THE AUTHOR AND BOOK OF THE CENTURY:
J. R. R. TOLKIEN AND THE LORD OF THE RINGS*
Perry C. Bramlett
A few weeks ago, after I had told a friend I was speaking at Campbellsville University on Tolkien, she asked me to tell her a little bit about him, and she just had a few minutes to listen. She knew that I speak to churches and colleges about C. S. Lewis, and have written books about Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and am writing more. Before I could answer, she said, ‘Was Tolkien a Christian? Was he a professor? Wasn’t he a friend of Lewis?”
I explained to her that Tolkien was indeed a long-time professor at Oxford University like Lewis, that he wrote academic works on Beowulf and literary fantasy and other subjects that are still widely studied today, that he was a dedicated Christian like Lewis, and that he was a great friend of Lewis’s and was very instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.
I also told her (quickly) that Tolkien was recently voted “author of the century” in England, that The Lord of the Rings was voted “book of the century,” that The Hobbit has sold over 50 million copies in English, that The Lord of the Rings has sold well over one hundred million copies, and has been outsold by only one other book in the last hundred years, the Bible, and that today, the “industry” surrounding his books, including movies, fan interest, products and memorabilia circles the globe, is worth many millions of dollars, and that today the world is experiencing the second of two major Tolkien ‘”booms”-the first one was in the 1960’s.
*A convocation address delivered April 25, 2003.
And in the last minute I had with her, I also mentioned that Tolkien was born in South Africa, that his dad died when he was three, that he and his brother were raised by his mother (who died at age 29) in the rural English countryside near Birmingham, that as a young man he worked on the great Oxford English Dictionary, that besides The Hobbit he wrote several warm, readable and very good books for children, including Roverandom, Mr. Bliss, and Farmer Giles of Ham, and that in spite of all the publicity over The Lord of the Rings, the great work of his life was an intricate work called The Silmarillion, on which he labored for over 60 years and never completed, a book which is really a preamble or “genesis” to his hobbit and Rings stories. Finally, I told her that Tolkien stayed married to the same woman for over 50 years, that there were no scandals in his personal life, and that two of his four children are still alive and speak about him today with great love and affection.
As she was leaving, my friend turned and said to me over her shoulder, “Maybe some time you can tell me why all the kids talk about those movies, and what makes Tolkien so special . . . I’ve never heard much good about science fiction or fantasy or whatever it is that he wrote.”
Maybe I will get to tell her more about him later, but now I want to tell you. First, as a writer Tolkien was not similar to C. S. Lewis—he was not a “literary evangelist” or Christian apologist. Tolkien’s works are different—they are pure fantasy. Fantasy is a close kin to science fiction, and a fantasy story or science fiction story may include similar ideas, such as: trips to other worlds, quests, the exploration of space, visits to other planets, and even interplanetary warfare. Sometimes science fiction/fantasy stories are utopian (perfect worlds), or dystopian (badly flawed worlds), and some are set in the future, and some in the past, and some in the present.
Also, some of these stories feature both good and bad aliens and peoples, and at times fantasy stories showcase effects and inventions that alter what we would call “normal.” Furthermore, some science fiction/fantasy is concerned with “hard” science and technology, scientific experiment, and with supernatural forces.
The primary difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy does not often use machinery or technology, like rocketships, robots, computers, and the like. A fantasy story takes the reader to another world, the world of the author’s imagination. And I might add also that fantasy stories, more often than not, have a quality of “strangeness” or wonder about them.
Tolkien wrote often that fantasy is good for us. He said it can give us a sense of recovery—a cleansing of our vision of this world that strengthens our relish for real life. And he once said that fantasy stories have a power. They can give us experiences we have never had and instead of “commenting on life” they can add to it, and our enjoyment of it. Tolkien agreed with his friend when Lewis said that when he was a boy, he “read fairy tales (and fantasy) in secret and would have been ashamed if he had been found doing so.” Then he added, “Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Virtually everything Tolkien wrote grew out of his love for words and language. He could speak or write nineteen languages. As a young man his mother introduced him to Latin, French, and German, and while at college he taught himself or was taught Greek, Middle-English, Anglo-Saxon (Old English), Icelandic (Old Norse), Gothic, medieval and modern Welsh, Finnish, Spanish, and Italian. He also had a good working knowledge of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Russian, and Lombardic (Northern Italy). Tolkien was a working philologist (or linguist) his whole adult life.
