How Can The Lord of the Rings Books Inspire Us to Lead Better Lives?
By Hannah Smith, Legends Report Writer
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
– J. R. R. Tolkien
It is safe to say that there aren’t many literary figures from the last century that have left more of a mark on the fantasy genre than J. R. R. Tolkien. His works are known throughout the world and occupy a special place in the hearts of many, whether they are simply fans of the Peter Jackson movies or die-hard connoisseurs of the mythos that Tolkien spent his life composing. My own life has been impacted by his work, and since rereading The Lord of the Rings last year I have found inspiration from many roots in his stories. Not only has his complete commitment to his world, with its many cultures, languages and landscapes, inspired me to delve into my own fantasy writing; but I also appreciate and have found comfort in the themes that Tolkien prioritised when composing his work.
I was ten the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, and admittedly, a lot of it went over my head. I loved the rich descriptions of nature and the grandiose depictions of battle and warfare, and it was exciting to discover the same scenes play out that were in the Peter Jackson films, which I watched as a child before reading the books. However, upon rereading the books as an adult, I was far more struck by the themes of humility, kindness, mercy and hope that ultimately drove the plot and its characters.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a successful man in many ways: he had a more than successful career not only in his fiction writing but also as a linguist and professor. He had a committed and treasured marriage with the woman he loved, found comfort in his religion, and this is all aside from his status as the ‘father of modern fiction.' However, Tolkien suffered many hardships in his life. He was orphaned at the age of twelve and, like many others, suffered physically and psychologically as a soldier in the First World War. On many levels, his tales of Middle Earth and the larger world of Arda, are a means for him to comment on war, peace, and the qualities we should strive to embody as human beings.
In light of the new ‘Rings of Power’ Amazon Prime series being currently released, based on stories from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I wanted to talk about the central themes I found most impacting in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and what they can teach us about becoming better people. I will mostly talk about The Lord of the Rings books, rather than the film adaptations, as they have been the most impactful in my adult life so far.
War and Violence – The Importance of Faramir
"War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend."
– J. R. R. Tolkien
As mentioned above, Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier in the First World War greatly influenced his portrayal of violence in The Lord of the Rings. For a book about a war between good and evil with the fate of the world at hand, the portrayal of war is very nuanced. It is easy to get caught up in the action of The Lord of the Rings, especially in light of the Jackson film adaptations, which emphasise the glory of battle and victory that Aragorn and the rest of our heroes partake in. The Lord of the Rings book views the fighting through the eyes of the various characters and how they are affected, rather than focusing on the action of the various battles that occur, Tolkien was enlisted as a lieutenant in World War One and notably partook in the Battle of the Somme. However, due to contracting Trench Fever, he was shipped back to England and deemed unfit to serve in the army. His fellow soldiers who remained, including many of his childhood friends, never returned home.
It is clear when reading The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien’s experience of war greatly impacted its portrayal in the text. I believe his view on war is mostly encapsulated in the character of Faramir, a man from Gondor who appears in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, brother of Fellowship member Boromir. He discovers Frodo and Samwise during their journey to Mordor and plays a much different role in the books than in the film. He values education and diplomacy and ultimately is one of the only characters to have no interest in the Ring and the power it could give him. The Ring is ultimately a symbol of violence, hatred and a desire to hold power over others. Although Faramir doesn’t spend long in the presence of the Ring, he makes it clear that he does not value it:
"I do not wish to see it [the Ring], or touch it, or know more of it than I know, [...] lest peril perchance waylay me"
– J. R. R. Tolkien
Faramir expresses the wisdom to not even ask to see the Ring, just in case. Although he has an awareness of how it could be used as a weapon by his kingdom, he knows it would ultimately fulfil its evil purposes through manipulation and a desire for power. Faramir comes from the realm of Gondor, which is suffering heavily from attacks by enemy forces and is close to falling altogether. His brother, Boromir, fell under the influence of the Ring as he believed he could save his people with it, a pressure that lay over him throughout the entire Fellowship of the Ring book, and ultimately led to his downfall. Despite Faramir feeling the same pressures to protect his people as his brother, he has the wisdom to decline any contact with the Ring, knowing that using it would only lead to more violence.
Unlike his brother, the headstrong and battle-ready Boromir, played by Sean Bean in the films, Faramir is unwilling to resort to violence unless he has to:
"I do not slay man or beast needlessly, and not gladly even when it is needed."
