First published 1954-1955 (written between 1937 and 1949)


J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, was first published in three parts—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—in 1954-55. Initially conceived of as a sequel to his children’s story The Hobbit (1937), this tale famously “grew in the telling” (as Tolkien himself expressed it in his preface to the second edition). In the process, it developed into a far darker and more serious narrative, brimful of references to the fictitious intra-historical stages in the history of the world, which conferred a vast temporal and spatial depth to the central storyline.

The Lord of the Rings is set in an invented world called Middle-earth. Tolkien’s conceit is that Middle-earth is our own world, but that the story takes place in an invented time period when the continents were shaped and placed differently. As with most true epics, it is difficult to summarise the plot of this work in just a few lines. Very briefly put, it tells the story of a group of unlikely heroes, belonging to a carefree people of halflings called Hobbits, who join a Fellowship made up of representatives of Men, Elves, and Dwarves. Led by the Wizard Gandalf, the Fellowship sets out to save the world from an evil force which threatens to annihilate or enslave the so-called Free Peoples. The hobbit Frodo is chosen to carry the One Ring, a key object of power, to Mount Doom in Mordor, the land of the arch-enemy Sauron, and destroy it. Meanwhile, Aragorn, the future king of the elite human culture in Middle-earth, commits to the same cause, undergoes a series of trials and performs great heroic feats in his efforts to assist Frodo on his quest. Against all odds, the Ring is finally destroyed, the forces of evil are vanquished, and a new, united kingdom of Men emerges in the wake of the great War of the Ring, while the elves fade and leave the world.

The Lord of the Rings has proven very difficult to pinpoint genre-wise; it has been assigned the label of myth, epic, heroic romance, adventure novel, high fantasy, and fairy-tale, to give but a few examples. However, we know that Tolkien drew inspiration from many different mediaeval and classical sources, in which epic modes of fiction were very much present, and most scholars agree that the epic features of the tale are among the most prominent. Over the years it has been convincingly compared with the literature of Milton (Sly, 2000), Virgil (Morse, 1986; Greenman, 1992; Obertino, 1993), and Homer (Fenwick, 1996), Appolonius (Mantovani 2019), as well as with other literary works rooted in the epic genre (notably, the anonymously composed Beowulf, which Tolkien studied, translated, and taught for many years at the University of Oxford). A detailed survey of the book’s epic features is undertaken in Martin Simonson’s The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition (2008), where they are put in relation to other narrative traditions. This strong presence of the epic was partly a result of Tolkien’s personal taste and academic activities at the University of Oxford, where he taught Old and Middle English for many years.

The main epic traits of Tolkien’s work could be summarised as follows. In the first place, The Lord of the Rings is the story of the end of the Third Age, and the central action spans a little over a year, but the text also sums up the main historical events and the cultural legacy of several thousand years of the History of Middle-earth. As in the epic tradition, this temporal and spatial depth is conveyed by means of digressions that are triggered by the main action—for instance, Gandalf’s narrative of the history of the Ring in the second chapter of the book, or the tales and testimonies given at the Council of Elrond—but also by regular catalogues in the appendices, which must be seen as an integral part of the narrative.

Another epic feature of The Lord of the Rings is that the story is set in a remote past which blends historical and primordial time. As mentioned, Tolkien himself stated that while the events take place in this world, the historical period is invented. The pseudo-historical past is provided with a proper cosmogony and a pantheon of gods, though they are not frequently referred to in the actual text but emerge as a mythic backdrop to the story. Like the Homeric heroes, Aragorn—who is the most conspicuous protagonist of the tale on an epic level—is an exemplary representative of his community, and his deeds make up the central thread in the epic part of the tale. As many epic heroes, Aragorn is “larger than life” in so far as he is neither purely mythic nor completely human, but half-related to the gods, and thus superior to most other representatives of the human race in terms of strength, wisdom, abilities and lifespan.

