When he wrote "The Lord of the Rings," J.R.R. Tolkien composed more than just a fantasy tale. Tolkien created an entire world, one with a multitude of cultures and heroes whose deeds span 10,000 years of invented history.
So if it's been a while since you've read the trilogy - or you've never gotten around to it - here is a crash course on Middle-earth as seen in the new cinematic version of "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Long before "The Fellowship of the Ring" takes place, a series of Rings of Power were forged: three for Elves, seven for Dwarves and nine for Men. But Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged a ring of his own, intended to dominate the others. Elves and Men formed an alliance to overthrow Sauron's evil regime. But the victors did not destroy the One Ring, and it was lost, remaining hidden for thousands of years.
Ultimately, "The Lord of the Rings" chronicles the adventures of Hobbits, namely Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, to whom the ring came. Also called Halflings, Hobbits are small, furry-toed creatures who have a fondness for food and family history. They dwell in the northwestern portion of Middle-earth in a pastoral region they call the Shire.
Bilbo Baggins found the One Ring while on an adventure years before "The Fellowship of the Ring" takes place. Unaware of the power of the ring, Bilbo tires of life in the Shire and departs for another adventure, leaving all his possessions - including the ring - to Frodo, his nephew.
Frodo discovers the true nature of the Ring and must flee the Shire, accompanied by his best friend, Sam Gamgee, and his mischievous cousins, Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck.
Elves are the oldest and wisest race in Middle-earth and are imbued with a certain wholesome, natural magic. Elves play several different roles in the story. Elrond, master of the haven of Rivendell, hosts a council where representatives from each "good" race form a fellowship to destroy Sauron's ring. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, must choose between the immortality of her people and her love for a mortal man. Legolas, son of an Elven king, joins in the quest to destroy the ring. And the fellowship receives shelter and guidance in the forest of Lorien from Galadriel, who is among the oldest, wisest and most powerful Elves left in Middle-earth.
Stout and brave, Dwarves are a race of miners who delve deep under mountains in search of precious metals and stones. Their greatest work, the mines of Moria, is a testament to their skill - and folly. By digging too deep, they awakened an ancient evil. Gimli represents Dwarves as a member of the fellowship.
In relative terms, Men are one of the younger races in Middle-earth and the only one continuing to grow and prosper. Aragorn, also known as Strider, is heir to the throne of Gondor, which has sat empty for thousands of years. Aragorn is one of nine members of the fellowship, along with Boromir, the prideful son of the steward of Gondor. Sauron's most powerful servants, the nine Nazgûl, were once Men as well. But all succumbed to the corrupting power of the rings they accepted from Sauron, and they became fearsome Ringwraiths.
Istari are wizards. Though they look like Men, they are actually powerful servants of the Valar, the oldest and most powerful god-like beings who dwell across the great sea. Foremost among the Istari are Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. Gandalf's wisdom greatly benefits the fellowship, while Saruman's treachery proves a significant burden.
Creations of an ancient dark power greater than Sauron, Orcs were made in mockery of Elves. They are fierce fighters and thoroughly evil. Saruman, in experiments of his own, has bred Orcs with Men to create a race of super-Orcs, called Uruk-hai.