The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien

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Tolkien's Treatment of Women

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Tolkien has been accused of being perfunctory in his treatment of his female characters and excused as being merely a man of his times. Looking closely at the characters in Lord of the Rings, however, it could be argued that Tolkien returned to possibilities for female participation which the epic traditionally afforded, but which were long overlooked in criticism. Tolkien's own relationships with women were obviously largely a product of his time. The early death of his mother, his marriage to a woman who was uncomfortable in Oxford intellectual circles, and the attitude of C. S. Lewis whose misogyny was only overcome by a late marriage, all affected Tolkien. It is wrong, however, that it always affected him for the worse. Tolkien had been a student of Joseph Wright, the philologist who had married a former student. She not only worked alongside her husband, but made Tolkien and many other students comfortably at home. His final scholarly collaborator was a woman, Simone d'Ardenne, a former student who became a professor at Liege. This promising collaboration, thwarted in part by the World War II only ended because of his increasing involvement with his fiction.

"My friend ... you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on." These lines from The Return of the King are a recognition of spirit that has nothing to do with gender, and the effects of a gender-based division of opportunities on ability. From a man born in the reign of Victoria, who spent most of his life in the men's club atmosphere of the Oxford colleges, it suggests an unexpected, but genuine, sensitivity.

The women in Lord of the Rings reflect the broad generic background that Tolkien co-opted into his novel. They range from the comic Lobelia Sackville-Baggins who could, except for her furry feet, wander through the door at Blandings without more than a passing groan from Lord Emsworth, to Galadriel, who one suspects has more than a little in common with the hero, Athena. Between them are Mrs. Maggot and Rose Cotton, who could be out of the kinder moments of Hardy, and Goldberry, who like her husband seems to represent the earth as it might have been. There is Arwen, elusive, and in the end, hidden away in the Appendices, supremely tragic. The true female counterpart of Frodo, she is wounded by the choice between father and lover, immortality and mortality, just as Frodo is by the experience of the Ring. Although she assumes mortality, she dies utterly elven in her attitude. The individual reader is almost forced to react to it on a purely subjective level.

Three women, however, are pivotal in Lord of the Rings: Ioreth, Eowyn and Galadriel. Each of them is not only important to cause and effect in the narrative, but each gathers up important thematic threads.

Ioreth is the lineal descendant of Juliet's nurse, if less earthy, certainly, and, if she could be stopped for the question, unlikely to suggest deception and bigamy as the answer to any problem. But for all the comedy of her character, Ioreth performs and embodies a vitally important cluster of functions. She might be called the tenth muse, the muse not of a particular genre, but...

(This entire section contains 1910 words.)

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of those all-important literary functions: preservation and transmission. She is muse as philologist. It is she who remembers that "the hands of the king are the hands of the healer." She and her kind remember the old rhymes and words and ponder them, "'kingsfoil' . .. 'tis a strange name, and I wonder why 'tis called so; for if I were a king I would have plants more bright in my garden." Her garrulousness is comic, but it is more than comic; it is deeply characteristic. She must repeat what she remembers, what she has heard, what she has experienced. She is a repository, transmitter commentator. On Aragorn's triumphal re-entry into Gondor, she begins the transmutation/ transposition of event into literature "Would you believe..." Old wives tales, or the material of epic? But as Charles M. Schulz famously had Linus van Pelt remark "some of those old wives were pretty smart." There may be a formal minstrel's "Nine fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom," but anyone who has read Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" will know perfectly well the version Tolkien would expect to sink deep into the hearts and minds of the west like a grain of sand in an oyster. However comic Ioreth is, she is not mere comic relief, to a philologist, she is thebeau ideal of the Brothers Grimm. Ioreth is a moral reality check. She wrenches the narrative away from the dash and superficial glories of battle, the grandeur that never bears close scrutiny, to the real purpose of the fight outside the walls. As she says, "All I hope is that those murdering devils do not come to this House and trouble the sick." Battles are a means to an end and nothing more. It is characteristic of Tolkien to place so much weight on a minor character, albeit in highly specific areas.

Eowyn the Lady of the Golden House and Galadriel the Lady of the Golden Wood, while superficially unlike, are, in fact, intensely alike. Their differences are of degree not kind. To see Eowyn, one intuits in the Lord of the Rings, is to see Galadriel in her youth. This suspicion is confirmed in the Silmarrillion and the Unfinished Tales. Tolkien wrote that Galadriel was "tall and valiant among the contending princes...she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will." In Unfinished Tales, "she was strong of body, mind, and will, a match both the loremasters and athletes of the Eldar... she had a marvellous gift of insight into the minds of others."

