Tolkien's Lost Chaucer by John M. Bowers


Goodreads: Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: December 3, 2019

Official Summary

Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer uncovers the story of an unpublished and previously unknown book by the author of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien worked between 1922 and 1928 on his Clarendon edition Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, and though never completed, its 160 pages of commentary reveals much of his thinking about language and storytelling when he was still at the threshold of his career as an epoch-making writer of fantasy literature. Drawing upon other new materials such as his edition of the Reeve’s Tale and his Oxford lectures on the Pardoner’s Tale, this book reveals Chaucer as a major influence upon Tolkien’s literary imagination.

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Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer is a fascinating look at a book most people–even during Tolkien’s lifetime–had no idea he was working on, a student edition with selections from Geoffrey Chaucer’s works which Tolkien was to gloss and provide notes for. A co-editor would provide the introduction. Bowers work helps position Tolkien as a scholar who was not only interested in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literature but also a Chaucerian who was deeply familiar with Chaucer’s work and could even recite some of The Canterbury Tales from memory. This sheds new light on Tolkien as a reader and an academic and on Tolkien’s own fiction and ways it might have been influenced by Chaucer.

The beginning of the book provides a detailed look at the history of the student edition of Chaucer–how it came about, how Tolkien was chosen to work on it, what work he did (or did not) complete for it, what happened to the manuscripts and notes, etc. This is interesting if one wants to know how Tolkien could have done significant work on Chaucer that basically no one knew about or discussed, and it gives a decent portrayal of Tolkien as a scholar–someone who was incredibly thorough, often at the expense of actually finishing things. (There’s probably a whole conversation to be had about academia in general here, to be honest, as Tolkien is compared to scholars who were more well-known and prolific but admitted to just kind of moving on if they weren’t certain about something in what they were working on, instead of trying to figure it out.)

Personally, I was more interested in the next section of the book, which gives an overview of what Tolkien had drafted for his glosses and notes. This section does require the reader have a working knowledge of Chaucer’s “minor” poems, as no summaries are provided, but if you are familiar with the texts Tolkien was commenting on, it’s fascinating to see his thoughts. Bowers also notes where Tolkien’s opinions or commentary is different from other Chaucer scholars’ views–and how much over his page limit for the manuscript his notes extended, as he delved deep into the history of certain words. (The book also emphasizes that Tolkien as a scholar and lecturer was very much a philologist commenting on individual words in individual lines, rather than making general arguments about literature–interesting, as he clearly had a profound understanding of literature and would have been able to analyze it in a lecture.)

Finally, Bowers explores how Tolkien’s familiarity with Chaucer might have influenced his own writing, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. “Tolkien’s sources” is, of course, a favorite topic for Tolkien scholars, who have compared Gandalf to Odin, noted that a cup is stolen from a dragon hoard in both Beowulf and The Hobbit, etc., so it’s no surprise people would want to know what Tolkien might have “taken” from Chaucer. In many places, Bowers’s arguments are convincing, and one can definitely imagine Tolkien reading a scene or seeing a theme in Chaucer and having it in the back of his mind somewhere. At times, however, Bowers seems to be stretching. For instance, there are cases where I wonder if Tolkien was influenced by Chaucer…or just medieval literature in general, which of course is notorious for reworking and recycling various themes, characters, plots, and so forth. There are also times where I would argue Tolkien was probably not “influenced” by much of anything. Can one really argue that the fact Dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s house in discrete groups in The Hobbit is somehow related to the fact that the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales show up in different-sized groups? I think not.

Overall, however, Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer is an excellent, clearly well-researched book that will help Tolkien scholars and fans see the author and his work in a new light and remind them that, as a medievalist, he was actually familiar with works written after the Anglo-Saxon period.

5 stars

Why The Fellowship of the Ring is Worth Reading (Guest Post by Elli @ NeedtoRead)

Tolkien Event 2020 banner

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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 a number of guest posts!

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Why The Fellowship of the Ring Is Worth Reading

A beautifully-written book about wizards, elves, hobbits, and a treacherous journey to save the world.

Genre: Fantasy/Adventure, Fiction


The One Ring holds a power that could destroy their entire civilization, if it gets back to its master. The only way to stop it is to destroy it. But doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. The adventure starts with two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who set off on an journey to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor, the only place where it can be destroyed.

