What Makes the Lord of the Rings so Popular?

by Tigerlily Goodbody

The publisher published it as a prestige publication, and bought the rights with a percentage of the profits instead of cash up front, because they grossly underestimated the profits. The early reviews were mixed, at best, and more recently the critics seem to be actively campaigning against LotR, if indeed they notice it at all. For the first ten years the sales were good, but not spectacular. One critic wrote with some satisfaction that LotR had fallen back into well-deserved obscurity in the early 60s, but then the paperback edition became a sensation on college campuses in the late 60s. Still, there were many other sensations on college campuses in the 60s and the decades since, none of which achieved the enduring popularity of LotR. LotR reinvigorated the whole fantasy genre, but none of the other fantasies, with the possible exception of the Harry Potter series, has achieved the popularity of the original (and let's wait 50 years to see if the popularity of the Harry Potter series endures). And although the recent movies have made LotR even more wildly popular, it was voted the book of the century before the movies were made, and indeed without the enduring popularity it had already achieved it is unlikely that the movies would have been made at all. How did an Oxford philologist with an odd hobby of inventing languages write a book that has so captured the world's imagination?

I judge that part of the answer must lie in Tolkien's decision to shun topicality in favor of universal applicability. In a sense, LotR is an extremely long fable or parable, but one that can be interpreted many different ways by many different people and generations. Thus people from all parts of the political spectrum have embraced the tale, from the far left to the far right, and from all parts of the religious spectrum as well, from fundamentalists to atheists. Although some have criticized Tolkien's attitude toward race, sex, class, and ethnicity, in fact the tale holds up surprisingly well compared to others from that time period. Read E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, for example, or Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series, and you will know instantly the era in which they were written. And more topical books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn or Kipling's Kim, although they have remained classics, have lost much of their popular impact because the times have changed so much since they were written.

Many of the criticisms of Tolkien, on the other hand, don't stick, because LotR does not bear any obvious relationship to the Primary World. Furthermore, for every piece of evidence that Tolkien treats one race, or sex, or class, or ethnicity unfairly, others can point to opposing evidence. The orcs seem irredeemable, but Gandalf pities them, and Gollum shows us another side of evil. The tale is short on women, but the women who do appear are among the most powerful people in the book, including the shield maiden Eowyn. Aragorn is a monarch with the bluest of blue blood, but he also grew up in disguise, living as a commoner, and even after he claims his throne remains friends with the rustic hobbits. Sam starts as an almost cartoonish servant, but eventually becomes the chief protagonist of the epic, and moves into an entirely different class despite his common origins. Yes, as I have commented before, Tolkien does incorporate a dated notion of the importance of races and sub-races in determining personality types, but then he also shows almost all those races and sub-races and separate species, in defiance of their assigned types and racial enmities, coming together to defeat a common Enemy. And he shows Aragorn extending mercy and friendship to the races of Men who were seduced by Sauron's lies. And he shows that the "primitive" Woses are capable of helping the cause of the West, while pointing out the unfair prejudice of the Rohirrim and Men of Gondor.

In "On Fairy-stories" Tolkien called the Gospels the ultimate Fairy-stories, except of course that he believed they also were true in the Primary World. But the Gospels may have been Tolkien's true model for LotR. Even those who dislike the Old Testament or Acts or Revelations, who question whether Jesus really worked miracles, and who might despise any established church, often find much to like in the Gospels. It is a moving tale, full of human interest, and full of love and hope in the face of hatred and fear. The original version of the Gospels, written in Greek, was not nearly as literate as many of the translations, and yet its appeal has endured. There are those who fear that Mel Gibson's new movie will reawaken anti-Semitism, but in the Gospels themselves Jesus is very definitely a Jew, and a friend to the Jews. The fact that the meaning of the Gospels has been twisted does not make it part of the original message. Like LotR, the Gospels have been embraced by many parts of the political and religious spectrums. While in some ways the Gospels are more topical than LotR, in those stories Jesus discourages any focus on politics, and instead tells timeless parables that still have meaning today.

The parallels between LotR and the Gospels only go so far, and of course Tolkien drew on other sources besides the Gospels. But I do believe he aimed for the timeless appeal of the Gospels, a parable for adults, founded on principles of universal love and spirituality, and purposely avoiding the particular concerns of a specific time and place in the Primary World.

There are other tales that fit this general category. The Bhagavad-Gita, for example, or the Tao Te Ching, or the Book of Job. Tolkien might argue that I am including him in too exalted company, and that his primary purpose was to entertain. But I believe that the enduring popularity of his tale comes from its ability to do more than entertain. It comes from LotR's ability to enlighten, as well, and to bring together people of very different beliefs. That is why people speak of certain tales as inspired, or as divinely inspired, if they believe in a divinity. As Tolkien said to himself, "Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?"


A response from Fan Forever:

LOTR does have an undeniable universal appeal and I believe what is universal about us all is our primary desire to feel connected to one another, and to be useful and creative, even though those notions are often misinterpreted by many (creations can be used for destructive purposes). And with his novel and imagination, Tolkien has managed, intentionally or not (that I would not know), to reach and connect with that deep longing all human beings have, above and over any other consideration of race, sex, religion, etc. IMHO of course.