As a lover of fantasy and science fiction, but by no means a know-it-all fanboy, I know what it’s like to come to a fictional universe late. It can seem like everyone else has already read the canon, seen the movies, and memorized the genealogies, origin stories, magical arcana, number of ancient blood feuds, etc. For example, I grew up steeped in Star Trek but never watched Dr. Who. Now that British sci-fi show is seemingly everywhere, and I find myself intrigued. But who has the time to catch up on several decades of missed episodes? Some people may have felt similarly in the last few years about The Lord of the Rings, what with the number of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations besieging theaters. If you haven’t read any of those books, Middle Earth—for all its air of medieval legend and Norse myth—can be a very confusing place.
Thanks to Peter Jackson’s films, for better or worse, Tolkien’s books have even more cultural currency than they did in the 70s, when Led Zeppelin mined them for lyrical inspiration, and “Frodo lives” graffiti appeared on overpasses everywhere.
This brings us to the videos we feature here. Presented in a rapid fire style like that of motormouth YA novelist and video educator John Green, “The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained” is exactly that–two very quick tours, with illustrations, through the complex mythological world of Middle Earth, the setting of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, and other books you’ve maybe never heard of. These videos were made before the final installment of Jackson’s interminable Hobbit trilogy, but they cover most major developments before and after the events in short book on which he based those films.
I’ll say this for the effort—Tolkien’s world is one I thought I knew, but I didn’t know it nearly as well as I thought. Like most people, frankly, I haven’t read the sourcebook of so much of that world’s genesis, The Silmarillion, which gets a survey in the first video at the top of the post. I’m much more familiar, and you may be as well—through books or films—with the mythologies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy proper, covered in the video above. If these two thorough explainers don’t satisfy your curiosity, you can likely have further questions answered at one of the videos’ sources, Ask Middle Earth, a site that solicits “any question about Middle Earth.” Another source, the work of comparative mythologist Verlyn Flieger, who specializes in Tolkien, also promises to be highly illuminating.
Map of Middle-Earth Annotated by Tolkien Found in a Copy of Lord of the Rings
“The Tolkien Professor” Presents Three Free Courses on The Lord of the Rings
110 Drawings and Paintings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Of Middle-Earth and Beyond
J.R.R. Tolkien Snubs a German Publisher Asking for Proof of His “Aryan Descent” (1938)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
One Ring to Call Them All: the telephone
I very much appreciate this condensation of so much of Tolkien’s rich material into such comprehensive and concise videos! As a Tolkien scholar I do have two minor suggestions, one of which is very easily fixable the other more an interesting topic of discussion. The easily fixed error is the spelling of Saruman’s name which in the video was spelled “Sauruman” (clearly echoing Sauron, but Tolkien as an exacting philologist would have pointed out the different linguistic roots of the names to show that the exact spelling is quite important. The “saur” of “Sauron” means “abhorrent” or “abominable” in the Elvish language Quenya, while Saruman translates as “man of skill.” I’m sure Gandalf would have suspected Saruman from the beginning if his chosen name meant “abhorrent”!
The other issue is around the creation of creatures. In Tolkien’s cosmology only Eru, also called Ilúvatar can bestow sentient life and free will upon other beings through what is called the Secret Fire or the Imperishable Flame that resides only in Eru. So while Aulë made the physical bodies of the Dwarves and Yavanna the forms of the Ents, only Eru can give them free life. This is why Melkor (later named Morgoth) did not make Orcs or Trolls but corrupted the sentient beings of Elves and Ents. Balrogs and dragons are both spiritually Maiar corrupted by Morgoth but not made by him, as the video mentioned in reference to Balrogs. I just wanted to bring this up because it was important for Tolkien to differentiate the divine act of creation from what he called sub-creation—or the creativity we are each bestowed with under God that is an inherent human desire. He saw his own work in this context, saying: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”