J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Published in 1954 and 1955
At approximately 150 million copies sold, “The Lord of the Rings” is not only one of the most frequently sold novels of modern times but it also represents the beginning of what we refer to as fantasy.
Fantasy is somewhat of a makeover of the outdated fairytales. Its stories take place in a world that only exists in the mind of the writer. It is up to the creator of these worlds to provide rules and to breathe life into the stories through his or her characters using elves and dwarfs, orcs and nazgul. The extent to which these worlds mirror our own reality is entirely up to the writer.
J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle-Earth for his tiny heroes. It is a dangerous world. How can a peaceful hobbit like Frodo Baggins possibly oppose the powerful Sauron? Frodo needs belligerent friends who fight alongside him and who blaze the trail up to the mountain of doom. But in the end our lovable friend must finish the fight on his own in order to save his home from the victory of the evil.
How exactly is all of this connected to dystopias? Not at all. Tolkien’s novel is more of a further development of dystopia. Fantasy replaces horrible visions of the future. “The Lord of the Rings” is the declaration of surrender of a writer who can no longer imagine a happy ending for our real world. Whether it may be the Cold War, terrorism, environmental pollution or mass unemployment: individuals are powerlessly exposed to the forces of evil in our world, too.
On top of that, many people have lost faith in an almighty God, who could lead us out of this mess and provide us with a good, meaningful and happy ending.
No human being can live without hope and “The Lord of the Rings” draws on that. Tolkien tells the story of a world where a small, irrelevant and ordinary hero must and will save everyone. His life is what makes all the difference. Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee had many successors. We know them as Harry Potter and Wanda, Percy Jackson and Eragon, Gwendolyn Shepard and Luke Skywalker. They all have one thing in common: they all live an ordinary life until they realize that they are the chosen ones who have to save the world. And they always do. Fantasy novels always have a happy ending.
It is the old monomyth, the large-scale hero’s journey or quest, this archetypical structure that is based on an ancient human desire. Every page of “The Lord of the Rings” convinces its readers that the world is inherently bad. Yet it reassures them that a pure soul will always prevail over this evil world.
Every one of us is the hero of their own story. If modern fairytales like “The Lord of the Rings” can makes us believe that ordinary people in an ordinary world can overcome any adversities, then it has served its purpose.
The reason why we need fantasy literature in a time when humanity is doing better than ever, is yet another question that requires an answer.