The Lord of the Rings: A Story for Grown-ups

Composed in 2002

The Lord of the Rings: A Story for Grown-ups

Is the Lord of the Rings an epic suitable for adults or, like the recent Fellowship movie, a teen male sword and sorcery novel? One recent critic, writing in The New Republic, comes down decidedly on the adolescent side of the question. In his review entitled “Bored of the Rings”, Oxford Professor Richard Jenkyns judges that those who are passionate about Tolkien’s work must have first encountered it in their teens, when desire for fantasy and adventure is highest and literary taste is non-existent. Those who, like himself, first read it later in life will find it stiff going and the devotion of millions a puzzling cultural phenomenon. Jenkyns’ central criticism is that Tolkien’s characters are flat. They show no real emotions, conflict, or development. Women figure neither as central characters nor objects of desire; religion as a cultural factor is absent; the ring is puzzling as providing a real moral dilemma; evil is presented in frightening but only suggestive overtones; the central characters, particularly Frodo, show no development through the story. Its overall failure in characterization condemns LOTR to be judged a very fine action/adventure fantasy story but in no way one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

What could explain the paradox of a work acclaimed by millions of readers as the greatest work of the century leaving many other readers such as Jenkyns bored? Jenkyns hints that Danielle Steele’s popularity is no sign of greatness; but the Lord of the Rings plays well to a literarily sophisticated audience. LOTR devotees are generally counter-cultural and well-educated; many have been immersed in the classics of Western literature. If it is really a book only for adolescents, why does it bear the unmistakable mark of a classic: it improves with age. As they re-read the books to their children, old fans find the story more deeply moving than when they were teen-agers. The magic works more potently on the more experienced and more widely read soul.

I was one of those enchanted. An avid reader from my early teens, I found in Tolkien’s story the most potent draught of that which I had always sought in all my reading. I returned to it again and again during that difficult period of my life to be swept up in its “beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron”. So I am hardly an objective critic; and while I realize that “objectivity” in a matter of the heart like literature involves its own pitfalls, still I should listen to what those outside of the love affair have to say. Are the characters really flat? Is my emotional reaction to them some puerile remnant that I have refused to mature out of? Maybe I am secretly afraid of sex and so prefer the emasculated?

Story and Character

If it were really true that Tolkien was unable to develop his heroes, he would himself have considered it an abysmal failure. In a surprising statement at the end of the story, Gandalf tells the hobbits, anxiously returning to a seriously troubled Shire, that he is not going to help them set things to rights.

I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand?

The book is essentially about a Quest, in the line of the Holy Grail sequence. True to its lineage, the task set before Frodo is far beyond his ability to achieve at the time he undertakes it. Frodo of the Shire could never go all the way to Mordor, to the Cracks of Doom. To succeed, Frodo’s powers of mind, spirit and heart must be elevated. To succeed with an audience, that growth in Frodo, as well as the other characters, must be manifested.

But Tolkien’s characters suffer from a wound that is fatal to the modern critic — the world doesn’t revolve around them. LOTR is not finally about Frodo or Sam, Aragorn, Gollum or even Gandalf. It is about what these characters do, the great action of finding the one path to the overthrow of Sauron and the saving of a free and noble civilization. Its true greatness lies in the thrill of hearing the horns of the Rohirrim from the mortally wounded city of Minas Tirith, the pathos of Gollum’s lost moment of repentance, the light of the phial of Galadriel in Sam’s hand utterly conquering the monster Shelob, the terrible weight of the Ring as Frodo carried it through Mordor, the joy after despair when Sauron’s ring falls into the Cracks of Doom. Through these and countless other moments, the author’s chief desire was fulfilled beyond anything he could have hoped for:

[My] prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.

The modern critic has made his bread and butter on novels that are about the characters, their inner struggle to find meaning in a deeply senseless world. Tolkien, on the other hand, roots himself strongly in the ancient tradition, whose chief philosophical spokesman is Aristotle, but which is also witnessed by nearly every mythic culture (Greek Iliad, Hebrew Genesis, Norse Siegmund). The plot, the story, is the chief element in this tradition; characters and their inner development are subordinate.

This is not to admit that Tolkien’s characters are lifeless or flat; they are essential to the plot as the actors (and sufferers)1, and in a great tale must be drawn with skill and conviction. But a true story-teller presents an obstacle to the contemporary reader who is used to being privy to the inner torments of his heroes (though the term “hero” should rarely be used in discussions of modern characters). Tolkien sketches his characters in action and speech, in history and culture, less than in thought and narration. As in real life, we learn about people from the outside. As a consequence, Tolkien’s art depends on the reader’s own experience; the action and speech of a character and those of others with reference to him sufficiently reveal him, if the reader has sufficient experience to complete the picture.

