THAT SENTENCE , spoken reluctantly by a curious, home-loving small creature with furry feet and a preposterous name, is slightly enigmatic. But some 10 million passionate readers round the world will instantly recognize it as the real beginning of one of the great fairy tale quests in modern literature. Frodo is a Hobbit, three feet or so tall. The ring is magic and dangerous. It renders the good and weak who wear it invisible, but it provides both the power and the itch to dominate the world to any bad and overweening personage who may possess it. Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, for instance, who has already sent his dread black Ringwraiths coursing through Middle-earth to seize it. The only hope for peace lies with poor Frodo. He must journey to the very heart of darkness, to Mount Doom in Mordor, and drop the ring into the volcanic Crack of Doom, there to be destroyed forever.
Middle-earth is very nearly as large as the United States east of the Mississippi. Frodo and some true-hearted companions endure Ringwraiths and Barrowwights, hordes of Orcs, who are Sauron's shock troops, and much cloak-and-daggering. When Frodo triumphs, finally, and destroys the ring, it is only with the perverse collaboration of Gollum, a pitiably evil creature with froglike feet who sounds a bit like Oliver Twist's Fagin and is one of the memorable minor characters in English literature.
The white magician who made all this possible was an Oxford professor of Old and Middle English, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who died last week at the age of 81. Knowing that an imaginary world must be realistically equipped down to the last whisker of the last monster, Tolkien put close to 20 years into the creation of Middleearth, the three-volume Lord of the Rings and its predecessor, The Hobbit (1938). He also equipped readers with 157 pages of history, appendixes, indexes, tables of consanguinity, and philologically impeccable notes on all the languages, including Elvish and Sindarin, spoken on Middle-earth. In the years between 1954, when the book came out, and the present, Tolkien saw his readership spread from a handful of literate Anglophiles who savored The Lord of the Rings much as they do Grahame's The Wind in the Willows or T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, to hundreds of thousands of U.S. college kids who made Frodo a national figure and turned the lore of Middle-earth into a way of life. In 1966, the first paperback edition of the three volumes of the Ring sold close to 500,000 copies in the U.S. Scholars and critics had at first admired his books, while tracing down literary influences that ranged from Buchan (the chases, the praise of friendship) to Beowulf. Then, with such popularity, the story was denounced as escapist fantasy, its success owlishly attributed to "irrational adulation" and "nonliterary cultural and social phenomena." Attempts to straitjacket Tolkien's story as contemporary allegory were updated too. In the '50s, critics averred, Sauron was really Joseph Stalin and fumbling, heroic Frodo was the West.
A genial man with a large pipe who liked to gather with friends and translate Icelandic sagas, Tolkien bore all this stoically. He worked away at other books (Silmarillion and Akallabêth, tales about the creation and early history of Middle-earth, to be published posthumously). But he did point out that literal-minded folk who object to fairy stories as escapist mistake the wartime escape of the deserter (bad) for the wartime escape of the prisoner (necessary and good). Fairy tales represent the latter, Tolkien continued, and correspond to the primordial human desire - in a world of poverty, injustice and death - for the "consolation of the happy ending." Tolkien even coined a word - Eucatastrophe - for this happy quality. Eucatastrophe gives the reader "a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and heart's desire."
The Lord of the Rings is often pokey and perfervid. But it provides a kind of joy, and will do so as long as men read and Hobbits live in holes.