J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” (1954-1955)


After Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages, maybe it’s worth returning to The Lord of the Rings and spending a bit more time with it. Again, these books are not directly comparable…but perhaps, in the world of ideas, their paths briefly cross, and by way of Huizinga we may be able to look differently at Tolkien.

Although Lord of the Rings arguably created the fantasy genre, it also stands apart from it. Enjoying fantasy does not guarantee that you will enjoy the book (we will not discuss the debased film adaptation, which in any case was primarily a technology demonstration), and in fact many genre enthusiasts don’t — while the book has many set pieces that are naturally enjoyable, actually reading the whole thing, from beginning to end, can easily seem tedious. Tolkien’s meticulous attention to detail can be awe-inspiring or distracting, depending on the reader; his dialogue can be quite ponderous, especially in the second half (page numbers from the 2005 single-volume edition by HarperCollins):

‘You are weary of this day?’ said Beregond.
‘Yes,’ said Pippin, ‘very: tired out with idleness and waiting. I have kicked my heels at the door of my master’s chamber for many slow hours, while he has debated with Gandalf and the Prince and other great persons. And I’m not used, Master Beregond, to waiting hungry on others while they eat. It is a sore trial for a hobbit, that. No doubt you will think I should feel the honour more deeply. But what is the good of such honour? Indeed what is the good even of food and drink under this creeping shadow? What does it mean? The very air seems thick and brown! Do you often have such glooms when the wind is in the East?’
‘Nay,’ said Beregond, ‘this is no weather of the world. This is some device of his malice; some broil of fume from the Mountain of Fire that he sends to darken hearts and counsel. And so it doth indeed. I wish the Lord Faramir would return. He would not be dismayed. But now, who knows if he will ever come back across the River out of the Darkness?’

(Tolkien, 808)

(As a hobbit, Pippin is one of the least archaic characters in the book, and tends to talk in a more recognizably modern style. But his voice also becomes more grandiloquent in the medieval atmosphere of Minas Tirith.)

Strictly speaking, the type of detail that Tolkien spends the most time on is not necessary for the goals of the novel if the latter is to be treated as a self-contained piece. Having multiple names, in multiple invented languages, for the same person or place can be confusing, nor is it necessary to give a constructed name if it has to be translated in the same phrase, e.g., “verily Ernil i Pheriannath, the Prince of the Halflings, that folk had called him“. (807) The book’s system of appendices takes this linguistic pedantry to a whole new level, as it turns out that the names of the characters are themselves translations of completely different-sounding names: “Sam and his father Ham were really called Ban and Ran. These were shortenings of Banazîr and Ranugad, originally nicknames, meaning ‘halfwise, simple’ and ‘stay-at-home’; but being words that had fallen out of colloquial use they remained as traditional names in certain families. I have therefore tried to preserve these features by using Samwise and Hamfast, modernizations of ancient English samwís and hámfæst which corresponded closely in meaning.” (1136) In other words, the names by which the entire world knows these characters, themselves constructs from archaic languages, are actually replacements for other constructed names which never appear in the novel. Surely this kind of philological excess does not add much to the average reader’s appreciation of Middle-earth.

At the same time, Lord of the Rings has an appeal far beyond the fantasy genre. If this novel is not a cultural phenomenon, then nothing is. In the 1970s, one of the themed student houses at UC Berkeley was named Lothlórien, and bears that name to this day:

What possible points of contact could there be between Tolkien’s medieval vision, with its rigid social roles and aristocratic characters, and the radical left-wing idealism that one typically associates with Berkeley students? Well, one might point to Tolkien’s anti-industrial sensibility:

‘Hi!’ cried Sam in an outraged voice. ‘There’s that Ted Sandyman a-cutting down trees as he shouldn’t. They didn’t ought to be felled: it’s that avenue beyond the Mill that shades the road to Bywater. I wish I could get at Ted, and I’d fell him!’
But now Sam noticed that the Old Mill had vanished, and a large red-brick building was being put up where it had stood. Lots of folk were busily at work. There was a tall red chimney nearby. Black smoke seemed to cloud the surface of the Mirror.
‘There’s some devilry at work in the Shire,’ he said. ‘Elrond knew what he was about when he wanted to send Mr. Merry back.’ Then suddenly Sam gave a cry and sprang away. ‘I can’t stay here,’ he said wildly. ‘I must go home. They’ve dug up Bagshot Row, and there’s the poor old Gaffer going down the Hill with his bits of things on a barrow. I must go home!’

(Tolkien, 362-363)

And, indeed, the evil wizard Saruman’s plans to enslave the Shire begin with the construction of factories: “Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.” (1004) Factories, in Tolkien’s view, do not produce anything other than black smoke. Of course, his disdain for them is based on the perspective of the past, not the future, and the dystopian modernization of the Shire also includes elements of 20th-century collectivist ideology: “We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these ‘gatherers’ and ‘sharers’, I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.” (999) But, in any case, an important dimension of Lord of the Rings is the author’s articulate contempt for modern industrial society, which appeals on some level to anyone who has any reason to share it.