Boromir is a prime example. Boromir is suspected from his introduction; his ultimate betrayal of the fellowship seems the foregone conclusion of a one-dimensional character. (One critic has claimed that Tolkien failed to develop the only really interesting character in his story.) Boromir’s sudden repentance at Parth Galen feels a contrived happy ending; the pathos of Boromir’s death, so strongly felt by Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, falls flat. Are the elegies above the Falls of Rauros a clumsy attempt by the author to wring emotion out of an audience whom he has failed to attach to the character? Rather, they are part of the story-teller’s natural unfolding of the character, perfectly consistent with his previous role, which becomes evident on re-reading, especially when older.

We first encounter Boromir at the Council of Elrond. He is known only by his proud, stern countenance, his rich, travel worn clothes, and Elrond’s appellation, “A Man of the South”. We have already formed friendships with the four hobbits, Gandalf and Aragorn; we feel the Elves to be transcendently good and wise; we have met Gloin as an old friend at the banquet. Boromir is totally unknown. Although he tells us much of himself and Gondor, most of it flies over our heads because we have not seen it or anything like it. What stands out is his proud bearing, his unwillingness to take the advice of Gandalf and Elrond, his cold reaction to Aragorn, his laughter at Bilbo’s offer to take the Ring. As a first-time reader, I reacted to him as Samwise, who later tells Boromir’s brother,

“Now I watched Boromir and listened to him, from Rivendell all down the road — looking after my master, as you’ll understand, and not meaning any harm to Boromir — and it’s my opinion that in Lorien he first saw clearly what I guessed sooner: what he wanted. From the moment he first saw it he wanted the Enemy’s Ring!

But Sam’s perspective, though instinctively insightful (in this case — remember his obstinate distrust of Aragorn), is not the only one, nor is it the best vantage from which to measure the character. In our own lives, prejudicial first impressions of a person are sometimes overcome by the respect with which those whom we respect act towards him. Aragorn who mourned Boromir knew far better than Sam or ourselves what Gondor had lost. Gandalf presents the truest understanding of Boromir retrospectively: “Poor Boromir! I could not see what happened to him. It was a sore trial for such a man: a warrior, and a lord of men.”

Simply put, Boromir was a hero, the greatest hope of an ancient and noble people fighting for its life. To be a hero was his only desire from his youth upward, as his brother Faramir later reveals; he succeeded, living as a hero, not merely for an hour, but day in and day out. At Rauros, we could not know this, anymore than could the loyal but inexperienced Sam. Yet after we have lived through the whole drama and are able to live through it again we can see it revealed in the Council itself. We have grown in experience and hopefully nobility. We knew nothing of Gondor the first time, nor understood Boromir’s value; his speeches sounded like empty boasting. This time, we have grown; we were privileged to see the glory of Gondor, and to fear for the fate of the West should the Rohirrim fail to come. Now we can feel more like Pippin, who, not being present at the Council with Samwise, knew him only as the hero who had saved his life in the snows of Carathras and the Mines of Moria, who finally gave his life for him at Parth Galen.

Character and Society

Tolkien is a masterful story-teller, and all his characters are portrayed masterfully within that story while maintaining the story’s supremacy. He has a unique ability to understand his characters from within their history, their society, their family, their station, even their nature. Boromir is not an isolated individual; he is a Gondorian, raised in Minas Tirith, son of Denethor, brother of Faramir, heir of the Stewards, a Man. Boromir’s actions and words, his heroism, his suspicions, his struggle, his ultimate failure and salvation, without ceasing to be his alone, always bear the marks of Gondor’s glorious three thousand year heritage, the Tower of Guard’s stone beauty and stern need, his father’s pride, his brother’s admiration, his tremendous responsibility, his human mortality. Frodo, unique as he is, always remains a Baggins, adopted heir of the Mad Baggins, a master in his own country, a Hobbit of the Shire. Jenkyns arches a skeptical eyebrow at the idea that this master of so complex a plot could have written it without a blue-print. Part of the key to this mystery is that Tolkien knew his characters so thoroughly that he had only to present to them the key plot elements and their actions flowed naturally.