When I first decided to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I was intimidated.

I’d tried reading the book before, but it always took so long to get through the beginning. I also had other books that I wanted/needed to read, and I thought that The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t worth my time.

But a few weeks ago I decided that I was going to commit to reading it. I wasn’t going to read anything else until I finished it, and I was going to push through the boredom no matter how much I wanted to stop.

Now I realize that I was wrong: reading The Fellowship of the Ring was definitely worth it.

From the beginning of the book, the reader’s attention is grabbed. You right away become interested in Bilbo and Frodo, the most mysterious hobbits in the Shire. Frodo was an orphan when he was taken in by Bilbo, and they both share a love for adventure that most hobbits don’t have.

But something fishy is going on; it seems that Bilbo’s Eleventy-First (One Hundred and Eleventh) birthday party is going to be different from the usual. At the end, Bilbo disappears into thin air while giving a speech.

Frodo is left with Bilbo’s Ring,and doesn’t know how much power it holds until years later, when the wizard Gandalf tells him of its magic and what danger Frodo is in while he has it.

You are introduced to many different characters, many of whom have a bigger part in the story within the next two books, in addition to their roles in the first one. The Fellowship is comprised of Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry the hobbits, Gimli the dwarf, Legolas the elf, Boromir and Aragorn the men, and Gandalf the wizard.

Sam Gamgee is the most lovable character, in my opinion. He vows to follow Frodo wherever he may go and is always by Frodo’s side as a loyal friend and companion.

The hobbits are underestimated because of their size, but they show true signs of bravery when the Fellowship is in peril. All four of them, especially Frodo, grow and mature as time goes on.

I know that I said this book is overly-descriptive, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You are able to imagine settings in immense detail, as if you were there yourself. You can almost feel the grass under your feet and hear the trees swaying in the wind.

There’s something beautiful about the way it’s written, a sense of adventure that keeps readers turning the pages. After reading it, I decided to watch the movie again, as well, which is also definitely worth watching (if you haven’t already).

There is a lot of plain walking around and background information given in this book, since the journey to Mount Doom is just beginning. But you have to get through it to be able to experience more action in the next two books.

Though it is slow-moving, The Fellowship of the Ring is a great start to The Lord of the Rings. If you are a Tolkien fan and haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend starting it today.

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About the Author

Elli is a Canadian blogger who wants to share her love of writing and literature by posting about books on her blog, NeedtoRead. She enjoys reading through Pages Unbound reviews, and wants to contribute to their Tolkien event by writing one herself.

Defending Middle-Earth by Patrick Curry

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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 a number of guest posts!


Goodreads: Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1997

Official Summary

What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien’s fiction: the social and political structure of Middle-earth and how the varying cultures within it find common cause in the face of a shared threat; the nature and ecology of Middle-earth and how what we think of as the natural world joins the battle against mindless, mechanized destruction; and the spirituality and ethics of Middle-earth, for which Curry provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination that will deepen the understanding of the millions of fans who have taken The Lord of the Rings to heart. 

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Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry is a classic in the world of Tolkien scholarship, so I find it somewhat surprising I haven’t read it before now.  Perhaps on some level I don’t feel that Middle-earth needs defending; I love The Lord of the Rings and have ideas about why I do and why other people do.  However, finally reading Defending Middle-Earth has sparked some more reflection in me about why other people love Tolkien’s work and why it continues to resonate with readers year after year.

To be fair, the book was published in 1997 and revised in 2004, so it can feel a bit dated at times (I think some of the disgruntled Goodreads reviews are a reaction to this).  This is both in regards to the real-world examples Curry gives about how Tolkien’s work can be applicable to our own lives and to the positioning of the scholarship.  For instance, although there certainly are still academics today who disdain genre fiction, fantasy, and Tolkien’s work in particular, I think the tide has generally changed and the idea that “scholars don’t take fantasy seriously” is today a bit overblown.  University students can take classes on everything from zombie books to children’s literature.  PhD students can specialize in science fiction.  An incredible amount of serious work has been published on Tolkien alone.  So while Middle-earth might need defending to certain people, I think some of the contempt that Curry was responding to at the time of original publication is much less of an issue today.

