The Subtlety of J.R.R. Tolkien

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, a date which yielded a spate of memorializing essays. I didn’t write one because although I’m currently reading “The Lord of the Rings” aloud to kids two and three — this is the second time through, with at least one more ahead for kid No. 4 — I’m not a true enough Tolkienphile to be automatically aware of such anniversaries in advance.

But I am enough of one to have some observations on other people’s Tolkien arguments. So let’s take on a couple of questions raised by the memorializing essays, starting with the familiar debate about the supposed absence of moral ambiguity in Tolkien’s works, relative both to more realistic novelists and to later fantasists who have adopted a grimmer and less heroic style.

Here, from Sebastian Milbank, in an essay making a counterintuitive but compelling case for Tolkien’s place among the literary modernists, is a useful summary of the argument over the portrayal of good and evil in “Lord of the Rings,” which has been ongoing since the saga first appeared:

I’ve read many variations on Muir’s claim over the years, especially once George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” became a dominant cultural influence, and it never ceases to be puzzling. There are various ways in which Tolkien refuses realism, and his books are in no way gritty or sexy in the contemporary style. But the idea that he wasn’t interested in the territory between good and evil is belied by even the most superficial reading of the story.

Yes, there is a mostly offstage villain, Sauron, whose evil seems fixed; yes, Sauron’s Orcish armies are fairly described as immovably depraved; yes, there is a set of characters who are unfailingly heroic despite various doubts and temptations. But between the “consistently good” and the “immovably evil” lies the zone in which most of the trilogy’s drama takes place — the corruption of the wizard Saruman, the fatal temptation of Boromir, the despair and subsequent redemption of Théoden, the curdled conservatism of Denethor and above all the complicated and tortured relationship between Frodo and Gollum, and within Gollum’s own divided consciousness. The Frodo-Gollum dynamic certainly features goodness and heroism, but not in any naïve way, and it ends with divine providence engineering the world’s salvation (though not its full redemption) through and despite their mutual corruption by the ring.

I’ve offered this defense of moral complexity in Tolkien in this newsletter before, so instead of belaboring it, let’s try to imagine a counterthrust from a Tolkien critic. Such an argument might pick up on a moment early in the narrative, in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” when the Hobbits first meet the rather disreputable-looking ranger Strider, and in deciding to trust him, Frodo comments that a servant of Sauron would “seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”

It’s a good line, but it gestures to an aspect of temptation and corruption that “Lord of the Rings” doesn’t really depict. When characters are tempted in Tolkien’s trilogy, it can take different forms — a false realism or intellectual arrogance, a misdirected desire to play a heroic or messianic role, a feeling of pessimism and helplessness, or simple addiction in the case of the one ring’s slow-working drug. But apart from the gleaming beauty of the ring itself, you never see anyone deceived by a false fairness, by evil’s glamour, by a mistaken belief that Sauron is building a brighter and better future for the folk of Middle-earth.

Indeed, contra Frodo’s line, none of the servants of Sauron actually do seem fair; they feel foul and look foul, from the Lord of the Nazgul to the lowest Orc. Middle-earthers may knuckle under to Mordor’s power out of hopelessness, corrupt themselves in the hopes of resisting it, or seek a partnership out of mistaken realpolitik. But nobody is deceived as to what Mordor really is: ugly, dark and terrible.

This, then, would be the subtler argument for Tolkien’s unsubtlety — that his characters may show shades of gray, but his world is starkly black and white, and the temptation to join Mordor is too obviously a temptation to pure evil, unlike temptations in the real world’s ambiguous terrain.

To this, one might offer two related responses: First, the larger Tolkien legendarium does offer a narrative like the one that Frodo references — a story of the days when Sauron was fair in appearance and seductive, when he deceived both Elves and men by promising them beauty and grace and immortality. This is the prequel narrative that “The Rings of Power,” the Amazon adaptation, tries to flesh out and deliver, and I had some hopes for that production precisely because its story isn’t just a reboot of “Lord of the Rings” — there’s a different kind of good-and-evil narrative there for the unspooling, a different portrait of evil and temptation, making it all the more disappointing that the series has been such a clanging artistic failure.

