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The secret of Tolkien's 'Rings'

Much loved series for a half-century

J.R.R. Tolkien. His "Lord of the Rings" trilogy continues to be a phenomenon, 50 years after it was published.  

By Jamie Allen

(CNN) -- Tom Shippey once knew and taught with J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford.

And Shippey, the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri, said he knows why Tolkien's work -- particularly "The Hobbit" (originally published in 1937) and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (published in the mid-1950s) -- still has an audience today.

More than the adventures of hobbits and elves and wizards and other creatures who delve into a war over ultimate power in Middle-earth, Shippey said Tolkien's imaginings are a reflection of the 20th century's turbulent history.

"My colleagues in the literary department say it's all very escapist stuff. I think, 'No, no, no.' It's actually all about what happened in the 20th century. The 20th century has basically been industrialized warfare," Shippey said in a phone interview from St. Louis.

"Tolkien went through it himself (as an infantryman) in World War I. But it just got worse in his lifetime," Shippey said. "I think he was very preoccupied with the nature of evil, the nature of technology, the way in which things could be abused, the way good intentions are subverted. That's what it's all about."

Measuring up

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'The Silmarillion' - Chapter 1  * All excerpts courtesy of HarperCollins UK; must have Adobe Acrobat to view .pdf files

Actually, what it's all about these days is whether or not "The Lord of the Rings" will translate well to the silver screen. It was already done once, rather unsuccessfully, with 1978's animated/live-action "The Lord of the Rings."

Now, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and John Rhys-Davies, directed by "Rings" fan Peter Jackson, opens nationwide on Wednesday, 28 years after Tolkien's death. The first of three live-action movies based on the "Lord of the Rings" texts, it's distributed by New Line Cinema, a division of AOL Time Warner. AOL Time Warner also owns

The trilogy has been hyped since production was announced in the late 1990s. "Harry Potter"-like box-office numbers are not just hoped for -- given the "Rings" budget of a reported $270 million for the three films, they're expected.

But fans of Tolkien's work -- which has sold more than 50 million copies, and is considered a benchmark for all fantasy fiction -- are holding their breath, hoping Jackson's interpretation somehow matches their own.

David Averill-Pence, Web master for, said there are two camps of fans who take part in message board communities on his site: people who know of the book, but haven't devoted large portions of their lives studying it; and those who have devoted large portions of their lives studying Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Ringwraiths, the Tengwar language, and other Tolkien creations.

The casual fans are "really anxious to see the movie," Averill-Pence said in a phone interview from San Diego, California.

The veterans are "looking forward to it, but they're upset with some of the changes that have been made to the story line," he said. "I think people are very territorial about their view of Tolkien's work."

Among the changes Averill-Pence has witnessed in previews: "subtle things," like placing the character Arwen (played by Liv Tyler) in a more prominent role; or, the fact that Boromir in one scene actually holds the coveted, treacherous One Ring.

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett plays the Lady Galadriel in "The Lord of the Rings."  

Averill-Pence, who has cautioned members of his online community to be respectful to the new fans who will surely flood the site after seeing the movie, said he makes a clear delineation between the printed page and the big screen.

"I'm excited about the movie. I want to see how well they do," he said. "But there are a lot of things you just will not be able to translate from the page into the movie."

Reintroducing the fairy tale

Averill-Pence said the popularity of Tolkien's work comes from the simple fact that Tolkien knew how to tell a believable -- albeit fantastic -- story about good and evil.

"One of the hallmarks of Tolkien's work is the depth of the realism that you get from him," Averill-Pence said. "You actually feel like you're reading events in a real world."

Shippey, meantime, said Tolkien created a new genre from one of the most popular forms of storytelling.

"Tolkien reintroduced the world of fairy tale to a new audience. It was a very traditional image of fairy tale -- elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, wizards. Those have all come out of fairy tales. But Tolkien put the whole thing on the map," said Shippey. "A lot of that stuff is traditional material that he has codified and rationalized in a kind of 20th-century way."

The Lord of the Rings

Michael Regina, the Montreal, Quebec-based co-founder of, has been working closely with New Line in promoting the film. He said fans of Tolkien fall into the author's Middle-earth and don't want to come out.

One of those fans, Jincey Chambless, a Thomaston, Georgia-based chat room moderator for, collects editions of the book, as well as paraphernalia like "Frodo Lives!" buttons from the '60s and '70s.

"I'm just absolutely in love with the books," she said. "It's influenced me and my life so much."

Chambless plans a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to watch the film with a friend she met on the Web. She has high hopes for the film.

"The look to me is perfect," said Chambless. "I'm very pleased with most of the casting. I think that PJ (Peter Jackson) has done an outstanding job of trying to be as true to the books as possible."

'There's another generation sewn up'

One person who has already seen the film is Shippey. He said it's "visually stunning," but different than the books.

"I reckon it would take you 40 hours to read the first book out loud. Cutting that to three hours -- well, what can you do? The answer is, abridge," said Shippey. "If you know the story, you can see them skipping."

But Shippey said the movie and its two scheduled sequels have done nothing but increase this generation's awareness of Tolkien.

At, where readers already voted "Lord of the Rings" the book of the century, sales are up this year.

"There's another generation sewn up," Shippey said.

Shippey believes the popularity of Tolkien is cyclical. Some day soon, he said, Tolkien might be considered passe.

But ultimately, his legacy is in place.

"If we're looking back in 1,000 years time, his work will be instantly recognizable as 20th century," said Shippey, "entirely characteristic of that period, and articulating the concerns of the century."



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