From "Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon" (2003) by Brian Rosebury
This text is reproduced exclusively for the purposes of discussion on The One Ring.net. Home - Introduction
[page 11] ONE
The Lord of the
Rings, the work of his prime (it was begun
in 1937, his forty-sixth year, and published in 1954-55), Tolkien realised for
first and only time the full potential of his creative imagination. The realisation was possible for two reasons: firstly because he constructed here a
uniquely expansive form, which allowed the fullest embodiment to imaginative conceptions of (as it proved) great aesthetic and emotional potency;
and secondly because he arrived in this work, after a twenty-year apprenticeship with many false starts, at a style, or range of styles, and an expertise
in narrative, sufficient for those conceptions to be made transparent. Chapter 2 will be largely devoted to examining the execution of the narrative
and its styles; the present one to the form, and to the nature and power of the imaginative conceptions. But the distinction is, of course, unsustainable
at the highest level of aesthetic coherence, and this will, I hope, become apparent by the time the analysis is complete.
The Lord of the
a ‘trilogy’ but a unified work of some 600,000 words presented in three
separately titled volumes, is set in a world
called Middle-earth, of which the regions we encounter are broadly similar, in climate, geology and vegetation, as well as in scale, to Europe. It is,
for the most part, a pre-industrial world,
[page 12] sparsely populated, and highly localised: trade is limited, and travellers are few. Men, gathered in communities of varying sizes, share
Middle-earth with a variety of other ‘speaking-peoples’ (RK, 405), of whom Elves, Dwarves, Ores and (half-Man-sized) Hobbits are the most
common. Interaction among these peoples is rare (the very existence of Hobbits is unknown to distant communities) and often characterised by
mutual suspicion. Nevertheless, Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits are actual or potential allies, and primarily benign though variously corruptible.
Orcs are the barbarous militia of the malign spirit or fallen angel Sauron, the Dark Lord, who has re-arisen in Middle-earth after a long age of
oblivion. Sauron never appears in visible and speaking form, but his malevolent will, acting at a distance, is felt increasingly throughout the narrative,
as he attempts to conquer or devastate the western regions of Middle-earth from his stronghold in the south-east, Mordor. He will succeed in
doing so if he can recover the One Ring of Power, taken from him in an earlier epoch and invested with much of his own malevolent strength: its
power cannot effectively be used against him, since it is intrinsically evil and its use corrupts the user. The Ring has come into the possession of the
Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, and Sauron’s servants are pursuing him. Salvation for Middle-earth depends on Frodo’s destroying the Ring (resisting the
corrupting temptation to claim and use it himself) by throwing it into the fire of Orodruin, Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor itself, where it was
forged. Eventually this quest is accomplished and Middle-earth is duly saved.
Anyone who knows the work will recognise that this brief
account omits innumerable complexities: it makes, for example, no reference to
major characters whose acts and attributes are of considerable importance to the overall sense of the work. Nevertheless, something of the appeal
of The Lord of the Rings is, I hope, apparent from this bare synopsis. In part it is the appeal of an essentially simple, and exciting, plot; to that
extent the work has affinities, as has often been noted, with a variety of story-telling traditions: with fairy-tales, quest narratives, and novels of
adventure. But in part the appeal is attributable to the features described in the first half of the above account (without which, indeed, the narrative
sketched in the second half would scarcely be intelligible). The cir-
[page 13] cumstantial expansiveness of Middle-earth itself is central to the work’s aesthetic power: once this is grasped, many other aspects of the
work fall into place.
They hastened up the last slope ... and looked out from the hill-top over lands under the morning. It was now as clear and far-seen
as it had been veiled and misty when they stood upon the knoll in the Forest, which could now be seen rising pale and green out of
the dark trees in the West. In that direction, the land rose in wooded ridges, green, yellow, russet under the sun, beyond which lay
hidden the valley of the Brandywine. To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale glass where
the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands and flowed away out of the knowledge of the hobbits. Northward beyond
the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless
and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a
guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of
memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains. (FR, 146-7)
We shall return again and again to this quality of
meticulously depicted expansiveness; and it will soon prove its relevance to a
disputed, question, that of genre. The Lord of the Rings is a fictional prose narrative, and for a modern reader, or writer, the dominant category of
such narratives is the novel. It has become conventional to insist - I have insisted myself in the Introduction - that The Lord of the Rings stands
apart from the mainstream traditions of the novel, and this apartness has been taken by some as establishing the work’s essential anachronism: in
place of ‘novel’ , terms such as’ epic’ and ‘romance’, the names of pre-modern genres, have been proposed. Tom Shippey, more subtly, suggests
that in The Lord of the Rings ‘Tolkien set himself to write a romance for an audience brought up on novels’, which implies that the romance
form and ethos are fundamental while the novelistic elements are a concessionary superstratum. Tolkien himself, in letters and in his Foreword to
the work, avoids ‘novel’ and sometimes uses ‘romance’ - though he markedly prefers ‘tale’ and ‘story’, and, occasionally but revealingly, the more
expansive ‘history’. If, however, we try to
[page 14] identify the features of The Lord of the Rings that categorically exclude it from the canon of novels, as that canon has developed over
three centuries or so, we meet with difficulties which reveal to us more about the nature of the work - and in passing about the nature of novels -
than we would learn by summarily assigning it to a different genre.
The attempt may begin with a point which will have been
obvious even from our brief summary.
The Lord of the
Rings deals not with imaginary
events in the real world, but with imaginary events in an imaginary world. If novels, as the Concise Oxford supposes, portray ‘characters and actions
credibly representative of real life’ , and romances are tales with ‘scene and incidents remote from everyday life’, then on the face of it The Lord of
the Rings is clearly a romance, at least if we assume that credible representation of ‘real’ life is impossible within an imaginary world. We might
clarify the dictionary definition by glossing ‘real’ as ‘historical’: most novels are set in the historical world, while The Lord of the Rings offers an
alternative ‘history’. But the representation of an alternative world is widely assumed to involve a greater remoteness from actual human experience
than the representation of a version of the historical world. Hostile readers tend to express the point by protesting that The Lord of the Rings ‘fails
to engage with the contemporary world’ (or ‘with social and political realities’); even a sympathetic critic like Derek Brewer, noting the conventional
view that ‘the novel shows life as it truly is, in all its concrete tragic elements’, places The Lord of the Rings, as a ‘romance’, in schematic
opposition to the novel, implicitly conceding that if we categorise the work as a novel we are bound to find it deficient on the essential novelistic
criterion of realism.
An immediate problem with this classificatory strategy is
that a number of works which are non-realistic in this sense are in fact usually
novels: The Castle, The Glass Bead Game, Vathek, The Time Machine, The Inheritors. All of these, it is true, maintain at least a notional relation
to the historical world; but so, as a matter of fact, does The Lord of the Rings, representing as it does not some distant planet but our
geomorphically recognisable earth: its setting is ‘the North-West of the Old World, east of the sea’ (FR, 11). ‘The theatre of my tale is this earth,
the one in which we now live, but the
[page 15] historical period is imaginary’, Tolkien affirmed. The extra-chronological past of The Lord of the Rings is no more imaginatively
remote from us than the pseudo-chronological future of Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks (creatures who are themselves, as Tolkien noted, imaginatively
akin to the elves and goblins of fairy-tale, human beings reconceived, transformed by desire or terror). And, as we shall shortly see, in many cultural
respects the society of the Hobbits, with its small towns, farms, inns, parties, letter-writing and clannishness, is closer to the experience of modern,
even ‘bourgeois’ - Western man than that glimpsed by Wells’s Time-Traveller. (Tolkien once remarked on the more-than-verbal affinity between
the Hobbits and that archetypal bourgeois, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.)
The significant feature of the imaginative displacement from
The Lord of the
Rings is not so much its distance as its
(to use a word which is tellingly paradoxical in this context). Novels, it might be said, diverge from historical reality for specific and local effect, while
The Lord of the Rings systematically shuts it out in favour of the construction of an alternative universe. But the temporal and spatial order, the
historico-geographical extension and density, of the alternative universe represented in The Lord of the Rings are attributes of the real universe too:
indeed, in so far as these structural aspects of reality are concerned, The Lord of the Rings might actually be called unusually mimetic. The structural
relation of imaginary universe to real one is not, moreover, the kind of symbolic or allegorical relation in which the invented world is texturally quite
alien to the actual (as in, say, Voltaire’ s Micromégas): on the contrary, there is a degree of naturalism in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings
which is much closer to the realistic novel than to the simplifying, or encapsulating, procedures of allegory. In the following passage, for example,
Frodo Baggins and three companions, travelling eastward from their homeland, the Shire, arrive in the Bree-land, a cluster of large villages, with
communities both of Hobbits and of Men.
The village of Bree had some hundred stone houses of the Big Folk, mostly above the Road, nestling on the hill-side with windows
looking west. On that side, running in more than half a circle from the hill and back to it, there was a deep dike with a thick hedge
on the inner side.
[page 16] Over this the Road passed by a causeway; but where it pierced the hedge it was barred by a great gate. There was another
gate in the southern corner where the Road ran out of the village. The gates were closed at nightfall; but just inside them were small
lodges for gatekeepers.
Down on the Road, where it swept to the right to go round the foot of the hill, there was a large inn.
... The hobbits rode on up a gentle slope, passing a few detached houses, and drew up outside the inn. The houses looked dark and
strange to them. Sam stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many Windows, and felt his heart sink. He had imagined himself
meeting giants taller than trees, and other creatures even more terrifying, some time or other in the course of his journey; but at the
moment he was finding his first sight of Men and their tall houses quite enough, indeed too much at the end of a tiring day. He
pictured black horses standing all saddled in the shadows of the inn-yard, and Black Riders peering out of dark upper windows.
‘We surely aren’t going to stay here for the night, are we, sir?’ he exclaimed. ‘If there are hobbit-folk in these parts, why don’t we
look for some that would be willing to take us in? It would be more homelike.’
‘What’s wrong with the inn?’ said Frodo. ‘Tom Bombadil recommended it. I expect it’s homelike enough inside.’
Even from the outside the inn looked a pleasant house to familiar eyes. It had a front on the Road, and two wings running back on
land partly cut out of the lower slopes of the hill, so that at the rear the second-floor windows were level with the ground. There was
a wide arch leading to a courtyard between the two wings, and on the left under the arch, there was a lamp, and beneath it swung a
large signboard: a fat white pony reared up on its hind legs. Over the door was painted in white letters: THE PRANCING PONY by
BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR. Many of the lower windows showed lights behind thick curtains.
As they hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the
chorus. They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and then got off their ponies. The song ended and there was a burst of
laughter and clapping. They led their ponies under the arch, and leaving them standing in the yard they climbed up the steps. Frodo
went forward and nearly humped into a short fat man with a bald head and a red face. He had a white apron on, and was bustling out
of one door and in through another, carrying a tray laden with mugs.
[page 17] ‘Can we - ’ began Frodo.
‘Half a minute, if you please!’ shouted the man over his shoulder, and vanished into a babel of voices and a cloud of smoke. In a
moment he was out again, wiping his hands on his apron.
‘Good evening, little master!’ he said, bending down. ‘What may you be wanting?’
‘Beds for four, and stabling for five ponies, if that can be managed. Are you Mr Butterbur?’
‘That’s right! Barliman is my name.’ (FR, 162, 164-5)
I have quoted at some length, though with a large excision,
in order to bring out the leisurely pace, and the patient attention to sensory
typical of the narrative. The Prancing Pony is no conceptual stopping-place on a Bunyanesque spiritual journey: there is far more detail here than
could possibly be required for allegory. The reader’s attention is drawn to spatial relationships (the lines of Road, dike and hedge, the topography of
the inn and the sloping land, the turn to the left under the arch), to gestures (Butterbur’s wiping his wet hands on his apron, at once a natural action
and a courtesy), to ornament, furnishing and ambience (the fat white pony rearing on the inn-sign, the thickness of the curtains, the smoke and
laughter emanating from the common-room). There is psychological realism too. The passage focuses on the emotional experience of arriving at an
unfamiliar place: the little-travelled and socially deferential Sam (Frodo’s servant) feels an anxiety from which the others are relatively free. The
Prancing Pony is neither a symbol of comfort, nor the abode of giants which it half-appears to Sam: it is simply an inn which evokes different feelings
in different people. It will, as it turns out, be the setting for both comforting and terrifying events, but it remains resolutely unallegorical, a place where
certain things happen to happen.