Eowyn is her mortal equivalent, a Galadriel for the fourth age. At her first meeting she looks at Aragorn and "she was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked hiding a power that yet she felt." If Theoden is slow to recognize her as the equal of any man of his house, other men are not. When Theoden asks who he shall leave in charge of the Mark and protests that his nephew who cannot be spared from the host is the last of his house, the warrior Hama replies, "I said not Eomer . . . And he is not the last. There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as Lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone." Eowyn and Galadriel, both in their own way, have fought the long defeat: Eowyn, the premature dotage of her uncle; Galdriel, the flawed and mutable nature of Middle Earth. Both were looking for a stage for their talents, Galadriel in Middle Earth, Eowyn on the battlefield. Both of them in defying an injunction bring themselves into danger, but nevertheless, fight the good fight. Both Galadriel and Eowyn end up rejecting their original desires. Galadriel, offered the Ring and all the power she has ever desired, rejects it and accepts that she will depart and go into the west. Eowyn gives up the glory of battle for another life, but not quite the life that she has flown. Feminist readers may complain of Eowyn's change of heart, but to describe this as merely a move from the "masculine" (and, therefore, high status) arena of warfare to the "female" (and, therefore, low status) forum of marriage and the restoration of Ithilien, is to willfully misread the episode and the characters involved.

Eowyn is not a minor character. She does not represent the young woman who learns her place or even moves from infatuation with death and glory to life's quieter victories. She carries first the burden of representing the woman who can move across the stereotypical roles of male and female—she does this even before she disguises herself—and her ability to cross these boundaries is acknowledged by the institutions of her society. In this, she replaces Galadriel in the second half of Lord of the Rings as the woman who crosses the traditional boundaries by virtue of her character, a character and ability that cannot be denied. But Eowyn draws more meaning to her character.

Eowyn points two ways in her speech to Aragorn. She bluntly sweeps aside all the rhetoric of the glory of war and idealized, romantic womanhood: "All your words are but to say you are a woman, your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more." The lines pivot on "honour"; there is no glorious immortality of fame for the non-combatants. Aragorn may plead with her to recognize her duty and valor all the greater, for being uncelebrated, but Eowyn now equates the war with her one chance of being with Aragorn. Although her infatuation with him is only a symptom of her desire to excel in a way her society has traditionally recognized. It is in this context that the stage is set to place Eowyn with Merry and Beregond. Eowyn makes a conscious decision to disobey orders, to leave her post. Her dereliction of duty is perhaps the most reprehensible, since a people depend upon her. Tolkien's treatment of this is sympathetic, partially because it fits into his scheme of providence: she and Merry kill the chief Ringwraith, partially because he is essentially sympathetic to her frustration. Her dereliction of duty is never alluded to by any of the characters or by the narrator. Even more important is what lies behind Merry's belief that "There seemed to be some sort of understanding between Dernhelm and Elfhelm, the Marshall who commanded the éored in which they were riding." Is Elfhelm acquiescing merely in Merry's presence or does he know and sympathize with her more?

Eowyn is not thinking of glory, however, when she stands between her dying uncle and the Witchking. She is acting out of pure love to protect the man who has raised her as if she were his own child. Her change of heart, however, does not begin then. It begins when there is an alternative offered that is worthy of her. She does not marry Faramir because she cannot have Aragorn, neither does she betray her abilities. The opposite is true. Faramir has been carefully developed to offer an alternative measure of courage and honor, heroism focused on more than warfare, to include creating and conserving. Faramir's own nature and his talents have been consistently placed in opposition to mere military prowess. Tolkien does not create a female character who must learn to accept a female role. Rather, he creates a female character who comes to love a man who like her can cross the traditional boundaries of gender roles. And when she finds him, they will banter like Benedict and Beatrice, on the walls of Minas Tirith.

Source: Helen Conrad-O'Briain, for Epics for Students, Gale, 2001.

Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring

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The death of Gandalf is a moment of transcendent heroism in The Fellowship of the Ring, yet Celeborn, reflecting on it later, remarks, "And if it were possible, one would say that at last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria". An understanding of the strongly overdetermined etymology of Moria helps to clarify the significance of Gandalf's death and the question of his fate and folly. Moria's roots would have to include mors (Latin for death), as well as Moira (Greek for fate) and moria (Greek for madness, late Latin for folly). Celeborn's remark unwittingly stresses the thematic linkage of fate (Moira) or "net" (a frequent image for fate) and folly (moria). The drumbeats that sound within the earth before and after Gandalf's death seem to stress fate: "doom, doom". It is, however, also possible to see, as Celeborn does, Gandalf's death as perhaps foolish or unnecessary, as his fall at the Bridge of Khazad-dum (emphasis supplied) may imply. But is Gandalf's leading the company into Moria, where he dies, as foolish as Celeborn implies?

