Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3772
Tolkien’s interest in fantasy began with his childhood curiosity about languages. Later, his professional linguistic training enabled him to create a Middle-earth in which cultural differences are significant. In the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” however, he suggests what underlay this curiosity. In the traditional tales of the past, readers could explore...
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- Critical Essays
Tolkien’s interest in fantasy began with his childhood curiosity about languages. Later, his professional linguistic training enabled him to create a Middle-earth in which cultural differences are significant. In the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” however, he suggests what underlay this curiosity. In the traditional tales of the past, readers could explore “Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself”:The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is . . . to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.
Two key phrases, “survey the depths of space and time” and “hold communion with other living things,” suggest the direction of his own fiction. He believed that imaginative participation in stories was possible only when an author invested his creation with a rich, overlaid texture of history, geography, and culture. The Lord of the Rings exemplifies Tolkien’s intent, set as it is in a world embedded in millennia of history, enriched by an enormous variety of creatures. To borrow Tolkien’s phrase, he engaged in “sub-creation”:What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.
The true extent of Tolkien’s vision lay undiscovered until the publication of The Silmarillion, followed by subsequent volumes of unfinished tales edited by his son Christopher. Readers glimpsed this faintly in the six appendices to The Return of the King, which trace events in Middle-earth back several millennia.
Tolkien discusses other “primordial desires” that fantasy may satisfy: recovery, escape, and consolation. Because fantasy allows readers to contemplate alternatives to the present, it may offer hope for change. Recovery, or “’seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves”—means recapturing the sense of wonder, dulled by familiarity, inherent in everyday life. Escape refers to the human need to escape the threat to life and humane values. By “consolation,” Tolkien suggests that stories that nurture communicate the hope that human suffering will end, that happy endings come unexpectedly, a “eucatastrophe,” a “good disaster,” providentially delivered.
This emphasis on the affective purpose of fiction separated Tolkien from contemporary stylistic experimentalists and realists. His fiction looks to the past, as is implied in an audience’s “Recovery,” their regaining something lost. Recapturing a sense of wonder in the natural world, reaffirming the values of human life, occur in examining a simpler age. In The Lord of the Rings, “progress,” technology, machinery, and the destruction of nature are linked to evil. Tolkien’s protagonists from another age uphold values that appear outmoded yet impart a sense of dignity, purpose, and resolve. While some readers find the heroic language and formality of epic adventures foreign, these stylistic elements seem essential to Tolkien’s imaginative purposes.
Tolkien’s reliance on Norse and Old English mythology may account for the novels’ heroic atmosphere. The names of many locations and characters and the many “manufactured” words of his fiction are borrowed from the sagas. As an example, The Song of the Seeress, an anonymous tenth century Icelandic poem, contains the names of fifteen of Tolkien’s characters, including Gandalf. This reliance on the Norse sagas may also explain the “unheroic” endings of the stories once victory is accomplished. In stories such as Beowulf, characters always seem aware of ultimate defeat in heroic conflict. Beowulf may kill Grendel, but the dragon will await him in old age.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are both very traditional “quest” adventures, in which an untried or uninitiated youth leaves a protected and secure environment to make a journey. The journey may lead to treasure (The Hobbit) or to knowledge and glory (The Lord of the Rings), but tests and trials await. Success depends on making correct choices and acquiring wisdom; it may lead to disillusionment, too, and reassessment of youthful ideals. The successful return home yields both honor and the need to change the society in which one grew up. Eden does not remain Eden. This mythic pattern, that of all stories from the heroic age, Tolkien makes new in his novels.
In Tolkien’s novels, readers identify with one very ordinary figure against the backdrop of heroic adventures. Tolkien’s “hobbits” fulfill this function. Hobbits are intruders into the heroic world, with “little or no magic about them,” cheerful, youthful, and unreflective, lacking a role in the heroic past. The victories of the heroes in the foreground, however, are impossible without the actions of the hobbits. Readers may admire the heroic Aragorn, but they identify with the struggles of Frodo. In The Lord of the Rings, this literally becomes two stories, as Tolkien alternates between Frodo’s struggle and Aragorn’s.
Tolkien’s stories are surprisingly complex morally. In an age of adventure fiction, where personal decisions seem to have no moral consequences, all of his characters confront serious moral issues. Hobbits, in particular, are shown making consciously moral choices. Bilbo’s decisions in The Hobbit lead him to reject his companions’ greed, even at the cost of their friendship. Frodo’s successful quest entails physical loss and ongoing pain and humility of personal failure. Good never triumphs without cost.
