Lord of the Things Which Drive Me Batty a.k.a. Why I am not an English Major

As a Christian and a lover of fantasy fiction, it seems to be assumed and practically required that I be madly in love with Lord of the Rings. I am not. The story actually drives me a little bit crazy. Perhaps this merely indicates that I am incapable of appreciating great literature or that there is some great worth in the story that I have failed to grasp, which is certainly possible– I am by no means an expert on the series. In fact, given the number of very smart people (whom I greatly respect) who practically drool over the series, I’d say it’s probable that I’m just a literary idiot. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that one should not have to analyze a good story in order to enjoy it, and so even if there is some fantastic symbolism that I have missed I cannot get over the fact that I do not like the story.

I actually did like the story the first time I read it. I liked it slightly less the second time through, and I threw it aside in disgust halfway through my third read-through. The final straw for me came because I was re-reading Deathly Hallows at the same time, and I got to the Battle of Helm’s Deep right after reading the Battle of Hogwarts. It’s really hard to go from one battle in which your heart gets wrenched out at the every single death, where the action is all-engrossing, and where the battle matters to another battle where the action reads like a news broadcast, the deaths are treated casually if noticed at all, and where the characters walk away from it discussing the cool rocks and trees. It was borderline insulting.

I have minor gripes about the narrative style, the characterization, and the plot, but my biggest problem with Lord of the Rings is the moral structure. My understanding is thus: elves=good, orks=corrupted elves=bad, Sauron=super-maxi bad, everyone else (hobbits, men, dwarfs)= in between good and evil with the possible exception of Aragorn who is Perfect In Every Possible Way, and Tom Bombadil=uncategorizable. And to this I say a great big WTF? Where does the moral authority come from? What is it about the elves that makes them so good, and what is it about the orks and Sauron that makes them so bad?  As far as I can tell, the only moral crime the orks are worthy of is smelling bad and killing their enemies, which, surprise surprise, is exactly what the “good” guys do.  Granted, I have not read The Simirrilian so I could be missing some info, but it seems to me that the only thing that makes Sauron the bad guy is the fact that the author tells us so. Yes, I know, power corrupts blah blah, but corrupts what into what?

I suppose my gripe boils down to this: either we have free will or we don’t, but Lord of the Rings seems to want it both ways, and it draws the difference between the two with genetic lines. This strikes me as absurd. It takes the struggle out of the realm of morals and into tribal warfare. The choices one makes in the story seem to matter less in the moral scheme of things than what race one was born. I cannot accept that.

I do not wish in my criticism to downplay the moral choices that are made. Frodo is very brave, Sam is a great friend, Aragorn is very virtuous, etc, and that’s all fine and dandy. What I don’t like is that the only reason they are capable of  making such moral choices is that they are hobbits and humans.

I give you… the one man who said he was sorry. Shucks.

Also, if the orks are corrupted elves and Gollum is a corrupted hobbit, the implication seems to be that moral deterioration is permanent. Evil leaves scars and destruction, yes, but I do not like the idea that the only way to right the wrongs of the world is to obliterate them. Where is redemption? Where is healing? Why must Denethor burn when all he really needed was a smack on the noggin? The only real redemption that I can think of is Boromir’s, but he dies right after he receives it. I suppose one could see Theoden’s restoration as a kind of redemption, but that wasn’t his evil that he was being healed of.

Perhaps part of the problem is that I am reading Lord of the Rings in a postmodern age when it is a story written in the modern age, imitating a pre-modern style. Maybe I am looking for a worldview that the story was never meant to accommodate. However, even this concession takes the story down a notch in my book by removing it from the “timeless” shelf.

I will probably re-read the series eventually, and maybe that time I will “get” it. For now I will let you all tell me why I’m wrong, and then go back to reading Harry Potter.

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~ by ntertanedangel on June 8, 2010.

6 Responses to “Lord of the Things Which Drive Me Batty a.k.a. Why I am not an English Major”

  1. It’s been a long time since I read the books, so this is drawing mostly on the movies, but part of the reason that Saruman and the orcs (who in this case are just following his orders) are perceived as evil is because they are cutting down the trees and destroying the forest. And the Ents haven’t gone to war against them yet, so the orcs and Saruman aren’t just killing their enemies. So it’s not entirely arbitrary tribes. Also I heard once that it could maybe be a metaphor for WWII, but I don’t get that so much.

  2. I think there is redemption in the Lord of the Rings. Look at Galadriel, and many of the Noldor. They first rebelled against the Valar and left for Middle-Earth, but they later received forgiveness and were permitted back to Valinor. And Gollum was not entirely hopeless. When Gollum looked upon the sleeping forms of Frodo and Sam, he almost repented. I also don’t think Denethor would have “healed” with a “smack on the noggin”. Denethor killed himself because he gave in to despair from seeing Frodo captured through the Palantir. It was his personal choice. Well, at least that’s how I took it from reading the books.

    • Perhaps you are right. Like I said, I am by no means an expert on the story. However, it still seems to me that the overriding philosophy in the books towards evil is to stamp it out rather than to heal it.

      I’m not sure how Denethor’s death being his own personal choice changes the situation. My complaint is not that he had no choice but to die. My complaint is that the narrative choice was made by Tolkien to have him die rather than to give him a stern talking-to (or lock him up, dunk his head in ice water, etc.). I don’t understand why his death was necessary.

      • I don’t think it’s “overriding” but maybe a little (I will have to re-read the book to state otherwise).
        But as to why Denethor’s death was necessary, well, I think you can ask the same “why did he have to die?” to other authors as well. And I have one reason for why Denethor had to die, although it’s purely for the plot. If Denethor was alive, Aragorn would have had a harder time to become King. The transition from Stewardship to Kingship in itself is a big upheaval, but Faramir made it as smooth as possible by surrendering his post submissively and acknowledging Aragorn as King in front of the citizens of Gondor. Denethor was a very capable ruler, but I cannot imagine him stepping down from his Stewardship without struggle. Who knows, even a civil war could have broke out.

      • Let me put it this way: In Tolkien’s world, if you’re a bad guy you end up dead. (as far as I can remember, which may simply be tribute to my horrible memory, but…)

        Every character death should be necessary for both plot and thematic reasons. I get Denethor’s plot reasons. I don’t get his thematic ones.

  3. I didn’t actually read your entire post before my two comments, (it was silly, I know) for which I’m sorry. But now that I read the whole thing, I think you should read “The Silmarillion”. I’m sure that book will clear your questions because that is the basis for “The Lord of the Rings”. It explains why Sauron is evil, where the moral authority comes from, why the Elves are “so good” (you might be surprised to read of pretty corrupt Elves too!), and many more questions you probably have. You said, ‘I will probably re-read the series eventually, and maybe that time I will “get” it.’ If you really want to understand the whys, and if you want to “get” the books, I suggest you re-read “The Lord of the Rings”, and definitely read “The Silmarillion” too. They far exceed any answers that I attempt to provide. Good luck!

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