The Lord of the Rings is also similar to many classical epic narratives in that its internal logic and coherence do not depend on a realist kind of verisimilitude, and yet it is not a dream-like world without reference to space and time. In the story we find a very obvious intention to invest the fictional world with considerable spatial and temporal coherence—more so, in fact, than in most realist novels, given the readers’ lack of previous familiarity with Middle-earth—by means of constant references to distances and dates, tales and (pseudo) historical data, which evoke a thoroughly historicized and complete world despite the presence of supernatural elements. Certain episodes of the narrative, such as the Battle of Helm’s Deep, or the Battle of the Fields of the Pelennor, convey not only themes, actions and character-types that are singularly typical of the old epic narratives set in pagan contexts, but even reproduce the heroic alliterative diction of the descriptive passages—a feature intimately related to the originally oral transmission of such tales, which is here ‘simulated’.

Like most epics, The Lord of the Rings is also tinged with a poignant sense of loss. This reflects Tolkien’s personal and grievous losses (the death of both his parents and two of his best friends) at an early age, but it is also an expression of his passionate desire to retrieve the past in his literature, by capturing the spirit of older narratives and world-views. In turn, this desire is intimately connected to his profound interest in extinct languages which, if decoded and properly understood, have the power to convey suggestive glances of lost worlds by means of evocative individual words, fragments of poetry, and more sustained and interconnected myths and legends.

Since the beginning of narrative composition in Western literature and beyond, the epic is a blended tradition, heavily indebted to myth, heroic poetry and folktales. The Lord of the Rings, too, pulls many different genres into its orbit within a structural framework based on a very sophisticated system of narrative transitions. In this, Tolkien’s work supersedes the modernist use of ironic clashes between the heroic past, with its lofty diction, and the vulgar language of a sordid present, which was present in some of the most influential ‘modern epics’ such as Joyce’s Ulysses or Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

Martin Simonson

University of the Basque Country 


Works Cited

Fenwick, M. ‘Breastplates of Silk: Homeric Women in The Lord of the Rings’, Mythlore 21, 1996, pp. 17-23.

Greenman, D. (1992). ‘Aeneidic and Odyssean Patterns of Escape and Return in Tolkien’s “The Fall of Gondolin” and The Return of the King’. Mythlore 18, 1992, pp. 17-23.

Mantovani, L. ‘Renewing the Epic: Tolkien and Apollonius Rhodius’, in Williams, H. (ed.), Tolkien and the Classics. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2019.

Morse, R. The Evocation of Virgil in Tolkien’s Art: Geritol for the Classics. Oak Park: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1986.

Obertino, J. ‘Moria and Hades: Underworld Journeys in Tolkien and Virgil’, Comparative Literature Studies 30, 1993, pp. 153-169.

Simonson, M. The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition. Zurich & Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2008.

Sly, D. ‘Weaving Nets of Gloom: “Darkness Profound” in Tolkien and Milton’. In Clark, G. and D. P. Timmons (eds.), J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, pp. 109-120. Westport: Greenwood, 2000.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by H. Carpenter with the assistance of C. Tolkien, first edition 1981). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings (first edition 1954-1955). London: HarperCollins, 1993.




Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings (first edition 1954-1955). London: HarperCollins, 1993.


Critical studies:

Carpenter, H. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Allen & Unwin, 1977.

Flieger, V. Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology. Kent and London: The Kent State University Press, 2005.

Hammond, W. and C. Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. London: HarperCollins, 2005.

McIlwaine, C. Tolkien. Maker of Middle-earth. Oxford: Bodleian, 2018.

Shippey, T. The Road to Middle-earth. London: HarperCollins, 2003.


Bibliographical references supplied by Martin Simonson (University of the Basque Country).

Paintings by J.R.R Tolkien. On the official website of the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate. 

The Tolkien Society. An educational charity and literary society devoted to the study and promotion of the life and works of the author and academic J.R.R. Tolkien. As a membership organisation, the Tolkien Society publishes a bulletin and a journal at regular intervals, and organises various events throughout the year.

The Tolkien Estate.

Thomas Honegger, ‘Tolkien and the Matter of England’. International Conference on the Inklings: Fantasy and National Discourse (2015).