But “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “more realistic.” It’s accurate enough to say that Tolkien’s trilogy doesn’t dramatize the kind of moments in history when evil appears wearing one mask or another, and good and bad seem intermixed on different sides. But there are also real-world moments when masks slip, the lines are starker and you can see a Barad-dur rising in the distance. And Tolkien was working in such a moment, in the 1940s, not the 2020s: As much as he hated being accused of doing World War II allegory in his depiction of the War of the Ring, nonetheless, it mattered that he was writing his novels in the shadow of two of the bloodiest totalitarian dictatorships the world has ever known.

Some might argue that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union didn’t immediately and automatically appear as Mordors to the outside world, that they “seemed fair” at first to Adolf Hitler’s conservative apologists or the socialist intellectuals who celebrated Joseph Stalin. But they didn’t try all that hard to disguise themselves: The Nazis wore lightning bolts and death’s heads on their uniforms and Hitler barely veiled his eliminationist ambitions; Communism raised architectural monstrosities that would be at home on the Plateau of Gorgoroth while ruling over lands sickened by industrial pollution. And they were just the starkest case studies in a 20th century that offered plenty of proof that people don’t always need a deceptive glamour, a false fairness, to ally themselves with darkness.

So sometimes it’s realistic, not naïve, to portray the darkness itself as the glamour, the appeal of an evil power as the point. The devil appears to some people as Lucifer the light-bringer, yes — but his darker visage finds worshipers as well. And when we talk comfortably about Tolkien’s supposed unrealism and naïveté, maybe we’re really expressing our discomfort with that cold and bitter truth.

Finally, a shorter comment on a different way that Tolkien might be accused of unrealism — in his romanticism and pastoralism, his hostility to modern material progress, his association of technology and industry with, well, the stink of Mordor. I wrote a column recently about the preservationist impulse in England, Tolkien’s home, and while I used a Philip Larkin poem, “Going, Going,” as a way into the subject, I could have just as well used Tolkien’s arcadian laments. And just as my column argued that a fear of sprawl and development has left King Charles III’s dominions embalmed, stagnant, struggling to build or grow or welcome children, a Tolkien anniversary essay from Niall Gooch worries that the spirit of Hobbitism now enjoys too much influence in Tolkien’s island home:

I obviously endorse this point, but I think the last line undersells how much Tolkien subjected his own pastoral nostalgia to critique. It isn’t just that the Hobbitlands are obviously dependent on bolder men and stronger civilizations for protection. It’s also that the chief of those protective civilizations, the kingdom of Gondor, is itself frozen in a kind of preservationist sickness, a backward-looking decadence, a conservatism unto death.

Because Tolkien is a reactionary, the solution to that sickness is the return of a king of ancient lineage. But because Tolkien is a subtle writer, it’s clear that ancient lineages alone are not enough, and that a fixation on the past for the past’s sake is its own kind of trap — less destructive perhaps than the machinery of Isengard or Mordor, but a kind of doom for any civilization nonetheless. Here is how Faramir, the captain of Gondor, describes the arc of his native land:

This passage mildly counters my earlier concession that “Lord of the Rings” never dresses evil in fairness, since what is Faramir describing if not a fairness and nobility turning sour and corrupted underneath? Here you have an image of decadence that’s arguably more relevant to the current museum-house condition of England than Tolkien’s horror at factories or deforestation. And here you also have a judgment that might apply to various forms of right-coded politics in our own day as well — forms which sometimes pine for a return to the deep past, sometimes compound elixirs to restore manly vigor or lengthen life, but so far seem insufficiently generative to avert the decline that they deplore.


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— Anvar Sarygulov and Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield, “Understanding the Baby Boom,” Works in Progress (Sept. 7)

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