The story of The Lord of the Rings is about the war of the peoples of Middle-earth against a Dark Lord named Sauron, the eponymous "Lord of the Rings". The most powerful ring falls into the hands of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, who is sent on a quest to destroy The One Ring deep within the enemy territory of Mordor.
The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts in the years 1954 and 1955, and was preceded by the prologue, The Hobbit.
After the success of his earlier book The Hobbit, Tolkien's publishers persuaded him to write a sequel. He began writing in December 1937, but the first drafts were still far away from the finished version. After writing and re-writing the beginning several times, Tolkien realized the role of the One Ring and the quest it entailed in the spring of 1938, while writing the discussion between Gildor Inglorion and the later Frodo Baggins. This was the point upon which the back story and central quest that would be The Lord of the Rings came together in his mind. It was also the point that he firmly set the book's plot into his already existing Middle-earth legendarium. Whereas the The Hobbit had before been separate from his Middle-earth mythology, while still borrowing ideas, names, and persons from it, Tolkien now consciously moved it and its sequel into the Middle-earth setting. This resulted in the changes in tone, and in the meaning of formerly unimportant things as the 'magic ring' and the Necromancer, who both gained literary importance in the sequel. While the The Hobbit was written as a story intended for his children, The Lord of the Rings due to the realization of the later plot, soon became an epic tale of much greater proportions, both in plot and in length.
The earlier drafts and versions of The Lord of the Rings were published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien in The History of The Lord of the Rings (1988-1992), which are volumes VI–IX of The History of Middle-earth.
In the story of the Middle-earth legendarium, The Hobbit appears as Bilbo's story of his journey and the finding of the Ring, while The Lord of the Rings are Frodo's later additions of the War of the Ring, both of which form the Red Book of Westmarch.
Although often wrongly thought to be a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings was conceived by the author as a single work. Its internal structure divides it into six 'books', named Book I-VI, according to the plot, with several appendices and an index. Because of paper shortages, the amount of paper needed and to reduce financial risk, it was released by the publisher Allen & Unwin in three volumes, each containing two Books:
This resulted in the common error of calling The Lord of the Rings a trilogy, a term which Tolkien rejected, just as he disliked the book being published in separate volumes. The first two volumes were published in 1954, and the third in 1955. It was initially published in hardbound.
In 1965 an American paperback publisher released a "pirated" paperback edition, paying Tolkien nothing, in the belief that Tolkien's copyright in the U. S. was defective because of a technicality. Tolkien reached a legal settlement with this publisher, and another publisher released an authorized edition for which Tolkien was paid royalties. The book was an instant success, particularly among college students.
In the Second Age the Dark Lord Sauron created the One Ring to help him conquer the peoples of Middle-earth. The Elves and Men of Middle-earth, led by High King Gil-galad of the Noldor and King Elendil of the Dúnedain, formed the Last Alliance of Elves and Men to fight him. Sauron was defeated and the Ring cut from his hand, thus the War of the Last Alliance ended, beginning the Third Age.
The story takes place at a time when the Elves, immortal and fairest of all beings in the world, are leaving the war-weary world to sail to the blessed realm of Valinor. With the departure of the Elves, the Age of Men has come. But the Dark Lord Sauron, not truly killed at the end of the last Age, has been regaining power over the millennia since his defeat. Instrumental in his survival was the One Ring, which had kept him alive, and for which he now searches. This Ring, which had been lost for millennia, fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the story of which is told in The Hobbit. At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, sixty years have passed since Bilbo found the One Ring.
The Fellowship of the Ring
In T.A. 3018, Frodo is visited by his old friend, the Wizard Gandalf, who tells him of the Ring's history and gives him the task of taking the Ring to the Elven refuge Rivendell. Frodo leaves the Shire joined by his friends Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took, all the while pursued by the mysterious otherworldly Black Riders, servants of Sauron. After an adventurous time they arrive in Bree, where they meet the human Ranger Strider. With his help they manage the make the last stretch of the way to the Ford of Bruinen at Rivendell.
