Table of contents
Love and war
The birth of a mythology
The making of The Lord of the Rings
Praise and criticism
The book of a century
The legend becomes film
A source of inspiration
J. R. R. Tolkien- How did his works influence literature and culture in the 20th and 21st centuries?
This is the question I will try to answer in this paper, beginning with an account of Tolkien’s life, because I feel it is important to know who the man was to see 1) His motivation for writing the books and 2) The events in his life that affected him as an author and 3) His devotion to his writing, which I believe was essential to the quality of his works and therefore also their fame.
It was from the early years and experiences of his life that Tolkien got most of the inspiration that he later used to write his famous works, therefore this is the part of his life that I have given the most attention. These were also the most eventful years of Tolkien`s life.
Tolkien is known because of the major works The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, and I will focus on these works, even though he did write much more, some fiction, many essays and scientific literature of different types.
Personally, I am great fan of J. R. R. Tolkien, I think his books are absolutely mesmerizing, but I will try not to let it shine through too often.
I read in a book about Tolkien, that The Lord of the Rings had been voted the best book ever written, in a weighty British survey, which surprised me, even though I knew the book was very popular. And so it gave me a desire to explore this area, beyond the superficial knowledge I have previously gained through mostly television and hearsay. Since it is a topic that interests me, and something I actually want to learn more about, I chose this as theme for my long report.
I think Tolkien is certainly worth mentioning as one of the influencers in the literature of the last fifty years, and both his own works and the works these inspired to have made a cultural impact to take notice of.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born 3 of January, 1892, and though he would become almost arch-British in both looks and personality, he was born in the Orange Freestate in South Africa, in the small town of Bloemfontein.
His parents had moved from Britain to South Africa and gotten married there the year before he was born, when his father was offered a high-ranking position in a bank there.
It could be a harsh place to grow up, with wild animals that had to be shot by the inhabitants and native warriors might come, armed to their teeth. One day when little John Ronald was out playing, having just learned to walk, he was bitten by a poisonous Tarantula. Only thanks to a quick-minded nurse did he survive the incident.
But Tolkien was not to stay in South Africa for long: he became ill, and was much troubled by the dust and heat of South Africa. In 1895 he travelled with his mother, Mabel, and his younger brother, Hilary, back to England, where they had their relatives. His father, Arthur, had to stay in South Africa because of his work; they could not afford for him to leave it. John Ronald never set foot in the land of his birth again.
His health did not improve when he came back to England, so months went by, and they could not go back as they had planned. Arthur was supposed to come back to England too, but never got the chance to leave his job.
After some time he contracted rheumatic fever, which was lethal at the time, and some time after New Year 1986, his family received a telegram with the tragic news that he had passed away, and Mabel Tolkien was left with two small children. Tolkien was very young when this happened and did not remember much of his father.
Mabel settled down in the small town of Sarehole outside Birmingham. It was a typical example of the rural English idyll, and a great place for the boys to grow up, it was to become inspiration for many places and characters in his later works.
When Tolkien learned to read, he soon immersed himself in the world of literature. He read everything he came across, but especially books like Alice in Wonderland and the legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. He also enjoyed books by George Macdonald, who wrote in a Scottish dialect.
The family did not have much money; after her husband died, Mabel converted to Catholicism, which caused both her and Arthur’s families to withdraw all financial support. Still she managed to send John Ronald to the honourable King Edward’s Grammar School, though it was very expensive.
A good friend of the family, Father Francis Morgan, got Tolkien a place at the catholic St. Phillip’s Grammar School, which was both cheaper and nearer, but it soon became obvious that Tolkien was a real talent, and St. Phillip’s could not give him the education he deserved, so he got a scholarship to study at King Edward’s.
Just as things seemed to be going right for the little family, disaster struck again: Mabel had contracted diabetes, which was hard to treat in those days. She got worse and worse, until 14 November, 1904, she drew her last breath, and the poor young boys were left orphans.
Now the Catholic faith that their mother had given them came to mean more to them than ever. Tolkien remained a pious Catholic through his entire life, and his works were imbued with his faith.
