Sunday, November 03, 2013

Inspiration from Middle Earth

Where do people get their inspiration? I know where I get mine. Mostly from reading and to a lesser extent, movies (Since I first saw it as a child, Angels with Dirty Faces, a movie that features Cagney and Bogie and Pat O'Brien, still represents for me the epitome of courage). Little bit from poetry. On 1/22/08 I posted a collection of sayings, speeches, etc. that I found inspiring (My Devotional).

While I overwhelmingly prefer non-fiction in my reading choices and can barely read most fiction anymore, I have to admit that fiction inspires me quite a bit as well. Maybe more. I include mythology, which others might call religion, in that category. And, no doubt, within the realm of fiction I am inspired most powerfully by J.R.R. Tolkien's work, particularly the ever popular Lord of the Rings ("LOTR"). I've blogged the heck out of the books in the past, and so I will try not to repeat myself.

Yesterday, I was thinking a bit about LOTR and elements in it that inspire me in moments when . . . I can use a little inspiration. It is fine to do this, as Tolkien wanted his readers to interact and make their own connections. While it is often mentioned about him that he did not like allegory, it is less often stated why:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

 I presume a familiarity with LOTR here and will rarely explain who these characters are. Probably easiest to break it down character by character:

Aragorn - How can you not be inspired by him. He's mysterious, modest, knowledgeable and loyal to the death. He's a fighter, a romantic, a lover of nature and tradition and, for crying out loud, the king who returns to bring in an era of rejuvenation, security and peace. It is only in this last manifestation - the hereditary king - that we can find anything un-Aragornish about him at all. Tolkien was, no doubt, a royalist. The idea of a family ownership of a kingdom is repugnant to us now -- so medieval. But, this, of course, was Tolkien at his core. His mastery and love of Old English means he is deeply invested in the medieval period in which it was spoken and written. Kings were as normal to him as presidents are to us.

But, Tolkien was not a one trick pony. He was also a moralist and his history of Middle Earth is littered with kings who fell as a result of their own hubris. Most (but not all) dark things in middle earth have a connection to Sauron, who though not technically Middle Earth's Satan (that was Melkor or Morgoth) is his almost as powerful and equally evil assistant. Sauron could not even countenance the idea that someone might travel with the one ring to Mordor to destroy it, and left himself vulnerable. Théoden, in the end a courageous, if not entirely loveable, old warrior, is almost defeated at the Battle of Helm's Deep as a result of his over-confidence in the wisdom of his forefather's in creating the citadel and then his personal sense of depression and failure to his people when it is breached by tactics and knowledge beyond him. He is rescued not least by the inspiration of Aragon, in truth a far greater leader, but who easily, in his confidence, can serve others selflessly, including Théoden. And, of course, Denethor, the regent in diminished Gondor, far more learned and intelligent than Théoden, also succumbed to his arrogance in thinking he could wrestle with the Eye through the Palantir and becomes a shadow of his best self - almost as if he were a ring bearer. Even, Saruman, in a sense a wizard king - though Gandalf's nemesis, rather than Aragorn's - also fell by his jealousy and confidence that he too could handle Sauron by direct confrontation, and too fell under his sway. But, Aragon, in fact, was able to use the Palantir - the seeing stone - without falling under Sauron's sway. He may have been the heir of Ilsildur, but his ego rested on what he could do for others. He could in the same way resist, well enough, and knowing his limitations, taking the ring from Frodo, which allow him to act as a true protector.

Though bearing the burdens of a long life, Aragon undertook his heritage in the right manner - as a burden and a sacrifice, no doubt as a result of his early guidance by Elrond - and came into his kingdom and inheritance - not to mention Arwen - only when he proved he fully deserved it. His being an uncrowned king was secondary.

