Lord of the Epic

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At this moment, the most popular film in the world is The Lord of the Rings. This is a remarkable phenomenon – more remarkable, indeed, than the intrinsic properties of the movie itself, which will be discussed in due course. For now, suffice it to say that nothing within the film, including its sumptuous special effects, accounts for the intense public feeling. Judging by the favorable press reports, the long and loud preliminary buzz, and what I saw and heard in the opening night crowd, the public’s interest in the film is largely attributable to the public’s interest in the book on which the film was based.

Very few books have this kind of draw, and nobody could have predicted that one of them would tum out to be J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, published almost a half-century ago. The Lord of the Rings is not a thrilling romance, ala Gone with the Wind. Neither is it a frolicsome story of myth and magic, ala Harry Potter. It is, indeed, a book of myths and “fantasies,” but the fantasies are very sober stuff, and the myths were invented, not to create a certain quantity of fantasy effects, but to pursue a deeply private obsession with, of all things, historical linguistics.

When he was a very young man, Tolkien (1892-1973), later Merton Professor of English Language and writers, people like Hemingway, Literature at Oxford University, began inventing languages. Not content with evolving mythical tongues, he evolved a mythical history to explain them. This, so far as I know, is something that nobody else ever did, at least in grand and plausible detail. (For a detailed treatment of Tolkien’s languages, visit Helge Kare Fauskanger’s website “Ardalambion”: http:/ / www. uib.no/ People/ hnohf/ .) The languages worked like real languages, and the histories worked like real his- tories. True, Tolkien’s stories pertained to hitherto unknown races, but they had both the generality and the specificity of veritable history. Within them, continents rose and fell, empires flourished and decayed, and individual beings lived and loved and seemed to work out their own destinies with the inexhaustible particularity of actual human choice – despite the fact that it was all happening within the imagination of one homely, fussy, modern young man.

Now, this young man’s imagination, as it happened, had a strong Victorian tinge, which was another thing that, one might predict, would distance his literary publications, if any, from the interest of either our century or his own. Tolkien, a very devout Christian, excluded all religious observances from his imaginary world, because religion was too serious a subject to transform into fantasy. But if God does not appear in Tolkien’s “Middle Earth,” the moral forces that his contemporary Rudyard Kipling called” the gods of the copybook headings” are omnipresent there. Good is good, evil is evil, and if there is any determinant of history, it is stern moral struggle, not technological innovation, industrialization, class warfare, or any other purely secular development.

While Tolkien was working out the course of moral struggle among his imaginary families of elves, dwarves, ents, Numenoreans, and so forth, other writers, people like Hemingway, Sartre, Freud, Proust, and Mann, were working on their own, very different projects, and it is easy to see why their concerns were regarded as characteristic of their century, and Tolkien’s were not – at least by the intellectuals who were self-appointed to judge such things. This was a handicap. It is safe to say that during the first 40 years or so of Tolkien’s work on his own mythology, there was nothing less fashionable than what he was interested in. An even severer handicap was Tolkien’s way of constructing his stories, which he often elaborated as if they could stand on their own as histories, without the benefit of any particular literary charm or concession to accessibility.

This was strange, but then a stranger thing occurred. Tolkien found a way to translate his highly individual obsessions into the form of a popular novel.

Bear in mind that his obsessions were not about sex, money, drugs, nuclear weaponry, or any other remotely popular topic of obsession. They were about the evolution of Quenya and Sindarin, languages spoken by immortal beings called “elves” in some era of history that had never happened. Bear in mind, also, that no other author, not even Joyce, Faulkner, or the Marquis de Sade, was ever obsessed in as much detail and with as many complications as J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed. Yet few authors have awakened as much instinctive sympathy in the breasts of ordinary readers as Professor Tolkien.

How did he do it?

He did it by reverting, as instinctively as his readers, to a story-mode supposed (again, at least by the intellectuals, who are always supposing things) to be virtually extinct. He returned to the epic.

By “epic” I do not mean what is implied by movie trailers that announce yet another EPIC MOVIE OF OUR TIME. “Epic” means more than “big.” “Epic” means more than “long.” An epic is a narrative that embodies, in the adventures of an· heroic character, the life and ideal values of a civilization. Originally, it was a long narrative poem.