The generous Father Francis became their guardian, he looked after them and helped them in any way he could, both financially and spiritually.
Father Francis found a new home for the boys with a Mrs. Faulkner, close to where they used to live. Here Tolkien met a young girl named Edith Bratt. She was an orphan too, and they soon found that they had much more in common. They became very close and started thinking of a future life together, Tolkien was only eighteen at the time, but then he was forbidden by Father Francis to commit himself at such a young age, and was forbidden to see her until the day he was twenty-one.
Tolkien and his brother had to move, and Tolkien devoted himself to his schoolwork instead, while he longed for his twenty-first birthday.
At St. Edward’s he was introduced to medieval language and literature, which caught his interest. When he left the school in 1911, he was quite well versed in Latin, Greek, Gothic and Anglo-Saxon.
In fact, Tolkien did so well at school, that he got an Oxford scholarship, and in the autumn of 1911, he went to Oxford to start his first term at Exeter College, where he would study Classics.
He soon found friends at the school and joined many of the university activities. He played rugby football, he joined the college essay club and the Dialectical Society, and he took part in the College debating society. He also started his own club, for like-minded people, where there were papers, discussions and debates.
So consequently, even though Tolkien was very interested in his field of study, he did not always give studying the highest priority. When his exams came he was far from as prepared as he could have been, and achieved “only” a Second Class on his Honour Moderations, though he did achieve a “pure alpha” in his special subject, Comparative Philology.
The Rector of Exeter knew Tolkien was interested in Old English and other Germanic languages, and advised him to change to the English School, to which Tolkien wholeheartedly agreed.
He abandoned the classics and started studying the Old- and Middle English philology. His special subject was now Old Norse, that interested him greatly, and he made a thorough study of its literature, among other things the Younger Edda and the Elder Edda.
This did much to inspire Tolkien to start the creation of his own languages and his own mythology, and was the subtle beginning of Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings.
During this time he also studied the Finnish epos Kalevala, and was very enamoured of the sound of the Finnish language, and he started creating his own language, influenced largely by Finnish. This is the language that eventually became the elven language “Quenya” (see appendix) in his stories about Middle Earth.
Tolkien thought it very sad that England did not have a recorded mythology of the extent of the Norse and Finnish mythologies, and this was probably the greatest inspiration to start creating Middle Earth; he would give England the mythology he thought it lacked.
Love and War
In the middle of all his studies came finally the day he had waited for: his twenty-first birthday, the day he was allowed to see his Edith again. But three years had passed and many things had happened. Edith had made a life of her own in the town of Cheltenham. Thus when Tolkien wrote her a letter, asking if she would marry him, the response he got was that she was already engaged.
But Tolkien was truly in love with this woman and would not accept defeat so easily. He travelled to Cheltenham and met with Edith, having a long conversation with her, and at the end of the day she said yes, and that she was a fool to ever have said no.
They agreed to wait with the marriage until Tolkien`s prospects were clearer. And there was also the problem that Edith was an active member of the Church of England, whereas Tolkien was a devout Catholic. These were different times; many English were anti-Catholic, among them, Edith’s family. Still Tolkien managed to convince her to convert, even if it meant that she would lose the active role she had in the local parish, and the family she was living with might throw her out. It was an important matter to him.
Edith went to live with a single, middle-aged cousin while Tolkien finished his studies at Oxford.
Tolkien did well at school; he even won the Skeat Prize for English awarded by his college. But now the year was 1914 and England was at war. Tolkien did not join up straight away, though that was expected of him; he wanted to wait until he could finish his degree.
It was at that time he first started working seriously with the languages and history of Middle Earth. He started writing poems in the invented language Quenya, and also many poems in English that were the early beginnings of works like The Silmarillion.
Tolkien also had to prepare for his final examination in English language and literature. Being thoroughly prepared this time, Tolkien achieved First Class Honours.
Now he had to start his training in the army, which was less than enjoyable. He specialized in signalling and codes, and was after some time appointed battalion signalling officer.
