Since 1937, over 150,000,000 copies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy have been sold. As of 2006, The Return of the King ranked second on Box Office Mojo’s list of worldwide gross receipts with a gross product of 1,118.9 million, Titanic coming in first with 1,244 million and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone coming in third with 976.5 million. The Lord of the Rings online was the top selling PC game in North America and Europe in 2007. The saga is clearly a pop culture phenomenon, yet nowadays one is much more likely to see a group of teenagers gossiping about the latest Harry Potter movie or swooning over Edward Cullen than conversing about the adventure of Frodo and Sam in their quest to Mount Doom. The Lord of the Rings has become iconic of the more nerdy side of pop culture, as a dialogue from Friends perfectly describes: Ross and Chandler ask “Didn’t you read Lord of the Rings in high school?” to which Joey replies “No, I had sex in high school.”
Having two older brothers, I was exposed to The Lord of the Rings at the age of seven when it came out in 2001. I was and still am more fascinated by the fantasy world of Middle Earth than Twilight, High School Musical, The Jonas Brothers, or even Harry Potter, of which I am a huge fan. However, after my brother’s eleventh birthday, where after begging him for weeks to let me go with his friends to see The Return of the King he finally gave in and let me sit in the very back row by myself, I’ve felt that saying I’d rather be Arwen than Bella Swan is not something many people would agree with me on. Although the trilogy was a huge hit in the 50’s and 60’s, it seems as if today’s youth does not have the same appreciation for The Lord of the Rings. So what makes fads such as Twilight and Harry Potter so much more appealing?
Having always been a fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, over the summer I decided it was time to read the books. After receiving the trilogy as a birthday present, I was really excited to start reading them. However, after the first fifty pages, I realized that this excitement hadn’t really been fulfilled. I couldn’t believe that I, a devoted Lord of the Rings fan, didn’t love the books as much as I though I would. I tried to think of reasons why this would happen, and I realized that I had been expecting something. I had been expecting them to be like the movies. In order to be relatable to the general public, the movies are significantly more cliché than the books. I was anticipating the suspense, drama, and epic feeling that the movies embody. It wasn’t until I became conscious and got past this that I realized what I just read was an amazing piece of writing.
Boiled down, a huge part of pop culture is about making money. If something is popular, it needs to not only be a phenomenon but also a commodity. This sheds some light on The Lord of the Rings’ status in pop culture today. As Micheal A. Hall articulates in The Influence of J.R.R Tolkien on Pop Culture, while commenting on Tolkien’s struggle to get the trilogy published, “When considering the influence of Tolkien’s work on western culture, one cannot overlook the conflict between high art and the desire of marketers to make it a commodity for selling. Tolkien was making a work of art while the publishers undoubtedly were primarily interested in having a sellable commodity. This conflict between the “high art” nature of the histories of Middle Earth and the desire to make it a popular culture item that can be marketed and sold would continue up to the present day.”
In order to make money off of a pop culture phenomenon, the creators of the phenomenon have to make it relatable. When looked at closely, most pop culture books and movies contain relatively empty characters so that people can put themselves in the character’s place. Although I would argue that Tolkien’s characters are not empty, The Lord of the Rings books used to have a relatable quality that people seem to no loner identify with. One explanation is that what is “relatable” has changed. Although Tolkien is adamant about his books not being allegories, there have been many connections made between The Lord of the Rings and the real world, mostly in the 50’s and 60’s. The Influence of J.R.R Tolkien explores some of these connections and reasons why the trilogy was so relatable in the 50’s and 60’s. One very plausible explanation is the birth of counter culture during the time period. The elder generation considered the trilogy crap, which meant everyone in the young generation wanted to read it. Another explanation was that the time period was “a time of utter boredom and grey”, and The Lord of the Rings provided a completely new and alien world. Another theory of the time was that the books were a fantastical account of WWII, a relevant subject of the time.
The Lord of the Rings is not as relevant today as it used to be is because our generation does not value these concepts the way they were valued in the 60's. Teenagers as a collective don’t care about the connections between pop-culture phenomena and world politics, or the simplistic struggle between good and evil. In comparison to the younger generation of the 60’s, we don’t even really care about rebelling against the institution. Whereas people in the 50's and 60's were seeking escapist novels to get away from their own world, teenagers would rather read books such as Harry Potter and Twilight that are set in a world very similar to our own with one huge twist. It is a rare type of 21st century teenager that appreciates the detailed world that Tolkien has created in The Lord of the Rings. We, as a collective, relate to empty characters and plots because we can imagine ourselves in those positions. We would rather read books about a world similar to our own than experience something entirely strange. We care about beating the bad guys and getting the guy/girl in the end. However, I as an individual, find The Lord of The Rings appealing for the same reasons as people did when it was written. I’m more interested in good versus evil and the subtleties of the human condition than pining over the fact that I will never be with Edward Cullen because he is a fictional character.