Now, epics, as Isabel Paterson said about literature itself, are “not to be expected every minute.” In English, the last great exemplar of epic poetry was John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). There have been many modern attempts at revival, some of them good or at least interesting, such as Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts (1903-1908) and Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body (1928). There have been many poetic efforts that attained “epic scope” but lacked any gift for epic narrative: Goethe’s Faust (1790-1831), William Blake’s Jerusalem (c. 1821), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855), Hart Crane’s· The Bridge (1930), to name a few. By the mid-18th century, however, narrative expectations had been transferred to prose, and to the novel. Whether these expectations could be fulfilled or not depended in large part on the interest that an author took in the ancient techniques – dating back to the Greek poet Homer (c. 750 B.C.), who seems to have discovered them –

that can be used to weave the many small details of life into one vast fabric of meaning.

Find a character who embodies your ideals. Find a story that challenges him to act up to those ideals, against all opposition, external and internal. Begin in the middle of the story, at some crucially interesting point, so that your work has focus from the very start, then use a multitude of flashbacks to show how matters ever got to that exciting juncture. Throw your character into situations that force him to learn everything that’s important about the world he inhabits. Send him on a journey in which he meets a multitude of other characters, each of them mirroring either his problems or the possible solutions to his problems, and each of them, like a magic mirror, having some story of his own to tell. Then leave the story, as you found it, at some crucial, but this time some definitive, point.

Those are the techniques of Homeric narration. Those are the techniques of the epic novel, wherever that form is practiced.

In the 20th century, it has been practiced less and less by “serious” authors – partly because the theory of high art in the 20th century tended to discredit traditional techniques, even when they worked, and partly because much of 20th-century experience seemed to indicate that life could not fairly be represented as an incomparably rich but perfectly organized story. The general opinion was that life was more like a series of unfortunate chances, and that art should represent that .reality, instead of seeking to “evade” it by means of its own contrivance.

Such opinions were sheer nonsense to Tolkien, not because he himself had escaped the century’s accidents (he was a soldier on one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War I), but because of his peculiarly conservative aesthetic sensibility. He was obsessed not with accident but with order. The often wild improvisations of his mythical histories were so many wild thrusts at the discovery of an underlying organization of things. But what kind of literary order was best able to communicate his myths to other minds?

It wasn’t the suave Homeric epic that appealed to him, temperamentally; it was the rougher, blunter epics of the Germanic peoples (e.g., Beowulf, about which he was his century’s greatest and most perceptive literary critic). He was strange enough even to deny that Beowulf is “an ‘epic’ . . . No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit.” While he was shaping The Lord of the Rings, however, something happened that almost never happens to either an obsessive (which he was) or a bigoted devotee of one form of literature (which he also. was, and almost every author is). What happened was that he was kidnaped by common sense – and common sense finally led him to adopt the Homeric wisdom. Out of his vast lumber-room of unsalable myth Tolkien extracted enough materials to build a great story, as Homer had done with the endless treasure rooms of myth that were available to him for the construction of the’ Iliad and the Odyssey.

Then Tolkien shaped his story in the Homeric way. Here is the story. There exists a ring, a ring forged long ago, before this age of the world, and in it is imbued the spiritual power on which this world subsists – enough of that power, indeed, to control the world. For Tolkien, as for any conservative moralist from Homer to the Victorians, only one set of conclusions can be derived from a statement like that. Total control must lead to total slavery. If you are evil, you·will want to possess the Ring; if you are good, you will want to destroy it. The attempt to destroy the Ring is the great adventure of Tolkien’s epic. As in many ancient epics, the adventure is a quest, and in its course the person charged with it becomes increasingly isolated. Tolkien’s hero roams the wide world, meeting characters who mirror, oppose, or instruct him, and who work their own stories into the story of his quest. But his decisions remain his to make, alone.

The desperation of his adventure is emphasized by the new turn that Tolkien gives to the old idea of the quest itself: In The Lord of the Rings, the quest is not an effort to gain something but an effort to lose something, to lose, indeed, the greatest prize in the world. Tolkien gives a similarly ironic emphasis to his choice of hero. The hero is not

Tolkein’s myths were invented, not to create fantasy effects, but to pursue a deeply private obsession with, of all things, historical linguistics.


a mighty man of valor but a “halfling” or “hobbit,” a diminutive manlike creature who steps forward to undertake the quest in full knowledge of the odds against his success. The goal of his journey is the citadel of the evil Lord who lost the Ring, 3,000 years before, and who is now trying to get it back. Quest and counter quest, and an encircling order: The Ring must come back to its place of origin, either to be destroyed, or to destroy all else.