His love of story was so deep that he wanted his stories to be a “mythology for England.” His stories, tales, and poems of Middle-earth (his “secondary world”) were what Tolkien called “sub-creations”—they were set in a primeval time and were intended to be the English equivalent to the great Norse tales, or the great old Germanic tales (like those of the Brothers Grimm), or like a very expanded Beowulf.
After the Norman conquest of England (started 1337 AD) English books and libraries had been largely destroyed, French and Latin learning was imported, and for centuries the country was without its own “pure” stories, folktales, and legends. Tolkien wanted to give his country a collection of “lost legends” and epic stories similar to what it had once had. So he wrote tales from his imagined “far past world” that reached to the first beginnings of English history.
We can read about Tolkien’s invented world of Middle-earth in much more than The Lord of the Rings. He wrote about Middle-earth in sixteen books that total over 7,500 pages. After The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), his son Christopher edited and published his father’s papers and unfinished works, and this process took over 20 years, till about 1976, and resulted in The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), and the 12-volume History of Middle-earth. These stories include a whole book of poems and songs, three books that have large sections about elves, two time travel stories, a book that tells how The Lord of the Rings was composed, four books that explain and list the languages and linguistics of Middle-earth, and much more.
A scenario of what Tolkien did in creating his amazing world of Middle-earth, which he worked on (in his imagination) for over 60 years, can be summarized this way. He created and chronicled over 4,000 years in the history of Middle-earth, which geographically is similar to Western Europe and the parts of England Tolkien knew—it is a primeval world before the dawn of recorded history. Tolkien tells us about the creation of Middle-earth, its God, its fall (similar to the Genesis story), devils, good and bad angels, good and evil kings and other rulers, good and bad races of people, animals, monsters and creatures (such as ores, ents, ringwraiths, the Balrog, cave trolls, Shelob the giant spider), elves, hobbits, men and women and family life and children and relatives; dwarves, dragons, wizards, above-ground and underground places and journeys, languages, calendars, politics, great and small wars, friendships, and heroic deeds; rivers, mountains, hills, trails, paths, climate, vegetation, places (towns, villages, pubs), festivals, parties, myths, folktales, songs, poetry, love stories, quests, adventures, deaths, resurrections, immortality, sacrifices . . . and much more and all described in detail.
Perhaps the best review Tolkien received was from The Guardian (British) newspaper: “How, given little over half a century of work, did one man become the creative equivalent of a people?” And there are numerous other glowing tributes, including: (The Lord of the Rings is) “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the 20th century”; “extraordinary, pure excitement, remarkable”; “one of the very few works of genius in modem literature”; “a work of immense narrative power”; “the ultimate quests, the ultimate battles between good and evil, the ultimate chronicles of stewardship of the earth”; “masterful, high adventure, suspense, mystery, poetry, and fantasy”; and from C. S. Lewis: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or bum like cold iron”, and “Reading (The Fellowship of the Ring) is like lightning from a clear sky.”
If you want to read Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories chronologically, you would start with The Silmarillion which he worked on for over sixty years and never finished. His son edited and finished it, and it was published three years after Tolkien’s death, in 1977. The Silmarillion is similar to Genesis in the Old Testament, and the first chapters are not unlike Proverbs. It tells of the creation of the world of Middle-earth in the “Tirst Age,” by music, which is Tolkien’s blueprint of creation, and the providence and design of God, whom Tolkien calls Iluvatar. There are good angels (Valar), and a bad angel called Melkor (later Morgoth) who rebels and goes his own way and sows evil and discord over Middle-earth. The good angels steward the earth and provide its light. Later, several Valar take on human form to serve as guardians against Sauron, who was originally Melkor’s chief lieutenant. One of these Valar becomes a wizard named Gandalf.