Nonetheless, the general scope of Curry’s analysis of what makes Tolkien’s work popular and beloved feels timeless.  He focuses on three main categories: the social, the natural, and the spiritual.  One might reductively say this is about the sense of community in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s obvious love of nature, and the clear sense that there is some spiritual meaning in the world of Middle-earth, even as Tolkien’s books rarely overtly mention anything resembling religion.  Curry, of course, goes much more in-depth on these topics, drawing on scholarship and literary theory and even touching on broad topics like why fantasy or myth might resonate with readers in general.  The result is thought-provoking, even if a reader does not agree with all of Curry’s points.

If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to think more about The Lord of the Rings and the general question of “why people like this stuff,” Defending Middle-Earth is worth a read.


Two More (Easy!) Ways to Participate in our March 2020 TolkienReadingEvent

Tolkien Event 2020 banner

During March 2019, Pages Unbound will be running our sixth Tolkien Reading Event.  Every year on March 25, the Tolkien Society celebrates Tolkien Reading Day, and we like to expand on the event by hosting several days’ worth of Tolkien-related content.  We have had some wonderful guest posts in the past and would like to invite you to submit a guest post this year.

Theme: To Be Announced

Information for our event on Twitter is under the hashtag #TolkienReadingEvent20.

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Ways to Participate

Regular Guest Post

If you want to write a full guest post, check out the information and sign-up form for doing so here.

However, this year we have two MORE ways to participate, both of which are quicker and easier than a guest post:

Tell Us Why You Haven’t Read Tolkien (or Have Only Read One Book)

We’re switching things up a bit this year and asking people who have NOT read any Tolkien books (or people who have read one but haven’t read any more) to share their reasons why. Share your thoughts here.

We promise we will be nice to you in the comments and not shame you for not being a huge Tolkien fan. 😉

Tell Us a Scene from Tolkien’s Work You Find Impactful

Tell us what scene from Tolkien’s work you find particularly impactful/striking/memorable and why. Fill out the Google form here.

Answers will be shared during our Tolkien Reading Event starting March 25.

Wanted: Guest Posts for Tolkien Reading Event (March 2020)

During March 2019, Pages Unbound will be running our sixth Tolkien Reading Event.  Every year on March 25, the Tolkien Society celebrates Tolkien Reading Day, and we like to expand on the event by hosting several days’ worth of Tolkien-related content.  We have had some wonderful guest posts in the past and would like to invite you to submit a guest post this year.

Official Tolkien Society Theme: Nature and Industry

Post Options

The Tolkien Reading Event is open to a wide variety of posts.  In previous events, we have featured everything from book reviews to quizzes to serious literary criticism.   Pitch us an idea for any type of post you would like!  You can also review books and movies that have been featured before; we love new perspectives! See a full list of past posts here.

If you need ideas, we are particularly open to posts about:

  • the official theme: Nature and Industry
  • any aspect of The Silmarillion
  • the art of Middle-Earth
  • a tour of your Tolkien collection (books or merchandise)
  • Tolkien’s villains
  • reviews of books about (not by) Tolkien
  • reflections on Tolkien’s “minor” works (Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, Roverandom)


If you are interested in participating, please fill out the Google form below.  We will begin the event on Sunday, March 25, and so would like to receive guest posts by March 17.  We will contact everyone with final details around that time (such as what day your guest post will be scheduled).  Please feel free to spread the word to fellow Tolkien fans!

Title: Please tell us what you would like the title of the post to be when you send us the draft! Otherwise you will be subject to our whims. 😉

Post Length: There is no required post length; however long you feel you need to address the topic is fine.

Photos/Graphics: Feel free to include photos or graphics if you would like, but only include images you own the rights to post.  (Basically, no copyright infringement, please!)

Poems: Excerpts of poems are fine, but please do not include entire poems still under copyright.


*LOTR clip art by Nesca at CuteGraphicSupply.

Click to Fill out Google Form

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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 a number of guest posts!

Tolkien Maker of Middle-earth Exhibit Review-min


From January 25 through May 12, 2019, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is running an exhibit focused on J.R.R. Tolkien’s art and writings, in collaboration with the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.  (A slightly different version of the exhibit was run in England first).