The values of Lord of the Rings work “by contradiction” — that is, Tolkien wrote the novel with the intent to create a world that was not the one he lived in. Middle-earth is designed to be unlike modernity, so if you find something that you like about it, this experience will likely translate into a sense of alienation; you will likely feel (justifiably or not) that you have been shown something beautiful that is nowhere to be found in your life. Since Middle-earth is a magical fantasy world, and Tolkien is not really interested in its day-to-day functioning, this alternative is almost entirely aesthetic — what Huizinga called “style.” This is one respect in which Autumn of the Middle Ages really does resemble Lord of the Rings. Huizinga believed that his time was characterized by “decay of style” (In the Shadows of Tomorrow) as compared to the past, so when Autumn sets out to reconstruct the style of the Middle Ages — a goal that it states more or less openly from the beginning — it is implicitly offering an aesthetic alternative to the present. Likewise, if Lord of the Rings has one virtue, it is consistency of style. Every detail of Middle-earth has its place and purpose, creating the feeling of a greater harmony. Perhaps this is what resonates with artistic sensibilities of various sorts.

The unity of Tolkien’s aesthetic surpasses his actual literary ability, and compensates for the limitations of his technique. Here is how he describes the Grey Havens at the very end of the book — the place where Middle-earth ends, where Frodo comes to leave it forever:

And when they had passed from the Shire, going about the south skirts of the White Downs, they came to the Far Downs, and to the Towers, and looked on the distant Sea; and so they rode down at last to Mithlond, to the Grey Havens in the long firth of Lune.
As they came to the gates Círdan the Shipwright came forth to greet them. Very tall he was, and his beard was long, and he was grey and old, save that his eyes were keen as stars; and he looked at them and bowed, and said: ‘All is now ready.’
Then Círdan led them to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood a figure robed all in white awaiting them… Then those who were to go were glad, for they knew that Gandalf also would take ship with them.”

(Tolkien, 1029-1030)

A bit further down, he also mentions that “the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth,” (1030) and that is all. In other words, there is virtually no description of a setting that is, after all, extremely important for the atmosphere and impact of the ending. If you look carefully, this is also true of many other locations in the book, some of which have captivated generations of readers, like Lothlórien (there the lack of visual detail is justified by making the characters wear blindfolds).

Yet, as a symbol, the Grey Havens are as complete as you could ask for, with deep subtleties of meaning. They represent death, but it is a kind of death that one chooses freely, when one has become too weary of life. It offers the comfort of a happier, more beautiful world, a version of the Elysian Fields — but, the joy of passing there is tempered by sorrow for the old, familiar home that one abandons. The very imperfection and hardship of the old world now seem almost touching; one feels that one is losing something valuable but cannot express what it is. One obtains peace and dignity, but the cost is some part of one’s self. This has some similarity to ancient myth, but also an original dimension, next to which actual ancient myth cannot help but feel a bit flat. From the perfection of the idea, any reader can create a detailed personal inner image of the Grey Havens without the need for more description (or computer graphics).

cuivienen“At Lake Cuiviénen,” Ted Nasmith, 1998.
One of the better efforts to visualize a part of Tolkien’s world.

Another example of such a symbol-in-itself is Tolkien’s story of the creation (what he calls the “awakening”) of the Elves. The omission and open-endedness seen in the description of the Grey Havens are taken to their logical extreme — strictly speaking, this story barely exists at all, being completely absent from Lord of the Rings and only mentioned in passing in The Silmarillion, and first seeing the light of day in 1994 as an appendix to the eleventh volume of a loose collection of Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts, compiled by his son. It is only a few pages long, and only roughly sketched out; the text itself has no great literary merit.

The idea, however, is a different matter. In a certain primordial era, possibly even predating the First Age described in The Silmarillion, the first Elves are “awakened” by the gods in a faraway, mythical land called Cuiviénen — “mythical” even within Middle-earth, because it lay on the other side of it, in a place that would be totally unknown and inaccessible to any character in Lord of the Rings. These first children of the gods, the first sentient beings to be born in Middle-earth, “awoke when they were full-grown,” in full possession of individual consciousness, and found themselves in an untouched, starlit land near the sea, “and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn. And the next thing they saw was their destined spouses lying asleep on the green sward beside them.”

In a way, this image looks back to ancient civilization, trying to recapture, not the glory of Ancient Greece, not its art and philosophy, but its joy — the youth of humanity, a strong and resilient people that experiences itself as being alone in the world (the inarticulate barbarians on the periphery hardly register in the mind) and feels no limits on its physical and mental faculties. But, if anything, Tolkien’s idea is a much better expression of the Greek ideals of harmony and proportion than the Greeks’ own creation myths, which look like a pointless and depressing horror-show in comparison (recall that Cronus castrated his father and devoured his children, before being imprisoned by Zeus). In the image of Cuiviénen, Tolkien gave the feeling of an alternate ancient history that is more perfect than the real one — not the history itself, but the feeling of it. That feeling, or even a slight suggestion of it, is already at the limit of the human imagination; one cannot truly relive the ancient world; as Tolkien sadly remarks, “to Cuiviénen there is no returning.” We will never feel young again.