First published: 1937
Type of work: Novel
A band of dwarfs, one hobbit, and one magician recover the dwarfs’ treasure from a dragon.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a story that has appealed to adults as well as children, provides the background to his larger work, The Lord of the Rings. All of these works find their place in the even larger series of stories on which Tolkien had been working from the 1920’s, and which were published posthumously by his son Christopher. Tolkien peopled his stories of Middle-earth with a number of traditional fictional races, including elves, dwarfs, and trolls, as well as “orcs,” goblins created by sorcery. The hobbit of the title is Bilbo Baggins, representative of a quiet, unadventurous race living in the Shire, in the west of Middle-earth. Gandalf the magician lures Bilbo, who is more adventurous than he himself thinks, into joining a group of dwarfs. They are determined to return to their home, the Lonely Mountain, kill the dragon Smaug, and recover their lost treasure and homeland.
After a number of initial adventures in which Bilbo shows his resourcefulness, they are trapped in a cave by a storm in the Misty Mountains. Caught by orcs and goblins, only Gandalf’s magic saves them. During their escape, Bilbo is separated from the group, knocked unconscious, and meets Gollum, a strange cave dweller. This juncture is the turning point of the story; without the help of others, Bilbo must defeat an opponent who will literally eat him if he loses. Providentially, Bilbo has found a ring that Gollum has lost, and after a riddle contest, which Bilbo wins, the hobbit can use the ring’s powers of invisibility to make his escape. Eventually, Bilbo makes his way out and rejoins his companions; they continue to travel eastward. The ring proves its usefulness repeatedly on the way, as the supposedly experienced and mature dwarfs blunder into every danger they meet.
Although Tolkien plays with the elements of many serious traditional tales—magic rings, invisibility, and threatening opponents, including spiders—he creates an adventure that is generally cheerful and humorous. The ring eventually makes the protagonists’ success possible, but its use often occasions comedy. With it, Bilbo, though awestruck by events, can act decisively and courageously when necessary. One element appealing to most readers is this picture of Bilbo, neglected, disregarded, literally small, and symbolically unimaginative, triumphing over hostile elves, humans, dragons, and cranky dwarfs.
His integrity and honesty also lead to his role in mediating a serious crisis between the dwarfs and their human neighbors. In the climactic scenes in the novel, Bilbo must demonstrate a maturity unseen earlier. Smaug has left the mountain, seeking revenge for Bilbo’s theft of a cup. The dragon attacks and destroys a human city, Lake-Town, and is killed. When the humans who remain seek some share in the wealth—they, after all, killed the dragon—the dwarfs’ greed gets the better of them. They blockade the mountain against their former friends. It is left to Bilbo to find a means of mediating peace. Unknown to the dwarfs, he has found and kept a jewel, the Arkenstone, which they have sought. Bilbo’s gift of it to Gandalf and the leaders of Lake-Town forces the dwarfs to concede. This development results in a union of the allies against a powerful force of wolves and orcs. Though he is not a typical warrior, Bilbo plays his role as discoverer and mediator very pragmatically, getting done what needs doing. At the novel’s end, Bilbo, now wealthy, but, more significant, imaginative and self-confident, returns to the Shire.
The Hobbit has many of the elements of a children’s story, as befits its origin: a narrative persona sounding much like an adult telling a story to children, some humorous comments along the way suggesting the follies of the dwarfs, and a proper seriousness about evil. The figure of Bilbo, invisible with his ring, lurking about various castles and wastelands, and eventually in Smaug’s cave, is the mischief of the sort that children enjoy. At least one element of the children’s story that is retained in The Lord of the Rings—though most others are not—is the sense of a providential order that leads to the rescue of the companions. Twice in the novel, Gandalf and the dwarfs are in difficult straits and are rescued by giant eagles who are indebted to Gandalf. At one point, Gandalf returns opportunely to delay three trolls long enough for them to be transformed into stone by the sunrise. Elsewhere, the ring itself seems a tool provided by providence to accomplish the necessary task. Until the story’s end, none of the dwarfs, Bilbo, or Gandalf is even injured. Only the final battle insists that this is a more dangerous world than Bilbo has seen before.
The Lord of the Rings
First published: The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954; The Two Towers, 1954; The Return of the King, 1955 (published collectively as The Lord of the Rings, 1955)
Type of work: Novels
Long ago, men, elves, dwarfs, hobbits, and magicians battle to destroy a magic ring and end the power of its maker.
Twenty years of continued subcreation mark the difference in tone and design of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit’s paternal narrative voice is missing, so that almost from the opening of the trilogy the reader is aware that the issues of the novel are greater.
