J.R.R Tolkien was the sort of man who tended to stick close to an adored few friends and family. He was an academic who spoke awkwardly and had an uncharismatic presence. He loved obscure subjects that no one else cared about. Yet within himself he developed a whole world that no competitive, self-promoting socialite could ever think to imagine.
Indeed, his project was not tailored to meet popular demand. It was written first for family, friends, and most of all, for his own satisfaction.
From these insular motives comes a great deal of its power.
There is something haphazard and unpolished about Tolkien’s storytelling. His pace is slow, the direction of his plot imprecise and shifting. It’s always given me the feeling that I’m sitting with him by a fireplace and he’s prodigiously making it up or recalling it from memory right there on the spot.
Tolkien had a natural grasp of the Subtle way of thought. He understood the charm of imperfection. As a result he sounds more like a storyteller, less like an author.
The details we learn aren’t necessarily relevant to the plot. A lot of that stuff is just for fun. You have to understand that playful impulse, that curiosity and creativity for its own sake to enjoy the story to its fullest.
Tolkien never intended to single handedly resurrect the mythological paradigm in Western society, but his stories obviously spoke to a deep human need
Tolkien understood viscerally that no society could be grounded without legend and mythology—narratives that establish a meaningful continuity that extends far into the past and which will extend into the future. A continuity that invites us to be a part of something greater than our own fleeting lifespans.
Tolkien was a true introvert and his mythology tells us something of a sense of isolation and alienation in a rapidly changing world.
When one encounters interpretations of the Lord of the Rings, the first thing people always seem to look for is allegorical references to the World Wars.
To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand the man was about.
Though Tolkien writes epic stories about great nations, the geo-politics of our world were never his overriding concern.
He was there in the trenches during WWI and lived through WWII, yet he never wrote obsessively about futility and disenchantment as did so many other writers from his ‘lost generation.’ Nor did he seem to perceive the opponents of his nation as evil forces out of some sense of nationalistic zeal.
Many of us who are familiar with Tolkien’s stories dismiss most of the real world allegorical interpretations, seeing instead reflections on the nature of good and evil. After all, the ethical questions posed by Gyges’ invisibility ring have been around since ancient Greece:
If a man named Gyges finds a magic ring that makes him invisible and unaccountable for his actions, would he still be moral?
Should he still be moral?
The Ancient Greeks believed that Gyges should resist his desire for power. Though external laws and punishments do not apply to him, the real danger is being reduced to a warped animal state:
Gyges need not fear going to jail, but by casting away restraint, he becomes prisoner to an ever growing addiction to power.
In the Lord of the Rings, there is a contrast between the Bagginses and Gollum, Sam and Boromir when faced with the temptation of the ring. The corrupting influence of power is clearly a theme, but it is not the theme that rules them all.
Tolkien’s works, though generally upbeat, have an elegiac message constantly hinted at: the old world with its legends, tradition, and magic is dying…
In this old world, with all its epic events, it is often a Hobbit, someone small, reluctant, and shy who has the formidable inner strength to save the day.
In the Hobbit homeland, the Shire we see an idealized representation of traditional village life, sheltered from events that shake the rest of the world.
The Hobbits work hard and grow their own food, but there is no rush or sense of toil.
There are no strangers in the Shire. All the families are known to one another, as are their reputations.
In the new world, our ‘age of men,’ traditional culture is dying out. It would seem there is no longer a place for these little people. Tolkien tells us those few who survive will be forced into hiding.
It’s a world where you have to compete to survive amidst a faceless crowd.
A world in which even friendships are contingent upon social status and money.
A fast-paced world in which no one has time for second breakfast.
It is not the clash of nations or moral quandary that seems to preoccupy Tolkien, but deep changes within society itself:
-The elves, the epitome of ancient virtues are forced to leave the continent by the oncoming forces of change. They embody a sense of mystery and reverence that cannot exist in a world where everything is explained away as mundane phenomena, where predictability and repetition are the aims of most endeavors.
-The ents are losing a bit more of their vitality with every passing year. Eventually they will all be ordinary sedentary trees. Their abhorrence for the cutting of trees and of machines echoes Tolkien’s personal disapproval of industrialized mass culture.
-The dwarves, stubborn, honorable, followers of principle live in a post-apocalyptic world, their underground cities overrun and in ruins. The new world won’t need their craftsmanship. Their skills will be replaced with machines. They too are doomed to fade away and be forgotten.
Humans alone are to be the future but they are fickle and perhaps prone to evil without the wisdom of the ancient races to guide them.
In the Orcs, we see a polar opposite of Tolkien’s values, a deliberate perversion and antithesis of the elves. In their race we can see his worst fears come true.
Most often, the Orcs are depicted as a screaming, faceless mass-produced mass(it is implied they might be manufactured rather than born). They move and act only as groups. They have little sense of individual agency or self. Beyond instant gain and self-promotion, they have no personal initiative. There are no Orc heroes. Their leaders rule by pure coercion. Bonds of honor and loyalty are absent. At all levels of the Orc hierarchy, there is constant, fierce competition, even for trivial scraps. Their whole society is mechanical by nature. Their armies move inexorably and in great numbers but with no sense of spirit, driving values, or purpose.
Ultimately, they’re all just obeying the will of the big boss and would be unable to act decisively without him. In every way, their society, to the extent it can be called a society is held together only through the exercise of naked power.
Furthermore, Orcs in true contrast to elves have no concept of beauty, sanctity, reverence, or mystery. Their world view is literal, pragmatic, joyless, relentless. They are devoid of creativity and imagination.
This Orcish culture tells us something of how Tolkien perceived our emerging new world. A world in which everything that made life worth living was under attack and an Orcish sort of life and world view becoming predominant.
His fantasy universe was not so much a direct allegory as it was a personal reaction to social change. Tolkien was stubborn. A devout catholic, he persisted in using Latin at mass even as everyone else switched to English.
In his personal world, he persisted with the conventions of ancient Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Celtic legends.
Middle Earth would seem in part to have been his personal defense, his stand against the overwhelming forces of modernity.
Indeed, Tolkien tells again and again the story of a few brave individuals in seemingly hopeless opposition to insurmountably numerous and powerful enemy forces.
Dying out and coming under overwhelming assault from all sides is a pervasive theme of Tolkien’s mythology.
As an introvert perpetually at odds with the mass society, Tolkien’s besieged defender mentality speaks deeply to me. Especially powerful for me is Tolkien’s conviction that the outwardly modest but inwardly strong amongst us can prevail against a monolithic mass no matter the odds. Tolkien is one of my heroes.
He may have been one of the last hobbits who could dare live out in the open. He had the good fortune to make his way into the relatively tolerant environment of the university. Without his job as an academic, it’s hard to imagine that Tolkien would ever have had the opportunity to pursue his eclectic interests.
He probably would have been crushed as others like him no doubt were(and are).
When I first read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as a kid, it was just a great story, but even then when I wasn’t worried in the least about analyzing, I somehow felt Mr. Tolkien was on my side.
Now, I look to Lord of the Rings as a protest against an increasingly Loud society.
It is a project that openly defies the collective reality through the creation of a new world with new languages and societies. Everything about it, the world building, the con-langing, the plot tangents, the archaic tone, the emphasis on inner integrity over outer attributes, the lack of calculated mass appeal and shameless scraping to get to the top – it has all the ingredients for being deemed “a waste of time” or “self-indulgent” according to the conventional social understanding. Indeed, Tolkien’s works are more heretical than ever in an age defined by zero-sum popularity contests.