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When The Fellowship of the Ring is released on Dec. 19, a new generation will be introduced to the fantastic world author J.R.R. Tolkien created almost half a century ago. The time seems ripe for New Line Cinema’s blockbuster release; the Harry Potter series took the U.S. by storm, and those who loved Harry’s magic will flock to the theaters to see another tale of wizards and sorcerers. And of course, The Lord of the Rings, the work that single-handedly created the genre of fantasy fiction, has a huge cult following all its own.
But in a deeper sense, America today may be particularly well suited to appreciate Tolkien’s epic.
When The Fellowship of the Ring was first released, literary critic Edmund Wilson assailed Tolkien for creating polarized characters—characters that were either good or evil, and nothing in between. Sauron and his servants are the utter embodiment of evil, with no goal other than to dominate the world under a pall of darkness. Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn, the protagonists of the novel, have no wish other than to see Middle Earth live in peace and are willing to sacrifice themselves to attain that goal.
Indeed, one of the most prominent themes throughout the work is that of sacrifice. Even if the Fellowship succeeds in accomplishing its goal—here I will take great pains to avoid revealing the end of the series to those who have not had the fortune to read it already—then much of Middle Earth is destined to fade away forever. Gandalf and Frodo have little to gain from accomplishing their mission, little motivation beyond a compelling sense of duty.
It is not surprising, therefore, that The Lord of the Rings caught on at a time of deep disillusionment with America and its leaders. In the 1960s, the series became a defining icon of the counterculture movement. Led Zeppelin’s music is sprinkled with references to Tolkien’s work, and “Frodo Lives” bumper stickers could be found across the country. At that time of pervasive doubt and division about the morality of bombing a small country in Southeast Asia, The Lord of the Rings caught on exactly because its characters were idealized embodiments of good and evil. Few youths of that time found their heroes in the army, or in Washington or indeed anywhere in public life. They were forced to turn elsewhere, and in many cases, they turned to Tolkien.
Though the atmosphere today is entirely different, The Lord of the Rings may be more relevant now than it was in the ’60s. Over the last two months, America has been fighting a war against al-Qaeda—a battle of justice against terror, of light against darkness. Not everything America has done so far is right, of course—the curbs on domestic civil liberties and the accidental bombings of innocent Afghanis are particularly troubling. But the essence of this battle is a fight of good against evil.
There has been no shortage of examples of courage and heroism on one side and of manipulation and cowardice on the other. The sheer cold-heartedness required to end the lives of thousands of innocents is as close to pure evil as one can imagine. At the same time, we remember firefighters sprinting into the shadow of the World Trade Center just before the towers fell. We remember the passengers on an ill-fated flight above Pennsylvania launching a last-ditch attack to regain control of an airplane, knowing they would likely die in the process. These sublime moments are now part of the nation’s consciousness, and it would not surprise me if Americans today were to find parallels between the selflessness of their heroes and of Tolkien’s.
Tolkien abhorred the idea that his books were an allegory; though many saw shades of both World Wars in Tolkien’s writing, he went to great lengths to refute any such interpretation. I would not want to cause the old author to roll over in his grave, and so I do not mean to imply that his books cannot stand on their own or that they have some subtly implied connection to our world. But like all great pieces of literature, they illuminate essential aspects of the human condition. And so, today we may find more meaning in The Lord of the Rings than ever before.
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