Moreover, countless details of the episode at the Prancing
Pony implicitly direct our attention to the rest of the huge world on which it
is a tiny
speck. If we are continually aware (as we are when visiting a real inn) of its geographical location, this is not simply a question of its appearing on a
map in the end-papers. In the passage quoted, we note the size and lively activity of the inn, and the expectation of stabling for ponies and horses.
We have already been
[page 18] told that the inn was built ‘long ago when the traffic on the roads had been far greater’, and that ‘Strange as News from Bree was still a
saying in the Eastfarthing [part of the Shire], descending from those days, when news from North, South and East could be heard in the inn, and
when the Shire-hobbits used to go more often to hear it’ (FR, 162). Note that the time-dimension is invoked, and that - characteristically of
Tolkien - language, in this case a proverbial phrase, is used to give depth and authenticity to a historical statement. Later we meet the mixed
company of the inn: hobbits (a range of family names are given, and their differences from those of the Shire mentioned); men both from the
Bree-Land (whose four villages have been carefully located in relation to each other and to the landscape) and from the distant South; a few
dwarves - we have learned a hundred pages earlier that dwarves use the ‘ancient East-West Road ... on their way to their mines in the Blue
Mountains’ (FR, 52) - and ‘a strange-looking weather-beaten man’ with ‘a travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth’ and ‘high boots of
supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud’ (FR, 168).
‘He is one of the wandering folk [Butterbur explains]
Rangers we call them. He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when
the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as
Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry. But there’s no accounting for East
and West as we say in Bree, meaning the Rangers and the Shirefolk, begging your pardon.’ (FR, 168-9)
This second authentic-sounding proverbial phrase serves as a
comic rejoinder to the first, reinforcing it in fixing the geographical
contact-but-distance between the two communities. Strider’s muddy boots, obscure name and business, traveller’s tales, and intermittent visits to
the inn suggest the isolation of the Bree-landers amid wide, uncertain regions of which they know little: “‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives
within a day’s march of foes who would freeze his blood’, Aragorn son of Arathorn will declare some chapters later (FR, 261). Butterbur, the fat
man in question, has
[page 19] been charged with sending a letter to Frodo in the Shire, but ‘I put it by safe. Then I couldn’t find nobody willing to go to the Shire next
day, nor the day after, and none of my own folk were to spare; and then one thing after another drove it out of my mind’ (FR, 179).
The rudimentary methods of communication this implies are in
contrast to the efficient postal system which, we have earlier been told,
the Shire (FR, 19). The delay in Frodo’s receipt of the letter - an entirely mundane event - has combined with a number of less mundane
contingencies to bring the plot to its present juncture, and will contribute to its subsequent development.
All this should begin both to suggest Tolkien’s skill in
planning and executing ‘novelistic’ complexities of narrative, and to confirm at
sense in which The Lord of the Rings is exceptionally realistic: its Middle-earth, like our world, is a complicated place, full of banal mischances,
full of surprises which bring home the limits of our knowledge, full of space and multiplicity. (‘The world being after all full of strange creatures
beyond count’, observes the Prologue (FR, 11) with delightful off-handedness, ‘these little people [the Hobbits] seemed of very little importance’.)
In comparison the world of, say, The Castle is confined and repetitive, with the obsessiveness and underdevelopment of an uneasy dream. (I mean
the comparison to mark a difference in temper, not in quality, between the two works.) On the other hand the world of a Jane Austen novel seems
less confined than Kafka’s, but that is at least partly because (since it is set in a version of the real world, and unlike Kafka’s work maintains an
impression of social normality) we assume the presence of the historical universe beyond the boundaries of the explicit narrative. One would have
to turn to the great Victorian novelists, or even to Tolstoy, to find a canonical novel which realises the amplitude of life in space and time as
thoroughly as The Lord of the Rings.
The point of my argument here is not to suggest that The
Lord of the Rings is a canonical novel after all, or to award it a
paradoxical victory in a
contest of realism. It is, in the first place, to identify as a distinguishing extra-novelistic feature of the work the representation of an imaginary world
at a high level of interior authenticity, and to point out that the achievement of that authenticity has entailed a resourceful deployment of what can
only be called
[page 20] realistic elements. It remains true, of course, that in some crucial senses novels of social realism are more realistic than The Lord of the
Rings: they exclude the supernatural, they confine themselves to historical societies, they engage with human experience through human characters
alone, instead of dividing it across a spectrum of imaginary races. But social realism too involves selectivity and structuring, and for that matter
invention, in the representation of human experience: life is not the same as novels, not even the novels of Tolstoy or Arnold Bennett. Indeed an
ethic of fictional realism based on factuality would be absurdly self-defeating if pressed to its logical conclusion. The relation of any work of fiction
to reality is ultimately demonstrated, not by its literal correspondence to fact (which could only be achieved, if at all, by an abrogation of aesthetic
order, that is, by the work’s ceasing to be a work of fiction), but by its capacity to evoke a psychological response in readers - a response which
could not be evoked by the imaginative conceptions of fiction unless at some level those conceptions were intelligible to readers on the basis of
actual ‘historical’ correlatives. In social realism, some of the most complex conceptions (such as those of societies), as well as the simplest, have
specific historical correlatives, while other complex conceptions (such as those of characters) are non-factual: the ‘Dublin’ of Ulysses correlates to
the historical Dublin, the ‘key’ which Leopold Bloom leaves in the wrong pair of trousers correlates to a commonplace object in the historical
universe, but ‘Leopold Bloom’ is non-factual, though constructed out of a multitude of details which have historical correlatives. In other kinds of
fiction, the complex conceptions may all be non-factual, but are still built up from simpler conceptions which have historical correlatives, as the
Prancing Pony and the hill-top view over the valley of the Brandywine river are built up from conceptions - slightly differently realised in each
reader’s mind, but necessarily always founded in experience - of architectural and landscape details. Certain passages in Ulysses, especially the
phantasmagoria of the ‘Circe’ episode, are intelligible only in this way: the guarantee of their relation to reality, in spite of their grotesquely
counter-factual scenes and incidents, is not their factuality but their aesthetic power, their effectiveness in promoting a response on the part of real
On this view, when Brewer maintains that ‘the claim
for The Lord of the Rings is simply that ... it has symbolic power. And
corresponds to human needs and desires’, he is propounding a formula which does not so much distinguish Tolkien’s work from other types of
fiction as identify the rationale for fiction in general: that it brings aesthetic order and intensity to ‘human needs and desires’, drawing on whatever
imaginative conceptions, factual or non-factual, are required to achieve this end. Tolkien himself makes a suggestive remark along similar lines. In
accounting for his own childhood enthusiasm for fairy-stories, he reports that
fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with
possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while
often whetting it
unbearably, they succeeded ... I desired dragons with a profound desire.
The first sentence here can be adapted as a justification for
all fictional departures from literal correspondence to fact, even those within
realism: especially if ‘desirability’ is taken to include its opposite. Since we can desire or undesire (to coin a term) both what we have encountered
in fact and what we merely imagine, the degree of conformity to, or variance from, historical reality in a fictional work can be seen as determined by
the nature of the desire the work is calculated to arouse.
I will pursue this general issue no further for the moment,
but I will return to the question of desire towards the end of this first
section of the
chapter, and it will form the unifying theme of the second and final section. I wish now to turn to a second point of difference between The Lord of
the Rings and the mainstream novel, a difference in the use of language. The supposed anachronism of The Lord of the Rings, its alleged
remoteness from modern narrative practices, evidently has something to do with a particular perception of its style. According to Catharine Stimpson,
‘like a director dressing an actor in doublet and hose to play Hamlet, [Tolkien] puts the English language into costume .... Shunning ordinary diction,
he also wrenches syntax. If we expect, “They got angry”, he will write “Wrathful they grew”. The suggestion is of a clumsy pastiche, marked by
lexical and syntactical outrages upon ‘ordinary’ language.
The passages already quoted from the work are enough, I think, to demonstrate
the falsity of this claim, at least as a generalisation.
They are written in a transparent, even plain, prose which avoids primness or formality: ‘he had a white apron on’, for example, is preferred to ‘he
was wearing a white apron’, and ‘they ... got off their ponies’ to ‘they ... dismounted from their ponies’. Far from sporting stylistic doublet and hose,
the style is distinguished by an unobtrusive economy and precision in the use of ‘ordinary diction’, especially though not exclusively in verbs and verb
phrases: ‘the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands’; ‘the land ran away in flats and swellings’; where it pierced the hedge it was
barred by a great gate’. Archaic inversions in the manner of ‘Wrathful they grew’ are absent. Not that Tolkien is casual or inflexible in the
sequencing of phrases: he will often opt for the slightly less common alternative, either for grace and euphony or to maintain semantic fluency with
preceding and following sentences. If the reader will glance back at the third sentence in each of the first two long quotations in this chapter (from
FR, 146 and FR, 162 respectively), it should be clear that both these motives are at work. In the first case, the final clause is sequenced so as to
leave the mind’s eye on the Brandywine, which the following sentence further visualises. (It also leaves the mind’s ear on the long melodious
syllables of the name, instead of on ‘lay hidden’.) In the second case, the sentence might have read, ‘The Road passed over this by a causeway;
but it was barred by a great gate where it pierced the hedge’: the actual sequencing ensures that the opening and terminal phrases achieve maximum
semantic continuity with the adjacent sentences.
The influence of the conviction that for ‘romance’ one must
adopt a special stylistic costume (archaic, heroic, sublime, Ossianic), in
the low-mimetic plainness of the novel, is detectable in some of Tolkien’s earlier writing. But as the next chapter will show more fully, it can largely
be discounted in an analysis of The Lord of the Rings. At points, it is true, a more dignified, even an archaic, style is employed, especially in
dialogue. But the archaic is part of contemporary language: ‘archaic’ is not the same as’ obsolete’. There is no attempted stylistic reversion to the
age in which the romance, rather than the novel, was the staple form of narrative. As Tolkien wrote at an early stage during the composition of The
Lord of the Rings,
the words chosen, however remote they may be from colloquial speech or ephemeral
suggestions, must be words that remain in literary
use ... among educated people .... They must need no gloss. The fact that a word was still used by Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or even later, gives it
no claim, if it has in our time perished from literary use .... Antiquarian sentiment and philological knowingness are wholly out of place.
Tolkien is here discussing the translation of a poem,
Beowulf. But the logic of his argument is that a twentieth-century
writer of fiction must adhere
to ‘words that ... need no gloss’ for educated readers of literature - which, so far as fictional narrative is concerned, means readers of the novel.
And the range of twentieth-century novel styles countenanced by readers is extremely wide, given that many modern novelists have ‘shunned
ordinary diction, and wrenched syntax’, while others have reacted against this tendency by practising a studied plainness. Amid the stylistic diversity
of the twentieth-century novel, from Ulysses to Brighton Rock to Pale Fire to Trainspotting - or simply within Ulysses - the stylistic scope of The
Lord of the Rings is neither unusual nor intimidating.
Considerations of style, then, are hardly sufficient in
themselves to exclude
The Lord of the
Rings from the category ‘novel’. Yet there
something absolutely distinctive in the linguistic texture of The Lord of the Rings, quite apart from the personal stylistic resources evolved by Tolkien
as by any other writer. It is the linguistic counterpart of the expansive conception of the invented world: a diversity and multiplicity of discourses,
each of which has its place in a complex cultural-historical macrocosm. Its most obvious form is the use of a range of invented languages, mainly in
proper names but also in occasional lines of verse or song, salutations or invocations. Once more I quote from an early stage of the narrative of the
hobbits’ journey: here, still within the Shire, they encounter a company of Elves.
At length Gildor turned to the hobbits .... ‘We think you had best come now with us. It is not our custom, but for this time we will
take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.’
