JEFFREY BROWN: It's a familiar scene at movie theaters around the country: Long snaking lines of fans waiting to see "The Return of the King," the third in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The movies are based on books written more than five decades ago by British author J.R.R. Tolkien. In just a week, the new film sold more than $300 million worth of tickets worldwide. The first two films in the epic saga, "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers," have already grossed more than $1.7 billion combined.
SPOKESPERSON: This day we fight!
JEFFREY BROWN: "The Lord of the Rings" is an epic fantasy set in a world called Middle-Earth, a world of humans, noble elves, flying dragons and many other fantastic creatures, all consumed by a great war. Two characters known as Frodo and Sam, called hobbits, must destroy an all-powerful ring that can end the war. But first they must survive overwhelming odds.
ACTOR: It's so quiet.
ACTOR: It's the deep breath before the plunge.
ACTOR: I don't want to be in a battle, but waiting on the edge of one that I can't escape is even worse. Is there any hope for Frodo and Sam?
ACTOR: There never was much hope, just a fool's hope.
JEFFREY BROWN: For all the epic sweep and fantasy, the director of the films says there's a very basic reason the films connect with fans.
PETER JACKSON: I think that the themes within them are themes that are as relevant 50 years ago when Tolkien wrote the book as they are today. They were relevant 500 years ago, you know. It's basic human emotional stuff if you like. It's friendship, it's courage, it's loyalty, it's love, it's fear, it's evil, it's good versus evil.
JEFFREY BROWN: J.R.R. Tolkien was a leading scholar of Old and Middle English, and spent most of his life at Oxford University in England. As a young man he served in the British army in World War I, and saw action on the western front. His books, including "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Hobbit," have been read by more than 100 million people. Tolkien died in 1973.
For more on "The Lord of the Rings" and the man behind it I'm joined by Michael Dirda, senior editor of The Washington Post Book World and author of the new memoir "An Open Book." Michael, welcome.
MICHAEL DIRDA: Great to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: So the man who wrote this epic fantasy spent most of his life as a tweedy academic in Oxford?
MICHAEL DIRDA: Very much so. He, basically his entire career was spent studying Medieval languages, Old English, Finnish, every sort of older literature you can imagine, particularly of the North. He was devoted to grammar, really in some ways "The Lord of the Rings" grows out of that study of languages. He became interested in creating languages of his own and these led to the stories.
JEFFREY BROWN: So he took the languages, he took the mythology of Northern Europe and created worlds, maps, peoples, whole races, a huge back story.
MICHAEL DIRDA: Exactly. That's ... it's not as much evident in the movies, but if you read the books, their great power comes from that encyclopedic nature that they have. They've got glossaries, they've got maps, they've got pictures, they have this whole sense of history behind everything in the story.
In fact, in a lot of ways, everything that happens in "The Lord of the Rings" is a kind of a fulfillment of something from the past. You know, either an incomplete destiny is now going to be completed, or, you know, a broken sword will be re-forged and used again. There is nothing that happens in "The Lord of the Rings" that doesn't in some sense look back to this past.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the other formative experience of Tolkien's life, his biography, was his service in World War I. He saw trench warfare up close.
MICHAEL DIRDA: And he clearly reflects some of that in the battle scenes that are, you know, that are really the highlights of the movies. But, you know ... and some of the themes of the book have long been suspected to be a commentary on the Second World War, as well. So both of those wars in some fashion, undergerd some of the story at least of "The Lord of the Rings."
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in an article you wrote in The Washington Post, you called "The Lord of the Rings" the greatest fantasy novel of our time. Why, and how does it achieve that?
MICHAEL DIRDA: Well, it does that partly because it was really the first fantasy novel to create an entire secondary world that was autonomous, that was different from our own, that you could live in, that you had this sense of history, you had this sense of variety. No other fantasy before had ever done that.
You don't ... you do find that it's been debased in some fashion, there have been a lot of, you know, tales of swords and sorcerers and elves and magic rings since then. But Tolkien really did something for the first time that no one else had done, and he did it so well.
There was a survey in England where people were asked to vote on what they thought was the greatest novel of the 20th century. And "The Lord of the Rings" was the one that was chosen by the reader at large.
I mean most literary people would pick "Ulysses" or "Remembrance of Things Passed" or something like that. But the book has such power for anyone who gives it a chance.
JEFFREY BROWN: For a while in the '60s and '70s, it achieved a kind of cult status.
MICHAEL DIRDA: Yeah, I used to see, you know things "Frodo lives" and there was a parody that the Harvard Lampoon put out called "Board of the Rings" and there were lots of references to Gan Dolf. It's a story that's been around for now 50 years, came out in the novel since 1954, '55, and there are online chat rooms devoted to it, there are commentaries, it is has endured for a long while and doesn't seem to be fading at all.
JEFFREY BROWN: For all the grand sweep, for all the big fantasy, the evil orcs and the noble elves, it is like all epics, ultimately about coming home, correct? It ends with the hobbits back at the shire?
MICHAEL DIRDA: Yeah, it really is about coming home. It's also ... the first form is called the "Fellowship of the Ring" and I think Tolkien works all kinds of variations on that word fellowship from sort of the grousing and drinking of the hobbits early on at parties and weddings and taverns all the way to the sense of fellowship as loyalty to your group, to your comrades.
Indeed when you think about it, the entire story comes down to the attempt by these vast groups of people to essentially distract Soron so that this little guy Frodo can carry the ring back to the fires of Mount Doom to destroy it. And people are willing to put their lives on the line for their friend.
JEFFREY BROWN: And eventually make their way home?
MICHAEL DIRDA: And eventually, you know, it is ... some make their way home. It's one of the great, you know, aspects of the book's power that it doesn't end happily, there is a great sense of loss throughout that there is ... the world ... a world is coming to an end.
The heroes may be successful, but it's the end of a kind of magic time, and after this will be the age of men, rather than the age of gods and heroes and elves and dwarves.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Michael Dirda, thank you very much.
MICHAEL DIRDA: Great to have been here. Thank you.