Tolkien said that LOTR was a most Catholic work and it was. When I think of Aragon, I am reminded of one of my favorite notions of the New Testament, found at least in the synoptic gospels (can't remember if in John and too lazy to look) - that he who shall be first, shall be last, and he would be greatest will serve the least of us. It is that kind of king that Tolkien would have Aragorn be. Ironically, it is this one scene that the movie version is superior to the sacred text. The film has Aragorn refuse to accept the four hobbits bowing down to him - surely the least of mortals in many senses, but particularly their diminutive size, and instead bows to them, along with all others. Tolkien missed the opportunity for something so dramatic and instead merely has Aragorn, acknowledging the labors of Gandalf and the indispensability of Frodo's sufferings, refuse to accept the crown before the hobbit brings it to the wizard, who in turn crowns the king. But, clear enough. Let he become king who recognizes his subservience to others.

In a world where those who score touchdowns do grandstanding dances and victorious politicians telling their adversaries - elections have consequences - they could all take a lesson from Aragorn.

Frodo - Perhaps I've already been heretical in treating Aragorn before Frodo. The last entry made this start to sound like a Christian blog and, but it is close to impossible for anyone who has any knowledge of Tolkien's Catholicism to read LOTR without noticing the Christ symbolism in Frodo. But, that is not where Frodo inspires me. For one thing, I think too much is made of the obvious Christ symbolism. Frodo surely had some sacrifice for humanity, but also hardly greater than that made by most of the characters in those dark times, especially those who left their homes to face powers far greater than their own and, unlike Frodo, didn't get to go to the everlasting lands, but were tortured or eaten or just plain slaughtered. More so to the contrary, unlike Christ, Frodo lived, got to go home, was celebrated by his friends and family and considered a hero. And yet, when faced with his final task - destroying the ring - he succumbed to the power of evil. Middle earth was not rescued by his virtues and sacrifices at the end, but by his greed and that of his counterpart - the more primitive and truly lost soul, the schizophrenic Sméagol - Gollum, who was literally the last ringbearer - to the very end. In another sense - the Ring/Sauron defeated itself.

And yet, it is in despite of his failure, we should find Frodo inspiring. I'm not just reaching for something ironic or dramatic to write. One criticism, fair or unfair, which Tolkien suffered, was that his characters were cardboard. In some aspects it is true. He and Tolkien scholars can defend it. I don't. But I defy anyone to tell me how recognizable cardboard characters make for bad writing. The use of archetypes in writing has always been useful and fun and often inspirational. But, defending Tolkien thus - it cannot be said of Frodo. He is at turns, brave, resolute, self-sacrificing and noble. At other times fearful (if never cringing), angry, foolish and ultimately, a failure who would be king - Sauron's Mini-me. But, it must be said, whatever is the nature of the One Ring and the secret ways of the Valar - the ringbearer must be vulnerable in this way. In every instance - with two exceptions I will get to later, the bearer is not up to the task, but is a vessel. Sauron we can't count, as he embodies the Ring, but Isildur, Déagol, Sméagol, Bilbo and Frodo all fell to its spell to some degree. This is no more than saying that power corrupts.

But, the mercurial Frodo is no less the hero because he is flawed. It simply makes him more human, perhaps the most human of all of those in Middle Earth with the exception of his mentor, Bilbo, whose quirky and very human eccentricities veil the fact that, for all of its considerable corrupting effect on him, he long resisted the ultimate power of the ring, the end of which is total degradation and slavery of the will.

Having become a double heretic here and written of the "saintly" Frodo in this less than worshipful way, he does inspire me, all the time. Certainly it was not in his failure and accidental success, but in his efforts on the way to it, his doggedness with no end in sight. There were any number of times in my life, when I had to stay awake and barely could, I channeled Frodo, thinking, he had it a lot worse - If he could make it to the Mountain of Doom, I can make it home/to work/through the day. Of course, (whining) I didn't have giant eagles to bear me home, but, leave that aside. Winged deus ex machina are very busy.

