The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained in 10 Minutes, in Two Illustrated Videos

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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Comments (2)
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  • Pardel Lux says:

    One Ring to Call Them All: the tele­phone

  • Becca Tarnas says:

    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.”

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