The Lord of the Rings, not Allegory

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What does power do to the soul?

Into a myth we put what we do not yet know and cannot come by in any other way – C.S. Lewis

Few stories define a genre quite the same way J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings have done for modern fantasy for more than sixty years. As George R.R. Martin’s expansive A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the HBO adaptation A Game of Thrones become increasingly popular, Tolkien’s unmatched brilliance finds fresh light once again. While many authors are proud to travel on the roads like the one Tolkien paved through Middle Earth, to date no one has left readers (and moviegoers) so inspired along the way.

Tolkien’s work is strongly rooted in a story from Plato’s Republic where Gyges, a shepherd, finds a ring which has the power to make its wearer invisible. Gyges uses its power to kill the king, marry the queen, and rule as king himself. The question at stake in Plato’s dialogue centers on morality and whether power corrupts the soul. Tolkien takes the seed of that story and grows it into a world which is rich enough in both texture and meaning that it has the capacity to contain a story like Lord of the Rings.

It is a considerable task to take an epic story like Lord of the Rings from paper to screen. So much so, in fact, that J.R.R. Tolkien actually didn’t think it possible, and freely gave away the movie rights. Tolkien’s reticence is well founded; few movies adapted from novels to film have been met with the almost universal embrace as Peter Jackson’s adaptation. While there are certainly points any reader of the series would object to (most notably the omission of Tom Bombadil, and the depiction of Denethor), few would argue that the essence of the myth is not preserved on screen. What both the film and the novels do so well is give us a picture of another world that could have been real.

What must be avoided when reading or watching Lord of the Rings is the collapse of Tolkien’s myth into mere allegory. So often we want to particularize characters, to have them stand for something – or someone – of historical import. Yet Tolkien’s very reluctance to do this has allowed his stories to continuously inspire people two generations after its initial publication. If Tolkien, writing during WWII, had intended for Sauron to stand for a thinly veiled Hitler, his story loses meaning as historical referents fade from the memory of current listener. Tolkien’s impact would have faded for me reading as a sophomore in high school in 1997 and even more for future generations increasingly detached from the horror of Hitler. In order for any story to remain mythic it must avoid too exact a connection with anything so particular it cannot remain universal.

This is why Peter Jackson’s interpretation succeeds where many other attempts either come up short or fall completely flat. Jackson avoids making straight lines to any number of contemporary figures, instead allowing us to see ourselves within the story. Both Tolkien and Jackson are committed to exposing the reader/viewer to the experiential depth which exists in the myth/story rather than drawing a straight line to a specific meaning or idea (a considerably more difficult thing to avoid for Jackson when using 300 million dollars of budget special effects, as well as needing to hold up as a box-office blockbuster in addition to mythic fantasy).  While fight scenes make excellent trailers, it is the intimate moments between Sam and Frodo, the bruised, battered and reluctant hero of Aragorn, the confliction of Borromir, as well as the breathtaking cinematography giving flesh to a story previously existing only in many people’s imaginations, which truly carry the film. In other words, Jackson knows when to let effects and budget get out of the way and allow the story to breathe.

For me Lord of the Rings has left more questions than simply the one with which Plato began. It continues to teach and inspire me about who I am and who I want to be. I long to be a friend like Sam. I know that I am prone to corruption even as Frodo was, and that I have noble, albeit poisoned, ambitions like those of Boromir. I still don’t know how to deal with, hold, let go of, or use power. But in Middle Earth I see a world which feels so very real and immanent, yet at the same time transcendent, that I long to walk through the Shire and talk with Gandalf. Great stores and myths, like that Tolkien created, gives us a place where we can see others struggle and celebrate in much the ways we do in our own, less epic, lives, while also presenting us with the world so large that our own lives seem a bit more significant and (in some ways) epic.