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Implausible Heroes, Ambivalent Motives
Since its completion in 1949, The Lord of the Rings has found its way into and touched millions of hearts around the world, and one of the story's strongest identifications of greatness is its approach to the eternal war between the concepts of Good and Evil. Though we see the faithfulness and fearlessness of Aragorn and the poignant maliciousness of the dark lord Sauron, many of the characters of The Lord of the Rings are, for much of the story, ambiguous. Perhaps the only concrete entity is the wicked Sauron himself, but he presents a dauntingly complex arrangement of methods which proves just as lethal as possessing ambivalence as the other characters do. Tolkien plays the game of plot masterfully: the standing of Good and Evil is black and white, but the characters and their feelings and actions are riddled with grey. This definition of true life and conquest is what has made The Lord of the Rings outstanding in literary culture for decades. As Tolkien states, “The prime motive was the desire of a taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of its readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them” (Fellowship 9). Tolkien's humility underestimates the power of his story, though he is very aware of it. The Lord of the Rings exquisitely tells the tale of the classic struggle between good and evil, but also, in the indeterminate, true to life description of the hero and his adversary and a worldwide conflict for peace and justice, defines it.
Perhaps some of Tolkien's perceptions of life and war are integrated into his fictional world of Middle-earth, an environment built with countless layers of depth, in which The Lord of the Rings takes place. World War I was raging across Europe at the time of Tolkien's young adulthood, and in 1915 Tolkien joined the British military, as did many of his friends from earlier in life. By 1918
all but one of his close friends were dead. Tom Shippey makes the interesting observation that since
“...Tolkien was a war survivor,...his work expresses along with a strong belief in (a kind of) Providence the disillusionment of the returned veteran” (156). Wars, though fought with weapons, are in many ways weapons themselves in that they impress upon an individual a feeling of unsureness of being on “the right side.” In many ways, but in war especially, “right” and “wrong” are indefinite to both conflicting sides. Tolkien, having fought in the first World War, clearly understood this fact and reflected it in the world of Middle-earth, as illustrated in a conversation between the characters Éomer and Aragorn:
'It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown
strange.'...'How shall a man judge what to do in such times?'
'As he has ever judged' said Aragorn. 'Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear;
nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's
part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house' (Towers 41; book 3, ch. 2).
Tolkien illustrates that one must simply rely on his own conscience as well as the trust he has in the conscience of others, who are the leaders and role models who influence the outcome of events in a given situation. These individuals have gained the respect and admiration of those around them, and have risen in status to become those that others pledge their unfaltering allegiance to and follow without doubt. Society deems these world-changers “heroes,” and they are abundant in The Lord of the Rings. Literally, the word “hero” is defined as “an illustrious warrior,” “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities,” and “one that shows great courage” (“hero” def. 1b-1d). As the definition states, the generally accepted “hero” is usually a warrior, because war is such a precarious time that calls for deeds of intelligence and courage (which is referenced in definition 1d). Of course, one can be a distinguished warrior, but if he is not of good character, he is much less inclined to be celebrated as a (stereotypical) hero by the individuals around him, because there are two sides to the hero. One is that of his renowned achievements, while the other is his sense of selflessness and acts of nobility out of concern for others. “The hero is born to his destiny, yet has to first lower himself and serve others before he can gradually come to claim his crown” (Robertson 316). Often the one who has become a hero in the watchful eye of the public conceived no ambition for glory while involved in the deeds which promoted them to such heights, but was solely concentrated on achieving that which was, in their mind, in the best interest of the world in which they lived. That which was “right.” Many of Tolkien's characters express zealous patriotism in the face of being overrun by the forces of Sauron. This love of home and country, and what those represent (that is, peace and justice according to the given individual) is what fuels the intensity of many of the heroes in The Lord of the Rings, such as Faramere, who states, “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend...” (Tolkien Towers 280; book 4, ch. 5).
Another prevalent aspect in Tolkien's story is the unlikeliness of many of the heroes. Over the centuries, a certain stereotype has been fashioned for the best or the strongest, but Tolkien throws this to the wind, with the great deeds of Frodo, a “hobbit” a sort of miniature human race that keeps to themselves and knows nothing of warfare, or Aragorn, a nomadic warrior who is completely unknown to the world as being the heir to the throne of Gondor, or Faramere, the under-appreciated and unloved younger brother of the celebrated warrior, Boromere. Tolkien's use of the insignificant individual as the template for his heroes illustrates an important aspect of what true heroism is: a person does not accomplish great deeds because he is a hero, but instead he is a hero in the eyes of his people because of his great acts. That is, he acts not out of selfishness or for personal glorification, but for the benefit of his country and the protection of that which he holds dear. This is exquisitely expressed by Tolkien's character Éomer, singing,
'Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising,
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin, and a red nightfall!' (Tolkien Return 122)
Éomer's joyful self-sacrifice, with no expectation of gratification or survival, is an illustration that, in essence, “heroic” is synonymous with “selfless” in pertaining to The Lord of the Rings.