According to the Morgan website:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” With these words the Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien ignited a fervid spark in generations of readers. From the children’s classic The Hobbit to the epic The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s adventurous tales of hobbits and elves, dwarves and wizards have introduced millions to the rich history of Middle-earth. Going beyond literature, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a world complete with its own languages and histories. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

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I was fairly jealous that I couldn’t attend the original Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit, so I was extremely excited when it was announced the the exhibit would be making its way to the US, and I basically counted down the days to its opening in New York.  This March, I finally was able to go.

The Morgan website notes that the exhibit is “first come, first served,” and I was warned upon purchasing my ticket (which, of course, includes access to the whole museum) that visitors were only allowed through the Tolkien exhibit once.  If you left the room, that was it.  This all sounded ominous, and it was even more concerning when I passed a long, roped-off line labelled for the exhibit.  However, early crowds for the exhibit must have been much larger.  Although I went on a Sunday, about an hour and a half after the museum opened, there was no line, and I went right up and in.  (Where all my hopes were crushed as I was informed by a staff member that no photography was permitted.  I was also reminded that I wouldn’t be allowed back once I left, though no one marked my ticket or anything.)

According to staff, there is “no order” to the exhibit and guests can wander at will, but items are grouped into general categories that follow a loose timeline of Tolkien’s life and work.  There’s an area for Tolkien’s family life, for The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, etc.  And most people seemed to be following this order through the exhibit, though, of course, I can imagine that would not have to, particularly if they were familiar with Tolkien’s life.

And whether or not visitors are familiar with Tolkien seems to be one area in which the exhibit struggles.  On one hand, the signage does not provide a lot of information, and if you don’t know about Tolkien, you’re likely to be confused by what you’re looking at and, really, by the experience in general.  I overheard several people desperately asking friends how many books The Lord of the Rings was, what “Gondor” was and who lived there, etc.  They were probably somewhat baffled by the whole thing.  On the other hand, the signage frequently does not offer information that is particularly new if you’re an avid Tolkien fan.  I wouldn’t say that I personally “learned” much that I didn’t know already.

That said, the exhibit was still incredibly cool for me to visit as a fan.  Most of the materials I was already familiar with–illustrations from the books, drafts of book jacket designs, maps Tolkien had drawn, etc.  The joy here is simply seeing these things in person rather than reproduced in a book or on a screen.  There were, however, some items I was not already familiar with–heraldic devices Tolkien had drawn for Silmarillion characters, random doodles he was wont to make on the newspaper as he did the crosswords, a timeline for the different characters and their plots in The Lord of the Rings, and an “account book” he kept with Edith for kisses owed based on how much studying he did while in school.  I was somewhat baffled that some of this stuff had been saved (really, random doodles the man made while thinking about a crossword puzzle?), but I suppose he was famous enough his family knew anything he had “created” would be interesting to Tolkien scholars and the general public.

It is worth noting that most of the exhibit is papers, fair enough since it’s about Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth, the work he did thinking, plotting, brainstorming, illustrating, communicating with his publisher, etc., but there were a few other items, like an Oxford robe he wore to receive an honorary degree, as well as his colored pencils and paint set.  I wished a little that there were more things like this, Tolkien’s personal effects, as seeing them in person was incredibly interesting and made Tolkien seem a bit more real even than the originals of papers and pictures I’ve seen reproductions of a thousand times.

There’s no doubt the exhibit is worth visiting for any fan of Tolkien.  I suppose its real problem is leaving visitors tantalized and wanting more, just as The Lord of the Rings itself often does.  For  fans who cannot visit, there is an exhibit book (aptly titled Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth), and it’s very possible you can get the book from your library if you don’t want to purchase it.


My Reading Relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien (Guest Post by Ashley)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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 and interviews!