The group have made it to Rivendell, where the Council of Elrond decides over further action. The Ring shall be destroyed, which can only be done in Mount Doom in Sauron's land Mordor where it was forged. A group of companions are chosen to accompany Frodo on his quest, forming the Fellowship of the Ring: the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, the Wizard Gandalf the Grey, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and the Men Boromir of Gondor and Aragorn of the Dúnedain. The Fellowship journeys south, and after failing to cross the Misty Mountains, goes under them through the Dwarven Mines of Moria. There they are attacked by Orcs and lose their leader Gandalf to the Balrog. The Fellowship rest in the Elven realm Lothlórien, and continue by boat down the river Anduin. At the Falls of Rauros they rest again, and Boromir tries unsuccessfully to take the Ring from Frodo. While the Fellowship searches for him, Frodo secretly leaves them behind to continue his quest all by himself, but Sam catches up with him and joins him on his way to Mordor.
The Two Towers
Boromir is mortally wounded defending Merry and Pippin from Orcs. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli decide to follow the Orcs into Rohan to rescue the kidnapped hobbits. Merry and Pippin manage to escape Saruman's Orcs at Fangorn Forest, where they meet Treebeard the Ent. The tree-like Ents hold council, and decide to attack Saruman at Isengard. In Fangorn Forest Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet the returned Gandalf the White, who takes them to the capital Edoras, where they join King Théoden of Rohan in the fight against Saruman. The forces of Rohan prevail against Saruman's armies in the Battle of the Hornburg. Afterwards they go to Isengard to confront Saruman, whom is cast out of the Order by Gandalf. Pippin picks up the palantír, and alerts Sauron to their presence. Gandalf and Pippin set of for Gondor.
Back in the Emyn Muil, Frodo and Sam journey east towards Mordor, trailed by Gollum. They capture him and he promises to lead them on their way. They travel though the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate, where Gollum leads them south. In Ithilien they are captured by Faramir of Gondor, but he releases them after hearing about their quest. Gollum leads them to and abandons them at the Pass of Cirith Ungol, where they are attacked by the giant spider Shelob. Assuming Frodo dead, Sam takes the Ring to finish the quest on his own. Frodo's body is taken by a patrol of Orcs, who reveal that Frodo is only paralyzed. Sam, who has secretly followed them, tries to rescue Frodo, but is late and locked out of the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
The Return of the King
Gandalf and Pippin arrive in the city of Minas Tirith, where they meet Steward Denethor II of Gondor, and Pippin enters his service. Aragorn and his companions are joined by a group of Rangers from Rivendell. They go through the Paths of the Dead and Aragorn summons the Dead Men of Dunharrow to his aid, and then rides east. King Théoden is summoned to Gondor, and the Rohirrim and Merry ride to Minas Tirith. Minas Tirith is besieged by the Sauron's armies. The following Battle of the Pelennor Fields is won with the help of the Rohirrim and the arrival of Aragorn with reinforcements from the southern regions of Gondor. Théoden is killed, but Éowyn and Merry slay the Witch-king of Angmar. Aragorn leads the combined forces of the West against Sauron in a move to distract him from Frodo, resulting in the Battle of the Black Gate.
Sam rescues Frodo and returns the Ring to him. They continue the trek across Mordor. At Mount Doom they are attacked by Gollum. Frodo succumbs to the power of the Ring, claims it as his own and puts it on. Gollum fights him, biting off his finger and taking the Ring, but slips and falls into the Cracks of Doom, destroying the Ring. Sauron is defeated and his power crumbles. The Battle of the Black Gate is won, and Gandalf sends the Eagles to rescue Frodo and Sam. Aragorn becomes King of Arnor and Gondor. Everyone returns homeward, and the hobbits return to the Shire. The land has been taken over by Saruman and his men, but after the Scouring of the Shire led by the returned hobbits, Saruman is killed and the hobbits can begin reordering their land. After a few years Frodo, who has been greatly hurt and burdenend though his quest and the Ring, traveled to the Grey Havens. There he bids his hobbit-friends good-bye, and leaves together with Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel for the Undying Lands in the West, ending the Third Age of Middle-earth. Sam, Merry and Pippin return to the Shire and their homes.
