“I didn’t want it to be a fantasy. I wanted it to be a history.” – The Fellowship of the Ring special extended edition, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line Home Entertainment, Inc., 2002, cast commentary, comment by actor Sean AstinJ.R.R. Tolkien was not content just to write a story. It was not enough for him that people should like his world, like his story, like his characters. It was not enough that we should admire or appreciate his world. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did not set out merely to entertain; he set out to entice. He set out to awaken desire, to arouse longing. A reader hasn’t really understood Tolkien until he has wanted to go to the Shire, to visit Rivendell and Lothlorien, to see the great dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf in its day.
“Isn’t this just the place everybody wants to have grown up?” – The Fellowship of the Ring special extended edition, dir. Peter Jackson, New Line Home Entertainment, Inc., 2002, cast commentary, comment on the Shire by actor Orlando Bloom
How far Tolkien succeeded in arousing desire is seen not only in the enduring popularity of the story, but in the unprecedented extent to which people want to make that world their own. An entire new genre of games – the modern fantasy role-playing games beginning with Dungeons and Dragons – began with fans of Tolkien who were not content to let the story be someone else’s story, the world someone else’s world. Tolkien succeeded in making us want those places as part of our lives, those friends as our friends, that quest as our quest.
Many authors are said to treat the themes of good and evil, and many authors do treat the subject of evil seriously and extensively. But relatively few treat the subject of good in any depth at all. Tolkien has one of the more deep and sustained focuses on goodness – and its desirability – in modern literature. He adeptly sidestepped shallowness, triteness, and (possibly worse) a dry, inorganic approach to good that renders it impossible to desire profoundly.
Tolkien also did a great piece of workmanship by making the most desirable parts of this fantasy world to be entirely natural. Magic appears in the story – but it is not what gives the world its allure. The Shire has no magic; it has little more than grass, sunshine, and friendship to commend it. The dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf was not made by one dwarf with a magical ring, but by a host of dwarves employing a great natural wonder: the ingenious craftsmanship of those who pour their hearts and souls into their work. The elven kingdoms’ greatest boasts are the forests, poetry and music, and the memory of ancient beauties. What we most desire in Middle Earth is already part of our own world. Neither is it beyond our grasp – we could live in the hillsides and carved mountain-halls if we chose. The humbler, still satisfying joys of sustained friendship and enduring accomplishment are still available to us.
So Tolkien has made his answer as to the value of this world, and of goodness. If we get to the end of Lord of the Rings and think, “I want to go on the ship to the Undying Lands,” then he has won us over.
Originally blogged at CADRE comments January 1, 2005.