In fact, far from "going needlessly" into Moria, Gandalf first considers other tactical options and even tries one--the ascent of Caradhras--as an alternative to the underworld journey. To go around the mountains would endanger the quest by prolonging it and open the company to further observation from the air and interference by the enemy. The company attempts to climb over the mountains but is rebuffed by Caradhras itself. By the time Gandalf recommends the descent, Moria is the only reasonable option available. Later in Lothlorien, Galadriel sees this more clearly than her husband Celeborn: "Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life". Nevertheless, even Frodo, who was present during the deliberations that took the company into the earth, seems to have doubts about whether Gandalf's death was wise: "In Khazad-dum, his wisdom died". Frodo's lament suggests that he may see his friend's death, a result of the descent into Moria, as foolish.

A way to reconcile Gandalf's fate (in the sense of unavoidable death) with a wisdom that also addresses the issue of folly is found in the New Testament, and especially Corinthians. The Christian precept "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) pairs love with the willing self-sacrifice of death, and the god-hero of Christendom would for Tolkien be the principal exemplar of self-sacrifice for love. The path of martydom or "the wisdom of the Cross" is foolishness to the non-Christian (I Cor 1:18), who prefers the "fleshly wisdom" (2 Cor 1:12) that serves oneself and not others. Following the slain hero and often expecting themselves to be slain, the early Christians turned upside down the conventional wisdom that seeks self-preservation above all else. Thus St. Paul notes, "God" has "made foolish the wisdom of this world" through the folly of freely chosen self-sacrifice (I Cor 1:20-23). To refuse to give one's life and instead to follow the way of the world by pursuing a longer life and more pleasure for the flesh was, in the view of the marginalized early Christians, a colossal error: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (1 Cor 3:19). To see Gandalf's sacrificial death as perhaps foolish is a temporary lapse of judgment on Celeborn's and Frodo's part, perhaps useful to remind the reader that the flesh and its wisdom make their strong demands despite what real wisdom compels one to do. But Gandalf must not be measured by the wisdom of the world, as his rebirth makes clear. Gandalf fits the Pauline model, for his death to save others and preserve Frodo's quest shows a foolishness that is "wiser than men" (1 Cor 1:25).

The place of Gandalf's death—Moria—in addition to having the associations noted earlier also echoes Moriah in Genesis 22:2, the land where Jahweh commands Abraham to take Isaac to sacrifice him "as a burnt offering on one of the mountains." Gandalf is pulled by the burning Balrog into the depths of a mountain. While Jahweh relents in the matter of the sacrifice of Isaac, God the Father in the New Testament does not in demanding the sacrifice of his only begotten Son. Another dissimilarity between the Genesis Moriah and the trek into Moria is that circumstances, rather than the voice of God, dictate the journey in Tolkien and the stand at the bridge. But Gandalf's self-sacrificial death is in accord with the precept of obedience to the higher good that the Genesis story endorses. His death also reveals the same strategy of renunciation Gandalf recommends Frodo take in bearing the Ring into the center of darkness that is Sauron's home and there throwing it into the cracks of Doom, because Sauron will not expect the Ring-bearer to willingly give it up and throw it away. About this strategy Gandalf remarks, "It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope." The paradox that wisdom may be found by going before one's time into the earth and that only a crazy person would go there to find it is also seen in The Aeneid, where the Sibyl calls Aeneas's quest into Hades a fantastic project, or "insanus labor". But Tolkien goes beyond the Roman model of catabasis because Gandalf, unlike Aeneas, actually dies in the underworld. Gandalf's apparently foolish, yet ultimately wise, death through sacrifice, for both his friends and the good of all Middle Earth, is folly to those who refuse to see the goodness of the gesture, but through redemptive self-surrender "God has made foolish the wisdom of this world" (1 Cor 1.20). That this sacrifice occurs in Moria (Moriah) is especially appropriate.

Source: James Obertino, “Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring," in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 4, Summer, 1996.

'Traveling the one road': The Lord of the Rings as a….

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J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a massive epic fantasy of more than a half-million words. It is also a hugely complex work, with its own complicated chronology, cosmogony, geography, nomenclature and multiple languages, including two forms of elvish. The plot is so grand, moreover, that it casts backward to the formation of first things while glancing forward to the end of time. How did this huge and learned work—written by an obscure Oxford philologist—become a classic?

