Saving Middle-Earth: The Power of Recording Reality in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Every quest has a goal, but sometimes these goals contain subtler, more far-reaching effects than their stated purpose. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the explicit goal is to save the world of Middle-Earth from the evil of Sauron by destroying the One Ring. While this act certainly rids the world of evil, it also serves another purpose for its inhabitants, cultures, and environment: that of allowing this reality to continue into the future. In this sense, ‘saving the world’ preserves or records what has come before for those who are yet to come. And though we do not find ourselves slaying evil warlocks in our daily lives, we too can participate in this quest through the symbolic applicability of the ideals in The Lord of the Rings to our modern life. This paper will examine the ways in which this preservationist sense of ‘saving the world’ is illustrated in the history of Middle-Earth, in the early stages of the ring quest, and in the writing and reception of Tolkien’s masterpiece in our own reality.
If the whole world is at stake in the quest, we must first understand what that world is before it can be saved. The epic story told in The Lord of the Rings is only the tip of the iceberg, or the dénouement, of a long and winding history stretching back thousands of years before men, much less hobbits, were even conceived. In many places in the text, references are made to historical persons and events that, while not bearing directly on the tale, are still an integral part of that reality. In a letter to his publisher, Milton Waldman, Tolkien discusses this history, suggesting that Middle-Earth grew out of or was invented to house his imaginary languages of the Elves (143). Already we can see this world as a kind of record, moving from creation myths to the histories of the Elven people, respectively recorded by Tolkien in the Music of the Ainur and the Silmarillion (146). Middle-Earth is a world created by the gods (who imagined it as a story), but it is incomplete. In order for the world to be fully made it has to be made for someone: the Children of the Gods, who are the Elves, and later Men (147). The world is made in order to pass it on, like a grand inheritance, including all the cultures and ideals that world contains.
As the history of Middle-Earth deals primarily with the Elves, it is necessary to look at how Elven culture helped shape the Middle-Earthian ideals of preserving the world. Elves are immortal, and thus concerned with, “the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change” (146). Elven magic is a sub-creative art rather than a dominating power, and they desire to use magic to “benefit the world and others,” including the environment, through the “adornment of earth, and the healing of its hurts” (146, 151). Tolkien similarly points out that Elrond’s house represents Lore; the art of the Elves includes, “the preservation in reverent memory of all tradition concerning the good, wise, and beautiful” (153). If the elves have a flaw however, it is in wanting to preserve this beautiful world around them as it is, despite the passage of time. But as the world inevitably changes, their art eventually becomes ineffectual, “a kind of embalming” (151). The main purpose of the Rings of Power stems from (and perverts) this Elven desire: “the prevention and slowing of decay” (152). This brings out another facet of ‘saving the world,’ that we can only safeguard reality for those who come after us, and not for ourselves.
While the Elves are First-born, it is their duty in turn to fade like the gods, and to pass Middle-Earth on to the Followers, Men. Having no magic of their own, Men are not as concerned with the preservation of goodness and beauty in their world, and they more readily fall prey to the dark forces at work in Middle-Earth. The elves however passed on to Men a “strand of ‘blood’ and inheritance” on which the art and poetry of man depends (149), that is, the ability and desire to pass on their own ideals through the art of cultural transmission. This is highly significant, because unlike Elves, Men are mortal. In his article, The Quest Hero, W.H. Auden suggests that quests serve as “symbolic descriptions of our personal experience of existence as historical” (33). The telos, the goal or end point, of any life is in death, and as such the quest is always in some way an attempt to defy death, which is attempted in two drastically different ways. The Men in the Second Age of Middle-Earth are denied immortality, but still act out of the received Elven ideals of preserving themselves, by desiring either more time in life or to escape death altogether (Tolkien Letters, 154-5). This desire for eternal life unfortunately results in the aligning of the kingdoms of Men with Sauron against the gods in a terrible and world-twisting battle (ibid, 156). On the other hand, Men can face death by saving the world: by both defeating the evil forces that encourage destruction and by leaving behind cultural records for the benefit of the world that follows. At stake in the Third Age of Middle-Earth, in which The Lord of the Rings takes place, are not only the world itself, but also the ability to continue to save the world through the preserved legacies of mankind.
Sauron is not defeated until the end of the third book of The Lord of the Rings, but the ways in which the story’s heroes can save the world through cultural legacy are already suggested early on in the quest, in The Fellowship of the Ring. The history of the One Ring itself highlights some of the personal challenges reflected in this theme of inheritance. As Elrond recalls the story during the Council of Elrond, the Ring was taken from the hand of Sauron and then lost by the human Isildur (320), who wanted to keep its power for himself. Isildur’s heir, Aragorn, inherits the Sword of Elendil, the broken blade of which symbolizes Aragorn’s duty to mend the damage caused by his ancestor’s greed. Aragorn does this by first protecting the peoples of the North, and then joining the quest that will restore him to his inherited place on the throne at Minas Tirith. While the One Ring passes from Isildur to Golem, these characters loose the ring because they want to preserve themselves and not their world. The next inheritor though, Bilbo Baggins, chooses to give up the ring to his nephew Frodo on his own accord (79). Frodo is Biblo’s heir, for his property, wealth, and stories. But it is the act of being given the Ring freely that allows Frodo the ability and desire to want to, “save the Shire” (96), and by extension, the rest of the world of Middle-Earth, which he does by going on the quest to destroy the Ring. The Ring is passed on for the sake of the future.