‘O fair folk! This is good fortune beyond my hope’, said Pippin. Sam was speechless. ‘I thank you indeed, Gildor Inglorion’, said
[page 14] bowing. ‘Elen sila lúmenn’ omentielvo, a star shines on the hour of our meeting’, he added in the high-elven speech.
‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master.
Hail Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company! You had best walk in the middle so
that you may not stray. You may be weary before we halt.’ (FR, 90)
Tolkien is not, of course, the first writer to invent names
in pseudo-languages -
Swift in Gulliver’s Travels is probably the best known example
in English - but the scale and elaboration of his system is unprecedented: there are literally hundreds of personal and place-names in The Lord of
the Rings, based on several distinct tongues, each of which is so elaborately individuated that, from proper names alone, the reader can recognise
characteristic phonetic styles and begin to identify recurring features of word-formation. This effect of internal coherence and authenticity, coupled
with the sheer profusion of names which rarely echo those of English, crucially negates the temptation to read into the nomenclature external
allusions, and so preserves the integrity of the invented universe as well as enriching its complexity. Whereas Swift’s ‘Lilliput’ functions essentially
parasitically, through its suggestion of English ‘little’, only the most inexperienced of Tolkien’s readers would be troubled by the resemblance of
‘lnglorion’ to ‘inglorious’: rather its melodious syllables harmonise with those of ’Gildor’, and mark the contrast between the serene and exalted
culture of the high-Elves and the homely, half-comic world which confers such names as Frodo, Sam and Pippin. The contrast is apparent too in the
dialogue: Frodo, a rare instance of a hobbit who has dealings with Elves, manages a brief greeting in their tongue; Pippin, Frodo’s social equal,
echoes Gildor in adopting a courteous and stately style of English (which is to be conceived as a translation from the lingua franca of Middle-earth,
the ‘Westron’ or ‘Common Speech’); the servant is too overawed to speak. Differentiated styles of English speech are used in this fashion
throughout the work to represent different peoples and different levels of formality in discourse. At the same time, the aesthetic qualities of the
invented tongues reinforce our sense of the cultural and even moral character of their habitual
[page 25] users: the Elves literally stop their ears when the inscription on the Ring, in Sauron’s Black Speech, is recited (FR, 267); the guttural and
strenuous, but not unpleasing, Dwarvish seems appropriate to a ‘tough, thrawn race ... secretive, laborious ... lovers of stone, of gems’ (RK, 410);
and the interminably agglomerated speech of the tree-like Ents corresponds to their enviably ‘unhasty’ existence.
‘Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language,
but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say,
and to listen to.
‘But now ... what is going on? What are you doing in it all? I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this
a-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me: that is a part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside
languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun, and the grass
beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world. What is going on? I like news. But not too quick
now.’ (TT, 68-9)
It is this deployment of linguistic variety as an integral
part of the narrative content, a deployment in which the styles available within
English assume the guise of an intermediate resource, to be exploited or even dispensed with entirely in the process of realising an imaginary linguistic
universe, that sets The Lord of the Rings apart, at the level of verbal texture, from other fictions.
By this point it should be clear that a theme is emerging
from the analysis. If
The Lord of the
Rings stands at a tangent to the novel as a
genre, it is
not because of a general abstention from realism or archaism of style - neither of which can really be attributed to it - but because of a highly
specific feature for which precedents are hardly to be found in the novel tradition: the complex, and to an extent systematic, elaboration of an
imaginary world. (The frequent, and otherwise odd-seeming, comparison of The Lord of the Rings to science-fiction derives its plausibility from
this feature; but I know of no science-fiction text which displays it at a comparable level of amplitude and subtlety.) Let us keep this theme in mind,
[page 26] proceed to a third and final attempt to justify the exclusion of The Lord of the Rings from the category of novels.
By comparison with almost any novel,
The Lord of the
Rings is episodic in structure, especially
in the first volume. Gradually a complex plot
evolves, as the strategies of Sauron, his adversaries and his allies, interact and produce unexpected results. But at first the plot is, arguably, relatively
simple - in this respect it reproduces the perspective of the hobbits, who have no experience of the world outside their Shire, and initially grasp little
more than that a malevolent power is searching for the Ring - and there are numerous adventures along the way, held together by the single thread
of Frodo’s flight from pursuit by Sauron’s Black Riders. Frodo and his companions are tracked by the Riders through the Shire; they find refuge
with the journeying Elves; they are tracked again; they find refuge with farmer Maggot; leaving the Shire, they lose their way in the Old Forest; they
are rescued by the jovial and unaccountable Tom Bombadil; they stay in his house for some days; they proceed, and are captured by ghoulish
Barrow-wights; Tom Bombadil again releases them; they arrive at the Prancing Pony; the inn is attacked by the Black Riders, but the hobbits
escape with ‘Strider’: they journey through the wilderness; they are attacked and Frodo is wounded; and so on. This string of episodes might be
attributed to naïve construction, or to deliberate anachronism of genre: the structural features of The Lord of the Rings, it might be said, remind
one of Pilgrim’s Progress (except that the episodes lack allegorical significance); or of medieval romances; or of the Odyssey; but emphatically
not of the modern novel, in which symphonic tightness of construction, the integral significance of each episode to plot and theme, the sustained
development of material from exposition to closure, are of the essence.
But once again this separation of categories proves
unsustainable. The model of the novel just propounded may hold for Tom Jones
Bovary, but it scarcely holds for Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy or Ulysses (again), let alone for the structurally pluralistic world of
post-modern fiction. It is, in fact, an essentially nineteenth-century, or a Fielding-to-Flaubert, model. Conversely, the actual structural features of
The Lord of the Rings have much in common with many novels, even nineteenth-century ones. Tom Shippey argues persua-
[page 27] sively that ‘the basic structural mode’ of The Lord of the Rings is ‘the ancient and pre-novelistic device of entrelacement’ in which
a number of individual threads of plot, typically the adventures of various characters, are intertwined in a way which the characters themselves do
not perceive, or only dimly intuit, but which becomes gradually apparent to the reader as the plot is clarified and fulfilled. This is perfectly true, even
for the early episodes in Frodo’s journey: certain details of these, it becomes clear from the subsequent narrative, reflect the actions of the wizards
Gandalf and Saruman - particularly the former, Frodo’s friend and advisor, whose worrying absence is a counter-theme during these chapters.
Shippey’s claim is abundantly true, as he demonstrates, of the later stages of the narrative. But as Shippey himself points out, the plot of The Lord
of the Rings is integrated in a way which is not the case with its ‘pre-novelistic’ models: its ‘separations and encounters and wanderings ... are
controlled first by a map (something no Arthurian narrative possesses), and second by an extremely tight chronology of days and dates’. These
elements, and the attitude to plotting which they imply, put one in mind rather of the elaborate implicit chronology of Wuthering Heights, or of R. L.
Stevenson’s declaration that story-telling should always begin with a map, than of the ‘meaningless confusion’ (Shippey’s own description)
of some Arthurian romances. The technique of narrative interlacement may be pre-novelistic in origin, but the novel (perhaps especially the large,
discursive Victorian novel of Dickens, Thackeray or Wilkie Collins) has appropriated it, or reinvented it. The interlacement of The Lord of the
Rings differs essentially from that of, say, Little Dorritt only in the sense that, as we shall see, in the former the overall design which the individual
characters cannot perceive has a mythical, in fact religious, dimension which is absent (unless at a very deeply implicit level) in Dickens’s novel. But
that is not a matter of structural mode.
The structural singularity of
The Lord of the
Rings is of a kind which cuts across any
categoric distinction between novel and romance. Certainly
the narrative permits, especially at first, an unusually leisurely succession of episodes. The whole of Book I (the first half of The Fellowship of the
Ring) is required to bring Frodo, over some four hundred miles and twenty-seven days, to the Elvish sanctuary
of Rivendell, where various representative opponents of Sauron resolve to
attempt the destruction of the Ring. Shippey observes that
Frodo has to be dug out of no less than five ‘Homely Houses’ before his quest is properly launched: first Bag End, then the little house at
Crickhollow with its redundant guardian Fredegar Bolger, then the house of Tom Bombadil, then the Prancing Pony, and finally Rivendell
with its ‘last Homely House east of the Sea’.
Shippey’s point is that The Lord of the Rings does not
really get into its stride
get its interlacement working
Book II. But there is, I
believe, a misconception here. It is true that Frodo’s ‘quest’ is not formalised until the Council of Elrond meets at Rivendell, and that the journey
which brings him to Elrond’s House is at first a walking holiday and then a flight from pursuit. If we are looking for structural unity conferred by the
declared quest, these chapters must seem an anomalous, or at least over-protracted, preamble, whether The Lord of the Rings is conceived as a
novel or as a romance. But it is doubtful whether this notion of the post-Rivendell quest as the unifying concept is an apt one. As several critics have
pointed out, whereas the purpose of most quests is to acquire a sacred or precious object, such as the Holy Grail, the purpose of this quest is to get
rid of something unholy, or, more particularly, to withhold it, first temporarily and then permanently, from the malevolent quester who is ‘the Lord of
the Rings’. Frodo and his friends do not choose to pursue a quest, but have an unwelcome responsibility thrust upon them by ill-fate - not at the
Council of Elrond, but at the moment in Frodo’s home, in chapter 2, when Gandalf reveals to him that his golden ring, bequeathed by the departed
Bilbo Baggins, is Sauron’s lost and coveted Ring of Power. In this sense the opening chapters are fully coherent with the remainder of the ‘quest’:
every furtive step Frodo takes is part of it. There is, however, a deeper structural level at which the model of a quest narrative seems in any case
inapplicable, or at least inadequate. Though the word ‘quest’ is used (mainly though not exclusively in dialogue, at moments of formality or
reflectiveness) it, is scarcely emphasised: in the 143 pages of Book IV, which is devoted to the journey of
[page 29] Frodo and Sam to the mountain passes into Mordor, I can find only one, unobtrusive occurrence (TT, 285). The characters in
nonformal discourse generally speak of ‘our course’, or ‘our road’; and, as passages already quoted illustrate, we are above all aware of a
journey in the most physical sense. Indeed it is the journey, rather than the quest, which serves as the unifying image.
When their breakfast was over, and their packs all trussed up again, it was after ten o’clock, and the day was beginning to turn
fine and hot. They went down the slope, and across the stream where it dived under the road, and up the next slope, and up and
down another shoulder of the hills; and by that time their cloaks, blankets, water, food and other gear already seemed a heavy
burden. The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work. After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down:
it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zigzagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time. In front of
them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze. They
were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River. The road wound away before them like a piece of string.
‘The road goes on for ever’, said Pippin .... He sat down on the bank at the side of the road and looked away east into the haze,
beyond which lay the River, and the end of the Shire in which he had spent all his life. ... Frodo was silent. He too was gazing
eastward along the road, as if he had never seen it before. Suddenly he spoke, aloud but as if to himself, saying slowly:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
‘That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo’s rhyming’, said Pippin. ‘Or is it one of your imitations? It does not sound altogether encouraging.’
‘I don’t know’, said Frodo. ‘It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me
[page 30] of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river:
its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door”, he
used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your senses, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do
you realise that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or
even further and to worse places?” ...’ (FR, 82-3)
The homespun symbolism is transparent enough, and indeed
Bilbo’s speech makes it virtually explicit: the Road stands for life, or rather
possibilities, indeed probabilities, of adventure, commitment, and danger; for the fear of losing oneself, and the hope of homecoming. At the same
time it is markedly true of Middle-earth, as a narrative locale, that it is a world of roads. Both The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor, The
Hobbit (which features Bilbo, Frodo’s elder cousin, as its hero), literally begin and end at the door of Bag End after many hundreds of miles of
journeying: their heroes are travelling for much longer stretches of narrative than they are resident anywhere. In fact only a few pages at each end
of The Lord of the Rings (FR, 51 ff., RK, 301 ff.) can be said to describe sustained periods of residence by the principals, and in both cases there
are repeated references to journeying, actual or contemplated: even before the revelation about the Ring, Frodo looks longingly at maps, dreams
about mountains he has never seen, and takes to ‘wandering further and further afield by himself’ (FR, 52). Gandalf, the benevolent wizard, ‘never
made for himself any lasting abode’, we are told, but ‘wandered’ throughout the west of Middle-earth (RK, 365); Aragorn is a ‘Ranger’, and ‘the
greatest traveller ... of this age of the world’ (FR, 67). The first episode in The Lord of the Rings is Bilbo’s farewell party, at the end of which he
departs eastward to an unknown destination; and the work closes with a final journey for Frodo, a departure from the shores of Middle-earth, and
Sam’s sad return to Bag End: the last words of the narrative are ‘“Well, I’m back”, he said’ (RK, 3 11). Lest we should miss the point, the ‘Road’
song itself recurs in variants throughout The Lord of the Rings, and returns, poignantly transformed, in the final chapter.