But, Frodo's appeal is hardly limited to me and I offer myself only as example. He is or could be an inspiration to every David facing a Goliath, to every Little Red Riding Hood against a wolf or Julie Miller facing the corporate giant (she won $18.4 million against a credit agency that refused to correct its mistakes). For giant eagles, frighteningly powerful wizard, mighty fellowship and hobbit allies or not, we have to take at face value that the Ring was Frodo's burden alone, just as sometimes we all have to face overwhelming odds where no comfort or succor from friends and family can quite help. In the end, even with Sam by his side, he had to do it by himself as he drifted deeper and deeper into the omni-isolating state of wraith, where all the other inhabitants are more evil than you can ever contemplate even on your worst day. And, cross it or not, aid or not, he got there. You have to think - Tolkien would want us to think - if he can do it, so can I.

Sam - You could make an argument that, indeed, in LOTR, he who was least was first.  In a very real way, Sam was the greatest of the great in LOTR, though he would be puzzled and embarrassed at the suggestion. He had no fighting skills or knowledge that would have normally gotten him into a counsel of the wise. But, he had the softer virtues in droves. Unconquerable spirit and kindness, a refusal to countenance evil, common sense, loyalty literally to the ends of the earth and the ability to survive even the dart of rejection by his closest friend. You could fault him for not seeing Gollum as Frodo did, but, in the end, who was wisest of the two?  It didn't hurt that he could cook. In the end, can we ever hope to have a more fulfilling life than by being as good a friend to someone as Sam was to Frodo. And, Tolkien rewarded him. He came home unhurt (though he nearly drowned), bearing confidence without swagger, still unassuming with a reverence for the commonplace as well as the great, always humble and eager to help and was respected by his friends and family (they elected him mayor over and over). He even bore a great psychic tragedy - his loss of Frodo to those deemed more worthy than him, whether they were or not.

And that is the trouble with Sam too - and why, if we had to choose a character to be, it would probably be Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas or maybe Tom Bombadil. Frodo seems less likely to me. He did get stabbed, after all, which kind of ruins the fun.  Few if any would choose loyal, unflinching Sam. Even the Ring, which seemed to be able to chose its own bearers, did not really choose him either. His encounter with it came from necessity.  His intentions were so good, his heart so pure, that even the one Ring could find no selfishness within him upon which it could take hold. Thus, of mortals, he alone could find then relinquish the ring as easily as he could skin a brace of coneys and returned it to Frodo, though he knew the pain it would cause him. He cannot be the hero because the villain would never choose him for its enemy. Not enough flaws.

Of course, Rosey Cotton loved him. And why not? He is entirely worthy of it. More so than any of the others except perhaps Aragorn.  But, he does not so easily inspire us.

In the end, the appendix hints that Sam passed over the sea to the Blessed Realm as well. As with Gimli, it is only hearsay. We do not know and doubt it. For if anyone ever belonged most to Middle Earth, it was Sam, unless it was one other - the only other being who could resist the ring.

Tom Bombadil - "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!" Poor Goldberry. That must have been tedious, even for a river nymph. But, nevertheless, we can't but help love Tom Bombadil. I wrote a long piece once about him on 7/17/07 - Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up, that is one of my own favorite posts (and yes, Bear, I am allowed to have my own favorite posts). But the focus here is inspiration. Tom is virtually all powerful, limited only spatially by the land that is his own domain and that little problem of carefree absentmindedness (the counsel members were actually afraid that he would misplace or forget the one ring if they gave it to him). Nevertheless, he was the most powerful being in Middle Earth, perhaps save Sauron. Tom too was unaffected by the One Ring for the same reason as Sam. There was no bad in him. Yet, where it is certainly noble in Sam, who is unblessed with what I'll here call super powers, for Tom it may be more so despite his supernatural powers. He could have been a Sauron himself, so godlike was he. He is not one of the Valar, but seems a special creation of Eru Ilúvatar, who stands in for God - capital G - for Tolkien, and is perhaps even their equal. Yet, we cannot say he chose otherwise. The alternative was not in him. Tom is master of himself and those in his domain, but he does not seek to dominate.

