NESFA Members' Reviews

The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien

A book (and movie) review by Elisabeth Carey

I deliberately refrained from rereading The Fellowship of the Ring prior to seeing the movie, but after seeing it I reread the entire trilogy, and also read Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. And in rec.arts.sf.fandom and elsewhere, there has been extensive and lively (that's a good word, isn't it, "lively"?) discussion of the movie and the book. In Ansible 174 (January 2002), David Langford quotes the following comment on The Lord of the Rings from Michael Moorcock: "Langford, ask your readers this -- since Prof Tolkien pooh-poohed most science fiction for not being logical in its world-building, especially its languages, of course, and since he swore that this was not a post-holocaust fantasy, how come these early industrial revolution kulaks, with sophisticated metal working skills, gunpowder, focussing lenses and advanced printing methods, couldn't make one simple fucking cannon and blow the bad guys off their keeps in a trice?"

I find this to be a stunning example of an intelligent person missing the point. (And we will skip lightly over the total absence of evidence of any printing techniques at all; the books mentioned in The Lord of the Rings all seem to have been produced by older methods, which Mr. Moorcock has forgotten about.) The good guys do, of course, use the One Ring--but they refrain from using it in the manner that would destroy them, and instead use it in the way that destroys their enemy, while allowing at least significant parts of what they're trying to save to survive. What may be confusing Mr. Moorcock is that LotR is not about technology, not even magical "technology", but about moral choices. The One Ring, on a moral level, is like unshielded nuclear power on a physical level: using the Ring in the manner intended by its maker is like usin g very dirty nukes on ground that you want to live on after the war's over, on a population you want to protect from the invading enemy, an essentially self-defeating strategy. The One Ring corrupts everything it touches, and it tempts nearly everyone of power who encounters it. We see this at work throughout the books, and we see as much of it as you'd expect to that point in the story in the movie. Gollum, after five hundred years, is completely in thrall to the Ring. Bilbo, after sixty years, is significantly affected by it, but still able, with lots of help and encouragement, to give it up. Frodo feels the pull of it after only a few years, during most of which he never even touched it, but is still able to decide to give it up or destroy it. Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman, Boromir, Elrond, and Aragorn are all to varying degrees tempted by it, though they are all, except Boromir (and Saruman, though he never gets the chance), able to refuse it. The point is made, quite clearly, and more than once, that any victory won by use of the One Ring would be a victory for the Dark Power, not against it. Destroying the One Ring, on the other hand, has no easy analogy with nuclear weapons: it eliminates, or at least makes inaccessible, the power that Sauron has tied up in the Ring, reducing Sauron to a mere shadow of his former self, and enabling the anti-Sauron forces to win an imperfect but meaningful victory. Elves and Dwarves are dwindling and fading from the world, but not corrupted into evil; Hobbits will go on for a while yet, able to live good, honest, enjoyable lives, and Men will inherit a world that's not so magical as it was, but still very much worth living in. Frodo and his companions, allies, and fellow-travelers achieve this at enormous personal cost to themselves, sacrifices that they make freely, of their own wills, because it's right, and because they don't like the world they'd get by taking the "easy" way out. That is what The Lord of the Rings is about, not about whether Hobbits, or Men, or Dwarves, ought to have included cannon in their last military equipment order.

The Lord of the Rings remains immensely popular a half-century after its original publication because it delivers, not just an exciting story--as important as that is--but a story that resonates strongly with events and issues that have affected at least the entire Western world, and that turns on moral choices that still matter today. It rewards rereading, many times and and different life stages, because it's extremely rich; there are always more layers to find. Tolkien's own experiences in World War I deeply affected what he wrote about Morder and the Orcs, but this is no simple allegory of the Great War. The entire trilogy is permeated with Catholic moral theology, but you don't need to know anything about Catholicism, or indeed Christianity, in order to follow the moral argument of the story. Tolkien is not arguing at the sectarian level; he's in pursuit of basic moral concepts, and how you make moral choices when there don't appear to be any good choices, any win-win options. When Gandalf has to choose whether to go forward to help in the battle where the Riders of the Mark are confronting the chief Nazgul, or turn back to save Faramir, he knows that whichever choice he makes will kill someone. They're both bad choices, but he still has to choose, and make it the most-right choice that he can, knowing that the price for it will be high.

One argument that has been made vigorously online is that Tolkien's Middle-Earth is filled with examples of people with independant minds causing great evil, while "good" people are essentially robotic, doing what they're programmed to do. I believe that nothing could be further from the truth. Free will is critical to moral choice, in Catholic doctrine and in Middle-Earth. Sauron used his free will to make evil choices--choices which are evil in part because he does not truly believe that there are other people in the world; everyone except him is a gamepiece. Saruman, while not nearly as subjugated to Sauron's will as Sauron thinks, is nevertheless not as free as he thinks he is; he's losing his independence of judgment to the seductive force of Sauron's power. The One Ring is evil precisely because it subverts free will--it gives the illusion of choice, seducing with images of things its victim wants, but in reality eliminating choice and the possibility of independent goals. It's very, very difficult for Bilbo to give up the Ring, and even as he says he's doing it he's putting it back in his pocket, because the Ring doesn't want to start all over again with someone who is not yet even as subverted as Bilbo. Boromir has visions of saving Gondor from the Dark Lord, but he would in fact bring the victory of the Dark to Gondor. Even Frodo, at the end, having made the whole long, painful journey to the Crack of Doom, cannot actually do the thing he came to do, throw the One Ring into the only fire that can destroy it.

But the Ring is destroyed in the end, because of other choices Frodo made along the way--sparing Gollum's life, treating him as kindly as possible, persuading Faramir to spare his life at the pool, trusting Gollum enough to follow him into Mordor.

All the good that's done is done by people exercising free will. Merry and Pippin do realize they're risking real danger when they join Frodo and Sam on the journey to Rivendell--and even more when they set out from Rivendell. Legolas and Gimli choose to become friends despite a long history of distrust between Elves and Dwarves. Merry and Eowyn choose to go and fight, despite having been told firmly, and for sensible reasons, to stay home, and they choose to keep fighting when the battle is obviously lost. Pippin and Beregond choose to defy Denethor, whom they are sworn to obey. Barliman Butterbur does a good deal of harm through inattention--failing to send on Gandalf's message to Frodo--but when the crisis falls on him, he makes choices that cause him both expense and greater risk, to make things as right as he can. Denethor, on the other hand, has chosen to use the Palantir, which he is not strong enough to control, and is weakened by images sent by Sauron for Sauron's own purposes. When finally we return to the Shire, we see that much of the trouble there is due to the majority of the Hobbits meekly going along with what they were told do to by those who had acquired some appearance of authority to do so, rather than rejecting that authority in favor of what they knew to be right.

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, the importance both of having free will, and of actively exercising it, are emphasized at every critical point.

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