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The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien

"The Lord of The Rings" trilogy is one of the few works of genius in modern literature.

J.R.R. Tolkien enjoying a pipe in his study at Merton College, Oxford. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

One year ago, when the first volume of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was published, an Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature cast a spell over the readers who ventured within the world of his creation. It was a haunting and ennobling world, held together by inner tension, and so the spell lasted while the fate of his world remained in doubt. For months the concluding volume was delayed while Professor Tolkien labored with a formidable index listing the lineage of his characters, the origin and pronunciation of their languages, and other footnotes from the Red Book of Westmarch, the source of his tale. Now the last volume, The Return of the King, is published, and so his readers may return from the fantastic to the commonplace.

Tolkien’s trilogy is fantasy, but it stems of course from Tolkien’s own experiences and believes. There are scenes of devastation that recall his memories of the Western Front where he fought in the First World War. The description of a snowstorm in a high pass is drawn from a mountain climbing trip in Switzerland. And through the descriptions of life in Hobbiton and Bywater runs his own bemused love of the English and his scorn for the ugliness of the industrial surroundings in which they live. But Tolkien shuns satire as frivolous and allegory as tendentious. His preparation is immersion in Welsh, Norse, Gaelic, Scandinavian, and Germanic folklore.

The Hobbit, the earliest of Professor Tolkien’s selections from the Red Book, was first published in 1937, and I mention it because it forms a prologue to Tolkien’s major work. It is the account of his adventures written by a well-to-do Hobbit; Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. There comes to Bilbo’s door one morning a wandering wizard (Gandalf) and thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, the descendent of dwarf kings.

They are bent on recovering the dwarf hoards stolen from Thorin’s ancestors, and Bilbo to his lasting astonishment joins them. Trolls capture the band and almost roast them; goblins pursue them; giant spiders enmesh them in saliva; an elf king imprisons them; after the treasure is recaptured from a dragon’s lair there remains the Battle of the Five Armies in which Thorin is killed. At last Bilbo, decked out in armor, and laden with jewels, returns to the Shire, somewhat to the annoyance of his fellow Hobbits who have declared him dead and are preparing to auction off his well-worn furniture.

The Hobbit is a classical fairy story. As such it might well have earned its place on the nursery shelf and been forgotten. But the ending is incomplete, thanks to a minor encounter of Biblo’s whose significance was not clear to Professor Tolkien at the time. Bilbo, crawling alone through dark goblin mines, finds and pockets a small gold ring. Slipped on his finger it makes him invisible and thereby saves him when he is attacked by Gollum, a creature who lives in an underground lake catching blind fish and eating them raw. The ring serves further to hide Bilbo from his enemies but arouses no great interest among his companions. Once back in the Shire he mentions it only to the wizard Gandalf, and to Frodo his nephew and heir. And yet the story is not concluded. For at its end the little householder remains in possession of something beyond the comprehension of Bilbo and the story teller: the ring.

The ring confers power on its bearer. Power unmatched by responsibility corrupts and therefore is potentially evil. The power conferred by the ring is without parallel. Therefore its capacity to work evil is unlimited. In the presence of limited good, and of corruptible man, what is the responsibility of the ring-bearer? Is it to use present evil on behalf of present good and thereby to ensure the continuation of evil? Or is it to deny present gain in an effort to destroy evil itself? The question forced itself upon Tolkien over a period of 14 years of warfare, and forms the theme of three books of The Lord of The Rings.

Like The Hobbit, the trilogy is a fairy story; it deals in a world of its own, without resort to traveller’s tales or to dreams. It contains the four elements which Professor Tolkien maintains are characteristic of fairy stories: Fantasy (the purest of art forms), Escape (from oppressive and meaningless detail), Recovery (of true perspective), and Consolation (the joy of the happy ending).

Beyond these common attributes however, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stand in sharp contrast. The Hobbit is a fairy tale for children, simplified in thought and language, restricted in scope, jocular and sometimes patronizing in style. As such it is limited, for as Tolkien himself maintains: “All children’s books are on a strict judgment poor books. Books written entirely for children are poor even as children’s books.” The Lord of the Rings in contrast is a fairy tale written for adults. The language is richer, the characters deeper, the plot grander; the final triumph of good is cast in doubt; the participants are extended to include “those darker things which lurked only on the borders of the earlier tale.”

Forty-nine years after Bilbo’s return, the Hobbits still of their contented ways, as the first book of The Lord of the Rings opens, unaware of the mounting evil beyond the Shire’s narrow borders. Orcs—a new kind of goblin—are multiplying in the mountains; trolls are abroad armed with dreadful weapons; there are other creatures far more terrible and over all of them is Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. Of the twelve Great Rings of Power, all but three have returned to Sauron; one only, the Lord of the Rings, remains for the moment, beyond his grasp. Sauron is searching for the ring, and all his thoughts are bent upon it. If he regains it his domination of Middle Earth will be final and absolute.

All this is the secret information which Gandalf, after twelve years of search and travels, returns by night to tell Frodo. For, thanks to Bilbo’s inheritance, the harmless young Hobbit is now in possession of the Lord of the Rings.

