Since the 1938 publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," that book and Tolkien's subsequent trilogy, "Lord of the Rings," have occasioned a fascinating and dramatically diverse response.
The combined trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings," was recently voted the greatest book of the century in an English survey and the greatest book of the millennium by American voters in an amazon.com poll. The British event was lamented loudly by that country's literati, whose members pooh-pooh the popular vote and regard Tolkien's tales as boy fantasy stuff. In America, the ascension of "Lord of the Rings" to pop-lit heights scarcely raised an eyebrow among the high-brow.
Critical opinions (or indifference) notwithstanding, Tolkien's books claim young and old fans worldwide who trade phrases in Elvish tongue, talk about Frodo and Strider as if they were buddies and speak of Middle-earth as if it's a place they have visited.
The books have been defended down to their last dwarf song by such brains as poet W.H. Auden, author C.S. Lewis and British scholar Tom Shippey, a philologist who taught with Tolkien at Oxford and went on to write Tolkien's best defense, the highly regarded and well-researched "J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin, $26).
Tolkien's books have been hilariously sent up in "Bored of the Rings," the parody by the Harvard students who created National Lampoon. ("'Goodbye, Dildo,' Frito said, stifling a sob. `I wish you were coming with us.'")
As anyone who has higher consciousness than a Balrog can attest, the trilogy has been adapted into three major motion pictures for the buy-a-small-nation price of $300 million dollars. The first of the three films, "Lord of the Rings," opens Wednesday, an occasion that will be accompanied by long lines at the multiplex in some quarters and terminal aversion in others.
One ring to rule them all,
One ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all (to the cineplex) and in the darkness bind them.
However one might dispute the literary merit or worthiness of "Lord of the Rings," the trilogy obviously continues to draw and bind the multitudes as ably as the ring of power.
New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane suggested in a recent article that "the book itself is a quest." Reading the trilogy - a combined total of more than 1,000 pages - is for most readers a grand challenge. This is especially true if you become Hobbitized at a tender age. "Lord of the Rings" is the biggest book you've ever tackled. Before the 734-page "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was there to break in the squirts, Tolkien was testing his child-size readers to the limit.
And multitudes of them passed and are now passing the books to their own children and grandchildren.
Lane further suggests that the books' hold on readers comes from the fact that we cannot abandon Frodo. Just as the hobbits Sam and Merry and Pippin accept the dangerous duty of accompanying their friend on his unsought-after quest, so must we. He got stuck, and we need to see him through.
But our attachment to "Lord of the Rings" goes beyond that. Here is a time-tested and favorite story line: the tale of the smallest who takes on the biggest and defeats him, and who gets by only with a little help from his friends. Here is the knock on the door that transforms an ordinary life into a fantastic and heroic one. Here is Frodo, a quiet, unadventurous hobbit who finds deep but unimagined wells of strength and courage in himself. ("But where shall I find courage," Frodo asked. "That is what I chiefly need.")
Apart from its story line, "Lord of the Rings" offers other enticements.
This is a book that makes the world safe for nonconformists, eggheads and specialists. It is written in secret languages and full of uniqueness that binds readers into an unofficial club - similar to the people who quote lines from every episode of "The Simpsons" or "Seinfeld." Who else gets references to "my preciouss" or an Entmoot or Elbereth?
Here also is a book that sets a standard for multiculturalism - uniting the skills and tempers of a disparate band of creatures - four hobbits, a wizard, an elf, a dwarf, two men and assorted other beings from Ents to eagles to unruly girls - to bring about one spectacular finish: the Dark Lord's comeuppance. (Tolkien contrasts the unbreachable unity of the nine fellowship mates with the murderous and small-brained behavior of the orcs, evil creations of the Dark Lord Sauron who kill one another at the slightest provocation.)
Finally, "Lord of the Rings" recurrently sounds a theme that is dear to many of us here on Earth. It is the idea, to borrow from Milton, of a paradise lost and regained. "Lord of the Rings" reads like a long hymn to lost civilizations and the evanescent quality of peace - the sort that reigns in the Shire but only until the Dark Shadow extends beyond the forest of Mirkwood. Sauron's slaves needlessly cut down trees. They strip away the green earth and leave gashes and scars on the land. They fill the air with smoke and fire and blacken the sky. Given the chance, they would fell towers. In the midst, the tranquility of the Shire, the green-acred land from which the hobbits have ventured, is a sustaining force and a lost Eden.
"Lord of the Rings" is the idea of cultures vanished and restored, and the steady comfort of life's simplest things: eggs and bacon, a green, grassy hill, a familiar song, the companionship of a true friend.
In grave distress near the end of "The Return of the King," the third book in the trilogy, the hobbit Sam imagines a conversation with the elf queen Lady Galadriel:
"'All we want is light and water," he says, "just clean water and plain daylight, better than any jewels ..."