Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien never intended to publish The Hobbit, but friends who had seen the manuscript encouraged him to try. He sent it to the firm of George Allen & Unwin, where Stanley Unwin gave the manuscript to his eleven-year-old son Rayner. Rayner approved of the book and The Hobbit was enough of a success that the publishers asked Tolkien about a sequel.

His major work, as we have mentioned, was the body of legends he called the Quenta Silmarillion. But The Hobbit had been a quick work, not too demanding, and an Oxford don with four young children could always use some extra income. With that in mind, Tolkien agreed to begin work on “another Hobbit.”

But this time the story that had struggled to burst out of The Hobbit could not be contained. Tolkien found this work tangling into his work on the Silmarillion, becoming bigger and grander and far more important than he could ever have guessed. By the time the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings was ready for publication, eleven years and another world war had passed. The children for whom it was written were full-grown, seeing war service, ordination, or marriage. Rayner Unwin was now in his father's business and it was he who accepted the new manuscript. In postwar England, the depressed economy meant that the book could not be published and sold in one volume, so it was divided into three volumes for separate sale: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Decades later, Peter Jackson's films also followed this last-minute division, but don't let it fool you—The Lord of the Rings is one book in six parts, not a trilogy.

Tolkien's original cover designs for each volume
The Plot

This, as you know, deals with the magic ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains during his adventures in The Hobbit. Sixty-one years have gone by and Bilbo has adopted an orphan cousin as his heir. Frodo Baggins would be a normal hobbit—fond of a pipe, a pint, and a peaceful life—if it wasn't for the influence of his strange cousin, who will go down in hobbit lore as Mad Baggins. From Bilbo Frodo has learned something of the outside world, the dangers that lurk in strange places, and the wisdom of Elves. All the same, after his uncle disappears at his “eleventy-first” birthday party to spend his last days wandering the road and visiting Elves, leaving the ancestral hole and—at Gandalf the wizard's insistence—the magic Ring to Frodo, the young hobbit seems perfectly happy to go on living in the Shire much as he always has done.

Years go by, and then a visit from Gandalf changes everything. For Frodo, nothing will ever be the same again. For Bilbo's magic Ring, the Ring of invisibility, is actually a weapon forged by the Dark Lord Sauron long ago; it is the Chief Ring of Power, ruling over all others. It was lost centuries ago when the Dark Lord fell; now the Dark Lord is rising again, gathering his strength in the Dark Land of Mordor, and the one thing he is most anxious to get—apart from the dominion of all Middle-Earth—is the Ring of Power that will seal his victory.

Worse: not only is he looking for the Ring, he knows where to find it. His servants, the undead Ringwraiths whose most potent weapons are the black fear that hangs about them, are already on their way.

The Ring cannot be hidden. It cannot be given away. It cannot be destroyed. There is only one thing to do.

Take it on a perilous journey, over mountains, through caverns, through places of exquisite beauty and places of horrifying darkness, past armies and epic battles, through the Dead Marshes, Shelob's Lair, and the Black Land itself, to the Dark Lord's very doorstep, where it can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, the volcano in which it was made. Take it there. And then—if there is anything left of the bearer when he gets there—throw it into the fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring
Frodo receives companions for his road, a fellowship of nine: Sam, his loyal servant and gardener, who will become a hero in the end. Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck, two young hobbits who will become the mightiest warriors of the Shire since Bullroarer Took. Gandalf, the prophetic mentor. Strider, whose name is Aragorn, the wilderness ranger who carries the reforged sword of a long-lost king. Gimli, son of Gloin, a dwarf of the Lonely Mountain and son of one of Bilbo's thirteen companions. Legolas, son of Thranduil, an Elf of Mirkwood. And Boromir, the son of the Steward of Gondor, who has come in answer to a prophetic dream of help for that beleaguered kingdom.
“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.”
And indeed unimaginable danger lies ahead for each of the Fellowship.

