All Things to All Men

by Varda

I wonder if anyone else here has thought out why LOTR means so much to them? We often talk about our obsession, joke about having to take time out from it for the 'Real World', but WHY has it claimed our hearts?

I was not at all surprised when LOTR won the best book of the millenium poll, but many literary critics were horrified. They pointed out that as literature it has flaws. But the vote was best book and 'best' meant what book most claimed people's hearts, not won critics' opinions.

LOTR has a chameleon quality. It is literally all things to all men, or women. Its appeal is universal because everyone sees in it some aspiration or ideal of their own, and yet it can't be pinned down to just one theme. Even what kind of book it is can be disputed; is it myth, fantasy, allegory, romantic fantasy, religious allegory, novel, what is it? I myself favour mythological fantasy novel. Which means I don't know either.

Another thing that put LOTR out front in the poll was that people don't just like it; they love it, they take it to their hearts. Told that the world is a cynical self-interested cold place they find this book where heroism, friendship, love and beauty, of the natural world and of humanity, is celebrated and they grapple it to their being for all time.

As the often heated discussions here show, everyone has their own ideas about what the book is about. This too is the sign of great literature. No theme or idea is exclusive of others. LOTR is one of those rare books that creates a world which lives according to its own rules, and to which we are visitors, but where we seem to feel instantly at home.

This book appeals to all kinds of people, not just dreamers. I first read it at 16, and myself and a school friend decided to paint a picture of Sam and Frodo at the Gates of Mordor. It was put up in a school art exhibition. We were very happy with it but saw the school headmaster bearing down on us with a severe expression.

'Ali, we're dead.' I said to my friend, but the man was just so overcome with emotion, he was almost crying. Most of his life he had loved this book, and now here was Sam and Frodo before his very eyes, in an unexpected place.

I realised then the power of this book to touch people,to reach something very deep inside, some ideals and emotions. I honestly can't think of any other book like it.

This is not a static book. Every time you read it it means something different. That might be because you, not the book, has changed. I first read it at 16 and thought it was a simple story of good triumphing over evil. I thought Frodo's departure for the grey havens was a footnote. Now, I think LOTR is about how the defeat of evil can cost us. Frodo never heals, he is driven away to seek healing beyond the book. Also, the triumph over evil is gained in the context of the passing of an age which had the Elves, beauty and transcendence, and ushers in an age of men, mortal and lacking in that ethereal beauty and knowlege of the Elves. As I got older and lost more, I realised that one powerful theme of LOTR is loss. As I realised that I would never get over certain things in life I realised that Frodo's story is not one of just winning but of hurts that never heal. In other words, LOTR goes with you on your life journey and responds to every joy and grief on that road.

Anf finally, because of the people I have met here, and the headmaster too of course, it has to be said that reading LOTR lets you into a sort of secret society, of those whom it has touched and who see in it the endless worlds and meanings that you do yourself.

So long live Frodo, secret society members :-)