Suite101: The Quests of Middle-earth - How well do today's fantasy stories and role-playing games resemble a good, old-fashioned Middle-earth quest?
Below is an excerpt:
I suspect that if one were to ask people at random what one contribution to modern literature and entertainment J.R.R. Tolkien would be most identifiable with, popularizing the quest story would be a very frequent answer (if not necessarily the most frequent one). Quests have been a part of our story-telling since Gilgamesh. Jason and the Argonauts popularized the notion for the Greco-Roman world, and they laid down the basic law of Quest Tales: you start with a humble hero, probably of noble blood, surround him with heroic companions, and send him off to the far corners of the world to achieve great deeds.
It doesn't really matter how many people go on the quest, what they are questing for, or if their blood is really royal. The excitement is in the quest itself, in the realization that something must be done or the world may end tomorrow. A good quest is filled with villains and monsters, treachery and secret help, the loss of old friends and the gaining of new friends.
In The Lord of the Rings and even The Hobbit Tolkien satisfies the reader's classic expectations by delivering all these elements. But he didn't stop there. He explored many facets of the quest story, in depth and briefly, throughout his three ages of Middle-earth history. The Quest of Mount Doom made this sort of thing fashionable, but Tolkien had older quests in mind when he wrote the story. Older in terms of his life and in terms of the history he was assembling out of previous efforts to write a great mythology.
And it is perhaps significant that quest stories are a part of virtually every mythology. Mythologies try to bring some order to a people's sense of the world, and a good mythology explains how the wisdom and understanding it represents was acquired. Thor's quest for his hammer in the land of the giants is a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. The ultimate clash can be deferred with a small struggle, but it cannot be prevented. Thor ended up killing all the giants in the castle where he found his hammer, but the giants still gathered for Ragnarok.
Like Thor's quest, Frodo's quest didn't end evil forever, either. Sauron was defeated but other evils remained in Middle-earth, or would rise up in ages to come. Frodo merely deferred the final conflict by taking the Ring to a position where it could be destroyed. Middle-earth's Ragnarok may still come, despite all that the heroes great and small achieve to defer that final event. The clock is ticking, Tolkien implies, and one day it will stop.
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Note: Michael Martinez' most recent book, Visualizing Middle-earth, a collection of essays about J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, is now available as a print-on-demand or eBook. Click here for more information.