Tolkien's Genius: There and Back Again Through the Human Condition
It's no coincidence that we see so much of our own world in Tolkien's Middle-Earth...
Middle-Earth for All Ages
Okay, so you've read Tolkien's work, you've watched the movies, you've got the hots for at least one of the characters. You own at least one piece of Middle-Earth-inspired jewelry, weaponry or clothing, have probably attended at least one faire or convention and may know a word or two in Elvish.
Needless to say, you're a fan.
But have you ever wondered why Tolkien appeals to so many people?
I have long been of the belief that it is because Tolkien's work can be appreciated by everyone from the youngest child to the oldest man. He guides us through childhood, out our front door, across the vast wide open and even into the deepest depths of our own minds.
Since most people are only familiar with three of Tolkien's major works-- The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, these are the only books I plan to deal with here. In each story, Tolkien manages to delve into the human soul and teach us those simple lessons we so easily forget.
Do you remember that first time your feet carried you out the door?
It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door...
Let us begin with The Hobbit, the story of a little creature who lives a life of quiet comfort but soon finds himself swept up in an epic quest to reclaim a kingdom and defeat an evil dragon. The protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, leaves behind his fire and food and comfortable chair to battle spiders, outwit elves, brave a dragon's gaze and gain a little trinket which will ultimately decide the fate of millions for millennia to come.
It is one of the first lessons we learn as youngsters, that first decision we make to stand on our own feet and begin walking. Sooner or later our walking leads us out the door and into the world, and before we know it our feet have gone places we never dreamed.
Tolkien understood this, this simple but powerful lesson we all learn before we even understand what learning is. He understood it, and he reminded us that we must be as brave as we once were when all the world was big and bright and magical. He reminds us that grand adventures, dark and dangerous though they may be, are what make life worth living. And that spirit, that will and desire to see more and experience more, is something to be nurtured.
In these days of commutes and car payments, schedules and structure, insurance and expenses, it is so easy to let go of that adventurous spirit and get mixed up in the cold gray concrete existence of the modern world. Whether Tolkien knew this was coming or not, he somehow managed to hit the point perfectly and remind us what lies within our own hearts.
What is your One Ring?
Facing your own desires
"Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer such fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing!" Boromir Captain of Gondor spoke these words just before trying to take the One Ring from Frodo by force.
For most of us, our hearts go out to Boromir. He is a warrior, a strong leader of men, faithful son and brave companion in the Fellowship of the Ring. But he is human as we all are. He suffers doubt and fear and desperation in the face of armageddon and he cannot resist the magical allure of the Precious, the ring of power which carries the fate of the entire world. It promises strength, wisdom, will, and even a certain degree of mystical power to all who see it and everyone involved in the quest to destroy it must face this fact.
Who among us has not faced such temptation in our lives? Whether it be drugs or certain company or even indulging in the solitude of our own minds, each and every one of us must face our own desires. If we fail, there is no knowing the darkness we risk falling into.
This trial, this simple but impossible ordeal dominates Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Though it is three books, this story counts as one in the captain's opinion.
And every character in the series has to face the test of their own soul. From Aragorn who overcomes his own bloodline's curse to lead the people to victory to Eowyn who hides her identity to fight beside her kin and slays one of the most evil creatures in Middle-Earth to Samwise Gamgee who stays beside his friend Frodo Baggins to the ends of the earth, nobody goes untested in Tolkien's trilogy.
To be sure there are hundreds of other lessons in Tolkien's most successful work, enough to rival some sacred texts, but to me it always seemed the overcoming of our own desires was the grand thesis of what some call the "Bible of Geekdom".
We must face our own desires, pursue what is right, and hold true to our beliefs and each other. Tolkien knew that and he reminded us, calling us to remember some morals we so easily forget.
The Beauty and Deadliness of Passion
Published posthumously, Tolkien's The Silmarillion tells the story of Middle-Earth's early days from its shaping through the first age of the world. It is a tragic story of war, corruption, vengeance, deceit, forlorn hope, desperation and treachery.
I can remember when I was introduced to Middle-Earth in my much younger days, how angelic and pure the elves seemed to me when I read about them in the two books above. But the Silmarillion teaches that the elves were not always that way.
The story of the first age revolves mostly around the wars between the Noldor, one of the races of elves, and Morgoth, the fallen god who wants to rule the world. Most of the story concentrates on the Silmarils, precious stones embued with heavenly light which Morgoth steals from the Noldor. Trying to defeat Morgoth and reclaim the Silmarils, the Noldor forsake the gods, turn their swords against each other, fight several costly wars and are ultimately driven almost to extinction before the gods themselves step in to end it and save the few elves left in Middle-Earth.
While it holds plenty of other lessons, I think the Silmarillion is mostly Tolkien's own extensive exploration into the feeling of passion. It is passion which drives the Noldor to swear an oath to retake the Silmaril against the gods' wishes, passion for forbidden things which motivates one treacherous act after another.
But it is also passion which drives the elves to create beautiful things, to sing heavenly songs and accomplish great deeds. Passion drove Hurin to stand fast against Morgoth even after the dark lord destroyed his family. Passion caused his son Turin to slay Glaurung, greatest of Morgoth's dragons. And it was passion which drove the lovers Beren and Luthien into the depth of Morgoth's own fortress where they reclaimed one of the Silmarils through pure nerve and cunning.
Passion, in Middle-Earth, is everywhere. It is everywhere here too. While it causes some of the most heinous crimes, it also causes some of our greatest achievements. Tolkien let the elves act out the full story of passion's good and evil qualities as a lesson for us to take heed of.
Noldor lord Feanor threatens his own brother Fingolfin in the Sillmarillion
There and Back Again
There you have it: the human condition told through the actions of elves, dwarves, hobbits and men in the magical realm of Middle-Earth. While Tolkien was no psychologist and he insisted his stories were never meant to be taken allegorically(He became quite cross over it, actually), Tolkien's works showed a deep and complex understanding of the human mind. His stories taught us about ourselves and kept our hearts young as they offer to do the same for our children.