The Silmarillion is a great work but is difficult to read for some, because it contains over 1000 names of people and places not in The Lord of the Rings, and also because in it Tolkien used several different styles of writing. In a sense, reading The Silmarillion is like reading at the same time an adventure story or epic, a list of events in a diary, scholarly appendices and footnotes, and the Old Testament.
I hope you have read The Hobbit because it is really a delightful prelude or “prequel” to The Lord of the Rings. In its original form, The Hobbit was a collection of stories Tolkien read to his own children in the 1930’s—it was only by sheer accident (or providence) that a former student of his saw the manuscript lying on a table and urged Tolkien to publish it. The Hobbit is one of the finest adventure stories ever written, noted for its sly humor and Tolkien’s famous wordplay. It is a never boring, fast-moving story. It also foreshadows what is to come in The Lord of the Rings. If I had been making the Rings movies, I would have filmed The Hobbit first.
The story of how Tolkien came to write The Hobbit has passed into legend. In late 1928, he had been grading exam papers and later wrote: “One of the candidates mercifully left one of the sheets with no writing on it—which is possibly the best thing that can happen to an examiner—and I wrote on it ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ Names always generate a story in my mind and eventually I thought I should find out what hobbits were like. But that was only the beginning; I spun the elements out of my head; I didn’t do any organizing at all.”
As a footnote I want to mention that there is a Kentucky connection to Tolkien and hobbits. One of his friends (Alan Bamett) became a professor at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Bamett (from Shelbyville, now deceased), told a Kentucky writer (Guy Davenport) who interviewed him that Tolkien was fascinated with the names in the Kentucky phone book of the Lexington/Shelbyville area-and that he took several of his hobbit and Middle-earth names from it; one was “Baggins.”
In writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, many of Tolkien’s other names came from the old Norse legends and sagas, such as the Elder Edda and the Finnish Kalevela. He said, “I gave the dwarfs actual Norse names from the Norse books.” Mirkwood Forest appears in an Icelandic saga (King Heidrik the Wise), Gandalf’s name appears in Halfdan the Black, and Middle-earth is an ancient name for our own world.
The Lord of the Rings also contains pieces of Tolkien’s historical knowledge and his personal life. Middle-earth resembles some of the history of Greece and Rome. The ents were created at the request of his son Michael, who had seen trees cut down and thought of this as murder of living things. He asked his father to “make up a tale in which the trees took revenge on the machine lovers.” Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla had a doll named Tom; so into the story came Tom Bombadil.
Let us ask the following question: What is The Lord of the Rings? It has been called a fairy-story, traditional epic, romance, novel, collection of novels, political satire, moral exhortation, saga, fantasy, glorified science fiction, myth, contemporary mythology, sequel to The Hobbit, trilogy, an allegory, and other things by other people. One thing it is not is a trilogy— it is one complete work of nearly 1200 pages. In 1952 its British publishers divided the book into three parts because it was so huge since paper was in short supply in post-war England; moreover, the publishers did not know (or think) it would sell. Following the success of the first volume, the other two were released.
Another question is: how did this huge and learned work, written by a then obscure Oxford professor, become a classic? The answer has to do with Tolkien’s central characters. They are humanoid creatures called hobbits, and their unlikely hero had the unheroic name of Frodo. During the 1960’s, after the paperbacks came out in this country, so many young Americans were drawn to these diminutive creatures that Tolkien became a cult figure. “Frodo lives” was a popular graffiti expression of the time. T-shirts declared that “Tolkien is hobbit-forming.” College students called him in the middle of the night from this country (forgetting the six hours time change) just to talk to the man “who invented hobbits.” Uninvited people of all ages showed up at his home in Oxford and tried to look through his window. He received so many letters, requests for speaking engagements, and gifts of pictures and other art depicting scenes and characters from The Lord of the Rings that he had to obtain a secretary and move to the seashore near London (Bournemouth) to have some privacy; at this time he was in his late sixties.