You'll Probably Like It

Dad's copy soon fell to pieces after we found it.
The scope and power of this epic novel is almost indescribable. Although the main drive of the plot is introduced in the second chapter, and some readers have been known to start sensing Ringwraiths under the bed just a few chapters in, Tolkien builds tension in a leisurely manner. Some readers have complained that the book moves slowly, but in a book as long as The Lord of the Rings, this is no drawback: there is time. The momentum builds slowly and by the second half of the book has attained an unstoppable, titanic tempo. Readers accustomed to slower-moving books like those of Sir Walter Scott should find the pace positively brisk throughout. (I might as well, though, admit that I have never read the Prologue “Concerning Hobbits”. I certainly do not recommend doing so the first time you read the book.)

Everything about The Lord of the Rings has been criticised by the literary establishment at one time or another. The characterisation is shallow. There aren't enough female characters. It's racist (I shall make no comment apart from a good long laugh!). The writing style is bad. The poetry is bad. The war scenes are unrealistic (excuse me, but I think having been at the Somme qualifies Tolkien to write battle scenes however he wants them). The plot is about heroes vs villains, who does that anymore? The writing style is laboured and inauthentic. No book this popular can possibly be any good as art. And so on.

I'm not going to deal with everything in this laundry list of complaints because, honestly, who could be bothered? A book is never going to be everyone's cup of tea, and even if you don't object on principle to a Christian artist trying to give glory to God in producing a Christian work, the style or the plot or the setting simply may not appeal to you. To those who are offended by Tolkien's morals and worldview, Tolkien himself has a rather zingy response (from the Foreword):
Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing they evidently prefer.
Legolas: Killing giant vulture bats since 1172 TA
To those, however, who simply don't like fantasy, or feel that the book may not be their cup of tea—even those who didn't think much of the movies (I am right there with you)--I would encourage you to try the book anyway. I have read many books that are fantasies, but not many that are masterpieces of staggering genius, and those transcend genre. Then there is the story a barrister I know likes to tell me, of how he always avoided the book until his wife and children finally got him to read it aloud to them on holiday, and how they spent days on end reading it because he couldn't bear to put it down. That from a man who was otherwise a big fan of Evelyn Waugh. The fact is that The Lord of the Rings is a great story told with consummate skill that should appeal to anyone who enjoys good stories. Give it a chance.

Writing Style

I shall now spend a little time on some of my favourite aspects of the book. First, the writing style, which is unique and somewhat different to the current fashion, but possibly requires a great deal more skill. Tolkien in fact slips in and out of a few different styles for the book: the hobbits speak, and the hobbity parts are narrated, in a homely fashion which does become more elevated as the hobbits themselves become more and more momentous in the epic events. On the other end of the spectrum, the epic battles and other momentous events, especially of Men and Elves, are narrated in a very elevated style. The intention is probably for the story to become, in some places, as close as possible to an actual epic poem. And Tolkien, remember, had probably studied most Latin or Germanic epic poems at some point or another. In their original tongues.

Ursula LeGuin contributed an essay to a book titled Meditations on Middle-Earth which makes this theory seem most likely. In an analysis of one chapter of the book, she comes to the conclusion that the ratio of accented syllables to unaccented syllables in the text is very high; so high that the text actually borders on poetry. (A low ratio of accented to unaccented syllables denotes a very dry textbook, according to LeGuin).

Eowyn: 2. Lord of the Nazgul: 0.
In addition, don't forget that Tolkien saw language and words in a very different way than we do. In Tom Shippey's book JRR Tolkien: Author of the Centurywhich I only partially recommend, as I do not believe he well understands the nature of evil either in Tolkien nor in this world—the author points out how Tolkien made very careful and very specific word choices based on his knowledge of their roots. For example, as an ardent lover of the Anglo-Saxon language which formed the basis for English, he tended to prefer using Anglo-Saxon-based words above French or Latin forms. He also made use of related words. Shippey spends a little time teasing out the relationship between three words, the shared root of which means twisted: the wraiths that hunt the hobbits; the writhing of the sword of Westernesse after it is used to stab a wraith; and finally the wreath of clouds around the ominous mountain Caradhras. No doubt there is more of this subtle wordplay scattered throughout the book. Few if any authors today are capable of using such rich and deliberate language.