The backgrounds of the characters, so wildly diverse in many ways, have something in common that presents a further obstacle to the modern reader. The characters not only express their familes and societies; they are fundamentally comfortable with their societies. With the notable exception of Gollum, and maybe Eowyn, none of the characters is a radical individual, questioning his culture, struggling to define his own values. Each accepts and honors the good as he has learned it from the ancient stories and contemporary examples; he struggles to live up to these ideals in the face of the demands made upon him by the quest. Aragorn shares Boromir’s pride in the nobility, beauty and wisdom of the Numenorean realms in exile; his dream is to reign as king of a reinvigorated Gondor and resurrected Arnor in a manner that would allow him to face Elendil without shame. His crisis is self-doubt not cultural angst — all the years of hoping, planning, preparing, suffering to fulfill his dream are falling into nothingness around him at Parth Galen, and he feels it to be his fault. When the quest needed a great leader to fill Gandalf’s shoes, he fails. He conquers his self-doubt by following his clear duty to hunt for his captured friends across Rohan, becoming the man who, on his own initiative, challenges Sauron in the Palantir and leads his men through the horrors of the Path of the Dead.

Our own culture is so deeply marked by the radical questioning and existential loneliness of relativistic individualism that we might wonder whether such people can exist, whether these psychologically healthy characters are not even more fantastic than the Ents or the Elves. In a way, the question is irrelevant. That Tolkien can excite in us a deep love for these characters is itself a great good; perhaps it will lead us to strive in all ways that we can to be like them, and to provide our children as far as we can with an environment that might make them healthy and content. If immersion in LOTR is escape, it is the escape of the chronically ill to the healing comfort of the mineral spa. But our skepticism is in itself only a sign of our inexperience. In spite of our vast historical knowledge, we as a people remain parochially ignorant of the real strengths (and real as opposed to stereotypical weaknesses) of the citizens of a pre-Industrial, pre-Enlightenment world. Cartesian doubts and Baconian contempt for the ancients are a relatively recent and peculiarly Western European habit.

Suffering and Compassion

Understanding the characters and their development within the plot, we can see that this story, like every great story, affects the characters as well as the audience. As the ultimate essay in Quest literature, the plot of LOTR essentially depends upon and promotes the moral and spiritual development of its characters. The Quest could not have been achieved if Frodo, having lost the guidance of Gandalf, Galadriel and Aragorn, had not been moved to pity Gollum, instead of reacting with judgement, contempt and fear as he had in his living room in Bag End.

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy; not to strike without need.”

“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”

“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.

“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds?”

Gandalf was right. Seeing Gollum under the cliffs of Emyn Muil after bearing the Ring himself, Frodo does pity him. Compassion, probably the greatest mark of Gandalf, comes to be so deeply rooted in Frodo by the end of the story that he follows his mentor in extending it even to Saruman and Wormtongue at the doorstep of the ruined Bag End.

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. “You have grown, Halfling,” he said, “You are wise, and cruel.”

Through the noble people they meet, the dangers they face, the choices they are forced to make, Sam, Merry and Pippin grow from adolescent, parochial hobbits of the self-content Shire to rank among the greatest figures of the Western world. When they return home, they are not only able to save the Shire from Saruman and his thugs, but they are prepared to preserve and cultivate the knowledge of high nobility that they have gained and to lead the Shire into the new age of Aragorn’s kingship.

“Dear me!” [said Pippin.] We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.” “No,” said Merry. “I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them.”

Before departing over the sea, Frodo leaves Sam with the Red Book so that he and his descendants can keep alive this new perspective in the generations to come.

The catalyst of Frodo’s development is the Ring itself. What is the Ring? What does it represent? The second question is invalid if its aim is to understand Tolkien’s work. Tolkien doesn’t write in allegory. The Ring doesn’t represent anything — addiction, or lust, or even domination. It is a thing of a certain kind that has certain powers. Sauron made it to enhance his ability to dominate the wills of others; he infused it with his spirit and his malice. Sauron himself is a demon and demons, as Christians know, tempt people. One of the beautiful, sometimes terrifying, facts about Tolkien’s world is that the material is so deeply infused with the spiritual. The mere presence of the Nazgul exudes fear, while the presence of the Elves brings comfort. Although the comfortable hobbits and the stone bred dwarves are little aware of it, the Elves, Gandalf and men like Aragorn are. Frodo and Sam, as their spiritual power grows through their sufferings and struggles, develop this sense of the spiritual emanating through matter. The Ring has this power in spades, its spiritual presence amplified by the magic arts of its maker. In some way never explained, but consistent with the laws of Middle Earth, the Ring received and enhanced the spirit of Sauron, a spirit of immense power totally given over to the lust for domination.

