The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 3 – The Various Races or Peoples of Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

In the Lord of the Rings and his other writings Tolkien speaks of races and peoples to mean what we would call different species.  The major division between the Children of Illuvatar was between the Elves and Men (the Eldar and the Edain).  Within these two groups there were further subgroupings that I guess could best be described as tribes or nations.  But the differences between Elves and Men are profound.  The Elves do not grow old.  Therefore, unless they are killed by accident or illness they can live indefinitely.  And even when they die their spirit is constrained to remain within the Realm of Arda which is under the control of the angelic powers, the Valar.  In fact, it is hinted at by Tolkien that eventually the spirits of Elves that have died will be returned to life in Arda after some very long time.  Men are mortal just as humans are on Earth.  In Tolkien’s theology men do not remain in Arda after they die.  Their spirits leave Arda altogether and return to Illuvatar outside of the jurisdiction of the Valar.

What Tolkien seemed to be mirroring with the Elves and Men was the distinction between men who lived before the Christian era who had no chance of redemption from the Christian perspective and those who lived after.  The Elves would be like the Valar in a way.  They could serve Illuvatar and share in the smaller creation that was Arda but within Arda they were not in direct contact with Illuvatar.  Men were meant to escape Arda after their lives and then return to Illuvatar.  Despite the profound differences between Men and Elves Tolkien allowed for the possibility of love and even children between Men and Elves.  But what would the children be, deathless Elves or mortal Men?  Tolkien decided that they would be permitted a choice.  If they chose to be Men then that was a final choice for them and their children.  But if they chose to be of Elven-kind then their children also had the choice to make and in the same way.  Now what this means to me is that any child of a Man would always have the choice to choose to be Human.  And I think this is because the Fate of Man is the higher fate.  The Elves are halfway between Valar and Men.  And despite the tremendous power of the angelic Valar their fate is less than that of Men.

Then there are the Dwarves.  According to the Silmarillion the Dwarves were not created by Illuvatar but instead were the unsanctioned creation of Aulë, one of the Valar.  When Illuvatar spoke to Aulë about what he had done Aulë realized that what he had created weren’t independent beings but only shadows of himself, puppets.  Aulë was about to smash them when he saw that Illuvatar had turned them into living beings with souls of their own.  This makes the Dwarves sort of adoptive children of Illuvatar.  I believe they are like the Elves in being bound to Arda and under the authority of the Valar.  And they are odd in other ways and always seem to be at odds with the natural children of Illuvatar.  They are not naturally evil but the properties that Aulë endowed them with put them at odds with Men and Elves.

The Hobbits are sort of like nature spirits that inhabit English folklore like Puck or Robin Goodfellow but based on Tolkien’s characterization in his books I have to say I believe the Hobbits are human.  They are mortal and beside their stature they are in all ways human.  Maybe Tolkien intended to make them bound to Arda like the Elves and Dwarves but based on the Hobbits we meet I wouldn’t think they should be left out of human heaven.  They’re just too human.

In the Silmarillion Tolkien tells us that the Orcs were made by Morgoth by capturing Elves and corrupting them through his evil influence.  This always made me wonder then if Orcs also did not die of old age.  We are never shown any female Orcs which is probably a blessing but I assume they must exist.  The idea of a corrupted race is a little hard to understand theologically.  For instance, it seems possible that just by chance, an Orc might be born that wasn’t particularly evil.  And if he managed to escape the evil influence of his tribe might live a virtuous life.  I’ve heard people talk along these lines and mock the idea of “good Orcs” and based on what we see in the Lord of the Rings it does seem patently ridiculous but since Tolkien was a Christian writer, I’m sure he thought about that possibility.  Suffice it to say that no “good Orcs” ever show up anywhere in the Tolkien tests.