Can he be all that, so far above us, and yet inspirational? Only in one way. We can aspire, given any advantage - even a slight one that is realistic in our world, that we could be as good hearted and as selfless as Tom, as unthinking of personal gain or personal domination. One more thing. Tom, even more so than Sam, is the happiest being in Middle Earth. How does he do it? He never exceeds himself - and in that, he is master. Indeed, he seems such a happy stoic even Epictetus would approve.

Gandalf - If I went through all of the characters, this would be a book. But, I can't write a post on inspirational characters in LOTR and not at least have a little something on the big G. Gandalf was, as Tolkien once admitted, an angel, but that is not a surprise. The Maia, of whom he was one, were an angelic race that served the Valar, who were of a higher order. Assigned to Middle Earth to contend with Sauron, Gandalf, known in Valinor as Olórin, was initially afraid. Perhaps he always was later too, even as the grumpy if powerful old man that never showed any fear and roused men to great deeds.  But, we should not confuse the great power of the Gandalf the White, who returned from the dead, with that of Gandalf the Grey, whose powers seemed little more than those of a commonplace wizard and was treed by wargs and orcs in The Hobbit.

While it is the same Gandalf, it is not surprisingly the earlier grey version that is more inspiring. After all, he was sent to earth not to dominate men, but to inspire them to courage. This was no little feat and, frankly, not well planned. More than once he had to rely on other Maia to save him, like the eagles, or upon the Valar to reincarnate him after he fell in battle to yet another of his order, a balrog. A wizard and Maia though he be, It was not always that hard to defeat Gandalf the Grey. He needed artifice to rescue the dwarves and Bilbo from trolls, seemed almost cowed by the Bear-like Beorn, was imprisoned by Saruman and so on. But, his power was in his wisdom more than his staff. More than learning or wisdom, he relied on being a good judge of character and sought first and most to counsel courage. It doesn't hurt to be immortal and have the Valar on your side, of course. I've posted his quotes elsewhere, and you could probably google "Gandalf" and "quotes" and do as well, so I will not bother here. Instead, I will speak a little about Tolkien's ideal of courage.

No doubt, Tolkien understood courage. He fought in WWI and many of his friends died on the continent. Many, of course, faced that in the Great War. But, it is not his personal courage that is interesting, but what he called the Nordic theory of courage - that is, courage in the face of certain defeat. In Norse mythology, the gods new that they would indeed lose to the forces of evil at Ragnarok but carried on nonetheless.  This courage is encountered in many ways in LOTR. But, aside from individual cases, which I won't go through here, the entire theme of the story is captured by the idea of eventual loss of Tolkien's own world - the supernatural to the natural, the natural to the technological. Though Gandalf would defeat Saruman and Sauron, it is their world he saw coming. When the elves retreat from the world, it is the death knell of what is magical and natural in Middle Earth and the age of man - perhaps the historical world - is what is left to survive. The theme was wonderfully caught in the music, and most of all in the brilliant Into the West, written by Howard Shore and just as brilliantly performed by Annie Lenox. It is hard for me to listen to it without tearing up and I've seen it do the same to others.

I was going to skip the quotes, but I can't help but leave with one. But, first, let me take one from Tolkien's long time friend, C. S. Lewis, with which I think Tolkien would have agreed - "Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point."

Last then, Gandalf is speaking with a realistically terrified Frodo who wishes it all did not happen in his time. It's not that Gandalf is unsympathetic, but he gives the answer most likely to inspire:  "So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

It is worth repeating - So do all.


  1. For once, a blog about LOTR that contains your inferences from the work instead of a re-hash of the work itself. I will even forgive the self-referential writing, especially since you call it out yourself. Most well done, Frodo.

  2. I can't remember rehashing, but hard to argue with a compliment. Peace on you and your beard (it's just a dwarvish thing to say).

  3. Tom Bombadil was real??????


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .