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Missing "The Lord of the Rings"

Evil and the cultural significance of Tolkien's masterpiece.


Tolkien disliked allegory. He thought it a sterile and predictable genre. Yet, many readers of his The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) have been unable to resist allegorical interpretations, the most popular of which see the work as a Christian allegory or as an allegory for the great wars of the early 20th century. Like the original book, the film version of LOTR has inspired wildly varied interpretations, many of them attempting to make some contemporary connection. But all the ones offered thus far distort the peculiar nature of the quest in LOTR and its teaching on evil.

Many critics have drawn connections between LOTR and America in the wake of the atrocities of September 11. In the Boston Globe, Jay Carr called the fellowship of nine "freedom fighters." Andrew Sullivan's website hosted a discussion about whether Bush is closer to Frodo or Sam. (After initially leaning toward Frodo, Sullivan opted for Sam.) There are parallels here. Both dramas feature ordinary citizens and leaders, shaken from their commonplace lives by an invading evil; after an initial shock, they commit themselves to a cause, and, in so doing, discover in themselves resources they never knew they possessed. There is also a similarity in the way diverse peoples, while never forgetting their particular homelands, put aside differences to fight against a common enemy.

But the comparison obfuscates the nature of the quest in LOTRM and the peculiar evil that the ring embodies. The task in LOTR is not to hunt down and punish an enemy but to destroy the instrument that could give the enemy absolute power. And the dangers the ring-bearer faces are as much internal as external. Some of the members of the fellowship are themselves tempted by the lure of the ring, for different reasons but all out of a desire to do good. The most tragic figure is Boromir, one of the two human members of the fellowship, who wants to use the power of the Ring to defend his people from the evil Sauron. His desire for the ring occasions his own death and the splitting of the fellowship.

LOTR's teaching about evil runs counter to the suppositions that nothing is truly evil in itself.

The great lesson of LOTR is that the use of certain means or instruments is always evil, corrupting the one who deploys them, no matter what apparent good may come from them or be intended in their use. When the New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell describes the ring as being so powerful that "even the towering Gandalf" is afraid of it, he gets it exactly backward. The truth is that it is especially Gandalf who fears the ring, because he is acutely aware that the ring is a particularly potent corruptor of the powerful, who might be deceived into thinking they can wield its power without being destroyed by it. The point is driven home in an early scene where Frodo, realizing his possession of the ring has made him a target of the evil powers, offers Gandalf the ring. Gandalf, who up to this point has appeared as an avuncular, playful wizard, becomes suddenly fierce with Frodo. He commands Frodo not tempt him with the ring. Gandalf, who won't even touch the ring, admits that, were he to take it, he would do so out of a "desire to do good" but through him it would wreak a "great and terrible" evil.

LOTR's teaching about evil runs counter to the suppositions that nothing is truly evil in itself, that only weak and ignorant individuals are terrified by things labeled "evil," and that clever individuals with good intentions can put any means to a good end.

Another interpretation -- the one the actors and the director, Peter Jackson, seem to favor -- is ecological. It holds that the difference between good and evil in LOTR hinges upon different relationships to nature, with the good existing in harmony with nature while the evil are indifferent or hostile to nature, using it as raw material to satisfy inordinate longings for greed and power. The interpretation finds support in the film and perhaps even more in the book. Greed is undeniably a deadly vice in LOTR; the Dwarfs' lust for riches in the mines of Moria awakens an ancient evil. Recall the scene in the film where the traitorous wizard Saruman, once friend and now nemesis of Gandalf, commands his underlings to destroy the trees to feed the fires he needs to forge a new creature, a mixture of human and Orc. What ensues is a panoramic shot of massive deforestation.

But the ecological interpretation, especially if it is understood in a standard liberal way, misses the mark. The greatest danger is not the depletion of natural resources but the moral destruction of the human species and other rational species. Tolkien's heroes are not autonomous creators but those who humbly embrace their role within a natural and even a supernatural order not of their own devising. Saruman's cloning project, his attempt to remake life, even human life, in his own image and likeness or at least to serve his own needs mirrors the project of Sauron himself, who is animated by a "will to dominate all life." Is there a contemporary analogue to this? Certainly. It is already underway in the proclamation of a disembodied sexual liberty, in the practice of selective abortion, and in the push for greater freedom in genetic experimentation, including even cloning. Of course, these practices are pursued not in the manner of Sauron, out of a malevolent intention to dominate the world; instead, their supporters appeal to progress, freedom, and compassion. But the presence of the best of intentions, if we are to take seriously the teaching of LOTR, in no way insures that we will not wreak a great and terrible evil.