Tolkien’s trilogy has spawned dozens of multivolume quest fantasies using a medieval setting. They range from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1973) to Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (1977) to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s extended Darkover series (1972-1988). Each of these authors, including Tolkien, incorporates a theological element into the adventure story. Most appeal to the audience Tolkien awakened, and each has captured a share of a growing market for such fiction. Yet few succeed in the task of subcreation. Tolkien offers readers that possibility for “communion with other living things” that he claims all humans desire, in a world in which differing races have well-documented histories, languages capable of a range of poetic expression, and differing cultural assumptions. To some extent, too, Tolkien succeeds because one can imagine life apart from adventure in Middle-earth.
The Fellowship of the Ring, like The Hobbit, begins in innocence. Although the Shire, Gandalf, and Bilbo reappear, almost immediately the story changes direction. Bilbo, sixty years older, surrenders the ring of invisibility to his nephew Frodo and rejoins the elves. After an interval of some years, which Tolkien compresses, Gandalf returns to announce that Frodo holds the One Ring, forged by the magician Sauron, which both empowers its wearer and tempts the wearer to exercise that power selfishly. No one can wear it safely.
Frodo, like Bilbo apparently undistinguished, unimaginative, decent, fair, and quietly stubborn, is the audience’s vantage point for the story. Circumstances demand that he outgrow his hobbit isolationism, and indeed, offer himself without reserve or selfishness for a whole world that he does not know. His travels take him out of the Shire and into a land utterly threatening; he is betrayed by a companion, offers forgiveness and redemption to another who betrays him, and carries a burden no good person in the novel can endure. Throughout the novel, he battles the power of the ring itself, which tempts him to use it; he also carries the burden of knowing that his success will mean that the world will change, and some of its goodness, as well as much of its evil, will diminish. In Frodo, Tolkien explores the recurring theme of substitutionary love: Some must be willing to offer their lives that others might live. His quest reverses the movement of the earlier novel; the ring, once found, must now be destroyed in the place of its forging, deep within Sauron’s kingdom, Mordor.
Accompanied by several hobbits, Frodo leaves the Shire for Rivendell, acquiring along the way a human companion, the ranger Aragorn, known as Strider. Pursued, Frodo is wounded in battle before they arrive safely at Rivendell. A council representing all civilization—elves, dwarfs, humans, and hobbits—eventually agrees that the One Ring must be destroyed. That can happen only if it is returned to the place of its making, deep within Mordor. Representatives of the four kindreds agree to accompany Frodo on the journey.
A contrasting quest emerges when one of Frodo’s human companions, Aragorn, declares himself the heir of the throne of Minas Tirith, the city that has opposed Mordor for millennia. As Frodo is the naïve initiate, Aragorn is the experienced warrior assuming a heroic challenge of his own. In Aragorn, Tolkien awakens Frodo and the audience to that desire “to survey the depths of space and time,” for Aragorn represents a tradition and race coming from a forgotten age of the world, from the land of Numenor.
Before the first volume ends, Tolkien has succeeded in opening to Frodo and his hobbit companions an awareness of a larger world, both older and more varied than they have known. He has also suggested the capacity for growth and heroism in the unheroic, as Frodo has been wounded and has accepted the possibility of death in his willingness to take the ring to Mordor.
The Lord of the Rings is most often remembered for its scenes of adventure, particularly the heroic language of warriors confronting their foes. From the first volume onward, however, Tolkien establishes a rhythm of adventure and reflection that serves several purposes. His characters are not always journeying. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, Frodo and his companions are entertained both at Rivendell and at the secret retreat of the elves in Lothlorien. The threat of evil to destroy such places is heightened by the enjoyment and tranquillity that these places provide to their inhabitants. Tolkien undoubtedly employed such settings for this purpose, but they serve another equally important role in the narrative, as some of the film and cartoon versions of these stories make evident. The Lord of the Rings is not only about adventure but about preserving a world, rescuing and maintaining what is good in that world. Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the Shire are the “real world,” where people live, rather than the landscape of adventure through which they travel. Moments of heightened enjoyment simply in a good meal, a song, or companionship around the table or the fire exemplify what the heroes are called upon to preserve.
The magnitude of the opposing evil forces is demonstrated first in Gandalf’s apparent death in the dwarf kingdom of Moria and second in the treachery of Boromir of Minas Tirith, who yields to the temptation of the ring and demands it from Frodo. Boromir’s seduction by the desire for the power of the ring is also the first instance of an ongoing theme, which comes to dominate the action of the last half of the trilogy. Where evil does not blast goodness utterly, it may twist it or seduce it. The “fellowship” ends with Boromir’s death at the hands of Sauron’s orcs, who seize two of the hobbits. Frodo and his hobbit friend Sam Gamgee leave the others, attempting to make their way toward Mordor.
Tolkien himself dismissed the notion of the trilogy form, noting that readers must look to the six books of the story. Each volume contains two separate narratives, and in the two final volumes, Aragorn’s story makes up books 3 and 5, while Frodo’s story occupies books 4 and 6.
