When The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-55, nothing like it had ever been seen. This epic tale in its elaborately devised world sent shock waves through the publishing world. It was, in the words of Tolkien biographer Tom Shippey, "a one-item category." But soon, it was clear that the category was destined to overflow. J. R. R. Tolkien had done nothing less than found a new genre.

There were fantasy writers before Tolkien—notably George MacDonald, with Lilith, Phantastes, and his Curdie stories. But The Hobbit gave epic fantasy its shape, creating Middle-earth and populating it with halflings and monsters that would become stock figures for scores of authors after him. What Tolkien had created, as George R. R. Martin has said, was "a fully realized secondary universe, an entire world with its own geography and histories and legends, wholly unconnected to our own, yet somehow just as real."

Understanding how Tolkien did this is key to knowing both why his stories are valuable literature and why so many people have imitated him.

Raiders of the Lost Word

One element of Tolkien's genius was his knowledge of philology, the history of language.

Although casual readers might assume words such as hobbit and orc, and town names such as Withywindle, derive from sheer imagination, Shippey demonstrates in his J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000) that the language of Middle-earth has roots in the real world.

Early English was largely oral; we do not have a complete record of the way Norse, Celtic, German, and other languages shifted and settled to form Modern English. Like geologists imagining continuities in an incomplete fossil record, philologists conjecture what kinds of words might have appeared in intermediary stages, ...

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