Reflections on Tolkien

(from a webpage for a class looking at Tolkien and medieval poetry:

Yesterday my family and I watched all three Lord of the Rings movies, pretty much end to end, though taking necessary breaks for eating walking, and discussing. The event was a a bit like an event a friend of mine used to host, where a small group listened to Wagner’s Ring cycle over a weekend, with breaks to feed, drink, and discuss. We don’t watch a lot of movies, so watching nine hours’ worth in a day was uncomfortable for us, but I’m glad we did it, and we had some good discussions over it. I think both Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s treatment of it are monumental achievements – in the same class as Wagner’s, say I, though I welcome arguments to the contrary.

It’s clear that the overarching theme of the work is “Life can be good and true (the Shire); but one has to be brave and vigilant in resisting the conquest of greed (Sauron) and inhumanity (Isengard and Mordor); and one must always have hope for redemption, even in severely tainted cases (Gollum).” Or that’s one expression of the theme, anyway. I respect the theme, and am even ready to sign the papers.

But here’s one reservation I would like to explore. The Shire represents all that is good and noble – the human life as it would be lived were it not for the eruptions of evil. But would you like to live there? A weekend, or maybe a decade, sure, but it is a pretty narrow and homogeneous place. I can’t imagine an Orc family settling in, or some lesbian Elves. It’s only a place for little white people. I guess the alternative groups need to find their own homogeneous communities, and live the life that is natural to them. So much for multiculturalism, or cosmopolitanism (which isn’t a surprise, given Tolkien’s own views). I imagine that Kleiner’s upcoming course on Tolkien and Lewis will raise this issue at some point, perhaps connecting it with MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

Of course, even Bilbo and Frodo find the Shire too confining, which is what pushes them out the door and into adventure. So maybe a better cluster of questions about the Shire has less to do with what a community should look like and more to do with the way an individual relates to tradition and community. Frodo and Sam need the Shire as a touchstone to who they are, where they’re from, even if they are not going back or find themselves unable to return. They take turns reminding one another of the Shire in their darkest hours, when they begin to despair or lose direction. One might well ask whether they could have completed the quest if they hadn’t had the Shire at their origin; I think they couldn’t have.

The LotR story is also refreshing in its treatment of villains. Yes, Sauron dies and thousands of orcs are slaughtered. But several are spared: Wormtongue, Saruman, and Denethor (who dies either accidentally or by suicide). It says something about us that our movies neglect to kill a baddie only when there’s the promise for a sequel. Gollum, of course, is spared many times, usually because Frodo needs to be able to hope for Gollum’s recovery, and because he is heeding Gandalf’s advice about not being so eager in determining who should live and who should die. There is some good humanity in that.

I have enjoyed thinking through these these and questions, but I don’t think I’ll need to see these films again for a good long while. And my family seems happy to hear it!

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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11 Responses to Reflections on Tolkien

  1. Kleiner says:

    I quite agree that Sam and Frodo need the Shire, for all of the reasons you explain here. But it is not clear that Sam finds the Shire confining at all, and it is certainly not as confining to Samwise as it was for Bilbo. Bilbo has the most wanderlust of the three, and it is worth noting that he is by far the least happy of the three. Part of his unhappiness seems related to his inability to be at home in his world. He “does not know the place he should occupy” (Pascal).

    Frodo does not have the wanderlust of Bilbo, but he also is unable to be at home after his adventure. Once back at the Shire after the adventure, there is a sadness about Frodo. He has done a noble deed, but it has broken him.

    Samwise is the happiest character. I would argue, in fact, that he and not Frodo is the hero of the story. Samwise is very briefly tempted by the ring, but he does not succumb. He is the only one to ever carry the ring to show no ill effects from having done so. (I have a lot to say about this, but won’t say it here.) Anyway, having been a ring bearer, Frodo has a sadness to him and he cannot return happily to the Shire. Samwise has also done a noble deed, but has not been broken by it. He can return home again, and unlike Frodo (or unlike Odysseus, etc etc), Samwise is able to return to his “proper place”.

    Anyway, I think you are right that Tolkien and middle earth are not cosmopolitan. The exception is the fellowship of the ring, where various different traditions are able to enter into a shared community (the condition of the possibility of which is an end greater than any one tradition). But, for the most part, those that are not at home in their tradition have a kind of sadness about them.


  2. Huenemann says:

    It’s been too long since I’ve read The Hobbit – was Bilbo unsatisfied before his adventure? I am wondering whether the quests change Bilbo and Frodo in such ways as to no longer be satisfied with the Shire. If so, then Sam’s happiness is based on his steadfastness: the extraordinary adventure hasn’t really changed him, except perhaps to make him a bit more confident.

    I like Sam a lot, but I can’t see him as the hero of the story, precisely *because* he doesn’t change significantly.


  3. Kleiner says:

    If you had said you did not like Sam, I would have thought you were a really bad person yourself! 🙂

    It has been a while since I read the Hobbit too. But as I recall it, Bilbo gets swept up in the adventure but is not particularly interested in it to start. Later, with his wanderlust, he seems more interested in the idea of the adventures and the idea of himself as being a great adventurer. But his idea of himself far exceeds the reality. At the end of the Hobbit, Bilbo is boasting about how grand he is thanks to having played a part in a prophecy. I love Gandalf’s correction:
    “‘Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.'”

