The distinguished literary critic Irving Howe observed, many years ago, that modern Americans resemble mushrooms. We grow only in the dark. Unlike our ancestors, we receive and interpret the world, not in light of the written word, but in a darkened room before a flickering screen. For all its many virtues -- emotional immediacy being perhaps chief -- film remains an essentially passive medium. Movies do most of our mental labor for us. Even the most thought-provoking cinematic work relies on images that have been formed without our effort. An utterly ephemeral book, by contrast, demands an active engagement of the mind. It requires us to co-create a world that is conjured by words. I find it all the more remarkable, therefore, that the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien should still command such a large readership.
The Lord of the Rings is a massive epic fantasy of more than half a million words. It is also a hugely complex work, having its own complicated chronology, cosmogony, geography, nomenclature, and multiple languages -- including two forms of elvish, Quenya and Sindarin. The plot is so grand, moreover, that it casts backward to the formation of first things, while also glancing forward to the end of time. How could such a huge and learned work -- written by an obscure Oxford philologist -- have become an undisputed classic?
The answer has to do with Tolkien's central characters. They are humanoid creatures called hobbits, and their unlikely hero has the decidedly unheroic name of Frodo. During the 1960's, so many American youths were drawn to these diminutive creatures that Tolkien became something of a cult figure. "Frodo Lives" was a popular graffito of the time. T-shirts declared that "Tolkien is Hobbit-Forming." It must be admitted that there was something escapist about this hobbit-habit. Perplexed by our nation's carnage in Vietnam and by the ultimate threat of a nuclear inferno, a whole generation of young Americans could lose themselves and their troubles in the intricacies of this triple-decker epic. Indeed, the rumor got about -- a wish seeking its fulfillment, no doubt -- that Tolkien had composed The Lord of the Rings under the influence of drugs.
Yet Tolkien's grand book has outlasted its cult-status. The Lord of the Rings is an undeniable classic: a work which invites repeated readings without exhausting its potential to deepen and define our moral and spiritual lives. Young and old alike keep returning to these big books for both wisdom and delight. True fantasy, Tolkien declared in his 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories," is escapist in the good sense: it enables us to flee into reality. The strange new world of hobbits and elves and ents frees us from bondage to the pseudo-reality that most of us inhabit: a world deadened by bleary familiarity. Fantasy helps us recover an enlivened sense of wonder, Tolkien observed in this same essay, about such ordinary things "as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."
Despite the eucharistic hint, Tolkien's work is not self-evidently Christian. As C. S. Lewis observed upon its first publication, the Ring epic is imbued with "a profound melancholy." The ending is tearfully sad. Frodo is exhausted by his long quest to destroy the Ring of coercive power that had been fashioned by the monster Sauron. Though the victory has been won, Frodo cannot enjoy its fruits. And so he sails away to the elven realm, leaving his companions behind. Sauron and his minions of evil may have been defeated, but the triumph is only temporary. Evil will reconstitute itself in some alarming new form, and the free creatures of Middle Earth will have to fight it yet again.
The word "doom" -- in its Anglo-Saxon meaning of damning judgment as well as final fate in ruin and death -- pulses like a funereal drumbeat throughout the entire work. Toward the end of Volume I, the elf Legolas offers a doom-centered vision of the world. It sounds very much like an elvish and Heraclitean version of entropy. "To find and lose," says Legolas, is the destiny "of those whose boat is on the running stream.... The passing seasons are but ripples in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last." Though elves are so long-lived that they seem immortal to humans and hobbits, the tides of time will sweep even them away. A deeply pagan pessimism thus pervades all three of the Ring books.
Yet it is a mistake, I believe, to read Tolkien's work as sub-Christian. Not by happenstance was Tolkien the finest Beowulf scholar of his day. His thesis about the Anglo-Saxon epic may also be applied to his own fiction. Beowulf is a pagan work, Tolkien argued, exalting the great Northern and heathen virtue of unyielding, indomitable will in the face of sure and hopeless defeat. Yet it was probably written by a Christian, Tolkien contended, who infused it with Christian concerns: "The author of Beowulf showed forth the permanent value of that pietas which treasures the memory of man's struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned." So does The Lord of the Rings recount a pre-biblical period of the earth's ancient history -- where there are no Chosen People, no Incarnation, no religion at all -- yet from a point of view that is distinctively Christian.
