Well over a thousand pages long, filled with snatches of poetry and untranslated imaginary languages, saturated with intense description and historical detail, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings stands as a unique achievement in twentieth-century literature. Aside from its intrinsic characteristics, the novel became an emblematic part of the 1960s as young hippies sported buttons reading, "Frodo Lives!" and "Gandalf for President." Almost single-handedly, The Lord of the Rings created the genre of modern fantasy literature as it is seen on bookstore shelves today, and during the 1990s, it appeared in several large surveys as the "best," "favorite," or "most important" book of the twentieth century, easily defeating more "literary" candidates. After September 11, 2001, many people found the words of the wise wizard Gandalf an unexpected comfort in the wake of horror. And between 2001 and 2003, Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the trilogy became one of the most successful film franchises of all time, culminating in a record-setting sweep at the Academy Awards.
Almost since its first publication in 1954 and 1955, scholars, critics, and fans have been asking the question: Why is this book so popular? While there are many theories, no clear answer has emerged. The best one can do is point to some of the elements within the novel that engender such strong reactions in its readers.
First, The Lord of the Rings achieves a singular level of detail and coherence for its imagined world. Not only do we find maps that illustrate the specific geography of Middle-earth, with climates ranging from bucolic farmland to frigid mountains and scorching deserts, but that continent also contains a wide variety of races, each with its distinctive culture, language, and history, ranging from the homey Shirefolk to the majestic elves, from the numerous groups of men to the vicious orcs. Within each of these groups — even the orcs — are multiple subcultures marked by differing attitudes and distinct dialects. As Frodo journeys from the Shire to Mordor, you discover an amazing variety of people and places, all given a sense of reality through careful description that barely scratches the surface of Tolkien's "sub-creation." Remnants of a history long forgotten linger throughout Middle-earth, glimpses of a past far richer than most of the inhabitants can know, and readers get the same sense of the enormity of Tolkien's world through the glimpses he gives of its rich detail.
The sheer exuberance of Tolkien's language, the passionate intensity with which he describes this world, the poetry that infuses the text — both in the numerous songs and recitations and in the prose itself — lend the book an element of charm, magic, and even dread that captures the hearts of many readers. The tone modulates from the simply cheerful bathing songs extolling the joys of hot water to the majestic declamations of the wise and powerful. Tolkien uses language precisely to evoke feelings and images both strange and familiar.
Finally, although the incredible richness of Middle-earth exceeds that of any other imaginary world before or since (and there have been many imitators), The Lord of the Rings is more than an imaginary travelogue with a knack for words. The enduring popularity of this text must come in part from the way that the themes of the story resonate strongly with the great issues of modern life. Overall, the story is that of a just war: the fight against evil, even against apparently hopeless odds, with the knowledge that victory can be achieved only at great cost, speaks to the struggles of the world wars. Related to this struggle is the depiction of grace, in that salvation comes from what may be perceived as luck but is in fact the work of something greater, a force beyond the might of any individual or country. The books also redefine heroism for the modern world. Frodo and his friends begin their journey as ordinary people, swept up by conflicts that they did not initiate, but they become greater heroes even than those who are born and trained for it, such as Aragorn. The conflict between Treebeard and Saruman dramatizes the conflict between industry and the natural world, only one example of the environmental consciousness that permeates Tolkien's fiction. Perhaps most importantly, the quest at the heart of this story is not one of conquest or gain, but of renunciation. The Ring must be destroyed, not used, lest its power corrupt the user — a strong message for the modern era, marked as it is by destructive wars, superpowers, and horrifying abuses of the power of the state.