The ‘journey’, then, rather than the more narrowly defined ‘quest’, is the
appropriate name for the image which unifies the
heterogeneous narrative of The Lord of the Rings; the specific quest, Frodo’s ‘errand’ as it is sometimes called, is merely the axis of the main
action. The ‘errand’ pertains to the plot, the journey to the story, or ‘history’. The difference is important. Whereas the quest as a unifying device
is integrative, and relegates the locales to a subordinate status (every episode must represent a significant obstacle overcome, or a significant gain
in enlightenment), the journey is expansive and exalts the locales: it permits diversions, loose ends, and celebrates the contingency and variety of the
world. Certainly many - indeed, to varying extents, all - of the episodes of the hobbits’ journeys are integrated into subsequent narrative
developments; but these connections are contingent, and, as it were, life-like, not systematic or necessarily thematically significant. The short sword
Meriadoc Brandybuck recovers from a haunted barrow in The Fellowship of the Ring he uses to wound the diabolic Witch-King in The Return
of the King; but the previous episode, the encounter with Tom Bombadil, is only briefly touched upon thereafter, and Tom is not waiting to greet
the travellers on their return journey. The Ents, encountered by the wandering Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers, are roused by them to join
the war against the treacherous wizard Saruman; but the Ents’ abandoned search for the Entwives, of which a good deal is said and sung in this
episode, is destined never to be resumed. The maps of Middle-earth show countless lands, rivers, mountains, villages that do not feature in the
narrative; and again and again the characters gaze in passing over landscapes that they will never, in fact, traverse. If, as I have suggested, the
energetic elaboration of an imaginary world is the essence of the distinctiveness of The Lord of the Rings from the novel tradition, this structural
use of the journey is a crucial part of that distinctiveness.
It might be protested at this point that expansiveness and
contingency hardly make for coherence
an emphasis on journeying looks like an
excuse for rambling and superfluous invention, rather than a unifying device. On this view The Lord of the Rings offends not merely against widely
accepted principles of novelistic unity, but against classical principles of proportion between the parts and the whole, of sufficiency of means to ends,
[page 32] which transcend distinctions of genre. The multiplication of places, peoples and personages, it might be said, goes far beyond what is
necessary to secure the excitement of the climax and dénouement. Though the invention is enjoyable enough episode by episode, it overweights the
structure: Tom Bombadil, for example, could safely be cut - as dramatic adaptations of the book, from the BBC radio version to Peter Jackson’s
film, have generally done. A slimmed down version of the work, retaining the essentials of the plot but without the leisurely proliferation of
detail, would have been more fully effective.
But no one who knows the book well will feel that this makes
sense. It is not merely that some episodes are too good to miss. The proposition
that slimming-down would make the book as a whole more effective rings false. On the contrary, most readers are likely to agree with Tolkien
himself (FR, 6) that the book is defective in being too short. The reason is that the amplitude of the world described in The Lord of the Rings is
itself both structurally and thematically significant. What looks like excess from the point of view of a plot-based structure is wholly necessary for a
different kind of structure: and the two types of structure are here ultimately integrated in a single aesthetic complex.
I would like to return to the point about desire, and to offer some
generalisations which I hope will not be too contentious. The aesthetic
dynamic of a plot-based structure is, in general and stating the point somewhat crudely, the creation in the reader’s mind of certain hopes and fears,
the resolution of which, in one way or another, forms the terminal objective of the plot. This is as true of, say, a Jane Austen novel (where the hopes
and fears relate to the vicissitudes of courtship, or to the conflicts between good sense and folly) as of any melodrama. Whether the reader’s
engaged desires are, broadly speaking, gratified, as in Pride and Prejudice or The Winter’s Tale, or, broadly speaking, denied, as in Tess of the
D’Urbevilles or Othello, the structure of the narrative or drama is correlated to the process of their arousal, quickening, gratification or denial.
Individual scenes or episodes serve not only to display events, engendering and resolving suspense, but to arouse those attractions and aversions
towards particular conceptions (often, but not exclusively, characters) which motivate the reader to take an interest
[page 33] in the sequence of events. Not all literary works have plot-based structure. In the case of certain works of fiction, including some
celebrated modern novels (Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, for instance), the sequence of events may seem relatively unimportant; in other types of
work, such as lyric poems, there may be effectively no events. In these cases, the aesthetic experience becomes an experience of response to
plotless conceptions (which may at their simplest be no more than visual images), and different kinds of structure are employed to give coherence
and clarity to this response.
The Lord of the
Rings has a plot-based structure, simple in
outline but complex in detail. As Frodo, still bearing the Ring, draws nearer to
Mordor, his scattered companions become involved in the war waged by Sauron, and his quasi-independent ally Saruman, against the two
kingdoms of Men which lie to the west of Mordor - Gondor and Rohan. At length Saruman is overthrown and imprisoned in his own stronghold,
Isengard; but the chief city of Gondor, Minas Tirith, is besieged, and it becomes clear, after various shifts of fortune, that military victory must
sooner or later lie with Sauron. Books III and V narrate these developments; book IV and the early chapters of VI follow Frodo and Sam,
pursued or accompanied by the degraded former Ring-bearer Gollum, to Mount Doom. The work’s climax, when Frodo, finally yielding to the
corrupting power of the Ring, refuses to destroy it in the volcanic fire, even as Sauron’s hordes overrun the last defenders of the West, has an
overpowering force, the culmination of several hundred pages of carefully accumulated tension, which no quotation can begin to suggest.
But the work also has an overarching, indeed all-inclusive,
structure. As I have been aiming to suggest throughout this chapter, the work is
by the imaginative authenticity of the invented world itself: by the internal coherence of its history, geography, philology. The complexities of the plot,
the interlacing journeys, the multitudinous discourses, all conduce to this end. This expansiveness, which might be supposed to threaten incoherence,
paradoxically has the opposite effect, since every additional detail, providing it is consistent with the rest, reinforces the impression of a world which
has the interior consistency of the real world, as well as its capacity for newness, for surprise, its inexhaustibility.
The work’s least novelistic sections of all
six antiquarian Appendices, which supplement the main narrative with a hundred
of lesser narratives, chronicles and essays, without ever producing the impression that the historical record has run dry - further authenticate this
unifying expansiveness: one feels that they could go on for ever, and that an essential feature of the invented world (as of the real one) is this
This comprehensive structure is effective aesthetically
because the imaginary world and its contents are affectively highly charged. The
be expressed aphoristically by saying that Middleearth, rather than any of the characters, is the hero of The Lord of the Rings; and Middle-earth,
as an imaginative conception, is coterminous with the entire work. Just as the emotional power of a novel may be derived primarily from our
engagement with the personality of the protagonist, and only secondarily from the events in which the protagonist becomes involved, so the
emotional power of The Lord of the Rings is at least as much a matter of the fascination and beauty of Middle-earth (including its peoples and
their cultures) as of the excitement of the plot. But the crux of the plot is, precisely, the threatened destruction of Middle-earth: its conversion by
Sauron, if he obtains the Ring, to the likeness of Mordor, a sterile, undifferentiated waste-land in which, we may presume, all cultures will have
been obliterated and all peoples slaughtered or enslaved. (‘He’ll eat us all if He gets it, eat all the world’, as Gollum warns Frodo (TT, 245).) In
this way the two aesthetic structures - the dynamic structure of the plot, and the comprehensive structure of the invented world - are integrally
related: our desire for Middle-earth is the keynote, so to speak, of our desire for the fulfilment of Frodo’s errand. The Lord of the Rings is a
consummate work of art because it co-ordinates these desires (each of which is itself a complex of many desires) into a compelling unity.
In his Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the
Rings, Tolkien tells us that his ‘prime motive was the desire of a
tale-teller to try
[page 35] his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or
move them deeply’ (FR, 6). Though expressed with calculated modesty, this account of his intentions is a more accurate pointer to his actual
achievement in the work than many critical analyses. If The Lord of the Rings is to be esteemed, the reason which is prior to all others is that,
like a great painting or piece of music, it promotes, and gives shape to, emotional responses which we value.
Tolkien notably does not say that his aim was to inculcate
moral values, and I shall argue at the end of this chapter that an important
made to desires which are not in themselves moral, though they are congruent or compatible with moral values. Nevertheless any analysis of the
aesthetic power of The Lord of the Rings needs to take into account the fact that its values are organised around a moral conflict: Sauron’s
despotism is not only to be ‘undesired’, it is to be undesired in the specific sense of being perceived as categorically morally bad. Nothing could be
more false, however, than the notion that The Lord of the Rings represents a deterministic, or Manichean, universe of struggle between the innately
and unalterably good and the innately and unalterably evil. On the contrary, as several critics have noticed, the imagined world is underpinned by an
optimistic, and occasionally explicit, theology of a quite different kind. ‘Nothing is evil in the beginning’, Elrond observes. ‘Even Sauron was not so’
(FR, 281). Though God is not referred to in The Lord of the Rings (except fleetingly in an Appendix, RK 317), and though its world is
pre-Christian, there is no doubt that we are in an Augustinian universe, in which all Creation is good, and evil is conceived in terms of freely-chosen
negation, of a wilful abdication from an original state of created perfection. Sauron, the Dark Lord, is not a countervailing deity, but a fallen angel
who, for all his awesome power, cannot create new life, only strive to annihilate it or pervert it into abominable forms. Whether the reader
consciously recognises the theology is unimportant: the essential point is that the negativity of evil, and the intrinsic goodness of ‘the effoliation and
multiple enrichment of creation’ (to quote Tolkien’s words from a different context) are consistently and palpably maintained.
Whatever the clarity of the underlying moral ideas, however, any fictional
narrative which attempts to embody a successful struggle of good
against evil, not in allegorised abstractions, but in an elaborately ‘realised’ world, is exposed to a number of risks, There is the risk - which allegory
is able to make into a virtue - of perceived over-simplification, such that the reader loses confidence in the moral significance of the action; the risk
of making good seem dull and evil interesting; and the risk that the victory of good may seem either implausible, or all too plausible but in a way
which undermines its claim to be good. W H. Auden suggests that
if ... Good and Evil are to be incarnated in individuals and societies, we must be convinced that the Evil side is what every sane
man, irrespective of his nationality or culture, would acknowledge as evil. The triumph of Good over Evil ... must appear
historically possible, not a daydream. Physical, and to a considerable extent, intellectual power must be shown as what we know
them to be, morally neutral and effectively real: battles are won by the stronger side, be it good or evil.
To take Auden’s latter point first, the defeat of the forces
of Evil should ideally appear, not as a lucky accident, or as a punishment
outside by a superior power (which deprives the actual process of defeat of any moral significance), but as the practical consequence of wickedness
itself: Evil must appear as intrinsically self-defeating in the long run. Auden himself indicates several reasons why this is so in The Lord of the Rings.
Sauron and his servants, despite their steadily growing superiority in crude strength and terror, are hindered by weaknesses which are themselves
vices: their lack of imagination, the irrational cruelty which denies them the option of voluntary assistance (the victim must be made to act against his
own will), and the selfishness which disables their alliances. The mutual deceptions between Sauron and Saruman, the murderous animosities among,
and within, orc-tribes which aid the escape of Frodo and Sam from capture and pursuit in Mordor, the contrast between the sullen or terrified
acquiescence of the enslaved and the energetic co-operativeness of free men (and, towards, the end of the work, free hobbits revolting against
Saruman's petty tyranny over the Shire) all contribute towards the
[page 37] ‘historical possibility’ of unforeseen victory over evil. In comparison, the few discreetly suggested providential interventions - the
reincarnation of Gandalf after his fatal struggle with the demonic Balrog, the sea-wind from the South that speeds Aragorn’s ships to the rescue of
the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith - are at most correctives to blows struck by the forces of evil: they counteract the strength of the Dark Lord,
but do not diminish it.