In the 1960’s the first Tolkien boom occurred. It was probably at least partly escapist, as college students and other young folks (and many older ones) from all over the country were disturbed by the Vietnam war and by the threat of a nuclear inferno—a whole generation of young Americans could lose themselves and their troubles in the wonders of Tolkien. One rumor even circulated that Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings while under the influence of drugs.
But that was the 1960’s and Tolkien is still here today, more popular and influential than ever. The Lord of the Rings has outlasted its cult status and is now studied as literature, to the dismay of some. And millions of readers and re-readers keep returning to it and are still delighted. What is very interesting is that now people have finally discovered that Tolkien was a Christian, and are now writing “Christian” books about him.
On the surface, there is no Christianity in The Lord of the Rings. There are no Bibles, no churches, no chapels, no doctrine, no theology, no formal prayers, no mention of Jesus, and God is not mentioned by name. But there are hints of Christianity everywhere. Tolkien himself said that The Lord of the Rings was a “fundamentally Christian work,” and his story recounts a pre-biblical period of history—a time when there were no chosen people, no religion at all—from a point of view that is distinctly Christian.
The complete narrated story in The Lord of the Rings (and also in The Hobbit) is primarily concerned with the never-ending struggle between good and evil, and it is also Tolkien’s investigation into the sources and nature of evil. Tolkien was a veteran of the “Great War” (World War I), had been shot at and shelled, and several of his closest friends were killed. He also lived through the bombings of England in World War II and the unknowing terror of possible invasion. He knew firsthand the terror of war, and in The Lord of the Rings he gave his response to the problem of evil—it must be destroyed.
He also knew about the subtleness of evil, which he saw in the impersonal, mechanized society of the Western world. He associated “machinery” (particularly labor-saving devices) as a desire for power and control or domination, and once said that “mechanism” was the modem equivalent of the “evil spirit” or “Enemy.” Although he disliked much of the modem world and longed for quieter, simpler days, he did not resent the world he lived in.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien represented the battle between good and evil with a variety of original creatures who were, and are, timeless. He created some who were completely good, some completely evil, and some who wavered, despaired, and were completely fallible. He showed that anyone can give in to the enticement of evil and power, and even a good person (like Sam, Frodo, or Boromir) can have evil forced into their lives.
The Lord of the Rings is saturated with Tolkien’s Christian view that life is a journey that carries us often to places we would not have dreamed of. Tolkien knew that the “everyday things” we do—getting out of bed, answering the phone, opening the door, getting our mail—these ordinary things have cosmic significance. Tolkien’s great friend Lewis said the same thing in his fantasy story The Great Divorce (which Tolkien loved), that all the “ordinary” choices we make have eternal consequences. Whether we, like Frodo, engage in great or small acts of courage or even cowardice, we are traveling the one Road to ultimate joy or final ruin.
Here are a few of the other “hints” that point to Christianity in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is considered by many to be a Christ-like figure, who carried his “cross”, the Ring, to its ultimate destiny. Gandalf often hinted that he believed in a divine providence or power, as when he said Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and this was not a “strange chance.” There are veiled references to immortality, as when Aragom (Strider) is mentioned as never returning to Cerin as a “living man”, and when Theoden said (in The Return of the King) as he was dying, “I go to my fathers.” And there are many others. One author wrote that in this story, “one can find the themes of justice and mercy, the economy of grace, the persistence of evil, and the demand for hope . . . one cannot separate Tolkien’s Christian message from his stories.”
Tolkien once showed a friend an unpublished paper by a British professor which contained the idea that The Lord of the Rings was misunderstood because the critics failed to see that it is based on the manner of Christ’s redemption of the world. About this Tolkien told his friend, “Much of this is true . . . I am a Christian and of course what I write will be from that essential viewpoint.”
And this wonderful story does dramatize forcefully Tolkien’s own Christian sensibilities, and his Christian moral outlook was revealed by the virtues of his characters. His creation of the secondary world of Middle-earth was his way of coping with and escaping from a war-torn, urbanized and mechanized world and offering something better to his readers . . . and perhaps to himself.
