Books That Last – The Lord of the Rings Model

This post is in honor of Fantasy Friday, though as you can see by the date stamp, I’m writing on Saturday. The key is, I conceived of this content on Friday. 😉

Why has J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lasted? I suppose I should qualify “lasted” because certainly there may be a cult following for some books such as Mark Twain’s lesser-known works, but the way I’m using the word, that does not qualify as “lasting.”

I suppose first a book that lasts must have arrived, which is to say, it needs to have wide-ranging acclaim. The Harry Potter books come to mind, as do the Left Behind books. Those “arrived” because certainly they found a wide audience. But will they last? Only time will tell—unless there is some determinative factor thoughtful reasoning can uncover, in which case we can predict which are most likely to last.

So on to The Lord of the Rings. What made those books so successful? Here are some lines from reviews posted at Barnes and Noble:

Books of the Century; The New York Times Book Review – W.H. Auden

    For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present….No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring.

New York Herald Tribune

    Destined to outlast our time.

Time Magazine

    One of the great fairy-tale quests in modern literature.


    A work of immense narrative power that can sweep the reader up and hold him enthralled for days and weeks..

Sunday Telegraph

    Among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century.

Boston Herald

    A masterful story — an epic in its own way — with elements of high adventure, suspense, mystery, poetry and fantasy..

C.S. Lewis

    No imaginary world has been projected which is at once as multifarious and so true to its own inner laws.

Yes, they liked it, but what exactly did they like?

The thing I saw repeated most was imagination. Here was an epic story that swept readers into a world of questing. (As you know, if you’ve read the books—or seen the movies—the quest was against all odds, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.)

It wasn’t solely Tolkien’s ability to create a credible place, however, that give these books their lasting quality, though that played a significant part. It was The Cause, put in the hands of, apparently, the weakest characters, not the strongest. In other words, The Lord of the Rings appeals to that part in us that longs to do great things.

I would suggest, then, that Tolkien’s work lasts, not because of the characters or the plot per se. I think it lasts because of the setting and the theme. The world is rich, a place readers lose themselves, and at the same time, the theme appeals to their better nature, and they find themselves.

That being said, there’s no doubt the plot had many twists and turns, suspense and tension. And conflict! Equally, the characters were ones readers gladly rooted for and cried over. Frodo, after all, was Bilbo’s nephew. And Sam was what we all hope to become. From Gandolf to Gollum, the other characters were distinctly drawn and easy to connect with.

But it is the fairy-tale, the quest, the world that reviewers brought up over and over. Maybe, just maybe, Tolkien hit the proverbial homerun and got it all right, which is why The Lord of the Rings lasts.

Published in: on September 20, 2008 at 1:22 pm  Comments Off on Books That Last – The Lord of the Rings Model  
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