Where to begin with J. R. R. Tolkien?

Where to begin with J. R. R. Tolkien?

By Courtney Guest Kim

            There is only one place to begin with Tolkien: read The Hobbit. It is arguably the book that launched the genre that came to be called “Fantasy” and is the first volume of the epic series that was his life’s work. Published in September 1937, it became so popular so quickly that, just a few months later, he was writing to his publisher to explain that, “not ever intending any sequel,” he really didn’t have any more manuscripts to submit. “I have no idea what to do with it,” he was still saying at the end of July 1938. But by the end of August he had experienced a breakthrough. He envisioned a new story called “The Lord of the Ring”—”but it is no bed-time story,” he added, since the publisher seemed to be expecting a children’s book. The new story would be “more terrifying” than The Hobbit. “The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.” Readers who had clamored for “more about the Necromancer” were going to get what they had asked for. (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, letters #23-35).

            In February of 1938, the British foreign secretary had resigned in protest of Prime Minister Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward Hitler. In March, Germany had invaded Austria. In June, Japan declared war on China. By October, Germany had annexed Czechoslovakia, with the blessing of the Western democracies. Chamberlain had proclaimed “peace for our time.” It was in this context that Tolkien’s adventure story took a deeper and darker turn. In TLOTR the original adventurous hobbit, Bilbo, who had come into possession of the Ring of Power and brought it home is succeeded by his nephew, Frodo and three of his friends, who take up a new and more difficult quest. They must venture into the heart of enemy territory to destroy the instrument of evil at its source.

            The books that came to compose The Lord of the Rings are ”not a ‘novel,’ but an ‘heroic romance,’ a much older and quite different variety of literature” (#329). In retrospect, we can see that Tolkien was creating a new literary genre that merges the realistic detail of the modern novel with the heroic themes of medieval romance. But from his perspective, the focus was on reaching back into ancient languages. Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, specializing in the dialects of Middle English, and he was also fluent in Icelandic, old Norse and other early Germanic languages. He was a philologist, a “lover of learning,” and he did really love delving into the structure, historical development, and relationships of words to each other. Words from both historical and invented languages became the seeds of inspiration for his narrative.

            After World War II broke out, The Hobbit continued to sell so well that when the publisher’s stock burned up during an air raid, there were plans to reissue a new edition—when they could obtain the paper to print it on, which turned out not to be for several years. During the war, Tolkien continued to plug away at his story during his spare time. To support a family of six, he took on extra jobs grading exam papers. By the end of 1942, four years into the war, he was wondering “whether in the present situation it was of any use” to persevere with the heroic romance (#47). Still, he continued to send chapters to his youngest son, Christopher, who was serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. “This book has come to be more and more addressed to you,” he wrote (#78, #98).

            “There is a ‘moral,” I suppose, in any tale worth telling,” Tolkien reflected (#109), and TLOTR presents a starkly moral vision in a world where the characters are caught up in a great struggle of good against evil.  “TLOTR is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” he remarked, and his assessment was corroborated by the first reviewers. The story has “a positive compatibility with the order of Grace,” as Robert Murray, S.J. phrased it (#142). Tolkien offers us a vast, complex and compelling elaboration of what it means to live out an individual calling within a community of people who are all also responding to the same call. Some premises of the story are completely at odds with those of atheistic Western culture today. Readers who would like to explore the spiritual dimension of the narrative will find that it offers eloquent encouragement for those engaged in living out the Christian faith.

            Elements of Tolkien’s worldview, as depicted implicitly in his story and elaborated explicitly in his letters include:

1)         “The indestructability of spirits with free wills, even by the Creator of them” (#211). An underlying premise of Tolkien’s work is that death is not a dissolution into nonexistence but a transition to a new phase of existence. Death separates us from people we love, but only temporarily. There is always the hope of reunion, if only you have lived and fought on the side of the Good together.

2)         God “does not stop or make ‘unreal’ sinful acts and their consequences” (#153). The plots and subplots of Tolkien’s work are intertwined in complex ways because there is no dissociating actions from their consequences: neither within the lifespan of an individual, nor over the course of generations.

3)         “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift,’ if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’… produce a good not otherwise to be attained” (#212). There is no explicit religion in TLOTR. Rather, the story depicts characters who are living out what they believe—and their actions eventually show who they truly are. The trajectory of the plot is toward redemption, with the collective goal the rejection of evil in an effort to secure the freedom of peace.