The last thing I will say about the makeup of The Lord of the Rings has to do with identity. One of its most charming aspects is that, though we know it is pure fiction, the story has the feel of a time and place that were once real. Tolkien went to great lengths to shape a fantasy world that mirrors life and reality as he thought all peoples everywhere have experienced. As a Christian, he knew that the adventure of our lives is a great drama, and our lives, as well as the lives and adventures of the hobbits and their friends, are part of a story that “began once upon a time” and is moving toward the eventual “ever after.” So when we read about the elves, hobbits, dwarves, and all the rest of the Fellowship, we can identify with them because they are, in many ways, like us: they have the same immaturities, fears, failures, joys and successes as we do. Many readers have commented that The Lord of the Rings is really their story.
Someone wrote this about the making of The Lord of the Rings movies: “Sooner or later someone is going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings” and fans of the book will gnash their teeth at the thought of the mess movie-makers can create. “The movie should draw on international genius, not just on that of one country. It will need great actors who are not easily recognized by English-speaking audiences. The Shire (should be set) in the English countryside, of course. Hobbits must not be cute—one reason for keeping the movie out of Disney studios Normal-sized adults could be used for hobbits, using trick photography to make them seem smaller than the other characters, but it would be highly expensive. Many will object to a movie no matter how well it is done . . .” (The excerpt I just read for you was written over 30 years ago, before the first The Lord of the Rings movie was made in the 1978, an animated version.)
Tolkien was first approached by Hollywood producers in 1957 about a movie based on The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien hated their film script so much he wrote a two thousand word denunciation of it. The plan was dropped. In the 1960’s Tolkien was approached about (and turned down) a proposed movie version of The Lord of the Rings that would have featured the Beatles. John Lennon wanted to portray Gollum; Paul McCartney was to play Frodo; George Harrison would have starred as Gandalf; and Ringo Starr would have been cast as Sam Gamgee.
Shortly before his death, Tolkien sold the rights to his books’ names and characters to a California group now called Tolkien Enterprises. Today, Tolkien Enterprises controls all Tolkien products such as video games, figurines, recordings and other merchandise, as well as owning and controlling all copyrightable elements of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and others, for use of film and legitimate state rights.
Tolkien Enterprises had final approval of the new The Lord of the Rings films, and it receives over fifty percent of the net profits of the films and “media-related” sales—this is, and will be for years, hundreds of millions of dollars. New Zealand-born director Peter Jackson started work on the movies over five years ago, and all three took nearly two years to film, at a total cost of about $450 million. The three movies will eventually be seen by more people than any films ever made, and they will make more money than any films ever made.
All of you have probably seen the first two: “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers.” Each is over three hours long, visually stunning with (often) breath-taking music and digital special effects, and the acting and cinematography and scenery are excellent. I thought the scene from the Shire at the first of “The Fellowship of the Ring” was just terrific—just like Tolkien wrote it, more or less.
But in order to appease Tolkien Enterprises, to assure a wide following among kids, and to not bore young movie-goers, Peter Jackson put in more action scenes and left out many of Tolkien’s “quiet” and teaching scenes from the book. Some of what was left in is more or less true to what Tolkien wrote, except in “The Two Towers,” in which Jackson exercised a lot of “cinematic license.” “The Return of the King” will be the best film, more true to Tolkien’s actual story. The worst omission so far is the (unexplained) failure to include Tolkien’s poems and songs, which help give the wonderful books their flavor.
These movies, especially the second one, are pure spectacle. What Jackson did best was show the horrors and confusions of war (with a minimum of actual violence and gore). He also did not downplay the heroism of Tolkien’s courageous company. But spectacle dominates. In the book, Tolkien described the actual combat at Helm’s Deep sparingly, while Jackson turns Tolkien’s ten-page account into a thirty-minute climax.
Christian concerns. Unlike “The Two Towers” movie, the book convinces us that the Fellowship is bound by unbreakable ties of friendship and sacrifice—not only do they trust each other implicitly, they also have a shared faith in an unfailing guide (Gandalf), as well as an undying devotion to the good: the destruction of the Ring. Like the disciples of Jesus, they are a communion of the unlike. Even though they have been splintered into three groups, they still act as mini-communities always maintaining a solidarity with each other.
