Sunday, December 16, 2001

Tolkien was a world-builder without peer

What more can you say about a classic?

On the eve of the release of the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring," (mass market from Del Rey) I decided it was time to revisit Middle Earth and get reacquainted with some old friends and familiar places.

Frodo Baggins is a hobbit - a race of furry-footed, meal-loving, largely sedentary halflings who rarely venture beyond the borders of their homeland, the Shire. Frodo is different, though. He's been adopted by the legendary Bilbo Baggins, one of the few hobbits that has not only ventured out of the Shire, but actually had an adventure - complete with trolls, elves and dragons.

On Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday, he pulls a disappearing act - quite literally - and leaves in Frodo's trust one of the treasures from his travels, a simple golden ring. But it's not really simple at all, as the magician Gandalf soon discovers. It's the One Ring of power from legend, and it's being sought by the dark lord Sauron. If he finds it, he will use it to dominate Middle Earth.

The only way to destroy the ring is to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom, in the heart of Sauron's territory. Frodo and an unlikely band of adventurers are charged with the task of delivering the ring to the heart of Mordor - a task that could lead to their own doom and that of Middle Earth.

Millions of people have been enthralled by Tolkien's epic "The Lord of the Rings," and with good reason. While it is a fantasy tale, you don't necessarily have to be a fantasy fan to appreciate the depth and scope of the work.

Tolkien is a master world-builder. No other author comes close. Even the most minor characters and places have a rich and complete history.

He weaves myth, legend and history into a world as complex and diverse as our own. A world where every race has its own identity, culture and even language.

"Fellowship of the Ring" is the first of the three novels that make up the larger story, so it's largely a set up for the events to come. Though it's often recommended for fans of "Harry Potter," they should be warned that it doesn't have the whiz-bang action of that series. Instead, there's a slower build-up to the main action, with more attention to detail that lays a solid foundation for the story to come.

Tolkien's leisurely pace in "Fellowship of the Ring" also allows for some poems and songs that further illuminate the history of Middle Earth. And you won't find a writer with a better knack for language.

Though we often talk about being transported to another world when we read, with Tolkien, the feeling is more palpable. "The Lord of the Rings" represents the culmination of a lifetime of work, and the effort is obvious to anyone who dares to venture beyond the borders of the Shire.

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