There is little that is Christian about The Hobbit, Tolkien's first fantasy work, published in 1937. It is a standard quest-story about the seeking and the finding of a tremendous treasure, a delightful "there and back again" tale concerning the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. But by the time he published The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955, Tolkien had deepened and widened his vision, especially concerning the nature of heroism. The Hobbits prove to be perennially attractive characters because they are very unconventional heroes. They are not tragic and death-defying warriors like Ajax or Achilles or Beowulf; they are frail and comic foot-soldiers like us. The Nine Walkers -- four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard -- constitute not a company of the noble but of the ordinary.
They all learn, in a proleptically Christian way, what every mortal must confront: the solemn reality that we no sooner find our lives than we have to give them up. Unlike Bilbo, Frodo his nephew is not called to find but to lose, indeed to destroy, his great gem: the Ring of Total Control. It is not a task that he eagerly seeks but only reluctantly accepts. Yet Frodo proves to be a fit bearer of the Ring. Not only does he possess native powers of courage and resistance; he is also summoned by a mysterious providential grace. The destruction of the Ring is nothing less than Frodo's vocation. And the epic's compelling interest lies in our discovery of how, just barely, Frodo remains faithful to his calling. For in so doing, he does far more than save his beloved Shire from ruin. Frodo learns -- and thus teaches -- what for Tolkien is the deepest of all Christian truths: how to surrender one's life, how to lose one's treasure, how to die, and thus how truly to live.
Early in the narrative, Frodo recalls that his Uncle Bilbo, especially during his latter years, was fond of declaring that
... there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."Tolkien's work is imbued with a deep mystical sense of life as a journey or quest that carries one, willy-nilly, beyond the walls of the world. To get out of bed, to answer the phone, to open the door, to fetch the mail -- such everyday deeds are freighted with eternal consequence. They immerse us in the river of time: the "ever-rolling stream" which, in Isaac Watts's splendid rendering of the 90th Psalm, "bears all its sons away." From the greatest to the smallest acts of courage and cowardice, we travel irresistibly on the path toward ultimate joy or final ruin.
For Tolkien the Christian, the chief question -- and thus the real quest -- is how we are to travel along this Road. The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle Earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. They both provide what Tolkien called immediacy: "speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect" (Letters, 200). The magic of machination is meant for those who are in a hurry, for us who lack patience, for all who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to coerce the wills of others, the strength to accomplish grand ends by instant means.
The noble prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring -- not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Lady Galadriel, the elven queen, also refuses the Ring of Force. It would make her enormous beauty mesmerizing. Those who had freely admired her loveliness would have no choice but to worship her. Perhaps alone among modern writers, Tolkien understood that evil's subtlest semblance is not with the ugly but with the gorgeous. "I shall not be dark," Galadriel warns, "but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!"
The one free creature utterly undone by the lure of total power is Saruman the wizard. Like Judas, he is impatient with the slow way that goodness works. He cannot abide the torturous path up Mount Doom; he wants rapid results. Since the all-commanding Sauron is sure to win, Saruman urges Gandalf and his friends to join forces with the Dark Lord. Those who face defeat can survive only by siding with the victor, using his coercive power to achieve their own noble aims: "We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends."
Saruman is doubly blind. He fails not only to see that laudable designs, when achieved by compulsive force, become demonic; neither does he perceive the hidden strength of The Hobbits. The chief irony of the entire epic is that hobbitic weakness becomes the paradoxical solution to the problem of Absolute Might. The Hobbits are worthy opponents of Sauron exactly because their life-aims are so very modest. Wanting nothing more than to preserve the freedom of their own peaceable Shire, they have no grandiose uses for the Ring. Their meekness uniquely qualifies them to destroy the Ring in the Cracks of Doom. This is a Quest that can be accomplished by the small even better than the great, by ordinary folk far more than conventional heroes. In fact, the figure who gradually emerges as the rightful successor to Frodo is the least likely hobbit of them all, the comically inept and ungainly Samwise Gamgee.
In the unlikely heroism of the small and the weak, Tolkien's pre-Christian world becomes most Christian. Their greatness is not self-made. As a fledgling community the Nine Walkers experience a far-off foretaste of the fellowship that Christians call the church universal. Their Company remarkably transcends both racial and ethnic boundaries. Though it contains representatives from all of the Free Peoples, some of them have been historic enemies -- especially the dwarves and the elves. Yet no shallow notion of diversity binds them together. They are united not only by their common hatred of evil, but by their ever-increasing, ever more self-surrendering regard for each other. Through their long communal struggle, they learn that there is a power greater than mere might. It springs not from the force of will but from a grace-filled fellowship of kindred minds and souls.
Perhaps we can now understand what Tolkien meant when called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God's "sole right to divine honour" (Letters, 172, 243). Like Milton's Satan, Sauron will not serve such a Deity. He is intent upon his own supremacy, and he reads all others by his own light. He believes that anyone, having once possessed the power afforded by the Ring, would be determined to use it -- especially the magical power to make its wearer invisible. He assumes that Frodo and his friends will seek to overthrow him and to establish their own sovereignty. Yet Sauron's calculus of self-interest blinds him to the surprising strategy of the Company. Under Gandalf's leadership, they decide not to hide or use the Ring, but to take it straight back into the Land of Mordor -- Sauron's own lair -- there to incinerate it.
Not for want of mental power is Sauron thus deceived. He is a creature whose craft and power are very great, as his fashioning of the Ring proves. Sauron also embodies himself as a terrible all-seeing Eye. He can thus discern the outward operation of things, but he cannot discern the inward workings of the heart. Sauron's fatal lack is not intelligence, therefore, but sympathy. He cannot "feel with," and so he is incapable of community. The orcs, those evil creatures whom Sauron has bred to do his will, constantly betray each other and feud among themselves. Tolkien thus holds out the considerable hope that evil cannot form a fellowship: there is no true Compact of the Wicked, but there is a real Company of the Good.
The animating power of this Company is the much-maligned virtue called pity. Frodo had learned the meaning of pity from his Uncle Bilbo. When he first obtained the Ring from the vile creature called Gollum, Bilbo had the chance to kill him but did not. Frodo is perplexed by this refusal. 'Tis a pity, he contends, that Bilbo did not slay such an evil one. This phrase angers the wise Gandalf. It prompts him to make the single most important declaration in the entire Ring epic:
"Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that [Bilbo] took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.""The pity of Bilbo will rule the fate of many" gradually becomes the motto of Tolkien's epic. It is true in the literal sense, because the Gollum whom Bilbo had spared so long ago is the one who finally destroys the Ring. But the saying is also true in a deep spiritual sense. Gandalf the pagan wizard here announces the nature of Christian mercy. As a creature far more sinning than sinned against, Gollum deserves his misery. He has committed Cain's crime of fratricide in acquiring the Ring. Still Gandalf insists on pity, despite Frodo's protest that Gollum be given justice. If all died who deserve punishment, none would live. Many perish who have earned life, Gandalf declares, and yet who can restore them? Neither hobbits nor humans can live by the bread of merit alone. Hence Gandalf's call for pity and patience: the willingness to forgive trespasses and to wait on slow-working providence rather than rushing to self-righteous judgment.
"I am sorry," said Frodo. "But ... I do not feel any pity for Gollum.... He deserves death."
"Deserves it! I daresay he does," [replies Gandalf]. "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.... [T]he pity of Bilbo will rule the fate of many -- yours not least."
The unstrained quality of mercy is what, I suggest, makes The Lord of the Rings an enduring Christian classic despite its pagan setting. As a pre-Christian work, it is appropriately characterized by a melancholy sense of ineluctable doom and defeat: the night that comes shall cover everything. Such profound pessimism must not be disregarded. It has its biblical equivalent, after all, in the description of death found in Ecclesiastes 12:5: "Man goeth to his long home."
Yet this gloomy saying is not the ultimate word. Near the end of their wearying quest, Frodo and Sam are alone on the slopes of Mount Doom. All their efforts seem finally to have failed. Even if somehow they succeed in destroying the Ring, there is no likelihood that they will themselves survive, or that anyone will ever hear of their valiant deed. It is amidst such apparent hopelessness that Sam -- the bumbling and unreflective hobbit who has gradually emerged as a figure of great moral and spiritual depth -- beholds a single star shimmering above the dark clouds of Mordor:
The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.... Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep and untroubled sleep.Sam here discerns that light and shadow are not locked in uncertain combat. However much the night may seem to triumph, it is the gleaming star which penetrates and defines the darkness. These hobbits cannot name their source, but they know that Goodness and Truth and Beauty are the first and the last and the only permanent things.
Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University, is a Tolkien expert and has studied Christian literary classics and the Inklings (the close group of Oxford literary masters including C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien). He taught for 26 years at Wake Forest University, where he won awards for distinguished teaching. His publications include "Traveling the One Road: The Lord of the Rings as a 'Pre-Christian' Classic," Christian Century 110, 6 (February 24, 1993): 208-11.