Lord of the Rings
commentary by John Tintera
by J.R.R. Tolkien
An article in a trade journal announced that during the week of March 1, 2004, sales were down at publisher Houghton Mifflin’s trade book division due mainly to lower Tolkien sales. This, only a few days after Peter Jackson and his mammoth cast and crew were awarded the highest honor in the film industry for their adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Like the films, the three books on which they are based are not sequels, but one long tale broken down into more digestible parts. By all accounts, the bestowal of the “Best Picture” award for the third installment, The Return of the King, was the film academy’s way of honoring the achievement of the entire series. But now that the series is finished and the award has been given, filmgoers, like readers, are sure to move on to the next big thing. Before the inevitable happens, I think it’s worth pausing one last time to reflect on Tolkien’s powerful and uplifting story and what we might take away from it.
Not only did Return of the King win “Best Picture,” it also won several awards for the technical and artistic achievements that helped bring Tolkien’s fantasy world fully to life. In fact, Tolkien himself stands out in the history of fantasy writing for a technical interest that is at the core of all his novels. Tolkien was a professor at Oxford specializing in the languages and culture of the Nordic and Germanic tribes of the Middle Ages. To this day his writings on the Anglo Saxons and Chaucer are regarded by scholars as important milestones in the field. I know of no other fictional writer before him (there are most certainly imitators who have come after) that went so far as to create languages, and histories of those languages, for the different races such as elves and hobbits that populate his fantasy world. The existence of these languages - my favorite being “Old High Elvish,” a nearly-dead language which is spoken by only a handful of the oldest elves and wizards - brings a level of verisimilitude to the stories that is truly remarkable.
We know from Tolkien’s biographers that he actually was working on the Elvish language prior to conceiving of the stories for which it would become mainly the back story. This instinct toward language no doubt arose from his own humanistic worldview, an outlook toward life that subsequently informed all of his later efforts in fiction. At the height of the humanist movement between the world wars, most practitioners looked back to Greece and Rome for role models, though there was also a great revival of interest in French and Latin culture of the Middle Ages. Tolkien gravitated more toward the Vikings, the Angles and the Saxons, looking for the best that their cultures had to offer. The emphasis in those cultures on fidelity and heroism (not to mention verse making and story telling) are at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.
While for many of Tolkien’s fans it probably would have been enough for him to invent his seamless, deeply humanistic fictional world, the plot of The Lord of the Rings is drawn from real-life experience. Another key thing to realize about Tolkien is that for four months he experienced the horrors of the trenches in World War I. Losing friends and nearly his own life, he went back to England believing that an age had ended. In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits live in a place called the Shire that’s remote from where the other races of Middle Earth dwell. They live a comfortable, simple existence, void of adventure, but also of fear. While Tolkien himself denied the connection between the Shire and his own rural upbringing, it’s difficult to believe that none existed. In addition, in the time in which the books are set, the shadow of an evil power has cast its pall over most of the world, stretching even to the remote Shire. The cataclysms that take place in defending the free lands from tyranny forever change the people they have touched, not unlike those who witnessed first-hand the violence of the Great War. Before the war, England was still very much under the spell of the Romantic Era and the almost worshipful appreciation of nature that those writers bequeathed to the rising middle and the upper classes. That age died on the fields of France. One wonders whether Tolkien did not think of his own mission as a writer, at least subconsciously, in terms of trying to capture in story the change in the world he perceived through his experiences as a soldier.
In addition to infusing his story with heroic virtue and the realities of war, Tolkien also gives consideration to life’s spiritual side. In fact, it sometimes seems that the spirit world is omnipresent in The Lord of the Rings. From the flaming eye of Sauron, to the immortal protector Gandalf, to the invisible hand that guides the ring into the possession of the hobbits (the one race which can withstand its influence), it’s impossible not to recognize that powerful spiritual forces are at work in Middle Earth. As in all myths and fairy tales, the world created by Tolkien is much more black and white than our own. Still, Frodo and his band have been brought together for a special mission. While the idea of mission in our cynical age seems romantic at best, the record of history is filled with moments where it becomes clear to a person or a small group of people that injustices are afoot and something needs to be done about it. Whereas in most times and places people more or less sleepwalk into their life’s vocations, in times like these, people find their vocations thrust upon them with a sense of inevitability. One thinks of Martin Luther and his namesake Martin Luther King, Jr. as two real-life individuals in situations similar to that of Frodo and the fellowship of the ring -- not to mention Jesus and his disciples. If The Lord of the Rings has a moral, it’s that there is such a thing as “the fullness of time” and that each of us has an obligation to respond when our time comes.
Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that on top of the seamless fiction, the eyes-wide-open realism, and the profound spirituality, the world of The Lord of the Rings is governed by a deep law -- the same law that Christians believe was revealed to humanity by Christ and that is at the heart of the entire cosmos -- the law of mercy and compassion. In fact, the final outcome of the story’s central quest is determined by the fact that for two generations, the hobbits have shown mercy to one of their own kin gone astray -- the loathsome, murderous Smeagol. By the time we meet him, the evil ring has turned Smeagol into a kind of beast. If ever there was a creature not deserving mercy, Tolkien makes clear, it is Smeagol. And yet if it were not for the fact that his life was spared by both Bilbo and Frodo, it’s very possible that Sauron, the evil one, would not have been destroyed. In this way, Tolkien wove the essence of the Gospel into his tale, giving it a distinguishing mark that will forever separate it from the medieval sources from which it was drawn and indeed from most literature published in this world. As a student of warrior races such as the Vikings, Tolkien would have been profoundly aware, however, that a world without mercy is nothing more than a pagan world.
All of these elements place The Lord of the Rings firmly into the realm of Christian Humanism. The humanists were basically optimistic about human endeavor, especially our efforts to understand the world through philosophy and beautify it through music, poetry, and art. They would have seen nothing strange or wasteful, for example, about devoting one’s time to inventing languages, histories, and mythologies for the beings found in children’s fairy tales. The Peter Jackson versions of Tolkien's work are so masterfully crafted and so tightly plotted, that I worry that the humanistic impulse that drove Tolkien to create the story will be the very thing ignored in movie houses and quietly packed away when the reels are sent back to the vault. Then again, you don’t have to be a scholar of Old Norse to fall in love with Sam Gangee, be shaken by Smeagol, or be stirred by the heroics of Aragorn. To those who can give over their imaginations to a fantasy world complete with orcs and demons, battles and quests, The Lord of the Rings is quite simply a gift to be treasured. I have no doubt that later generations will have their way of reviving it and treasuring it as well.
Copyright @ 2004 John Tintera