Here, indeed, is an epic enterprise; here, indeed, is an epic embodiment of individual virtue, exerted in a great and crucial cause. And here, indeed, is one of the world’s great stories.

As in Homer’s epics, the main story begins in medias res, at a dramatic moment in the middle of things. It begins at the crucial point where the halfling understands that he is possessed of the One Ring and must do something about it; an apparent accident of history must yield to some shaping plan. And, as in Homer’s epics, the story ends at the point, the rather mysterious point, where the audience is willing to relinquish the adventure, realizing that the adventure has assumed its final shape. (For the benefit of people who haven’t read the book, I won’t divulge where that point is, but it’s not where you might think it is.) Along the way, many other stories are told as they prove useful in explaining or extending the main story; and these stories evoke still other stories, stories of ever more distant lands and ever more distant eras – but all of them are curiously related, as stories of real life always are, and all of them swell up, as stories of real life always do, if you let them, into a climactic image of the world as it really is.

Except, of course, for one thing . . . Tolkien’s world isn’t literally this world; it is “Middle Earth.” The name itself went out of fashion in the 11th century; the geography, Tolkien suggests, was”altered” even further in the past, along with its population. Tolkien’s Middle Earth contains many more races of thinking beings than our own (this is where the elves and dwarves and ents come in), and many more varieties of· “power.” Much the same could be said of Homer’s world, of course, but Tolkien’s is in certain ways much closer to our own. The central character, the halfling Frodo Baggins, is basically a nice young

English gentleman; his friends are like that, too, except for some, who are irascible old English gentlemen. It’s hard to warm up to Odysseus when he’s priding himself on his ability to lie or having his wife’s maidservants slaughtered, but it’s not hard at all to warm up to Tolkien’s morally worthwhile characters. They are, in every psychological sense, modern people.

His villains are largely modern people too – power-drunk dictators such as Sauron, power-corrupted intellectuals such as Saruman, and a host of “orcs,” soulless, Nazi-like thugs. This does not mean that Sauron is an allegorical stand-in for Hitler or Stalin. Things didn’t work that way in Tolkien’s imagination. Sauron is, in fact, debased by the comparison. But the world of The Lord of the Rings is close enough to our world to constitute a perpetual temptation to people who would like to dodge across the border and escape.

That would be great fun, if you could manage it without getting caught by Sauron the Great. The fact that none of the thousands of semiprofessional participants in Tolkien role-play has ever, so far as we know, been eaten by orcs or heaved alive into the Cracks” of Doom is sufficient indication that the Tolkienish world to which they escape is not precisely the world of The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Tolkien’s work is vulnerable to the charge of escapism, if only because reading The Lord of the Rings actually” does enable one to escape temporarily from a world in which the heroic enterprise of a given year may be nothing better than a doomed attempt to escape the unblinking eye of the IRS.

And “escapism” is a serious charge. For almost 100 years, the word has been one of the dirtiest in the literary critic’s vocabulary. It is interesting, though, that escapism never seems to have been much of an issue at any other time. Up until the 20th century, as it appears, everybody always knew that when one reads a book or sees a picture that represents some ideal of escaping” out of one’s normal circumstances – and so what? Obviously, one is escaping from something, but one is also escaping to something. So long as the escape is well-conducted, so long

Tolkien, a very devout Christian, excluded all religious observances from his imaginary world, because religion was too serious a subject to transform into fantasy.


as one escapes from something less intensely meaningful to something more intensely meaningful, who cares? That is the ordinary attitude of humanity toward this mighty question. But it didn’t prove sufficient for the 20th century. In that century, The Lord of the Rings became a battlefield in the long, dreary war between “escapist” literature and literature supposedly possessed of what American courts used to callI/socially redeeming value.”

The conflict was often politically charged. Political activists have always believed that any book that fails to rub one’s nose in social reality as they define it is ipso facto “escapist,” no matter how far from reality their own notions may actually be. Thus, leftist critics of the 1930s persecuted Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder, and a host of other distinguished writers because they failed to attain the standards embodied by such communist nonenti-

Tolkien’s Middle Earth contains many more races of thinking beings than our own, and many more varieties of “power.'” Much the same could be said of Homer’s world, of course.


ties as Michael Gold. And Cather and Wilder at least wrote about the world we know; Tolkien wrote about Middle Earth, which was a hundred times worse offense to social realists – to those social realists, at any rate, who considered him worth the passing tribute of a sneer.