Had Tolkien decided to expand on this idea, he probably would have ruined it. Once overloaded with place names and increasingly alien-looking Elvish words (the very first chapter of The Silmarillion is called “Ainulindalë,” as if to make the point that having merely enjoyed Lord of the Rings is not enough to be granted admission to Tolkien’s inner sanctum), it would have lost much of its charm. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, the more one delves into the great mass of his writing, the more one finds that Middle-earth is really quite stunted. Culture, in Middle-earth, is represented by song and music, much of which, like the various hobbit songs, is merely rustic entertainment. There are occasional glimpses of high art, as when “Elvish minstrels began to make sweet music,” (Tolkien, 230) but these are clearly placeholder images that do not really interest the author and do not merit further description. There is virtually no written culture anywhere. History is passed down through oral tradition, with very rare references to “many records that few even of the lore-masters now can read, for their scripts and tongues have become dark to later men.” (252) In Middle-earth, written records are less reliable than songs and legends. Perhaps the book that Frodo completes in the end is the first true historical chronicle to have been written in this universe.

Here, reality has an unfair advantage; there is only so much that one lone British scholar can do compared to several hundred years of human history. Georges Chastellain, or any similar person appearing in Autumn of the Middle Ages, may not have been a better writer than Tolkien, and the dukes of Burgundy were not much more educated and courtly than the various human and Elven lords in Lord of the Rings. But they all belonged to a massive cultural system made up of many branching connections, in which the nobility had an obligation to patronize the arts even if it did not understand their value, and the artists were at least roughly aware of the work of other artists and the overall development of art throughout the past.

vanderweyden“Jean Wauquelin presenting his ‘Chroniques de Hainaut’
to Philip the Good,” Rogier van der Weyden, 1448.

The substitute for this system, in Tolkien, is language. It is well-known that he began working on an Elvish language long before writing Lord of the Rings, and in some sense the entire universe of Middle-earth is of secondary significance, serving only to give more life to its languages. But one can also turn that view around — language is the substratum that gives the illusion of centuries of cultural development. No literary interest is inherent in the comparative grammar of Quenya and Sindarin, but the occasional phrases in these languages appearing throughout Lord of the Rings plant the suggestion that, somewhere out of view, there must also be sufficient cultural distinctions between their speakers, and some sort of literature and rhetoric, as well.

Tolkien’s languages were intended as entirely original creations, not imitations of any particular historical example, but they were developed according to scientific models of how historical languages branch from common ancestors. At the same time, as we already saw, Tolkien also drew upon real languages to “translate” the constructed ones, since, by his own admission, “Samwise” evokes a much richer variety of associations in the reader than does “Banazîr.” Furthermore, the history of Middle-earth is experienced by the reader in much the same way as real history: the most recent period, the end of the Third Age, is the most well-documented, with past periods becoming increasingly distant and fragmentary until they vanish in an archaic, half-legendary mist. Likewise, in what is called the real world, the 14th and 15th centuries left a large quantity of reasonably well-preserved written sources (as seen in Huizinga’s work), while the sources of the 11th and 12th centuries are fewer and less consistent; then, moving backward from the 10th century to the fall of the Roman Empire, the historical record becomes half-mythological, as the chroniclers themselves did not always see the difference between myth and history. This realism strengthens the impression of Middle-earth as a kind of alternate history; one knows that it is not real, but it feels strangely close. In any case, contemporary Europeans know so little about their own ancient past that it may as well be a fantasy world in itself. Burgundy or Númenor, what’s the difference?

Lord of the Rings always feels like it is on the brink of uncovering some ancient secret too vast to comprehend — again, “ancient” even for Middle-earth. The disappearance of the One Ring, which sets the plot in motion (through Gandalf’s narration to Frodo early on), is a relatively recent event from the beginning of the Third Age, but much of what transpires throughout the book is haunted by mistakes and failures from much earlier times, most of them never explicitly described. In this way, even if The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s numerous notebooks had never been published, their impact on the reader’s perception of Lord of the Rings could only have been greater; mystery always makes the past more alluring. In fact, by the time Frodo and company embark on their quest, Middle-earth is veritably covered with forbidding ruins — the Barrow-downs, the abandoned Dwarven city of Moria, and many signs of long-dead civilizations that are left nameless: “The Moon, now at the full, rose over the mountains, and cast a pale light in which the shadows of stones were black. Many of them looked to have been worked by hands, though now they lay tumbled and ruinous in a bleak, barren land.” (286)


The European reader’s confrontation with his own terrifying national past is modeled, in the novel, by Gimli the dwarf’s experience passing through Moria. To set foot in its ancient halls is for him a point of national pride: “Only Gimli lifted up his head; a smouldering fire was in his eyes. On all the others a dread fell at the mention of that name. Even to the hobbits it was a legend of vague fear.” (295) But it turns out to be too much to handle. Even if the mines hadn’t been overrun by evil creatures, the labyrinth is so complex that its structures have become completely alien and inexplicable. It is impossible to figure out the purpose of the things one sees, and one interacts with them only through blind trial and error: “Pippin felt curiously attracted by the well… Moved by a sudden impulse he groped for a loose stone, and let it drop. He felt his heart beat many times before there was any sound. Then far below, as if the stone had fallen into deep water in some cavernous place, there came a plunk, very distant, but magnified and repeated in the hollow shaft.” (313) If Gimli was hoping to find some sign of the glory of his civilization, it is no longer here; when not openly hostile, it is indifferent. “All about them as they lay hung the darkness, hollow and immense, and they were oppressed by the loneliness and vastness of the dolven halls and endlessly branching stairs and passages.” (315) The attempted reconquest of Moria by present-day Dwarves was a fool’s crusade; all that remains of it is a tattered journal, the discovery of which, together with the ensuing battle and escape, is the greatest pure thrill in the whole novel. But, despite this seemingly incontrovertible proof that the national dream is delusional, it remains undeterred, and Gimli regains the spring in his step as soon as he approaches one of the few surviving wonders of Dwarven culture: “Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’” (334)