The first book by J.R.R. Tolkien that I read was The Hobbit, and I was in middle school when I read it. I think I might have been in sixth grade. I remember absolutely loving it and how different it was than anything I had ever read before. It’s a book that I’ve read more than once. The second book that I read by J.R.R. Tolkien was The Lord of the Rings and I read it in seventh grade. You might be thinking, “How did you read a 1,216 page book in seventh grade?” Well, when you’ve always been reading above your grade level, a 1,216 page book is no big deal. I loved The Lord of the Rings just as much as The Hobbit. They’re books that take you on an adventure. I also love Middle Earth (well most of it anyway). I’m also ashamed to say that those are the only two books by J.R.R. Tolkien that I have read so far. Yes, I definitely plan on reading more of his works in the future, but from what I’ve read I would say that I have a great relationship with reading Tolkien. I know some of his books are quite lengthy, but I’ve never had a problem reading big books. I welcome the challenge.

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About the Author

Ashley blogs at Inside My Minds.

My Journey Through Tolkien’s Works (Guest Post by Short Girl)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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 a number of guest posts!

My Journey Through Tolkien

My Journey Through Tolkien

I will be honest: I did not read The Lord of the Rings before I watched it.

My family has always been the type that reads.  Even though I’m getting up in years now, my parents still do “family read-aloud.” Each night, my mother will read a chapter or so aloud from whatever novel we’re on to my father and me. It’s a fun time. I’ve had The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, the Inkheart books, and many other classics read aloud to me over the years.

Surprisingly, though, my parents didn’t read LOTR to me before they decided we should watch it one wintry eve when I was ten or eleven. Since I had never read the books, I was supremely annoyed at the cliff-hanger that the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, leaves viewers on. Granted, I had watched LOTR before (the creepy cartoon version, when I was seven, at school; it scared me so I tried not to remember it), but I was still upset. A few weeks later, I goaded my parents into a nearly six-hour long double feature to watch The Two Towers and The Return of the King in order to see what happened next. I remember loving Éowyn, who slays the Witch-King. She was a super cool gal, and my prepubescent self was dazzled.

Then I read The Hobbit.

I know what you’re thinking. Hold the phone, you say, you watched the LOTR trilogy and then read The Hobbit? When are you actually gonna read the LOTR books?!?

The Hobbit was another family read-aloud book, and, as a child, I liked the imagery of the maze of caves that Bilbo finds himself in, where he sees Smeagol. I liked how small the book was but how the characters could still go on such an adventure. The other problem was that my brother owned the copy of LOTR, a thick, dog-eared one with all three books in it, and he was at college.

Eventually, though, he left his book at home, and I stole it and began reading. I was in seventh grade, and I carried the thick book around in my backpack for weeks, reading during lunch, between classes, during breakfast, and before bed. The imagery was just as dazzling, the characters just as gripping. I still loved Legolas and Gimli and Frodo and all of them. Frodo and Sam’s friendship was really important to me, especially in the tumultuous time that was middle school. I claimed my brother’s book as my own and covered it in peanut-butter stains during my excited reading.

When The Hobbit movies came out, I went to see the first one in theaters, and I was a little disappointed. I wanted to see the whole book at once, but I couldn’t! My then-boyfriend was obsessed with Tolkien, and he got me a copy of the movie for Christmas. It was nice of him, but I didn’t end up seeing the other two movies. I decided to keep the magic of The Hobbit to myself.

Even though Harry Potter was my favorite book series growing up (still is), LOTR was an important part of my development. It taught me about friendship, doing the right thing, and going on an adventure. It was part of my family culture–my brother and parents and I bonded over watching/reading it. When I heard recently that there was a movie about Tolkien coming out, I was quite excited.

Of course, I’m older now, so I have to admit the flaws of both Tolkien as a person and also his writing, but his books paved the way for me to love fantasy, try and write some of my own, and to keep on exploring.

Books offer you the opportunity to go into a another world, and The Lord of the Rings series definitely did that for me.

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About the Author

Short Girl has been blogging at Short Girl Writes ( for a little over three years. As the name implies, she’s a short girl who writes. Her blog is focused largely on book reviews, but includes posts on other aspects of the world of reading and writing. In her spare time, she’s usually making music, knitting, or…surprise, reading books.

