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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien - Barron's Booknotes
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Tolkien's answer was to turn to the myths and heroic
legends of the past. He also continued to work on his own
mythology. By this time, he had developed several new
languages and a complex history and mythology, for the
races who spoke them. This hobby, as Tolkien modestly
called it, was his consuming passion, but he never expected
it to arouse much interest in others. He wrote several poems
and stories that were published in a university weekly, but
there was nothing yet to catch the popular imagination.

That was to change with his invention of hobbits-short,
jolly folk with hairy feet and a love of tobacco pipes. One
day while sitting at his desk and grading papers, Tolkien
came upon a blank page. He wrote on it, "In a hole in the
ground there lived a hobbit." Almost ten years after he had
written that first line, Tolkien completed The Hobbit, the
story of a timid hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who sets out
on an adventure with a troop of dwarves and a wizard.
Tolkien incorporated into his book elements from his
mythology, including the dwarves and elves. His childhood
memories and the inventive imagination that so delighted
his own children gave the book its droll humor and its main
character, Bilbo. In the hobbit, Tolkien had found a
character his readers could identify with and follow into the
heroic world of myth and legends.



The Hobbit was published in 1937 as a children's book. It
was met with great enthusiasm and received several
awards, including the prestigious New York Herald
Tribune prize as the year's best children's book. At the
request of his publishers, Tolkien set out to write a sequel
to The Hobbit. The publishers had wanted another
children's book, but it soon became apparent that the new
book was taking on a more profound meaning and would
far surpass The Hobbit in depth as well as length. When
Tolkien at last submitted his new novel, The Lord of the
Rings, his publisher thought that it was a work of genius
but that it would probably be a commercial flop. However,
when the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the
Ring, was published in 1954, it had respectable sales that
quickly increased to a phenomenal rate. The other books of
the trilogy, The Two Towers and The Return of the King,
were published sooner than planned because of the popular
demand.

The critics offered a range of comment on Tolkien. Some
gave him great reviews, and he was awarded a prize for the
best fantasy novel of 1956. Others sharpened their pencils
and attacked the trilogy mercilessly. They said it was badly
written, and dismissed it as escapist fantasy. According to
these critics, Tolkien's popularity would quickly fade. But
such negative prophecies proved wrong. Tolkien's books
soon developed a wide following, especially on college
campuses in the United States. In the 1960s, Tolkien's
message of love and peace and respect for nature appealed
to students looking for new meaning in their lives. Clubs
were formed and fan magazines were published for the sole
purpose of discussing his books.

Tolkien, meanwhile, had retired from teaching in 1958. He
published several more small works of fiction. But most of
his effort went into his mythology, which he still had hopes
of publishing. The task was a huge one. Tolkien had an
assortment of manuscripts to work with, some dating back
to his college days. Through the years, he had written
conflicting versions of some stories from his mythology
and had left others unfinished. The inconsistencies had to
be ironed out and the gaps filled in. Facts also had to be
corrected where they disagreed with The Hobbit and The
Lord of the Rings. This work remained unfinished at his
death in 1973.

The job of finishing the book was taken on by his son
Christopher, who edited the manuscripts and compiled a
coherent history of Middle-earth, from its creation through
to the events recounted in The Lord of the Rings. In 1977
this history was published as The Silmarillion. If you read
it, you will find the book very different from Tolkien's
novels. It contains a great deal of legends and tales, some
more fully outlined than others, but none with the plot and
character development typical of a story. (In this way, The
Silmarillion is even more like the ancient epics than
Tolkien's other books.) If you want to know more about
Middle-earth, however, the book contains a wealth of
information about the land and races created by Tolkien's
fertile imagination.

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