The Lord of the Rings is one of the best known stories of all time. It has influenced countless books, games, songs and films, changed our perception of fantasy worlds forever, introduced Orcs, Balrogs and many other creatures into popular culture, and transformed Elves from pointy-shoed imps into the noble, silvery-haired beings of the early days. It has also spawned three Oscar-winning films, as well as an animated version, radio plays, a musical, and much more! Even those who have never read the books will understand terms and ideas from the story, or recognise the creepy, greedily whispered words: “my preccccious!"
So is it worth reading the books when you can just watch the movies? Peter Jackson did an incredible job of adapting such fantastical, epic and well-loved books, but there are many ways in which the stories and their telling differ. Not only were some parts changed, minor characters given larger roles and others dropped, scenes extended and other episodes omitted, but the feel and pacing differ greatly at points, and there is a much deeper world left to be explored. The books also tend to put more emphasis on travel, rooting in time the fellowship’s journey across the vast landscape of Middle-earth, giving a much greater sense of distances covered and time passed.
The Fellowship of the Ring is the first, and in my opinion best, book of the trilogy. It tells the story of the passing of the ring to Frodo, the growing threat of Sauron, the hobbits’ journey to Rivendell with the terrifying Black Riders in pursuit, the forming of the fellowship and their struggles to help the Ring-bearer on his mission, and their many trials and adventures along the way. It is essentially a journey or quest story, in which each new location brings new dangers and wonders, much like the adventure tales of older mythology and folklore. At points the constant travelling, long scenes of characters talking, and references to Middle-earth’s past and mythology can be a little heavy, and some readers may even find these parts tedious. These aspects are balanced, however, by the sheer amount of things that happen in the book. Not only are Frodo and his companions pitted against constant dangers and monsters, but the story soon begins to unravel a rich mythology that lies deep under the pages.
It is this mythology that has made The Lord of the Rings the lasting phenomenon that it is. Tolkien has lovingly crafted a detailed history, culture, mythology and language for each race of Middle-earth. This under-layer is hinted at and referenced throughout the book; it forms the backbone to the story of the Ring and its master; and lies at the heart of the characters’ motivations, beliefs and actions. The histories and back-stories of Middle-earth can, and do, fill books on their own. Nothing quite like this had ever been done in literature before, and Tolkien’s incredible achievement has had a deep and lasting impact on fiction ever since.
The Fellowship of the Ring is the first volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. First published on 21 July 1954, it initially received mixed reviews. The Sunday Telegraph said it was "among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century", while The New York Herald Tribune presciently predicted that it was "destined to outlast our time." Indeed The Sunday Times went as far as suggesting that "the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them." However, one review in The New York Times (not W.H. Auden's review linked below) criticised Tolkien's writing style as "pedentary" and The New Republic complained about a lack of psychological depth to the book and its characters. Nevertheless the book sold well and its popularity grew; in 1999 Amazon customers voted it their "book of the century."
Now in the twenty-first century, Tolkien's novels have outlasted their time, and their reputation and sales just keep growing. The Big Read – a BBC UK survey in 2003 – found The Lord of the Rings to be the "Nation's best-loved book." It topped similar polls in Germany and Australia in 2004, and more than a hundred million copies have been sold worldwide.
This popularity has spawned a wide range of related material and adaptations. You can see Tolkien's tale retold as a musical, a film, an animation, a radio or stage-play; you can play the characters and re-enact the battles on computer games, board games and role-playing games; posters, action figures and all manner of merchandising related to Middle-earth have been produced.
The great depth of work Tolkien put into producing his creation involved inventing landscapes, languages, beasts and beings that have influenced many other fantasy worlds. He didn't just make up Middle-earth; he infused every aspect of it with life. The mythology and history of The Lord of the Rings is particularly well conveyed in two chapters from The Fellowship of the Ring. Firstly "The Shadow of the Past" where Gandalf tells Frodo about the one ring, and secondly "The Council of Elrond" where the fellowship is assembled at the house of Elrond in Rivendell. These are my personal highlights in a book that has affected my life and the lives of so many other people around the world. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you; you are in for a treat!