The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings, sometimes shortened to LOTR, is the sequel to J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. He found that the setting he had built was far too interesting to abandon after a simplistic quest storyline, an experience common to modern GMs, and his publisher thought a new story in Middle-earth would be just as popular as The Hobbit.
Because of its original publication scheme (the whole thing was too big for 50's era bookbinding techniques), LOTR is commonly, though erroneously, called a trilogy. Its three volumes are:
- The Fellowship of the Ring
- The Two Towers
- The Return of the King
You have, of course, read them. If you haven't, gtfo and read them. And don't you even dare just watch the movies. Although amazing films, they aren't the same experience.
If you have read them (which you have) but it's been so long that you've forgotten the details, here's a brief refresher:
Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of The Hobbit, decides to leave home and entrusts his magic ring to his nephew Frodo. Problem is, Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo's wizard friend, has figured out that something's off about the magic ring once he sees how Bilbo can barely bring himself to give it up; it is in fact the One Ring, an artifact created by Sauron, Lord of Mordor, and contains a vast amount of his power. Its continued existence is a threat to the free peoples of Middle-earth and Gandalf exhorts Frodo to come to a meeting in Rivendell where a council will determine what to do with it. Joined by his gardener Samwise and two fellow hobbits, Merry and Pippin, Frodo makes his way to Rivendell but not before running afoul of barrow-wights and Sauron's chief minions, the Nazgul.
At the meeting, it is revealed that no mortal artifice can destroy the One Ring (demonstrated in the movie when Gimli shatters a weapon on the unassuming golden band). The only way to unmake it is to return it to the fires of Mount Doom where Sauron originally forged it. Unfortunately, Mount Doom is smack dab in the middle of Mordor and Gandalf can't ask his great eagle buddies to risk death by arrows or Fellbeasts (seriously, why does everyone forget that the bad guys could fly too?) or volcanic gases to fly the ring to Mount Doom for him. Really though, stealth was the only realistic option, even if that meant hoofing it for months on end. And to make things more complicated, the ring itself is actively trying to get back into Sauron's hands, whether by alerting Sauron to its presence every time someone puts it on, or outright manipulating people with promises of power. Frodo agrees to bear the One Ring on its journey and a group is formed to escort him there. The party for this quest is called the Fellowship of the Ring and consists of:
- Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, hobbit;
- Samwise Gamgee, Paladin/gardener/Frodo's "best friend", hobbit;
- Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck, rogue, hobbit;
- Peregrin "Pippin" Took, bard, hobbit;
- Gandalf the Grey, wizard (one of the Istari, essentially a demigod in human guise);
- Aragorn, son of Arathorn, ranger, human of Numenorian descent and heir to the throne of Gondor;
- Boromir, son of Denethor, fighter, human;
- Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduril, archer, elf;
- Gimli, son of Glóin, fighter, dwarf;
So, off they go. After a few detours and sidetracks, the Fellowship is split into three (even though you should never split the party): Frodo and Sam go off directly to Mordor, as Frodo's the only one who really needs to go and Sam is too much of a bro to abandon him; Gandalf duels a primordial demon to the death (both their deaths, really), but since he's a demigod on a divine mission he gets to come back; Pippin and Merry are kidnapped by orcs but escape and wind up in Gondor, a formerly prosperous kingdom, and Rohan, a nation of Vikings on horseback, respectively, after having adventures with Ents; Boromir dies in an ambush but has a pile of corpses to show for his troubles and gets a river funeral; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli form a Human-Elf-Dwarf triple threat team, ostensibly to find and rescue Merry and Pippin, but end up travelling fucking evil's shit up for the rest of the story, with Gimli as Dennis Rodman.
Despite having their own problems to contend with, somehow the members of the divided Fellowship seem to get involved with everyone else's mess and need to sort shit out. Their list of game achievements include, but are not limited to: surviving a ruined dwarf city filled with an insane number of goblins and a big motherfucking demon lord with weapons made of fire (the backstory behind this inspired the aforementioned game); foiling the plans of Gandalf's wicked wizard counterpart and his orc army; saving not one but two human nations (and the entire world for that matter); winning a whole campaign's worth of scenarios and battles; and defeating the big bad evil guy of the setting with enough time to go home for tea and crumpets.
Finally, after going around the most fuck-me way possible to get into Mordor (partially due to bad directions from Gollum), Frodo reaches Mount Doom and is about to drop the ring into the lava when he can no longer resist the ring's allure. Just as it had done at the end of the Second Age when it stopped Isildur from destroying it, the ring saved its existence from certain doom. Unfortunately, its twisted former owner Gollum attacks Frodo for it and bites it off of his finger, dances about happily, and accidentally falls into the lava. With the ring destroyed, Sauron's power is all but gone forevermore and his armies scatter. The eagles can swoop in for MEDEVAC, getting Frodo and Sam back to civilization to rest and recover before the hobbits return to the Shire.
