend Merry and Pippin and buying the rest of the Fellowship more time. Saruman on the other hand chooses to give into his pride continually, even though he is given several chances by Gandalf to put aside his ways and return to good. We can glean from this that we too should not let our past mistakes define what we do today, and that there are still pages of our life yet left to be written.
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Sacrifice: Another Christian theme woven into Tolkien’s works. Gandalf willingly lays down his life for the Fellowship, as he alone can slay the demonic Balrog so the quest may continue and the world can be saved. Although he succeeds, he dies in this task, but is ultimately brought back to life in a new and more glorious form. Theoden is another great example. After tragically losing his only son and heir, he still assumes the kingship once again and wins the Battle of the Pelennor for a country that is not even his own, but at the cost of many of his countrymen and his own life.
Heroism: A great aspect of the Lord of the Rings is who the main characters are. Although we see a great deal of powerful beings like Gandalf, Aragorn and so on, the characters we see the most are the hobbits- namely Frodo and Sam. We see that anyone can be a hero, not just a great warrior or angelic wizard. By the end of the third novel, Sam singlehandedly defeated Shelob, rescued Frodo from Cirith Ungol, carried Frodo to Mount Doom, and several other incredible feats. It’s not how small you are but how great your heart is.
Friendship: We see time and time again that the ultimate way to win our battles is not necessarily through brute strength and huge armies but fellowship, passion and wisdom. The men of Rohan, Gondor, the Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Ents all wanted different things out of life. But they all saw that Sauron was their ultimate enemy and that they needed to put aside their differences to win. Merry and Pippin were selected to accompany Frodo and the Fellowship because they loved Frodo and would do anything for him. Gandalf noted that they could have chosen a great Elf-Lord like Glorfindel but that he could not storm the Dark Tower singlehandedly, and that friendship was better than swords. This spirit of optimism carries throughout the books even in the darkest hours, that with perseverance and your friends the impossible can become possible.
Next, the Creativity
J.R.R Tolkien’s world building is incredible. He wrote entire languages (Sindarin, Dwarvish, Black Speech) for his world Middle-Earth. He laid the modern foundation for fantasy with his utilization of elves, dwarves, giant spiders, wizards, “Dark Lords”, and so forth. It literally took him a whole lifetime (as well as his son Christopher) to write to life the complex world of Middle-Earth and all of its history and characters. It has left a mark so profound on literature that it directly influenced other hailed works such as George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”.
And now, the Villains:
It is said that your heroes are only as good as your villains. And in the Lord of the Rings the heroes certainly meet their match in terms of good writing with the villains. Sauron is a very convincing villain. In fact, he actually wins in the books against the heroes. It literally takes Eru Iluvatar (God in LOTR) for Sauron to lose. This is seen when Frodo succumbs to the power of the ring. The only reason the Ring ended up destroyed was when Gollum, after taking it from Frodo, tripped and fell into the fiery chasm of Orodruin. J.R.R. Tolkien himself wrote that Eru caused Gollum to fall. Although it is not mentioned in Lord of the Rings, elsewhere in the Legendarium you come to appreciate Sauron’s character and learn that he is actually quite complex. Tolkien’s work was heavily influenced by Christianity, and you can see this in comparing Satan to Sauron. Both were originally perfect beings high in their angelic order who originally went by different names. Sauron was originally “Mairon” which meant “The Admirable”. He was good in the beginning and worked for the better of Middle Earth. Not all villains have to be evil from the beginning; in fact they are often more interesting if they evolve. In Sauron’s case, his downfall was his love for perfection and order. He eventually came to see power as a means of bringing order to Middle Earth and was seduced by Melkor/Morgoth (the first Dark Lord) to evil to meet this end. In the Silmarillion, he is actually repentant when Melkor and his dark forces are defeated at the end of the First Age: “… Sauron in truth repented, if only out of fear”. However, his pride ultimately compels him to turn back to evil, as he was ultimately unwilling to humble himself to a sentence of servitude. Saruman is also a compelling villain in his own right.
Finally, the feeling:
Lord of the Rings is so beautiful in that you can truly be immersed in it. The books are so in depth and well written that it really does feel like you are in Middle-Earth. And it’s a wonderful feeling because Tolkien balances the danger, the friendship and the adventurism quite wonderfully. It’s a feeling you want more of and that makes you lose track of time. These books may have been made in the 1950s but their messages and feelings echo forever, regardless of how each generation may change.