It is the intellectual myopia of Evil, however, on which
greatest explicit emphasis is laid in the text. Just as the created world is
intrinsically good, so
disinterested curiosity about that world is an attribute of good; the negativity of evil entails a loss of insight and of the desire to understand others.
‘Whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered’ (FR, 366). The inability of complete evil to
understand selfrenunciatory motives is consciously exploited by Sauron’s antagonists in their decision to attempt the destruction of the Ring, even
at the risk of sending it into Sauron’s own territory.
‘Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!
For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his
the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it,
that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.’ (FR, 283)
The subsequent strategy of Gandalf and Aragorn is to mount a
hopeless but diversionary military challenge to Sauron, drawing out his
and his forces from Mordor to crush (as he will suppose) the embryonic power of a rival aggressor. Meanwhile Frodo and Sam proceed into
Mordor on the errand that Sauron cannot imagine until, as Frodo claims the Ring for himself, Sauron recognises too late ‘the magnitude of his own folly’ (RK, 223).
At this moment, it is worth noting, Frodo himself is
performing a wrongful, and indeed potentially calamitous, act: yielding at last
in his exhaustion,
when the moment to destroy the Ring is before him, to its fearsome, but in principle resistible, corruptive power. His failure of will takes him to the
edge of the spiritual abyss into which Sauron has fallen ages earlier. In the event, Gollum, who has
[page 38] accompanied or tracked him to the end of his journey in his passion to regain the Ring, seizes it, biting off Frodo’s finger, and falls -
propelled by the Ring’s own curse - into the physical abyss of the volcano. Frodo is saved by the practical consequence of earlier acts of mercy
shown to Gollum, by Frodo himself, by Sam, by Bilbo, by Gandalf, by Aragorn, by Faramir the captain of Gondor, by the wood-elves of
Mirkwood. Nevertheless, claiming the Ring is a culpable deed, and one which, it is made very clear, any of the characters (except the sublimely
self-sufficient demigod Tom Bombadil) might have committed: indeed several of Sauron’s opponents refuse to take or even handle the Ring, for
fear of corruption by its inherent malignity and by the power to dominate others that it offers in proportion to the strength of the user. The
well-intentioned Boromir, son of the ruling Steward of Gondor, covets it as a weapon for military exploits against Mordor, and finally assaults Frodo
in an attempt to steal it; his father Denethor, more insidiously tempted, proposes to keep it in reserve in the vaults of his citadel (RK, 78). Frodo
himself, possessive towards the Ring, and not without a streak of native priggishness, calls the devoted Sam a ‘thief’ when the latter offers to
carry it for a while (RK, 188); and when the elderly Bilbo, the previous Ring-bearer, asks to see it once again, Frodo feels ‘a desire to strike
him’ (FR, 244). These examples should make us cautious about accepting, so far as The Lord of the Rings is concerned, Auden’s premise that
‘Good and Evil are to be incarnated in individuals and societies.’ Certainly the invented world presents us with intensified or encapsulated
representations of good and evil, which in figures such as Gandalf and Sauron, or societies such as the Shire and Mordor, manifest themselves with
a clarity of focus seldom if ever encountered in the historical world. But the implicit theology of free will is clear enough in The Lord of the Rings:
no character is intrinsically (that is, by original and unalterable nature) evil or good in the way that, so far as we can gather from the stories, the
wicked stepmother or good fairy of the traditional fairy-tale, or for that matter Uriah Heep and Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield, are
intrinsically evil and good respectively. The ‘good’, as we have seen, are morally fallible, and the evil have not been evil from the first. The crooked
counsellor of Rohan, Grima ‘Wormtongue’, ‘was not always as it now is. Once
[page 39] it was a man, and did ... service in its fashion’ (TT, 125). Saruman ‘was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our
hands against’ (RK, 299). Nor are the guilty always irredeemable. Boromir, after his attack on Frodo, redeems himself by confessing to the deed
and sacrificing himself to defend Merry and Pippin. King Théoden of Rohan, fallen into despair and inaction under the persuasions of Wormtongue,
is revived by Gandalf, repudiates his false counsellor, and reprieves the loyal nephew he has victimised. Saruman and Gollum, both stained with
repeated murder, come close, especially the latter, to repentance; one of the saddest moments in the narrative is the episode in which Gollum,
painfully wavering over his scheme to betray Frodo and Sam to their deaths, resembling
an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and
streams of his youth, an old starved pitiable thing ... (TT, 324)
tenderly touches the sleeping Frodo’s knee, only to be
accused by Sam of ‘sneaking’. Sam’s tetchy behaviour at this point, and his
compassion for Gollum after he has briefly shared the latter’s experience of the burden of Ring-bearer, provide a further example of moral
development among the principal characters, as does the striking contrast between Frodo’s near-pacifism at the end of the narrative, when his only
involvement in the Battle of Bywater is to prevent enraged hobbits from revenging themselves on Saruman’s men (RK, 295-6), and his declaration
near the beginning (FR, 68) that Bilbo ought to have killed Gollum when he had the chance.
As for the societies of Middle-earth, they too ‘incarnate’
good and evil only in the sense that they embody moral qualities recognizable
historical world with an aesthetic clarity which is not to be found in history. Mordor is not a worse society - in the sense of quantity or intensity of
accomplished evil - than, say, Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the Aztec Empire, but it is a uniformly - so to speak, harmoniously - evil
society in a way that no real society can be. Mordor is the only morally unequivocal society in Middle-earth because it is the only society created
[page 40] in the image and according to the will of a single being: it is necessarily evil because only an evil being would subordinate all other wills to
his own, and because the act of subordinating other wills makes a being evil. (Contrast with Sauron’s version of lordship the following dialogue
between Frodo and Goldberry, the wife of Tom Bombadil.)
‘Fair lady!’ said Frodo ... ‘Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?’
‘He is’, said Goldberry, staying her movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. ‘He is, as you have seen him’, she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the Master of wood,
water and hill.’
‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’
‘No indeed!’ she answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a heavy burden’, she added in a low voice, as if to
herself. ‘The trees and grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the
Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and
shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’ (FR, 135)
The relation of Bombadil to his little country is like that
of an unfallen Adam to the Garden of Eden. Bombadil’s freedom from fear is
with his freedom from tyrannical intent: secure in a gardener-like status which it does not occur to him to exceed, his will cannot afflict or be afflicted
by the wills of others. All societies other than Mordor (unless one counts the miniature tyranny of Saruman’s Isengard) are predominantly good,
though with an admixture of actual or potential evil: even the unblemished Elvish land of Lothlórien would, we must suppose, have degenerated if its
ruler, Galadriel, had yielded to the temptation to accept the Ring from Frodo; and ‘even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s
business and talking big’ (RK, 281). The predominance of good is greater, no doubt, in these two communities than in any real society: we are told,
for example, that ‘no hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire’ (RK, 285). But, as this carefully qualified statement suggests, the
exceptional peacefulness of the Shire, as of Lothlórien, is presented as the result of specific and transitory historical circumstances, as well as of the
comparatively pacific nature of Hobbits and Elves. The Shire is
[page 41] sheltered from conflict, both by the protective Rangers and by its geographical position, and enjoys a benign climate and fertile soil; in
pre-Shire days Hobbits have in fact fought ‘to maintain themselves in a hard world’ (FR, 14). Lothlórien is an enclave defended by arrows as well
as by the invisible power of Galadriel’s own Ring, Nenya; when Galadriel, wearing Nenya, spreads out her hands ‘towards the East in a gesture
of rejection and denial’ (FR, 380), it is not because the Elves are incapable of being seduced by Sauron, but on the contrary because they have
been seduced in earlier times, and have learned their lesson - Nenya itself is a product of this period of collaboration.
If, then, in Auden’s words, ‘we are convinced that the Evil
side is what every sane man ... would acknowledge as evil’, it is at least
the represented conflict between good and evil is schematic only to an extent which is consistent with the internal authenticity of the invented world.
Granted the initial ‘mythical’ premises, of which the most significant is the incarnation (in the literal sense) of formidable immortal spirits upon the
surface of a great continent inhabited by mortal creatures, the manifestations of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings have a complexity more
familiar from the realistic novel than from fairy-tale, and invisible only to the most determinedly cursory reading.
Mere complexity, however, is not enough to make the moral
dimension of the work compelling. The interplay between good and evil in
of the Rings forms part of the more comprehensive interplay between conceptions designed to arouse desire and conceptions designed to arouse
‘undesire’, or rejection: for the work to be effective, the reader must respond appropriately, at least to a sufficient extent for the affective structure
which unites the plot to the invented world to hold firm. To put it more specifically and perhaps more clearly, the reader must be delighted by
Middleearth in order to care that Sauron should not lay it desolate, and must endorse with a lively emotional response the claims of the Shire,
Rivendell, Lothlórien and Gondor, of Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo, to constitute images of a life that is to be desired, of attitudes and motives that
are to be desired in oneself and in others, and must correspondingly feel that Sauron and all his works are images of what is to be rejected and
Vital to the achievement of this response is the
contrast between the diversity of good and the sameness of evil. The benign
of Middle-earth have few uniform features, except those incident upon the imagined pre-industrial stage of economic development. (Mostly, for
example, they are hereditary monarchies - but this is not true of the Shire, which has an elected Mayor, nor, apparently, of the Bree-land.) As the
hobbits journey among them, it is their dissimilarities which are most often underlined. There is a wide tolerance, even a relish in diversity, both in
trivial and in comparatively serious matters.
Now more torches were being lit. A cask of wine was broached. Storage barrels were being opened. Men were fetching water
from the fall. Some were laving their hands in basins. A wide copper bowl and a white cloth were brought to Faramir and he
‘Wake our guests,’ he said, ‘and take them water. It is time to eat.’ Frodo sat up and yawned and stretched. Sam, not used to
being waited on, looked with some surprise at the tall man who bowed, holding a basin of water before him.
‘Put it on the ground, master, if you please!’ he said. ‘Easier for me and you.’ Then to the astonishment and amusement of the
Men he plunged his head into the cold water and splashed his neck and ears.
‘Is it the custom in your land to wash the head before supper?’ said the man who waited on the hobbits.
‘No, before breakfast’, said Sam. ‘But if you’re short of sleep cold water on the neck’s like rain on a wilted lettuce. There!
Now I can keep awake long enough to eat a bit ...’
Before they ate, Faramir and all his men turned and faced west in a moment of silence. Faramir signed to Frodo and Sam that
they should do likewise.
‘So we always do,’ he said, as they sat down: ‘we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to
that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be. Have you no such custom at meat?’
‘No’, said Frodo, feeling strangely rustic and untutored. ‘But if we are guests, we bow to our host and after we have eaten we
rise and thank him.’
‘That we do also’, said Faramir. (TT, 284-5)
Both parties to the clash of washing-rituals are attractive, the Men because of
their attentive hospitality, Sam because of his democratic
spirit (‘Easier for me and you’) and his comically informative reply (‘ No, before breakfast’) which misses the emphasis of the question. The
exchange sets the tone for what immediately follows. Frodo feels strangely rustic and untutored, but it is only a feeling, an effect of cultural
perspective; and to feel rustic and untutored is not to feel guilty: there is no implied reproach to the hobbits for irreligion. Middle-earth is, in fact,
a world without churches or organised piety, though not without celebration and reverence: the Elves, for example (to whose poetry and song any
distinction of ‘sacred’ from ‘secular’ seems inapplicable), sing in spontaneous praise of Elbereth, under the stars she has kindled. Dogma and
sectarianism are absent. The hobbits, as we see here, lack even the minimal religious ritual of the Men of Gondor: their ethical culture, learned in
ancient times from Elves or Men, has become almost wholly tacit, and in the Shire, we gather, they now fear Elves and know nothing of the
realms of Men. But this unwritten yet entrenched ethic, its origins only glimpsed in a few proverbial phrases - ‘there had been no king for a thousand
years ... yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king’ (FR, 18) - has its own charm,
correlated to the hobbits’ easygoing way of life and lack of ambition.
