By the early 1960s, 12-year-old Kathleen Coyne Kelly was already an ambitious reader. Her goal: to read every book in the children’s section of the local library in Kenmore, New York. She made it all the way, but when she found JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, her journey through library shelves took a decades-long detour into Middle-earth.
On September 2, Tolkien’s world will return to the screen: Amazon’s new TV series The Lord of the Rings: Ring of Power. Nearly 60 years after she first read the books, Kelly, an English professor at Northeastern University, is as excited as she was to return to Middle-earth and the world of elves, dwarves, and hobbits.
And she’s not alone. Since the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was published in 1954, the series has sold 150 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. It spawned director Peter Jackson’s equally famous Oscar-winning franchise. And Amazon’s series, which takes place thousands of years before “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings,” is estimated to be the most expensive TV series ever.
Amazon is pinning its hopes on The Lord of the Rings in 2022, but what brings people back to Middle-earth?
For Kelly, who specializes in medieval literature and teaches courses in fantasy literature, the answer lies in Tolkien’s original worldview.
“When I reread [those books] I knew what was going to happen, but I could still sink into that world,” Kelly said. “Tolkien created such a bigger world than Lewis. Tolkien never said he was making up these things. He felt like he was reminiscing, he was telling a story that was already circulating somewhere. “
Part of what makes Tolkien’s series so enduring, according to Kelly, is its specific publishing history.
Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, and it was an instant success as a children’s book. Back then, the gap between children’s books and adults’ books was wider than it is now. That’s why when the first Lord of the Rings book, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out in 1954, it confused readers. It “destroys their perception of the genre,” Kelly said.
It also coincided with the coming-of-age of baby boomers, so by the time the 1960s revolved around “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” it had become a cultural touchstone for an entire generation, Kelly said.
In 2001, Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” hit culture like a troll wielding an oversized club. Kelly said the films came at a time when “our entire Anglo-American culture had turned to fantasy as a major genre”.
But Kelly is quick to point out that the desire for long, engaging stories is nothing new.
“It’s a legend, it’s a story, and to me, it’s too medieval,” Kelly said. “You have medieval people, what entertainment did they have? … A bard came up and said, ‘I have a story for you. “They heard the stories. The bard said, ‘Oh, I’ve finished the night. You have to come back.'”
“It’s a constant escape,” Kelly added. “Now that ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ are in three mediums, our appetites are constantly being whetted.”
The medieval roots of Tolkien’s world play a big part in its timeless appeal. Kelly says his writing acts as an “echo of the story,” constantly referencing archetypes and themes that most Western readers will be aware of.
“The hero’s arc varies from story to story, but some do it better than others, and Tolkien did it,” Kelly said. “Tolkien immersed himself in medieval literature and the classics, perfecting those narratives that we’re all interested in heroes.”
Kelly admits that not every part of Tolkien’s world and worldview is outdated, especially his depiction of race and women. However, some elements of The Lord of the Rings resonate today—perhaps even more than in Tolkien’s time.
“You can read The Lord of the Rings from an ecological perspective,” Kelly said. “Read The Hobbit and The Hobbiton, it’s a utopia, an Eden, an unspoiled natural place. Well, in The Lord of the Rings, it’s such an incredible landscape, and the villainous villain again How? They damage and destroy the environment.”
At a time when authoritarianism was on the rise, Sauron, the villainous figure, one clearly inspired by Tolkien’s experiences in World War I and war-torn England during World War II, was also terribly relevant.
“It’s also easy to draw parallels between authoritarianism and Sauron, and especially going back to the ’60s, to see Mordor as the end product of the military-industrial complex,” Kelly said. “When it comes to reading anything, the book is the mirror.”
But there’s another, less obvious element that explains The Lord of the Rings’ enduring appeal. Kelly says that it’s not just the escapist fun of Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth has a mythical quality akin to its medieval inspiration. Not every question is answered, and even for the characters, there are pervasive mysteries in a world where time has forgotten the story.
“In Tolkien, there are mountains everywhere,” Kelly said. “You scale one, you get a story, and you say, ‘I may not be able to get to the next mountain, but there’s a story. I know there is. It’s an incredible hook.'”
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