The quest to resolve the inheritance of the Ring is not the only way that the inhabitants of Middle-Earth in the Third Age are attempting to save their world. One might even say from the amount of stories, songs, and knowledge recorded in the text that the chief pastime of the Middle-Earthian races is the preservation and transmission of their cultural realities. Beyond the large-scale histories preserved through their retelling by Gandalf and Elrond, other historical events are recorded in the Elf-songs to Elbereth, Gil-galad, and Eärendil (117, 250, and 308), sung not just by Elves, but also by Samwise and Bilbo. Though the Elves are fading into legend their history is preserved in song, and more importantly their language is also being preserved, as Bilbo teaches Frodo the Ancient Tongue of the Elves (119). And it is not just the high culture of the Elves that is preserved; Glóin reounts the Dwarven attempt to reclaim their own cultural heritage by excavating Moria (316), and even Hobbit history is recorded, as in the legend of Gorhendad Oldbuck and the school song about trolls (141 and 276)
. Beyond these cultural inheritances, knowledge of the land itself is preserved in the stories of Tom Bombadil. The ancient Tom not only knows the secret stories of the trees and environment of Middle-Earth, but also willingly shares these with the Hobbits, so that they too can pass on the full history of their world (181). As we see from the Notes on the Shire Records that opens the text, Frodo’s three Hobbit companions go on after the quest is finished to record information on the legends, names, languages, calendars, and herblore of Middle-Earth (37), effectively preserving everything that has come before for the future ages of their world.
While these introductory Notes on the Shire Records bodes well for the result of the quest, they are only possible by the quest being both completed and recorded. And these are achieved through two instances of the intersection of individual inheritance and cultural legacy that highlight the theme of saving the world in The Fellowship of the Ring. The first of these instances is Gandalf’s search through the libraries of Minas Tirath for proof of the One Ring: a scroll written by Isildur that accounts for the inscription on the Ring. Despite Isildur’s desire to keep the ring for his own inheritance, he leaves this account, “lest a time come when the memory of these great matters shall grow dim” (331). Even the caretakers of the library had forgotten this scroll, and if Gandalf had not had the knowledge to find these memories of the past, the inhabitants of Middle-Earth would have been condemned to repeat their forefathers’ desire to hide or use the One Ring. It is the finding of the record of the inscription that ends Gandalf’s quest and begins Frodo’s journey. But once the journey is finished, how are the future inhabitants of the world supposed to remember the quest, much less we the readers, unless better records are left behind? To this end, Bilbo wants to record Frodo’s story as a book, and even asks him to bring back any old songs and tales he comes across on the way (327 and 364). Bilbo is already recording Middle-Earthian cultures and legends; a selection of his Red book of Westmarch has been published (in our own world) as The Hobbit (20). As such, Bilbo’s act of recording Frodo’s journey ultimately saves their world, as it becomes for us the books of The Lord of the Rings.
While the world of Middle-Earth began as a linguistic exercise, Tolkien suggests in his letters that he wrote The Lord of the Rings as an attempt to conclude and encapsulate all the histories and themes of his imagined world (159). There was however another goal at stake in Tolkien’s invention of Middle-Earth: the creation of a mythology which would fill a lack of that kind of story in his own country (144), if not in our whole modern world. Though there is no agreed upon definition of mythology, contemporary myth-theorists like University of Pittsburgh’s own Fred Clothey might argue that myths are symbolic narratives that order a people’s experience of reality and serve as paradigms for how that reality is to be lived. The reality in which Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings was a chaotic and rapidly changing one. The world was involved in a second global war, new technologies were destroying the environment, and cultural transmission was being devalued by the new medium of movies into mere entertainment. Tolkien stresses in his foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring that while his story is not allegorical for the real world it is certainly applicable. The war over the Ring serves as a symbol for the dangers of global warfare; the concern of the Elves for the environment of Middle-Earth, and the living desires of that landscape itself, serve as symbols for the need to preserve our own respect of nature. The focus on acts of remembering and recording the past serve as a strikingly paradigmatic symbol for us to not forget our own histories and cultural traditions.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings thus fulfills its author’s intention of being written as a myth, but it cannot fully become one until it too is passed on, and is accepted as myth by the people whose reality it records and symbolizes. While it was relatively unread during the first decade of its publication, Tolkien’s story eventually became the second most read book after the Bible. During the ‘60s, “Frodo lives!” was graffitied in New York subways, a suitably mythic response to that decade’s need for new cultural explanations. What really attests to the books’ power as myth is that they continue to hold such fascination and relevance for our contemporary century. These stories were recently made into a series of critically acclaimed and high-grossing films that seem likely to continue to pass on Tolkien’s vision and ordering of reality for generations to come. As such, the stories of Middle-Earth, in their history, text, and modern relevance, serve as Tolkien’s own inheritance to us. The Lord of the Rings literally saves his world and its cultural values so that we in turn will remember to keep saving our own world.
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