In set 60 years before the events in Tolkien relates the story of the seemingly accidental finding of the Ring by another hobbit, , who takes it to his home, . Story-externally, the tale related in was written before , and it was only later that the author developed Bilbo's magic ring into the "One Ring." Neither Bilbo nor the wizard, , are aware at this point that Bilbo's magic ring is the One Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron.
takes up the story about 60 years after the end of The story begins in the first volume, when , Bilbo's adoptive heir, came into possession of Bilbo's magic ring. Bilbo's old friend, , who got Bilbo involved in the adventures in that led to the discovery of the Ring, discovered that it was in fact the , the instrument of Sauron's power and the object for which the Dark Lord has been searching for most of the Third Age, and which corrupted others with desire for it and the power it held.
The story concerns peoples such as , , , , , and (called in ), and centers on the made by the Dark Lord . Starting from quiet beginnings in , the story ranges across Middle-earth and follows the courses of the . The main story is followed by six appendices that provide a wealth of historical and linguistic background material, as well as an index listing every character, place, , and sword.
The back story begins thousands of years before the action in the book, with the rise of the eponymous Lord of the Rings, the Dark Lord , a malevolent reincarnated deity who possessed great supernatural powers and who later became the ruler of the dreaded realm of . At the end of the of Middle-earth, Sauron survived the catastrophic defeat and chaining of his lord, the ultimate , (who was formerly counted as one of the , the angelic of the ). During the , Sauron schemed to gain dominion over Middle-earth. In the disguise as "Annatar" or , he aided and other Elven-smiths of in the forging of magical rings which confer various powers and effects on their wearers. The most important of these were The Nine, the seven an the three (which he did not touch or know of the three.) called the or .
However, he then secretly forged a Great Ring of his own, the , by which he planned to enslave the wearers of the other Rings of Power. This plan failed when the Elves became aware of him and took off their Rings. Sauron then launched a war during which he captured sixteen and distributed them to lords and kings of Dwarves and Men; these Rings were known as the and the respectively. The Dwarf-lords proved too tough to enslave although their natural desire for wealth, especially gold, increased; this brought more conflict between them and other races. The Men who possessed the Nine were slowly corrupted over time and eventually became the or Ringwraiths, Sauron's most feared servants. The Sauron failed to capture, and remained in the possession of the Elves (who forged these independently). The war ended as the Men of the island-nation of , a great nation, helped the besieged Elves, and Sauron's forces retreated from the coasts of Eriador. At this time he still held most of Middle-earth, excluding Imladris () and the .
Sauron sent the sinister Ringwraiths, in the guise of riders in black, to , Frodo's native land, in search of the Ring. Frodo escaped, with the help of his loyal gardener and three close friends, , , and . While Fatty acted as decoy for the Ringwraiths, Frodo and the others set off to take the Ring to the Elven haven of . They were aided by the enigmatic , who saved them from and took them in for a few days of feasting, rest, and counsel. At the town of , Frodo's party was joined by a man called "Strider", who was revealed, in a letter left by Gandalf at the for Frodo, to be , the heir to the kingships of and , two great realms founded by the Númenórean exiles. Aragorn led the hobbits to Rivendell on Gandalf's request. However, Frodo was gravely wounded by the leader of the Ringwraiths, though he managed to recover under the care of the lord .
Tolkien did not originally intend to write a sequel to and instead wrote several other children's tales, including As his main work, Tolkien began to outline the history of , telling tales of the , and many other stories of how the races and situations that we read about in the Lord of the Rings came to be. Tolkien died before he could complete and put together this work, today known as but his son edited his father's work, filled in gaps, and published it in 1977. Some Tolkien biographers regard as the true "work of his heart", as it provides the historical and linguistic context for the more popular work and for , and occupied the greater part of Tolkien's time. As a result ended up as the last movement of Tolkien's legendarium and in his own as a "much larger, and I hope also in proportion the best, of the entire cycle".
Tolkien's largest influences in the creation of his world were his Catholic faith and the Bible. Tolkien once described to his friend, the English Jesuit Father Robert Murray, as "" There are many theological themes underlying the narrative including the battle of good versus evil, the triumph of humility over pride, and the activity of grace. In addition the saga includes themes which incorporate death and immortality, mercy and pity, resurrection, salvation, repentance, self-sacrifice, free will, justice, fellowship, authority and healing. In addition the Lord's Prayer "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" was reportedly present in Tolkien's mind as he described Frodo's struggles against the power of the One Ring.
More recently, critical analysis has focused on Tolkien's experiences in the ; writers such as John Garth in 'Tolkien and the Great War', Janet Brennan Croft and all look in detail at this aspect and compare the imagery, mental landscape and traumas in Lord of the Rings with those experienced by soldiers in the trenches and the history of the Great War. John Carey, formerly Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, speaking in April 2003 on the BBC "Big Read" programme which voted Lord of the Rings "Britain's best-loved book", said that "Tolkien's writing is essentially a species of war literature; not as direct perhaps as Wilfred Owen, or as solid as some, but very, very interesting as that — the most solid reflection on war experiences written up as fantasy."
has had a profound and wide-ranging impact on popular culture, from its publication in the 1950s, but especially throughout the 1960s and 1970s, where young people embraced it as a countercultural saga. Its influence has been vastly extended in the present day, thanks to the Peter Jackson live-action films. Well known examples include "Frodo Lives!" and "Gandalf for President", two phrases popular among American during the 1960s and 1970s, "Ramble On", "", and "", three compositions by the British rock band Led Zeppelin that contain explicit references to (with others, such as "Stairway to Heaven", alleged by some to contain such), "Rivendell", a song about the joys of a stay at the Elven haven by the band Rush]] (found on their album , 1975), "Lord of the Rings" and "Gandalf the Wizard" by the German power metal band (who have also produced a -inspired album, ), nearly the entire discography of Austrian black metal band Summoning (who have also looked to other Tolkien works for inspiration) Rock band Marillion also take their name from Tolkien's Silmarillion. -themed editions of popular board games (e.g., , chess and Monopoly), and parodies such as , produced for the Harvard Lampoon, and the South Park episode "".