This article originally appeared in

February 2, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Valerie, September 9, 2014 7:48 PM

Awesome Article! A little more on Tolkien....

I know this is an old article and thread but it has always intrigued me that folks who consider themselves ardent fans of Tolkien and LOTR will talk about how fantasy is just escape from reality when Tolkien believed the exact opposite!!

CS Lewis told Tolkien that he believed myths were, "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."

"No," Tolkien replied. "They are not lies." Far from being lies they were the best way - sometimes the only way - of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.

Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic "progress" leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

(7) Phil, October 25, 2011 2:05 AM

Even Smeagol loves the Torah

Kindly check out my friend's drawing of Smeagol with the Torah:

(6) Matt Maurer, October 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Sam McAlpine - On the money

I appreciate Sam McAlpine's honest comments and his astute appreciation of film and wider world perceptions of entertainment, theatre and life. Well Done! Ands feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss anything. I miss your smiling face ... Matt Maurer (Brisbane, Australia) 12/10/05

(5) Anonymous, November 16, 2002 12:00 AM

the ring represents ...

I think the ring represents the power of the Yezter Harah (evil inclination) that is embedded in every individual. We are all kind of like Frodo, forced to bear the ring, afraid and sometimes tempted to put it on. The ring controls as does the evil inclination, but our true nature (inherently good) can champion over the corruption of the power the ring represents - that of evil.

I always believed this since I read the series about six years ago. I saw the movie and it really brought this message back to me.

(4) Sam McAlpine, July 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Even Fantasy Holds a Message

I find the comments of those who say of this movie or any other "it is only fantasy" rather naive.
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Everything that we are exposed to has an impact on the way that we view the world, however small.

Even though a person may consciously decide to "suspend" their belief or disbelief of the situations portrayed by a movie, internally we still take note of the character of the persons portrayed and mentally root either for or against them. We may form an emotional connection with some of the characters so that when they feel pain or disappointment we may also feel pain or disappointment to some degree, when they are joyous or triumphant, we may share in their triumph. This is the hallmark of a great movie. It is why audiences go to movies, and why we give awards to movies that we feel most successfully create this emotional involvement.

Sometimes the actions of a fictional character when we are particularly emotionally involved can result in a temporary “suspension” of not just belief, but of moral conviction or understanding. Unless we are careful to keep in mind, who we are and what we believe, rather than “losing ourselves” in the movie, we may find ourselves excusing the shortcomings of a character on the grounds that he/she is an otherwise nice person who is simply in a tough situation. Or we may view their misdeeds as less severe in contrast to the misdeeds of other characters in the story.

A good example of this is the recent movie (a very good one) “The Road to Perdition”. Tom Hanks plays the part of an enforcer for a gangster during prohibition. He is also a sensitive husband and father. When his son witnesses a murder Hanks is forced to take him and run in order to protect him. He is pursued by a hit man who likes to photograph his victims. There are several tender scenes where it is apparent that Hanks loves his son and family very much and will do anything to protect him. In one particular scene Hanks must kill two men (a club owner who is stealing from the boss, and his bodyguard) in order to preserve his own life. It is very easy to excuse Hanks for committing murder on the grounds that these guys are obviously more dishonest and creepy and it’s either him or them.

It is in this way, that after repeatedly seeing images and hearing messages along a vein similar to this one that we may come to regard murder in self-defense (even when we have put ourselves into the position where it is required) as okay.

This is only a single situation, but it illustrates the power of movies (or any media for that matter) to influence the way we think and the values that we hold. This is also true in a larger context. Most stories bear intrinsically within them a message of some sort, intentionally or not. These messages will have an effect on our point of view, consciously or unconsciously.

The point is, we have the power to make a decision. We can absorb the ideas and points of view of someone else, or consciously and critically think about those ideas and shape them to fit our own system of values.

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