The Lord of the Rings is controversial in both literary and Catholic circles. At the literary level, critics dismiss it while the public loves it, regularly voting it high on various best books lists. Catholic opinion is similarly divided, some seeing it as the great Catholic novel of the 20th century while others dismiss it as boring nonsense. Both judgements miss something. The Lord of the Rings is a big, messy, and sometimes silly book, but it has a streak of genius running through it.
(This off-the-cuff blog post was prompted not by a recent re-reading, though I have read it several times, but by observing a twitter spat on the subject, so if it get the names and incidents mixed up in what follows, I pray your indulgence.)
The tale grew in the telling, Tolkien said of it. Would that someone had taken pruning shears to it. A developmental editor worth their salt might have pointed out:
- That the Nazgul, the greatest warriors in the service of Sauron, as per The Return of the King, should have had no trouble taking the ring off Frodo and company on the road to Rivendell and flying it straight back to Mordor.
- That Gandalf’s death in the mines of Moria is a blatant plot device to strip Frodo of his help and that his eventual return makes no sense, any more than the death speech of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie, “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” makes any sense. Gandalf turns into some sort of super knight in the final battle but is otherwise of no consequence again. Obi-Wan Kenobi turns into a voiceover Mr. Miyagi.
- That the whole business of Aragorn summoning the dead to fight for him, seems entirely unrelated to the themes or plot of the book, and is in no way foreshadowed, as such plot devices should be — if they are needed to solve a plot problem, which this one isn’t.
- Why is there any need for the monstrous battle at all, once the ring is destroyed? How does this make sense in the plot, and, more importantly, what is its literary function? If the ring is the thing, then the destruction of the ring is the end of the thing, isn’t it?
- What’s with the elephants???
- What’s with the walking talking trees???
And one could go on. It is a big, messy, sometimes silly book.
There is nothing wrong with big, messy, sometimes silly books — books that get by largely on charm and invention. Some others of that ilk have done quite well since The Lord of the Rings. (Yes, I am referring to a certain boy wizard.) But big, messy, silly books that get by on charm and invention don’t deserve permanent places in the literary canon on their charm and invention alone, however much they may catch the attention of the public in a given moment.
On the other hand, these characteristics are not inherently disqualifying. There are big, messy, sometimes silly books full of charm and invention that do deserve a permanent place in the literary canon. (Yes, I mean Dickens.)
They deserve it because there is something else there. At least part of what is there in Dickens (and not in Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings) is sheer exuberant humanity. Most over the top characters in literature are less than human. Dickens’ are more than human. Hagrid and Aragorn are archetypes and they do their jobs well enough. But they don’t have the sense of vivid reality of a Miss Havisham or a Sam Weller or a Uriah Heep. One does not read Hagrid or Aragorn and feel that one has met them — quite the opposite, one feels one has never met them, and perhaps one regrets the fact. But when one reads Miss Havisham or Sam Weller or Uriah Heep, one feels that one has, of course, met them, and met them many times and in many guises.
If there is any character remotely like that in The Lord of the Rings, it is Sam, and only Sam. The rest are more archetypes than people. There is nothing wrong with that. Populating a book with archetypes is perfectly respectable literary practice. But for such a book to be considered of particular note or merit, it should do something with those archetypes that points to something human.
And The Lord of the Rings does just that. Woven through all the ponderous mythmaking is a reflection on the nature of temptation which deserves serious attention, both from the literary community generally and from Catholic readers in particular.
And understanding the book in this way explains why the one scene that so many fans would have left out of The Lord of the Rings — that Peter Jackson in the movies does leave out — is actually key to this theme.
There have been many attempts over the years to identify the ring with various specific evils. The one that Tolkien specifically denounced was identifying it with the atomic bomb. This identification was chronologically impossible — the ring had been in Tolkien’s imagination and in the drafts of the book long before the bomb went off. But to identify the ring with any specific evil is, I think, to miss the point. The ring is simply the McGuffin — the thing that everyone wants. In other words, it is an object of universal temptation. It is not a question of what it stands for, but of what it stands in for — for every object of desire that is beyond our power to resist. It is the wanted thing we should not have, whatever that may be. Its simplicity and lack of clear properties or function make it not a specific device or a specific evil but simply the avatar of desire.
It is in this respect that the book is particularly Catholic. To the secular world, temptation is merely a psychological phenomenon to be overcome by will power. But The Lord of the Rings insists over and over again that temptation cannot be overcome by will power alone. The wise and mighty of will — Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel — all refuse to touch it, knowing that it will master them. Frodo is not chosen as ring bearer because of his strength but because of his humility. All the same, Frodo does not master the temptation of the ring. It is beyond his power to do so. Instead, on the cusp of Mount Doom, he claims it for his own.
Only three characters give up the ring voluntarily.
- Bilbo, who is bullied by Gandalf into leaving it behind for Frodo. (There is a gross inconsistency here between the kind of hold the ring has on Bilbo and the kind it has on Gollum and on Frodo. The tale grew in the telling.)
- Sam, who holds it very briefly in Shelob’s lair.
- Tom Bombadil, who finds it wholly uninteresting.