In this, Gimli acts like a 20th-century nationalist, not a 10th-century housecarl, for whom the destruction of the hearth would have meant final cultural oblivion, just as Beowulf’s death spelled the end of the Geats as a tribe (which they fully understood when they mourned him). Here lies the substitution that is most crucial for the significance of The Lord of the Rings. On one hand, in recreating the tone of the ancient European epic, Tolkien used a form and content that would also have been recognizable and appealing to the original readers and listeners of those stories. The court at Burgundy would have loved much of Tolkien’s novel, as they loved chivalric romance — they would have seen Tolkien’s verbose speeches as a literary strength. Boromir’s rashness and his brave last stand would have struck the same nerve as the The Song of Roland, Aragorn’s quest to regain his rightful throne would have elicited much sympathy and understanding, Galadriel’s beauty and courtliness would have won universal admiration, and even the lack of overt Christian language would not have been such a big problem to an audience accustomed to allegory and Greek mythology. Perhaps only the hobbits would have needed some editing: Pippin and Merry could have been interpreted as Arcadian shepherds (but no sword for Merry, then), and Sam could have gotten by more or less unchanged as a squire, but Frodo would have had to be a landed nobleman or a knight in vassalage to Aragorn, and there couldn’t have been so much emphasis on life in the Shire. And yet, despite all this, if you peer carefully into Lord of the Rings, a distinctly 20th-century sensibility starts to emerge, with implications that are fairly disquieting.

Tolkien created idealized portraits of two sides of Europe’s ancestry. The Elves, as we have said, represent the clarity and beautiful simplicity of the ancient aesthetic. Ancient Greece and Rome, in Tolkien, were not destroyed but are slowly going extinct: Elven culture has reached its peak and ceased to develop, and has no visibility or influence outside the few remaining Elven enclaves. Enlightened antiquity is in decline, mirroring the loss of cultural meaning that occurred during the Hellenistic period, but without any civil strife or conflict between the ancient realms; the source of violence has been moved outside, to Mordor. The Dark Ages have come…only this time, they are not all bad. Tolkien’s men represent the other side of European lineage, the Gallic and Teutonic barbarians, who are much more intellectually limited than the Elves, but possess more vitality. These mighty warriors now bear the main burden of the war against Sauron, since even the most powerful Elves are unwilling to venture outside Rivendell or Lórien. Men are unable or unwilling to understand Elven culture, which is not interesting to them, but their bravery in battle has earned them the right to their own singular pride.

However, men also have a hidden elite, represented by Aragorn and his followers. The Dúnedain are unique in possessing both Elven and human ancestry, and their heroism and power are magnified by their secret mastery of ancient culture and history — they are the only ones who truly know what happened, which enables them to talk to Elves as equals as well as to mount Middle-earth’s only truly successful defense against evil. Aragorn’s ascension to the throne represents the birth of a Europe that (unlike the real Europe) has successfully reconciled these two very different worlds and synthesized them into a strong new kingdom. With the beginning of the Fourth Age, these new Europeans have claimed both types of greatness, civilized and barbarian, and thereby have become the rightful rulers of the world.

wotanbrunnhilde“Brunhilde knelt at his feet,” Ferdinand Leeke, 1905.
Ostensibly based on Norse mythology,
but really an illustration to a Wagner opera.

As it happens, this was exactly the project with which early 20th-century nationalist philosophy was tasked. (The goal is still the same, but the means are different — now the West is to be united, not by bringing together all of its culture and history, but by destroying these things. But we are talking about Tolkien’s time.) Admiration for antiquity was part of European culture since the Middle Ages, but the glorification of barbarian vitality was a much newer invention; ironically, the real barbarians had preferred to legitimize their rule through the symbols of the Roman Empire. In 1940, Huizinga gave a series of three lectures at the University of Leiden on “Patriotism and nationalism in European history,” a subject that had greatly worried him since at least the 1930s. In tracing the development of German nationalism, he observed (emphasis added):

And yet…there was still always a general German enthusiasm, now strongly revitalized and renewed…[that] fed on memories of the past and ideals of the future, both newly impregnated by the knowledge of classical literature. This new German patriotism and nationalism remained one of writers and poets, and found its expression largely in the Latin of the humanists. The old designation Germania acquired a new content as an indication of the vast fatherland. A name means a great deal for everything having to do with national consciousness… In that term there now resounded not only a pride in the medieval past of imperial dignity, but also a pathos over a mythical primeval period of Old Germanic heroism and innocence.”

from “Patriotism and nationalism”

“Classical literature” here refers to the Roman historian Tacitus, whose Germania could be arbitrarily interpreted and romanticized to lend credence to the emerging nationalist myth. This mythological aspect of the German national consciousness was formed relatively late — in the preceding passage, Huizinga refers to the sixteenth century, but he later clarifies, “The principle of nationality…was to achieve consciousness as a generally recognized, passionate aspiration and animating idea only in the course of the [19th] century… We have seen how the full awareness of a native national character sprang from the soil of romanticism. It had become the custom to translate every intellectual need for what was intrinsic, genuine, and original into the folk idiom.

In Lord of the Rings, the romantic interpretation of German history is reproduced to perfection. German culture is represented by the kingdom of Rohan, which is only a short cultural distance away from a nomadic tribe: “They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.” (Tolkien, 430) These warriors have apparently settled down in “houses built of wood,” and the gate to the great hall is at the top of “a stair of stone, high and broad, and on either side of the topmost step were stone-hewn seats,” (509-510) but everyone knows them as “the Rohirrim, the Horse-lords” (262) and they have not yet adopted any writing system. They follow a simple warrior culture emphasizing tribal honour and unburdened by introspection. Their leader Théoden is called a “king,” but I have seen one translation of Lord of the Rings which (in one of those rare cases where a translator obtains a new insight into the original) rendered it using the archaic Norse word “konung,” which refers to a tribal chieftain; at one point in the text, Théoden says, “If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will,” (523) suggesting some sort of tribal elective monarchy. In other words, the mythical primeval Germans are here in all their heroism and innocence; in this world, they never even sacked Rome. And, just as their portrayal is filtered through early 20th-century romanticism, their actions are understood through early 20th-century revisionist ethics.

For comparison, we might consider the ethics of actual ancient epic. This genre focuses on epic heroes, whose decisions and character flaws drive the dramatic conflict of the story. Good and evil are personal choices, made by each epic hero individually. “Evil” in ancient epic usually refers to a violation of the hero’s code of honor; perhaps he betrayed an alliance, harmed a guest, or broke a promise made to the gods. The hero may be punished for these choices, but the epic poet will continue to praise his other, admirable qualities. The outcome of the Trojan War has little to do with the morality of the combatants — both Greeks (Achilles) and Trojans (Hector) are praised for their courage and punished for their impulsiveness and poor judgment. The cause for which the hero fights is unimportant; Homer does not really believe that Menelaus’ wounded pride is sufficient cause for the complete destruction of Troy and all its inhabitants, though he is not greatly bothered by it either. However, it is clear that the Trojans are fully equal to the Greeks, not only in courage, but in depth of feeling. The dramatic conclusion of the Iliad is not a glorious Greek victory, but Priam’s plea to Achilles.

priamachillesPriam and Achilles. National Museum of Beirut.

Barbarian epics have similar attitudes. In the Nibelungenlied, the chief virtue is loyalty, which takes precedence even when the reasons for fighting are completely arbitrary. Among many aristocratic characters, the poet singles out Rüdiger von Bechelaren, a German nobleman whose oath of fealty obligates him to fight his friend Gunther when commanded by his liege. The fight is preceded by some magnificently Tolkienesque grandstanding, in which both sides express their regrets over the situation, but fully accept the necessity of combat:

Or ever the fiddler had ended his speech, men saw the noble Rudeger before the house. At his feet he placed his trusty shield, and now both service and greeting he must needs refuse his friends. Into the hall the noble margrave called: ‘Ye doughty Nibelungs, now guard you well on every side. Ye were to profit by me, now I shall bring you scathe. Aforetime we were friends, but of this troth I now would fain be rid.’
The hard-pressed men were startled at this tale, for none gained aught of joy, that he whom they did love would now fain fight them. From their foes they had already suffered mickle stress of war. ‘Now God of heaven forbid,’ spake Gunther, the knight, ‘that ye should give over your love of us and your great fealty, on which we counted of a truth. Better things I trow of you, than that ye should ever do this deed.’
‘Alas, I cannot give it over, but must fight you, for I have vowed it. Now ward you, brave heroes, and ye love your life. King Etzel’s wife would not release me from mine oath.’
‘Ye declare this feud too late,’ spake the highborn king. ‘Now may God requite you, most noble Rudeger, for all the love and fealty that ye have shown us, if ye would only act more kindly at the end. I and my kinsmen, we ought ever to serve you for the noble gifts ye gave us, when ye brought us hither faithfully to Etzel’s land. Now, noble Rudeger, think on this.’
‘How gladly would I grant you,’ spake Knight Rudeger, ‘that I might weigh out my gifts for you with full measure, as willingly as I had hoped, if I never should be blamed on that account.’
Then they raised their shields, as though they would hence to fight the guests in Kriemhild’s hall, but Hagen cried full loud adown the steps. ‘Pray tarry awhile, most noble Rudeger,’ so spake Hagen; ‘I and my lords would fain have further parley, as doth befit our need. What can the death of us wanderers avail King Etzel? I stand here in a fearful plight; the shield that Lady Gotelind gave me to bear hath been cut to pieces… I brought it with friendly purpose into Etzel’s land. O that God in heaven would grant, that I might bear so good a shield as that thou hast in thy hand, most noble Rudeger! Then I should no longer need a hauberk in the fray.’
‘Gladly would I serve thee with my shield, durst I offer it before Kriemhild. Yet take it, Hagen, and bear it on thine arm. Ho, if thou couldst only wield it in the Burgundian land!’
When he so willingly offered to give the shield, enow of eyes grew red with scalding tears. ‘Twas the last gift that ever Rudeger of Bechelaren gave to any knight. However fierce Hagen, and however stern of mood, the gift did touch him, which the good hero, so near to death, had given. Many a noble knight gan mourn with him.”