About the outraged opponents of escapism, Paterson long ago made the definitive judgment: They want to make sure that no one ever escapes from them. She also pointed out that the measure of literature’s success is its ability to evoke the real and present world, and yet to escape far enough from that world to attain” perspective” on it.

Does The Lord of the Rings attain perspective?

The answer is an emphatic yes. And here, in fact, we appear to have found the major reason for the book’s immense and long-continued popularity. The Lord of the Rings not only attains perspective; it attains a variety of perspectives, and it shows that those perspectives can be maintained harmoniously.

The great story of human life can be told from many points of view. For some, it is a story in which people are always trying to find their counterparts; it is thus a story of ‘families, friends, alliances, parties, .political causes. For others, it is a story in which people try to assert their independence; it is a story of loners, outcasts, exiles, pioneers. For some, the important story is one in which people try to do something that no one has ever done before; this story depends for its life on the great innovators and inventors. For others, it is a story in which people try to maintain earth’s ancient, necessary ways; this story draws its strength from the great nurturers, commanders, and resisters of change. For some people, the big story is one in which somebody tries to get something he wants; for others, it is one in which somebody tries to get rid of something that nobody ought to want. The list might be extended: The. point is that these are more than just stories; they are accounts of the real motives of real people, motives that can be seen if we look beyond the superficial details of daily life and seek to discover the pattern of life as a whole.

Nor are these stories necessarily independent of one another. The motive of my life may be to find the strangers who should be friends, and simultaneously to win my independence from the friends who should be strangers. My motive may be, as a great storyteller once said, to “lose” my life, so that I can “find” it again, and find it “more abundantly.” Correctly understood, these need not be contradictory impulses or opposing stories.

It is enough for a great book to attend to one type of story and attain to one type of perspective, but The Lord of the Rings attains to many more than one. Its protagonist separates himself from all normal human contact; he also finds, for the first time in his life, the true fellowship of his peers. (The initial installment of the three-part movie, like the initial volume of Tolkien’s three-volume book, is called The Fellowship of the Ring.) The protagonist has to perform a new and unexampled deed, in order to save as much as possible of Middle Earth’s traditional ways of life. The protagonist has to find a whole new world, within and without himself, and make it his own,

Reading The Lord of the Rings actually does enable one to escape temporarily from a world in which the heroic enterprise of a given year may be nothing better than a doomed attempt to escape the unblinking eye of the IRS.


so that he can surrender his and the world’s most important possession, the Ring of Power.

This harmony of apparently divergent stories and perspectives expresses a truth that is often missed in a world – our own, 21st-century world – that gyrates unhappily between dogmatism and relativism: All perspectives are useful if they allow us to see essential truth. Tolkien said something analogous to this at the climax of his famous essay on Anglo-Saxon literature, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936). Discussing the diverse and purportedly shoddy materials of which the Beowulf poet constructed his poem, Tolkien likened its creation to the building of a tower. Other people, assuming that they are brighter than the builder, murmur against it, not realizing that “from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea./I The sea really exists; it is an objective reality, but knowledge of the sea can be reached in a number of ways. The important thing is to reach it.

How much of Tolkien’s lofty vision asserts itself in the film? Not all of it, certainly. Even though the segment currently released takes three hours and represents only the first third of a work that will not be fully released

Elijah Wood as Frodo is about the best that could be desired – young but strangely finished-looking; mysterious, but mysterious in a strangely obvious and concrete way. 


until the end of 2003, no film could ever deal adequately with the complexities of an epic novel. Much is omitted, but to the credit of the filmmakers, no essential fact or perspective is changed. This is one of the miracles of film history. Ernest Hemingway may be famous for his clean-limbed plots and sparkling dialogue, but that hasn’t kept the dramatizers of his stories from fudging up his plots and supplying their own lame dialogue. The usual premise of adapters-for-film is that of Howard Roark’s uninvited architectural collaborators: “We want to express our individuality, too.”