Embarkation for France was near, and he and Edith decided to get married before he left, he was now twenty-four, and they had waited more than long enough. With the blessing of his former guardian, Father Francis, Tolkien and Edith got married 22 March 1916.
Only a few months later was Tolkien sent to London and then to France for the “Big Push”.
The trench warfare of the First World War was a very ugly affair, which Tolkien soon would come to feel, and remember vividly for the rest of his life.
Over the next year the messages came one by one, telling of the death of his old school friends.
On July 14, it was the turn of Tolkien`s company to go into action. Because of the poor planning that seemed all too common in WW1, the attack was unsuccessful and many of the men in Tolkien`s battalion were shot down by machine-gun fire. Tolkien survived and was unhurt.
Tolkien`s battalion was usually in reserve, and did not have to participate in the largest battles. After some months in the dirty trenches, Tolkien was struck by the so-called trench fever, and was sent to hospital, first in France, and when his fever did not die down, he was sent back to hospital in England. For the remainder of the war he never sufficiently healed to go back to France. This spared him both the horrors of the trenches and the fate of the rest of his battalion, still serving in France, who were either killed, or taken prisoner at Chemin de Dames.
The Birth of a Mythology
During his prolonged sickbed, Tolkien had the time to work on his beginning mythology, and so many of the poems of The Silmarillion were written in this time, and now he started gathering the bits and pieces, and to systemize them in what he called The Book of Lost Tales.
It was a fusion of Icelandic and Finnish traditions, but with a degree of dramatic complexity and subtlety of characterization not often found in the ancient legends.
At the end of the war, John Ronald and Edith got their first child, a boy they named John Francis Reuel, “Francis” in honour of Tolkien`s former guardian, Father Morgan Francis.
After the war, Tolkien first worked as an assistant lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary. But later he got a job as Reader in English language at the University of Leeds, where he and his little family set up their first proper home. Just at that time, Edith gave birth to their second child, Michael Hilary Reuel.
Tolkien did very well at the university; he was very well liked among the students and had a way of making his subjects exiting, that soon attracted more students to the language side of the English Department.
By this time the stories of The Silmarillion were almost all as good as finished, but he had not yet strung them together in a coherent manner, and he was a perfectionist who needed to correct details and alter large portions of his works many times, before, maybe, he would be satisfied, and he felt no hurry to have it published. He might have wondered whether he would find a publisher who would accept it seeing as it was rather unconventional work. This is one of the things that made Tolkien so special, he wrote just for his own sake, he did not care whether or not it would sell, and that may be one of the reasons for his success.
The fact is that The Silmarillion was not published until 1977- four years after Tolkien`s death. The Silmarillion was the basis of Tolkien`s mythological universe, that was alive and ever-changing in his mind and in his many note books. It seems it was something he could not bring to conclusion before he himself was gone.
In 1924, the third child, Christopher Reuel, was born. He was later to follow partly in his father’s footsteps, studying languages, and after his father’s death he edited his father’s unfinished works and got them published, like e.g. The Silmarillion. But that was still far away.
Tolkien missed Oxford, and had long wanted to go back there, so when, in 1925, the post as Professor in Anglo-Saxon languages was open, Tolkien applied immediately. The competition was really tough, but through a lucky strike, Tolkien got the job and the family moved back to Oxford, where they would live for the next twenty years.
It was at Oxford Tolkien first met C. S. Lewis, who in time became a close and life-long friend of his and who would also become a world-famous author through his children’s books about the wonderful land of Narnia. Like Tolkien, C. S. Lewis was also a very religious man, though he was a protestant, but that was never a problem in their friendship.
Relatively soon after he came back, Tolkien created a club for Oxford teachers, called The Coalbiters, where they could discuss what they read, wrote or thought about, often on Philological matters and especially old Scandinavian and North European literature and mythology. C. S. Lewis was one of the members in this club, whose meetings commonly included drinking beer, smoking tobacco, and reading excerpts of self produced texts, such as manuscripts they were working on, poems etc. that would receive the honest and unpolished opinions of the other members.