Another problem was Jackson’s failure to understand the mystery of evil. In the first movie, Saruman is instant and uncomplicated evil, but in fact Tolkien wrote him as a basically wise figure who gradually became deluded with the desire for power. And both movies to date also failed to reveal why Frodo is so terribly burdened by his bearing of the Ring. They rightly pictured him as (often) tired and discouraged, but only once was he actually tempted to put the Ring on. As Tolkien wrote, the constant temptation to wear the Ring is what made its power so corrupt and debilitating. In the actual story, Frodo repeatedly longs to use the Ring in order to escape from a crisis or to solve a problem. The movies only showed poignant sighs and grimaces from Frodo, although Sam is convincingly shown to be his sturdy and loyal companion.
The worst problem was the decision to omit the return of the Company to Isengard, Saruman’s fortress, after their victory over Saruman’s forces at Helm’s Deep. Gandalf wanted to offer Saruman mercy, and urged him to repentance and reconciliation. In the book Saruman refused and remained enslaved to his lust for power. But Tolkien, as a Christian, believed strongly in the Christian idea of loving mercy-this perhaps THE major theme of The Lord of the Rings. He wanted to show that no one in Middle-earth lies beyond redemption. Not even Sauron was evil in the beginning. It was a shame that this scene was left out.
But I loved the first two movies, I’ll love the third one, and I’m very glad they were made. How many movies are made about great books by great authors? But the book is far better and more entertaining and thoughtful than the movies will ever be. The best films are often good for us, but movies are a fundamentally passive medium—they form fixed, unchanging images for us to see. When we read, we think for ourselves and come up with our own scenes, ideas, and interpretations. Visual adventures are one thing, but often they signal for us a famine of words and we miss . . . the Word.
The last thing I’ll say about “the book of the century” comes from something I wrote, and it shows in a charming way how Tolkien’s Middle-earth works have touched and moved people all over the world. Recently an American media magazine (Wired) sent a reporter to Russia to interview folks about The Lord of the Rings. One interview was with a twenty-seven year-old lady, who had first read The Fellowship of the Ring in 1988. It moved her to tears, and a few years later she read the rest of the story in two borrowed volumes. She had to read and remember the characters and events in four days, and could not copy the book, as copiers were scarce in Russia in those days. Thankfully she had a photographic memory and could call up any page and recite to her friends. Later, she reflected on the enormous impact the book had on her. She said, “Soviet people were raised as atheists, and Tolkien’s books offered me hope for our world, the hope that Tolkien’s elves call estel. Tolkien does not mention God by name in The Lord of the Rings at all, but you can feel something really wonderful when you read it. Later I recognized it as faith.”
Ian Boyd and Stratford Caldecott. The Catholic Imagination of J. R. R. Tolkien. South Orange, NJ: The Chesterton Press, 2003.
Perry C. Bramlett. I Am in Fact a Hobbit: An Introduction to the Life and Work of J. R. R, Tolkien. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003.
Humphrey Carpenter. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
_________________, editor. With the Assistance of Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R R Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Guy Davenport. “Hobbits in Kentucky.” The New York Times, February 23, 1979, A27.
Eric Davis. “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Wired (October 2001): 116-32.
Allyson Dziedzic. “The Truth in Fantasy: Tolkien’s Route to Understanding.” Perspectives 16/10 (December 2001): 9-13.
Ivor Rogers and Deborah Rogers. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Critical Biography. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1980.
John C. West, Jr., editor. Celebrating Middle-Earth: The Lord of the Rings as a Defense of Western Civilization. Seattle: Inkling Books, 2002.
Ralph C. Wood. ‘Traveling the One Road: The Lord of the Rings as a ‘pre-Christian’ classic.” Christian Century (February 24, 1993): 208-11.
____________. “Hungry Eye: The Two Towers and the Seductiveness of Spectacle.” Books and Culture 9/2 (March/April 2003): 16-17.