Epic complexity cannot be reproduced in film; but epic scope can at least be suggested, if only in such magnificent visual effects as those with which this film abounds. The sweeping mountain vistas, the evocations of the Byzantiumlike city of Gondor, the stunningly beautiful scenes of war, provide strong evocations of much that cannot be rendered in dialogue. The film’s opening sequence, the Battle of Dagorlad, offers some of the most astonishing effects I have ever seen.

Every admirer of Tolkien has found problems with some of the movie’s characterizations. To put the complaints in Patersonian terms, some of the characters are accused of a failure to attain perspective. They look too much like the guys next door. Galadriel, the lady of the elves, is far too commonplace, until the climax of her big scene, when she’s far too weird. Aragorn is too conflicted and insecure, too much the literal exile, too little the ideal king. Boromir, the good man who stumbles in his pursuit of power, seems more dumb than tragic. Frodo’s hobbit friends lack the small-town social status that Tolkien respected and gently satirized.

These complaints are well taken, but they are complaints about the mantle, not the core. Elijah Wood as Frodo is about the best that could be desired – young but strangely finished- looking; mysterious, but mysterious in a strangely obvious and concrete way. Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf isn’t quite as well cast, but only Alec Guinness was truly suited for that role, and McKellen is close enough. Christopher Lee would be a consistently impressive Saruman, if his powerful characterization of the intellectual-turned-politician weren’t overshadowed by the dumb physical activity, approaching comedy, of his battle with Gandalf. This is the least Tolkienish part of the movie. Look: Nobody wants to see wizards twirling around on the floor.

In general, the film relies too much on purely physical struggle, which is far from the major emph~sis of the book. Aragorn and his friends should not be playing kung fu with multitudes of orcs and ring-wraiths; you can’t attain perspective on reality if

The film relies too much on purely physical struggle, which is far from the major emphasis of the book.


you abandon reality completely. Fortunately, however, these objections pertain largely to the physical details of certain scenes; people who care about the meanings of Tolkien’s book can simply close their eyes when those things happen, as people often have to do, even when they’re having sex. The great things are still there – the epic framework and the ennobling idea, implicit throughout the Western epic tradition, that the fabric of the world itself can be affected by the choices of individual men and women.

There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings in which the protagonist struggles to decide whether to use the Ring or not.

The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger.

This is perhaps the deepest existential reality in The Lord of the Rings – the resistant strength of the individual mind. Behind and beneath the mighty forces sweeping Middle Earth, the individual mind is always working.

Indeed, this is the secret of evil as well as good in Tolkien’s epic. T.A. Shippey, author of the state-of-the-art book in the field (J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Houghton Mifflin, 2001), accurately observes that the Ring operates by getting “a hold on people through their own impulses, towards pity or justice or knowledge or saving Gondor, and gives them the absolute power that corrupts absolutely” (p. 138). From Tolkien’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with any of the goals just listed, but there is something wrong with the individuals who cherish them, and the Ring exploits that individual weakness.

It’s noteworthy how little is vouchsafed or attributed to ideology in The Lord of the Rings, how little explanation is provided by recourse to a general system of thought, as opposed to individual values and choices. Perhaps Tolkien’s strange obsession with linguistics tended to repress an interest in other general systems; perhaps his inability to apply his Roman Catholicism directly to the issues at hand tended to leave his characters freer to operate; but for whatever reason it happened, rational beings are always seen as individuals in The Lord of the Rings, and praised or blamed on that basis. That freedom, once granted, extends to the reader, too. Because Tolkien offers imaginative myth, not religion or political ideology, readers are free to exercise their own degree of imaginative freedom. As Shippey says, “Myths are what is always available for individuals to makeover, and apply to their own circumstances” (192).

A final question may therefore be posed: How much freedom does the film version of The Lord of the Rings allow to its characters and its viewers? The answer is, Very much indeed. It would have been easy to use the camera to suggest that the central characters are merely specks on the landscape, but the wealth of closeups, the close attention to the human (or humanlike face and form and to objects of human scale, prevents ~y such lingering impression. It would also have been easy to interpret Tolkien’s epic as if it were in fact an ideologized comment on modern times, much in the way that, for instance, Wagner’s operas are stage as if they were about the struggles of labor and capital in the 19th century. So far in this three-part film, nothing like that has happened. The story remains a true epic, a true expression of mythology, and a true vehicle of escape to loftier perspectives on the nature of human life.

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