The author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings casts a massive, sweeping shadow over fantasy literature and entertainment. But J.R.R. Tolkien's influence spreads much further than that. Everywhere you look, you can see Tolkien's legacy: in science, in art, in language.
Here are 10 fairly unlikely things that have been influenced or generated by the love of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some of these, you probably know about. Others might surprise you.
Top image: Art by Ted Nasmith.
1) Contemporary Art
Danish artists Nina Beier and Marie Lund produced the obviously Tolkien inspired work "The Dedication (To J.R.R. Tolkein, To one
who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver)" a sculpture constructed out of two books, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and Mythopoeia by J.R.R. Tolkien. Mythopoeia was a rebuttal to Lewis' statement that myths were lies, defending myth-making as a way of expressing truths. Beier and Lund also explored the theme of myth-making with their exhibit "The Object Lessons" where they invited a curator to make a fictional text about a non-existent show, and they set out to create the show with actual objects — similar to the way Tolkien created a language and culture for his elves and dwarves, creating artifacts and history to support his mythological work. The pieces in the show seem very archaeological in nature.
And meanwhile, the foyer of the Stavanger Concert Hall in Norway boasts a brand giant Eye of Sauron. The piece by Jeffery Inaba is formed by two joined rings that will reflect the natural lighting by day and glow by its own LEDs at night. The artist himself when pitching the project suggested the rings would attract visitors to the building as the magic ring from Tolkien's world attracted people. But seriously, the glowing suspended circles have definitely got the "Eye of Sauron" thing going on.
You might not have heard of Michael Everson, but he's doing some really amazing work for language and technology. He's a co-author of the Unicode Standard, and Contributing Editor and Irish National Representative to ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG. And he's done a lot of work with encoding minority languages into unicode, thus allowing people to use their own native languages on computers and in electronic formats. He also helps people like the Cherokee develop fonts for their languages. And Everson has also edited and written several dictionaries and primers of Middle English, along with Cornish, Breton and other languages.
In an interview on the Dork Forest podcast, he says his inspiration for his life's work came from Tolkien. After hearing Nicol Williamson (Merlin from the movie Excalibur) read an abridged version of The Lord of the Rings, in middle school, he was set on fire. He read all of Tolkien and decided to be an Anglo-Saxon language professor, just like Tolkien. And luckily for the world, he expanded his linguistic interest. The interview is a fun listen. He is also currently in the process of trying to get Tolkien's Tengwar, the elven script, and Cirth, dwarven runes, encoded into unicode. You know, just in case you need to write an email in either of those languages.
3) The Definition of Walrus
Okay, so Tolkien did have a bit more influence on the Oxford English Dictionary than just the definition of the word "walrus." I once had a librarian tell me if the library was on fire, she'd grab as much of the OED as she could before fleeing — keep in mind, this was before it was on the internet. These books are important and expensive. Basically, the OED is the definitive source for English. Tolkien worked on the first part of the Ws from 1919-1920, including the words waggle, walnut and wampum. He wrote out many versions of the walrus entry, as he worked on its difficult etymology. Six handwritten versions of this entry still exist. Tolkien, through the OED and his other scholarly works, has contributed a great deal to our knowledge of the English language. He was also given the honor of writing the dictionary's entry for the word "Hobbit."
4) Hippies and Environmentalism
The Lord of the Rings was not published in mass paperback until 1965. (Well, legally published. A few years earlier, Ace found what they thought was a copyright loophole and essentially pirated the paperback rights in the U.S.) The mass distribution found an eager audience with the burgeoning hippie movement. The struggle against Sauron echoed anti-establishment feelings and the pacifism of Frodo reflected the anti-war sentiment in Vietnam. The hippies latched onto the "little guys making a difference" theme of the series. By now, every good head shop has some groovy LotR art work. "Frodo Lives!" and "Gandalf for President" bumper stickers, buttons and t-shirts began appearing everywhere. Of course the scholarly and uptight Tolkien, who didn't even want his books published in paperbacks because it was so base, was horrified.
But as a result of the hippie infatuation, the environmental and green movement picked up The Lord of the Rings as an inspiration. In the series, evil physically manifests as pollution and industrialism, and the heroic acts literally clean and purify the landscape. The environmental themes of the books are championed and turned into activism in works like Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien by Matthew Dickerson. And the environmentalist use of Tolkien's work has outlived the hippies. The National Wildlife Federation has partnered with Warner Bros. to use the release of The Hobbit as a chance to promote environmental education for children by providing resources and activities related to the movie.
5) Rock and Metal
Led Zepplin had quite a love affair with Tolkien — but if you've ever seen pictures of Robert Plant in the 70's, with the long hair, poet shirts and tights, this doesn't seem that surprising. The prog rock groups from the 60's and 70's also embraced Tolkien, with songs like Rush's "Rivendell." Again, not that surprising. But metal also loves itself some Tolkien, because of his epic stories, heroic spirit and vision. But being metal, they like celebrating the evil and chaotic side of the conflict. For a thorough explanation check out this article.