– J.R. R. Tolkien
In my opinion, Faramir is such an important character in the books because he emphasises the importance of prioritising peace and pacifism, if possible. Tolkien expresses that sometimes war is necessary to protect the things you love, but that he finds no pleasure in the act of violence. Sometimes it is hard to remember, especially in the present we are all living where war is affecting so many innocent people, that the necessary evil of violence is a sad reality that we never face willingly.
I am lucky to not directly suffer from any of the current hardships caused by a war that some people are struggling with, and I know that these conflicts are some people's reality. I do not want to take this subject lightly by comparing it to a work of fiction. For a lot of people, fighting back is not a choice. I find Faramir inspiring because when he does have the choice, he does not resort to violence. I admire the character of Faramir because of his integrity and willingness to find a way of resolving a situation without fighting, despite the glory he could be awarded if he did. He reminds me that in most situations I can resolve unrest in my life in a way that maintains my values and morality without causing unnecessary conflict.
Another inspiring instance of Tolkien’s character is that he was unwilling to enlist as a soldier in World War One until he had completed his studies at Oxford University, to the scorn and disapproval of his family and friends. I found it particularly inspiring that Tolkien did not bow to the social pressures of enlisting until he was ready to, which shows a particular strength of character that I think a lot of us don’t allow ourselves to have.
"A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it."
– J. R. R. Tolkien
A ‘Moral Failure’ – Destroying the Ring
Near the end of The Return of the King, after a journey of hardship and suffering, Frodo gives into the will of the Ring and resolves to keep it for himself. At a first glance, despite how far he came, at the last minute, he failed in his quest to destroy the Ring. I always felt confused that Tolkien decided on this plot point, apart from the obvious drama that it would add to the climax of the story. I felt from my first read as a child that it was a fairly pessimistic perspective, that good will always succumb to evil in the end. However, upon my second read, I discovered a much more inspiring message in Frodo’s failure.
Frodo is not a classic hero in this story, he is a normal Hobbit who offered to fulfil a seemingly impossible task. Sometimes it is easy to forget an individual's accomplishments when they encounter some sort of failure, just as Frodo being unable to destroy the Ring overshadows the fact that he managed to travel all the way to the final point of his quest and endure the hardships that he did. It is this shortcoming of Frodo that makes him all the more relatable and inspiring.
When asked about Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien said that he didn’t perceive it as a failure:
‘I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under the demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been’
– J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien enforces the idea that Frodo was pushed as far as he could possibly go under the effect of the Ring. He endured beyond the limit that any character in Tolkien’s universe could handle with the months of physical and mental torture that he had gone through. Frodo had in fact achieved more than was ever expected of him given the circumstances and should not be considered a failure because he was unable to withstand the pull of the ring for any longer.
Recontextualising the ‘failure’ of Frodo can help us to take note of the nuances of the times that we ourselves have fallen short of a goal and chose to place significance on that, instead of the journey we overcame beforehand. Life is tough and sometimes we are pushed to our limits. Although we may not be carrying an evil ring across a distance that spans half of Europe, we are undergoing our own personal challenges that are testing our limits. Sometimes we cannot achieve everything at once when we are pushed to the extreme of what we can handle, and we should not punish ourselves for it. Through the character of Frodo, Tolkien teaches us that we should focus on trying as hard as we can, despite the possibility that we may not achieve everything we set out to do. Frodo undertakes the impossible task of destroying the Ring so that the things he cares for and values are saved from evil persevering and so do we try the hardest we can so that the people and values we care for are protected and upheld.
Tolkien expresses the values that he upholds in Frodo’s character as the key reason that his quest did not end in true failure of character at the end of Lord of the Rings:
"Frodo undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task. His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed."
– J. R. R. Tolkien
It is Frodo’s strength of character that makes his story inspiring, not an end goal of success that he could achieve at the end of the story. This is what makes his character so inspiring in the books. He may not be a hero that can use a sword well or who can exercise perfect mental willpower in the most extreme circumstances. Instead, he is a well-meaning‘ moral hero’ who wants to save his world by destroying the Ring and wants to get as far as he can with this mission by doing it the right way and maintaining his own beliefs and morals.
Always Be Kind, Even if You Can Do Nothing Else
"Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."
– The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Following on from the discussion of Frodo’s ‘failure’, or lack thereof, it is important to remember why the quest was fulfilled and why the Ring was destroyed despite Frodo claiming it for his own.
