I never saw the Lord of the Rings movies when I was growing up. I wasn’t allowed to watch them or read the books either. My parents (fundamental Christians) saw all fictional magic as evil. The Bible says that witches, magic, and sorcery are evil, therefore, my parents felt that magic should not be a part of our entertainment. Wizardry and spells could not be good, even in a made-up world.
Meanwhile, all my peers (Christians from slightly less conservative homes) obsessed over all things elvish and dwarfish. They saw in Lord of the Rings some pictures of the Christian message. Gandalf or Aragorn or Frodo all reminded them somehow of God or his Christ or of the journey of the Christian believer. Some apparently saw Tolkien’s epic tale as an intrinsically Christian book, written for evangelical purposes.
Of course, I have encountered others who see no Christian themes whatsoever in the book. Instead, they savor the witchcraft, sorcery, and dark arts in the story. A friend of mine also sees a thinly veiled romance written into the friendship between Frodo and Sam Gamgee.
I don’t pretend to understand the theological weight of Lord of the Rings. I have no clue if Tolkien meant to point to the Bible story, or if he intended to glamorize the dark arts. I don’t know if he would have seen his tale as a tool for sharing the Gospel with unbelievers, or if he would have appreciated the romantic interpretation of Sam and Frodo’s love for each other.
I have no idea how Tolkien managed to write such a controversial book, open to such varied interpretations. But I find myself caring very little about those controversies and interpretations, because I’m more perplexed by Tolkien’s ability to write such an incredible, moving, and timeless epic. I’m completely and utterly smitten by his story and his manner of telling it.
It took me a few years after reaching the independence of adulthood to actually read The Lord of the Rings and the accompanying novel The Hobbit, The sheer length of the books and Tolkien’s wandering style of prose intimidated me. This July, however, I finalIy steeled myself to read them. It took me a month to read the trilogy and another week to read the little prequel.
My favorite book of the four was The Hobbit. I almost wish I’d waited to read it this October or November, because it’s just such a cozy, nostalgic read, that it surely belongs to autumn. Tolkien’s narrative voice is dignified yet playful, as he spins tales of long, long ago and far, far away, interjecting comments now and then with a very strong sense of the here and now (like his comparison of oliphaunts and elephants or the phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire”). His adventures are clearly meant to entertain younger listeners, but as his dear friend C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and Tolkien’s story is fit for all.
I love all of Tolkien’s quirky characters and magical creatures, his imaginative worlds within a world, but most of all, I’m amazed at his ability to throw his characters into one danger after another, ceaselessly casting them against obstacles and hardships. With each new phase of their quest, Tolkien’s adventurers become entangled in a fresh layer of sticky traps.
What Tolkien does is only follow the basic rules of telling a good story: create memorable characters with great desires, and then attack those characters with challenge after challenge which they must overcome in order to see their goals met. This is how we are taught to tell a story, but the doing is so much harder than the telling.
Tolkien, however, makes it look easy. His characters are at once alien, human, and angelic. Alien, because they are not (usually) men or women. They are quirky, whimsical creatures of fantasy. Human, because they are fallible and frail and far from perfect. Elvish coldness and dwarfish greed and even the petty squabbling nature of some hobbits are perfectly recognizable to us as essentially human traits. And yet… there is a strain of nobility, of true courage, generosity, and selflessness in Tolkien’s main figures that inspires his readers to awe and even to imitation.
After giving them a quest to fulfill, Tolkien then makes that quest nearly impossible. The trials faced by both The Fellowship and The Company are numerous and delightfully inventive. Each peril plunges them further into danger and draws readers further into Tolkien’s elaborate world.
What is especially striking to me is the ability of Tolkien’s heroes to extricate themselves from danger and accomplish their mission not merely by luck or invention or by the surprising but convenient help of some giant eagles, but by acts of true courage, loyalty, and kindness.
Few fictional protagonists are created these days that have that real heroism, but characters like Bilbo, Sam Gamgee, Aragorn, and Faramir serve not just to endear the story to readers, but to call out those nobler qualities from within us–to spur us on to our own acts of kindness and bravery–and to warm our hearts in a world too full of darkness.