4)         “All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ‘causes’ and ‘effects.’…evil labours with vast power and perpetual success—in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in” (#64). Tolkien’s vision, for all its grappling with the sorrows of evil offers an essentially hopeful outlook. Ultimately goodness prevails.

5)         “[W]hat is really important is always hid from contemporaries, and the seeds of what is to be are quietly germinating in the dark in some forgotten corner” (#79). Tolkien’s worldview is Christian in that some who are first end up last, and some who are least end up greatest. Frodo is the “chosen one,” but his servant, Sam is in Tolkien’s estimation the focal character of the narrative. Ordinary people accomplish great deeds far from the limelight.

6)         “[T]he place in ‘world politics’ of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten” (#131). It’s not only that ordinary people can do great things: the surprising twists of the plot show that in fact the most important actions take place far from the centers of power.

7)         “The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation (#186), which means self-denial. Tolkien’s idea of heroism is Christian in that self-sacrifice for the good of others is the greatest of glorious deeds.

8)         Pity (#153), curiosity (#183) and devotion to duty (The Return of the King) are admirable qualities and are essential to the heroic character.

9)         Evil has no power in itself but usurps the resources of the good and perverts them for its own ends. The horrible irony is that “this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others—speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans”(#131). Tolkien’s sense of paradox yields comedy but also tragedy. Evil is tragic because characters choose it freely, when they could have chosen the good instead. This is a Christian sense of tragedy rather than a Classical one. There is no impersonal Fate at work. Rather, all choices are individual, and they have personal consequences. The freedom of the individual ensures that both heroism and evil are real outcomes of the decisions that ordinary people make.

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10)       The rebellion of the creature against the Creator leads to “the desire for Power,” and specifically, in Tolkien’s conception, to the “use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of the inherent inner powers” (#131). In TLOTR, the interior struggles of the characters against evil are where the primary action takes place. Their exterior actions follow from the interior battles that have been won or lost beforehand. So there are surprises, as the characters reveal by their behavior what, unknown to others, they have been meditating within, for better or worse.

11)       God has made his creatures to resemble him. The relation of God to man is Creator to sub-creator. Evil enters in when 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.” The rings in the TLOTR have the power to slow down the aging process and to enhance the natural abilities of the wearer. The temptation in this apparently beneficial device is to arouse “a lust for domination” in the wearer of the ring. The hobbits are less vulnerable to the spiritual temptation embodied in the Ring of Power because, ironically, they have so few talents for the Ring to enhance. They are unambitious and easily contented with basic comforts. Tolkien makes them physically half the size of men “mostly to show up…the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’”(#131).

The narrative of TLOTR unfolds from the spiritual principles within the story. In The Fellowship of the Ring, each member of the company faces a choice. Upon gazing into the mirror of Galadriel: “each had felt he was offered a choice between a shadow full of fear that lay ahead, and something that he greatly desired: …and to get it he had only to turn aside from the road and leave the Quest and the war against Sauron to others.” The task that Frodo is tempted to abandon is that of returning the Ring to its source, deep at the center of the territory controlled by the enemy, in order to destroy its power. But he resists the temptation to give up and willingly accepts what he believes to be a mission that will cost him his life. “Frodo undertook his quest out of love—to save the world he knew from disaster…in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way” (#246).

            Frodo assumes the lonely burden of the Ring, but he is not an isolated character acting alone. Rather, he has behind him the support of all free peoples of Middle Earth. Elrond the elf king represents “Lore—the preservation in reverent memory of all tradition concerning the good, wise, and beautiful” (#131). Elrond heads the Council that gathers all of the represented peoples. Together they elect Frodo, who had inherited the ring from Bilbo, to become the one to destroy it. As a practical strategy, the hobbits are small enough and unimportant enough that they might make it into enemy territory unnoticed. But there is also a spiritual sense in which Frodo has implicitly been appointed by the Creator through a process that the Council recognizes and makes official through its vote.

            There’s no question that Tolkien saw his story as representing the struggle that each of us experiences throughout life. To Christopher he wrote: “Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story!” (#66). This is the way to read TLOTR: not as an allegory but as a meditation on the human Story we are each caught up in, and in which we each have our part to play, our temptations to resist, and our task to accomplish. The “Writer of the Story is not one of us” (#191). In Tolkien’s view of a benevolent and inventive Creator, it is cause for hope that we are not solely responsible for the outcomes of our lives. Nor should we as individuals take on more than we are called to bear. As Gandalf says in ‘The Last Debate,’ “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know.”

Have you heard of the short-story Tolkien wrote parodying his own writing? Check out Leaf by Niggle