Tolkien and terror

A tale of good and evil battling under the dark cloud of fear, Tolkien's masterpiece resonates with a wisdom that our recent horror allows us to understand.

Topics: J.R.R. Tolkien, Books,

Tolkien and terror

In one of those odd zeitgeisty moments, when one finds oneself a creature of the culture without even trying, I picked up J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” recently, for the moment forgetting about the three-movie hobbit extravaganza about to be visited upon us. I found one of the three volumes on a shelf and wondered what I’d think of it now. I’d loved it when I had read it before, in the flower power era. I ended up reading the entire work, all 1,000 pages.

It surprised me. I am not a fantasy buff. My friend Harry simply said he would never read a book that long that had elves in it, and I had to agree. But what I recalled about the book and what I found still true was that it was scary. Evil flying things cast shadows of despair across the land, and these things, the Nazgul, still had a potency that got me through dozens of pages of elves and dwarfs.

The book has its other points. Tolkien was a serious and learned scholar of Anglo-Saxon myth and language, and an Oxford Don, and this, his life’s work, remains monumental and beautifully written, if seriously eccentric. As amazing as ever is the minutely detailed geography of Middle-earth, as well as the fully foliated language system for each of the various races in it. Tolkien the philologist wrote that the book was “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration,” a story written to provide a world for his invented languages.

There is, it hardly needs to be said, no sex on any of the thousand pages of the work. Hobbits seem to procreate through poetry. Tolkien was a devout Catholic born in the 19th century and was Victorian about matters sexual. In a letter advising his son he wrote, “The hard spirit of concupiscence has walked down every street and sat leering in every house since Adam fell.”

But never mind that. The book is still scary, in some ways scarier than when I last read it. What surprised me about the novel is how current it seemed. For Tolkien’s book is a story of war, and its theme is one we’ve heard a lot about recently: the nature and power of evil. This work of hobbits and elves and wizards, innocence and far-sightedness and magic, is all about terror, it turns out, and about the difficulty of countering evil deeds.



The dark days of 2001 are more like the days in which Tolkien wrote the book than any since. The first of the three volumes of “The Lord of the Rings” appeared in 1954. Tolkien began the work in 1938 and wrote it throughout World War II. And though he discouraged readers from reading any “‘allegory,’ moral, political or contemporary,” into the work, it’s clearly the product of war years and dire times, no less so than Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, with which it shares the fantasy of total victory, the quest of the doughty individual hero against an unredeemable enemy and an obsession with magical technology, if not sexual conquest.

“The Lord of the Rings” is a war story; more particularly it is story of grim war coming to an innocent country, the Shire, the home of the race called hobbits. Short and furry-footed, hobbits are unmistakably English, tidy homebodies, natives of “a well-tended region,” colloquial connoisseurs of a good smoke and a good brew.

What the hobbits do best, though, is make foils for the evil characters, bad guys still perfectly terrifying and memorable. Sauron, Tolkien’s arch villain, embodies absolute evil, and never appears in person in the book. Both near and far, everywhere and nowhere, the Dark Lord Sauron in his tower in Mordor controls things from a distance, watching events through his “seeing stone” and emitting clouds of smoke and stinking ash to cover the movements of his armies and his emissaries.

The principal thrill of the book still comes from the fearsomeness of Sauron’s black-cloaked outriders, the Nazgul, hooded phantoms sent into the far reaches of Middle-earth to do his will. The scariness of these emissaries themselves also arises from their indefiniteness. Beneath their dark mantles, they have no expressions — only a deadly gleaming pair of eyes.

We hear about these Black Riders before we meet them — always good practice in presenting a villain (“Hissed at me, he did,” reports the Gaffer. “It gave me quite a shudder.”) — and they first appear on horses, pursuing the little hobbits through the woods of the Shire. Part of the terror of the riders comes from their presentation through the eyes of the hobbits, who besides being innocent and ignorant of the evil in the larger world, are only 4 feet tall. When we first glimpse one of these Black Riders we peer up at them from the undergrowth. “Only his boots in the high stirrups showed below,” writes Tolkien. “His face was shadowed and invisible.”

In later chapters, the Nazgul appear in the air, riding huge flying creatures like pterodactyls. “Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh.” The potency of these evil messengers comes not from physical strength or acts of violence but from their psychological impact on their foes. They spread paralyzing terror. Ordinary mortals fling themselves to the ground when the Nazgul pass unseen overheard and think “no more of war, but only of hiding and crawling, and of death.”

But however scary these creations, evil entirely evil and evil entirely other is ultimately neither nuanced nor very interesting and is of course a staple of melodrama, not great art. What makes “The Lord of the Rings” work now, in this time when villains entirely evil and entirely other are often invoked, is that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is deeper than that. Tolkien complicates the over-simple moral scheme and gives evil its due.

For the evil in Middle-earth does not simply reside in Sauron and his emissaries. It enters every character, and indeed infects the hero. The central object in “The Lord of the Rings,” the magic ring, stolen from the wretched Gollum by the hobbit Bilbo and given to his nephew Frodo in the books that follow, makes its wearer invisible and confers other powers, but it is ultimately an evil thing, having been created in the first place by Sauron. It must be destroyed, by tossing it into the volcano in which it was forged. This is Frodo’s quest.

But all who come in contact with the ring — high and low, hobbits and men — are corrupted by it. Under its influence, the wizard Saruman, who once led the Council opposing Sauron, turns traitor to the cause. A member of the Fellowship of the Ring itself, a man of Gondor named Boromir, cannot withstand the temptation to power that the ring offers, and his treachery dissolves the company that undertakes the quest.

So Frodo and his faithful servant Sam must go on alone. But even the hobbits are not immune, and Frodo himself fails, finally, in his quest. He cannot relinquish the ring of power in the ultimate moment. “I will not do this deed,” he cries on the brink of the volcano. “The ring is mine.” And so there is not finally in Middle-earth an absolute good to counteract its absolute evil. Tolkien writes expressly about this in his letters. “The power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures,” he notes, “however ‘good.’”

Does the irresistible power of evil then make the hero’s quest futile? No — the hero’s effort is necessary but not sufficient. Tolkien’s other insight is that evil itself will take evil down. For one thing, evil offers no basis on which to organize anything. In Book 5, when Frodo is taken captive by evil Orcs, he is liberated not just by Sam’s rescue, but by the Orcs themselves, who fight over the spoils and kill each other off. And evil lacks clarity. The smokes and vapors that the Dark Lord sends out of Mordor, to cloak his armies’ movements, are finally the cover that Sam and Frodo need to infiltrate the evil realm.

In the end, it is the greed of Gollum, not the virtue of Frodo, that casts the ring to its destruction. One might even say that the ring annihilates itself, as Gollum’s consuming desire is one effect of its evil power over him. On the brink of the volcano, Gollum attacks Frodo, severs his finger and recovers the ring at last, but when he lifts his eyes to gloat on his “precious,” he falls into the cauldron, where it and he are destroyed.

So this hobbit book, on the surface an escapist fairy tale, in the end offers some wisdom, and for this reason it has flourished for 50 years and in 50 million copies. “The Lord of the Rings” addresses the ancient crisis that arises in a dire time like this one, when it is not so much what we do to confront evil that wins the day, but what we must refrain from doing.

Jim Paul is a writer who lives in the Mission District of San Francisco. His books include "Catapult" and "Medieval in L.A."

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