    But Bilbo never really gets over himself. His adventures, from his point of view, have nothing to do with some noble deed or higher purpose. Even the ring, for him, is a parlor trick. Bilbo, I think, falls into a pit of himself and has a dreadfully hard time getting out (see Gollum for the end of that game). Bilbo needs adventure as an unhappy man needs diversions (Pascal nails this in his Pensees). For Bilbo, his adventures were always for his own sake. Frodo is not like this, he does not want the adventure but is willing to risk himself for a great and necessary deed. When Frodo is faced with the great task, he responds with something like Mary’s fiat – tell me what must be done and I will do it.

    I just reread the first few pages of the Hobbit to see what I could find. “This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbor’s respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

    And it notes that Bilbo, at the age of fifty or so, had “apparently settled down immovably.” When Gandalf offers him adventure he is uninterested, remarking that such things “make you late for dinner.” One, then, gets the sense that Bilbo was satisfied prior to his adventure. And he is deeply unsatisfied after it. He does not even have the satisfaction of the broken Frodo, for Frodo did a great deed for the sake of others.

    Must one change to be heroic? Why should we think that? Sam’s happiness, I think, comes from him being able to be what he is. It is all quite Aristotelian, I think (flourishing found in the excellent living out of one’s “ergon”). The odd thing about the little hobbits is that their ergon, combined as it is with their humble and simple ways, makes them uniquely able to carry out great deeds. Yes, Frodo is broken by the great deed, but not so broken as a man would have been. Gandalf is offered the ring but knows he cannot bear it without succumbing to the temptation. It is the meek and mild who are, most surprisingly, the greatest. Samwise, being the meekest and the mildest, is then in some sense the greatest. Samwise’s identity is servant, and this makes him specially immune to the temptations of power.


  4. Mike says:

    I don’t entirely agree that Tolkien has no room for multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism. There is definitely that strain there (and yeah, Orcs seem irredeemable by birth) but also there’s the inter-racial love stories, Aragorn and Arwen (Beren and Luthien) as well as Gimli’s interest in Galadriel. Also just generally a more thorough character study of Gandalf and Aragorn might be in order here.

    Also I don’t necessarily think The Shire is supposed to be the overall best of middle earth, moreso I think the story is supposed to have a tint of being written by someone from the Shire, a Shire-ish perspective (“There and Back Again” — Bilbo’s book). And on my reading man gets the worst narrative of the bunch (well, other than orcs, goblins and the like) and this is how it should be.

    Incidentally, when I read this story my first thought was “oh no, someone woke a Balrog”.


  5. Huenemann says:

    Mike, you’re right about the interspecies parts of the book. Jeannine also reminded me of Gimli’s deep friendship with Legolas (or “poor Lego-less,” as he’s called in our house). And maybe you’re right that Tolkien told the story mainly from a Shire or hobbit perspective because it was the one he and his readers would most easily access. You’ve given me more to think about here. And, yes, I like “Balrog” as an explanation for the booms in Wisconsin much better than my own explanation, which had to do with Area 51.

    Kleiner, what you say about hobbits and Sam is persuasive, but I still can’t see Sam as the principal hero of the story. Admittedly, the only reason I have for thinking the hero must change is that it makes for a better story that way. The characters I am most interested in — Gollum, Gandalf, and Frodo — change a lot, and of them Frodo seems most squarely at the focus of the story. But I feel silly insisting on there being just one hero, and I think Sam is interesting as well, for the virtue of his steadfast character.


    • Kleiner says:

      I did not mean to insist that there is only one hero either. There are, of course, many. My pushing on Sam comes, I am sure, from my view that LOR is at bottom a very Christian story.


      • Mike says:

        I think Tolkien wasn’t too fond of people trying to interpret the story as allegory. (Short Interview with JRR and Christopher.)

        So I don’t know quite what you mean by saying “LOR is at bottom a very Christian story”, sounds reductionist. If all you mean is that Tolkien would have considered both the Christian story and his own story “true myths” then that seems likely to me as well.

        I like the whole “escape of the prisoner” rather than the “flight of the deserter” narrative in that clip.


      • Kleiner says:

        Tolkien’s aversion to allegory is well known. I don’t think the LOR is an allegory (a telling of a story through another story). I rather mean to say that the world Tolkien created is deeply imbued with the values of Christian humanism. Tolkien once said that God is everywhere in the Lord of the Rings, though only most obviously as IIluvatar or “All-Father” (see the first line of the Silmarillion).
        Tolkien: “I think many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”


      • Mike says:

        The added subtlety makes sense of it to me. Thanks.


  6. Susan Stewart Rich says:

    It was a “requirement” to read the Lord of the Rings before I married my spouse Ben. His family has read them collectively hundreds of times. They thought the movies deviated, in certain parts, greatly from the books. For example, my father-in-law was annoyed that Tom Bombadil was not in the movies, as he is the only one completely unaffected by the ring. Others complained that Aragorn/Strider was too conflicted and that in the book he is much more confident – a wholly different man. And the parts depicting Arwen and Aragorn in the movies were virtually absent from the book. I read the series only once (quickly), and felt the movies captured the spirit of the book well.

    As for the homogeneousness of the Shire, it never crossed my mind but I see your point. Frodo does not seem to find it rehabilitating and ultimately leaves, sailing with Gandalf and Bilbo to the Undying Lands to find peace. And although I don’t recall it from my read, I believe Sam also leaves the Shire.

    And a random question for you Dr. Huenemann: what is the best book you can recommend on the art of writing?


  7. Huenemann says:

    Hi, Susan – thanks for your comments. Did you also have a requirement for Ben to meet? Reading Plato’s dialogues maybe?

    I don’t have any books to recommend on the art of writing – just haven’t run across any. Sorry!


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