The Common Good
November-December 1996

One Ring to Rule Them All

by Mark Gauvreau Judge | November-December 1996

The most relevant novel of our time is a 40-year-old fantasy

Most of us have on our shelves a novel that, more than any other book, speaks to the spiritual crisis facing America. At more than a thousand pages, it offers insights into addiction, the loss of innocence, and the nature of faith that are more profound than a month of editorials.

It is also a fantasy that's 40 years old. I'm referring to The Lord of the Rings, the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary since first publication in America. After rereading the trilogy on its birthday, I found myself hard pressed to find a more socially relevant work of literature.

For the uninitiated, The Lord of the Rings is the story of a magic ring that allows its wearer to disappear. The ring comes into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a small creature called a hobbit. Frodo discovers that the ring is the creation of Sauron, the evil Dark Lord. Over time the ring warps the mind and spirit of its user, transforming him into a craven, egomaniacal whelp. It can only be destroyed by dropping it into the fires of Mount Doom, which is in the heart of Mordor-the "Land of Shadow" where Sauron dwells. As Frodo plods toward Mount Doom, he becomes weaker with every step, the ring weighing him down and poisoning his soul.

As Tolkien fans will note, no doubt with irritation, this is a facile summary of a work of breathtaking complexity-like describing The Iliad as a book about a fight over a girl. Tolkien's world of Middle Earth, with its hobbits, elves, dwarves, and wizards, is as palatable as James Joyce's Dublin or Anne Tyler's Baltimore; the characters as believable as any in Tolstoy. It's also a deadly serious work, as Paul Kocher observed in his book Master of Middle Earth: "The Lord of the Rings stretches the imagination with its account of a world in peril....[It] does on occasion evoke smiles, but most of the time the issues go too deep for laughter."

Indeed, in Frodo's tale there lies a stark metaphor for one of our most pressing problems-drug addiction. Like the ring, drugs provide a carefree feeling of warmth and security, allowing the user to "disappear" from reality. Yet over time drugs poison the mind and spirit, transforming the user into a malevolent, pathological shadow of herself.

The only hope is to forsake drugs; like Frodo, addicts must destroy what they desire but is destroying them. If they don't, they wind up like Gollum, the "wretched, pathetic creature" who personifies the ring's devouring power. Gollum once resembled a hobbit, but years of using the ring have transformed him into a slinking monster with hairless, rubbery yellow skin and glowing eyes-a grotesque being that's more amphibian than human.

I REALIZE THAT equating Frodo with crack and booze will rouse accusations of political correctness, as well as incur the wrath of Tolkien buffs. Tolkien was opposed to using The Lord of the Rings as a metaphor, and even penned an introduction to the 1965 paperback edition explaining that the trilogy was a story and not analogous to anything else. (At the time there was speculation that the trilogy was a metaphor for World War II and Nazism.) By dragging him into contemporary America, I seem to be caving into the current literary theory that the meaning of literature-or "text"-changes depending on the reader.

In fact, The Lord of the Rings is important today because it is about the nature of evil, which is relevant to every age. When the wizard Gandalf ponders what will happen if and when the ring is destroyed, he notes that "other evils there are that may come; for Sauron himself is but a servant or emissary." He then observes that "it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set." In other words, evil changes its shape but not its nature; and future generations will have to fight their own versions of what Sauron's enemies call "the Shadow."

It's no stretch to say that in our world, the Shadow has risen again, and not only as addiction. Crime, war, child abuse, existential despair, and environmental destruction all stem from a darkness that is not new, which is why Tolkien's myths speak to the magnitude of our predicament more than so-called "serious" contemporary fiction. By using powerful archetypes that resonate with the human psyche, The Lord of the Rings connects where realism fails. Unfortunately, with our cares, consumerism, television, and drugs-the rings that threaten to destroy us ultimately-we're too preoccupied to notice.

DESPITE THE timeless brilliance of The Lord of the Rings, introducing Tolkien into the Canon of Great Literature will be harder than taking the ring to Mount Doom. The academic Left that controls most English departments is bogged down in the mire of a literary theory that only accepts evil as the ever-shifting product of race, class, or gender; and refuses to accept that great literature explores universal themes that cross sexual, racial, and economic barriers. To them The Lord of the Rings is the work of-you guessed it-a dead, white, European male.

With more conservative scholars, there is a glimmer of hope, though not much more. Tolkien once called The Lord of the Rings "a Catholic book," and Frodo is an obvious Christ figure who willingly sacrifices himself for the rest of creation. The Lord of the Rings portrays an ultimate goodness in the universe, most vividly when Frodo and his companion Sam are in the heart of Mordor. Wracked with exhaustion, the situation beyond hopeless, Sam peers out over the black desolation of the land. Suddenly, he spots something unexpected. "There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: There was light and high beauty for- ever beyond its reach."

Yet, even in light of such overt religiosity-to say nothing of the spirituality of the magnificent prose, which is as powerful as any in English-The Lord of the Rings manages to avoid treacly, Book of Virtues moral bromides. In the above scene, remarkably, Sam's testament of faith comes in the bowels of Mordor, when he is at the farthest possible point from God. His is the kind of humble spirituality found among recovering addicts, with its message that faith is only real in the knowledge that life is unfair and often tragic, and that time and innocence pass away.

Moreover, the trilogy teaches mercy and compassion even for the most incorrigible deadbeat-Christian virtues that seem to be in short supply in some conservative circles. Frodo refuses to kill Gollum despite the fact that Gollum lures him into a trap to try and acquire the ring. Frodo's refusal to play God could be construed as an argument against the death penalty, and it pays off when Gollum is pivotal in helping Frodo complete his task. This may explain why a recent piece in The Nation claimed that Tolkien was "too progressive" for "right-wing Christians."

ULTIMATELY, The Lord of the Rings meets the measure of a classic work because, like all great literature, it touches absolute truths in the human heart that go far deeper than politics. That it does so through fantasy should be cause for celebration, not ghettoization. "Quite a case could...be made for fantasy as one of the major areas in world literature," writes Lin Carter in his book Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, "for few of the most highly regarded names in English or Continental letters avoided it. Rabelais, Chaucer, Goethe, Milton, Cervantes, Swift, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Byron, Aristotle, Keats, Flaubert, Spenser, Dante, Marlowe, and even a Bronte or two wrote fantasies-to say nothing of Stevenson, Kipling, Doyle, Wilde, Hagard, and Anatole France."

Another Tolkien fan summed it up even better 40 years ago, writing a review of the trilogy when it was first published: "There are very few works of genius in recent literature. This is one." The words are more applicable today than when they were first put to paper.

MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE is a free-lance writer living in Potomac, Maryland.

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