Das Nibelungenlied, Chapter 37

To really understand the ethical emphasis here, you should know that “King Etzel” of “Hungary,” who is overall respected by the poet and described variously as “merry,” “mighty,” and “noble,” is none other than Attila the Hun. (His subjects are, in fact, called “Huns.”) The connection is made much clearer in the savage mother-poem of the Nibelungenlied, the Norse epic Völsunga saga. As in the German version, Attila uses his marriage to Gunnar/Gunther’s sister to claim a right to the treasure that Sigurd/Siegfried had won from the dragon Fafnir. In the Norse version, Attila goes further and openly declares himself to be the instrument of retribution for Gunnar’s betrayal of Sigurd: “‘Long ago I had it in my mind,’ said Atli, ‘to take the lives of you, and be lord of the gold, and reward you for that deed of shame, wherein ye beguiled the best of all your affinity; but now shall I revenge him.’” The poet does not step in to defend Gunnar or criticize Attila — if anything, the phrase “deed of shame” suggests that he thinks Gunnar’s fate is well-deserved — but he admires Gunnar’s hopeless defiance. Once Gunnar is captured, “afterwards fought Hogni, with the stoutest heart and the greatest manlihood; and he felled to earth twenty of the stoutest of the champions of King Atli, and many he thrust into the fire that burnt amidst the hall, and all were of one accord that such a man might scarce be seen; yet in the end was he borne down by many and taken.”

But Rüdiger does not appear in Völsunga saga. He is entirely an invention of German feudalism, which apparently saw nothing wrong with a noble hero serving an Oriental warlord. There is not much difference between how Etzel and the European lords are depicted in the poem, but the audience would still have known who the Huns were. But for Fritz Lang’s film adaptation in 1924, this was a problem — Etzel is shown as a grotesque Oriental stereotype that could have passed for an orc in Lord of the Rings:


Rüdiger’s loyalty to such a caricature now requires additional explanation. The one provided by Lang (and explicitly stated on a title card) is that loyalty is a purely German value, and by upholding it, Rüdiger is expressing his German spirit, which an outsider like Attila can never hope to understand. The question of why Rüdiger had sworn fealty to him in the first place is avoided.

But no such sophistry is ever needed in Tolkien. Good and evil in Lord of the Rings are racial attributes. All Elves and hobbits are good, although hobbits tend to be limited by their dense provincialism. Dwarves are brave beyond reproach and strongly reject Sauron’s authority, no matter what their faults may be. Men (and Elves in The Silmarillion) may go astray, but their sins are dignified by the greatness of their tragic flaws. Isildur condemns Middle-earth to war when he refuses to destroy the Ring, but he remains a mighty, aristocratic European, whose blood forms the basis for Aragorn’s entire claim to kingship. Denethor gives in to despair, a high-minded refusal to sully tradition with reality — “I would have things as they were in all the days of my life…to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.” (Tolkien, 854) — but his madness is not entirely his fault. Even the Nazgûl, who sold their souls to Sauron and are beyond redemption, still have a certain frightening aristocratic majesty in their evil, being damned by their grandiose pride.

But orcs are not just evil, they are all debased, contemptible, and primitive. Orcs are not allowed to be skillful warriors and are incapable of courage — if they attack or stand their ground, it must be out of hatred and bloodlust, or fear of their masters. They win battles only through superior numbers (simply charging by the thousands until they grind their opponents down) and total disregard for the rules of war. In general, contemporary Western people have trouble understanding that this view of their enemies actually diminishes the value of their own victories. It is honorable to defeat an opponent who is your equal (or superior) in skill, courage, and nobility; this was exactly the principle behind the chivalric tournament. There is no honor in mowing down a horde of subhuman troglodytes. The winner in such a slaughter is not a hero, but a teenager playing a video game, where the computer opponents are programmed to be ineffectual enough to let him win. Lord of the Rings is the perfect illustration of the 20th-century attitude Huizinga criticized in Homo Ludens when he wrote that “war is waged outside the sphere of equals, against groups not recognized as human beings and thus deprived of human rights — barbarians, devils, heathens, heretics and ‘lesser breeds without the law.’

One does not need to go far below the surface to see racist insinuations in Tolkien’s description of orcs and orc-like men. “The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. ‘If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk,’ he said loudly. The local inhabitants did not look pleased at the prospect.” (Tolkien, 155) This political demagoguery is soon revealed to be a cover for a nefarious plot: “But there was one swarthy Breelander, who stood looking at [Frodo’s company] with a knowing and half-mocking expression that made them feel very uncomfortable. Presently he slipped out of the door, followed by the squint-eyed southerner: the two had been whispering together a good deal during the evening.” (160) Merry actually brings this up again in Book III: “But there were some others that were horrible: man-high, but with goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed. Do you know, they reminded me at once of that Southerner at Bree; only he was not so obviously orc-like as most of these were.” (566) But at the same time, Tolkien should not be turned into a scapegoat for all this and made into some caricatured “racist.” In 1938, when a publisher from Nazi Germany asked him to provide evidence of “Aryan” roots as a prerequisite for a German edition of The Hobbit, he wrote, with a linguistic pedantry that was obviously sarcastically intended, “I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction…as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” The problem is not even with the specific ethnic stereotypes that Tolkien used. One can very easily write a reversal of Lord of the Rings in which orcs are sympathetic and Elves are unlikable — the absolutism of their original portrayal actually makes this extremely straightforward, and I am sure that it has been done many times. The problem is that this way of thinking is really the sum total of modern Western moral philosophy; the only thing that changes is who gets designated to be the orcs of the moment.

