Tolkien’s influence—50 years after his death
Remembering the themes of sorrow and valor and great deeds
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When I was eight years old, I set two big reading goals for myself: to finish reading through both the Complete Sherlock Holmes and the Lord of the Rings before my ninth birthday. To my great satisfaction, I made it. And boy, did I want to make sure everyone knew it.
In those days, I kept track of my reading on mini-pads (as in pads of paper—this was before iPads, kids!) Flipping back through them as an adult, I’m astonished (and a little wistful) to see just how much and how fast I read. This was before I had access to the internet, before I had my first laptop. Every day, my brain woke up fit, rested, and ready to completely absorb whatever was handed to me. Thankfully, my parents were wise, and they handed me all the good stuff. The Hobbit was one of the first “serious books” I read on my own when I was five, after Mom had read it aloud to me. For the next few years, I pouted and complained when I was told I probably wouldn’t be ready for Lord of the Rings until I was twelve or so. I guess Mom and Dad must have changed their minds.
Reading Tolkien as a child unlocked my young imagination like nothing else I had ever read, or would ever read. I didn’t need a film screen. My own mind conjured up the worlds within worlds, the battlefields, the heroic deeds. I was about as big as a hobbit myself then. I imagined myself following Merry to the Pelennor Fields, Pippin to Minas Tirith. At night, I would lie awake and recreate their adventures over and over, sometimes inventing my own new characters to fight shoulder to shoulder with Aragorn, with the Riders of Rohan, with the Men of the West. To paraphrase the G. K. Chesterton quote, I already knew that dragons existed. Tolkien showed me, in great and glorious splendor, how dragons could be slain.
Not that I didn’t also love the story of Frodo and Sam. Theirs was a heroic journey too, though of a different kind. The path they had to walk was more treacherous. While Merry and Pippin had orcs to fight, Frodo faced something darker and more terrible in Smeagol, in the heavy pull of the ring: He faced a twisted image of himself.
I was riveted by all of this as I read. Still, in my daydreams, my imagination tended to wander back to the battlefield more than it did to Frodo’s lonely, winding road. This was only natural for a child who didn’t really understand what it meant to suffer, to hover on the brink of despair. But as I grew older, I thought of Frodo more. I came to understand better the sort of lonely heroism that perseveres against invisible enemies, including the enemy within. And during September, which is Suicide Awareness Month, I think about people I’ve known who wanted to give up that fight forever. Some of them have tried. A few have succeeded.
Even when Frodo is back home in the Shire, he’s not really at home. He’s seen too much, been hurt too much. Perhaps Tolkien had in mind men he knew who survived World War I but were never the same. One evening, Sam comes into his study, on the anniversary of the terrible night when Frodo was stabbed by a Morgul blade. He finds his master looking very strange—pale, eyes seeing things far away. “What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?” Sam asks. “I am wounded,” Frodo answers, “wounded; it will never really heal.”
Concluding his review of the books, C. S. Lewis sums up their deepest appeal in one of Tolkien’s greatest lines: “There was sorrow then, too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain.” Not wholly vain, Lewis underscores. This isn’t escapism, that constant drumbeat of the fairytale’s critic. Tolkien is under no illusions about the power of darkness to wound good men, sometimes for life. Yet he is never disillusioned either. In that phrase, “not wholly vain,” Lewis writes that he has found the “cool middle point” in between.
Eventually, Frodo leaves for the Grey Havens. Sam can’t follow him, not yet. He has too much life to live, too much joy. But he can at least accompany his master to the seashore. They are greeted there by Gandalf, preparing to leave with Frodo. Merry and Pippin come galloping up too, to give Sam company on the ride back. Gandalf tells them all to go in peace. But he will not tell them not to weep. For “not all tears are an evil.” We need to know that too.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.