Why Other High Fantasies Can’t Match the Power of The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien Event 2016

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Life, Death, and Immortality. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts,interviews, and giveaways!

Published in the 1950s, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has become the touchstone of high fantasy and many an author has failed in trying to emulate the professor’s formula.  Elves, Dwarves, goblins, and even orcs abound in the genre, and shelves overflow with volumes full of pseudo-medieval worlds and bad archaic English.  Tolkien’s unique training as a philologist, his dedication to creating a mythology for England, and his painstaking attention to detail all contribute to making his works difficult to reproduce.  What is more, however, Tolkien’s underlying philosophy sets his legendarium apart.  Other authors have failed so spectacularly in capturing Tolkien’s spirit, I believe, because they fail to recognize what constitutes that spirit.

Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and this seems evident to me in every page of his writing.  (Nevertheless, I have shocked and scandalized several incredulous friends by revealing this biographical tidbit.)   While The Lord of the Rings may not be thought of as a typical “religious” work because it does not deal overtly with what we might consider religious things such as attending a worship service and because it does not attempt to proselytize (indeed, The Lord of the Rings has been used by other non-Catholic groups to advance their own philosophies), Catholicism clearly was for Tolkien not something he did on Sundays but something that imbued his life and colored the way in which he saw the world.  It is only natural that a world he sub-created would reflect his views.

Of course, readers of The Silmarillion will know that Tolkien’s creation myth for Middle-earth features the fall of Morgoth in what parallels the fall of Lucifer, that Middle-Earth is watched over by angel-like beings, and that the older societies of Men once did have temples though now Middle-earth may seem strangely a-religious.  However, Tolkien’s Catholicism reaches deeper these similarities.  His entire world revolves around concepts of morality, selflessness, and sacrifice that may seem foreign to our individualistic modernday society; his characters may not attend a church to pray for divine aid but they are, in some ways, always religious.

Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings took some of the surface layers of morality present in the work and showed them onscreen because they are things that American society at large would presumably not disagree with.  We can cheer on the little guy fighting the Dark Lord for freedom.  We can appreciate courage and friendship and loyalty.  However, when it comes to nuances of morality or even a belief in the ultimate goodness of people, Jackson’s version loses something.

Thus Frodo’s struggle is presented as more of a fight for the political freedom of Middle-earth than it is a moral struggle against the temptation for the power to control others.  Aragorn is transformed from a noble man who understands his destiny and place in the divine plan to a man running from his duty.  Faramir is no longer the mirror image of his brother who fell (but then repented) but as a weaker man who momentarily falls as well, due to  his daddy issues.  And Treebeard does not fight because that is the right thing to do, but only because Merry and Pippin show him that his home and lands are personally threatened.

Tolkien’s world is different from Jackson’s.  Tolkien’s is a world of nuance where the struggle for power is not only about freedom and politics but also about who has the moral courage to recognize that the power to create and to control belongs to God alone.  Tolkien’s is a world where Frodo wins even though he fails because he acts as an instrument of God and it’s not important that he receive songs and accolades for his own deeds—because they aren’t fully his deeds.  He was given grace to do what he did.  And Tolkien’s is a world where men sometimes do choose to do the right thing simply because it is right, even though it is hard.  Even though it might not benefit them.  Even though it might hurt them and, like Frodo, they might never fully recover.

Other fantasies try to delineate the clear line between good versus evil that seems to exist in Tolkien, the line that says orcs are always bad guys and the dark cloud spreading across the land obviously represents evil, while Gandalf the White on his white horse and his allies are always good.  They give an unlikely protagonist a sword and a mentor and believe that a fight against the darkness makes a man a hero.

But Tolkien’s work is more than dark vs. light, orcs vs. man, Frodo is good and Sauron is bad.  Tolkien’s work is a moral struggle where Frodo’s heroism lies not in defying an obviously bad dude but in accepting that he is merely a little part of a divine plan.  Sauron is corrupt not only because he is trying to subjugate the peoples of the surrounding lands but also because he is playing God in attempting to create life in the form of orcs and trolls.  In Tolkien’s world, wielding a sword for a good cause does not automatically make a person good—that’s why we have the fall of Boromir who was tempted to do evil to achieve good.  The highest heroism lies in putting others before one’s self, letting go of one’s own ego, maybe even dying that someone else might live.  (And so Boromir is redeemed.)

