The Lord of the Rings has been such an important component of my psychic make-up for so long, that I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve read and reread LOTR many times, including at least twice out loud to my kids. I also love the short stories, especially “Leaf by Niggle” and “Farmer Giles of Ham.” Most of the back story stuff edited by Christopher Tolkien, not so much. I’m not THAT kind of geek. The exceptions are the parts of the back story that are most like a story, like The Children of Hurin and “Aldarion and Erendis,” both of which are heart-wrenching, if not gut-wrenching.
So, I’m just going to make a few random observations. By the way, if for some reason you haven’t read them and think you might, and haven’t seen the movies, spoiler alert. It is hard to talk about the LOTR without giving something away. If you don’t read past page 240 of volume three, you really aren’t going to get what the book is really about.
Tolkien’s work clearly falls in the category of Romance, rather than Novel, using Northrup Frye’s categories. No one, for instance, gets up and leaves the fire to go “water the grass.” He does not spend a lot of time exploring the inner psychological struggle of the protagonist or other characters. Kristin Lavransdatter is much more of a novel in that respect.
This does not mean that Tolkien’s characters are not complex, or “round.” I would argue that the complexity that we look for in a character in a novel is present in Tolkien’s mind, but only comes through indirectly in their words and actions. Tolkien has known these characters for decades and they sometimes have a history of millennia. Galadriel, for instance, is a complex character with a long history of hubris, defiance, exile, and humiliation. This background only show’s itself in glimpses during her appearance on stage. It also gives a lot of poignancy to her conquest over the temptation to take the ring that is offered her. The idea that Galadriel is the Blessed Virgin Mary is misguided, even if somewhat countenanced by Tolkien himself. She is a fallen woman who is given one more chance to receive grace and redemption. Perhaps she is Eve redeemed, and so an icon of Our Lady, like all of us whom grace transforms.
I’m not so much taken up by the Grand Myth as the human story. I don’t care so much for The Silmarilion and all those books edited by Christopher Tolkien as I do for the short stories. Even his more comic and childish pieces contain profound reflections on fundamental human themes. “Roverandom” treats the meaning of true love and devotion. The Hobbit the meaning of valor. “Leaf by Niggle” the relationship between art and charity. The book Tales from the Perilous Realm contains most of these short stories, as well as a collection of poems, some of which are light-hearted, but some of which have a mysterious darkness and brooding and even enigma about them. It also contains the famous “On Fairy-Stories,” which explains why he thinks fairy tales are even more important for adults than for children. This is where he discusses his concepts of “Eucatastrophe,” subcreation, enchantment, and recovery and escape.
One of the insights of Tolkien is the priority of real, personal relationships over grand schemes. Aragon fights the great war and takes the mantle of kingship not because he has a grand vision of Numenorian justice for Middle Earth, but because he loves Arwen. Eowyn trades her desire for “manly” heroism for the love of a real hero, Faramir. And, of course, Sam’s turning point is when he realizes that his duty is not to heroically continue the Great Quest, but to stay loyal to the master whom he has grown to love and honor.
With a dreadful stroke Sam was wakened from his cowering mood. They had seen his master. What would they do? He had heard tales of the Orcs to make the blood run cold. It could not be borne. He sprang up. He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been; at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear. Back he ran down the steps, down the path towards Frodo (II, 389-90).
Since I think Sam is the protagonist of the whole story, to me this is the turning point. The climax, of course, is on Mt. Doom.
Another major focus of his work is the fell power of eros. In fact, much of The Lord of the Rings is colored by romantic energy—Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, even Rosie Cotton and Sam. One dark fragment in Unfinished Tales, “Aldarion and Erendis,” in which a great prince is torn between his urge to be a great sea captain and warrior and his fateful love for a woman who does not love the sea, although the power of love draws her to him as she longs for his return. It is a very dark vision of the confusion between eros and self-sacrificing love.
Tolkien’s social commentary was almost Dickensian, with a Chestertonian twist. This can be seen especially in “Farmer Giles of Ham,” which explores issues of authority and justice. “The Scouring of the Shire,” of course, is a pretty pointed critique of trends in England of his day, if not in the industrial world as a whole. Then, there’s the chilling closing scene of “Leaf by Niggle,” when Tompkins, Atkins, and Perkins discuss the “utility” of a man like Niggle.
’No practical or economic use,’ said Tompkins. ‘I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.’
‘Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?’
‘Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap; that’s what I mean.’
Tolkien’s social critique was dark and intense because of its situation in an apocalyptic vision of human history and a deeper conviction of the archetypal struggle between good and evil, being and non-being, submission and self- assertion, God and nothingness.
Tolkien’s attitude towards war is complex, but it is clear he does not worship, admire, or romanticize it. Tolkien, who had experience the ravages of battle field during World War One, did not glorify war. Faramir, one of the most sympathetic characters in all of his writings, says:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor, and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise
Tolkien was acutely aware of both the dangers of unleashing the fury of war and the dangers of refusing to engage. A king of Númenor, in response for a plea for aid from the Elves of Middle Earth to fight the newly arisen Sauron, said:
I am in too great doubt to rule. To prepare or to let be? To prepare for war, which is yet only guessed: train craftsmen and tillers in the midst of peace for bloodspilling and battle: put iron in the hands of greedy captains who will love only conquest, and count the slain as their glory? Will they say to Eru [the One]: At least your enemies were amongst them? Or to fold hands, while friends die unjustly: let men live in blind peace, until the ravisher is at the gate? What then will they do: match naked hands against iron and die in vain, or flee leaving the cries of women behind them? Will they say to Eru: At least I spilled no blood? (Unfinished Tales, 201)
I love Tolkien’s use of descriptive language. It is not flowery or even particularly intricate, but it is all the same evocative, conveying much more using basic words, such as “stone” and “leaf,” than one would think possible. Note the simple use of colors in another passage from “Niggle” (obviously one of my favorite works).
The train moved off at once. Niggle lay back in his seat. The little engine puffed along in a deep cutting with high green banks, roofed with a blue sky. It did not seem very long before the engine gave a whistle, the brakes were put on, and the train stopped. There was no station, and no signboard, only a flight of steps up the green embankment. At the top of the steps there was a wicket-gate in a trim hedge. By the gate stood his bicycle; at least it looked like his, and there was a yellow label tied to the bars with NIGGLE written on it in large black letter.
I think of Tolkien as a verbal iconographer. The subtle, seemingly stylized simplicity allows the glory, the splendor that is hidden deep in our sensible world to flame out [like shook foil?]. It is from Tolkien’s Catholic heart that is the spiritual depth, the complexity, the transformation by grace that flashes forth in glimpses.
Much of Tolkien’s vision is dark—as dark as any modern novel, but never without some hint of far-off possibility of redemption. One of his darkest works is The Children of Hurin in which the self-will of a gifted man with a sense of high purpose and destiny leads to greater and greater tragedy that brings woe to everyone he encounters. There’s not much light in this one. The need for human redemption is written very large in much of Tolkien’s work.
I’ve often wanted to make a collection of Tolkien’s “wise sayings.” Some of my favorite quotes:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
* * *
Deserves it! [death] I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
* * *
Jackson misses or distorts much of it. It is unfortunate that for most people their first introduction to LOTR is through the movie. There is no substitution for approaching the Cracks of Doom with Frodo and Sam after having gone through 1000 pages and chapter after chapter of slogging through Mordor. I don’t think you can appreciate the monumental significance of what occurs there, even after two and a half movies. Don’t get me going on Galadriel!
—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary. He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.