Reading Room: How J.R.R. Tolkien Transformed the World by Creating a Universe

Image of the Cover of Lord of the RingsSince Peter Jackson brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen and birthed a global cinematic phenomenon, J.R.R. Tolkien’s work has cultivated a modern, international following. When paired with the literature’s original fandom, it far exceeds most anything the world has ever witnessed before. The tale of the One Ring and all the related stories observably impacted generations of fantasy writers, so much so that his influence is starkly visible, even today. Beyond just books, J.R.R. Tolkien introduced characters and tropes of such intense cultural importance that to list where his work rears its head in popular culture would be an utterly exhaustive and arguably impossible endeavor. The way he conceptualized folklore like elves, giants, wizards, dragons, and dwarves is mirrored in various movies, TV shows, novels and comics today. Direct references to his work is mentioned in every conceivable medium of entertainment stretching back decades, from ‘90s sitcom Friends to music by The Beatles.

The question, then, is “why?” What is it about J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing that so deeply moved so many people across not just enormous swaths of space, but also over incredible stretches of time? It is certainly an exciting tale, and the characters are definitely beloved. However, that only really begins to scratch the surface of what makes this work, more than almost any other, so special. In fact, there are literary critics to this day that are happy to debate the narrative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing from a technical standpoint. Although time has made it clear that the action and adventure of the story is beyond exceptional, what makes his body of work truly unique, unlike anything that has come before or since, is its depth.

Typically, the unspoken contract a fiction reader makes with the author is that he or she will suspend disbelief in return for entertainment. Tolkien hammered away at that archaic agreement with the tools he had available – words and his imagination. He called this notion, “secondary creation.” By creating a universe so shockingly rich with history and detail, Tolkien relieves that burden on the reader to suspend disbelief. The universe of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion is so dense and fleshed out, it is easier than anything literature had ever before seen to fully immerse oneself in.

Entire histories, languages, dialects, peoples, traditions, and nations are born, live, and die within these pages. True fans of Tolkien’s work understand that he did not make up a fictional world in which to tell a story – he wrote a story as a line by which to reel us into an impossibly immersive world. Therein lies his genius. He did not just give us fictional characters, he gave us that fictional cultures that defined them…and the histories which created those cultures, as well as the myths which influenced those histories, and so on and so forth. Tolkien’s creation is so deep that it leaves you absolutely craving more, and he endeavored to satiate that craving. This experience is simply unlike anything else available in the pages of a book elsewhere. And, as a result, our world is forever changed by the magic of one created in the mind of a brilliant man.