On Tolkien, War and Morality

3 Jan

Tolkien, 1916

I logged on to Facebook this morning to discover that today marks the 122nd anniversary of the birth of J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t want to call it his “birthday,” seeing as he passed away many years ago, and that learning of someone’s birthday on Facebook usually implies that you are friends with them, which I regrettably am not. We missed each other by almost 20 years. Yet his stories, in both literary and cinematic form, brought an amount of joy and imagination to my childhood (and adulthood) that I could hardly describe in words.

I remember with remarkable clarity the first time I was introduced to the world of Tolkien. The year was 2002 and I was an impressionable ten-year-old boy watching the newly-made Fellowship of the Ring film with my siblings. From the opening sequences through the closing credits, I was on the edge of my seat, riveted by the plot and absorbed in the goings-on of an imaginary world. It was founded in more than a fascination with the supernatural and unfamiliar; it was the pitting of good versus evil in its purest form. The malevolent forces have no economic interests, no perverse backstories, no personal vendettas; just honest, unbridled evil. Critics often like to scrutinize authors for creating such unrealistic duality, instead praising characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad who maintain a moral ambiguity that disorients but intrigues viewers. I’ll be the first to agree that I find such ambiguity compelling and almost addictive to follow, but I also think that we’ve forgotten the importance of univocal villainy.

Think about the era in which Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings series. It was shortly after the end of World War I, a war which was hardly marked by any moral signposts, but rather a complex nexus of political alliances, territorial ambitions and deep-seated tensions that had simmered throughout the preceding century. But despite the clear pervasiveness of national interests in instigating The Great War, there was still a Lovelace-esque romanticism surrounding the narrative of the British soldier. Tolkien crafts an entirely different story. Instead of portraying a petty war as glorious and romantic, he imagines a war that is literally the “War to End All Wars”; if good wins, then evil is vanquished, and if evil wins, then good is extinguished. But instead of this war being seen as the ultimate, most noble fight, the threat of evil is largely ignored precisely because so many characters are caught up in power struggles of their own. In the end, it’s only with a last-ditch effort and an incredible amount of fortune that the forces of evil are actually defeated. And even when evil is defeated, the price paid for it is inordinately high, due largely to the missteps of characters who are self-interested and power-hungry.

When you think about the notion of fighting against pure evil, it puts the real world into a different perspective. We obviously don’t live in a world with a veritable “Shadow in the East,” and we don’t live in a world where anyone is 100% evil, but if we stop to really think about the insignificant power struggles that define our world today, we’ll realize that it’s pretty pathetic. Tolkien reminds us that there are always bigger and nobler fights than those we fight day to day, and for that, we should remember Tolkien today.

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