But wait! The Shire's under new management, Chief Sharkey. Frodo and company help the hobbits rise up against Sharkey, who turns out to be Saruman, who has committed his greatest evil yet by trying to industrialize The Shire. Frodo allows Saruman to leave the Shire, but his put-upon minion Gríma Wormtongue slits his throat (and is then riddled with arrows, nicely tying up that loose end). After compiling his memoirs and still feeling pain from the Nazgul attack all the way at the beginning of his journey, Frodo travels to the Grey Havens and is allowed to sail into the West, where he may find relief from his pain.
It's commonly accepted that the Lord of the Rings invented modern fantasy fiction, as everybody basically used it as a template for most, if not all, future stories that involved anything more than Knights, princesses, and dragons. That being said, most people tend to only pick up the surface elements of the stories without the nuances they originally came with, either to fit their own stories or because they just thought, "hey, orcs are cool, imma add them to my campaign." One example is that despite everyone basing elves on Tolkien's interpretation rather than the more pixie-like versions of previous generations, most stories' elves are universally depicted as arrogant and smug racists who were almost as commonplace as humans, whereas Tolkien hewed closer to the original mythological version of an alien, isolationist, though not outright hostile people, who seldom interacted with mortals (it helped that any racial supremacist tendencies they once had were basically stomped out of them after getting their asses kicked in the First Age, with humans giving them most of their support). Even in his time, while Tolkien maintained a strong correspondence with his fans (he wrote enough letters that they essentially became a supplement on the lord of the rings stories), he felt that a lot of people simply didn't get his stories. Hippies declared Frodo to be an anti-establishment hero, despite Tolkien himself being strongly conservative and the story containing an explicitly pro-monarchy plot point in Aragorn's ascension. People would claim it to be an allegory of WWII and nuclear war, despite being based on his own personal experiences during WWI (he also hated allegories in general). And if he were alive today, he'd probably call the travesty that was the Hobbit trilogy (see below) the very "disneyfied" crap that he sought to avoid. Here's a list of fantasy cliches attributed to Tolkien that are actually misrepresentations of what he wrote because the authors would miss the point.
All that being said, the influence of his books can't be denied. The funny thing though, is that despite being a source of inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons (one could argue that DnD codified fantasy tropes moreso than LOTR, but that's for another time), the actual story of the Lord of the Rings wouldn't make for a great roleplaying campaign; rewards for battles are scant, the vast majority of enemies are orcs, orcs, and more orcs
with a dash of goblins that's just another term for orcs, the actual fighting done by Aragorn's team is of secondary importance to Frodo's mission to destroy the ring, Sauron never appears in the flesh so there's no final boss, etc. A webcomic called "DM of the Rings" explores this concept quite humorously, as the tension between the player characters (as Aragorn's party) and the DM shows how frustrated they get when the story doesn't meet their hack-and-slash expectations.
To give a short list, Tolkien basically gave us:
- Dark Lords
- Half-elves, though they weren't considered a distinct species. There's only a handful of them, and they have to decide to be fully human or fully elvish. This part never seemed to catch on.
- Intelligent Dragons who not only can talk, but cast magic and manipulate people
- Elves as beautiful pointy-eared superhumans; while not explicitly codified as of yet, we also got High elves in the Noldor and Wood elves in the Sindar. No Dark elves yet though; that would be the Drow.
- Dwarves as a proud warrior race rather than just short greedy bastards. Note that the Scottish accent wasn't tacked on until the New Line films.
- The Ranger archetype (historical note: actual rangers were just guys hired to keep poachers off a nobleman's land, the idea of an outdoorsy type of tracker/scout/soldier didn't exist until the 17th century.)
- Mixed race, mixed class adventuring parties
- A "Three Age" structure to history, with the earlier ages being more legendary and mythological than the more mundane later ages.
- Mythril, a super-strong, super-light metal
Ralph Bakshi made an animated film based off the Fellowship of The Ring and the first half of The Two Towers, which were released in 1978. The resulting film was trippy, to say the least. It has a lot of weird animation with massive amounts of rotoscoping, although it does work from time to time. It also decided to make adjustments and stay faithful to the text in the oddest ways. Many lines of dialogue were taken from the books word for word, with enough cut out so that you don't know what they are talking about and it does not come across as natural conversation; for example, Saruman declares himself Saruman of Many Colors without explaining the name change, but they decide to make a prince of Gondor (the largest and greatest civilization in Middle-earth at the time) dress like a Wagner opera viking. The end result both leaves you both weirded out and bored. Rankin Bass produced a Return of the King animated film in 1980, which traded in some of the trippiness (even if it does have Orcs transforming into Coutimundis) for being more mundanely bad and getting pushed into the animation age ghetto.
