I’ve been thinking about Lord of the Rings a lot again recently. The twentieth anniversary of the Fellowship of the Rings movie adaptation having passed a few months ago, we’re coming up on the 85th birthday this year of the Hobbit, and the 68th birthday of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring. I generally re-read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings every couple of years but recently they have been growing on my mind more and more often as I get older, and as I work on my own writing, wondering where the success of LOTR really stems from.
It would be easy to write LOTR’s continued popularity off as nostalgia as it was the first epic fantasy saga many of us were exposed to. In all honesty, The Hobbit was the first older-level book I read on my own as a kid as it made me want to read more than anything my teachers tried to give me that was “easier” and “suitable based on test scores.”
We know nostalgia plays well with the masses, and indeed at its core LOTR and the Hobbit are stories about a world that is changing and a nostalgic wish for better times like what many of us experience.
But I don’t see it as nostalgia alone that drives the popularity of the story. I think in my exposure there are two themes that make LOTR stand out over its contemporaries and all of those who followed in its footsteps.
The first thing that LOTR does almost immediately better than other fantasy stories from the same time period, Narnia, Conan, etc. is it gives us a view of masculinity that is strong yet gentle. There is a great distinction in how Tolkien went about showing the relationship between the members of the Fellowship, and the relationship between the dwarves and Bilbo that his fellow Inklings seemed to have shy’d away from. We see in multiple scenes of LOTR moments where Aragorn, Boromir, Faramir, etc will openly weep in sorrow, frustration, and joy. Aragorn kisses Boromir’s brow and it is not taken as some sissy act, but one of the most powerful moments in the books when Aragorn essentially blesses and forgives Boromir’s faults and declares him a hero, promising to save Gondor.
Take this in contrast to Lewis’ Prince Caspian where there’s a moment when Peter kisses the brow of Trufflehunter the badger who remained loyal to the idea of King Peter when others had dismissed him as a long-forgotten myth. Lewis immediately clarifies this kiss with the line “it wasn’t a girlish thing for him to do, because he was the High King.” It cheapens the moment by saying that Kings can do as they please but for others, it would be girlish as if that is a bad thing. Lewis feels he has to defend an endearing moment by backing it up with a title, whereas Tolkien lets the actions of his characters define what is appropriate without judgment of gender roles.
Similarly, in the Hobbit, we see the dwarves’ initial reaction to the soft gentle Bilbo is contempt. In many ways reflecting the attitudes, we see in modern “masculine” society in regards to men who are not “alphas”, and yet by the end of the story it is the very un-“alpha” like Bilbo who makes the others respect his ways and his desire for peace and friend to be shown to be more important than a mountain of gold, which Thorin recognizes at the end. In many ways, I believe Tolkien saw toxic masculinity in his time and pushed back against it. He chooses his chief heroes, Bilbo and Sam, and makes them kind gentle souls who would rather spend a day in the garden with flowers and having a good meal than go off doing “manly man” things and do it because it has to be done, rather than for the excitement of war. So many men and boys are taught not to cry, not to show emotions, but LOTR gives us male heroes who can cry. We see male heroes who are friends, not lovers or gay allegories, but men who generally just enjoy each other’s company and are loyal to each other, without worrying about what others might think of their relationship. I don’t think Tolkien had any intention of his works being gay allegories, and to be honest, I would suspect that for all the good he did he would be horrified at the notion, he was after all still a product of his time and is not the gold standard of modern progressive values. But it’s okay to see the relevance in an author’s work they didn’t intend and relate to those moments as you need.
The other thing that makes LOTR stay in our minds is that it tugs at an emotion that I find is most relatable to all of us: Sad. Aragorn foreshadows this at Weathertop when he tells the hobbits the story Tinúviel (Lúthien), and he starts it by saying (paraphrased because I can’t find my copy of Fellowship right now): “Like all stories of Middle Earth it is sad”. It is a sad tale, but all of the tales are tragic in their own right. Even when the heroes win they lose much. In The Hobbit they retake the mountain and defeat their chief enemy Smog, but Thorin and his cousins still fall in at the Battle of the Five armies. Later we learn that Balin, Ori, and Óin perished in Moria. Gimili also notes on the quest that with the Elves leaving Middle Earth it will be less fair with all the “Fair Folk” gone, hinting that they are attempting to save a world that is still going to be greatly diminished even in victory. All of LOTR is full of bittersweet victories as the ages of the world change. Middle Earth, in Tolkien’s mind, was connected to our own Earth, a time before the rise of human civilization, and that this time we live in is a result of the age of man finally coming unto its own. As such he looked at the world he lived in where the age of great empires, colonialism, and the strength of a European-dominated world was being ground up in the horrific atrocities of two world wars, and whether he wanted it or not, created Middle Earth as a mirror of our own sorrow. Lord of The Rings tells us that the world is dark and sad, that things change and we lose much in the time of change, and yet there is still hope, there is still some good in the world and it’s worth fighting for, as one S. Gamgee might but put.
I think that’s why we can go back to Lord of the Rings time and time again, not because it is a tale that gives us a happy ending or everyone turns out alright in the end. Everyone is scarred, Frodo never recovers from his wounds, physical and mental, and cannot find peace in the Shire. Gimili cannot find peace either once he has seen the beauty of Galadriel and risks everything to be the only dwarf to try and enter Valinor/Aman. Legolas hears the cry of the seagulls and is himself pulled to the sea to sail to Valinor, finding no comfort in his beloved forests. Mary and Pippin also leave the Shire to live out their days in Rohin, Gondor, and even Sam leaves for Valinor at the end. In the end each of them drifts away from the lives they loved and fought so hard to save because they couldn’t stay there. Their experiences were too much, and you end up feeling sad that they cannot enjoy the peace they fought so hard to secure. The world is saved, but at great cost, not the least of which is the price of the trauma suffered by all of them in doing so. As we sit here in our own world, as it changes around us with great uncertain on the horizon, with wars and civil unrest clawing at the edges of the fragile countries we created, LOTR tells us that there will be dark times, there will be sorrow, but that there is some hope that we can get through it if we are willing to pay the cost to achieve that hope.