Left: Orcs, obviously patterned after Japanese samurai.
Right: An equally crude, but now “positive” stereotype.

Returning to the novel, the intrinsic inferiority of orcs deprives them of the fundamental dignity of freely choosing evil. They are biologically predisposed to hate their leaders and each other, and they feel no loyalty to their cause. In over 1100 pages, there is only one single moment when they show a glimmer of reflection:

‘No, I don’t know,’ said Gorbag’s voice. ‘The messages go through quicker than anything could fly, as a rule. But I don’t enquire how it’s done. Safest not to. Grr! Those Nazgûl give me the creeps. And they skin the body off you as soon as look at you, and leave you all cold in the dark on the other side. But He likes ’em; they’re His favourites nowadays, so it’s no use grumbling. I tell you, it’s no game serving down in the city.’
‘You should try being up here with Shelob for company,’ said Shagrat.
‘I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier.’
‘It’s going well, they say.’
‘They would,’ grunted Gorbag. ‘We’ll see. But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room. What d’you say? — if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’
‘Ah!’ said Shagrat. ‘Like old times.’

(Tolkien, 737-738)

So, of course, it is only a matter of time until these same two characters slaughter each other over a minor disagreement: “Quick as a snake Shagrat slipped aside, twisted round, and drove his knife into his enemy’s throat. ‘Got you, Gorbag!’ he cried. ‘Not quite dead, eh? Well, I’ll finish my job now.’ He sprang on to the fallen body, and stamped and trampled it in his fury, stooping now and again to stab and slash it with his knife.” (907) Since orcs are not moral individuals, there is no moral accountability in killing them, which leads to Tolkien’s single most tone-deaf moment as a writer — the orc-killing competition between Legolas and Gimli, in Book III, played for comic relief.

‘Forty-two, Master Legolas!’ he cried. ‘Alas! My axe is notched: the forty-second had an iron collar on his neck. How is it with you?’
‘You have passed my score by one,’ answered Legolas. ‘But I do not grudge you the game, so glad am I to see you on your legs!’

(Tolkien, 543)

In light of this, the big struggle for Gollum’s soul starts to look rather less substantial than it may on first reading. Recall that, in Books IV and VI, much time is spent deliberating whether “some remnants of old truth and sincerity” (643) may still be found in Gollum; Sam overhears him arguing with himself over whether he should betray Frodo, which at least suggests the possibility of a moral choice, and creates suspense in what would otherwise be a fairly uneventful road trip. Even very early on, Gollum is the subject of Gandalf’s admonition to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” (59) But the reason for this solicitousness is simple — Gollum is a former hobbit, a member of a good race, and that already is sufficient to grant him a certain indulgence. The great moral question here is whether redemption is possible for a racially “good” being who turns to evil. Can anything truly be bad enough to make you lose your birthright?

The Lord of the Rings depicts a struggle between good and evil, but because morality in Middle-earth is biologically determined, there is no actual moral problem in the book and none of the characters ever engages in the most basic moral reasoning. Good and evil are predestined, and one simply accepts one’s fate as duty. Perhaps such a view is more understandable coming from a veteran of World War I.

ww1The artist thought he was criticizing the Kaiser,
but instead revealed his view of what culture is good for.

The morality of Middle-earth has a divine origin, from which it derives its legitimacy. The religious aspect of Tolkien’s writing is well-known; there is a popular Christian interpretation of Lord of the Rings, which reads Tolkien as an apologist and looks for Christian themes inside the text. Whether or not they are actually there, Tolkien was undoubtedly a sincere Catholic who preserved his convictions in a Protestant country and a hostile university environment. The depth of his belief impressed people who knew him, such as C.S. Lewis, whose conversion to Christianity was partially inspired by Tolkien’s moral example.

There are indeed grounds for viewing Tolkien’s world as a Christian allegory. For example, it is monotheistic, even though Lord of the Rings itself does not mention the one god by name. However, The Silmarillion opens with a creation story about a single divine being, named Eru Ilúvatar, who alone in the universe possesses the power to create life. His first act is to create a race of spiritual beings, one of whom rebels against his creator and becomes the embodiment of evil for much of world history (but, unbeknownst to himself, his rebellion ultimately only serves to complete Eru’s greater design). Perhaps this is where we should start, by comparing Tolkien’s dogmatic theology, so to speak, with that of Christianity.

