Reviewed in Australia on 27 February 2018
J. R. R. Tolkien was not the first fantasy writer, nor has he been the most critically acclaimed. But few writers throughout history have been as influential.
And the source of that influence can be found in the collected novels he wrote, comprising "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" -- both the children's fantasy about a humble little hobbit, and an epic quest to destroy the incarnation of evil. Tolkien's robust, detailed writing and thoroughly endearing characters are a big part of the series' appeal, but even more gripping is his knowledge of good and evil, and the expansive world of Middle-Earth.
In "The Hobbit," the humble Bilbo Baggins is accosted by the wizard Gandalf and thirteen dwarves led by their prince Thorin Oakenshield. Their goal: retake the Lonely Mountain from the malevolent dragon Smaug. But the adventure is more than stuffy, conventional Bilbo ever expected -- with man-eating spiders, hostile Elves and cruel goblins, Smaug himself and the carnivorous creature Gollum -- and he finds himself changed forever by the experience.
"Lord of the Rings" takes place several decades later, focusing instead on Bilbo's nephew/cousin/adopted son Frodo Baggins, who has inherited Bilbo's magical ring of invisibility. But Gandalf reveals that it is actually the One Ring, a tiny invulnerable token that the demonic Dark Lord Sauron has poured his essence and power into. And if Sauron can regain the Ring, he will be able to conquer Middle-Earth. Unfortunately, the only way to destroy it is to drop it into Mount Doom... which happens to be in the middle of Sauron's land of Mordor.
With the support of a fellowship of men, elves, dwarves and his hobbit buddies -- including Samwise Gamgee, his gardener -- Frodo sets out on a nearly impossible quest to destroy the Ring. But when their company loses some of its members, the fellowship breaks and Frodo sets out with only Sam to protect him from all the dangers along the way -- including Gollum. And king-in-waiting Aragorn must help in the only way he can, by freeing lands of Sauron's influence and creating an army large enough to stop the forces of Mordor. But unless Frodo destroys the Ring, nothing can save the world.
"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" are some of those books that have not only gained worldwide success (including a whole movie franchise), but have shaped nearly every fantasy book that came after it. Tolkien's world building is a great deal of what makes the books appealing -- Middle-Earth is richly, realistically diverse and complicated, with different kingdoms, species and cultures, a vast sweep of shared history with the elves, and hints of other lands that exist to the east and south that the heroes are almost totally unfamiliar with. It feels almost real.
And the stories he weaves are both simple and complicated -- while both Bilbo and Frodo's adventures are more or less straightforward go-to-this-place-and-do-that-thing quests, they are wound with tragic stories about greed, loss, love of one's country, the horror of warfare, the vastness of time, and the love of the simple life that the hobbits have. Above all, the stories are about the greatness of humble people who don't seem to have the aura of greatness about them, but who are central to achieving great and good things.
His writing is a bit slow in places (the journey to Bree takes a long time), but Tolkien included plenty of depth, intensity and some breakneck action scenes, as well as the creeping horror of anything from Mordor (the Black Riders, who spark off terror and depression in those they encounter). His dialogue ranges from nimble and funny (from the hobbits, who are quintessentially British, right down to Bilbo's love of his creature comforts) to grand and mythic speeches that feel like they were peeled from some old legend he dug up.
Bilbo and Frodo are effectively everyman heroes -- despite being child-sized hobbits, they have robust senses of adventure and a rock-hard sense of determination. But they veer in very different directions, with Bilbo growing in strength and cleverness even as Frodo grows more tormented by the presence of the Ring. And the other characters are richly drawn and well-developed, even though many have become archetypes over time -- the wise and cranky wizard Gandalf, lost kings Aragorn and Thorin, the elven archer Legolas and the axe-swinging dwarf Gimli, and Samwise the stouthearted hobbit gardener.
Redolent with myth and sweeping in scale, "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" are modern classics which are richly-imagined in every part of their stories. No wonder so many fantasy books have been influenced by them.