In The Two Towers, the second volume, Tolkien alternates between the two groups of now-divided companions: Aragorn, the elf Legolas, and Gimli the dwarf pursue the kidnappers of the two hobbits, while Frodo and Sam make their way toward Mordor. This journey allows Tolkien an opportunity to explore the geography of Middle-earth further and to introduce other inhabitants of Middle-earth. Other nonhuman races appear, such as the treelike Ents, who shepherd an entire forest. In The Two Towers, both characters confront evil from Sauron. Aragorn’s confrontation with evil is conventional: He and his companions must defeat an army directed by the wizard Saruman, allied now with Sauron. The heroic battle at Helm’s Deep, the stronghold of the forces of good, is one of the most successful battle narratives Tolkien created.
The conclusion of the book pits Gandalf, returned from death, against Saruman, as Saruman attempts to win over his opponents by his persuasive gifts. The power Saruman still holds, and the depth of his betrayal, contrast with Gandalf’s insight and rejection of selfishness. In book 3, Tolkien has set up very obvious tensions. Against Aragorn and Gandalf’s years of obscurity and service to others is set the treachery of the wizard Saruman, allied with Sauron to increase his own power. Paralleled as well are groups of lesser figures, such as the Rohirrim, a kingdom of horsemen whose culture seems descended from stories like Beowulf. Having helped lead their defense, Aragorn wins the support of the Rohirrim as he moves toward Minas Tirith. By contrast, Saruman’s allies, the morally and physically deformed orcs, serve him for treasure and because of fear. Their defeat and Saruman’s downfall depend on the joint efforts of free humans, dwarfs, elves, magicians, and Ents.
On Frodo’s journey, the power of evil is brought home repeatedly. Sauron has desolated the landscape around Mordor, and inside the “Land of Shadow” little grows but brambles. Frodo discovers the potential for evil within himself, as well, and its effects on those who serve it. One of these is Gollum, who lost the ring to Bilbo originally. In the process, Tolkien reveals that Gollum was once a hobbit, or close cousin, who through his centuries of possession of the ring has been warped and changed beyond recognition. He has shadowed Frodo since he left the Shire, seeking to reclaim the ring. Book 4 shows Frodo subduing and winning his allegiance and compassionately sparing him. Gollum guides Frodo to Mordor, though he leads Frodo into a trap as the book ends.
In The Return of the King, Tolkien continues his divided story, first tracing Gandalf’s entrance to Minas Tirith (book 5) and the defense of that city against the enemy, then shifting to Aragorn’s part in the action to relieve the city. Tolkien continues to add to his cast of characters with the defenders of Minas Tirith, among whom is Denethor, Boromir’s father. He, too, has battled against Sauron, with one of the “seeing stones,” the Palantir, which enable the user to become aware of actions at a distance. Sauron, however, as he has used one of the stones to seduce Saruman, so deceives Denethor that he despairs of victory. In the final battle, he commits suicide, another example of the ability of evil to spoil even those committed to good. After the victory, the heroic action draws to a climax with the anticipated final confrontation between Sauron’s forces and the allies.
As the allies confront Sauron’s forces for a decisive battle, Tolkien breaks off to begin book 6, tracing Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. Although brief by comparison with book 5—and necessarily brief, in that the reader is waiting for the resolution of the conflict—book 6 seems much longer. After rescuing Frodo from orcs in Mordor, Sam accompanies his master across miles of wasteland in semidarkness to reach volcanic Mount Doom. They encounter orcs moving at Sauron’s command and discover the truth of the biblical proverb, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Within Mordor, Sauron’s troops bicker, attack, and murder one another. A kingdom based upon selfishness must fall. Yet, after the journey, Frodo’s courage fails him. Once at Mount Doom, he claims the ring for his own. The theme of the seductiveness of power is never more fully demonstrated than when the “ordinary” individual chooses power and self-fulfillment rather than the good of others. In an entirely satisfying moment, sudden and unexpected, Gollum reappears and battles Frodo, eventually biting off finger and ring together, only to perish in the volcano. The “happy ending” out of disaster, which Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe,” is both carefully prepared for and felt as entirely providential. Victory both at Minas Tirith and in the final battle occurs because “unheroic,” disregarded individuals rise to the heroic challenge.
Tolkien concludes with the elegiac tone of the last episode of Beowulf. Aragorn’s triumph renews a tradition descended from the earliest ages of the world, but he will eventually die. Frodo’s destruction of the ring has both ensured victory and weakened the power that sustains the elves, so that they must depart Middle-earth. Frodo’s return home with his companions is also blighted by Saruman’s oppression of the Shire; even the most peaceful land in Middle-earth has suffered.