When it first appeared in 1954, The Lord of the Rings was met with an astoundingly wide range of reaction. Few works have ever polarized their readership to the degree that Tolkien’s epic has. From W.H. Auden’s assessment of it as a “masterpiece of its genre” (1) to Edmund Wilson’s dismissal of it as “juvenile trash” (3), the only opinions not expressed by those literary critics who examined the work were those of a moderate nature (Auden, 1).
Despite the books’ enduring popularity, there remains a certain resistance among the literary elite, as it were, to accepting the book as anything other than an escapist romp. Germain Greer commented in 1997, after the first major poll that voted The Lord of the Rings the work of the century, that it had been a personal nightmare come true for Tolkien’s work to be seen as the most influential book of its time, as its domineering characteristic is flight from reality (Shippey, xxii).
While there is certainly much contained within the pages of The Lord of the Rings that on the surface does not exist in the real world, such as elves, orcs, and trolls, a serious reading of the work will excavate underlying themes that are exceptionally relevant to the mundane world in which we live. Often, the book has been described as being about ‘good vs. evil.’ Tolkien spends much time describing the nature of the evil and the potential for it to come out even in his supposedly good characters. While (with the exception of Gollum) the evil characters are often one-dimensional, and in fact the primary evil character has no physical form or presence in the novel, they can be seen as metaphoric. Sauron and his orcs are not so much real people whose personalities are dominated by traits society defines as evil as they are representations of those traits themselves, or the desires from which such traits emanate.
Tolkien’s definition of evil would certainly seem to be associated with power and the desire to impose one’s will upon others. Sauron is, of course, the very definition of evil in Middle-Earth, and as Gandalf comments “. . . the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power . . .” (FR, 322). There is also the indication of the short-sightedness this mentality generates. A greedy, petty person always suspects others of being driven by the same motivations, as Gandalf notes, “For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice . . . the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it.” (FR, 323)
Tolkien is also wary of the political double-speak associated with the lust for power in the 20th century, as manifested in the character of Saruman. When Gandalf recounts his encounter with the traitorous Wizard, he quotes him as saying “As the power grows, its proved friends will also grow . . . deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose . . . There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only our means.” (FR, 311) Those are my italics, not Tolkien’s, added to draw attention to what may be the most important portion of the passage.
What does Saruman mean by a “real change?” It was certainly not the Wizards’ purpose when they arrived in Middle-Earth to dominate and control its peoples for any purpose. “Istari, whom Men called the Wizards . . . they were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron . . . to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.” (Silmarillion, 372) “To move” the peoples of the West to “valiant deeds,” indicates inspiration, not domination. So, in fact, what Saruman is proposing to Gandalf is as contrary to their original purpose as is possible. But in a long and complicated speech, Saruman attempts to mask his own lust and desire for power behind an argument that the vast change is, in reality, only minor and therefore should simply be overlooked. He may be a Wizard, which is a fantastic creation, but he is also quite the politician, which is an all-too-real monster.
Then there are the orcs. The massive armies of the Dark Lord consist primarily of these hideous creatures whose main drives in life are destruction and slaughter. So much so, in fact, that when they are without an enemy they turn on themselves. When Frodo and Sam have gotten into Mordor, they overhear two orcs who are searching for Gollum and any sign of who was responsible for the slaughter in the tower of Cirith Ungol (an incident that was, in fact, orc-on-orc violence). The smaller orc, a tracker, is thinking about fleeing since the war is going poorly. The larger orc is threatening to report the potential deserter for treason and they come to blows when the tracker flees, the smaller orc putting an arrow in the eye of the larger to prevent pursuit. Sam comments that if such behavior would spread, the enemy would simply defeat itself. Frodo responds that they are always like this but “. . . hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead.” (RK, 224) Orcs are anger and violence made physical, driven by a hatred of all things other than themselves and a fear of those stronger.
Tolkien has painted a picture of those things within our being that turn out actions toward an evil end and that make us cruel and suspicious. He has done this through fairy-story beings, creatures that live in a world of legend. But to give perspective to the tale, some of those fairy-story beings have to be more like the modern reader than they are the other denizens of the world of myth. Enter small but courageous hobbits, the most central characters in Tolkien’s novel.
While the pastoral Shire resembles a mythological concept of the idyllic rural life of “Merry England,” many things point to the more modern nature of the hobbits. The description of Bag End, for example “. . . is in fact, in everything except being underground (and in there being no servants), the home of a member of the Victorian upper-middle class of Tolkien’s nineteenth-century youth . . .” (Shippey, 5) The Shire has a postal service, “. . . the Hobbiton post-office was blocked, and the Bywater post-office was snowed under . . .” (FR, 47), which is another definitively modern aspect of culture, “. . . our familiar system dates, in England, from 1837.” (Shippey, 6)
It is one of these almost modern characters, Frodo, who endures the most challenge in the book. Being the Ring-Bearer, he has no choice to see the quest to its end, which may be quite bitter. Despite his survival, as it turns out, there is little sweet for him in this victory. A year after the destruction of the Ring, Frodo is ill in his bed hallucinating, “‘It is gone forever,’ he said, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’” (RK, 339) As has been seen all too often in the 20th century, young men who do their duty for their country and the cause of liberty return changed, even broken, by the experience. The evils they have seen are simply too great.
Worthy of note, however, is that Frodo is transformed into a more peaceful being as a result of this experience. From his comment regarding Gollum to Gandalf, “What a pity Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” (FR, 85) to his having “been in the battle, but he had not drawn a sword, and his chief part had been to prevent the hobbits, in their wrath at their losses, from slaying those enemies who threw down their weapons.” (RK, 330) during the “Scouring of the Shire,” an obvious change has occurred in Frodo. The experience of war has made the act of it repugnant to him, even when justified. The ultimate lesson, then, is that no matter how necessary, war is a horror. Certainly a lesson learned the hard way by young men who had been sold a romantic image of battle in the early half of the 20th century.
In my estimation, these facets, along with others I do not have the space to enter into, make The Lord of the Rings far from “juvenile trash.” While it may not be the singular greatest literary work of its time, it plainly ranks high among works that could be argued to be deserving of that distinction. It has meant, for me, a work which offers a definitive moral view of the world that requires no leap of faith, no devotion to a God that cannot be shown to exist, an almost religious text that acknowledges its own fictitious nature. Many acquaintances of mine have also found inestimable pleasure in reading and re-reading the text, discussing its intricacies, and analyzing its characters. One would imagine that a healthy percentage of the millions of other readers have felt the same way. It is beyond dispute that any work that generates such a degree of enjoyment and thought is worthy of a place of great distinction in the literary history of the English language.