The Ring, bearing the spirit of a demon, exerts a psychological/emotional pressure on its bearer and others who have been affected by it. Like its master, the Ring knows how to tempt so as to ensnare. Its beauty tempts Smeagol and possesses Isildur; its apparent power for good affects Gandalf, warns Aragorn, overthrows Saruman and finally conquers Boromir. Once it arouses the desire to possess it, it works to enflame that desire into a mad jealousy that would sacrifice anything and anyone rather than lose it. The close kinship between domination and possessiveness is a fundamental presupposition of the story, one that unites Sauron and Bilbo in the great temptation: to assert oneself as the end of all.

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).

He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.

Time to Grow: Religion, Women and Love

Understanding the Ring explains why, although formal religion is noticeably absent, Tolkien claimed that the work is fundamentally religious and Catholic. The preternatural temptation of the Ring, more than the might of Sauron, makes Frodo’s quest essentially hopeless; in fact, he fails in the end. He cannot destroy the Ring; he claims it for his own in the madness of exhaustion and a spirit tempted beyond endurance. And yet, the quest is achieved, by the Power that has been at work from before the beginning of the story. Gandalf refers to this when, retracing the history of the Ring, he comes to Bilbo’s finding it by chance.

“There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master….Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

Providence is essential to the tale. It alone brings the quest to fulfillment through the hopeless fidelity of Frodo, Sam’s devotion and spiritual blindness, and Gollum’s lust for the Ring.

But if Providence is so important, where is the worship? Where are the churches, the altars, the priests? As is typical, Tolkien’s portrayal of religion is a function of the natures of the peoples and societies that might worship. The hobbits themselves have no worship, no indication of a higher being at all. This is in keeping with their uncultured culture. They have no exposure to the higher things, nor do they as a whole want any. Frodo and Sam feel this when they have a meal with Faramir.

“So we always do,” [Faramir] said,” as they sat down: “we look towards Numenor that was and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be. Have you no such custom at meat?”

“No,” said Frodo, feeling strangely rustic and untutored.

The Gondorians do have some formal religion, although all that comes to our attention is Faramir’s blessing before meal and a reference to the king as a priest. This comes from their traditionally close relationship to the Elves. The Elves are fundamentally religious; their discourse is filled with inspired hymns in praise of Varda. Their lack of external worship arises from their ability to live in their songs and their memories. The gods come to life for them imaginatively in a more intimate contact than is possible for mortals.

What about Tolkien’s portrayal of his female characters? It may seem that I have not spoken yet of women, and have left them as an afterthought like Tolkien himself. The truth is I have been speaking of them throughout, because everything I have said about characters in the work pertains equally to them. They are characters in the story, and are developed and develop within it. They each have choices to make associated with the Ring and the Quest; they each make those choices and live them out in ways that are consistent with their history, society, and nature, while still being proper to them as individuals. The lady, Goldberry, is no more attracted to the Ring than her spouse, Tom Bombadil. Arwen’s choice is a romantic one — she has bound herself to Aragorn and lives by that choice even to the final separation from her father, Elrond. Galadriel must make a final renunciation of her queenship in the face of the offer of the Ring by Frodo. Eowyn rebels against the role her society calls on her to play; she must endure much suffering until she is finally healed by the pity and love of Faramir.

Of course, contemporary readers face an enormous obstacle in Tolkien’s female characters. Never mind that they are each characters of enormous spirit and energy, that Galadriel is the most powerful figure save Sauron in the story (almost embarassingly superior in wisdom, strength and power to Celeborn). Yet one senses that they are not career women, pushing themselves to become just like the men, to do whatever the men do. They are the comforters, the nurturers, the supporters. Galadriel, for all her power, is the Mother of her people, not the Father. Eowyn’s rebellion is driven by the lifelong frustration of serving a father-figure falling ever more deeply into a shameful old age. She cannot continue to nurture without hope of success; she fantasizes about a glorious life for herself and her family. But to Tolkien, this is a sickness, a frost in the spring of her life which has prevented her from blossoming and bearing fruit. Her healing involves reconciliation with her peculiar gifts as a woman.

