The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory, and it is best to resist drawing parallels to the real-world events of the 20th Century. That said, I do think it is informed by Tolkien’s WWI experience. I also think it’s fair to ask what Tolkien is saying about morality.
LOTR is a set of arguments about the corrosive moral effects of hubris, anger, jealousy, greed, and aggression. In my opinion, this is a case of an author telling a damn good story that reflects his values. There is no conscious effort to write a tract; but Tolkien’s moral and theological content is as easy to locate as Dante’s and Milton’s.
I think the way you locate the moral content is by looking at choices the characters make and the outcomes of the choices. Middle Earth has a well-developed natural order, supported by a monotheistic theology in which the one god and his agents actually exist. This is a list of mortal characters who are tempted by the Ring I made when I was preparing to write my Tolkien series at Part Time Monster. No citations for this post, because I wrote it entirely from my head. There are couple of notes at the end.
First-Time Readers: HERE BE SPOILERS
Sam picks up the Ring when he thinks Frodo has been killed by Shelob. There is a scene where he thinks about what he would do with the ring. Sam’s vision of using the power to re-make the world is one of the most powerful passages in all of Tolkien’s work. It leaves no room for ambiguity. Sam is one of the good guys, and it is entirely possible to read Sam as the main protagonist of LOTR. Ultimately, he returns it willingly to Frodo. He survives the war and helps to restore the Shire after the Scouring. Sam becomes a doting father, becomes the longtime mayor of Hobbiton, and inherits the office of storyteller/archivist when Bilbo sail into the West.
Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo. Once Frodo escapes, Boromir comes to his senses and expresses remorse. He dies defending Merry and Pippin, and warning his other companions. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas give him the best funeral they can manage under the circumstances, and commit his remains to the sea with rites befitting a great warrior and a prince. His relatives have prescient dreams of his death.
Faramir, Captain of Gondor with the Rangers of Ithilien under his personal command, is tempted but never tries to take the Ring. He allows Gollum to live because Frodo intercedes, which a a serious breach of Faramir’s military code. He allows Frodo, Sam and Gollum to leave of their own free will. I read read his decision as informed more by wisdom than morality, but it is still the right thing to do. It is significant that Faramir is a protege of Gandalf, and this is one of the things Denethor uses against Faramir when he discovers that Faramir did not seize the ring. Faramir survives and finds Eowyn. Aragorn confirms Faramir’s aristocratic privilege and his military authority. Peter Jackson does violence to Faramir’s character. I like the movies, but I have a handful of problems with them that I feel are still worth writing about after all these years. In my mind, the adaptation of Faramir is the most egregious of those problems.
Denethor, Steward of Gondor is tempted, but never actually has the opportunity to take the Ring. His desire for it poisons his relationship with his surviving son and leads him to use the Palantir. That is a bad idea on two counts: Historical tradition makes them the property of the royal house; and common sense suggests that since Sauron has one in his possession and has mastered them, it is best not to use them. The madness brought on by his lust for the Ring and use of the Palantir leads him to abdicate his responsibilities during the siege of Minas Tirith. He dies horribly, in a manner that is unseemly and dishonorable for a man of his lineage and station. He brings shame on his house and he almost takes his sole heir and the city he is charged with governing with him.
Some discussion of Aragorn and the Ring is warranted. I know there are passages that indicate he is either wise enough or moral enough not to desire the ring – I am just not sure exactly where they are at the moment.
Merry, Pippin, Eowyn, Eomer, Theoden, Gimli, and Wormtongue are the only other mortals with significant page time that come to mind. None of them are ever really tempted.
- This is a revised end note to an outline I wrote in November for my ongoing LOTR series at Part Time Monster. I posted it today because I need to get back to more substantial writing, and this is a step in that direction.
- If you have a Feminist Friday post you want me to see, drop me a link or Tweet it @Sourcererblog. Aside from checking my feeds, I won’t be around on the social media much this weekend because I need a couple of writing days to get us back on track.
- In the mood for more Tolkien blogging? Check out our friends at the Leather Library. While you’re over there, congratulate Steven on landing an interview on TheOneRing.net about his illuminated manuscript project.