The answer has to do with Tolkien's central characters. They are humanoid creatures called hobbits, and their unlikely hero has the unheroic name of Frodo. During the 1960s, so many American youths were drawn to these diminutive creatures that Tolkien became something of a cult figure. "Frodo Lives" was a popular graffito of the time. T-shirts declared that "Tolkien is Hobbit-Forming." No doubt there was something escapist about this hobbit-habit. Perplexed by our nation's carnage in Vietnam and by the ultimate threat of a nuclear inferno, a whole generation of young Americans could lose themselves and their troubles in the intricacies of this triple-decker epic. Indeed, the rumor got about—a wish seeking its fulfillment, no doubt—that Tolkien had composed The Lord of the Rings under the influence of drugs.

Yet The Lord of the Rings has outlasted its cult status. Repeated readings do not exhaust its potential to deepen and define our moral and spiritual lives. Young and old alike keep returning to it for both wisdom and delight. True fantasy, Tolkien declared in his 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories," is escapist in the good sense: it enables us to flee into reality. The strange world of hobbits and elves and ents frees us from bondage to the pseudo-reality that most of us inhabit: a world deadened by bleary familiarity. Fantasy, Tolkien observed, helps us recover a sense of wonder about ordinary things: "stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Despite the eucharistic hint, Tolkien's work is not self-evidently Christian. As C. S. Lewis observed when it was first published, the Ring epic is imbued with "a profound melancholy." The ending is tearfully sad. Frodo is exhausted by his long quest to destroy the Ring of coercive power that had been fashioned by the monster Sauron. Though the victory has been won, Frodo cannot enjoy its fruits. And so he sails away to the elven realm, leaving his companions behind. Sauron and his minions of evil may have been defeated, but the triumph is only temporary. Evil will reconstitute itself in some alarming new form, and the free creatures of Middle Earth will have to fight it yet again.

The word "doom"—in its Anglo-Saxon meaning of damning judgment as well as final fate in ruin and death—pulses like a funereal drumbeat throughout the entire work. Toward the end of volume I, the elf Legolas offers a doom-centered vision of the world. It sounds very much like an elvish and Heraclitean version of entropy. "To find and lose," says Legolas, is the destiny "of those whose boat is on the running stream.… The passing seasons are but ripples in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last." Though elves are so long-lived that they seem immortal to humans and hobbits, the tides of time will sweep even them away. A deeply pagan pessimism pervades all three of the Ring books.

Yet it is a mistake to read Tolkien's work as sub-Christian. Tolkien, the finest Beowulf scholar of his day, had a thesis about the Anglo-Saxon epic that may be applied to his own fiction. Beowulf is a pagan work, Tolkien argued, exalting the ancient Scandinavian and heathen virtue of an unyielding, indomitable will in the face of sure and hopeless defeat. Yet it was probably written by a Christian, Tolkien contended, who infused it with Christian concerns: "The author of Beowulf showed forth the permanent value of that pietas which treasures the memory of man's struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned." In a similar way, The Lord of the Rings recounts a prebiblical period of history—a time when there were no Chosen People, no incarnation, no religion at all—from a point of view that is distinctly Christian.

This judgment may seem strange because there is little that is Christian about The Hobbit, Tolkien's first fantasy work, published in 1937. It is a standard quest-story about the seeking and the finding of a tremendous treasure, a delightful "there and back again" tale concerning the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. But by the time he published The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955, Tolkien had deepened and widened his vision, especially concerning the nature of heroism. The hobbits prove to be perennially attractive characters because they are very unconventional heroes. They are not tragic and death-defying warriors like Ajax or Achilles or Beowulf; they are frail and comic foot soldiers like us. The Nine Walkers—four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf and a wizard—constitute a company not of the noble but of the ordinary.

They all learn, in a proleptically Christian way, what every mortal must confront: that we no sooner find our lives than we have to give them up. Unlike Bilbo, Frodo his nephew is called not to find but to lose, indeed to destroy, his great gem: the Ring of Total Control. It is a task that he does not seek but reluctantly accepts. Yet Frodo proves to be a fit bearer of the Ring. Not only does he possess native powers of courage and resistance; he is also summoned by a mysterious providential grace. The destruction of the Ring is nothing less than Frodo's vocation. And the epic's compelling interest lies in our discovery of how, just barely, Frodo remains faithful to his calling. In so doing he does far more than save his beloved Shire from ruin. Frodo learns— and thus teaches—what for Tolkien is the deepest of all Christian truths: how to surrender one's life, how to lose one's treasure, how to die, and thus how truly to live.

