I was planning on saving this for Friday and writing about libertarians and abortion today, but I’m currently in finals week and being short on time, I’ve decided to flip them for time.
This Friday a biopic of JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, will hit theaters. I am skeptical about the film, but it is hardly undeserved. Plenty of storytellers, JK Rowling, CS Lewis, George RR Martin, Stan Lee, George Lucas, have constructed fictional worlds that are remarkably insightful and immersive. But Tolkien remains in a class of his own, a genius without par.
Tolkien’s universe has been on my mind a lot during the past couple of weeks. Walking out of Avengers: Endgame, I was inevitably comparing it to the finale of the greatest movie trilogy of all time, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. And as good as Endgame was, (you can read the full review here), there was something about Lord of the Rings that just makes it a much richer experience than Endgame. As epic as Endgame was, it has nothing on Return of the King.
Two days after I saw Endgame, Game of Thrones gave us the Battle of Winterfell. Now, I don’t watch Thrones, but I read the first four books and keep up with the show online. As much as I love the Song of Ice and Fire books, there is something about them too that doesn’t quite compare to Lord of the Rings. I was cruising Twitter in the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell and I saw a tweet from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat which got me thinking as to why the grandeur of Lord of the Rings is seemingly unmatchable.
When you are constructing a fictional universe, you have a couple of options. What most often happens (this is what often happens in superhero movies), is that you create a world of black and white characters where larger moral concerns are for the most part ignored. You root for the Avengers to beat Thanos because they are the good guys and Thanos is the bad guy, roles that are set in stone and never come into question. Evil as a concept greater than Thanos is never in the picture.
Another route, we will call this the Game of Thrones route, is you create a morally gray world filled with morally gray characters. There is no real reason why Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, or even Cersei Lannister ought not to be the one on the Iron Throne. Who you are rooting for is largely a subjective choice. As Renly Baratheon tells his older brother Stannis, in Westeros the entire idea of “right” is a shorthand for who has the best army and the strongest sword. Later in the story, Littlefinger dismisses the realm, the gods, even love as illusions. The only thing that matters is the climb out of chaos into power.
Or you can take a third and much more challenging option. You can create a world of moral black and white, where good and evil are defined and exist outside of any particular character, while gray characters move between the two. Harry Potter comes close to doing this, as does the original Star Wars trilogy.
But it is Lord of the Rings where this concept is developed fully. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Boromir trying to take the ring from Frodo, Saruman being led astray, Théoden’s sedation by Saruman, Denethor falling to despair as Sauron’s armies surround Minas Tirith, or Frodo taking the Ring as his own in Mount Doom. The heroes struggle with their own moral weakness as they are suffocated by the evil around them and often they wilt under the pressure.
Sauron is not a fleshed out villain like Thanos, Voldemort, Darth Vader, or the Night King. He’s literally just a giant eye floating atop a tower. But evil in the Lord of the Rings feels so much more pressing and real than it does in anything else I have read or seen. That’s because evil in Tolkien’s world is a deeply personal thing. The conflict between good and evil in Middle Earth is not a battle fought with dragons, lightsabers, or an infinity gauntlet. It is a battle in the heart. Evil is not just in the army of orcs our heroes fight before the black gate, evil is in Frodo as he wrestles with casting the ring of power into Mount Doom. Tolkien’s world brings to life what Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in the Gulag Archipelago, “the line separating good and evil passes…through every human heart and through all human hearts.”
No one will ever carry the one ring into the heart of Mordor. But we will all deal with the moral anguish and abandonment of having to rise to problems we feel totally incapable of taking on. In that place, the simple world of the Avengers or the nihilism of Westeros can’t help us. We need to make the hard choice, and it needs to be the right choice, especially when it incredibly easy to do nothing or fall to temptation. In that place, we find Middle Earth.
To mirror our own reality, the characters in a fantasy world need to wrestle with the evil within themselves. No one did that better than Tolkien, which is why despite the orcs, elves, and Nazgul, the struggles of the Fellowship are deeply relatable, and it is what makes their eventual victory triumphant without equal, not rivaled by even the best Game of Thrones or the Avengers have to offer.