The Lord of The Rings as Realism

Imagine proposing Monet or Picasso as art realists—the reaction one expects when asserting that J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of The Rings”, notwithstanding elves, goblins, wizards, dragons, is radically realistic.


Don’t be fooled by Tolkien’s archaic forms of speech, jaw breaking names for people and places, or dense song-making, as this story is more realistic than storytelling deeply rooted in the modern world or rife with modern angst. Starting with the consequences of self-sacrifice, when such sacrifice is likely to end in failure and destruction. Frodo and Sam take on the mission of conveying the Ring of Power to Mordor so as to destroy it, but the likelihood of success is close to zero and the probability that the Ring will destroy them—destruction in a sense worse than death—is all but certain. Not because there is glory in this mission, because it is necessary. Where else have the stakes been portrayed so graphically as in the person of Gollum, who is both Frodo’s guide and fallen self? Even Frodo’s grand “success” leaves him in a world in which the damage he sustained cannot be healed, as often occurs with those who make heroic sacrifices. If final healing can be obtained, Tolkien suggests it must occur beyond the confines of this world.


The Voice of Saruman the traitorous wizard is depicted as having the power to sway the minds of the great and small alike. Though we are loath to admit that we can be so swayed, how often do we make decisions based on what compelling voices, laden with appeals to our emotions and predispositions, tell us to do? How hard it is, especially for the educated and strong-minded, to admit they can be twisted, yet history repeatedly demonstrates that human beings can be convinced of anything when “Voices” appeal to their self-interests or kindle strong fears.


The Palantir is a kind of crystal ball in which other places and events can be viewed, a seeing stone that ostensibly bestows power on the viewer. In fact, it is employed to make Denethor, the steward/ruler of Gondor, see what the Enemy wants him to see, to twist and ultimately break his mind with rage and despondency. Don’t our modern Palantirs—Internet, phones, virtual reality games, social media, TV—promise knowledge, entertainment, or power while manipulating our emotions and beliefs? Aren’t we often enfeebled rather than empowered by such things?


Most of us would have endless life if we could, but the immortal elves in Middle Earth, for all their creativity and wisdom, are restless with the impermanence of the world around them, a restlessness that days without end cannot ameliorate; the reason the elves are slowly embarking from a Middle Earth to which they are still strongly attached. Tolkien well understood Augustine’s admonition that nothing in this world can ultimately satisfy.


Lastly, the Ring of Power; rather, the Ring of Slavery, its effects depicted in the Ringwraiths and Gollum: an endlessly horrible existence, the eradication of freedom, power to destroy but not create anything with a sliver of beauty, utter slavery to the Maker of the Ring. When tormented by a “Voice” or “Palantir” or “Ring”, haven’t we had internal conversations eerily similar to Gollum’s terrifying soliloquies? Is the Ring in the story so different from the effects of drug addictions, sexual obsessions, the relentless accumulation of things and power, all-consuming hatred of the “other”, that plague humankind? Every one of us must make choices, sometimes daily, as to whether to put on the Ring that promises what our fallen self desires, or to put it away.


Contrast the realism depicted in modern literature with Tolkien’s realism. For the moderns: our perspective defined by psychology, culture, education, victimhood, chance; our purpose self-defined; a materialistic universe and the finality of death. For Tolkien: the insidious lure of sin, the call to “irrational” self-donation, hope beyond our human frailty and the grave. One might say mutually exclusive realities. I’ve read “The Lord of The Rings” many times, first as fantasy and adventure—a heroic saga, as myth come to life—but in the twilight of my life as a relentlessly realistic portrayal of the human condition that we’d do well to heed.


Storytelling and Truth

“I don’t read fiction because it’s not true, it’s made up.”


I hear this often, and these people are right in that fiction isn’t history or biography or science or theology, but by going further up…further in, as C.S. Lewis put it, stories can reveal truth in ways that non-fiction can’t.


George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 alerted the world to the lies and horrors of communism in ways no newspaper, politician, or academic publication achieved. “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, and “I loved Big Brother” reveal truths about totalitarianism that statistics and rational arguments cannot match.


The prolific French author, George Simenon, wasn’t a moralist, but his novel, Maigret on the Riviera, depicts how a murdered man traded slavery to propriety and wealth for slavery to sensuality and self-indulgence, a story about the deeper truth of the insidiousness of slavery. On the surface, the man seems to have been liberated, and perhaps Simenon thinks so too, though his honesty as a writer demands that he depict where years of sensual indulgence lead the man.


Autism and its myriad spectrums are frustrating mysteries to most of us, and even to many who daily encounter these conditions. More scholarly books have been written on this subject in the last twenty-five years than all prior years combined, many helpful, many informative, many useful. Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told from the perspective of a brilliant/constrained fifteen year old boy gives the reader deeper insights—truths—into the world of autistic human beings than clinical descriptions. Christopher Boone’s observations and understanding of the world amaze the reader, while the challenges he faces with routine daily events horrifies us. The dog engages Christopher in ways that escape the rest of us, and leads him to truths he wasn’t seeking. Christopher is both much more and much less than so-called normal people, and Haddon shows rather than tells us why this is so.


How many learned books have been written on the causes and mechanisms of addictions and obsessions? Can any of these measure up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s depiction of the lure of the Ring? The twentieth century literary critic, Edmund Wilson, wasn’t impressed: “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the “juvenile” market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake…”


Why are we surprised that a literary critic immersed in a milieu that rejects the possibility of anything transcendent, a milieu immersed in addictions and compulsions, cannot see the forest for the trees? In fact, Tolkien’s story speaks to addictive lures, as represented by the One Ring. How unaided man cannot resist such temptation—in Smeagol/Gollum who is possessed and then consumed by the Ring, in good Bilbo who oh-so-gradually is seduced by it, in Boromir who never possesses it but yearns for it from afar, in the faithful Sam who has it for a short time but equivocates in returning it to his Master, and in the heroic Frodo who cannot resist it’s power in the end. The truth that man is not made for such things is anything but a children’s story, and The Lord of the Rings informs us of this truth better than technical treatises and therapeutic programs.


Speaking of children’s stories, A.A. Milne wrote stories that take place in a tightly contained world—the world of childhood and a small corner of nature—until the last few chapters when the walls of Christopher Robin’s world start tumbling down, evoking the anticipation and specter of maturity. These are stories that intersect with life beyond the Thousand Acre Wood: the resentment Milne experienced from the constraints these stories imposed on his literary career, the resentment Christopher Robin experienced at how these stories constrained his later life, and the deeper truth about fathers and sons that resonate in these stories, the ideal that can never be achieved in this life but for which parents and their children yearn.


If knowledge and truth are what we seek, discernment is necessary in selecting both fiction and non-fiction. We’re kidding ourselves if we think non-fiction isn’t filtered by the preconceptions of authors and their sources. Everyone brings a perspective to his or her work, and the best are forthright about identifying the lines between evidence, speculation, and imagination.


We can find truth in many ways, including good stories.

Ideology and Storytelling

Ideology Is poisoning storytelling and rattling readers Writers are often seduced by cultural genies to make characters into sock puppets and plot lines into bullhorns that parrot “smart” thinking or ridicule “regressive” perspectives and values. Thomas M. Doran

Source: Ideology Is poisoning storytelling and rattling readers | Catholic World Report – Global Church news and views

An Unlikely Hero

An Unlikely Hero He is flawed, and many of his flaws persist throughout his life. He can be petty and petulant. Nonetheless, he is a hero. Thomas M. Doran

Source: An Unlikely Hero | Catholic World Report – Global Church news and views