Frodo, appalled, attempts to pass the ring to Gandalf. But Gandalf knows that those who possess the ring end by being possessed. And, while he is tempted by power his spirit is one of “pity for weakness, and the desire of strength to do good.” So he refuses the responsibility. No time is left, for Sauron is closing in on the Shire. Frodo flees to save his homeland, taking the ring and followed by three companions, while Gandalf goes his own way towards their next meeting place. Stone barrow-wights encase the Hobbits; ringwraiths, slaves of Sauron, pursue them and wound Frodo. He makes mistake after mistake and survives only though his own bravery or by the intervention of some unexpected force of good. Strider, a ranger sent by Gandalf, guides him and so at last Frodo reaches Rivendell.

In Rivendell, the Council of Elrond is held and the decision is made to attempt the destruction of the Ring. But this, ancient folklore asserts, can be accomplished only by casting the ring into the fire mountain that rises in Mordor, the fortress of the enemy. The one who will bear it there must be chosen and after a long silence Frodo whispers, “I will take the ring though I do not know the way.” Next from the Free Peoples a fellowship is formed to help the ring-bearer: a man, Boromir, the three Hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, Gandalf, and Strider, now revealed as Aragorn, heir of the ancient Kings of the West.

The Fellowship sets out by a hunter’s moon and passes through increasing peril. A snowstorm drives them into Mines of Moria where Gandalf in battle with a dreadful spirit of the underworld vanishes into an abyss. Aragorn leads the company on to the enchanted beauty of Lothlorien. There no shadow lies, but the reluctant Fellowship moves on. Soon they are surrounded by orcs and still worse the ring begins to work its evil among them. For the unconquered cities around Mordor are under attack from Sauron, and when Boromir realizes that Frodo will not be diverted to their defense, he attempts in a moment of madness to seize the ring. Then, at the end of the first volume, Frodo realizes that he must continue alone. He slips on the ring and escapes followed only by his gardener, Sam.

So the Fellowship is broken. Aragorn aided by Gandalf, now returned from the dead, leads the company in desperate battles against the present forces of Sauron. Frodo, battling evil itself, is lost with Sam on the barren slopes of the Emyn Muil. There Gollum, who once held the ring, overtakes and plots to kill them. Frodo, instead is empowered to kill Gollum, but he remembers his own protest to Gandalf and Gandalf’s answer:

“What a pity Bilbo did not stab the vile creature when he had a chance.”

“Pity? It was a Pity that stayed his hand.”

“I do not feel any pity for Gollum. He deserves death.”

“Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of Justice ... even the wise cannot see all ends.”

So Gollum is spared, to guide Frodo and then betray him. Thus as the second volume closes, Sam is forced to abandon his master and, bearing the ring, move on to Mordor alone.

But Frodo survives, and in the third volume while the Fellowship wages a climactic battle to occupy the attention of Sauron, he accomplishes the impossible. The battle is won, the wounded remain, beyond hope of healing. But folklore proclaims: The hands of the King are the hands of a healer and so shall the rightful King be known. Aragorn returns from the battle and by healing earns his place as King. The Fellowship is reunited and parts in peace. The new age begins.

Its promise exceeds the wildest hopes of the heroes. But it is not for all to enjoy. “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire too after all you have done,” cries Sam to Frodo whose old wound will not heal.

So I thought once too [Frodo answers]. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must be often so Sam when things are in danger someone has to give them up, to lose them so that others may keep them.

So Frodo departs, leaving Sam to raise a family and the reader to reflect on the meaning of Tolkien’s tale.

And of course it contains meaning. The Lord of The Rings is primarily story telling, but the universality and the timeliness of its plot give to it allegorical significance.

It is the struggle of good and evil that Tolkien sets apart, through fantasy, from superficial detail. Evil in the form of Sauron, is man’s rebellion against Providence, his attempt to become the lord of a world he did not make. For he who starts by forcing his will upon others, ends by destroying everything that he touches. Gollum is also evil, but not beyond redemption. He is the servant of power, spared out of pity in order that the compassion of the Hobbits may enable them to surmount the insurmountable. For evil is matched and overcome not by superior power, but by the determination and the goodness of ordinary beings, ennobles by the assumption of burdens beyond their capacity to bear. Gandalf is brilliant and Aragorn brave, but Frodo’s is the decisive will. And yet for all his achievements, Frodo remains unchanged. For Tolkien’s purpose is not that Hobbits should cease to be Hobbits; it is simply that they should understand and give their best.

Gandalf is the instrument of Providence, but a strange sort of instrument. His power is limited and less than Sauron’s; his interventions are decisive but rare; frequently he is absent when he is most needed. He is forbidden to dominate. For in the First and Second Ages of Tolkien’s world, the gods interfered in man’s fate and so obscured it. In the Third Age their emissary is present, but as a helper only. The Age ends with the destruction of the ring, and the time of man’s dominion begins. So when Frodo and the High Kindred, whose time has also passed, step into the ship that bears them to the Grey Havens, Gandalf is also on board.

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say The Green Sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough.... To make a secondary world inside the Green Sun will be credible commanding Secondary Belief will demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted, and in any degree accomplished, then we have a rare achievement of Art... indeed story telling in its primary and most potent mode - Tolkien

This standard, set by Tolkien in his contribution to the Essays Presented to Charles Williams, is met in his own work. He possesses elvish craft. He adds to it the scholar’s perspective and the humanist’s faith. And yet he never allows the magical balance of mystery and perception to be lost. For reasons his world of fantasy is more gripping than the events that occur next door, say at Ten North Frederick. For Tolkien’s fantasy does not obscure, but illuminates the inner consistency of reality. There are very few works of genius in recent literature.

This is one.