6) Scientific Naming
Scientist are really into naming things after Tolkien creations. Technically the name of a recently discovered primitive hominid is Homo floresiensis, but the meter tall man-like creature that stands roughly half the size of a man came to be called a Hobbit by the media and scientists alike. The Tolkien estate put a kibosh on all the fun though by banning the use of the name Hobbit, in relationship to promoting lectures and events about the little hominid, events that were going to coincide in the release of the movie The Hobbit this year. But meanwhile, a couple of months ago, a dinosaur was determined to be new genus and named Sauroniops, "The eye of Sauron."
Astronomers also want a piece of the Tolkien naming fun. A small asteroid belt discovered in 1982 by M. Watt was Name 2675 Tolkien after our main man. Galaxy NGC 4151, one of the nearest neighbors to Earth, is affectionately known in the astronomer community as "The Eye of Sauron". The super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy does give it a rather sinister look.
7) New Zealand
New Zealand might be having a bit of a collective identity crisis. Sure, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie productions have brought a lot of money and attention to the small island nation, but someone needs to explain to them they are not actually Middle-earth. The county is issuing money with hobbits on it, stamping passports with a welcome to Middle-Earth stamp, and attempting to name a mountain after Tolkien. And meanwhile, the actual labor laws of New Zealand have been rewritten to accommodate the filming of The Hobbit, possibly a more lasting impact. I don't think Tolkien could have ever predicted he was going to influence an entire country.
Tolkien was a devout Catholic. And though he did not directly reference Christianity in his works he did infuse them with theology and belief, according to his own letters and mountains of scholarly works exploring the themes of the books. And some Christians have rallied around Tolkien's work. In Christianity Today's survey of The Best 100 Religious Books of the Century, The Lord of the Rings came in fourth. Books like The Christian World of the Hobbit claim the book for its world viewpoint. Books like A Hobbit Devotional: Bilbo Baggins and the Bible seem like they are crossing into a very weird space of fan fiction. The devout Christian interest in Tolkien seems really odd, considering it is often challenged and banned for being irreligious.
But meanwhile, the wiccans, pagans and neo-mystics have been just as keen to claim Tolkien for their own. According to the book J.R.R. Tolkien: A biography by Leslie Jones many new pagans cite fantasy literature as a gateway as inspiration for their religion, and Tolkien books are especially appealing with their themes of stewardship of nature. Their use of Welsh as the predominant ritual language might also be attributed to Tolkien's "Elvish" poems. The elven language from the books, which sounds magical and kind of Welsh, might explain why the language was picked up by the neo-pagans. Any quick search internet search will find as many wiccans and pagans defending and claiming Tolkiens work as Christians.
Were you ever reading The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and getting hungry because of the sumptuous descriptions of food? You can satisfy those cravings by supporting the creation of a cookbook that intends to research and recreate the recipes of the food from Tolkien's World, get the cook book Hobbit Recipes... or Cooking with Hobbits, or go to Denny's. The mind boggles and the stomach knots at the Denny's Hobbit menu, as you start to have an existential crisis over cross promotion and the doom of civilization.
10) Science Fiction
You'd expect Tolkien to have a huge influence on fantasy — but he's also helped to shape some of science fiction's most famous creations as well. George Lucas has cited the LOTR as one of the influences on Star Wars, which uses a lot of epic fantasy structure and grafts science fiction ideas onto it. There are even some outright nods, such as the forest moon of Endor — "Endor" being one of the elvish language translations of "Middle-earth." And Star Wars helped to make the LotR movies possible, both by improving the technology and by showing that an epic fantasy series could make money.
Meanwhile, Babylon 5 is full of Lord of the Rings references. Series creator and executive producer J. Michael Straczynski acknowledged the Shadows from the television show were patterned after the Black Riders in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Rangers Babylon 5 bear more than a passing resemblance the Rangers of the North in LotR. The code of the of Babylon 5's Rangers "We walk in the dark places that no one else will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass," directly calls upon the scene of Gandalf's second confrontation with the Balrog when he shouts, "You cannot pass!" and perhaps more indirectly to Aragorn's description of the Rangers in The Fellowship of the Ring: "Lonely men are we, Rangers of the North, hunters — but hunters ever of the servants of the Enemy." Beyond easy-to-point-to details, Straczynski was inspired by Tolkien's works as a model for his world building.
And Lord of the Rings was the blueprint for King's post-apocalyptic The Stand. In Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work, King is quoted as saying:
That was intended. It's not something I ever mention unless somebody brings it up because it didn't succeed anywhere near as well as Tolkien succeeds, mostly because I thought that I'd try to make Middle Earth the United States after the plague. One of the things that provided the impetus was that I said in the book, "After the plague, there's magic.' The best review I've had on the book said that Stu Redman is an American Frodo who sits around the gas station with his fellow hobbits and finally goes on a quest.