Winter 2004

Society and Culture

The Ring of Truth?

Donald R. Hornsby

J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has enabled millions of fans to escape through the hobbit hole to a magical world where the forces of darkness and light are clearly defined. But then there’s the inevitable return trip to reality.

In the early 1930s, J.R.R. Tolkien found himself just a little bored one day. He was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College in Oxford, and on this particular occasion he was immersed in the tedious task of grading examination papers. While fond of his students, Tolkien was not overly enamored with this mundane aspect of his responsibilities. His real passion lay in another realm and another time.

Daydreaming, he came upon a blank sheet in a student’s examination notebook. For reasons that he never could explain, he wrote on it a short but peculiar sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” 

Countless readers will recognize these words as the opening line of a book introducing readers to the realm Tolkien called Middle-earth, a land populated with wizards, warriors and kings. He couldn’t have known at the time, of course, that his “hole in the ground” would become a door to an entirely new world to which millions would long to travel—a world rich in detail and vivid in the minds of readers.

Tolkien’s writings about that imaginary world captivated succeeding generations like few books had ever done. Borrowing from ancient literature and mythology, he gave life to his own brand of elves, dwarves, fairies, goblins and trolls, and to some new creatures he called “hobbits.” This latter race of small people became the core of the story as they attempted to save their world from the ultimate evil. The Hobbit (1937) led to a much longer and more complex story, the widely acclaimed Lord of the Rings, published in the 1950s as a trilogy.

The response to Tolkien’s work has been nothing short of astonishing. In fact, it would be accurate to label it a cultural phenomenon. Even 30 years after the author’s death in 1973, his books are hugely popular. According to Time  magazine, 11 million copies were sold in 2001 in the United States alone. Sales worldwide approach a staggering 50 million copies, thanks in large part to the enormous success of the movie trilogy based on them. The first movie was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and brought in over $860 million worldwide at the box office. The second was also hugely successful. And at the time of this writing, fans are flocking to theaters to see the final installment, which many anticipate will surpass the first two.

As a result of his stories, Tolkien is credited with helping to create the literary genre known as fantasy. The incredible success of his books, however (including the movies and other products based on them), has also led to debate over the importance and merit of his work.

During his lifetime, Tolkien’s vision was not without its admirers. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s close friend and fellow member of a literary group known as the Inklings (see “J.R.R. Tolkien: Speaker of Footnotes” ), was impressed with the sweeping scope of the epic story of good against evil. While he was concerned about the length of the volume, it was clear to Lewis and others that Tolkien had fashioned a story that was able to transport readers to another time.

Because he had already imagined the history that led up to the events in the books, Tolkien’s narrative has unusual depth. As a devout Roman Catholic, he believed in a higher power that controlled universal outcomes in times of crisis. He was also familiar with mysticism as taught and practiced in the Catholic culture. Not surprisingly, Tolkien’s characters reveal a sense of higher purpose in all their adventures.

In fact, in the final paragraphs of The Hobbit, the wizard Gandalf discusses this with the weary Bilbo Baggins. After Bilbo questions the validity of the ancient prophecies of his day, Gandalf gently chastises the little hobbit: “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!” In the end, the hobbit realizes that he is just a small part of a larger plan.

Middle-earth is vivid in the minds of generations who would love to escape to its borders—in part, perhaps, because in Tolkien’s world, there seems to be a clear line between good and evil.

This somewhat mystical belief that all is done as part of a greater plan as orchestrated by some higher power has captured the imagination of many around the world. Tolkien’s prose and poetry seem to have the power to transform the imaginary into reality. Middle-earth is vivid in the minds of generations who would love to escape to its borders—in part, perhaps, because in Tolkien’s world there seems to be a clear line between good and evil. There is a definite delineation between the dark and the light.

Since their appearance in the 1950s, Tolkien’s books have inspired readers to see parallels between events in the story and the real world. While the books became fairly popular when they were first published, it wasn’t until the mid-’60s that a new generation began to identify strongly with his alternative world. The counterculture of the time believed that Tolkien was speaking of their era and the problems that faced them. They adopted his description of the peace-loving hobbits living in the pastoral Shire as a sort of personal creed, and they elevated Frodo, the main hobbit character of The Lord of the Rings, to the cultlike status of an antihero or even an antimessiah. He embodied one who was taking on a noble quest at the risk of being misunderstood and unappreciated. His journey was a dangerous one that could cost him his life. Many of the disillusioned young people of the ’60s identified with him as he carried his heavy burden in a world that was falling apart around him.

Early champions of environmental causes were also pleased with Tolkien’s narratives about the destruction of an overindustrialized city known as Isengard. Having the city destroyed by treelike creatures called Ents heightened their appreciation.

Peter S. Beagle, another author of fantasy novels, sums up his thoughts as to why the baby-boomer generation of the ’60s embraced Tolkien’s work so enthusiastically: “I’ve never thought it an accident that Tolkien’s works waited more than ten years to explode into popularity almost overnight. . . . The Sixties were the time when the word progress lost its ancient holiness, and escape stopped being comically obscene. The impulse is being called reactionary now, but lovers of Middle-earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot” (from the introduction to the paperback edition of The Hobbit, 1973).

The magical world of Middle-earth offered an alternative to an era shaken by Vietnam, racial protests, political upheaval, the specter of the Cold War, and an uncertain future. 

