The Lord of the Rings is a singular book. It stands alone among 20th century fiction as the single greatest story produced in the English language. The magnum opus of its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, it has been widely panned or ignored by critics, but amongst those who have read it and enjoyed it, it is often considered their favorite book. I count myself in that number.
And yet, it is a polarizing book which remains opaque and inaccessible to many. With its assortment of elves, hobbits, goblins, wizards, and ringwraiths, it is considered simply too odd or bizarre for many readers to even consider. Tolkien realized this himself and composed this short verse to describe the way readers approach his work:
The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like it you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!
So, for those who already enjoy this book, this review will potentially be superfluous and to those who are put off by fantasy in general, perhaps unconvincing. And yet, it is, after all, my favorite book, and really, after having recently re-read it, it is high time, I think, to put my thoughts down about what makes it a book of such special magnificence.
Of its many qualities, the most obvious at first blush is Tolkien’s portrayal of hobbits, a small people with harry feet and big appetites. Though personally I actually enjoy reading about the elven race and the elven characters most, the existence of Hobbits, their oddities, qualities, and ways is key to understanding the story. It is primarily through hobbit characters that the tale is told and Tolkien rightly bookends the novel with sizable sections set in the hobbits’ ancestral home of The Shire, a quiet, sheltered, and green country in the Northwestern part of Middle-earth.
The Shire is a pastoral, idealized version of England, though in some ways its charm stretches beyond England to all lands where food, flowers, trees, and “good tilled earth” are valued above wealth and industrialization. Though I myself live happily amidst dozens of modern convenience, there is a pull when one reads of the hobbit lifestyle that awakens a desire for gentler, simpler times.
Of the hobbit characters featured in the novel (side note: though released as a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings was originally composed as a single novel and I will be treating it as such for the purposes of this review) Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, are the central characters, though Bilbo, whose exploits feature prominently in The Hobbit does have an important role in the beginning of the book.
As noble and important as Frodo is, Sam is the character I connect with the most. Simple though he is, there is an uncomplicated sincerity about everything he does. His devotion to Frodo and to what is good and right is unshakable. Of all the characters in the novel, it is Sam who grows the most, from a humble, obscure gardner, to one of the most celebrated heroes of Middle-earth.
The Road goes ever on and on
Another of the wonders of The Lord of the Rings is that it reads very much like a history. There are lands and places, peoples, nations, and events, that have this living, organic quality, such that you feel as of Tolkien were pulling back the veil and ushering you into a place which actually existed. What C.S. Lewis wrote in his review of The Hobbit in 1937 is doubly true of The Lord of the Rings. It is a book that “admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him.”
Tolkien is able to invest these lands of elves, men, dwarves, and hobbits, with such verisimilitude in part due to his background as a linguist. For Tolkien, the language behind these peoples comes even before his interest in their histories or the individual characters themselves. In this, he is unique amongst almost any author I am aware of.
Most authors simply do not share Tolkien’s interest in language as the driving force for building a world. That is perhaps why most fantasy novels coming after The Lord of the Rings often feel derivative of Middle-earth, rather than wholly original (though Tolkien’s story was itself inspired by northern mythology and other authors, in particular E.R. Edison, whom Tolkien called “[T]he greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have ever read.”). Tolkien has, in a sense, done all the hard work for us. The rest of us are only able to tinker with the recipe a bit, omitting this or that aspect, putting more emphasis on one thing or another.
And I must follow, if I can
But perhaps the chief virtue of Tolkien’s story is the truth it conveys. His story stands in stark contrast to the vast sea of modern works whose characters wander about in a meaningless and hopeless universe. Modern fiction is full of clever, assertive, and even broken or flawed individuals whose actions serve mainly to achieve their own goals or pursuits. Even characters who end up risking their lives or saving the world often do so more out of necessity or for personal reasons than because of any larger principles or profound sense of what is good and honorable.
Not so, in The Lord of the Rings. Here we meet characters like Aragorn, who is willing to spend years in the wilderness, defending people who do not even know he exists, rather than take the throne which is his by right. We meet Gandalf the wizard, an ageless person who is something more than human, but who refuses to accept the One Ring when it is offered to him for fear of the terrible power he would wield with it.
Even characters who succumb to temptation such as Saruman and Boromir, serve as cautionary examples that even the mightiest among us are not above a fall.
Until it joins some larger way
But there is more to Tolkien’s moral fabric than simple honor and a sense of duty. The moral compass of its central heroes is grounded in a transcendent, eternal framework. The echo of the Undying Lands lays heavy upon Middle-earth. This immortal realm beyond the sea shines in the eyes of the elves, in the Phial of Galadriel, and the tree of Gondor and is ultimately the fountain from which flow the goodness, truth, and beauty, which so guides the heroes of this tale. Though it may not be obvious upon a casual reading, the distant call of these lands touches every page of the story. It is easy to forget that upon every step of Frodo’s epic journey he is strengthened and guided by unseen hands.
Gandalf is there, surely, but Gandalf was sent by someone, wasn’t he? Tom Bombadil arrives just in the nick of time, but what brought him there at that precise moment when he was needed most? “Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine,” he tells the hobbits when he rescues them from Old Man Willow. And what brought the Fellowship to Rivendell in the first place? Elrond, after revealing the need to deal with Sauron’s Ring tells them, “That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands.”
The very fact that Frodo even has the Ring at all is shown to be part of some larger plan. Gandalf tells him:
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.
Where many paths and errands meet
And so we see that, though small hands and mighty swords fight and labor to protect Tolkien’s beloved world, there is a larger purpose at work behind it all. Tolkien’s characters exist in a fundamentally moral world, where good and evil are real things based on divine decree, not cultural conventions or shifting ideas. Sauron, the Ring-maker, is irredeemably evil, and his plans wholly wicked, but he is not the only force at work, and in the end we see that the power which opposes him is greater still.
What Tolkien has given us in the guise of a story, is hope in a fallen world. When the world offers us nothing but sadness and meaninglessness, Tolkien, though The Lord of the Rings, reminds us that, no, this is not the end. Evil and death and suffering do not have the final say. There is One who holds the keys to life and death who is good and right and just and his plans never go astray. In this book we hear echoes of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” As Aragorn tells Awen on his death bed.
In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.
And if it takes a few hobbits, elves, dwarves, and forgotten kings to remind us of such things, well that’s a story worth reading, don’t you think?