The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien

One year ago, when the first volume of his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was published, an Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature cast a spell over the readers who ventured within the world of his creation. It was a haunting and ennobling world, held together by inner tension, and so the spell lasted while the fate of his world remained in doubt. For months the concluding volume was delayed while Professor Tolkien labored with a formidable index listing the lineage of his characters, the origin and pronunciation of their languages, and other footnotes from the Red Book of Westmarch, the source of his tale. Now the last volume, The Return of the King, is published, and so his readers may return from the fantastic to the commonplace.

Tolkien’s trilogy is fantasy, but it stems of course from Tolkien’s own experiences and believes. There are scenes of devastation that recall his memories of the Westen front where he fought in the First World War. The description of a snowstorm in a high pass is drawn from a mountain climbing trip in Switzerland. And through the descriptions of life in Hobbiton and Bywater runs his own bemused love of the English and his scorn for the ugliness of the industrial surroundings in which they live. But Tolkien shuns satire as frivolous and allegory as tendentious. His preparation is immersion in Welsh, Norse, Gaelic, Scandinavian and Germanic folklore.

The Hobbit, the earliest of Professor Tolkien’s selections from the Red Book, was first published in 1937, and I mention ti because it forms a prologue t0 Tolkien’s major work. It is the account of his adventures written by a well-to-do Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. There comes to Bilbo’s door one morning a wandering wizard (Gandalf) and thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, the descendent of dwarf kings.

They are bend on recovering the dwarf hoards stolen from Thorin’s ancestors and Bilbo to his lasting astonishment joins them. Trolls capture the band and almost roast them; goblins pursue them; giant spiders enmesh them in saliva; an elf king imprisons them; after the treasure is recaptured from a dragon’s lair there remains the Battle of the Five Armies in which Thorin is killed. At last Bilbo, decked out in armor, and laden with jewels, returns to the Shire, somewhat to the annoyance of his fellow Hobbits who have declared him dead and are preparing to auction off his well-worn furniture.

The Hobbit is a classical fairy story. As such it might well have earned its place on the nursery shelf and been forgotten. But the ending is incomplete thanks to a minor encounter of Biblo’s whose significance was not clear to Professor Tolkien at the time. Bilbo, crawling alone through dark goblin mines, finds and pockets a small gold ring. Slipped on his finger it makes him invisible and thereby saves him when he is attacked by Gollum, a creature who lives in an underground lake catching blind fish and eating them raw. The ring serves further to hide Bilbo from his enemies but arouses no great interest among his companions. Once back in the Shire he mentions it only to the wizard Gandalf, and to Frodo his nephew and heir. And yet the story is not concluded. For at its end the little householder remains in possession of something beyond the comprehension of Bilbo and the story teller: the ring.

The ring confers power on its bearer. Power unmatched by responsibility corrupts and therefore is potentially evil. The power conferred by the ring is without parallel. Therefore its capacity to work evil is unlimited. In the presence of limited good, and of corruptible man, what is the responsibility of the ring-bearer. Is it to use present evil on behalf of present good and thereby to ensure the continuation of evil? Or is it to deny present gain in an effort to destroy evil itself? The question forced itself upon Tolkien over a period of fourteen years of warfare, and forms the theme of three books of The Lord of The Rings.

Like The Hobbit, the trilogy is a fairy story; it deals in a world of its own, without resort to traveller’s tales or to dreams. It contains the four elements which Professor Tolkien maintains are characteristic of fairy stories: Fantasy (the purest of art forms), Escape (from oppressive and meaningless detail), Recovery (of true perspective) and Consolation (the joy of the happy ending).

Beyond these common attributes however, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stand in sharp contrast. The Hobbit is a fairy tale for children, simplified in thought and language, restricted in scope, jocular and sometimes patronizing in style. As such it is limited, for as Tolkien himself maintains: “All children’s books are on a strict judgment poor books. Books written entirely for children are poor even as children’s books.” The Lord of the Rings in contrast is a fairy tale written for adults. The language is richer, the characters deeper, the plot grander; the final triumph of good is cast in doubt; the participants are extended to include “those darker things which lurked only on the borders of the earlier tale.”

Forty-nine years after Bilbo’s return, the Hobbits still of their contented ways, as the first book of The Lord of the Rings opens, unaware of the mounting evil beyond the Shire’s narrow borders. Orcs—a new kind of goblin—are multiplying in the mountains; trolls are abroad armed with dreadful weapons; there are other creatures far more terrible and over all of them is Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. Of the twelve Great Rings of Power all but three have returned to Sauron; one only, the Lord of the Rings, remains for the moment, beyond his grasp. Sauron is searching for the ring, and all his thoughts are bent upon it. If he regains it his domination of Middle Earth will be final and absolute.

All this is the secret information which Gandalf, after twelve years of search and travels, returns by night to tell Frodo. For, thanks to Bilbo’s inheritance the harmless young Hobbit is now in possession of the Lord of the Rings.

Frodo, appaled, attempts to pass the ring to Gandalf. But Gandalf knows that those who possess the ring end by being possessed. And, while he is tempted by power his spirit is one of “pity for weakness, and the desire of strength to do good.” So he refuses the responsibility. No time is left for Sauron is closing in on the Shire. Frodo flees to save his homeland, taking the ring and followed by three companions, while Gandalf goes his own way towards their next meeting place. Stone barrowights encase the Hobbits; ringwraiths, slaves of Sauron pursue them and wound Frodo. He makes mistake after mistake and survives only though his own bravery or by the intervention of some unexpected force of good. Strider, a ranger sent by Gandalf, guides him and so at last Frodo reaches Rivendell.

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