The universal value of courtesy, to be sure, is upheld here,
and elsewhere. ‘You have courteous speech’, declares the venerable Denethor to a
nervous Pippin, ‘strange though the sound of it may be to us in the South. And we shall have need of all folk of courtesy, he they great or small, in
the days to come’ (RK, 28). That special degree of courtesy which enables individuals actually to transcend differences of culture and race, to
understand and respect the customs of others, marks out characters of especial wisdom, like Galadriel who receives and conciliates the Dwarf,
Gimli, in Lothlórien. But it is not universal even among the benign. Galadriel’s own people are suspicious of Gimli (and he of them), while to the
people of Rohan, ‘Elvish wights’ are sinister figures associated with sorcery (TT, 34-5; RK, 59). The hobbits of the Shire are for the most part
incorrigibly parochial. When Frodo returns to the Shire, wounded and subdued, he receives little honour from the people
[page 44] he has saved from enslavement or death - indeed they remain largely unaware of, or indifferent to, the events beyond their own borders.
Sam’s father, ‘Gaffer’ Gamgee, greets Frodo not with gratitude but with uncomprehending reproof.
‘Good evening, Mr Baggins!’ he said. ‘Glad indeed I am to see you safe back. But I’ve a bone to pick with you, in a manner
o’ speaking, if I may make so bold. You didn’t never ought to have a’ sold Bag End, as I always said. That’s what started all the
mischief. And while you’ve been trapessing in foreign parts, chasing Black Men up mountains from what my Sam says, though
for what he don’t make clear, they’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!’ (RK, 293)
But the comic tone is important. While this circumscribed
vision is not exactly commended
will soon feel, with Sam, the poignancy of the
ailing Frodo’s retirement - it is accepted with good humour. The Shire has its own values and mores, appropriate, in normal circumstances, to a
peaceful land, untouched for centuries by momentous events. The Gaffer’s protest against Sam’s wearing armour (‘What’s come of his weskit? I
don’t hold with wearing ironmongery, whether it wears well or no’ (RK, 294)) is as sane and humane in these terms as his concern for his taters.
Conversely, the military values of Gondor, of which Faramir speaks somewhat apologetically to Frodo (TT, 287) and Beregond to Pippin (RK, 39),
reflect its position as historical antagonist and neighbour to Mordor. The geopolitical complexity of Middle-earth requires, in fact, if it is to be
plausible, a certain variation in the expression and emphasis given to moral imperatives.
As for life-styles, modes of social organisation, and other
cultural features, the principal societies are again extremely various, granted
basic moral principles. (Polygamy, for example, is conspicuous by its absence.) Dwarves and Elves, ‘the Mountain and the Wood’ (FR, 392), have
antithetical preferences, reconcilable only by exceptional friendship: Gimli consents to visit the alarmingly alive Forest of Fangorn, ‘though with no
great delight, it seemed’ (RK, 259) only because the Elf, Legolas, has accompanied him into the caves of Aglarond. With these two races Tolkien
greatly elaborates and dignifies traditional images: Dwarvish culture is based on craftsmanship, especially in metal, and on trade; Elven culture is
[page 45] or maritime. The reclusive Wild Men of Drúadan Forest, with their poisoned arrows, gurgling speech and primitive mathematics (‘I am
great headman, Ghan-buri-Ghan. I count many things: stars in sky, leaves on trees, men in the dark. You have a score of scores counted five times
and five’ (RK, 106)) seem scarcely human to the neighbouring Rohirrim, who themselves, ‘writing no books but singing many songs’ (TT, 33) have
a rudimentary culture by the sophisticated standards of Gondor. But these differences are not essentially evaluative. The ‘return of the King’ at the
end of the work does not usher in a rule of the saints or a uniform polity: though Aragorn’s formal sovereignty extends over both Drúadan and the
Shire, he consigns both to the exclusive government of their existing populations (RK, 254, 377). This endorsement of diversity, apart from its
contribution to the internal realism of Middle-earth, protects The Lord of the Rings from any accusation of invoking a narrow and prescriptive
version of the good life.
Conversely, evil tends to homogeneity. Its keynote is
aggrandisement of self and negation of not-self, whether through the literal
of others, as with the giant blood-drinking spider Shelob, or through the enslavement and torture of other persons and the destruction of growing
things. There is only one form of political order, a military despotism which terrorises its own soldiery as well as its enemies; sexuality is loveless,
either diverted into sadism or confined to the organised breeding of warriors; economic life is based on slavery, and is devoted not to the cultivation,
but to the exploitation, and ultimately the destruction, of resources. Industrial processes are developed solely for the purposes of warfare and
deliberate pollution. In all these respects Saruman’s despotism is just the same as Sauron’s: his Isengard is ‘only a little copy, a child’s model or a
slave’s flattery’ of Sauron’s ‘vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr’ (TT, 161). (There is narrative discretion here:
Tolkien avoids the risk of duplication, and at the same time reinforces our sense of the literally indescribable terror of Sauron’s Dark Tower, by
depicting Isengard at close quarters and at length while suggesting Barad-dûr only through distant and momentary glimpses.) When Saruman
escapes to the Shire, all he can do is initiate the same process once again at a petty level. Sauron’s own vassals and slaves are robbed of
[page 46] distinct identity: the Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr has no recorded name, ‘for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: “I am the
Mouth of Sauron”’(RK, 164). When Sauron is overthrown, his ores and trolls run ‘hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast
themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope’ (RK, 227). His service is a negation of personal
autonomy. The Ring, likewise, assimilates individuals to one another. Gollum incessantly calls the Ring his ‘precious’; Bilbo uses the same word
(though only once), when reluctant to relinquish it (FR, 42); so does Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur: ‘it is precious to me, though I buy it with great
pain’ (FR, 266). The Ring gradually negates the particular identities of its owners, extending their lives (unless they die violent deaths) but causing
them to fade - in the end, literally - into a depersonalised wraithdom, like the Men, ensnared with Rings by Sauron in an earlier age, who appear
as the ghostly, menacing and indistinguishable Nazgul, the Nine Riders. The hobbits, though physically resilient, suffer psychological attenuation.
Bilbo, cheerfully unaware of the Ring’s nature, feels himself ‘stretched ... like butter that has been spread over too much bread’ (FR, 41). Frodo,
in the last stages of his journey, confides to Sam that he ‘could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I would go mad’ (RK, 214), and loses the
ability to visualise anything but the hallucination of the fiery Ring.
‘No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left
to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking
eyes, and all else fades.’ (RK, 215)
Gollum, obsessed by the desire to repossess the Ring, talks
to it continually, speaks of himself in the third person or in the plural except
moments of intermittent rationality, and is effectively driven insane by the final crisis on Mount Doom, when he must either seize the Ring from
Frodo or see it cast into the Fire and destroyed: he pursues Frodo to the Cracks of Doom ‘with a wild light of madness glaring in his eyes’, and
in the few moments of possession dances ‘like a mad thing’ on the brink of the chasm (RK, 222,224). Sympathetic though most readers will be
towards Gollum, the state
[page 47] into which he degenerates, and by which Frodo and others are threatened, is genuinely frightening. One can imagine a person wishing to
be like Wilkie Collins’s Count Fosco, or Goethe’s Mephistopheles, or even conceivably Milton’s Satan (though not Dante’s): it is one of the
triumphs of Tolkien’s literary judgement in The Lord of the Rings that fully accomplished evil is represented by states of personality (or
unpersonality) which no sane reader could envy.
In many respects the polarities of value within
The Lord of the
Rings are based on an appeal to the centre
of the moral consensus. Truthfulness is
opposed to falsehood, loyalty to treachery, kindness to cruelty, and so on. This might become merely pious and facile, and end by alienating, rather
than engaging, the reader’s attention and sympathies. But the characters and their actions avoid copybook banality for two reasons. The first is that
none of the core virtues is pressed as a dogma beyond the point of common sense. Faramir says that he ‘would not snare even an orc with a
falsehood’ (TT, 1.72), but then Faramir is a powerful and well-armed warrior, fully capable of killing orcs by the dozen: the hobbits, when captured
and otherwise helpless, do in fact resort to understandable deception at times, as when Merry and Pippin imply to the orc-captain Grishnâkh that
they have the Ring (TT, 58-9). In the extremity of Denethor’s madness, when he commands his guards to help him to commit suicide, and proposes
to burn his wounded son on the same pyre, Beregond breaks his oath of fealty in order to save Faramir, and kills three loyal guards. ‘And the
others cursed him, calling him outlaw and traitor to his master’ (RK, 128). It is important that Beregond should grieve at these actions, and should
subsequently be brought to (a merciful) judgement for them, but the common-sensical principle is clear: obligations of loyalty, even when reinforced
by solemn oaths, may be overridden by other moral imperatives. Even Frodo’s kindness to Gollum is modified by the need to take precautions
against a sudden murderous attack, or an attempt to seize the Ring.
‘You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol you said. Do not say that again! Do not let that thought
grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire of it may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back. In the last
need, Sméagol, I should put on the
[page 48] Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it
were to leap from a precipice or cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command. So have a care, Sméagol!’ (TT, 248)
It is an instance of the psychological and moral complexity
of the work that Frodo is speaking here both out of prudence and altruism (since
catastrophe for everyone, including Gollum himself, is probable if the latter regains the Ring or hinders Frodo’s errand), and - as the nervously
repeated sentence suggests - out of his own steadily hardening possessiveness towards the Ring.
The second reason is that the attractiveness of the benign
characters and societies lies not only in their practice of certain consensus
in their manifestation of what one might call peri-ethical qualities: qualities such as humour, learning, curiosity, creativity, and delight in life, which are
ultimately related to more centrally moral qualities (such as freedom from self-absorption, and love for other creatures) but which often fall into the
wrong hands, so to speak, in works of fiction.
in particular, is almost exclusively associated with goodness in
The Lord of the
Rings. Tolkien is perfectly capable of
villains in stories of less ethical seriousness - Chrysophylax in Farmer Giles of Ham, and to some extent Smaug in The Hobbit, are examples. In
The Lord of the Rings, Gollum perpetrates one or two bleak jokes, while Saruman, Grishnâkh and the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr engage in sarcastic
sneering, but none of these is remotely funny: it is the menace and hatred, or in Gollum’s case the extraordinary mixture of the sinister and the
pathetic, on which the emphasis rests. Gollum cackles with laughter when the hobbits, stumbling at night through the Dead Marshes, see the faces
of slaughtered soldiers, eerily illuminated, below the surface of the pools.
‘The Dead can’t be really there! Is it some devilry hatched in the Dark Land?’
‘Who knows? Sméagol doesn’t know’, answered Gollum. ‘You cannot reach them, you cannot touch them. We tried once,
yes, precious. I tried once; but you cannot reach them. Only shapes to see, perhaps, not to touch. No precious! All dead.’
[page 49] Sam looked darkly at him and shuddered again, thinking that he guessed why Sméagol had tried to touch them.
‘Well, I don’t want to see them’, he said. ‘Never again! Can’t we get on and get away?’
‘Yes, yes’, said Gollum. ‘But slowly, very slowly. Very carefully! Or hobbits go down to join the Dead ones and light little
candles. Follow Sméagol! Don’t look at lights!’ (TT, 235-6)
Gollum is on his best behaviour here, and his black joke
about the little candles is just sufficiently similar to the lugubrious humour
in adversity in
which Sam specialises (‘Three precious little Gollums in a row we shall be, if this goes on much longer’, he reflects a moment later (TT, 23 6)) to
remind us that Gollum himself is a hobbit, though severed from his people by centuries of loneliness. The Shire hobbits are both intentionally and,
as we have seen already, unintentionally humorous. Bilbo’s farewell party is a gluttonous revelry, ending with his heckled, would-be-witty speech
and the practical joke of his disappearance. (‘Why worry? He hasn’t taken the vittles with him’, comments Rory Brandybuck (FR, 39).) Merry
and Pippin banter freely with other characters, irrespective of rank, and Pippin engages in rather irritating horseplay at bathtime. Sam and Frodo
both sing comic songs. The Elves of Lothlórien mock Sam for breathing so loudly that they could shoot him in the dark (FR, 356). Above all, the
wizard Gandalf, despite - or appropriately to - the seriousness of his role as the Enemy of Sauron, is a partially comic figure, in the tradition of the
genial yet peppery hero-sage of which Sherlock Holmes is the earliest example (oddly enough) that comes to mind; his knowledge and authority
are counterbalanced by self-mockery (evoked by his failure to make sense of the simple inscription on the west door of the mines of Moria
(FR, 318-21)), and by a playfulness which expresses itself not only in his firework display at Bilbo’s party but in his cat-and-mouse game with
Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas when he returns, hooded and newly attired, from the dead. They suppose him at first to be Saruman, and apprehensively
interpret his comments and inquiries as sarcastic challenges; the joke is that they are nothing of the kind, but conversational sheep in wolves’
clothing. It is the quality of Gandalf’s laughter, ‘like the sudden bite of a keen air, or
[page 50] the slap of a cold rain that wakes an uneasy sleeper’ (TT, 97) that gives Aragorn the first hint of his identity.