Although the writing style is not as plain and unadorned as is fahionable today, it is rhythmic and pleasant when read aloud. Its attempts to imitate epic poetry succeed brilliantly (though it may seem pompous and elaborate if you have never read any epics) and it is always crystal-clear and comprehensible. The result is among the most beautiful prose you will ever read.


Another element of The Lord of the Rings that I love is the poetry scattered plenteously throughout. Ranging from prophecies to Elvish ballads to Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative laments to hobbit verse to Entish war-songs to lore-rhymes, they are woven seamlessly into the story and provide a sense of age and culture to the imagined world. They are all very different, and it is difficult to pick just one as a favourite, but I have always liked this one, sung by Sam in the tower of Cirith Ungol:

In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

Though here at journey's end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

Unfortunately, not all the poetry was going to make it into the films, and indeed only two or three of the over 50 songs and poems made it, and that in an edited form.
Galadriel's gift to Frodo

Characters and Moral Choices

The characterisation of The Lord of the Rings is likewise excellent. Gimli, for example, is a serious character with a poetic streak; the kind who, upon the Company's escaping by a hair's breadth from the terrifying ordeal in Moria, insists on stopping by a pool to show Frodo how beautiful the stars of his people look reflected in its waters. He even ends up with a courtly-love relationship to the great Elven lady Galadriel:
“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!”
Unlike many, I see no flaws in Tolkien's characterisation. Granted, I haven't read the book for some years—I'm letting it 'lie fallow', so to speak—and so I mainly have memories to go on. Yet I know that people have commonly disdained the characterisation. I have a few theories for why that is.

First, the book is plot-driven rather than character-driven. The Ring forms a MacGuffin that motivates the characters, either to destroy it or to snatch it for their own use. At various points in the plot, the characters will face moral choices that end up affecting the course of the plot itself, but unlike, say, a Jane Austen novel, the plot does not mainly depend upon the unfolding or growing of characters. Most of the characters in The Lord of the Rings do grow in surprising ways over the course of the book, becoming almost entirely different people by the end, but this is the effect of the plot and not so much the cause. Because plot is so important to The Lord of the Rings, this may cause some people to think that the characterisation is actually deficient. But the characterisation isn't absent; it's just unobtrusively there doing its job.
Aragorn: Wandering but not lost.

Second, the characters are not motivated by an ambivalence about what is the right thing to do. Such an ambivalence is the hallmark of a postmodern society, lost in an endless and unachievable quest for truth. Aragorn, for example, is from his first entrance into the story determined to go to Gondor, lead the free peoples of Middle-Earth against Sauron, reclaim the kingship, and marry his immortal love Arwen (whose father Elrond has promised that she shall marry no man less than the king of Gondor and Arnor)--or die in the attempt. However, in Peter Jackson's movies, Aragorn's determination and certainty was toned down: he spends most of the story not wanting to claim responsibility, and is finally driven to it when the screenwriters invent the limp excuse that Arwen will die if he doesn't. This was probably because postmodern audiences might be put off by a character who says from the beginning that he intends to be king, and to introduce dramatic uncertainty. To a postmodern audience, ambivalence and vacillation means good characterisation, and certainty and determination means bad characterisation. Tolkien's original characters do not spend a lot of time second-guessing themselves—which is probably the thing that causes people to consider his characters unrealistic or flat.

However, this is a merely postmodern way of seeing it and in fact, Tolkien's characterisation is driven by a series of moral choices which the characters do find difficult to make. St Augustine said, “Moral character is assessed not by what a man knows but by what he loves.” Tolkien's characters know perfectly well what is right and what is wrong, and what they must do. Their moral dilemma lies in loving it enough to do it. The test is not usually whether the character will recognise what is right—but whether he will be bold enough to do the right thing even at the greatest cost.
The Choices of Master Samwise
This ties into the plot-driven character of the story. Tolkien firmly rejects postmodern agnosticism: there is no doubt in The Lord of the Rings that the villains are evil, and the heroes are fighting on the side of good. Nobody has a problem discerning this. The crushing responsibility that lies upon the characters is not discerning what's right—but the courage to do what they know is right. Not to run and hide, not to bargain, not to hope that everything will be all right, not to panic and despair—but to stand up, take responsibility, and head straight into death and torment. That is one of the overriding themes of the plot, going hand-in-hand with a love of the common things, the strength of the humble, and a deep distrust of big government. There's even a part where one character, Eomer, briefly expresses moral puzzlement and is put straight:
“How shall a man judge what do to in such times?”
“As he ever has judged,” said Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”
I'm not asking you to judge correctly, Aragorn says. I'm asking you to do what you already know is right. I am reminded of the famous Chesterton quote—the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. As Paul makes it clear in Romans, this is true for our world as well. The dilemma of the human race is not that we don't know what's right; it is that we know, and we don't obey.