Early in the narrative, Frodo recalls that his Uncle Bilbo, especially during his latter years, was fond of declaring that

... there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Tolkien's work is imbued with a mystical sense of life as a journey that carries one, willy-nilly, beyond the walls of the world. To get out of bed, to answer the phone, to open the door, to fetch the mail—such everyday deeds are freighted with eternal consequence. They immerse us in the river of time: the "ever-rolling stream" which, in Isaac Watts's splendid rendering of the 90th Psalm, "bears all its sons away." Whether engaged in great or small acts of courage or cowardice, we are traveling on the path toward ultimate joy or final ruin.

For Tolkien the Christian, the chief question—and thus the real quest—is how we are to travel along this Road. The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle Earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. They both provide what Tolkien in a letter called immediacy: "speed, reduction of labor, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect." The magic of machination is meant for those who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to coerce the wills of others, the strength to accomplish grand ends by instant means.

The noble prove to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christlike wizard who lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring—not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Lady Galadriel, the elven queen, also refuses the Ring of Force. It would make her enormous beauty mesmerizing. Those who had freely admired her loveliness would have no choice but to worship her. Perhaps alone among modern writers, Tolkien understood that evil's subtlest semblance is not with the ugly but with the gorgeous. "I shall not be dark," Galadriel warns, "but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!"

The one free creature utterly undone by the lure of total power is Saruman the wizard. Like Judas, he is impatient with the slow way that goodness works. He cannot abide the torturous path up Mount Doom; he wants rapid results. Since the all-commanding Sauron is sure to win, Saruman urges Gandalf and his friends to join forces with the Dark Lord. Those who face defeat can survive only by siding with the victor, using his coercive power to achieve their own noble aims: "We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends."

Saruman is doubly blind. He fails to see that laudable designs, when achieved by compulsive force, become demonic. Neither does he perceive the hidden strength of the hobbits. The chief irony of the entire epic is that hobbitic weakness is the solution to the problem of Absolute Might. The hobbits are worthy opponents of Sauron because their life-aims are so modest. Wanting nothing more than to preserve the freedom of their peaceable Shire, they have no grandiose uses for the Ring. Their meekness uniquely qualifies them to destroy the Ring in the Cracks of Doom. This is a quest that can be accomplished by the small even better than the great. In fact, the figure who gradually emerges as the rightful successor to Frodo is the least likely hobbit of them all, the comically inept and ungainly Samwise Gamgee.

In the unlikely heroism of the small and the weak, Tolkien's pre-Christian world becomes most Christian. Their greatness is not self-made. As a fledgling community of faith, the Nine Walkers experience a far-off foretaste of the fellowship that Christians call the church universal. Their company remarkably transcends both racial and ethnic boundaries. Though it contains representatives from all of the Free Peoples, some of them have been historic enemies—especially the dwarves and the elves. No shallow commitment to diversity binds them together. They are united by their hatred of evil, and even more by their ever-increasing, self-surrendering regard for one another. Through their long communal struggle, they learn that there is a power greater than mere might. It springs not from the force of will but from a grace-filled fellowship of kindred minds and souls.

Perhaps we can now understand what Tolkien meant when he called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God's "sole right to divine honor." Like Milton's Satan, Sauron will not serve such a deity. He is intent upon his own supremacy, and he reads all others by his own light. He believes that anyone, having once possessed the power afforded by the Ring, will be determined to use it—especially the magical power to make its wearer invisible. He assumes that Frodo and his friends will seek to overthrow him and to establish their own sovereignty. Sauron's calculus of self-interest blinds him to the Company's strategy. Under Gandalf's leadership, they decide not to hide or use the Ring, but to take it straight back into the Land of Mordor—Sauron's lair—to incinerate it.

Not for want of mental power is Sauron deceived. He is a creature whose craft and power are very great, as his fashioning of the Ring proves. Sauron also embodies himself as a terrible all-seeing Eye. He can thus discern the outward operation of things, but he cannot discern the inward workings of the heart. Sauron's fatal lack is not intelligence, therefore, but sympathy. He cannot "feel with," and so he is incapable of community. The orcs, the evil creatures whom Sauron has bred to do his will, constantly betray each other and feud among themselves. Tolkien thus holds out the considerable hope that evil cannot form a fellowship: there is no true Compact of the Wicked, but there is a real Company of the Good.