Dwarves and Elves are pretty standard creatures of Northern European folklore and Tolkien adapted as needed for his use but one of the most original characters that Tolkien place in his Middle Earth was the Ent.  They are the “Shepherds of the Trees.”  They resemble trees.  They are gigantic in size and have great physical strength.  Their ability to rend stone is compared to a much-accelerated version of the action that roots have for infiltrating and cracking stone that they come in contact with.  Ents also appear to live indefinitely unless killed by violence.  But they can become senescent and become completely tree-like.  It seems that the Ents must be another race of creatures like the Elves that are restricted to Arda forever.  But from their description in the Silmarillion, they are never described as Children of Illuvatar.  Possibly Tolkien never left any notes about the status of the Ents because he invented them later on than the Elves and Dwarves.  Whatever their place in the theology of Middle Earth Tolkien designed them with a distinctive and entertaining character.  They are extremely slow and methodical in their actions and extremely long winded in their method of speech.  They think of normal action by any other race as extremely hasty.  This must be to mimic the immobility and permanence of trees in the landscape.

And finally, the last of the other major peoples of Middle Earth are the Trolls.  Trolls are a well-known creature of legend but how Tolkien fits them into his creation is not well defined.  I can remember hearing the explanation that they were Ents that were twisted by Morgoth into evil creatures just as the Elves were turned into Orcs.  Honestly this seems singularly unconvincing.  There doesn’t seem to be much Ent-like character to Trolls.  But I haven’t heard any other explanation so I’ll just leave this as a loose end.  In addition to being evil the main character trait of Trolls seems to be stupidity.  But they are enormously strong and tough so they come in handy for war scenes when something special is needed.

Based on the status of the various races of speaking peoples in Middle Earth what it seems is that Tolkien has Christianized the folklore creatures of Norse mythology by giving them a place in the Genesis story of his world, Middle Earth.  It is not at all clear what the final status is of the Elves, Dwarves, Ents or even the Orcs and Trolls.  They seem to have souls like men and are judged on their deeds, good and evil.  But it is far from clear whether even the Elves can gain Paradise in this theology.  Instead, they seem to be permanently attached to sub-creation of the Valar, the Kingdom of Arda.  And that may be Tolkien’s intention.

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

 

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Christian. He was a member of an informal Christian writer’s society called The Inklings that also included the likes of his old friend C. S. Lewis. In fact, Lewis and Tolkien had planned to divide between them a project to write fantasy and science fiction stories with a Christian world view.  Tolkien decided his story would go back to an earlier time and Lewis decided to go into outer space.

Getting back to Tolkien, when he started writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, he was able to set it in a world for which he had long ago written the Genesis story.  All of this background was finally published after his death by his son Christopher as the Silmarillion.  In this pre-history we are told that God (or as Tolkien called him Eru (The One) or Illuvatar (Father of All)) created the angels (the Ainur which are divided between the archangels (Valar) and the lesser angels (Maiar)).  Then He created the Universe (Ea) and particularly our world (Arda) and allowed the Ainur to build out the place where His children, the Elves and Men, would live.  Some of those Ainur were loyal to Illuvatar and some were corrupted with the idea of power over lesser beings.  The chief of these renegades was Melkor, originally the most powerful Valar, the equivalent of Lucifer.  He leads the fallen Ainur against the Valar and is defeated.  Later on, he is thought rehabilitated and brought back into the fold by the leader of the Valar, Manwe.

The Valar are supposed to teach the children of Illuvatar about Him and help them reach their potential in goodness.  And they attempt to do this with the Elves, the firstborn of the two races.  They bring them into the Blessed Realm where the Valar live and teach them the knowledge that they possess.  But even in this Blessed Realm, Melkor plots to destroy the happiness of the Elves and Valar.  He destroys the Trees that give light to Arda and steals the jewels, the Silmarils of Feanor, that contain the light of the trees.  Feanor, who is the most powerful and proudest of the Elves, disobeys the command of Manwe and sails from the Blessed Realm back to Middle Earth to defeat Melkor (or as he now names him Morgoth, Black Enemy of the World) and regain the Silmarils.  For this rebellion all of the Elves and Men in Middle Earth are left to the nonexistent mercy of Morgoth.  Essentially, they fight without the help of the Valar.

And in this rebellion of the Elves against the Valar is the start of the downfall of the world of Elves and Men.  For when Men appear, they too are drawn into wars against Morgoth and in these wars they all are thoroughly defeated and immiserated by the powers of evil beings.  Finally, a representative of Elves and Men, Earendil sails back to the Blessed Realm and successfully begs the Valar to defeat Morgoth and allow the peoples of Middle Earth to reclaim their lives.  And this is done.  Morgoth is defeated and cast out of Arda forever.

