In The Hobbit the danger and the excitement reach a peak when the forces of good seem about to be overcome by the forces of evil. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien builds to two simultaneous peaks. One occurs at the point when Sauron's forces sweep down on the small army led by Aragorn at the gates of Mordor. The other occurs inside Mordor, as Frodo struggles with Gollum on the edge of the Crack of Doom, where the Ring is to be destroyed. Both the war and the quest reach their resolution in the same instant, when the Ring is destroyed and with it, Sauron's power.

The fourth and final part of each story serves to wind things down. The hero returns home, looking forward to comfort. He finds instead that his home is threatened. But he has grown through his experiences and is able to regain what is his. Of course, there are many important differences between the two works. The Hobbit follows the story through Bilbo's eyes and tells of events in a chronological sequence.

In other words, you hear about things as they happen, rather than jumping ahead to future events, or flashing back to something that happened in the past. When Tolkien departs from this chronological sequence in The Hobbit, he carefully guides you through the jump in time: 'Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug, you must go back again to the evening when he smashed the door and flew off in a rage, two days before.' The story line of The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is much more complicated. The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, consisting of three volumes (Parts One to Three) divided into six sections (Books I through VI). The novel jumps back and forth in time, following the stories of several characters.

The various story lines finally converge near the end when all the characters are reunited as Aragorn is crowned king of Gondor. Tolkien uses these shifts in viewpoint to good effect, often ending his scenes as cliff- hangers, slowly building the tension to its climax. But trying to follow the different story lines as he jumps back and forth from one to the other can be very difficult. Tolkien doesn't guide you through them as he did in The Hobbit.

But he does give clues to help you put the pieces in order. For example, when Tolkien returns to Sam and Frodo in Book VI, he shows you that he's jumping back in time by telling you what Merry, Pippin, and Aragorn are doing at the same moment. Many people have commented that The Hobbit is like a simple fairy tale, whereas The Lord of the Rings is more like a great epic poem of the past, such as The Odyssey of Homer or Beowulf, the famous Old English tale of heroism. Like both fairy tales and epics, Tolkien's books are stories of heroism in an imaginary world filled with fantastic people and creatures. But The Hobbit, like many fairy tales, is first and foremost the story of an individual's growth into maturity. It has a fairy-tale ending, with Bilbo smoking happily on his pipe many years later, rich from his adventures and satisfied with his life.

An epic, on the other hand, tries to relate the hero's story to a long history and is more concerned with questions of moral choices and the fate of all men, than with its individual hero. In fact, many epics, such as Beowulf, end with the death of their heroes. The Lord of the Rings shares these characteristics of epics. Unlike Bilbo, Frodo doesn't live happily ever after. He's been wounded physically and also psychically by the loss of the Ring. His passage to the Blessed Realm at the end of the book may be interpreted as a symbolic death.

Part of Tolkien's genius lies in the way he combined the forms of fairy tale and epic. The heroes of most epics are larger than life, possessing great strength and ability, like the superheroes of comic books. But people nowadays find it hard to identify with such impossible heroes. Frodo, an ordinary person who has been thrust into a situation beyond his abilities, is a more suitable hero for a modern audience.

Aragorn, on the other hand, is a classic epic hero. But he has a fairy-tale ending, winning a kingdom and marrying his lifelong love. So you see, Tolkien didn't just copy the old forms of fairy tale and epic. He reworked them to meet the needs of a modern audience. From the great success of his books, he seems to have achieved his goal.