What is it about a book that makes it great? I am not thinking about a reasonable earning book, but one capable of spanning the ages to remain on the shelves and in the minds of people. In the case of fantasy, it would have to be Lord of the Rings for me, so why this one and not another?
Dissecting the book down to the barest values results in a few sentences.
1) A sympathetic character drawn into the conflict by factors outside his personal choice. This character can either grow or die in trying.
2) A quest so essential all life would be changed unless it is completed.
3) An artifact coveted by both sides in the ongoing conflict.
4) A hero, who is not the dashing prince type with gorgeous clothes and lots of flunkies, but a man who has learned to live in the most dangerous of situations and rely on no one but himself.
5) A hero’s love interest, who must not be accessible unless he is successful and even then the outcome is in doubt because of her circumstances.
6) The instigator of the quest, who has magical powers and who is tested to the limits.
7) Lots of mysterious elves and their customs, along with other strange creatures, all of whom have their own languages.
8) Comic relief in the form of a dwalf, an elf and two hobbits.
9) The antagonist and his sidekicks, along with their grim domains.
10) A few side plots to keep the characters on their toes.
11) One very nasty and very pitiful character haunting the story, both on stage and off.
The result is the genre known as high fantasy. What is it about this book that separates it from others? For me, it is the depth of the characters. All of the characters with speaking parts have distinct personalities fitted to their stations in life. Gandalf is grand, grave and wise, but also very kindly to the helpless and the weak. Peregrine Took is a rascal, full of mischief, and yet has a hidden depth of bravery. Those are just two random examples.
Then there are the settings, which cover such a rich diversity in such gentle detail that the world sparks into existence. I can picture the Hobbit town being a place of orchards and gardens, while the land of Rohan is prairie grass land.
It is the plot binding all together and it is a multi-layered epic. The basic story is the journey of the ring and its bearer, but there is also the love angle for some of the characters and also the power struggles. One could pick up this book time and again and each read discover something new—some new depth newly noticed.
A brilliant series of books. You are right about the depth of the characters and how each has their place and development in the story. I love how Samwise becomes a true pillar of strength in the book – without his on going perseverance and loyalty, it’s hard to see Frodo doing what he must, on his own. A guess the moral of his story is the meaning of true friendship. (And yes, I’m being rather philosophical tonight 😉 )
Oh yes, Samwise completely held Frodo together. What is absolutely fascinating, if you dissect it very closely, is how class structure affected Tolkien. Samwise should have been the hero, but he wasn’t because he was ‘only’ a gardener, the hired help, if you will. Throughout the entire journey, it is Samwise acting as Frodo’s valet and always deferring to him, because it is his part to defer. The same thing happens in a slightly different way to Arraogorn. While he is a Ranger and of not much importance, he has more of a peasant voice, but once he starts to become of note, the voice changes and grows with his power.
I wonder how the book would have been written in say, the 1980’s when the class system was all but smothered?
Your list is a brilliant distillation of the book, and the elements that give the tale an enduring quality that I’m pretty sure will continue to capture new generations of fans. What is fascinating to me is that so many of these exact points you have made are frequently scoffed at in the world of fantasy writing these days (altruistic mages, upright heroes, good vs evil, ordinary chap becomes hero, quest journeys, near-unattainable love etc) by both publishers and alleged fans of epic fantasy. These same people often claim to adore LotR. Perhaps it is because this book inspired multitudes of less-than-great imitations – and that’s understandable – and yet the book still continues to enchant new readers.
The class issue is also fascinating. I think if this had been written in the 80’s, it might just still have been as is – I seem to remember that high fantasy writers were still actively working with these now much-disparaged ‘tropes’. But if LotR had been written for the fantasy publishing(emphasis on P) market from the late mid nineties on, it probably would have looked rather different. Fascinating, though, how even modern readers all seem to love the character of Samwise, and wouldn’t have him or his relationship with Master Frodo any other way.