The club had meetings until late in the 1940`s, at one point changing its name to The Inklings, a pun from Tolkien, meaning “people with vague and half-spoken ideas, who also work with quill and ink”. Tolkien read many of the things he was working on to his fellow Inklings, so much in the books we can read to day, will have passed by these merciless judges and have been improved and altered many times, before it became what we know today.
Nevertheless, when The Hobbit was published, C. S. Lewis for one, was really impressed and wrote this in the Times: “ It is dangerous to predict the future, but The Hobbit may very well become a classic.” He could not have been more right.
Tolkien was a great teacher, but also a warm person and struck several deep and lasting friendships with his students. One former student who became a close friend of the Tolkiens, was Elaine Griffiths, she had a friend who worked for Allen & Unwin publishers in London, to whom she lend Tolkien`s manuscript for The Hobbit to read through.
The manuscript was deemed worthy of consideration by Allen & Unwin, but first it had to be sent back with the request that Tolkien finished the last chapters. Because, in addition to being a hopeless perfectionist, Tolkien usually had new ideas flowing through his mind constantly, so he would revise and rewrite, and abandoned many projects half-finished.
But now he was prompted to finish the book so that it could be sent back to be considered for publishing. The firm’s chairman, Stanley Unwin, thought the best judges of children’s literature were children, so he gave the manuscript to his ten-year-old son Rayner, to get his opinion on it. Rayner thoroughly accepted it and so also did Unwin Sr., so after many revisions by Tolkien, the book was finally published, on 21 September 1937.
After its publication, The Hobbit could have gone largely unnoticed, like a lot of books do, but C. S. Lewis was a regular reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, and managed to get this notice of his friend’s book into the parent journal: “All who love that kind of children’s book which can be read and re-read by adults, should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation. To the trained eye, some characters will seem almost mythopoeic.”
The book got equally enthusiastic reactions from many other critics. The few dissenting voices that were, did not seem to affect the book’s popularity. By Christmas that year, the first edition of the book had sold out and a reprint was hurried through, followed a few months later by an American edition of the book. It won the New York Herald Tribune prize for best juvenile book of the season. Thus Stanley Unwin, realizing there would be demand for more of the sort, wrote to Tolkien requesting a sequel or successor about hobbits.
The making of The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien sent many of his manuscripts to Unwin, among these the children’s books Roverandom and Farmer Giles of Ham, and also the massive and not yet finished volume he had been working on since around 1915: The Silmarillion. Unfortunately, it turned out none of these were exactly the kind of material Unwin thought the public would want, and asked Tolkien if he could write something new, following the line of The Hobbit and perhaps with The Silmarillion as “a mine to be explored in writing further books like The Hobbit rather than a book in itself.”
Tolkien agreed to this, understanding well that his enthusiasm for the history and mythology in The Silmarillion might not be shared by many others, but still hoping some time to be able to afford to publish The Silmarillion.
Tolkien told Unwin he would give the matter of another book about hobbits thought and attention, and only three days later he wrote the first chapter of the book, with no clue as to what he would call the book, or how the story would continue. The chapter he called “ A long expected Party” and though many times revised, it kept its title and the main points were the same as in the first chapter of the finished book.
Despite the good start, it would take years before the book could be published, and then it was not exactly what the publisher had bargained for, being much darker and grander than The Hobbit, and was not really suited as a children’s book, as had been the intention.
While he was working on The Lord of the Rings (as it came to be) his son Christopher fell ill with a mysterious heart condition, and shortly afterwards an old friend, E. V. Gordon, died in hospital, only 42 years old. These things occupied Tolkien`s thoughts and time, in addition to the fact that he did not know where the story would go further, and he had to take some time to organize his thoughts.
So it was not, as one might think, that Tolkien knew, already when writing The Hobbit, that he would tie the events in that book to the much greater events in The Lord of the Rings.
But now the story began to unfold in Tolkien`s mind, and he began to get a clear picture of what the story would become.
