We live in a world flooded with influence from author J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. We can spot signs of Tolkien's inspiration in everything from World of Warcraft-style online fantasy games to huge CGI sequences imitating Peter Jackson's three Lord of the Rings films. Those swooping camera shots of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies look like clips taken straight from Jackson's vision of Gondor and Barad-dûr – names that will be familiar to you by the time you reach the third book of the trilogy, The Return of the King.
Without Tolkien, we wouldn't have Harry Potter, How to Train Your Dragon, or maybe even Narnia (Tolkien and Narnia inventor C.S. Lewis were tight). So we don't think we're exaggerating when we say that Tolkien's 1954 publication of all three of the Lord of the Rings books was one of the most significant events in popular culture, well, ever.
Tolkien didn't set out to write one of the foundational texts of modern fantasy literature. He began The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the trilogy, with more modest aspirations. See, in 1937, Tolkien published a kids' book, The Hobbit (definitely check out what we have to say about that one; you'll find lots more information on Tolkien's personal biography). The Hobbit grew out of stories Tolkien had told to his children, so it has much simpler language and story structure than the epic Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien wasn't just a family man, though. He was also a professor of Medieval literature at Oxford University in England. He liked to use his expertise in the literature and language of Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English to invent new myths for his world of Middle-earth – you know, just in his spare time. You have to admire a man obsessed enough with the world of his imagination that he came up with two entirely fictional languages (called Quenya and Sindarin) for his Elvish characters to speak. He also developed a whole narrative of the rise of evil in Middle-earth based largely on his own religious faith.
It may not totally shock you to find out that Tolkien had trouble selling his ambitious (but, frankly, kind of out there) Elvish mythology to a publisher. Everyone wanted more of The Hobbit, and not this eccentric, sprawling personal vision (later published as the Silmarillion). Tolkien recognized that he needed to find something between the comic style of The Hobbit and the abstract world of the Elves in his invented mythology. So he found a compromise: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Of the three books in the Lord of the Rings series, The Fellowship of the Ring is perhaps the clearest example of Tolkien's frequent shifts back and forth between humor and high poetry, Hobbits and Elves (with men in between). In a letter, Tolkien writes that, "without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless" (Source p.160; in an undated letter Milton Waldman). In other words, you need to have comedy to appreciate tragedy, and you need to have humbleness to value grandeur. If The Silmarillion is too serious for idle reading and The Hobbit is too much fun to be a proper epic fantasy, The Fellowship of the Ring is the perfect middle ground.
Without spending so long in the Shire, we wouldn't understand how utterly different (and staggering) places like Rivendell, Lothlórien, and Moria seem to our protagonists. In some ways, The Fellowship of the Ring is the trilogy's best example of that contrast between "the simple and ordinary [and] the noble and heroic" that Tolkien seeks. It's in this book that Frodo, still almost totally ignorant of what he is carrying, sets out from his safe Shire for the first time in his life to mingle with grand Elf-lords and confront the worst servants of Sauron nearly on his own. Talk about finding heroism in the ordinary.
Chances are, if you are a sword-and-sorcery buff, you already want to check out The Fellowship of the Ring. It is, after all, the Bible of fantasy literature (almost literally, considering Tolkien's interest in religious themes). Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft, even Harry Potter – they all owe a debt to this amazing series. But if you are not a Diablo III fanatic, if you don't own the complete works of Terry Pratchett – what does The Fellowship of the Ring have for you? A lot, we think.
It sounds like a crime against Tolkien's genius to say that the fantasy elements of The Fellowship of the Ring are not important. But honestly, while the epic settings of Middle-earth make The Fellowship of the Ring distinctive and interesting to read, it's not what these books are about.
What makes author J.R.R. Tolkien so enduringly popular is that, underneath all the Orcs, Elves, and terrifying spirits of dead kings, The Fellowship of the Ring has a classic plot. It's the story of a young(ish) person caught up in forces beyond his control. Rather than trying to escape his fate, our hero – a rather short and very hairy person without clearly heroic characteristics – does his best to push on in the worst of circumstances. He absolutely does not want to fight a war against evil, but he knows that if he doesn't do it, no one will. No matter how many times we've read the novel, that tale of simple courage against terrible obstacles draws us in every time.
The Fellowship of the Ring is the story of an ordinary person going to war. It is about the comrades who go with him and whom he meets along the way, the best friends he will ever know. It is a tragedy about the men who can't stand the strain of battle and break under its pressures. It is a warning about the damage that can be done by those who want to control and dominate other people. And it is a heartwarming tale about brothers in arms who willingly throw themselves into terrible danger to help each other out.
We love the fantasy elements of The Fellowship of the Ring. When we read Tolkien's descriptions of the Dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf or the fading Elven forests of Lothlórien, we feel like we can touch and taste those places – they seem so real. But it's not the fantasy elements that keep us in Middle-earth. We want to stay in Tolkien's world because there is so much real emotional power there, written by a man who went to war and who suffered in the trenches. (See our Hobbit "In a Nutshell" for more on this history.) Tolkien himself is a man, and he writes from a deeply human perspective.