Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
There may be no other modern work which has so completely defined and then overshadowed a genre as The Lord of the Rings. Written by John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien and published in the three volumes of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings tells the tale of a small, unlikely hero, the Hobbit named Frodo Baggins, and his friends'involvement in a quest to destroy the most powerful and malevolent device ever created in the world of Middle-Earth.
The Lord of the Rings absolutely defines the "epic fantasy", and influences virtually all other forms of fantasy, at least as much as E. E. "Doc" Smith's works defined "space opera" and influenced most other branches of SF in one way or another. However, where Doc's works have faded from general knowledge and even the genre he invented has greatly evolved away from its original roots, Tolkien's classic work remains staggeringly successful, a towering presence that completely dominates the field.
I first encountered The Hobbit as a few paragraphs in someone's report in junior high school; it didn't grab me, probably because the selected piece (Bilbo VS the spiders) lacked the background that makes that confrontation so powerful to read. But later, in high school (possibly even in that magic year of 1977) I was introduced to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, its supposed prequel, and I was immediately captured, entranced by this world.
And it was the world that captured me. The characters of Lord of the Rings are not terribly detailed as characters; while they have enough quirks to make them distinct, they are for the most part archetypes which Tolkien derived from his deep and broad knowledge of folktales, myth, and legend. His characters are often powerful images because of this, but at the same time they often leave considerable questions open about what they're like as people outside of the requirements of the quest.
This isn't, of course, terribly important in this sort of book. The point is the world and the quest, and these are extremely compelling. Tolkien was originally drawn into this project by his love of languages; he invented his first artificial language when he was quite young, and to a great extent it was the desire to build these languages into a comprehensible and sensible framework that underlay the construction of Middle-Earth. This, combined with his very deep knowledge of myths and legends and an interest in constructing a uniquely British myth-cycle of his own, produced the universe of Lord of the Rings.
Certainly it was the Appendices – with their notes on language, on unique alphabets which were not mere substitution ciphers of the standard alphabet, fragments of legends and events thousands of years in the past – that gave me the feeling of awesome spans of time and depths of reality that infused Middle-Earth. I could see the immense work devoted to that universe, and it was (and is) one of the few things that left me feeling humbled when I contemplated what he had done, and how much work had gone into that construction.
The work, of course, would be pointless if the story it supported didn't work, but work it does. For some, the language is overwrought, ponderous, and the story takes far too long to get moving; but to me, the stage-setting of the Birthday Party, of the hints of danger interspersed with the protagonist Frodo just mostly going on with his life, are necessary parts of what comes after. We couldn't empathize so much with Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin and their concern for their homeland the Shire if we had not seen the Shire, and recognized how precious that quiet, semi-hidden land is – how mundane, yet extraordinary, just as are its inhabitants, the diminutive Hobbits.
Tolkien's vision pretty much defined all the key players in epic sagas – the Old Wise Wizard, the Lost King, the Dark Lord, the small yet important little persons, modern views of Dwarves, the noble Elves, etc. – and yet it is interesting to note that many of the later interpretations of those roles, though clearly inspired by Tolkien's, almost invert them in practice.
Gandalf is called a wizard and is, in fact, a being of great power, yet we almost never see him using that power. There are literally only a handful of times in Lord of the Rings where he does anything magically impressive. This contrasts with many other works, in which the defining trait of a wizard/mage is that he throws around magic. D&D took this to the extreme; low-level wizards are so fragile that if they didn't have magic they'd be insane to step outdoors, while higher-level wizards can level towns in a fit of pique.
Similarly, Aragorn is the Lost King, a descendant of an ancient line destined to inherit the greatest mortal kingdom on the planet. Yet, unlike many of his later parallels, his greatest fame and skill is not being a great warrior – although he is one – but a great healer. It is in fact this characteristic that is considered one of the signs that he is, in fact, the destined King.
As another example, the primary antagonist of the entire trilogy, the Dark Lord Sauron, isn't even seen directly at any point in the trilogy. There is a brief vision of him in a Palantir by Pippin, and a few others describe their views or visions of him, but in actuality the Big Bad never puts in an appearance in the whole trilogy. There is no dramatic confrontation, no Villain Rant, nothing. Sauron isn't even really a character. For all the effect his personal actions have on the plot he might as well be a natural disaster or a random encounter generator. In other works, it is almost invariably the case that the Big Bad will, and must, be confronted by the Heroes at the end of the series.
This kind of twisted distillation isn't unusual, of course; in my writeup of Robert E. Howard's work I pointed out that Conan is often envisioned by those unfamiliar with the original as a none-too-bright musclebound killing machine, while in actuality Conan was close to a genius, if not actually a genius, master of multiple languages and customs, a thief and a tactician and strategist of great skill,with his own sense of honor, decency, and fair play that often differentiated him from the so-called "civilized" people around them.
The whole trilogy, in fact, spends considerable time undermining many typical tropes of adventure fiction and many myths, making victory due not to force of arms or heroic last stands or physical strength or magic, but due to little people's dogged persistence, endurance, dedication, and essential goodness that allows them to withstand the lure of the most corruptive force in the world for vastly longer than anyone else could manage. Victory is also clearly due to moral superiority – the willingness to not kill when possible, to show mercy, and to allow for a chance of redemption, even when it seems impossible.
To an extent, of course, it's also a highly religious story. In the end, victory isn't due to any of the Hobbits' actions; it's due to Smeagol/Gollum grabbing the Ring and falling off the edge, an event which is very nearly said to be due to "providence", to in effect God making sure things worked out that way. Gandalf discusses this with Frodo – that he was meant to have the Ring, that Smeagol might still have a part to play, and so on, all words that imply the need for Faith and the existence of some sort of Grand Plan. The origin of Middle-Earth itself, told in The Silmarillion, has very strongly Christian aspects.
The Lord of the Rings influenced me most strongly in the desire to, somehow, create a world that would have the same level of impact as Middle-Earth – something that would have depth and solidity so that when a reader kicked it, they'd say "wow, that feels almost real."
I realized, after some attempts, that I would never achieve that by trying to duplicate Tolkien's efforts; while I did invent some languages of my own, they were and are pale, pale imitations of what he was capable of doing, mostly existing for symbolic/flavor purposes. Instead,I had to focus on what mattered to me – making a world that worked.
Zarathan isn't built on a deep linguistic base or from someone's career-deep knowledge of real-world myth and legend, but from my desire to construct a world that makes sense to me, while still being magical and strange. The world, therefore, won't feel like Middle-Earth in detail… yet I hope that, for some people at least, the sensation of something huge, something as big as the world itself, will cause the same little chill down their spines as I got from reading Lord of the Rings.
If I can achieve that, even for a moment… then I've learned at least some of the lessons that Professor Tolkien was trying to teach.