Perhaps the best illustration of the need to act is the contrast between Theoden, the aged king of Rohan, and Denethor, the old steward of Gondor. Both come into the book in a state of despair, ready to sit in their halls and wait for the Enemy to come and swallow them and all their people. But Theoden listens to the voice of Gandalf, repents of his abdication, and goes out to die with sword in hand; meanwhile, Denethor listens to the lies of the Enemy and disintegrates into madness.


Other themes proliferate. One is the right use of power. Faramir, captain of Gondor, meets the Ring-bearer and guesses—rightly--the secret he carries. But Faramir is not tempted to take the Ring at all: he knows that although it might make his city great, it would certainly enslave the rest of the world.
Faramir with Eowyn
“For myself,” said Faramir, “I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. 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 Numenor; 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's letters, published and edited by Humphrey Carpenter, provide an excellent look into Tolkien's personal politics. In one of these, he tells his son Christopher, “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. …[T]he most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men.” Consistently with this, the ideal government in Tolkien is hierarchical—not egalitarian, for he was by no means a modernist—but decentralised, and it is the defining evil of Sauron that he just wants to fix up the mess in the world by becoming its absolute Ruler and Lord. The Ring, which in a way represents the dream to fix the world through total control, is totally evil and can never be used for good.

Pride, Humility, and Providence

One of the major themes of The Lord of the Rings is that of the weak, foolish and humble things of the world confounding the power of the strong and the wise. In the last section of The Silmarillion, titled “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” Tolkien writes:
There at the last they looked upon death and defeat, and all their valour was in vain; for Sauron was too strong. Yet in that hour was put to the proof that which Mithrandir had spoken, and help came from the hands of the weak when the Wise faltered.
The weak point in Sauron's plans is his pride, and it is here that he can be assailed. Sauron misreads the story; he thinks the hero is Aragorn, the returning King, who will take the Ring for himself and march boldly against Mordor. Instead, the forces of good catch him entirely by surprise with their plan: entrust the Ring to a peace-loving, child-sized gentlehobbit and his gentle, faithful gardener, and send them walking into the kind of horrors that even Beren or Turin, the greatest heroes of old, would have found difficult to handle.

This gambit of the forces of good in Middle-Earth is in stark contrast to their preferred modus operandi in all preceding Ages of the World. Because the side of good is so weak and diminished by the Third Age, they cannot dream of facing Sauron in battle and winning. In previous Ages, however, there had been enough Elves and Men of Numenor to challenge the Dark Lords on the battlefield and even, occasionally, win. But none of these victories stuck. Only two victories in the history of Middle-Earth—the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age and the War of the Ring at the end of the Third—have ever decisively dealt with a Dark Lord. In fact the War of the Jewels in the First Age was only ended by divine intervention after all the greatest Men and Elves of Middle-Earth had died in the futile attempt to defy the Valar by attacking Morgoth on their own behalf. 

