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.