The Bittersweet Ending of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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 a number of guest posts!

ending of the lord of the rings discussion

When I read fantasy, I often find myself half hoping for a happy ending and half hoping that things will fall apart and go terribly wrong because, as much as I love happy endings, I sometimes have a sneaking suspicion that they’re too common, too predictable and that if the protagonist were to fail at least it would be a good plot twist.  The heroes win so much in fantasy (particularly YA fantasy, which I read a lot of) that I often assume the outcome of the book is a given, that I’m not really reading to see how things end but to see how the characters get there.  I want good to win, but I’m sometimes left wishing the villains would triumph, just to mix things up.  It’s a mental struggle I go through nearly every time I pick up a fantasy novel.

The last time I thought about my dilemma in choosing whether to cheer for good or evil (again, just for the sake of variety), it occurred to me that Tolkien’s heroes in The Lord of the Rings win.  They take the Ring to Mount Doom and toss it in, Sauron is destroyed permanently, and his armies mostly fall apart. Yet it never occurred to me to think that this ending was too boring or too predictable and needed to be “spiced up.”  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is because the ending of the book comes with immense joy but also with a sense of loss because, although the future is bright in Middle-earth, things will never be quite the same.

I do want to emphasize that the ending is happy, happier than the characters and even readers might predict.  Boromir, of course, is killed by Saruman’s Uruk-hai early on, but no other members of the Fellowship die.  Frodo and Sam, who were prepared to toss the Ring into Mount Doom at the cost of their own lives, are saved.  Merry and Pippin make it through the war.  Aragorn is crowned king.  Both he and Eowyn find love.  Middle-earth is poised to flourish.  But, still, there is loss.  It just isn’t what the characters were expecting.

Fighting Sauron meant fearing death, fearing the Ringwraiths, fearing a world where all the Free Peoples were enslaved and all green things died.  Little of that came to pass.  Instead, Frodo lost peace and his sense of belonging.  Sam lost his best friend when Frodo left for the Undying Lands.  The Shire lost its innocence and sense of safety.  Middle-earth lost the Elves and ushered in the Age of Man.

The Lord of the Rings shows us that, even when we defeat great evil, one of the costs is that things can never be quite the way they were before.  Change, of course, is not necessarily bad, and maybe some of what is different will be better.  But there will always be loss.  The “good guys” win in The Lord of the Rings, but it is a bittersweet victory tinged with the loss of some beautiful things.  It’s too complex to be a “happy ending.”


“The Hands of the King are the Hands of a Healer” (Guest Post by Michael J. Miller @ My Comic Relief)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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 and interviews!

“The Hands of the King are the Hands of a Healer”-min

This is exciting!  I’ve admired Krysta and Briana’s site for ages and having the chance to write for their Tolkien Reading Event 2019 is an honor.  However, this was also an intimidating post to write.  I am a casual Tolkien reader at best – not reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time until I taught it (and when I say “it” I mean “the films” but I read the books before I taught it so only judge me half as much as you were going to when I said “films”) to my Youth Group about ten years ago.  Reading this site has given me a far deeper appreciation for not only the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work but also the devoted nature of his fans.  So I know I’m writing for readers who know their Tolkien.  Yikes.  But I’m always up for a challenge and this gives me an avenue to write about something profound I found in the pages of The Return of the King when I first read it all those years ago – the Houses of Healing.

The Houses of Healing comprise a relatively short part of Tolkien’s work.  However, this scene struck me more than anything else in the entire story when I first read it.  It was the part which left the most vivid impression on me, too.  I think of it often.  I am in awe of the brilliant allegorical work Tolkien accomplishes here.  Obviously, as a Catholic and someone who has spent the last seventeen years – his entire adult life – studying and teaching theology, Tolkien has my respect in a special way.  Tolkien’s faith greatly influenced his life and work, producing one of the most thoughtful and expansive examples of Christian allegory in all of literature with The Lord of the Rings.  For me, the most powerful example of this allegory occurs at the House of Healing.

In The Return of the King, while the Battle of Pelenor Fields rages, Gandalf arrives at the Houses of Healing.  As he’s there, the healers are struggling to help the people brought to them, “But now their art and knowledge were baffled; for there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl.”[1]  As the people grow sicker and sicker, Gandalf waited and he watched.  “Then an old wife, Ioreth, the eldest of the women who served in that house, looking on the fair face of Faramir, wept, for all the people loved him.  And she said: ‘Alas!  if he should die.  Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say!  For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.  And so the rightful king could ever be known.’”[2]

BOOM.  But it gets better!