The animating power of this Company is the much-maligned virtue called pity. Frodo had learned the meaning of pity from his Uncle Bilbo. When he first obtained the Ring from the vile creature called Gollum, Bilbo had the chance to kill him but did not. Frodo is perplexed by this refusal. 'Tis a pity, he maintains, that Bilbo did not slay such an evil one. This phrase angers Gandalf, and prompts him to make the most important declaration in the entire epic:

"Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy; not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that [Bilbo] took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."

"I am sorry," said Frodo. "But… I do not feel any pity for Gollum … He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does," [replies Gandalf]. "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement….. The pity of Bilbo will rule the fate of many—yours not least.

"The pity of Bilbo will rule the fate of many" becomes the motto of Tolkien's epic. It is true in the literal sense, because the Gollum whom Bilbo had spared so long ago is the one who finally destroys the Ring. The saying is also true in a spiritual sense. Gandalf the pagan wizard describes the nature of Christian mercy. As a creature far more sinning than sinned against, Gollum deserves his misery. He has committed Cain's crime of fratricide in acquiring the Ring. Still, Gandalf insists on pity, despite Frodo's protest that Gollum should be given justice. If all died who deserve punishment, none would live. Many perish who have earned life, and yet who can restore them? Neither hobbits nor humans can live by the bread of merit alone.

The unstrained quality of mercy makes The Lord of the Rings an enduring Christian classic despite its pagan setting. As a pre-Christian work, it is appropriately characterized by a melancholy sense of ineluctable doom and defeat: the night that comes shall cover everything. Such profound pessimism must not be disregarded. It has its biblical equivalent, after all, in the dark omen of death found in Ecclesiastes 12:5: "man goeth to his long home."

Yet this gloomy saying is not the ultimate word. Near the end of their wearying quest, Frodo and Sam are alone on the slopes of Mount Doom. All their efforts seem to have failed. Even if somehow they succeed in destroying the Ring, there is no likelihood that they will themselves survive, or that anyone will ever hear of their valiant deed. Amid such hopelessness, Sam—the bumbling and unreflective hobbit who has gradually emerged as a figure of great moral and spiritual depth—beholds a single star shimmering above the dark clouds of Mordor:

The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.… Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep and untroubled sleep.

Sam discerns that light and shadow are not warring in uncertain battle. It is the gleaming star that defines the darkness. These hobbits cannot name their source, but they know that Goodness and Truth and Beauty are the first and the last and the only permanent things.

Source: Ralph C. Wood, “‘Traveling the one road': The Lord of the Rings as a….," in The Christian Century, Vol. 110, No. 6, Feb. 24, 1993, pp. 208-11.

The Road to Middle Earth

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The gist of what has been said in this chapter is that The Lord of the Rings possesses unusual cultural depth. 'Culture' is not a word Tolkien used much; it changed meaning sharply during his lifetime, and not in a direction he approved. Still, one can see a deep understanding of its modern meaning of 'the whole complex of learned behaviour….. the material possessions, the language and other symbolism, of some body of people' in chapter 2 of Book II of The Fellowship of the Ring. This marks a jump-off point for the characters, whose objective is disclosed within it. It was also I suspect a jump-off point for Tolkien, since after that he was no longer writing his way through landscapes he had travelled before. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that as with the house of Beorn in The Hobbit 'The Council of Elrond' should provide a sudden introduction to archaic and heroic worlds confronting and overwhelming modern, practical ones. The later work is, however, many degrees more complex than its earlier analogue, being indeed an interweaving of at least six major voices besides minor ones and reported ones; as well as telling a complex tale in complex fashion what all these voices do is present, in our language, a violent 'culture-clash'.

This comes out most in the speeches and scripts impacted inside Gandalf's monologue of pages 269-78, the fifth and longest from a major speaker (the others coming from Glóin, Elrond, Boromir, Aragorn, Legolas). Within that monologue Gaffer Gamgee functions as a kind of base-line of normality—and, concomitantly, of emptiness. 'I had words with old Gamgee', Gandalf reports, 'Many words and few to the point':

'I can't abide changes,' said he, 'not at my time of life, and least of all changes for the worst.' 'Changes for the worst,' he repeated many times.
'Worst is a bad word,' I said to him, 'and I hope you do not live to see it.'