This was in the year 1938, and times were turbulent in Europe, things were moving in Germany. Tolkien early became suspicious of both Germany and Soviet Russia, he held no love for either. But it was not as many have speculated in, that The Lord of the Rings has any reference to contemporary world politics. As C. S. Lewis wrote on the matter: “ These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round; real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented.”
The Tolkiens were not that affected by the war, there were no German air-attacks on Oxford, and Tolkien did not have to undertake work for the War Office. But still the daily life of the family did change somewhat as things like domestic help and food became scarce.
Even so, progress on the book stopped for about a year in 1940, and there were several long delays after that. Also the book was to become much longer than Tolkien had intended. He had drawn up the outlines for the end of the story, and in December 1942 he wrote a letter to Stanley Unwin, saying that he expected the book to be done sometime early in 1943, but in reality he had not written half of the book, as it would become.
By the summer of 1943 he had to admit that he was “dead stuck”, probably much due to his perfectionism; every single detail had to be right. It was also closely tied to his concern that the whole picture became totally convincing, which he saw as crucial to the reader’s experience of the book, personally, I think this is much of the reason for the book’s popularity.
For the next years, progress was slow but steady, and in 1949, after countless revisions, the book was finished at last, like he himself said: “I don’t suppose there are many sentences that have not been niggled over”. It was twelve years since Unwin had asked for a sequel to The Hobbit, but this was no mere sequel, and it would certainly be worth the wait, for the publisher, the readers and for the author himself.
As a result of a conflict between Tolkien and Allen & Unwin, he was considering letting Collins publish it instead. This drew out in length, until an agreement was finally made with Stanley Unwin, who finally got the book to the printers, in 1953.
Praise and criticism
Allen & Unwin did not believe the book would sell that much, fearing that readers would be frightened by the sheer size of the book. They published it under a profit-sharing agreement, which meant that Tolkien would not receive conventional royalty payments on percentage basis. He would instead be paid “half-profits”, that is, he would receive nothing until the sales of the book had covered its cost, but after that he would share equally with the publisher in any eventual profits. Even so, Unwin reckoned he might lose as much as a thousand pounds on the book.
Three and a half thousand copies were printed of the first volume (the book had been divided into three volumes to keep printing costs down, and to make the book seem smaller), but six weeks after publication, a reprint was ordered; their first modest estimate was far from going to meet the demands.
The book was finally released, and the work that had occupied Tolkien for well over a decade was lain bare to receive the judgement of the critics and the readers.
C. S. Lewis was again most helpful by giving it his unreserved praise in the Time & Tide, and many joined him. Also, the amount of respons Tolkien got from his readers spoke for itself.
Nevertheless, there were also many critics who thoroughly condemned the book. “Enwreathed with inversions, encrusted with archaisms” was one critic’s description of it. Tolkien`s colleagues at Oxford University were more polite, but made it quite clear that they did not think much of his “wasting of time”, saying that now he had had his fun and now he had to do some work.
Overall there were many who had something to say about his prose style, which, according to a Peter Green in The Daily Telegraph, “veers from pre-Raphaelite to Boy’s Own Paper.”
According to some critics, the characters are all “boys masquerading as adult heroes” and also “his good figures are consistently good, his evil figures immutably evil.” (The latter not actually being the case).
The critics actually parted into two opposite factions: the ones who loved the book and those who loathed it, with the “respectable” literary circle being almost solely on the loathing side, except C. S. Lewis, of course, and W. H. Auden who so accurately wrote: “Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion; either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre, or they cannot abide it.”
The opinion of the readers however, was unmistakeable. The sales had begun at a quite respectable level, giving Tolkien quite a reasonable outcome of his profit-sharing agreement. Then an American company published an authorized paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, followed by such commotion about copyright and royalties and such, that the name Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings were well known in the USA afterwards. The sales rocketed and the book became a best seller in short time, obviously something about it appealed to American students.
The underlying emphasis on protecting the natural scenery from the destructions of the industrial society fell right into the growing ecological movement, and the protection of tradition and moral codes, like friendship, honour and chivalry, along with it’s heroic romance, was perhaps something that people thirsted for in the modern individualistic and egocentric society, where nothing is sacred and everything has a price.