But in time evil reappears in the person of Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron.  He pretends to mend his ways but instead corrupts some of the Elves with the lure of knowledge and power and teaches them to forge rings of power.  Then he creates the One Ring to rule all of these lesser rings and makes war on Men and Elves for the mastery of Middle Earth.  But he is defeated by the Numenoreans.  These are the descendants of the Men who fought against Morgoth in that earlier war and were rewarded with a great island home, Numenor, halfway between Middle Earth and the Blessed Realm.  They were also rewarded with a lifespan three times that of mortal men.  They come to Middle Earth with a great army and defeat Sauron and take him captive.  But Sauron corrupts his captors too.  Fear of death was always the weakness of the Numenoreans.  They were friends of the Elves but they envied their virtually endless lifespan.  When the King of Numenor began to feel the end of his life approaching he gave heed to Sauron who told him he could wrest eternal life from the Valar by conquering the Blessed Realm.  When he attempts this war, the Valar, rather than be forced to kill Illuvatar’s children themselves, call on Him to act directly.  Illuvatar alters the world to remove the Blessed Realm from the physical plane of the world.  In fact, instead of a flat plane, the Earth now becomes a spherical globe from which only ships with special dispensation can any longer sail to the blessed Realm.  But this power is still reserved to the Elves in Middle Earth.  When they grow weary of the mortal lands, they can sail off the western shore of Middle Earth and find their way to the Blessed Realm which is now considered the proper home for the Elves.

As part of this reshaping and as a direct punishment for their sin, Numenor sinks below the sea.  Only the Numenoreans that had settled in Middle Earth and a few ships of the faithful who were not party to the King’s blasphemy were able to escape the downfall.  It is this remnant along with the remaining Elves in Middle Earth who now have to deal with Sauron.  Because when Numenor sank he lost his material form but his spirit returned to Middle Earth and joining to the One Ring which he had left in Middle Earth he was able to reform his body and then renew his war against Elves and Men.  And once again Elves and Men were victorious against him, though at a terrible cost.  The Kings of the Elves and Men, Gil-galad and Elendil are slain by Sauron along with the remaining strength of the Elves.  But Elendil’s son Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, causing him to lose form again.  But Isildur refused to destroy the One Ring and it was lost in the Great River, Anduin.  And because it was not destroyed Sauron retuned and plagued Middle Earth until the time of the War of the Ring which is the subject matter of The Lord of the Rings.  And all down their long history the descendants of Elendil recreated the sins of their ancestors in Numenor and sought power and long life rather than wisdom and happiness.

Wow, that’s a long prologue.

If you look over that history what you’ll notice is that it parallels the Old Testament.  Of course, there are differences.  Fantasy elements like elves, and silmarils don’t occur in the Bible.  But you can find analogs for both types of angels, good and evil.  There is a flood sent to wipe out transgressors.  And the majority of the text describes a chosen people who forget their responsibilities and choose power and lust for earthly possession over wisdom and love.  And behind all of the misery stands Lucifer and his successful temptation of Adam and Eve.  And that is the basis for the story of Morgoth and Feanor and also the story of Sauron and the elven ringsmiths.  They were tempted by the lure of forbidden knowledge to trust the devil.

Tolkien wanted a fantasy history of the world that would allow him to incorporate the elves, goblins, dwarves and other creatures that inhabit European folklore.  But he wanted it to be a Christian universe.  And that is what he built.  In this world men must contend with a world in which evil is always present but can be defeated by the good people if they stand up against it and don’t allow the evil within themselves to corrupt their intentions.

And in the Lord of the Rings this can be seen in the fact that all of the greatest of the leaders of the good are afraid to even touch the Ring lest it corrupt them too.  It is only the simplest and least sophisticated of creatures, the hobbits, that can resist the ring the longest.

