Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: A Book for Our Time of Terror

By Professor Ralph C. Wood

[Editor's Note: Dr. Wood briefly outlines a lecture he gave to Logos Academy in Dallas, Texas. Although very terse, these notes offer deep insight to readers of the trilogy in their present form. Plans call for the audio copy of this lecture to be online at LeadershipU soon.]

I. Tolkien's unaccountable popularity, and thus the charge that he appeals only to readers who desire to escape from reality. The contrary truth is that the Rings-epic is indeed an escape--from the prison of spiritual death and unprecedented evil, and thus an escape into the freedom and joy of spiritual life and unprecedented good.

II. The perennial reality of death and the modern evil of mass death via coercive power

A. Tolkien's vision of violence and death in both the pre- and post-Christian worlds

  1. where life is likened to the flight of a sparrow into one end of a mead-hall and out the other: from sheer darkness, briefly into warmth and light, then back into cold oblivion (the Venerable Bede), making death a seeming curse
  2. where all things are envisioned as declining from a prior and better world, so that a negative entropy rules over everything, winding down to naught: Doom
  3. yet where death is meant to be a strange blessing, so that every exit from one's door is a confrontation with ultimate reality, as in "The Road Goes Ever On"
B. Tolkien's conviction that our fear and dread of death produce terrible evils

  1. Hence the Ring tempts because it grant limitless life (not limitless wisdom)
  2. Thus making its possessors maniacally hungry for all other material things
  3. So that evil has no truly positive life, being always parasitic off the good, having always a shadow-existence figured most horribly in the Ringwraiths
  4. Nor having any power to create or originate, only to pervert the good
  5. Nor forming any true fellowship, always leading to mutual self-destruction
  6. And possessing the flat, non-penetrating vision of Sauron, unable to imagine himself into any other world than his own all-devouring desire for power
  7. Giving war against evil only a defensive, limited, and non-retaliatory purpose
  8. Yet making evil horribly addictive, breakable only by transcendent strength
III. The abiding life and good to be found in the heroism of the small and the merciful

A. Tolkien's understanding of heroism as belonging not to the great and the strong so much as to the little and the weak--especially to the diminutive hobbits. For while prone to complacency, they can be trusted with large tasks because of their small ambitions, their modest satisfactions, their capacity for loyalty and trust

  1. As revealed in their splendid humor, their refusal to be absorbed in introspective seriousness, but always laughing at themselves and keeping good cheer in the midst of horror
  2. As evidenced in their learning not to desire adventure (which one undertakes gladly, often to escape boredom) but the quest (to which one is called, often against one's will, and which one embarks upon only with fear and trembling)
  3. As demonstrated in fellowship, a community of nine companions who make no graceless oaths of total loyalty, but learn to trust and forgive each other
  4. As figured in Gandalf, the wizard who leads and fights for and rescues the Company, but who doesn't make his friends immune from danger and death
  5. As residing above all in the unheard-of willingness to surrender coercive power, to die rather than to use it, even for the achievement of good ends
B. Tolkien's Christian and non-classical emphasis on pity as the largest virtue

  1. How Gandalf taught Frodo to spare the evil Gollum, in hope that he might yet be transformed, thus enabling the final success of the Quest
  2. How Boromir the brave dies reconciled despite his betrayal of the Company
  3. And thus how the Nine Walkers gain immense moral and religious maturity
C. Sam and Frodo's conviction that they belong to a larger Story, to a Grand Narrative that will be complete only in the End, because Light and Hope are the final realities, giving their miniscule lives ultimate significance and value.

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.