Harsher critics compare it to escapism and some even compare it to the influence of hallucinatory drugs that were fashionable in some circles at the time, and to the grief of Tolkien, some people saw the use of such drugs while reading The Lord of the Rings, as an ultimate trip.
Whatever the reason the book surpassed all previous best-sellers, selling faster than W. Golding’s Lord of the Flies at it’s peak, and outpacing J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
There are no accurate numbers, but in 1968 approximately 3 million copies had been sold, and it had been translated to numerous languages (see appendix for list).
Now people even wanted more, and Tolkien got pressure to finish The Silmarillion for publishing, though he never got as far as finishing it himself. All the works that he did not get published himself have been edited by his son Christopher and published posthumously.
Tolkien was not very pleased with the amount of attention the sudden popularity meant, which he expressed in this way in a letter to a reader: ”Being a cult figure in one’s own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do not find that it tends to puff one up; in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense.”
The book of a century
Tolkien wanted only to tell a gripping story, based on things dear and important to him, especially there is a lot on the theme of friendship in his books, which had a very important place in his own life. He did not think that many would read his books, and certainly had no idea of the impact he would make on millions of readers around the world, and he did not aim for something like that at all. It was like his character Bilbo said in The Hobbit: “It’s a dangerous business, walking out your front door; once you set your feet on the road, you never know where it might take you.”
The road had certainly taken Tolkien much further than he could have imagined when he “walked out his front door”, so to speak. He had indeed become a cult figure, admired around the world by people who were enthralled by the story and the world he had created. His characters were absorbed into the culture as mythical heroes of our age.
Some “cults” started dressing as if they were in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, trying to look like elves or dwarves, and some had “hobbit picnics” and similar gatherings (see appendix). Such events have probably become all the more frequent after the Lord of the Rings films came out. Though most people were and are, more down-to-earth in their love of this mystic and magical world. Nevertheless, it has probably become “escapism” to many, a way of escaping the disappointments and troubles of the real world.
All the same, both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have become classics and can be said to have become “part of the mental furniture of the culture” (Quote Tom Shippey, student of Tolkien’s works). It survives changes in opinion and culture, because each generation of readers find new meanings in it, it seems to touch something that is central to who we are as human beings.
The books of Tolkien have inspired many artists, and there is some amazing artwork detailing scenes from The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Hobbit. There has also been made music inspired by these books, some songs telling parts of a story, others being purely instrumental, and only showing the artists perception of the story, like the song Lothlórien by Enya.
At the end of the 20th century a major English paper did a survey where they asked people what book, published in the last hundred years, they considered the best, and to their surprise, the answer was clearly The Lord of the Rings. This was quite sensational, so book shop-chains and papers in England and USA made their own surveys, everywhere with the same result. The highly respected Folio Society did their own survey where they asked about the best book ever written. These were serious book readers and literature experts, and it was expected that the winner would be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or one of the other old classics, but though it did get far up, the obvious majority of the fifty thousand who were asked, said The Lord of the Rings was the best book of all times.
The legend becomes film
Tolkien himself said, after seeing an animated film of The Lord of the Rings, that the book was “very unsuitable for dramatic representation”, he did not think it could be translated into another medium.
When Peter Jackson and his team started the process of making the book into screenplay they probably agreed that it could not be made into a film the way it was, and had to make some major alterations to the structure of the story, because it just wasn’t accomplishable in a film, even so they did not change the story in any important way.
The people who worked on the Lord of the Rings films have said in an interview that it is the largest movie project they have participated in, and that few films made have demanded so much time, money, work hours and technology. Tolkien was right that it was no easy feat, making his book into a good film.
It is not incidental that the films were made when they were: up to only the last decade, movie makers just haven’t had the technology to make a convincing film of The Lord of the Rings, mainly because of the amount of fantastic creatures in the book, and the fact that some of these have major roles.
In spite of Tolkien’s doubts, in my own opinion, and to judge by the rest of the film going world, the Lord of the Rings films are among the best films ever made, and they have that timeless quality that, I believe, will make people love them just as much in fifty years as so many do now- just like the book.
