The Wall Street Journal publishes a weekly article entitled “Masterpiece”, featuring iconic visual art, music, film, architecture, literature, and poetry, but I’ve yet to see J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in that space. Maybe because it’s a too-familiar storyline: a world besieged by a superhuman power, with whom a weak-seeming company contends. The company displays surprising talents and tactics, and after many miseries, the world is made right.
Apart from being the first of its kind in the modern era, what claim can such a story have on a pretension to serious literature, much less a masterpiece? Moreover, Tolkien employs an archaic compositional style, and gets sidetracked with myth spinning, history lessons, and song-singing, not to mention an insidious thread of virtue, and a celebration of culture, tradition, and hierarchy at odds with the zeitgeist of the modern world.
At its core, The Lord of the Rings is nothing like its fantasy clones, because its roots go much deeper, they drink from eternal truths, without offering simplistic, trendy, or treacly answers. Starting with the Ring itself, a symbol of human obsession that represents the small and enormous, obvious and invisible, fleeting and ingrained obsessions that plague every one of us. Ours may not be rings of great power; rather, the things and behaviors that tug on us and draw us like magnets. Like Bilbo after his birthday party when the Ring he’s supposed to leave for Frodo finds its way into his pocket, we can be oblivious to these obsessions, or we explain or excuse them away.
In the course of the book, we meet a number of characters who fall under the sway of the Ring: Isuldur, Smeagol, Bilbo, Boromir, Frodo, even the stalwart Sam. As do many of the obsessions we experience, the Ring promises much, but delivers misery. In Gollum, we see the fruits of long-term possession of the Ring—terrible to behold, though it’s even worse to witness its creeping hold on Bilbo and Frodo.
Oddly, the Ring holds no attraction for Tom Bombadil, a distracting character to readers more interested in the main thing. Who are Tom and Goldberry? We don’t know, but we know they are mighty beings. As dire as things are, Tom is seemingly unaffected by the strife and chaos of Middle Earth, while deeply connected to the living world that borders his home. Even when aroused, as when Tom frees the hobbits from the barrow, the rescue is provoked by the singing of a song:
Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood, and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun, and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!
Tom has no use for rings of power and they affect him not in the least. Would a final victory by Sauron rouse him, drive him off, destroy him? We can only guess, though None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master; His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
Peter Kreeft, Joseph Pearce, and others have explored the persistent theme of immortality in The Lord of the Rings. Though the elves don’t age or die natural deaths, they can be killed, and their agelessness produces weariness with the physical world to which they are nonetheless bound in a way mortal creatures cannot comprehend. Warring “cousins”: Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron, are immortal—angelic beings, Gandalf heroically and freely accepts human limitations to save the people of Middle Earth, while Saruman and Sauron abuse freedom by seeking to enslave. The Ringwraiths were mortal chieftains duped into a sham immortality that turns out to be miserable enslavement. Ironically, the mortal, provincial hobbits are best suited to bear the burdensome Ring, not angelic beings like Gandalf and Saruman, or deathless elves like Galadriel and Elrond. Tolkien’s message: mortality and immortality alike offer life-defining choices between virtue and vice, freedom and slavery, creation and destruction.
Departures are among life’s most prominent mysteries, and profound departures are depicted in The Lord of the Rings: departure into the mystery of new dimensions, and maybe a larger life, for those who embark from the Havens; departure into the mystery of mortality when Aragorn goes willingly to his death; departure into mysterious desolation when Arwen retires into an abandoned Lothlorien after Aragorn’s death; in the poignant mystery of the departure of the entwives—gone for ages but never forgotten by the ents. Tolkien doesn’t settle for a “happily ever after” where departures are ignored, left untold, or serve as mere plot devices. In The Lord of the Rings, departures are intended to provoke us to ponder those we ourselves experience.
Friendships—too many to mention, unconventional and unexpected, sacrificial and trusting, in ways that transcend rational thinking, as when Faramir trusts Frodo to go into Mordor with the Ring. Tolkien doesn’t lecture us on diversity and tolerance, because he’s interested in solidarity, where physical and cultural differences between races and cultures are far less important than trusting, abiding friendships. Don’t we yearn for friendships like these, and don’t such friendships ennoble us when we experience them?
Culture, tradition, and hierarchy may be at odds with the zeitgeist of the modern world, but they are at the core of The Lord of the Rings, not proceeding from a hidebound or reactionary conservatism, but by Tolkien’s anticipation of political philosopher Roger Scruton’s observation: “that good things are more easily destroyed than created”.
Tolkien keeps so many of these “good things” alive for us in his majestic saga. That’s why The Lord of the Rings is more than just a rousing story, it’s a masterpiece.