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

What can we say to this presentation of women? For one, we can accept Tolkien’s women as true to their age, to their world. Feminism is a peculiarly modern, industrial, democratic movement dating to the mid-19th century in the West. At the very least, appreciating Arwen, Galadriel and the rest can open our minds to understand non-Western societies of our own times, even a large number of women in our own time who reject radical feminism and have found happiness and self-respect within a distinctively womanly role. We are in danger of rejecting our own history, when women fought their battles with men without challenging their role as women. Some feminists would teach us to reject Shakespeare. Arwen as a Ranger or Jasmine as an early Mid-Eastern feminist are anachronistic and reflect our narrow prejudices. Perhaps, too, we can gain some wisdom from these women. We are today still suffering from the confusion of a rejection of gender and the consequent devastation to families. Tolkien gives a possible glimpse of how women of spirit can find their path without undermining society in the process.

Finally, what should we think about the male characters as male? Are they sex-less drones? As an adolescent, I did find rest in LOTR from the continual bombardment of my hormone-stoked imagination by sex-filled books, magazines, movies, and sitcoms, not to mention TV ads. I think this is because Tolkien introduces his readers to a thoroughly adult sexuality. Part and parcel with our individualistic society, our literature, both written and electronic, presumes that sexuality is something to be discovered through our own sexual experiences. Many of us have tasted the emotional and psychological disasters that usually leads to. Our society is daily facing the consequences of adults who continue to be plagued by it. In a healthy society, sexuality is first discovered through example, that of our parents, the parents of our friends, and married friends of the family. In them we can see the proper use of sexuality and the wonderful fruit it bears.

LOTR is definitely old-fashioned in this regard. As we have seen, the perspective throughout much of the book is that of the uncultured hobbits; it is a story about their education. It isn’t inappropriate to liken it to that of a young man leaving home and family for college or a year in Europe. Indeed, Sam, Merry and Pippin are in late adolescence or young manhood, having in various degrees assumed adult responsibilities, but not yet married or engaged. Frodo, like his uncle, is a bachelor; some unrest lies within him that cannot be satisfied by any of the ordinary hobbit women of his aquaintance. These four men first encounter sexuality in the house of Tom Bombadil. Goldberry presents to Frodo his first picture of transcendent womanly beauty and grace. She and Tom have a perfectly adjusted, intimate, respectful, joyful relationship, reminiscent of Natasha and Pierre’s marriage in War and Peace.

Then Tom and Goldberry set the table; and the hobbits sat half in wonder and half in laughter: so fair was the grace of Goldberry and so merry and odd the caperings of Tom. Yet in some fashion they seemed to weave a single dance, neither hindering the other, in and out of the room, and round about the table; and with great speed food and vessels and lights were set in order.

The women they encounter on the rest of their journey are all beautiful, but, something hard for our sex-obsessed culture to imagine, not seductive. The men confirm and develop in hobbits their natural courtesy to the opposite sex. Sexuality in Tolkien’s story is not about arousing passions and fantasy, but about rest and peace.

Who’s Immature?

With due respect to its critics, I find myself more in love with Lord of the Rings than ever. In my mid-thirties, I find the story as exciting and more moving than when I was young; its themes of compassion, endurance, fidelity and providence are new discoveries much relished. I know that some people will never develop a taste for such a work of fantasy; I am saddened for them but de gusto non disputandum est. The great works in literature don’t please everyone. The Iliad is all battle, Emma is a chick book, War and Peace has too many Russian names, Moby Dick too much whale. Their greatness is measured by their ability to move serious readers generation after generation. I have no doubt that LOTR will continue to delight far into the future.

I also find that its characters have grown with me or, more likely, I have grown into its characters. In spite of the charges of Jenkyns and others of his point of view, the characters in LOTR are so satisfying precisely because they are so adult. They are not blown about by the winds of adolescent passion or moody questioning of what is evidently good and true. Their temptations and struggles are those of good men tested by a great challenge that demands they go far beyond themselves, where failure to undertake the painful process of growth that brings to birth the hero means the destruction of an entire civilization. The current leaders of our culture, proudly bristling with the hormones of immaturity, glorifying the young and the restless, are understandably left cold by them. Perhaps its not surprising that the greatest work of our times had to be written by a man steeped in the cultural heritage they have lost. They are the ones who seem to be stuck in their teens.

1 The intimate connection between character and plot is manifest in the recent Fellowship movie. With Aragorn changed into a reluctant king and Gandalf having lost his tremendous wisdom, the movie has fundamentally altered Tolkien’s story. We’re in a parallel universe, close in many ways, but not the same story.