I think the making of the films has taken Tolkien’s popularity to a whole new level. You will have to look long to find anyone, in Norway at least, who haven’t heard of The Lord of the Rings, regardless of age or social class.
Also the films have lead to a dramatic increase in the number of organisations, groups, cults etc. who have the love of The Lord of the Rings or things “Tolkienish”, as their connecting link.
Long before the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was finished, the producers put a trailer of the film on their web site, and only during the first day, it was downloaded 1.7 million times! That is twice as much as the former record holder, Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
The Return of the King received, among other things, 11 Academy Awards, the whole trilogy of films has made more money than the blockbuster Titanic, which has been on top of this list for some years, and it has been seen by more people than any other film. So Tolkien was wrong in his assessment, his book became brilliant films- even if it took half a century.
A source of inspiration
When Tolkien wrote his books about Middle Earth, he based it somewhat on old mythic verses and other older literature, so it was not entirely new and ground-breaking, but he made it into some thing quite different and truly exceptional in The Lord of the Rings etc. This new thing he created inspired a new trend in science-fiction literature, namely, the fantasy literature, and it set the trend for this genre.
In the 60’s and 70’s, many new authors were inspired by The Lord of the Rings/ Tolkien, and they adapted many of the distinctive marks of Tolkien’s Middle Earth into their books, and also the creatures of Middle Earth, with the characteristics Tolkien had given them, e.g. Orcs, Elves and Dwarves.
Elves and Dwarves did exist already in various mythological verses and fiction literature, but they did not have the same characteristics as in Tolkien’s world. For instance, Tolkien’s Elves are tall and regal, and are very knowledgeable, unlike the small, often mischievous fairy-elves common in fairy tales.
Also, settings similar to Middle Earth became the norm in this genre: A world much like Europe in Medieval times, but with elves, hobbits, witches, wizards and other fantastic beings.
Furthermore, people’s desire to come closer to these fictitious worlds led to the creation of fantasy role playing games, like the “Dungeons & Dragons” game that came in the late 70’s, which was based on The Lord of the Rings and was about playing characters like wizards and fighters who go on adventures. It is part acting, part story telling, part social interaction, part war game and part dice rolling. The characters develop and grow with each adventure they complete, by challenging supernatural and mythical foes like giants and dragons. This is only the first of many such games, and has become increasingly popular in the last few years.
In spite of the many new authors that started writing in the fantasy genre, no author or book in this genre has accomplished anything near to the worldwide fame of The Lord of the Rings, and no book or series of books has a history and mythology even close to The Lord of the Rings in complexity, thoroughness or vastness.
And it is not to be expected either, since Tolkien used the better part of his life, over half a century, exploring and expanding the background of Middle Earth- it was his life work. Few are willing to work for so long, with such devotion. And those who want to make a living as authors usually can’t afford to spend over ten years writing one book, like Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings. But that is probably why many fantasy books are very good, while The Lord of the Rings is exceptional.
Tolkien was a humble man and for the most part he led a very quiet and ordinary life, not at all some one you would expect to be a world famous author, and of fantasy literature at that. But his works have become famous beyond comprehension, especially The Lord of the Rings, which, after the making of the films, has become a trademark; you can find all sorts of likely and unlikely things that are in some way linked to The Lord of the Rings (see appendix).
Tolkien`s work has left its mark on our culture through literature, art, music, film, internet and various other means of entertainment, but also it has made an impression on the scientific world. Thesises have been written about Tolkien’s work, and it is possible to study his invented languages at university level, to name a couple of things.
I think the works of Tolkien have given both the literature and the culture in the 20th and 21st centuries more focus on the richness of fantasy and made it more acceptable in the general layers in society. Because the attitude towards, at least Tolkien’s works, has changed a lot since The Lord of the Rings was written, when most who saw them selves as serious academics condemned the book, though many still do. And many will probably not agree with me on the importance of Tolkien’s works, but that is the beauty of freedom of speech.