Captives in Mordor. Look out, Sauron!
By the time of The Lord of the Rings, 'the Wise' have learned their lesson well enough to know that their unaided attempts to face evil in their own power will be futile. Instead they must trust to humility and weakness. And that is because they know now that the proud things in the world will be humbled, and the meek will be exalted. Instead of trusting their own strength like the rebellious Elves of old, they must trust to Providence. And that is why they win. This Providence is not fully revealed to the characters, even by Gandalf who may be in the know—but it is explicitly stated to exist:
“So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, [the Ring] abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
If you have read the climactic “Mount Doom” chapter you will understand what I mean when I say that the Ring's fate is, in the end, taken out of the hands of any of the characters. Which adds into the greatness of the plot: in the end, it is a series of small, unforeseen events that leads to the unforseeable resolution. The characters trust in a Providence which they only vaguely understand, this being a world without specific revelation and all—and Providence comes through.

Pity and Choices

Frodo and Sam, two of the most important characters in the book, are tested to the utmost when they meet Gollum, the murderous, treacherous, but broken former owner of the Ring. Even before Gollum comes on the scene, Frodo finds himself considering the question:
“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo. “Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I do do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had a chance!”
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”
“I can't understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! 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.”
Later, when Gollum does indeed turn up, Frodo faces more choices. Kill him or let him live...even trust himself to Gollum's guidance?
Yep, this is going to work well. No, really...
And in the end, above all the other choices that must be made in the story, this Pity is the one that makes all the difference. As Gandalf says--
“Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend. It can be so, sometimes.”


The Lord of the Rings is thus deeply concerned with morality and moral choices. Some Christians have objected to the fantasy and to the magic, and others to the fact that Tolkien intended his book to be a quasi-pagan legend; a legend from a time before the Redemption, though with redemptive history echoing thoughout the book and with a distinctively Christian worldview. Of the Ring's symbolism in his book, Tolkien writes:
Anyway, all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire....It has various opportunities of “Fall.” It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as its own; the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator—especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective,--and so the Machine (or Magic).
There are a few things to note in this paragraph. First, Tolkien recognised that his story was largely about the sub-creative impulse he himself was using in writing the story. In other words, he was writing in response to his own artistic, creative desires. Interestingly, he zeroes right in on the thing that distinguishes a good (obedient) fantasy from a bad (rebellious) one: submission to the Lord and God of creation, as opposed to a wish to remake creation in one's own image. He knew that unless his subcreation adhered to the rules of God Himself, it would be worthless and evil.

The Magic of Galadriel
Second, Tolkien realised that Magic—there is a place in the Bible where insubordination is called “the sin of witchcraft”--is nothing less than a creature's intention to revolt against and take the prerogative power of his Creator. This is the magic of the Ring. On the other hand, the true power in the hands of those with authority—like the prophet/angelic messenger Gandalf—is exercised in hierarchical obedience to the One who gives true power.

Note that Tolkien's use of magic is almost never very showy and it is also equated with sufficiently advanced technology. There is Elven magic, for example, which is synonymous (in his other works) with 'craft'. Lady Galadriel explains it like this:
'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy.'
In that sense, industrialisation and mechanics—like Saruman's—is magic as well, but is evil, since it forms an effort to make Saruman a Lord and Master of that part of creation which lies under his hand. In the sense in which Tolkien used it, all magic is an attempt to wield dominion-power over creation and subcreation. The difference is that this can be used rightly in faithful hierarchy as vice-gerents of the Lord God's creation, or insubordinately as an attempt to take God's place.

We will look at the cosmology and mythology of Middle-Earth in more depth later, but this should give you an idea of Tolkien's use of magic in The Lord of the Rings.

But I don't see Christ in The Lord of the Rings!

That the book was intended to be possible pagan myth did not prevent Tolkien trying to write a Christian work. That is, the book is consciously Christian in structure, content, and character; it simply takes place in a world ignorant of redemptive history. In a letter to WH Auden, Tolkien stated,
I don't feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.
When Tolkien says that the story does not “fit with formalized Christian theology”, I would mentally add, “in the same way that The Pilgrim's Progress does not.” For example, The Pilgrim's Progress does not depict the sacraments, nor church worship, &c, any more than The Lord of the Rings does. Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings is intended to be as consistent as possible with the possibility of Christian belief. The Providence that the characters trust in ignorance will one day be revealed as the God and Creator of the World.
In Moria, in Khazad-Dum.
In his Foreword, Tolkien strenuously denied that the work was allegorical or topological in any way; but he was responding there to people who insisted on seeing the Ring as an allegory for nuclear weapons and the War of the Ring as an allegory for the Second World War. As a matter of fact there is a lot of topology going on in the book on a religious level. Although the work takes place in a pre-Redemptive world, many have pointed out the three major Christ-figures.