But those two movies are footnotes compared to the ones that you have most likely seen, those being Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. By far the most financially successful and critically acclaimed fantasy films of all time, including winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which generally go for historical pieces and similar, not fantasy or sci-fi. It helped bring fantasy to mainstream audiences and probably why many of you are you are here now. It has massive battles made possible by groundbreaking special effects technology. The films also have incredible amounts of attention to detail to bring the world of Middle-earth to life. While some changes were made, many of them were for the better such as developing Aragorn as a character rather than just a mythic archetype. In short what happens when you get a lot of skilled passionate people together to make something they love come to life.
Alas, however, it seems greed got to New Line: apparently a few billion dollars in debt, they needed the profit that a new series of Middle-Earth movies would make and tapped Jackson to direct a trilogy of Hobbit movies. Since The Hobbit is a single book with less than 400 pages, the company bloated the story by making the movies a strange mix of The Hobbit, the Silmarillion and various new materials. Neckbeards were in uproar of the changes both big and small: examples include Legolas having a significant part in the second and third movie despite not appearing in the book of The Hobbit, the inclusion of new character Tauriel who enters a fanfic-esque love triangle with Legolas and Kili, the recycling of an Orc warlord who canonically died in a battle before the book even though the story had the role filled by his son who's also in the movies, the Major of Laketown having an aide who seems to be
a long-lost scion of the Blackadder lineage a two-dimensional discount Grima Wormtongue (Admittedly, it would be a nice little Blackadder homage, as the Mayor of Laketown is acted by Stephen Fry), dumbing down the fiendishly intelligent antagonist Smaug with Bond Villain-style stupidity and a few other things big and small. Jackson really went overboard with the special effects here: instead of using sets, costumes and clever camera tricks a lot of things were CGI. This meant that a lot of actors did not need to be on the set at the same time, which reached its lowest point with Sir Ian McKellen breaking down into tears after having to act against an empty room.
Unhappy with the trilogy, fans created the TolkienEdit, which is basically a four-hour film covering the entire trilogy. That means that there's been removed five hours of content. The casualties include Radagast, the Necromancer subplot, the elf/dwarf love triangle, a lot of running scenes, some battle scenes and a lot of white orc scenes.
What about the other books?
Besides the LOTR trilogy and the Hobbit, there are a few other books about Middle Earth. Many of them were published after Tolkien's death, but were personally edited by his son to make them available to the public. While none of these books are strictly need-to-know material, they can be thought of as great fluff books full of additional stories that flesh out the setting.
- The Silmarillion - This was an abridged history of Middle Earth, from it's creation to the War of the Ring. Here you'll find more information about Sauron and the creation of the One Ring, as well as epic tales of both elvish and human heroes from the First Age, the sociopathic Elf King Feanor who played right into Melkor's schemes, The Lay of Luthien (aka Aragorn and Arwen: The Prequel), the rise and fall of
AtlantisNumenor, and other things.
- The Adventures of Tom Bombadil - Poetry centered around Tom Bombadil, who is best described as Middle Earth's equivalent of a Monty Python sketch. He's actually in the first LOTR book but is so carefree and oblivious to the War of the Ring that he's not terribly important.
- Unfinished Tales - As the name implies, Tolkien hadn't completed these stories before his death. It includes longer versions of stories mentioned in the trilogy, such as Isildur's death, the origin of the Wizards, and the founding of Rohan.
- The History of Middle Earth - A 13 volume series detailing the creation of Tolkein's mythology, includes early drafts and unused stories. While the early material here isn't considered canon, some very interesting revelations appear here:
- Originally, Tolkien wanted to claim that he only "discovered" the stories about Middle Earth from a book he translated. This is because...
- Middle Earth is actually our Earth. From before the Ice Age.
- And that First Age humans predicted the birth of Jesus Christ (though not in explicit terms). Did we mention Tolkien was Catholic?
- The Children of Hurin - an extended version of a story that appears in the Silmarillion. The basic plot involves an emo human warrior who gets tricked by a dragon into fucking his sister. Yes, this is a canon story. Don't believe me? Look on the Silmarillion page.
Of course GW couldn't let such a profitable venture pass them by...
Back in the early 2000s, GW made a tabletop game based around this premise and called it The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game. Because they ran out of short titles.
While it let you play out your favourite scenes from the movies (in the way YOU imagined them going), it failed to light the world on fire.
Actually not a scene from the books. To be fair, though, Shadow of Mordor did have a relevant interpretation of Tolkien, and showed us what Mordor looks like in the daytime.