Personal Best: The Lord of the Rings

"The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published September 30, 1996 11:57AM (EDT)

is it possible to love and champion "The Lord of the Rings" in 1996? Since it first swept college campuses in the 1960s, J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy has spawned so many fourth-rate knock-offs, inspired so much bad fan art, and been so soundly and hilariously parodied that one hesitates to name it in serious company.

And yet, in an age when bogus myths of self-fulfillment like "The Celestine Prophecy" are peddled as bestselling truths, Tolkien's act of myth-creation retains a unique integrity. The Oxford scholar invented a rich world from the words up. A student of medieval tongues and legends, Tolkien began imagining his Middle Earth by creating a language, and then realized he'd need to dream up characters to speak it and stories in which it might be used. These stories "grew in the telling," as Tolkien put it, until finally they became Middle Earth's raison d'etre, relegating Elvish and the rest of Tolkien's invented languages to footnotes and appendices.

Its linguistic roots still give Middle Earth a sense of internal consistency that also extends to its geography. Tolkien's marvelous maps are rich in some details yet suggestively fuzzy around the edges, hinting at mysterious landscapes on the borders of comprehension. As the avalanche of posthumous Tolkieniana that's been published over the last two decades has demonstrated, this writer approached his imaginary creations with the obsessive perfectionism others typically reserve for stories of their families or accounts of their psychological travails.

Still, "The Lord of the Rings" would never have found an audience of millions if it were merely a collection of a made-up world's maps, glossaries and chronologies. With his tale of an omnipotent ring and a diminutive hobbit whose lot is to destroy this cursed heirloom, Tolkien created a free fantasia on Norse and Celtic myth transmuted by the touch of two World Wars' horrors.

Reams of paper have been expended, and mostly wasted, on attempts to prove that "Lord of the Rings" is in fact an allegory of the Second World War or a Christian tract. But the books, passing the test of modern mythmaking, resist any one-to-one correspondence: their humane variation on the theme of good vs. evil cannot be reduced to a single lesson.

They are surely not perfect. The Cockneyisms that accompany Tolkien's portraits of his hobbits can grow tiresome, and the books contain little humor, pitifully few female characters and even less in the way of romance with a small "r." But as a vast vision of the absolute corruption of absolute power -- and the depths of courage that ordinary people (and other creatures) can find to oppose it -- Tolkien's work remains incomparable.

It's no coincidence that "The Lord of the Rings" first found its audience during a decade when the general public was learning to question the workings of power, globally and in their own lives. The trilogy's popularity stemmed not from the craven escapism critics found in its pages but rather from its opposite -- a recognition that Middle Earth, in broad moral terms rather than crude allegorical parallels, is simply our earth, refracted in a fantastic mirror.

Today, who would dream of pasting a "Frodo Lives" sticker on his bumper? Yet the bookstores are more crowded than ever with people on "quests" to bring a sense of the "mythic" to their everyday lives. They could do far worse -- and alas, too often they are doing far worse -- than to take Tolkien's journey of a thousand pages.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------