Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Banned Books Challenge--The Lord of the Rings

Warning this post contains potential spoilers for The Lord of the Rings. You might not wish to read it if you have never seen the movies or read the books.

This should have been posted yesterday, for Read Tolkien Day (March 25th, the day the Ring is destroyed in the book) but I was too busy reading Tolkien.
Where do I begin on Read Tolkien Day?

The Lord of the Rings has been challenged for a variety of reasons over the years, from the silly (the books feature smoking by many characters)to the more serious (that the book is anti christian or anti religion.)

In 2001 the books were burned in New Mexico by a group who claimed they promoted Witchcraft and Satanism.

When one looks at the author and the story behind the writing of The Lord of the Rings, such claims of Satanism seem bizarre and incredibly ironic as well.

J R R Tolkien was born in 1892 in South Africa, where his father died when he was young. His mother then moved her children back to England where she was from. His family was Catholic, and after his mother's death when he was 12, his guardian was a priest. Tolkien started college at Oxford, but before he could get his degree World War I began, and he went to War. He also married during this time period. He and his wife would have 4 children, one of whom, Christopher had devoted much of his adult life to editing his father's works. The depth his feeling for his wife can be seen in the fact he had their tombstone engraved with the names "Beren and Luthien" the tragical eternal lovers of the Silmarillion. After the war he went back and finished his degree, and later became a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. Tolkien was fascinated by languages and in his youth started making up his own. He became a philologist, someone who studies the history of words and their usages and meanings. He was a contributor to the Oxford English dictionary as well. As he studied Anglo Saxon and other early languages and read the epic stories written in those tongues he began to think of a fantasy world that would incorporate his languages. For over 20 years he worked at the languages and mythic structure of what would become the world of Middle Earth.

Tolkien also became friends with another Oxford professor, C S Lewis, like him a Catholic, although Lewis was a convert. The two often exchanged comments on the work the other was creating, so that in the the end, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are sibling works, although they differ greatly. Certainly the symbolism in The Lord of the Rings is rather more subtle than the overt allegory of Narnia, but there is no question that Tolkien viewed his work as Christian in its basic story and values. He certainly had no intention of promoting Satanism, and would be appalled to think anyone took his books that way.

For me this book is one of my desert island books, the works I would take with me should I have to be reduced to just a few volumes. I read it at least yearly if not more frequently.  It is one of the few books, along with Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, that everyone in my family has read and enjoyed. (If you get the feeling we like mythic heroism around this house, you would be correct.)  Several things make this work stand out for me:

The depth of the story.  At the time of Professor Tolkien's death many readers, although appreciating the richness of his story, had no idea of the depth of it.  The more than twenty books edited and published since then by his son Christopher show how complex and deep his work was.  Every character and event in the Lord of the Rings, for example, has a longer history written down elsewhere, with biography and genealogy.
This depth of narrative, this feeling that Lord of the Rings is but one chapter in a longer existing epic is one of its greatest appeals.

Mythic complexity. In the course of his studies Professor Tolkien encountered myths of many cultures.  He incorporated aspects of many of them in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  It adds to the feeling that one is in the middle of another epic saga such as the Norse would have told around a campfire.

You need a hero?  We got heroes.  One of the most interesting things about the books in the way Tolkien incorporates a number of different heroic types.  Aragorn is a classic Arthurian here, right down to being hidden away at birth, fostered by a wise figure who teaches him many secrets, and being known to others by the sword he wields.  Frodo is a sacrificial hero, Sam is an Everyman. Frequently the characters balance, so that we see the consequences of their actions. Boromir succumbs to the temptations of the Ring, his brother Faramir, placed in similar circumstances rejects it.  Theoden, a failed king, redeems himself in a last great act of kingship.  He is balanced by Denethor who fails in a similar test. 

Even the mightiest and most powerful are not safe from temptation or failure.  Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel all reject chances to take the ring.  They know the greatest danger is to place such a powerful object in the hands of someone who knows how to wield power.  Saruman is not so wise, and in his pursuit of power falls under the influence of Sauron. 

Tolkien's experiences of combat also influence the story.  War is not a heroic endeavour so much as it is a grim necessity.  At the end balance has been restored, but not without great cost. If you have only seen the movie you may be surprised to learn there are six full chapters after the Ring is destroyed. Although much of it would have been a distraction in the movie, they are some of the best parts of the book, and reflect some of the authors deepest feelings about war and progress and the plight of returning heroes who have been wounded beyond healing.

As already mentioned, this is one of my favorite books. I can't recommend it highly enough.  I am a big fan of the filmed trilogy as well.  I think that, along with To Kill a Mockingbird it's one of the best adaptations of a book ever done.  They aren't always true to the narrative but they stay true to the spirit of the story.

It may be possible with a very surface reading (or more likely a reading of the dust jacket) that one might find the book irreligious.  A more careful reading shows the deeply spiritual quality of the book.  Although Tolkien wrote from a Catholic point of view, the appeal of the book goes far beyond Christianity.  We all need tales of heroism and sacrifice, and this book is one of the best ever written.


photo credit: Love Of Books by George Hodan


  1. What a great pick for the Banned Books challenge! I always love reading your reviews as they are so insightful and I learn things about the background of these books/authors that I didn't know before :)

    1. Thanks Chtistine. And thank you for the challenge, it has me thinking alot about books.