Casting this worldview behind the story allowed Tolkien the direction he needed to expand the Lord of the Rings into the epic length story it is.  In each of the chapters it is the challenge to ignite in each of the allies they meet, the determination to fight the evil no matter how impossible the odds may seem.  Often it is the simple hobbits declaring their simple-minded faith in doing the right thing that shames the sophisticated and jaded leaders who up until that point are almost relieved to surrender and allow evil to win the day.

And having the Christian framework behind the story also gives a sense of the familiar world that most of us have grown up with.  And also allows it to act as a contrast to the monstrous evil that Frodo and the other hobbits encounter.  So, although Tolkien’s story may resemble other fantasy worlds with respect to the creatures that inhabit it and the magic that exists, he has added a spiritual dimension that he believed would render the stories valid in a deeper sense.  From his point of view, they were in a sense true stories because they conveyed his understanding of how God interacted with mortals and angels in the actual world.  Interesting idea.

 

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 3 – The Various Races or Peoples of Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 1

Tonight, I was looking through my old posts to see if I had any unfinished series that I should continue on.  About three and a half years ago I wrote the first part of a review of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie series.  I called it “Tolkien: A Very, Very Long Story – Part 1 – On the Screen vs. the Mind’s Eye.”  That’s a good name for a review of the Jackson films.  But going over it, I realized that starting with the films would short circuit an enormous amount of material in the books that I would much rather discuss first.  So that is what I’m going to do.  When I get back to the movies, I’ll reference these posts on the books as a baseline for my opinions on Tolkien and his remarkable creation.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I read the Lord of the Rings over fifty years ago.  Over time some of my opinions of the work have changed somewhat.  But my enjoyment of the story remains intact.  The world building that Tolkien did provides the reader with depth and scope to enjoy the story on several levels.  There is the quest for the destruction of the Ring.  There is the story of Aragorn.  There is the fading of the elves and the other non-human beings.  There is the mission of the wizards.  There is the Shire.  And most of all there is the War of the Ring.  And under all these themes we have the panorama of Middle Earth.  The quaint Shire, the lonely wilds of Eriador, the harrowing heights and abysmal depths of the Misty Mountains.  The grassland of Rohan, the grandeur of Gondor and the shadowy horror of Mordor.  Tolkien brings all these things alive in our minds.  And he populates this world with a crowd of characters of all manner of creatures.  We have several kinds of men and we have several kinds of elves.  We have dwarves and hobbits.  There are wizards and orcs and trolls and ents.  There are undead creatures and intelligent animals of several types; wargs (a kind of wolf), eagles and even an ancient and giant spider.

All of these creatures, wizards, elves, dwarves and orcs are now common characters in all the fantasy books and movies around.  But people forget that Tolkien was the one who resurrected these creatures from fairy tales and returned them to the level of mythical creatures full of menace and wonder.  The Lord of the Rings was the template for every epic fantasy, both well-written or awful that has emerged in the last half century.  And not taking anything away from some well-crafted creations that some talented writers have produced, none of them has displaced Middle Earth as the touchstone of this particular type of fantasy world.  Because Middle Earth is the creation of a worldview that incorporates the myths of northwest Europe and imbues them with the moral philosophy inherited from medieval Christianity.  The Shire is Britain.  Rohan is the Germanic Tribes.  Gondor is the legendary Roman Empire, once spanning Middle Earth from Britain to the Near East now ceding territory to younger tribes and hedged in by Eastern and Southern foes.  Mordor is the infidel barbarism at the edges of the world.  Tolkien was a gifted philologist and historian of medieval Europe with a deep and wide knowledge of its literature and folklore.  And he was a devout Christian.

This re-imagining of European history with the non-human peoples and the angelic and demonic creatures that are analogs of Christian theology make a very powerful mythic background to fill out the story of Frodo and his friends.  And that is the point I want to make in this introduction.  In future installments I’ll give my thoughts on various aspects of Tolkien’s story.  Since they’re my opinions I won’t apologize if I commit any sins against the Tolkien orthodoxies.  I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a very long time so I feel I have the right to have my say.  But I also welcome comments both agreeing and disagreeing with my opinions.

 

The Lord of the Rings – A Book Review – Part 2 – Tolkien’s Creation Story