Everything that Christians know about God is what God Himself decided to tell them. There is no other knowledge about God that can be “discovered” on one’s own. On the surface, this would seem to separate God from humanity, but in fact it becomes the instrument of their reconciliation. The most paradoxical idea in revealed religion is not that humans cannot learn the nature of God through their own will — that is unpleasant to think about but actually very easy to accept intuitively — but rather that God wants to speak to them despite this limitation. In other words, an omnipotent and perfect being has willingly chosen to make contact with people who are inherently unable to hold their side of the dialogue. To overcome this problem, God deliberately makes Himself comprehensible to them and waits until someone is willing to make the effort to understand. Such people are elevated by the effort, but one cannot say that they rise to God’s level; no matter what, God also has to come down to meet them. God’s search for humanity matters enough to Him that He is willing to impose increasingly tight confines on His own infiniteness, culminating in His birth as a human and subsequent suffering and death in disgrace. God’s “kenosis” or “self-depletion” is the central nerve in Christianity. It is completely impossible to explain logically and must be accepted on faith.

The god of Tolkien’s world is also unknowable, but he prefers to stay that way. No Elf or human in Lord of the Rings seems to know that Eru exists (if the Elves know, they’re not telling). A couple of lines by Gandalf refer to a higher power — “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor” (330) — but you won’t know it if you haven’t read The Silmarillion, which is already completely antithetical to the idea of revealed religion. Instead of interacting with his creation directly, Eru creates a complex, multi-layered hierarchy of spirits to handle the management of the universe, but even these beings prefer not to show themselves, though Elves and men at least have some vague idea of who they are. (In this way, Tolkien synthesizes monotheism and polytheism, although Eru is the highest authority.) Eru’s messenger in Middle-earth is Gandalf, a lesser spirit who is twice removed from the creator because, not only is he not Eru himself, but he also doesn’t report to Eru directly — rather, he is subordinate to the Valar spirits above him in the hierarchy. The other great sacrifice in the book is borne by Frodo, a mortal being from a race with no religious knowledge whatsoever (hobbits do not seem to recognize the existence of any god or gods).

This question of who makes the sacrifice has fundamental importance for a religious worldview. In Christianity, Jesus’ sacrifice can only have meaning if He is God. There are theological explanations for this, but on an intuitive level it is very simple — if God truly loves the world, sending a minion to die in His stead doesn’t feel right. God can and will ask people to die for Him, but only because “if the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.”

The religious implications of Gandalf’s sacrifice are further complicated by the utter lack of transparency in everything that he does. He appears and disappears without warning, refuses to answer questions (sometimes in anger), is very selective about when and how much to help others, never explains who he is, and generally regards his companions as tools for accomplishing his mission. By the end of the book, he looks much less like a savior and much more like a distinctly modern figure: the secret agent in Her Majesty’s service, giving out orders and manipulating the natives in ways they can never hope to comprehend. Even if, in this case, his employer happens to be god and he’s working toward god’s greater plan (but aren’t they all?), it is difficult to expect any mortal with free will to worship and die for this. Frodo’s willingness to suffer reflects highly on himself, but rather poorly on Eru.

In short, Tolkien designed a coldly formal theology, with a hidden and impersonal god who acts only indirectly through his imperious followers. The fact that people persistently try to read it as Christian suggests that there is an ongoing identity crisis within Christianity itself. Why did he write it this way? Perhaps he simply wanted to come up with a convincingly original doctrine, one that was more or less independent of Christianity. But perhaps, on some level, he was simply uncomfortable with Christian theology. To a certain mentality, the idea of a God who willingly reduces Himself (“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me“) is unappealing, unaesthetic. The geometric beauty of the perfect hierarchy seems much more worthy of the power and grandeur of God. The very concept of “love” seems unworthy of an absolute being. To put it a different way, St. Isaac of Syria famously wrote that mercy is higher than justice; but, to a certain type of person, such a belief is exactly what was meant by “unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”


In a certain sense, The Lord of the Rings has the same effect on Christian identity as on European identity — it overwrites them both with something that looks convincingly similar, but has completely replaced the core of the original idea. The verisimilitude of Middle-earth has, unfortunately, made it more difficult to find our real selves. Tolkien’s world proved to be very convenient for Europe’s remythologization of itself. The author himself was merely a victim of the 20th century, but be that as it may, The Lord of the Rings offers a simple and appealing model for understanding any contemporary conflict, no matter how insignificant: the “enemy,” whoever that is, consists of orcs, soulless and cursed, incapable of civilized negotiation, unable to keep their word, unable to speak a word of anything other than primitive abuse, and therefore deserving no mercy or compassion. “Gondor” is no longer fettered by Christian doctrine; instead, the incognito servants of Eru will shoulder the awesome responsibility of conveying the will of the hidden creator. “And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy.” When you think about it, this is not too different from “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them” — maybe, from Sauron’s point of view, this was not an evil incantation, but a utopian program, with himself as great architect.

We cannot get out,” wrote the Dwarves in Moria, and like them, Tolkien’s efforts to reclaim the past only trapped himself and his readers in the present. When Galadriel’s mirror cleared, it showed only the four drab walls of our prison. Human history, culture, consciousness appear to have been lost in that twilight before the First Age.

2 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” (1954-1955)

  1. Orcs. Who would have thought this piece would become relevant quite as quickly as it did and in such a lumpenly literal way? Long may the leaves continue to fall.


    • Culture never ceases to be relevant, only the precise manner changes. Sometimes not even that.

      Thanks for staying with us; there will be more.


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