The contrast between Gandalf and Saruman also exemplifies the
moral significance of certain qualities associated with the intellect: learning,
disinterested curiosity, informativeness. Gandalf has knowledge of ‘every language that had ever been spoken in the West of Middle-earth’
(FR, 321); he travels for centuries, forming acquaintances among all the benign peoples; he ‘goes in for hobbit-lore: an obscure branch of
knowledge but full of surprises’ (FR, 58) - a speciality which has originally no pragmatic motive, but which serves him well when the Ring falls into
the hands of hobbits. Within the bounds of prudence he shares his knowledge readily: it is he who warns the White Council, of wizards and leaders
of the Elves, of Sauron’s return to Dol Guldur in Mirkwood (FR, 264). His narratives, at Bag End (FR, 56ff.), Rivendell (FR, 263ff.), and in the
Forest of Fangorn (TT, 105-7) are among the longest and most eloquent in the text. Indeed the capacity to narrate - as distinct from making
speeches, or issuing commands or threats - is a hallmark of the benign. Saruman too has great intelligence and eloquence, but of a different kind.
‘A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor.
This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way.
Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow;
and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can
keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge,
Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle
friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.’ (FR, 272-3)
Saruman’s argument is, of course, immoral, especially in
terms of the deontological morality of
The Lord of the
Rings; but, equally importantly, it
is foolish, since Sauron will quite certainly not reward - indeed does not have - ‘friends’, and, as Gandalf says, ‘only one
[page 51] hand at a time can wield the One’ (FR, 273). By opening hostilities against his benign neighbours, Saruman simply guarantees his own
destruction by one side or the other sooner or later. The foolishness is rooted in Saruman’s incapacity for unselfish curiosity and communicativeness:
pursuing knowledge only for the sake of personal power, he withholds information about the Ring from the White Council, and hubristically uses the
palantír, or Seeing Stone, housed in Isengard despite the risk of ensnarement by Sauron who possesses an answering Stone. Unlike Gandalf, who
befriends the Ents, Saruman is indifferent to them and simply milks Treebeard for information. (‘I told him many things that he would never have
found out for himself; but he never repaid me in like kind .... He does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment’
(TT, 76).) He consequently underestimates the Ents, takes liberties with their trees, and is quite unprepared for their onslaught on Isengard. Similarly,
his incuriosity about hobbits defeats his assiduous quest for the Ring: even Sauron, from a much greater distance, gets his servants to the Shire more
The attractiveness of the hobbits is reinforced by their
capacity for disinterested curiosity. Frodo and Bilbo are, in their unassuming
and curious about the wider world, and communicate this enthusiasm to their familiars, such as Sam. (‘Crazy about stories t of the old days he is,
and he listens to all Mr Bilbo’s tales [says the Gaffer]. Mr Bilbo has learned him his letters - meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will
come of it’ (FR, 32).) Most hobbits are emphatically not outward-looking in this way, but are by way of compensation, thoroughly curious and
communicative about their own world: ‘they drew long and elaborate family trees with innumerable branches .... By no means all Hobbits were
lettered, but those who were wrote constantly to all their friends (and a selection of their relations) who lived further off than an afternoon’s walk’
(FR, 16, 19). Meriadoc Brandybuck writes a history of ‘pipe-weed’, and a study of ‘Old Words and Names in the Shire’ (FR, 24). In contrast,
Gollum’s curiosity, facilitated by the invisibility conferred by the Ring, is from the first directed to the gaining of advantage over others: ‘he used [the
Ring] to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses ... he took to thieving ...’ (FR, 63). He shuns sunlight and
[page 52] turns his eyes towards the ground, and goes hunting in mountain caves for ‘great secrets’ which prove to be ‘just empty night’
(FR, 63-4). Only the lure of the Ring is able to draw him out from his seclusion in darkness. His partial recovery during his journey with Frodo and
Sam is reflected in an evanescent ability to think beyond his own despair. He remembers, weeping, ‘tales from the South, when Sméagol was young,
long ago ... wonderful tales’ (TT, 249); but when, in a rare moment of relaxation, Sam recites a poem about an ‘oliphaunt’, Gollum is unable to
‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, ‘that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire ... I’ve heard tales of the big folk down
away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses
and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another .... But now I don’t
suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such beast.’ He sighed.
‘No, no oliphaunts’, said Gollum again. ‘Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them
to be.’ (TT, 255)
As Gollum’s aversions include not only the Sun and Moon, and
oliphaunts, but scented plants
coughs and retches amid the ‘sweet-smelling
herbs and shrubs’ of Ithilien (TT, 258-9) - one is tempted to say that his corruption by the Ring has alienated him from ‘nature’; but this would
only be a half-truth. What he is alienated from is, more precisely, the humane, creative and expressive delight in life, including the natural beauty
and resources of Middle-earth, variously enjoyed by the benign peoples. He cannot, or refuses to, eat lembas, the ambrosial ‘waybread’ of the
Elves which sustains the hobbits: he complains at the very smell of the leaves in which the cakes are wrapped. He refuses cooked rabbit and fried
fish, as well as herbs and vegetables. (In contrast, Sam clings to his cooking gear until the very last phase of the journey - when he casts his pans
into a fissure in the desert plain of Mordor their clatter is ‘like a death-knell to his heart’ (RK, 215).) What Gollum will eat is the diet of the
uncivilised, even bestial, carnivore, that is, everything which to cultivated human taste (at least in
[page 53] Europe) is repellent: raw meat, raw fish, raw fowl, ‘worms or beetles or something slimy out of holes’ (TT, 232), and (If Sam’s
conjectures and the rumours of the Woodmen (FR, 67) are well-founded) hobbits, the flesh and blood of children, and even long-dead bodies.
In this respect Gollum’s degradation harmonises with that of the orcs of Sauron and Saruman, and with the Augustinian theology. It is not that these
malign figures are contrary to, or outside, (benign) nature - they are themselves created beings, and therefore part of nature - but that they are
perverted to hate the rest of nature, including not only living and growing things but the arts, artefacts and accomplishments (including the cuisines)
of other created beings: like Shelob, perhaps like Wormtongue who, Saruman hints, eats the murdered Lotho Sackville-Baggins (RK, 299), they
devour cannibalistically if they can because this mode of eating represents in ideal form the negation of others.
Conversely, the positive values to which the work appeals are
those of a life which is civilised (in the widest sense) as well as altruistic.
celebrates not only the arts (especially poetry and song, and architecture) but friendship, love and marriage, work (especially craftsmanship),
domesticity, the pleasures of food and drink, and the exploratory enjoyment of landscape and of the multitudinous kinds of nature - of plants and
flowers for their fragrance and beauty, birds for their song, horses for their grace and swiftness, ‘oliphaunts’ for their terror and splendour. The
proportion of the text devoted in The Lord of the Rings to conceiving these aspects of Middle-earth - a high proportion, as may already be
apparent - provides a crucial index of a reader’s understanding: anyone who regards these elements as ‘padding’, or as essentially subordinate in
importance to the development of the plot, has simply not grasped the nature of the work. Many examples could be given, but one which will serve
as a test case is the early episode in which Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin awaken in the house of Tom Bombadil, the morning after their rescue
from the Old Forest.
They leapt up refreshed. Frodo ran to the eastern window, and found himself looking into a kitchen-garden grey with dew ....
His view was screened by a tall line of beans on poles; but above and far beyond them the grey top of the hill loomed up against
the sunrise. It was a pale
[page 54] morning: in the East, behind long clouds like lines of soiled wool stained red at the edges, lay glimmering deeps of
yellow: The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly, and the red flowers on the beans began to glow
against the wet green leaves.
Pippin looked out of the western window, down into a pool of mist. The Forest was hidden under a fog. It was like looking
down on to a sloping cloud-roof from above. There was a fold or channel where the mist was broken into many plumes and
billows; the valley of the Withywindle. The stream ran down the hill on the left and vanished into the white shadows. Near at
hand was a flower-garden with a clipped hedge silver-netted, and beyond that grey shaven grass pale with dewdrops ...
‘Good morning, merry friends!’ cried Tom, opening the eastern window wide. A cool air flowed in; it had a rainy smell. ‘Sun
won’t show her face much today, I’m thinking. I have been walking wide, leaping on the hill-tops, since the grey dawn began,
nosing wind and weather, wet grass underfoot, wet sky above me. I wakened Goldberry singing under window; but nought wakes
hobbit-folk in the early morning. In the night little folk wake up in the darkness, and sleep after light has come! Ring a ding dillo!
wake now, my merry friends! Forget the nightly noises! Ring a ding dillo del! derry del, my hearties! If you come soon you’ll find
breakfast on the table. If you come late you’ll get grass and rain-water!’
Needless to say - not that Tom’s threat sounded very serious - the hobbits came soon, and left the table late and only when it
was beginning to look rather empty .... The room looked westward over the mist-clouded valley, and the window was open.
Water dripped down from the thatched eaves above. Before they had finished breakfast the clouds had joined into an unbroken
roof, and a straight grey rain came softly and steadily down. Behind its curtain the Forest was completely veiled.
As they looked out of the window there came, falling gently as if it was flowing down the rain out of the sky, the clear voice of
Goldberry singing up above them. They could hear few words but it seemed plain to them that the song was a rain-song, as sweet
as showers on dry hills, that told the tale of a river from the spring in the highlands to the Sea far below. The hobbits listened with
delight; and Frodo was glad in his heart, and blessed the kindly weather, because it delayed them from departing. The thought of
going had been heavy upon him from the moment he awoke; but he guessed now that they would not go further that day.
[page 55] The upper wind settled in the West and deeper and wetter clouds rolled up to spill their laden rain on the bare heads
of the Downs. Nothing could be seen all round the house but falling water. Frodo stood near the open door and watched the
white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley. (FR, 139-40)
By any conventional criterion of narrative urgency, this
section (a small part of the leisurely Bombadil episode) is uncalled for. Its
importance lies in
the finely observed skyscape and landscape, with their sharp effects of light and colour (the flowers glowing red against the pervasive grey, the
yellow of sunrise beyond the soiled-wool clouds), and in the quietly blissful evocation of the cycle of mist, cloud, rain, river, Sea. Goldberry’s
rain-song has credibility because the evocativeness attributed to it has already been achieved by the prose, through images - their sensuous tonality
announced by the word ‘refreshed’ at the beginning of the passage - which involve not only vision but all the senses, sometimes by the lightest
implication: touch (wet grass underfoot, the open window, rain ‘on the bare heads’ of the Downs), hearing (water dripping from the eaves),
smell (Tom ‘nosing’ the weather), and even taste (grass and rain-water for breakfast). Underlying this quickening of the senses is the impression of a
calm domestic sanctuary, made actual by the beans, the clipped hedge, the chalk path, and the ‘curtain’- actually of falling rain, but serving as a
kind of extension of the sheltering homely house - which screens off the dangers of the Forest. That Frodo’s eastward journey is delayed is no
blunder in narrative construction, for it is just the kind of happiness encapsulated in this episode, the happiness of grateful contemplation of beauty,
and of unforced, unhurried activity, practical and creative, which the work opposes to the nihilistic spirit of Mordor. We need to feel its allure, not
only in order to sustain our interest in the fulfilment of Frodo’s mission, but also because the imagining of such happiness (which like any object of
desire is most compelling when transient or imperilled) is central to the purposes of The Lord of the Rings.
