Argh! There are so many overlooked and underrated book series out there, and I spent some time searching my bookshelf for a hidden gem to showcase. But if I am to be honest – and I fully intend to be honest – there is only one series of novels that can truly be termed my favorite. For over a decade it has influenced the way I think about the fantasy genre, about mythology (both historical and modern), about the purpose of writing fiction, about languages, about what exists beyond the edges of a map, and even about faith and Christianity. And it is so famous that I hardly know what more to say about it.
I speak, naturally, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
My father read the series to me when I was in elementary school, intending it to be a fun project by which we could spend more time together. Neither of us knew much about it beforehand; my dad claims he was completely oblivious to the cries of “Frodo Lives!” and “Gandalf for President!” that swept American counterculture in the 1960s and ‘70s, while he was studying engineering at a state university. Curled up on the couch, listening to my dad read, I had no way of knowing what I was getting into. The plot minutiae was often a bit too complex for my pre-teen mind and the long sections of poetry sometimes put me to sleep. I don’t think I was even aware of just how much I loved it, at the time. But as I began delving deeper into the fantasy genre, The Lord of the Rings was the story by which all others were judged. It still is, in fact.
The saga endures beyond all others of its kind. Tolkien’s love and respect for his characters, his world, and his readers comes through on every page. Neither pandering nor literary arrogance towards the readership have any place in The Lord of the Rings. It all holds together, for all its myriad characters, plot threads, city names, weapon names, fantastical creatures, songful interludes, and references to other pieces of invented mythology. It is lovely, epic, thrilling, charming, heartrending, uplifting, ecstatic, grim, dignified, merciful, amazing…
For Tolkien’s sake, I wish I could find the words to express just why his effort rises above everyone else’s. At the moment, the words are failing me. What can I say that has not already been said time and time again? If you ask me what is an epic fantasy story, I point to The Lord of the Rings and say “There, that is it. That is what is essential about the genre. All other such novels and series are the attempts of the rest of us to understand the depth of what Tolkien did.”