A Tolkien fan talks

Never mind the cynics - The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

The new film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings has prompted a re-evaluation of JRR Tolkien’s work. And predictably, a man who devoted much of his life to creating an entirely invented world has been the victim of much cynicism.

It is easy to mock some of the book’s characters and passages – but The Lord of the Rings is a meticulous world that you enter and stay in, rather than something you dip in and out of. The fantasy can be punctured and parodied, but in my opinion the book remains unblemished.

The imagined world of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings was not a whimsical creation. Tolkien conceived of it as a prehistoric version of our own world, before it went into decline. As such, it was the perfect setting for Tolkien’s moral beliefs, and it makes sense that his major work takes place there.

It is often Tolkien’s beliefs that people attack when criticising his work. He was a conservative and a Christian, with a romantic attachment to idyllic rural life. Disappointed that England didn’t have its own coherent mythology, Tolkien set about creating one – borrowing from diverse sources and forging them into something new and unique.

The antiquity of Tolkien’s beliefs can be seen in the melancholy that runs through The Lord of the Rings. Set on the cusp of known history, at a time when the older races and traditions of Middle-Earth are falling into decline, the book documents the last stand of an old order – a requiem for the Western elite’s confidence in its morals and supremacy.

Taking a politically correct potshot at Tolkien is easy – just consider his treatment of race. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil wizard Saruman commits the cardinal sin of breeding Orcs with men, creating the powerful but racially impure Uruk-Hai. The very polarisation between the good West and the evil East throughout the book is significant.

Tolkien’s admirers respond to such PC potshots by saying that The Lord of the Rings is a work of fiction, not a political tract – and they’re right. Observations of Tolkien’s beliefs might be valid for understanding the context in which the book was written, but they do not constitute a proper criticism of The Lord of the Rings as art.

And even though some of Tolkien’s beliefs are objectionable, he does his job as an artist well, weaving his beliefs deep into his story so that you aren’t whacked over the head with them every few pages. The Lord of the Rings never descends into propaganda, and is far more subtle than something like the Chronicles of Narnia, by Tolkien’s colleague CS Lewis, where the Christian allegory is a simple matter of join-the-dots.

Tolkien’s moral philosophy is brilliantly summed up in ‘Ainulindalë’, the creation myth that opens The Silmarillion. Ilúvatar, creator of the world, challenges a dissenting voice by saying, ‘no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’ This scenario, played out in miniature in the creation myth, underpins the entire narrative of The Lord of the Rings, where the loathsome creature Gollum is the unwitting instrument of good.

As many point out, this is an incredibly restrictive worldview, embodying all that is most retrograde about religious belief. It asks that people know their place and insists that they are subordinate to a higher design. In Tolkien’s world, people are the pawns of Fate and human autonomy and ambition seem to have no place.

Yet Tolkien is too good a writer for his beliefs to restrict the available interpretation of his work. For every cringe-inducing passage, there is a hobbit who overcomes indolence to become the unlikeliest of heroes, or an Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, who renounces her designated place as woman in the home and goes to battle instead. Radical feminist icon, or volunteer nurse doing her bit for the boys in the trenches? You decide. After all, it is a work of fiction.

Like any other artist worth his or her salt, Tolkien transpires to be an ‘instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined’. We should understand the beliefs that influenced Tolkien’s work – but we don’t have to be so unimaginative as to prevent his work having a life of its own beyond his beliefs. Indeed, it is the strength of the Tolkien’s convictions, however objectionable, that feeds into the vividness and quality of his work. Lesser fantasy writers, motivated solely by a love for escapism, have not written anything as engaging as he did.

The Lord of the Rings should be judged on its own terms as a work of literature – and I consider it to be a masterpiece.

Read on:

Good film, shame about the book, by Ian Walker

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