These are Frodo—the suffering priest; Gandalf—the prophet-guide; and Aragorn—the promised king. Each undergoes a form of death and resurrection and a 'descent into Hell': Frodo in Mordor, Gandalf in Moria, and Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead. Each of these figures is incomplete, flawed, and human, since his function is not to act as the definitive saviour but to point forward to the true Messiah (who, in Tolkien's world, is yet to come). Interestingly, as each of these figures proceeds on his journey, Tolkien distances the reader from any identification with them. The reader never looks at the story through Gandalf's or Aragorn's eyes: they are seen through the reverent eyes of humbler characters. Similarly, as Frodo grows into his role, the POV moves away from him and settles with Sam. Tolkien's wisdom in using this literary technique shows how consistently and well his Christian worldview had permeated his art. By refusing the reader a chance to identify with Gandalf, Aragorn, and the increasingly 'purified' Frodo, Tolkien says to us, “You are not the Saviour. You need the Saviour.”


If a book's plot is more important than the characters, then it needs to be particularly good. The Lord of the Rings has a great plot. Like all good writers, Tolkien adopts classic tropes and archetypes, but does something new with them. This book is the archetypal Quest, but the quest is not a quest for power but a quest to destroy it.

The plot is also well-paced. Unlike many contemporary novels, it has a rhythm to it; the tension is not kept keyed up all the way through. Instead it moves like an incoming tide, with a series of smaller climaxes, all spaced out. They move from the minor scares in the first book—the distant screams of the Ringwraiths, the fight on Weathertop, Frodo's defiance of the Ringwraiths at the Ford of Bruinen—to the screaming cliffhanger at the end of the fourth (remember, the novel comes in six “books”).

Boromir, Merry, and Pippin
One of the things Tolkien does very well—and uses to its full advantage—is to make his villains extremely scary. The first time I tried reading The Lord of the Rings, I stopped after just a few chapters, scared by the Ringwraiths. The first time I managed to read it right through, I swore never to touch it again. Tolkien understood the power of suggestion and atmosphere: he never describes the Balrog or Shelob in great detail, but he gets extraordinary mileage out of unnamed terrors in the dark. But this is not horror for horror's sake: the darkness of the plot exists only to set off the serious courage, virtue, and rejoicing that conquers it. For example Tolkien introduces the Elvish land of Lorien immediately after the ordeal in the Mines of Moria. The unnatural cloud of darkness blotting out the Sun at the beginning of the War of the Ring is ushered out by a dawn and the glad blowing of the horns of Rohan. And finally, with the fall of Barad-dur comes an eagle, flying out of the Sun with a psalm of rejoicing. There is deep gladness here, deeper than the fear.


This is already a very long review—of a very long book—but there is one thing left to say. I have long believed that The Lord of the Rings may be the single greatest artistic achievement of the last century. I believe this for several reasons. First, it required an immense amount of skill and ability to write, to the point where the main reason it has never been equalled is that nobody has ever had the skill and ability with language and stories that Tolkien had. Second, it is comprehensible. It communicates its meaning to its audience. This is reflected in its popular appeal. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, intending it to be the epic of the twentieth-century common man, and it has only ever been enjoyed by highbrow literary critics. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings actually is the epic of the common man. It is accessible, beloved by almost everyone—and its hero, in the end, is ordinary hobbit-gardener Sam.

Third, The Lord of the Rings—as I have tried to show in this review—embodies the three aesthetic virtues of goodness, truth, and beauty to a degree almost untouched by any other major work of art of the twentieth century. It is good; it is a celebration of goodness, courage, and mercy. It is true; I have yet to pinpoint a lie that it tells, although it has certain Roman Catholic emphases, as you might expect. And most of all, in a century that dethroned beauty and divorced it from any idea of art, The Lord of the Rings is beautiful—heartrendingly beautiful, yet haunted (like all Tolkien's works) with the sense a of the loss of beauty. CS Lewis, in his famous review of the book, said--
Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realized. To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.”
The Lord of the Rings is truly an absolutely unique book, a masterpiece, and a must-read.