It is Gollum who ultimately sealed the fate of the Ring. It is he who took the Ring from Frodo (and his finger along with it) and ended up falling into the Cracks of Doom. It makes sense to see that as another show of the Rings's power and its ability to manipulate all, that just went wrong. However, Gollum being present to take the Ring and enable its destruction is all because of the kindness and mercy that Frodo was willing to show earlier on in the story.
Frodo and Gollum are established early on in their relationship as mirrors of one another to an extent. They are both ‘Ring bearers’ who have been intrinsically changed by possessing the One Ring. Gollum is kind of like a dark shadow of Frodo. He is sneaky and violent, whereas Frodo is kind, brave and willing to sacrifice himself if necessary to complete the quest. However, Gollum is also a warning to Frodo of what he could become under the influence of the Ring and he pities him for that reason, inspired by the wisdom of Gandalf at the beginning of the books:
‘Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. [...] There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark’
– J. R. R. Tolkien
It is through the treatment of Gollum that Tolkien expresses his most revered and essential quality that he believed all should aim towards: to express mercy and pity towards others, to understand the reasons they act the way they do, and if possible, to treat them with kindness and understanding. If Frodo, and Bilbo before him, had not treated Gollum with pity and allowed his survival, the Ring would never have been destroyed. Even Samwise, who for most of the journey expressed distrust towards Gollum, was merciful towards him towards the end of the books:
‘It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his [Sams] heart, there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little whilst, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shrivelled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again.’ – J. R. R. Tolkien
This instance occurs after Sam spends a short time in possession of the Ring and the short period of mental strain that he underwent allowed him to express pity that he otherwise wanted to withhold from Gollum. Again, it is his willingness to spare Gollum that allowed the quest to destroy the Ring to ultimately be successful.
This is one of the key themes of The Lord of the Rings that has truly inspired me throughout my life. It is so easy to shut ourselves off from people and to give back the negativity that we are given from others. It is important to set boundaries with others and not allow ourselves to be mistreated in our relationships, but it is also important to try to understand why people may be mistreating us. If we try to be kind to others and pity their struggles, perhaps we can ultimately affect their lives and our own in a positive way.
"It is useless to meet revenge with revenge; it will heal nothing."
– J. R. R. Tolkien
"Oft hope is born when all is forlorn."
– J. R. R. Tolkien
We all go through our own external and internal struggles, and I can only speak on behalf of my own life and experiences. I was incredibly lucky as a child that I was able to innocently act out my own imaginings of the glorious side of Tolkien's worlds and stories, and the iconic deeds of my favourite characters. I had the sort of childhood where I was able to wave around a toy sword and pretend I was a warrior, without ever having to face the reality of what real people who fight in wars have to go through. Since I have reached adulthood, a great deal of my optimism about the world and the inherent ‘goodness’ of people has diminished. It is so easy to resign to the fact that we live in an evil world and there isn’t much we can do to change that. On a larger scale, I see these wars and disasters play out over the news and can only try and empathise with the people who have had their lives turned upside down because of it. On a smaller scale, I see the people I am closest to fall into the fog of poor mental health, directionlessness, of pessimism regarding their financial stability and their happiness and fulfilment in what they are doing.
In Tolkien’s world, he personifies these feelings as the ‘Shadow’, something that has existed since the creation of Middle Earth and the wider world of Arda, as explained in the Silmarillion. The Shadow is a culmination of fear, hopelessness, greed, desperation and self-preservation. It makes the race of Men afraid to die, it causes elves to kill their own families. In The Lord of the Rings, it is personified as a literal shadowy storm that covers Mordor and spreads plague to the nearby realm of Gondor. Tolkien makes it clear that while life exists, this Shadow will exist as well, but it is the choice of the people in Middle Earth whether they feed its power or not.
"Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach."
– J. R. R. Tolkien
As an adult, I believe that the most enduring theme of The Lord of the Rings is to keep hoping for a better time, and if we do that, even the smallest and most unassuming of people can make the world a better place. Even mighty characters such as Gandalf and Aragorn are led by their humility and kindness, and it is this that defines them as heroic characters over their power and prowess in battle. The act that definitively causes the destruction of the Ring is the acts of mercy by the Hobbit characters. Literally, kindness and the willingness to see good in all creatures are what leads good to win over evil in this story.
When I am faced with troubling times in my life and in the wider world around me, I turn to these sentiments in The Lord of the Rings to help me remember that there is always a small shred of hope to look towards, in order to keep me going. It is hard to keep going, and for people who are currently suffering through wars and poverty, it may not be enough entirely to remain hopeful. But by staying hopeful, we are keeping the so-called Shadow away from our hearts and thoughts.
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