Beagle, himself a product of that era, reveals what many felt during that turbulent time. The magical world of Middle-earth offered an alternative to an era shaken by Vietnam, racial protests, political upheaval, the specter of the Cold War, and an uncertain future. Those who wanted to escape felt they could do so within the pages of The Lord of the Rings. Some read the books in an LSD- or other drug-induced haze. Visiting Middle-earth was the dream of millions of impressionable young people. As a result, Tolkien’s work became part of the lexicon of the counterculture. There was some talk at the time that the Beatles, themselves major cultural icons, would have liked to produce their own film version of The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, references to Middle-earth characters and places began showing up in popular rock music and literature produced at the time.

Just Stories

By all accounts, Tolkien was not amused at the cult status that he and his work achieved. He was also not pleased to learn what others were reading into his books. Author George Sayer recalled that Tolkien feared that there were those who would “treat it as an allegory or morality about the nuclear bomb or the horrors of the machine age.” To Tolkien, his stories were just meant to be stories without any further meaning. He did not wish for anyone to read more into the narrative than he intended.

He wrote to a friend in the autumn of 1971 that he had created the work essentially as “an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief.’ It was written slowly and with great care for detail, and finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.”

In other letters, he insisted that there were no hidden meanings or transparent purposes in his work. Tolkien said he was “puzzled, and indeed sometimes irritated, by many of the guesses at the ‘sources’ of the nomenclature, and theories, or fancies concerning hidden meanings.” He wrote, “There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story. Allegory of the sort ‘five wizards=five senses’ is wholly foreign to my way of thinking.”

It is nearly impossible, however, for any reader to overlook the religious allusions that are seamlessly written into the narrative. If Tolkien did not wish to have any hidden meaning assigned to his vision, he did intend for it to work within a particular religious framework. In fact, Tolkien admitted that The Lord of the Rings  was “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults and practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

Tolkien was so masterful in his blending of Catholic and mythological elements that readers are often unaware of the associations behind the words. While some could identify the elf queen Galadriel as a Mary-like figure, they may not recognize the symbolism in the elven bread called lembas (Eucharist) or the wizard Gandalf’s death and return (a Christlike resurrection). Many readers may be surprised at the extent of the religious overtones in the stories. The author, while not wanting people to read into his stories more than was intended, did intend the books to be deeper than fairy tales.

Tolkien was so masterful in his blending of Catholic and mythological elements that readers are often unaware of the associations behind the words.

Catholic writer Charles A. Coulombe believes that Tolkien’s work needs to be studied from the Catholic point of view. “This being so,” he writes, “it will be necessary to describe a little of the uniquely Catholic world-view. [In short,] it is a sacramental one. At the heart of all Catholic life is a miracle, a mystery, the Blessed Sacrament. Surrounded traditionally by ritual and awe, it has been the formative aspect of Catholic art, drama, and poetry.”

Coulombe calls The Lord of the Rings “this age’s great Catholic epic, fit to stand beside the Grail legends, Le Morte D’Arthur, and The Canterbury Tales.” He goes on to say that Tolkien’s work is “a tribute to the enduring power and greatness of the Catholic tradition.”

Escape Route

The debate over what Tolkien meant by his stories continued up to the author’s death in 1973. Since that time, primarily as a result of the successful release of the movies, The Lord of the Rings has gained a new generation of fans and converts. And like their parents (or grandparents) before them, they have found their own meanings in them.

Why did Tolkien’s writings survive and thrive over the decades and speak to each new generation? Perhaps the readers identify all too well with the hero, or antihero, that Tolkien created. Frodo is a small, frail and weak creature who finds himself up against a frightening and dangerous world dominated by powers much greater than he.

It isn’t hard to feel that way in our modern world. While real-life antagonists may not take on the shape of wizards and mystical beings, they can be just as threatening: economic trends haunt us with uncertainty about our jobs; political winds of change bring wars on the international front and insecurity on the home front; and disease epidemics appear seemingly out of nowhere and spread around the globe with frightening speed.

The idyllic setting and peace-loving inhabitants of the Shire of Middle-earth offer readers an escape. Perhaps Tolkien’s fans seek an imaginary time and place where things are less ambivalent and decisions are clear-cut. By finding respite in the prose of an eloquent writer, some may gain a renewed strength and courage to face the problems of daily life.

The fantasy world that Tolkien gave us can serve good ends, but it is obviously not a permanent solution to the difficulties we face. Any temporary escape from reality is quickly shattered when the book is put down or the movie reel stops.

J.R.R. Tolkien was very skilled in creating a richly detailed world on paper. To many readers of The Lord of the Rings, the bold world of Middle-earth exists in a reality that parallels the past. But the truth is that the realm of Middle-earth does not exist. It has never existed. Its characters and places owe their being to the fables of one man who crafted them out of his fertile imagination. And that imagination was fed from the deep roots of mythology and religious mysticism, sources that left reality behind long ago.

Is there a way to constantly live with the peace of mind offered in the world of Middle-earth? Can we in the real world find clear delineation between right and wrong and the courage to choose correctly between the two? Can we successfully stand up to the seemingly overpowering forces of evil and danger that cast a spell on today’s world?

Stories such as Tolkien’s can inspire us to that end, but an effective solution has to be based in reality, not fantasy. The source of that reality is a book that enabled Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis also to achieve great literary fame. It is a book that has survived across not only generations but millennia. It is, of course, the Bible. It contains values and truths that have been time tested, and it continues to provide a solid foundation from which to face an uncertain and dangerous world.