It is this struggle to live sacrificially that lies at the heart of The Lord of the Rings and the lack of this struggle that often makes other works of high fantasy seem empty.  Everyone wants to be a hero, to pick up a sword for a short time and go down in to history in song.  Hardly anyone wants to suffer for the good of others, especially without recognition.  But Frodo and Sam are prepared to do just that, to die far away from home and alone, to save a world they will never get to live in.  Their motivation and the struggles of the other characters to emulate that self-sacrificial quality drive The Lord of the Rings and make it come alive in a way that few other works can match.

Krysta 64

16 thoughts on “Why Other High Fantasies Can’t Match the Power of The Lord of the Rings

  1. Briana says:

    I find I tend to like the books of authors who are deeply religious, even when that isn’t obvious in their writing. I think I like the idea that the author believes in something, and that it gets imbued in the work because that something is worth writing about. That’s why, although I enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy superficially, I was never really captured by it. Philip Pullman’s work is all about how he believes in nothing at all, which seems not worthwhile.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, there is something about the belief in a higher plan or reality that seems to give depth to a work. I didn’t enjoy His Dark Materials because somehow to me it felt dead and the small hope it tried to present didn’t hold much comfort.


  2. Greg says:

    Beautiful post! I agree that Tolkien’s faith colors everything about Middle-earth, and the whole idea of subcreation is part of that. I read somewhere that he felt that even as we are created, so his subcreation was inspired as well because the creativity comes from God. I’m not saying divinely inspired per se, but more in the sense that we are creative beings. I’m probably paraphrasing this horribly, sorry.🙂 I think he poured so much of himself into these stories for such a long time that it’s no wonder that other derivative works cannot even come close to the complexity and impact these have.

    Your comment about grace is interesting too, I had not thought of that before but it makes sense. And the same thing with Jackson’s changes to Aragorn and Treebeard in particular- such a good point. I’ve always thought something was so wrong about that Treebeard scene and now I think I know why.🙂


    • Krysta says:

      I think that’s a fair summary of his thoughts in “On Fairy Stories.” He also elaborates on how fairy stories participate in presenting joy or an “underlying reality or truth” about the world. And it is true that he spent most of his life developing Middle=earth, so it may be difficult for another author to replicate the level of detail and knowledge he has in his world.

      Treebeard and Faramir’s changes always bothered me the most because I loved them so much in the books. Treebeard is better than how Jackson depicted him!


  3. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Krysta, this is such a wonderful post! Your enthusiasm really shines through! I really love how you distinguished between Jackson’s work and Tolkien’s work – I’ve neverthought about that before, but yeah, they’re really kind of two separate things! I’ll have to reread Tolkien’s books and rewatch Jackson’s movies now… xD


    • Krysta says:

      I enjoy Jackson’s LotR because in some ways it really does capture the feel of Middle-earth for me, but certain changes always bothered me. The desire to make all good characters conflicted is a pet peeve of mine. It also happened to Peter when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out. Instead of saying “Mr. Tumnus helped Lucy so we’re going to help him,” he spends the movie trying to get home and leave Narnia to its horrible fate. There seems to be this idea that we can’t relate to characters who are “too” good and prepared to live sacrificially.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

        Mm yeah, I see where you’re coming from! Jackson’s LotR captures Middle-Earth for me, because it’s quite cinematic (I think that’s the word I’m looking for). It looks like what I’d visualise in my head – it’s just that the characters aren’t exactly the same as what has been written, right?


        • Krysta says:

          It’s partly the character changes, partly that the philosophy of the world has changed. It’s no longer a spiritual struggle, no longer a focus on sacrificial living. It’s more of a political struggle and when sacrifice occurs, it’s grudging, a necessity rather than something noble. (Except in the case of Frodo and Sam, who remain mostly intact–except for that out-of-character moment where Sam leaves Frodo.)

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Nandini Bharadwaj says:

    Amazing post!🙂
    I think I’ll have more to say in an hour’s time, but for now, I’m speechless because it’s as if you’ve taken all the admiration and love I have for Tolkien’s words and put them into words I could never come up with myself.


  5. Nandini Bharadwaj says:

    Reblogged this on Pages That Rustle and commented:
    An excellent post that I couldn’t resist sharing. It puts all of my feelings for Professor Tolkien’s work into words and I couldn’t have done it better myself. After reading this, I went to my Fangirl Level: Max state.😀


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