The Lord of the Rings as a Way of Life

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I woke up this morning thinking about last night’s meeting of The Grey Havens Group. (I do this a lot and I suspect that others do, too.) I thought about how often one of us (frequently me) finds a religious (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu) tenet expressed in the plot of The Lord of the Rings. I have decided that this is not because Tolkien set out to write a story of religious instruction but because he set out to write a story that is true or to create a secondary world that participates in the truth of the primary world. The philosophy that one can derive from The Lord of the Rings is reflected in the religions of the primary world because it is true or, at least, universal. Another word for universal is “catholic” with a lower case “c.” It is helpful for me to identify these catholic principles as they are articulated in the articles of faith with which I have become familiar because it gives me a kind of shorthand for understanding the principles. It is even more helpful, however, for me to see them brought to life in the quest of Frodo and his friends because shorthand should only help us to remember; it should never be confused with the thing itself. I believe Tolkien and his friends understood that principles are not static ideas but living things with which we must become as intimate as we are with our dearest family and friends. It is one thing to recite an idea as dogma but it is quite another to live it and, if we are to live it, we are aided incalculably by witnessing it being lived in Story. It is very important that we read Tolkien’s work, each in our own way, and that we discuss his work so that our own individual ways can be enriched by the ways of others, but it is even more important that we try our best to live it. What matters most is that we become better people because of it. What else could it be for if not for that? I don’t want to imagine a world that I could never, in some sense, live in. I think this is what Tolkien meant when he spoke of Fantasy as a means of Escape. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “The Lord of the Rings as a Way of Life

  1. Responding to metaphysical questions about good and evil in Middle-earth and his responsibility as a writer, Tolkien wrote (draft letter September 1954): “I would claim… to have as one object the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home.'” He then acknowledged that “I may be in error (at some or all points): my truths may not be true, or they may be distorted: and the mirror I have made may be dim and cracked.” But he stood by his work as essentially moral and uplifting. Whether one sees Middle-earth morality as reifying a disguised particularistic sense of religious morality or as affirming a more general secular humanistic message, it is arguable that literature always engages the human contract, our communal consensus about the moral centers of selfhood. I like Kate Trowe’s occasional reminders that whatever moral instruments we deploy to dissect Tolkien in our search for useful guideposts to selfhood, the power of entertaining adventure also deserves our respect. I think this is because “adventure” serves so well as a revitalizing healing force in our lives. Whatever the utility of qualitative analytical dissections, even the smallest adventure can seem epic when it manages to touch the more mysterious quantities that secretly make us whoever we are in the world. Judging from Tolkien’s comments about LotR as a cracked mirror, I think Tolkien must have also sensed an appropriate role for moral ambiguity in this enterprise. Whether or not this is true, I think that if one is absolutely certain of one’s truths, then there is little need for the pesky dilemmas that we encounter in stories that conscientiously wrestle with human complexities. On the other hand, we can and should apply our sense of qualitative moral analysis to situations that authors wish us see as straightforward moral situations. An aesthetic of ambiguity doesn’t just mean being morally indecisive; it also means that we can truly value diversity of opinion and varying interpretative responses when we regard moral messaging in art. It is arguable that we can best learn from each other when we free ourselves from the strictest forms of dogma. But perhaps this kind of “escape” also means that we ought to appreciate dogmatism that regards itself as a cracked mirror that ambiguously reflects what is “good.”

  2. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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