In The Lord of the Rings: A Story for Grown-ups, I discussed healthy aspects of Tolkien’s work — the central role of story and society in forming character, the lure of the Ring, the treatment of women — that contribute to its popularity but leave contemporary literary critics cold.
Frodo’s quest, then, is one unlike any in literature: he willingly submits himself to a demonic temptation that will grow with every step he takes toward Mordor, while also exposing him to the intense hatred of the Devil himself. He cannot suffer this passively; he must drive himself forward all the while on a hopeless quest, exposing himself to spiritual corruption and damnation (here a slow, age-long torment in the Dark Tower). This trial teaches Frodo compassion, for he experiences evil from inside the sinner, the enslavement and torment that is the lot of those who have sacrificed true human affection for possession and domination. Even the most fiercely hobbitish Samwise through his short exposure to Gollum’s turmoil finally, at the very Cracks of Doom, comes to pity the sinner (too late for Gollum’s soul, unfortunately).
In a 2012 article for the Circe Institute (Tolkien, Faeries, and Creation), I reflected on craft and creation in Tolkien’s works.
Tolkien’s own profound love of making drove him to spend a lifetime making and re-making and shaping the world of the Silmarillion and caused him to feel Feanor’s tragedy and Galadriel’s redemption so deeply. He considered that his literary works of fantasy were made by the same desire as the craftsman’s, though he poured his heart out for greater object – not merely to make something of this world beautiful but, like the Ainur of his mythology to make an entire cosmos
In a talk at the 2014 Circe Conference (The Education of the Hobbits), I developed parallels between classical education and the quest training the hobbits received which enabled them to “Scour the Shire” and make it more beautiful than ever.
As the Greeks and Romans knew, great stories which become lodged in the memory have a way of springing to mind unbidden as we try to make sense of our human reality. As I have over the past few years looked for ways to explain classical education to myself and others, episodes from The Lord of the Rings have spontaneously come to mind. I began to see more clearly how the journey educated the hobbits and prepared them to be the heroes the Shire needed.