The Magazine

The Standard Reader

Rereading "The Lord of the Rings"

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Tolkien, the Book
Rereading Lord of the Rings

by J. Bottum

THE ENDLESS TALK about "The Lord of the Rings" almost--almost--convinces me to see the movie. We live in the highest age of moviemaking, and J.R.R. Tolkien was unfilmable in any convincing way before computer-aided techniques came along.

But then, we also live in the lowest age of moviemaking, for current cinema lacks the capacity to convey the things Tolkien was aiming at in his--well, in his what? Novel? Saga? Fantasy? No literary word describes it, for it is less a book than a world, a place to crawl inside for a while. Maybe it's true for all children, or maybe only for children of a certain unhappy stripe, but there are moments in the huge, unmanageable waves of childhood when one needs most of all to escape. Remember that old library ad campaign Reading is FUNdamental? This is the opposite. It isn't reading for fun; it is--as the desperate boy in "David Copperfield" calls it--"reading as if for life."

The thickness of its world is the main reason "The Lord of the Rings" succeeds. Tolkien, a Cambridge scholar of ancient northern languages, managed to stir the Icelandic sagas into his dwarves, the Norse legends into his elves, the Anglo-Saxon chronicles into his men, and 1920s children's fiction (especially "The Wind in the Willows") into his hobbits--with the general idea coming mostly from William Morris and the pseudo-medievalism of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites.

It's an absurd combination that ought to collapse of its own weight, as do most other entries in the fantasy genre "The Lord of the Rings" defined. But Tolkien worked at it, all through World War II, scribbling out a dozen volumes of material (all subsequently published) he intended only as background. Though he was close to C.S. Lewis, Tolkien disdained "The Chronicles of Narnia" for their sloppiness. The consistency of Tolkien's world is what lets the reader dwell within it.

AS IT HAPPENS, Tolkien's world is an enormously sad one--although that, too, has its attractions for children reading as if for life. From the hobbits' Shire to the elves' homes in Rivendell and L rien, from the dwarves' halls in Moria to the lost kingdoms of men in Arnor and N menor, the past is always better than the present. The book is full of words like "dwindle." Powers have decayed, beauty has declined, and evening has come upon the world. Sauron's ring of evil is a device for change, and the three great elven rings that stand against it are tools only for preserving.

Still, Tolkien's characters know evil is evil, even in an age of decline, and they rouse themselves to fight against it. But their victory at the end of the book is sorrowful, with much lost in the midst of Sauron's defeat and the restoration of the old kingdom.

THERE WAS a certain class of Englishman--Tolkien's class, in fact--that went to war this way in 1939: with enormous courage, duty, noblesse oblige, and sorrow at the passing away forever of the old world.

In the foreword to a later edition of "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien raged against allegorical readings of his tale. And he's right that he didn't construct anything like the "Faerie Queene," "Animal Farm," or "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

But in another sense, the book is nothing except an allegory for the passing away of England--all England, in every age. The dwarves inhabit medieval baronies, and they are under attack. Strider, the heir of the ancient royal house, walks in the age of the Restoration. The hobbit Frodo lives in 1830, and his pre-Victorian, coach-and-inn world is threatened. The elf queen Galadriel dwells in 1913, and her Edwardian land of strawberries and cream is soon to disappear forever. Denethor, the steward of Gondor, rules the British Empire in 1939 as it begins to slip away.

But though England as Middle Earth cannot be saved, humans--and hobbits, dwarves, ents, elves, wizards, and even the twilight's dwindling gods--have a duty to fight evil. And so they gather themselves and undertake their last, great heroic quest. That is the true worth of "The Lord of the Rings" for children: It takes them in fantasy out of the real world--and then returns them in duty back to it.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts Editor of The Weekly Standard.