Man and Mythmaker: J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings

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Like
many people, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The
Lord of the Rings
as a child. The experience catapulted
my pre-adolescent imagination for the first time into the wondrous
and varied world of wizards, dwarves, goblins, and yes, hobbits.
From that moment on, I was never quite the same.

Now Tolkien’s imaginary world is set to hit the silver screen. Will
the movies do as good a job as the books did in transporting young
imaginations to the enchanting land of Middle Earth? They will if
they preserve a key element of the books: a profound and mature
religious worldview.

That worldview is not one I was consciously aware of as a child
reader. But thanks to a recent biography, Tolkien:
Man and Myth
by Joseph Pearce, I have come as an adult to
understand the essential role Tolkien’s devout Catholicism played
in making his books as compelling as they are.

Man
and Myth sheds light on the ways Tolkien expressed complex spiritual
truths through the thoughts and actions of his characters –
and through the internal logic of his created world – relying
less on the type of heavy-handed allegory that is the hallmark of
Lewis’s
Narnia books
(which Tolkien loathed). Those characters express
the same wondrous religious sensibility of their author, who described
his work as “fundamentally religious and Catholic.”

“For
Tolkien,” writes Pearce, “Catholicism was not an opinion to which
one subscribed but a reality to which one submitted . . . . Tolkien
remained a Catholic for the simple if disarming reason that he believed
Catholicism was true.”

LotR
as a religious work “falls into three distinct but inter-related
areas,” writes Pearce. These areas are “the sacrifice which accompanies
the selfless exercise of free will; the intrinsic conflict between
good and evil; and the perennial question of time and eternity,
particularly in relation to life and death.”

The theme of sacrifice in LotR is pervasive, with protagonist
Frodo freely choosing to carry a “great weight” – the enemy Sauron’s
ring – into the dark realm of Mordor, the center of evil in the world,
where it can be destroyed. Frodo’s undertaking of this quest perilous
forms the nucleus of the story, and the irony is all the greater
that Frodo is a hobbit, a small and weak race, upon whose brave
shoulders the fate of all races rests.

The forces of good in Tolkien’s works are represented as being far
outnumbered and overpowered (at least on the surface) by the minions
of evil. The story is as old as time itself: good vs. evil, with
evil seemingly in control of the whole wide world. But ultimately,
the virtue of the few overcomes the overwhelming numbers of the
evil many, with the mystery of grace guiding the affairs of men – not
to mention those of hobbits.

Like LotR in general, Tolkien’s portrayal of evil is not
explicitly Christian, but its orthodoxy lies in its understanding
that evil is in and of itself a fearsome but ultimately impotent
force. Only good can create, while evil but lends itself to corruption
and destruction. Of the monstrous races that serve evil, Frodo says,
“The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new
things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to [them], it only
ruined them and twisted them.” The actual act of positive creation
is reserved for God – but everyone in Middle Earth is, to a greater
or lesser extent, a victim of the Fall.

Pearce also notes the mortality of man and his relation to eternity
as a central theme in Tolkien’s work. “Three Rings for the Elven
Kings under the sky,” begins the Ring Rhyme, which goes on to add,
“Nine for mortal men doomed to die.” In LotR, elves are immortal,
but men are, as they are in reality, “doomed” to depart the earth.
To Tolkien, however, this “doom” is a gift from God, though man’s
understanding of it is warped by his sinful state. Throughout the
entirety of LotR, it becomes clear that the final resting
place of the faithful and valiant is not in the fallow tombs of
Middle Earth, but in the as-yet-unglimpsed fertile lands beyond.
If elves are a sorrowful race, it is the logical result of their
permanent term of exile in a fallen world.

In all, Pearce’s book isn’t as exhaustive as is Humphrey Carpenter’s
biography of Tolkien, but it does provide many interesting insights
into the life and work of a fascinating man. Especially gratifying
to me was the discovery of Tolkien’s apparent political libertarianism.

“My
political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically
understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with
bombs),’” Pearce quotes Tolkien as saying. It is no coincidence
that The Shire is portrayed as an idyllic rural society with little
formal government, while Mordor is quite emphatically an industrial,
collectivistic slave-state.

Tolkien:
Man and Myth is likely to be disappointing to those who want
a play-by-play account of Tolkien’s life. But it is particularly
valuable to those of us who struggled in ignorance for years to
understand just why Middle Earth and its denizens appealed to us
so strongly.

As Pearce quotes poet Charles Coulombe, “In an age which has seen
an almost total rejection of the Faith on the part of the Civilisation
she created, the loss of the Faith on the part of many lay Catholics,
and apparent uncertainty among her hierarchy, Lord of the Rings
assures us, both by its existence and its message, that the darkness
cannot triumph forever.”

And if the filmmakers have done their job right, that message soon
will be experienced by millions of moviegoers, too.

December
12, 2001

Michigan
writer David Bardallis [send
him e-mail
] maintains
a web site at www.thought-crimes.net.

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