The arrival of another March 25th* has me thinking about The Lord of the Rings and why it’s so popular. What exactly makes Tolkien’s stories about Middle-Earth so compelling? I’ve turned over the many factors usually lauded as the reason for the greatness of this book and come to the conclusion that it’s the faith shown by the characters that matters.
Others might argue that it’s the detail of the world he created. He wrote languages for the various peoples of his world to speak, which gave the names and places of his work the feeling of reality. He made extensive maps of the lands his characters roamed. He recorded a history that went back to the very creation of the world and that echoes forward through his stories, giving them great depth.
Others might argue that it’s the beauty of his creation. Tolkien lovingly describes great beauty and light, made even greater by the fact that the world also contains dark and ugly things. It’s full of people we want to meet like elves, ents, and hobbits, places we want to visit like Minas Tirith, Lothlorien, and the Shire. The imaginative detail combined with his passion for the place makes Tolkien’s imaginary world shine.
Others might argue that it’s the scope: one thousand pages that were meant to be treated as a single book. A story with a large cast of characters all working towards one impossible goal, the destruction of an indestructible ring and the defeat of an undefeatable tyrant bent on ruling the world. The enormous challenge seems impossible, and that is indeed compelling to consider.
But I don’t think it’s the detail, the beauty, or the world-saving that makes Tolkien’s story so popular.
It’s the faith.
I don’t mean Christian faith, although the more I read of The Silmarillion, the more I realize that all along, Tolkien was creating a world in complete harmony with his deep religious belief. I mean the faith that doing the right thing no matter what it will cost you is always your best choice.
Nowhere in the book is this theme better demonstrated than in “The Last Debate” (Book V, Chapter 9). In his speech to Aragorn and the other leaders gathered to fight against Sauron, Gandalf tells them they need to attack Mordor even though they are outnumbered and likely to lose. Their attack should keep Sauron looking out past his own lands, to increase Frodo and Sam’s slim chance of reaching Mount Doom and destroying the Ring.
Then Gandalf says:
‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But his, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless – as we surely shall, if we sit here – and know as we die that no new age shall be.’
Gandalf in The Return of the King, pp 191-2
Gandalf and his allies knew that their actions would probably mean their deaths, that they might not be around to enjoy the benefits, if any, of their efforts, and yet they marched to the Black Gate. Like every soldier in every army ever, each of these leaders accepts that their own life is at risk, but that the greater risk is to avoid the role they have been asked to play. They are willing to die so that world might be better.
This then is true faith: sacrificing themselves with no guarantee of success. And this faith runs deep throughout the story. The characters constantly face hopeless tasks with determination, acting despite the risks, hoping that somehow, someway, things might work out.
And, because Tolkien is a great writer who understands the value of faith, they do.
*March 25th is the day the Ring went into the fires of Mount Doom and Sauron fell for good. It’s also Tolkien Reading Day, a great day to spend some time revisiting Tolkien’s writing.