A near-contemporary of Tolkien, who produced a rather different best-seller in the same decade, wrote that
[page 56] for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of
being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.
Tolkien might not have relished being coupled with Nabokov,
and would certainly not have chosen ‘art’ as the comprehensive term for those
states of being that are to be desired, but the modest aspirations expressed in his Foreword are not too far from this patrician pronouncement of
Nabokov’s. Tolkien would certainly have echoed Nabokov’s remark that ‘I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction.’ As I have
tried to show, there is moral force and subtlety in The Lord of the Rings, but the moral significance of the work - since it is a work of fiction, not
of ethics or devotion - is dependent on the reader’s delight and amusement, excitement and emotion, being aroused in an appropriately structured
way. As our analysis of the work moves outwards from its moral core - or inwards from its moral periphery - we reach a point at which we can
only speak of aesthetic bliss, or of the quickening of the heart’s desire, however co-ordinated with moral values that bliss or quickening may be.
The expansive conception of Middle-earth is, as this chapter
has consistently sought to show, the key to the work’s appeal to the heart’s
Expansiveness in time is as important as expansiveness in space - indeed the two are closely associated, since the yearning to explore an extensive
terrain implies the desire for extensive quantities of time in which to explore it. The hobbits’ longevity is just sufficiently greater than that of human
beings to be enviable - the long-lived Bilbo is sprightly at 111, and still alive, if sleepy and forgetful, twenty years later. Dwarves, and some Men,
also appear to have long life-spans by our standards, while Elves are immortal (in the sense that only grief, injury or the end of the world can
terminate their physical being). Others enjoy still wider perspectives.
‘Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first
acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was
[page 57] here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already,
before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.’
Though Tolkien himself spoke of the wish to escape from death
as ‘the oldest and deepest desire’,
something more complex is at work here
than a simple appeal to the longing for deathlessness, powerful though that primal longing may be. For one thing, the work also represents the
burden of continuous existence, especially when it is purposeless or joyless. Bilbo’s exceptional age is in part a sinister gift from the Ring - only
his relinquishing it saves him from the centuries-long withering of Gollum. The Elves’ immortality is charged with melancholy and regret. ‘For the
Elves the world moves,’ says Legolas, ‘and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets
by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in
the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last’ (FR, 40S). The Elves regard death as ‘the gift of the One to Men’
(RK, 344). But when Elrond’s daughter, Arwen, assumes mortality in order to marry Aragorn, she finds it (at Aragorn’s deathbed) ‘bitter to receive’
(RK, 344). Much of the power of the work, in this respect, seems to me to lie in its realising the exhilarating perspective of childhood and early
youth, in which the time stretching before one seems virtually limitless, and the world, at first a tiny region intensely perceived and seemingly eternal,
opens out in multiple horizons, as one’s knowledge and imagination and physical strength develop. As Treebeard puts it, recalling the remote age
before the ‘Great Darkness’ (the dominion of Sauron’s master Morgoth),
‘Those were the broad days! Time was when I could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of my own voice
in the hollow hills. The woods were like the woods of Lothlórien, only thicker, stronger, younger. And the smell of the air! I
used to spend a week just breathing!’ (TT,72)
The nostalgia for this Eden-like state is familiar
as a literary theme from Traherne, Vaughan, Wordsworth and many other writers.
‘I was a
stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys ... I knew not that they were born or should die,
but all things abided eternally.’ Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings represents a universe which embodies this, perspective, but also embodies
the later aspirations of life, in which we seek happiness in spite of a fuller sense of our mortality, and at the same time attempt to preserve our original
joy in the world, or at least to maintain an integrity between the freshness of the early experiences and the ripeness of the later. If (to impose an
overliteral symbolism for the momentary sake of clarity) the Shire equals childhood, then the hobbits’ venturing beyond it represents facing up to
adult responsibilities; their returning to it, though sadder and wiser, expresses the desire to maintain lifelong psychological contact with one’s
childhood, until one has to renounce it, along with everything else, in death. The purposeful and enriching journey ‘there and back again’ (to quote
the subtitle of The Hobbit) stands as an image for spiritual wholeness preserved through the vicissitudes of life. When Frodo and Sam pause to rest
in a mountain pass above Mordor, Sam reflects on
‘the brave things in the old tales and songs ... adventures, as I used to call them .... Folk seem to have been just landed in them,
usually .... But I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t .... We hear about those as just
went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You
know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same .... But those aren’t always the best tales to hear,
though they may be the best tales to get landed in!’ (TT, 321)
Life as a human being brings adventure (or negatively,
disturbance) varied with peace (or negatively, boredom); it also involves the
disaster, the likelihood of a price to be paid for one’s own or others’ happiness, and the certainty of transience. The Lord of the Rings presents a
narrative in which adventure and peace are combined in such a way as to sharpen the edge of both, and in which disaster is averted, the price for
[page 59] and transience accepted. If disaster had not been averted, if the work had been not a comedy but a tragedy (as are many of the earlier
tales of Middle-earth revealed in Tolkien’s posthumously published writings), the ‘aesthetic bliss’ afforded by the expansive conception of
Middle-earth would in principle have been still present, though differently flavoured by the outcome of the plot. In practice, it is difficult to imagine
such a work, for the energy and delight with which the invented world is realised seems incompatible with any but an essentially affirmative
conclusion. And only an essentially affirmative conclusion could sustain, by contrast, the ineffable poignancy of the close - impossible to evoke
adequately by quoting anything less than the entire three volumes of the preceding narrative - in which Frodo departs for ever, leaving Sam, as the
evening deepens to darkness at the Haven, standing in silence, ‘hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth’
Home - Introduction
This text is reproduced exclusively for the purposes of discussion on The One Ring.net.
Notes to Chapter One
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 169.
 D. S. Brewer, ‘The Lord of the Rings as a Romance’, M. Salu and R. T. Farrell (eds.), J. R. R. Tolkien: Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam (Cornell University Press, 1979), p.249.
 The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter (Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 239. Quotations from this volume reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd © J. R. R. Tolkien, 1977.
 ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf, p. 17.
 H. Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (Allen & Unwin, 1977), p. 165.
 D. Brewer, ‘The Lord of the Rings as Romance’, Salu & Farrell (eds.). J. R. R. Tolkien: Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, p. 255.
 ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf, pp. 39-40.
 C. Stimpson, J. R. R. Tolkien (Columbia University Press, 1969) p. 29.
 ‘On Translating Beowulf’, The Monsters and the Critics, ed. C. Tolkien (Allen & Unwin, 1983) pp. 55-6. Quotations from this volume reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd © J. R. R. Tolkien, 1983.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 120.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 121.
 ‘I have said the map was the most of the plot. I might almost say it was the whole .... It is my contention - my superstition, if you like - that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support and not merely immunity from accident. The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words’ (R. L. Stevenson, ‘My First Book’, Essays in the Art of Writing (Chatto & Windus, 1920), pp. 135-6).
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 121.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 79.
 See p. 207 below.
 The argument of this paragraph is developed much more extensively in my Art and Desire: A Study in the Aesthetics of Fiction (Macmillan Press - now Palgrave Macmillan, 1988).
It is the failure to recognise the aesthetic function of the expansiveness of Middle-earth that fatally weakens Christine Brooks-Rose’s structuralist analysis of the work in The Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge, 1983, pp. 233-55). Brooks-Rose recognises the highly developed realism of The Lord of the Rings, but finds the work littered with ‘pointless’ information (p. 245), ‘irrelevant to the quest’ (p. 244) which her Todorovian scheme requires to be structurally definitive. She objects, for example, that Merry’s oath of fealty to Théoden, and Pippin’s to Denethor, are not ‘functional’ (p. 238), because Merry assists Théoden’s niece not himself, and Pippin actually breaks his oath, disobeying Denethor’s orders to save Faramir: but it is precisely these kinds of departure from a facile and predictable structuring of ethical action which exemplify the work’s moral subtlety and openness to contingency. Brooks-Rose’s essay is a locus classicus of the tendency of supposedly logical descriptive structures to turn into evaluative determinants, either explicitly (as the critic becomes increasingly irritated at the failure of the work to conform to the attributed structure), or covertly as terms like ‘ambiguity’ and ‘reduplication’ imperceptibly shade from a neutral into a pejorative meaning, and the features which the work happens to share with others are assumed to be its really important ones. (One is reminded of Hans Keller’s remark that critics who analyse Mozart’s symphonic movements in terms of the universal principles of sonata form are describing precisely what the music is not (The Symphony, ed. R. Simpson (Penguin, 1966) Vol. I, p. 91).) A considerable number of minor, sometimes repeated, errors of spelling or accurate reading (‘orks’, ‘Belin’, ‘Gamjee’, ‘Edora’. ‘Minas Mogul’, ‘Moria Mountain’, Denethor as a ‘king’), as well as certain exasperated turns of phrase jarring oddly with the general tone of dispassionate and concept-heavy structural analysis (e.g. the ‘interminable’ Council of Elrond, with ‘each member adding his mite’ (p. 242) confirm one’s impression that the distinctiveness of the work counts for less in this analysis than the deployment of the Todorovian scheme.
 Tom Shippey suggests (The Road to Middle-earth, pp. 107-11) that there is in The Lord of the Rings, qualifying the Augustinian world-view, an element of Manicheanism, 'the heresy which says that Good and Evil are equal and opposite and that the universe is a battlefield' (p. 108). But the considerations Shippey cites - the formidable power of Sauron, and especially the power of Sauron's Ring to sway the wills of even the well-intentioned - do not take the book into Manicheanism. Nor do the barbarities of the twentieth century really provide, as Shippey suggests, an argument against the Augustinian view so persuasive that Tolkien is likely to have been swayed by them. To say with Augustine that evil is the absence or negation of good, and not a force co-equal and coeval with God and independently creative of life, is not to deny that evil persons may use the technology of their historical period with great effectiveness. The magical arts which have created the Ring and its power to disintegrate the personality of its bearers - compare, as Tolkien himself did (Letters, p. 252), twentieth-century 'brainwashing' - are in this sense merely technological: they do not amount to inherent powers co-equal with God's. Sauron is in fact consistently conceived as a master of scientific 'devices': hence his seduction, in the Second Age, of the Elven-Smiths of Eregion, in collaboration with whom the Rings of Power are made. Frodo would be helpless in direct contest with Sauron; but that is because Sauron is an immortal spirit and Frodo a mortal hobbit, not because Sauron derives strength from an independent powerhouse of Evil: he is, just the same as Frodo, the creation of an all-powerful, benevolent God who grants free will to his creatures.
 'On Fairy Stories', Tree and Leaf, p. 66.
 W. H. Auden, 'The Quest Hero', N. D. Isaacs and R.A. Zimbardo (eds.), Tolkien and the Critics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) p. 51.
 The issue only arises, of course, where a distillation of good and evil is projected. I have particularly in mind the example of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, where the problem (if there is one, granted the limited moral seriousness of the novel) is not so much that Count Fosco is genial, cultivated and amusing as that the ostensible hero and heroine (Waiter Hartright and Laura Fairlie), with whom we ought warmly to sympathise, are humourless and vapid. In this respect the later novel The Moonstone marks an improvement, with its droll hero and spirited heroine. The God and Satan of Paradise Lost present a more serious problem, as is suggested by the critical debate that has raged inconclusively for two centuries over Blake’s proposition that Milton was ‘of the Devil's party without knowing it’.
 Guy Davenport also notices the resemblance to Sherlock Holmes (‘J. R. R. Tolkien, R.I.P.’, National Review, September 28, 1973, pp. 1042-3).
 V. Nabokov, ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, Lolita (Penguin, 1980) p. 313.
 Nabokov, ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, Lolita, p. 313.
 ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf, p. 61.
 Thomas Traherne, ‘Centuries of Meditation’ , in H. M. Margoliouth (ed.) Centuries, Poems and Thanksgivings (Clarendon Press, 1958), vol. I, p. 111.