Aragorn arrives and when he comes to the Houses of Healing he instantly begins his work.  He heals Faramir,[3]  Éowyn,[4] and Merry[5] using his hands, herbs, and his voice – calling them back to him.  Then, despite his desire to rest, he hears the calls of the people and continues his work:

“At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow.  And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they laboured far into the night.  And word went far through the City:  ‘The king has come again indeed.’”[6]

BOOM.  What makes this – Aragorn being the one able to heal Faramir, Éowyn, Merry, and all the others – so profound isn’t simply the fact that Aragon is the king but rather that he is one of Tolkien’s central Christ figures in the story.  A Christ figure isn’t literally Christ but rather the character(s) who symbolically represents Jesus Christ in some way, shape, or form.  In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives his readers three central Christ figures in Frodo, Gandalf, and, of course, Aragorn.  But of all the theological allusions in this story, all the Christological moments, it is this one which is the most significant (at least as far as I’m concerned) because it ties so directly into Jesus’ ministry.

I remember a professor of mine once saying, “What we know for certain about the Historical Jesus could fit on the back of a post card.”  It was not an original insight on his part but rather an oft repeated remark meant to underscore while we know a lot about Jesus, there is very little we can say with absolute certainty as being historically factual.  (Granted, the majority of the truth of scripture doesn’t hinge, and was never meant to, on it being historically factual.  Humanity’s greatest and most profound truths often come clearest in metaphors.)  But one of the things we do know with absolute certainty is that Jesus of Nazareth had a reputation as a mystic healer.[7]  We see reference to Jesus’ healings in the Christian scriptures, obviously, but we also see references to them in Jewish and Roman sources.  This is important from a historical standpoint as Jewish and Roman writers had no need to try to prove Jesus the Messiah or God.

As Historical Jesus theologian Marcus Borg puts it, “He was a remarkable healer: more healing stories are told about him than about anybody else in the Jewish tradition.”[8]  Speaking of Jesus’ technique, theological scholar Albert Nolan writes, “There was certainly a spontaneous concern to make some kind of physical contact with the sick person.  He touched them, took them by the hand or laid his hands on them.”[9]  The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.  By invoking this connection between healer and king, by having Aragorn enter Minas Tirith and immediately begin healing the sick, Tolkien is directly connecting him to one of the most significant and historically verifiable aspects of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

We even see Aragorn employing some of Jesus’ healing techniques.  He lays his hands on Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry and he also speaks to them, calling them back and telling them it will be alright.  While less anchored in historical certainty, this too is something we see highlighted quite clearly in the Gospels.  In both the raising of Lazarus (John 11:43-44) and the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:54-56), for example, Jesus calls to the one who has died and they come to him, alive and healthy.  He wakes them with his voice, just as Aragorn does in the Houses of Healing.

To illustrate Aragorn’s kingship in the act of healing is to tie him with knowledge and nuance to the very heart of who Jesus was.  It shows both the depth of Tolkien’s knowledge of his faith and his care in presenting it, placing an appropriately important spotlight on healing in a story of spectacular battles across bloody battlefields.  Obviously, loving this scene the way I do, I was disappointed it didn’t make it into Peter Jackson’s adaptation (there was one extended scene that didn’t even try to present it accurately! (and the movie’s like a zillion hours long! couldn’t they give me fifteen minutes of this??)) but I shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, the book is always better and when it comes to expertly weaving deeply theological threads through a narrative, no one can do it quite like J.R.R. Tolkien.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 871.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 876.
[4] Ibid., 878.
[5] Ibid., 879.
[6] Ibid., 881.
[7] Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, (New York: Orbis Books, 1976), 43.
[8] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 31.
[9] Nolan, 37-8.

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About the Author

Michael Miller writes and rambles about comic books and comic book movies (not to mention Doctor Who and Star Wars and whatever else randomly pops into his head) on his blog My Comic Relief. He teaches theology at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA – including classes on Star Wars as modern mythology and the intersection of comic books and social justice. Should it be your thing, you can also find him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief.