Today is the 20th Anniversary of Peter Jackson’s film rendition of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings.” Over the next three years, Jackson released two more films, “The Two Towers” (2002) and “The Return of the King (2003),” completing his cinematic take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.
While turning popular books into movies is a tricky if not impossible task, Jackson’s attempt was immediately praised. Overall, his film trilogy received a record-breaking 17 Academy Awards. “The Return of the King,” which claimed 11 of these awards, still holds the record for the most Academy Awards ever received by a single film (alongside Titanic and Ben Hur).
Twenty years later, cinematic interest in The Lord of the Rings hasn’t waned. Next September, Amazon will be releasing their first season of a new Lord of the Rings show on Amazon Prime. The estimated budget for the project is one billion overall.
Tolkien’s work, which continues to captivate us over 80 years later, was a best-selling hit from the very beginning. Upon publication, his close friend C.S. Lewis reviewed The Lord of the Rings, calling it “lightning from a clear sky...Nothing quite like it was ever done before.” W.H. Auden also spoke very highly of it, saying at the time, “no fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “the suspense of waiting to know what happens to the Ring Bearer is intolerable.”
In honor of this anniversary celebration, here are five fun facts about The Lord of the Rings that I hope you will enjoy. Who knows, perhaps you will learn something new!
1: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings almost didn’t exist.
After experiencing the popularity of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, his publisher was quick to press Tolkien for more. After selling out all of their copies in the fall of 1937, George Allen & Unwin requested that Tolkien write a sequel the following year. After making an attempt, Tolkien grew disheartened by the project. In a letter to his publisher, he wrote:
I have worked very hard for a month (in the time which my doctors said must be devoted to some distraction!) on a sequel to The Hobbit. It has reached Chapter XI (though in rather an illegible state); I am now thoroughly engrossed in it and have the threads all in hand – and I have to put it completely aside, till I do not know when. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #34)
Later, after publishing The Lord of the Rings, he credited the Inklings, and particularly C.S. Lewis, for their persistence in having him finish the work. “Only by his [C.S. Lewis’] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour” (Humphrey, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 184).
2: The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy; it’s six books
While we are used to seeing Tolkien’s story divided into three parts, that is only an accident. He actually wrote the entire story as one, continuous work. But when it came to publishing the book, other practical considerations were involved. Paper shortages during and after wartime posed a printing issue, for instance. Likewise, the publisher knew that the cost to produce and sell a single volume of this magnitude would be costly–far more than the average reader could afford to buy. So the decision was made to divide the book into three volumes.
But Tolkien would forever insist that his work was actually six different books. If you read your edition carefully, you’ll notice that there are, in fact, six separate sections. Tolkien would later title these six ‘books’ in a letter as:
Book 1: The Ring Sets Out/The First Journey/Return of the Shadow
Book 2: The Ring Goes South/ The Journey of the Nine Companions/The Fellowship of the Ring
Book 3: The Treason of Isengard
Book 4: The Ring Goes East/The Journey of the Ringbearers/The Journey to Mordor
Book 5: The War of the Ring
Book 6: The End of the Third Age/The Return of the King
3: The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory
Tolkien insisted on his work not being understood as allegory. Both him and Lewis, in fact, abhorred the literary technique of allegory and did their best to avoid the practice altogether. In the foreword to his second edition, he wrote:
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history–true or feigned–with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author” (Foreword to the Second Edition, 1966).
Both writers felt that an allegory, by its very nature, removed the reader’s agency from the story. Instead, it forced a very particular interpretation, as Tolkien explains, onto the reader with little room for application. We can consider Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as an example of Christian allegory. The story details the journey of a man named Christian as he travels from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City.” Along the way, he encounters characters like Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Mr. Legality. The book is very straightforward and lacks basically any room for interpretation. This is not to discredit Bunyan’s work. It was, after all, the second best-selling book behind the Bible for hundreds of years. But it was not the type of literature Lewis and Tolkien were interested in creating.
Tolkien, in particular, wanted to focus on applicability. For that reason, there are many ways to read the story and even interpret the main characters. As author and Inklings scholar Dr. Hooten Wilson points out, we can read Frodo as a Christ figure, Jesus’ mother Mary, and even as the legendary King Arthur. In a Christian context, we can see Christ represented in many ways through many characters.
4: J.R.R Tolkien gave birth to modern fantasy
It’s hard for us to imagine it, but before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Fantasy stories as we know them today simply did not exist. George MacDonald, who we’ve looked at before, was one of a very few front runners who ushered in this type of fantasy writing. Tolkien, however, perfected it. He became a true world-builder who not only developed detailed maps and histories, but also full languages and songs.
The same time he began his work on the “new hobbit” sequel, Tolkien also gave his now famous “On Fairy Stories” lectures at the University of St. Andrews. During these lectures, he explored his novel approach to writing fantasy stories and asked the question: What and where is faerie-land? The purpose of writing fairy stories, he shared, is not to provide some way of escape from reality. Instead, it is to show reality through a new and often strange environment. A great storyteller can “steal past the watchful dragons” that guard our hearts and minds. Once successfully transported to faerie-land, Tolkien believed we could recover the truth of our existence. He calls this the, “regaining of a clear view,” and it’s the primary action of Fantasy.
When we think of games like World of Warcraft, stories like HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” “His Dark Materials,” and Harry Potter, and writers such as George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and even Stephen King, we can see the impact Tolkien has had on our storytelling for generations.
These strange, unexpected, and wonderful occurrences lead us directly to the gospel, giving us a glimpse of the greatest Eucatasrophe of all time.
5: Tolkien is a ‘Gospeler’
It may sound odd to describe The Lord of the Rings as a deeply Christian story. There is no mention of Christ or even Christianity throughout the story, and in fact, ‘Middle-Earth’ is an ancient, pre-Christian setting. We can look around and see that many Lord of the Rings super fans are nonbelievers with no interest in religion. And while we may interpret certain characters and their actions as “Christ-like,” there is no one explicit Christ figure or atonement event.
Some have criticized Tolkien’s work for this very reason, seeing it as an indirect story that ultimately leaves readers without Christ. But I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. The Lord of the Rings is not explicitly teaching Christian doctrine; that part is true. But it does help us see Christian doctrine, bringing it meaning, perhaps better than any story told in the last 300 years. As a result, it adds a richness to our understanding of faith and life that draws us closer to Christ.
When we read this story, we also begin to desire the goodness it reflects–even if we don’t know precisely what it is. We experience a true and happy ending in The Lord of the Rings. This sudden, happy turn that occurs when all hope is lost is what Tolkien describes as the “Eucatastrophe” (learn more about that term here). When Frodo fails to throw away the ring of power, Gollum suddenly bites off his finger and is together destroyed with the ring. When Sam and Frodo nearly slip into death’s grasp on Mount Doom, Gandalf and the Eagles miraculously arrive in time to rescue them. These strange, unexpected, and wonderful occurrences lead us directly to the gospel, giving us a glimpse of the greatest Eucatasrophe of all time. “The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation,” Tolkien explains (On Fairy Stories).
This story is true and trustworthy. It’s one that we know and yet need to be told over and over again. And it is one that I hope through the work of Tolkien and other talented myth-makers like him we never stop desiring to hear.