It is indeed a bad word, especially when all the Gaffer has to complain about is the Sackville-Bagginses; Denethor uses it as well, much later, but again with ominous effect. As for 'abide', as used by Gaffer Gamgee it has almost no semantic content at all; in context it means 'bear, tolerate, put up with', but in that sense is simply untrue. The Gaffer can abide changes; he just has. He means only that he doesn't like them. But there is a moral for him in the history of the word, which has the frequent early sense of 'to await the issue of, to wait (stoically) for, to live to see'. In this last sense the Gaffer could 'abide' changes, and he does. Right at the end he moralises, stubborn as ever, 'It's an ill wind as blows nobody any good, as I always say' (my italics), 'And All's well as ends Better.' At least he has learnt to eschew superlatives. But his language in Gandalf's monologue conveys an unwelcome reminder of psychological unpreparedness.

However there is another modern voice in Gandalf s monologue to act as vehicle for cultural contrast: this is Saruman's. He has hardly been mentioned before, and the question whether he is good or bad is more difficult to decide than with most. But when he is introduced by Gandalf, we know what to think very soon; the message is conveyed by style and lexis. Saruman talks like a politician. 'We can bide our time', he says, using a fossilised phrase:

'we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.'

What Saruman says encapsulates many of the things the modern world has learnt to dread most: the ditching of allies, the subordination of means to ends, the 'conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder'. But the way he puts it is significant too. No other character in Middle-earth has Saruman's trick of balancing phrases against each other so that incompatibles are resolved, and none comes out with words as empty as 'deploring', 'ultimate', worst of all, 'real'. What is a 'real change'? The OED's three columns of definition offer nothing appropriate; the word has got below dictionary level. As we all know, 'real' is now a word like 'sincere' or 'genuine', a word whose meaning its speaker asks you to take for granted, a politician's word, an advertiser's word. 'Real change' shows Saruman up with even greater economy than 'changes for the worst' does Gaffer Gamgee.

By contrast with these familiar styles and voices several of the other participants in the Council come over as archaic, blunt, clear-sighted. Gandalf himself uses an older vocabulary than usual, as if to authenticate himself, and Elrond's speech, as is only suitable for one so old, is full of old-fashioned inversions of syntax and words like 'weregild', 'esquire', 'shards'. Its burden is to state the Northern 'theory of courage', as Tolkien called it in his British Academy lecture, whose central thesis is that even ultimate defeat does not turn right into wrong. Elrond has seen 'many defeats, and many fruitless victories', and in a way he has even given up hope, at least for his adopted people the elves; but this does not make him change his mind or look for easy options.

The heroic note is struck most firmly, however, by the dwarf Glóin, or rather by his report of the dialogue between Sauron's messenger and that exemplar of stubbornness King Dáin. The messenger offers 'great reward and lasting friendship' in return for information about hobbits, or for the Ring. If Dáin refuses, he says:

"… things will not seem so well."
'At that his breath came like the hiss of snakes, and all who stood by shuddered, but Dáin said: "I say neither yea nor nay. I must consider this message and what it means under its fair cloak."
'"Consider well, but not too long," said he.
"The time of my thought is my own to spend," answered Dáin.
'"For the present," said he, and rode into the darkness.

We get exchanges like this several times in The Lord of the Rings, mostly involving dwarves: Elrond and Gimli swap grim proverbs in the next chapter, Théoden King silences Merry in similarly abrupt style in Book V chapter 2 ... Whatever it is, it comes over in Dáin's speech as a force: words imply ethics, and the ethics of the spokesmen of Middle-earth fit together, beneath surface variation. None of them but Saruman pays any attention to expediency, practicality, Realpolitik, 'political realism'.

Any one of the counsellors in this chapter would bear similar analysis. Gandalf's account of Isildur makes a point through its combination of ancient words and endings ('glede', 'fadeth', 'loseth', etc.) with sudden recall of the words of Bilbo and Gollum. 'It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain'; the 'reality of human nature' persists. More subtly Aragorn and Boromir strike sparks off each other through their ways of speech as well as their claims, Aragorn's language deceptively modern, even easy-going on occasion, but with greater range than Boromir's slightly wooden magniloquence. There is even significance in Aragorn letting his rival have the last word in their debate, with a clause which is perfectly in line with modern speech—'we will put it to the test one day'—but also relates easily to the vaunts of ancient heroes, like Ælfwine's nú mæg cunnian hwá céne sý in The Battle of Maldon, 'now who is bold can be put to the test'. Still, the overriding points are these: the 'information content' of 'The Council of Elrond' is very high, much higher than can be recorded by analyses like this; much of that information is carried by linguistic mode; nevertheless most readers assimilate the greater part of it; in the process they gain an image of the 'life-styles' of Middle-earth the solider for its occasional contrasts with modernity. Language variation gives Tolkien a thorough and economical way of dramatising ethical debate.

