Lord of the Rings

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It is easy for the reader who enters the enchanted realm of Tolkien's own work to be lost in the magic of the Middle-Earth and to forbear to ask questions. Surrounded by elves, hobbits, dragons and orcs, wandering the pristine fields and woods, described with such loving care they seem almost real, it is easy to forget there is another world outside, the world in which John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an Oxford don, lived and wrote his monumental series of fantasy novels. It is, after all, natural to want to escape humdrum reality. Literature that offers a simple pleasure of a different time, a different place has nothing to be ashamed of. Tolkien in the same essay describes "escape and consolation" as one of the chief functions of the fairy-tale by which term he understands also what we would call "literary fantasy" today. "Escape and consolation" seem to be self-evident terms. What is there to discuss? Perhaps all that I have to do today is to praise Tolkien's fertile imagination and to step modestly aside.

But the sentence I just quoted suggests that asking questions about the fairy-tale realm is not so much unnecessary as dangerous. You risk not merely boredom and disenchantment but the actual expulsion from the Fairyland. Why? Is there, perhaps, more to the magic land than meets the eye? What if the "escape" it offers is fake; what if Middle-Earth lies not "in a galaxy long ago and far away", as Star Wars put it, but much closer to home, right on the border with Tolkien's war-stricken England of the 1940s and perhaps even not so far from our own turbulent Middle East. What if the further away we travel, the more inevitably we come home? These are the questions I want to discuss today.And if the result of this inquiry will be the loss of the key to the gates of Paradise, I'm willing to take this risk.

Therefore the focus of this talk will be the question that Tolkien himself emphasized as central to our perception of works of fantasy: what is "the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are" (32); in other words, how are the elves, orcs, the Dark Lord and the magic ring relevant to the here and now? However, I do not believe that the answer to this question should be sought in the circumstances of the author's own life.
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