While he has enjoyed incredible commercial success, in most circles, Tolkien is considered ‘soft’ literature, good for enjoyment but not entirely worthy of serious study. So why is he important? True, he is the father of modern fantasy and he has inspired many other writers. His skill as a storyteller and a master of language makes his work worth any time spent in its study for the aspiring writer.
But to declare an author great because simply because he inspired other authors to be great is a circular argument even Jormungandr might find a bit much. A truly great author is worth studying because of what he contributes beyond literary circles. Like the saga’s of old, great stories speak to us about life, humanity, and life itself, and it is here that Tolkien shows his work worth the same consideration due to Homer or Huxley.
Tolkien’s importance is built largely upon three things. First, he lived at a time when humanity was confronting in a real and visceral way the reality of evil. Second, his study of language opened to him a deep understanding of ancient myth and storytelling tradition that contained realistic and practical thought on resisting evil. Third, as a devout Christian, he understood this evil from a theological view based on his faith.
For men like Tolkien, the World Wars presented two specific issues to be dealt with. First, the idea of evil ceased to be an idea; they came face to face with the real thing. Evil was no longer something that belonged to man’s past, a result of simple technology and a lack of education. It ceased to be an outside force threatening mankind, mankind created it and brought it on itself. Shockingly, the very institutions that were supposed to create utopia were instrumental to creating the hellscape of the Western Front. The World Wars were not invasions of the barbarians on civilization, they were brought forth by the educated and advanced nations of Europe.
Second, with evil becoming a real and present threat, the question becomes how to resist it? If it comes out of man, can it be defeated? Are power and evil are inextricably linked, and if so, how are we to resist it? Is evil a real thing (as the Manicheans claim) or a lack of goodness (As Boethius and his supporters believed)? If it is real, then how do we reconcile it with a good God, and if it is simply a lack, a nothingness, how do we explain its destructive power?
All these questions were very much as the forefront of thought in the 20th Century, and today we see the results of how people have answered these questions. Tolkien worked with these questions a great deal, his concepts of the ring, the black riders, orcs, and more offer insight into how he reconciled philosophical truth with the overpowering reality of the Western Front.
But, because of his interest and expertise in the old stories and sagas from long ago, Tolkien had the ability to look at the issues of his time from another perspective. Chance and luck were far more important to the Vikings than they are today. Where authors like T.H. White saw meaningless horror, a Norseman might see the Norns spinning a fate as yet not understood. Where much of modernity sees value in naught but victory, the Saxon saw value in the noble defeat, though he understood the tricky nature of the concept. Beowulf’s death in particular is interesting in this respect.
Finally, in an age where religion and superstition were synonymous among the elite, Tolkien remained a devout Catholic. His interaction’s with Lewis, especially his thoughts on myths as “splintered light”, heavily impacted how he understood not only the horrors of his time, but also the times long past. Christ and his kingdom was the glue that held together the Tommy in the trenches and the Saxon in the shieldwall, the Oxford Don and the Lindisfarne monk. It was because of this that when Eomer wonders how to judge what to do in the strange days of the third age, Tolkien could write Aragorn’s response :
“As he has ever judged…Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves…and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”
If right and wrong do not change, then it stands to reason that the past may well inform the present, and Tolkien was in a unique position to interpret that information.
This series will doubtless change as I write it, growing here and there as I uncover some new insight that I’ve missed, or paying special attention to something one of you, my dear readers, may be curious about. Nevertheless, I have a plan to guide the discussion somewhat. The first three articles will look at these three influences on Tolkien, looking first to the World Wars (and specifically to Tolkien’s experience on the Somme), then to what it was he studied as a philologist and professor of Old English, and finally to the importance of Christianity on his life.
Pushing forward, I will look at how Tolkien drew from all three sources to answer questions about luck, evil, and goodness in his creation of the ring, creatures like the ring wraiths, and characters like Gandalf, Boromir, and Gollum. Along the way, I hope to pay attention not just to the philosophical side of Tolkien, but to how he wrote. Tolkien’s skill as a writer is sometimes overlooked, his use of archaism in speech is a prime example, and it is his skill as much as his subject that has contributed to the longevity of his stories.