By now you should have some idea what my opinion is of the Peter Jackson movies! I know many people who enjoy the books did enjoy them, and I will even go on record as saying that The Return of the King is a fine film and deserved every Oscar it got. The movies are not Tolkien, however, and The Two Towers is not even close (My personal favourite review of this movie is ND Wilson's from Credenda/Agenda magazine). New Zealand, I love you, and I am so happy for you getting to make these movies, but I have difficulty recommending them to anyone. Not because they are bad (some things—the visuals and the music particularly—couldn't be bettered); but because they fall so far short of the magnificent book. I do think Jackson and his scriptwriting henchladies could have done a better job—scaling back on the endless and nauseating kissing scenes, not vandalising Faramir's character, to say nothing of succumbing to postmodernist ideas of character development...but I think we can all agree that the book is, in part, unfilmable, and no matter how good the movies could have been, they would never have been the book.

Art credits:
1. Covers by JRR Tolkien
2. The Fellowship of the Ring by Karina 'Kasiopeia' Chmiel
3. Cover by Pauline Baynes
4. Legolas Draws the Bow of Galadriel by Michael Kaluta
5. Eowyn's Stand by Nick Robles
6. The Phial of Galadriel by Anke Eissmann
7. Strider Reveals His Identity by Anke Eissmann
8. Sam and Shelob by John Howe
9. Eowyn and Faramir by Anke Eissmann
10. In Mordor by John Howe
11. Through the Marshes by Ted Nasmith
12. Galadriel's Mirror by Peter Xavier Price
13. Khazad-Dum by Alan Lee
14. Parth Galen by Karina 'Kasiopeia' Chmiel


Radagast said...

A superb (as well as epic) post. I like your inclusion of my favourite “How shall a man judge what do to in such times?” quote.

I would also note that Tolkien makes his plot devices perform above and beyond the call of duty: the lembas bread was initially a trick to allow the hobbits to travel large distances with limited food; but it has also been widely seen as a symbol of the Eucharist. Touches like that mean the book shimmers with Christian light.

The contrasting darkness of the evil characters brings the moral aspects into clearer focus. Unlike the situation with most human opponents, there can be no negotiation. There can be no coexistence. There can be no “seeing their point of view.” Ultimately, every being in Middle-Earth must choose one side or the other.

But, as you point out so well, Tolkien writes about these dark encounters using the most glorious prose.

I second your glowing recommendation of the book.

Reinhard said...

Excellent review of a wonderful book. I read the book after the first movie was released and I couldn't bear to wait another whole year to find out what happens next. Thanks for your informative review I will be reading The Lord of the Rings again soon and with a better understanding.

Bethany said...

Good post, good post..! I'm actually finding myself astonished that you haven't read "Concerning Hobbits"! I read it almost every time! I'm also quite surprised that you haven't read it for years! I read it at least once a year on average..... I know people who read it and skip the poems/songs and find that these are the most irritating parts if the story (when I was about 13 I felt the same way) but then once when I decided to read the whole thing, not missing a word, I discovered the beauty within the poems. They watered my thirsty heart with yearning, longing, hope, and intrensic beauty. These books became more than just a story for me. They got me interested in learning Old English. They inspired me to read the great epics of old. Tolkien, in effect, has introduced me to a world of real-life stories, legends, and histories that I never knew existed before all because of my immense love of his Middle-earth stories.

Suzannah said...

Thank you!

That quote has always been a favourite of mine!

I've heard that about the lembas before; thanks for the reminder!

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it. The post--and the book!

Suzannah said...

I read it once per year for about seven years. Near the end of that I was spending a lot of time discussing the book with a group of others, who all shared a serious interest in it. Eventually I felt that I'd had it under a microscope for so long it might be more enjoyable next time if I hadn't read it for several years.

Next time, who knows, I might finally read the Prologue ;).


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