The Lord of the Rings is followed by six appendices, which give more background and detail on the history, peoples, languages, and various other topics of Middle-earth.
- Appendix A Annals of the Kings and Rulers: contains further information on the history of Númenor, Arnor and Gondor, and of the Rohirrim and Durin's Folk.
- Appendix B The Tale of Years (Chronology of the Westlands): contains the timeline and chronicles of the Ages.
- Appendix D Calendars: the different calendar systems.
- Appendix E Writing and Spelling: on the pronunciation and the scripts.
- Appendix F: overview of the languages, and notes on the fictional "translation" of the book from the Westron language.
From the beginning, The Lord of the Rings has received very mixed reviews, which range from high praise to condemnation. The Lord of the Rings has been considered one of the most influential works on the modern time fantasy genre.
In 1965, a US-American pirated paperback edition and the surrounding trouble spread awareness of The Lord of the Rings in the United States, where it soon gained a strong following.
Many times people have tried to interpret The Lord of the Rings as an allegory. Tolkien himself renounced that claim, stating he disliked allegory and that the The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory, which he also explained in the foreword to the book's second edition. Instead of being allegorical, he said that the book had a quality he called "applicability": because it was a story about universal themes and struggles, it could be likened to almost any situation in real life. This universality would result in it often being interpreted as an allegory, sometimes ironically from opposing ideological sides. For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and despite his statements that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory some readers have seen Christian undertones in The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien himself specifically discounted the belief that he wrote the book as a direct Christian allegory—or any other sort of allegory, which he went on record as "cordially disliking" and saw as besides the point of good storytelling in the medieval sense, and preferring "applicability"—in contrast with the overt and acknowledged allegories in the works of Tolkien's friend, C. S. Lewis.
Tolkien's scarring experiences in World War I and his distaste for destructive industrialism - seen in the books in his characterization of Saruman's armies - has been an influence on his works, as acknowledged by himself. However, Tolkien did state that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision"—which indicates his devoted faith.
Tolkien attempted to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Although he did a first draft, he would never complete it. The unfinished work is now part of the 12th volume of The History of Middle-earth, under the title of The New Shadow.
The Lord of the Rings has been adapted full or in part in a variety of media. Among these are films, stage plays and a musical.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy were three films based on the book, all directed by Peter Jackson, produced by New Line Cinema and filmed in New Zealand. The film titles were derived from the three volumes:
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The films were released annually in cinemas from December 2001 to 2003. DVD releases of the cinema version and Special Extended Editions have also been released for each film. Each extended edition includes four discs, two of bonus material.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy received universal acclaim from critics and fans alike. Some even cited it as "the Star Wars Trilogy for Millennials". The trilogy had 30 Oscar nominations, 17 of which it won. One of them being Best Picture, which was won by The Return of the King at the 76th Academy Awards in 2004. The Return of the King is also the only film in cinematic history that won every Oscar it was nominated for, 11 in all. It is tied with Titanic and Ben-Hur as the film that won the most Academy Awards in cinematic history. Both the first and third films in the series also won Movieguide's "Best Movie for Mature Audiences" award in 2002 and 2004, respectively.
- "As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. [...] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. [...] Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.", J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Foreword
- "Much as it is possible to identify allegories of the Second World war into The Lord of the Rings, it is possible to identify any number of Christian allegories as well" in Smith, J. and Matthews, J.C. The Lord of the Rings:the Films, the books, the radio series (Virgin Books 2004), p.116.
- The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, #129
- "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience [...] One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. [...] It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important.", J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Foreword
- John Garth, "Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle Earth," available at Amazon.com.