Catholic (Christian) teaching is that we, as fallen creatures, cannot overcome temptation by the exercise of our own unaided will. Like Frodo on the cusp of Mt. Doom, we will always turn back from the edge and claim our vices for our own. To triumph over temptation, we need something more than will power. We need grace.
Grace can take strange forms. In The Lord of the Rings it takes the form of Gollum, equally in the thrall of the ring, biting off Frodo’s ring finger and then plunging into the volcano, thus sending the ring to its destruction.
There is a critique of the nature of evil in this scene. The ring is undone by its own contradictions. Its only means of persuasion is covetous desire, and in the end it is the covetous desire of the creatures that it has corrupted that leads to its destruction.
But Gollum is only there to play this part in the destruction of the ring, and thus the saving of Middle-Earth, because earlier Frodo had spared Gollum’s life when Sam (with eminent justification) was about to kill him. This act of mercy, which seems mere foolishness at the time, is the act that actually saves the day.
One cannot, in literature, show grace operating in the world as a kind of outside force moving the pieces around to change the outcome of the story. This is Deus Ex Machina and it is death to the story form. (Nor do we see grace acting in such a blatant way in real life either.) But what one can do is provide the evidences of grace, to suggest its presence without delineating its operation. This is what Frodo’s act of mercy to Gollum does.
Sam illustrates another Catholic theme in the resistance of temptation: obedience. Sam is, from the beginning to the end, a servant. He never wavers in this role. He never seeks to take the lead or to exalt himself in the fellowship of the ring. He is Frodo’s servant. He loves his master and is obedient to him. And thus, very much against his judgement, he spares Gollum at Frodo’s command. In obedience he takes up his master’s quest when his master can carry it no further. In obedience he returns the ring to Frodo when Frodo is able to take it up again. His love for, and obedience to, his master, enables him to part with the ring which has corrupted every other creature.
Every other creature, that is, except Tom Bombadil. Tom Bombadil is a prelapsarian figure. He is not tempted by the ring because he is not an heir to the original temptation. He lives in a state of nature, and the natural world obeys him (the oak tree releases Pippin at his command). But he cannot be trusted as the guardian of the ring, as Elrond explains, because he would have no interest in it, no notion of its significance or peril. He lacks, in other words, the knowledge of good and evil which is the fruit of original sin. He is not only immune to temptation, but incapable of understanding it.
And this is a necessary part of the meditation on temptation that runs through The Lord of the Rings and is reflected in so many of its secondary incidents: the corruption of Saruman, Pippin’s seduction by the palantír, Boromir’s seduction by the ring. It establishes and grounds the whole theme in its Catholic anthropology.
The Lord of the Rings is a book full of charm and invention and adventure, and can easily be forgiven its inconsistencies and occasionally silliness and enjoyed for those things alone. No one should be faulted for enjoying it for that and no more — there is nothing wrong with enjoying a rollicking adventure story. But neither should anyone be faulted who finds those things tedious.
But the debate about merit — whether we are talking literary merit in the general sense or whether we are talking about particular merit for the Catholic reader — the merit it has lies in its deep meditation on the nature of temptation. Taken purely as such, it would have benefitted from some serious editorial pruning. But that does not mean it is not worth persevering past the charm that leaves you cold and the invention that bores you, to get at that part of the story.
Of course, the modern literary critic, if they detect this theme, might reject the book on the ground that they reject the theme. But the ordinary reader does not have to detect the theme of a work to enjoy it (nor should they be forced to try). And nor do they have to work out whether the theme agrees with the official doctrine of the civilization to which they belong in order to be touched by it. Fiction that eschews overt ideology has the ability to slip under the guard of prevailing ideology and speak to direct human experience. Which might go a long way to explaining why the general public values this book so particularly, and in contradiction to so many of the critics. They may perhaps feel that temptation is like that after all, and respond, however tacitly, to its unifying role in this big messy book.
But wait, you might well say, given that its appeal is so broad, is it really a problem that it is a big, messy, sometimes silly book that relies heavily on charm and invention but also has this thread of genius, this meditation on temptation, running through it? Would editing it down to where its great theme became more readily apparent make it a more or less popular book?
Probably less popular, in truth. But that was not my question. Would it make it more widely regarded as a work of literature and as a work of serious interest for Catholic readers? Conceivably. Then again, perhaps all those who dismiss it for its fantasy setting would dismiss it just as quickly in a more compressed format. Certainly there are many who will dismiss anything out of hand that is not contemporary realism.
So maybe The Lord of the Rings is just right after all, succeeding in bringing a meditation on temptation to a wide audience who would never pick up a book that was described as containing such a thing, even if in the process it loses the regard and the attention of some of the people who would pick up a book so described.
My purpose, I suppose, is simply to say to them, yes, there is much in this big messy, sometimes silly, book that relies over much on charm and invention, and that may not be your cup of tea. But there is something else there as well. Let us not pretend for the sake of its virtues that it has no vices. But let us not dismiss what is wonderful in it just because of its candy coated shell. And let us not assume that just because a book is a rollicking adventure story, that it cannot contain something else besides.