However, as with all things in the world, there is an opposite to the selfless: the selfish, those who seek only for themselves, and endlessly so, so that they must take from others to satisfy their
greed. Whether it be for power or money or something else, someone is always present who has no care for others and wants only for himself. In The Lord of the Rings this is clearly represented by the key villain, Sauron, the Dark Lord. However, Sauron is not only selfish, but is unmitigatedly wicked in all that he stands for. Sauron is a perfect personification of evil, and again, the two can be described as synonymous.
One of the prevailing aspects of Sauron is the general mystery that surrounds his being throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings. The story is never told from the point of view of Sauron, and he never directly speaks. He is in many ways, from the point of view of the characters, “evil” itself. Because Sauron shrouds himself in the unknown, he dictates potentially endless resources. This creates a strong sense of doubt and despair in the free people of the world of Middle-earth, which is evident throughout the trilogy-- the whole world of free individuals seems confused and afraid of everything around them, even that which they once held dear. “Over the city of Gondor doubt and great dread had hung. Fair weather and clear sun had seemed but a mockery to men whose days held little hope, and who looked each morning for news of doom. Their Lord was dead and burned, dead lay the King of Rohan in their citadel, and the new king that had come to them in the night was gone again to a war with powers too dark and terrible for any might or valour to conquer. And no news came” (Tolkien Return 236). Because of the utter despair that surrounds Middle-earth, the free people are suspicious of and hostile to everything that crosses their path because of the blindness that Sauron has created around the rest of Middle-earth. This crushing mutual distrust brought about by the Dark Lord's mysteriousness represents one of the most powerful strategies in military conquest: “divide and conquer.” The key kingdoms in the story, Men, Elves, and Dwarves, who were allies in the past days of Middle-earth, are entirely disconnected and have no wishes to communicate, due to old grudges and present skepticism of each others friendly standings. This allows Sauron, using his wall of uncertainty, to creep up behind them as it were, until he is practically upon the free kingdoms as they, essentially, squabble with mutual silence.
A symbol of Sauron's exploitation of the confusion and distrust of the free kingdoms is his possession of the tower of Minas Morgul, also referred to as Cirith Ungol or the Tower of the
Moon. In the past, the fortress had been built and held by the Men of Gondor, but it had since come into the possession of Sauron's forces, for particular use as the lair of the Witch King, one of Sauron's most powerful satellites. Under his occupation, Minas Morgul became Sauron's forward command post, being relatively close to the lands of Gondor, the most powerful kingdom of Men. While the fortress was built by the Gondorians and retains the same features as their capital at Minas Tirith, it is apparent that it has taken on an entirely new feeling, a new essence: the stench of evil. “The contrasts of Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul are...clear...Both are white-walled cities, but one has the white color of life...and the other has the white pallor of death” (Keenan 215). Sauron and the Witch King's transformation of Gondor's once proud fortress applies a direct example of Sauron's sadistic demeanor towards the people of Middle-earth that brings about, however belatedly, the unity and cooperation of the free people against him. The various kingdoms of Middle-earth had been divided and suspicious of each other in the past, but upon the arrival of Sauron's threat to Middle-earth as a whole, all of the free people forget their differences and band together in glorious comradeship to defeat the common enemy, a timeless tale repeated throughout the history of this world.
“By looking deeply into The Lord of the Rings, we see our world and something beyond. The hero, the other characters, and the structure of the trilogy appeal to us not rationally but emotionally. Its characters are caught up in the decay theme of the novel, the eternal struggle of life against death, just as we are” (Keenan 216). In The Lord of the Rings, the indefiniteness of who is friend and who is foe, the unlikeliness of the heroes, the selflessness, the selfishness, the mystery of Good and Evil-- all of these aspects presented in Middle-earth reflect, and in some ways teach us what we already knew about the world we live in. It is this identifiable environment parallel to the real world that impresses J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings into the hearts, minds, and memories of millions of readers throughout the world.
“hero.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 28 Oct. 2009.
Keenan, Hugh T., "The Lord of the Rings by J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien." Twentieth Century
Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 137. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 209-362. Literature Criticism
Online. Gale. LOUIS – Southeastern Louisiana University. Web. 16 Oct. 2009.
Robertson, Robin. “Seven Paths of the Hero in Lord of the Rings: The Path of the King.”
Perspectives 51.2 (2008): 316-39. Print.
Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R., Foreword. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. By J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Ballantine Books, 1955. Print.
---. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1965.
---. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,