Ah, The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. One of the first novels I ever read, thanks to my father. I loved it as a child, and I still love it as an adult.
Actually, re-reading it while growing up, I kept noticing things to which I didn’t pay much attention as a child, and they made me love the books even more. The Lord of the Rings is a complex novel dealing with themes such as the morality of war, self-sacrifice for the greater good (as opposed to sacrificing others) and spiritual strength, in addition to many others.
Too bad it’s entered pop culture’s collective consciousness as a simple tale of a battle between Good and Evil that spans the whole world.
This isn’t an issue of liking the novel or not. I do think many people judge it unfairly (often without having actually read it), but I’m not trying to defend Tolkien’s work or anything. Honestly, I think the quality of his work speaks for itself and needs no defence. No, I think it’s an issue of most people misinterpreting the novel as an epic, when really, it isn’t.
I just said.
To be fair, in terms of scale, it is an epic; its plot does affect the whole world and irrevocably changes it. It also has the element of the quest in its storytelling structure, so common in ancient epics (like Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality). It even has a variety of heroic deeds which wouldn’t be out of place in works like Beowulf or the Mabinogion: Gimli and Legolas challenge each other over who can kill more Orcs in Helm’s Deep (and also in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, if I recall it correctly); Boromir, before finally dying, kills almost two dozen Orcs all by himself; Aragorn leads an army of ghosts against the black ships; Éowyn and Merry, together, manage to destroy an undead sorcerer who had been “living” for centuries. One can even see Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as a Tolkenian version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or possibly Charlemagne and his Paladins.
The movies only made things worse, especially by playing up Aragorn’s strength of character (effortlessly resisting the temptation of taking the One Ring for himself at the end of the first movie), leadership (all of Théoden’s scenes displaying his qualities as a leader of his people in the book of The Two Towers were instead given to Aragorn in the second movie) and wisdom (in the third movie, when Gandalf is despairing after Pelennor Fields, it’s Aragorn who comes up with the plan to brazenly attack Sauron in the hopes of drawing him out out and giving Frodo and Sam a chance to sneak into Mordor; whereas in the novel, that was Gandalf’s plan all along), or with things like Legolas “Arrow Machine Gun” knocking down two Oliphaunts with a single arrow, skateboarding on a shield and generally performing acrobatic feats impossible for mere mortals (like mounting on a galloping horse using only one hand – seriously, Legolas is a freaking Jedi in the movies!). Basically, in their effort to turn the novel into a “proper” Hollywood blockbuster, Peter Jackson and company emphasized the more traditional action heroes – Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli – in detriment of other characters who were a lot more important, originally.
But The Lord of the Rings isn’t an epic. In spite of naming the third book (or sixth, depending on the specific edition you’re reading), the king’s return to Gondor isn’t the novel’s main plot. No, it actually provides both a counterpoint and a backdrop to the true protagonists of the story: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.
At its heart, the novel is a fairy tale: people deemed small, weak and mediocre (in this case, the Hobbits) display virtues (courage, wisdom, strength of will and selflessness) above and beyond those deemed great, powerful and extraordinary (Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, all of them refuse the One Ring for fear of giving in to the temptation of wielding it) and achieve extraordinary deeds (destroying the aforesaid One Ring) by means of cunning or spiritual strength, instead of strength of arms.
People tend to associate fairy tales (and, often, fantasy in general) with “childishness” and a certain shallowness in the way it treats complex themes (like Might Makes Right vs. Right Makes Might vs. Right Needs Might). Not so for The Lord of the Rings, though. It’s true that most characters we see are warriors, but war itself isn’t glorified, it’s treated as something terrible but sometimes necessary; remember Faramir’s speech about war in The Two Towers, when he says he fights to defend his homeland, but holds no love for the sword, the bow or the warrior’s glory.
many other works deemed “more mature”. Remember when Sam sees the corpse of an
Easterner (someone who’s fighting for Mordor, then) and wonders what was his
name and where did he come from, and if he was evil at heart or had been duped
or forced into fighting, and whether he wouldn’t have preferred to remain at
his home, in peace.
While I prefer to let the text speak for itself and dislike looking for the author in their work, I imagine this is because of Tolkien’s first-hand experiences with war.
smoking his pipe? He fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest
battles in World War I, and came back home. That’s right: Tolkien, in his
prime, could probably have kicked the ass of any of his fans.
he would, mind you. But he totally could.
Even victory against the Dark Lord has its price: Frodo bears wounds that never truly heal, and at the end the Ring-bearers, among others like Gandalf and the Elves, have to leave Middle-Earth for good. The implications are clear: Good has won, but magic and wonder have left the world, which is now smaller, more mundane. And even though Sauron is reduced to a powerless spectre, possibly for good, his shadow still remains in the world. Evil can never be defeated forever; it will always exist in some form.
To sum it up, this is why I think people often miss the full richness of Tolkien’s work: they see a story about mighty heroes defeating a Dark Lord and rebuilding the kingdom, when in fact it’s a story about common people (heroes in the modern sense – that is, people of morals and virtues –, but not in the classical one – extraordinary people capable of extraordinary feats) doing the best they can in the face of overwhelming darkness, and succeeding because they were brave, and humble, and strong-willed.
I think part of the issue is that Tolkien had many admirers, and many of them copied the surface aspects of his stories without actually thinking about them, and the reasons (both in-story and outside the story) why they exist. So now, when thinking of fantasy in general and Tolkien-inspired fantasy specifically, many think only of this diluted version.
Oh, you still don’t believe me about rethinking The Lord of the Rings, good reader? Let me offer an additional argument, then: if we removed all the various sub-plots focused on Aragorn and company, we would still have a proper narrative, with a beginning (Bilbo’s birthday party, Frodo inheriting the Ring), the middle (the Hobbits’ journey to Rivendell, the Council of Elrond, Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor) and an end (the Ring is destroyed, the Hobbits return to the Shire and right things there, Bilbo and Frodo leave Middle-Earth), right? But, if we removed all the parts of the story focused on any of the Hobbits, but especially Sam and Frodo, the book would only be a series of disjointed action scenes.
So, what do you think, gentle reader? Share your thoughts in the comments!