As a young man Tolkien, like Hemingway, witnessed firsthand the awful slaughter of WWI. Like Hemingway he survived, but by 1918, according to the preface of The Lord of the Rings, all but one of his closest friends were dead. He wrote the trilogy in the period from 1936 – 1949, which may help to explain the work’s dark, often apocalyptic tone — as well as its “good versus evil” subject matter.
The truth is that unlike his other famous book, The Hobbit (first published in 1936), The Lord of the Rings is not really meant for children. Certain children do devour it though, as I did when I was eight or ten. It had a major impact, opening my eyes to the power of literature as no other book had. The Shire and Mordor, Fangorn Forest, Moria, Rivendell and Lothlórien; I regret that the movies have blurred the vivid landscapes of Middle Earth in my mind, replacing them with the crisp silver-screen versions filmed on location in New Zealand. New Zealand is highly photogenic and fairly well-suited to Tolkien, but screen images are incapable of evoking the same magic or carrying the same emotional charge as fictional landscapes, especially those you read as a child.
The fact is — and this is a powerful counter-argument to the lament that the novel is dead or dying — film simply can’t accomplish the things with landscape that literature can. Well-drawn literary landscapes become rooted in your soul, instead of washing over in blasts of music and awe-inspiring, computer-enhanced cinematography.
I picked up the books again several years back, partly because I had the time (at over a thousand densely-printed pages it’s not the kind of thing you can read in single afternoon), and partly because I wanted to revisit it before Hollywood stole my primeval memories of hobbits, wizards, and the detours and byways of Middle Earth. I was not disappointed. It really is a terrific story, in some ways even better than I had remembered.
I was tempted to go on a mission to revive the books’ standing among the MFA set, but then it’s not as if the Tolkien estate really needs my help. Those who love the trilogy will always love it despite the commercial hype, and it will continue to be difficult to explain to those who have avoided it or haven’t been able to get through the first hundred pages (and there are many) what it is that’s so wonderful about it. The uninitiated reader will have to simply take it on faith that The Lord of the Rings provides an unparalleled example of how a fantasy novel can express an extremely true and compelling vision of human existence.
I won’t bother to summarize the plot too extensively. It’s a straightforward quest story, with the twist that the quest is not to retrieve the grail but rather to destroy it. Over the course of the book Frodo Baggins and his fellowship make their way ever eastward, from the bucolic backwater of the hobbits’ Shire to the seething darkness of Mordor. On the way the party experiences many setbacks, as the reader gradually becomes aware of a miasma of apocalyptic evil that is settling over the novel’s world.
They stop over in some very nice places on the way, however, Eden-like way-stations populated primarily by elves, in which the travelers long to remain but cannot. These way-stations are what concern us, because they stand out in the story like islands of light in a rising sea of darkness. They are outposts of a detailed, magical world that has already been lost.
Rather than quote at length from these chapters I’ve selected a few nearly random passages to give you something of the flavor:
Slowly the hall filled, and Frodo looked with delight upon the many fair faces that were gathered together; the golden firelight played upon them and shimmered in their hair.
The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name.
Tolkien was an Oxford professor, deeply absorbed in his studies. His main areas of focus were early Nordic and Anglo-Saxon literature, and during the course of his writing life he made up an entire world that was inspired by and in many ways based upon, these bodies of myth. There’s a great deal of verse scattered throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, much of it in Elvish, a complex language that Tolkien, a gifted linguist, ambitiously invented out of whole cloth. I have a feeling that most people simply skip over the verse to get on with the story, but that’s a mistake, because the verse is important to the underlying mood of the books — the tip of the iceberg, if you will, exposing the vast and emotionally charged lost domain dwelling beneath the story, scaffolding it, and bestowing its unique inner power.
As Frodo’s party makes its way steadily eastward, between and sometimes even during their sojourns in way-stations of light and Bardic poetry, the evil in the world begins to assert itself with ever greater force. Terrifying ringwraiths assail the party and wound Frodo with a clammy blade; flocks of crows and other flying creatures careen menacingly through the sky above their heads; orcs pursue them through the abandoned mines of Moria, and a powerful monster drags the wizard Gandalf down into the abyss. Meanwhile the dreadful penumbra encroaches upon every quarter of the sky, and it is apparent that even fortresses of light such as Rivendell and Lothlórien must eventually succumb to the rising tide of Evil.
This image of a world gradually drowning in darkness buttresses the dramatic tensions inherent in the quest story; it is at bottom an extremely dark tale. Frodo’s journey is from one pole to another — from the pole of light to the pole of darkness. Early in the quest, soon after they’ve left the last outpost of the known hobbit world, Frodo tries to sleep:
He lay tossing and turning and listening fearfully to the stealthy night noises: wind in chinks of rock, water dripping, a crack, the sudden rattling fall of a loosened stone. He felt that black shapes were advancing to smother him . . . He lay down again and passed into an uneasy dream, in which he walked on the grass in his garden in the Shire, but it seemed faint and dim, less clear than the tall black shadows that stood looking over the hedge.
And much later, as he and his faithful servant Sam slog along through the swamps on the outskirts of Mordor:
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers. As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapors of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no color and no warmth.
The Lord of the Rings is full of such bleak, frightening images; the prevailing mood is one of fear and dread. What saves it from being merely horrifying or depressing, however, is the potential for redemption. It’s always there in the background. Sometimes it bleeds through, like rays of sunlight appearing through a break in a low overcast.
You can’t have true darkness without light to offset it; you need one to comprehend the other. Fear and dread open the possibility for uncomplicated joy, just as the presence of light gives extra power to the encroaching darkness. To put it in more mundane terms, the “reason” for the elegiac passages — the “islands” of festivity and light — is to make the encroaching evil more real and more threatening, and the overwhelmingly dark tone of the story as a whole causes the “islands” to burn that much more brightly.
It is a well-known fact that fiction about happiness is untenable; less well-known, perhaps, is that fiction based solely in realms of darkness also comes too easily, and is by nature incomplete. Evil is indisputably a part of life (although perhaps not in the simple-minded terms put forth by neoconservatives and certain heads of state), but so is love. This is the wisdom underlying Tolkien’s work. His novels enact this truth compellingly and on an epic scale.
Note: The above is excerpted from a longer essay that appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle. Read the full essay here.