A part of the answer is that the Rohirrim are not to be equated with the Anglo-Saxons of history, but with those of poetry, or legend. The chapter 'The King of the Golden Hall' is straightforwardly calqued on Beowulf. When Legolas says of Meduseld, 'The light of it shines far over the land', he is translating line 311 of Beowulf, líxte se léoma ofer landafela. 'Meduseld' is indeed a Beowulfian word for 'hall'. More importantly the poem and the chapter agree, down to minute detail, on the procedure for approaching kings. In Beowulf the hero is stopped first by a coastguard, then by a doorward, and only after two challenges is allowed to approach the Danish King; he and his men have to 'pile arms' outside as well. Tolkien follows this dignified, step-by-step ceremonial progress exactly. Thus in 'The King of the Golden Hall' Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are checked first by the guards at the gates of Edoras (= 'enclosures'), and then by the doorward of Meduseld, Háma. He too insists on the ceremony of piling arms, though Tolkien's characters object more than Beowulf does, largely because he is a volunteer and in any case fights by choice barehanded. There is a crisis over Gandalf's staff, indeed, and Háma broods, reflecting rightly that 'The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age'; he settles his doubts with the maxim 'Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.' In saying so he echoes the maxim of the coastguard of Beowulf, 'a sharp shield-warrior must know how to tell good from bad in every case, from words as well as deeds. I hear [from your words] that this warband is friendly … I will guide you.'

The point is not, though, that Tolkien is once more writing a 'calqued' narrative, but that he is taking advantage of a modern expansive style to spell out things that would have been obvious to Anglo-Saxons — in particular, the truths that freedom is not a prerogative of democracies, and that in free societies orders give way to discretion. Háma takes a risk with Gandalf; so does the coastguard with Beowulf. So does Éomer with Aragorn, letting him go free and lending him horses. He is under arrest when Aragorn re-appears, and Théoden notes Háma's dereliction of duty too. Still, the nice thing about the Riders, one might say, is that though 'a stern people, loyal to their lord', they wear duty and loyalty lightly. Háma and Éomer make their own decisions, and even the suspicious gate-ward wishes Gandalf luck. 'I was only obeying orders', we can see, would not be accepted as an excuse in the Riddermark. Nor would it in Beowulf. The wisdom of ancient epic is translated by Tolkien into a whole sequence of doubts, decisions, sayings, rituals.

The Riders gain life from their mixture of homely, almost hobbitic familiarity with a strong dash of something completely alien. Éomer is a nice young man, but there is a streak of nomad ferocity in the way he and his men taunt Aragorn and company with their narrowing circle of horses and Éomer's silent advance 'until the point of his spear was within a foot of Aragorn's breast'. They behave like mail-shirted Red Indians. And like a Middle-earth Deerslayer Aragorn 'did not stir', recognising the nomad appreciation of impassivity. A certain craziness shows itself in the Rohirric psychology at other points, as Éowyn rides in search of death and Éomer, sure he is doomed to die, laughs out loud for joy. The Dunlendings have heard that the Riders 'burned their prisoners alive'. Tolkien denies it, but there is something in his description that keeps the image alive.

For all this there is, once more, a visual correlative, and it is the first flash of individuality Éomer is given; he is 'taller than all the rest; from his helm as a crest a white horsetail flowed'. A horsetail plume is the traditional prerogative of the Huns and the Tartars and the steppe-folk, a most un-English decoration, at least by tradition. Yet it comes to prominence several times. Across the chaotic battlefield of Pelennor it is 'the white crest of Éomer' that Merry picks out from the 'great front of the Rohirrim', and when Théoden charges at last, opposing hornblast and poetry to horror and despair, behind him come his knights and his banner, 'white horse upon a field of green', and Éomer, 'the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed'. As it happens, there is a word for both Éomer's decoration and the Riders' collective quality, but it is not an English word: it is panache, the crest on the knight's helmet, but also the virtue of sudden onset, the dash that sweeps away resistance. This is exactly the opposite of English 'doggedness', and is a virtue traditionally regarded with massive suspicion by English generals. However panache in both the abstract and concrete senses help to define the Riders, to present them as simultaneously English and alien, to offer a glimpse of the way land shapes people. Théoden's kindly interest in herbs and hobbits (they would have had him smoking a pipe, given time) co-exists with his peremptory decisions and sudden furies. It is a strange mixture but not an implausible one. There must have been people like that once, if we only knew.

Source: Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth, Grafton, HarperCollins, 1992, pp. 107-116.


Critical Overview


The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien