Lord of the Rings came to the silver screen when I was in the eighth grade. I saw each one in theaters, though none of the films inspired me to read the books immediately (it would have distracted me from whatever other completely unimportant thing I was doing at the time). It wasn’t until this past December that I picked up the trade paperbacks at 2nd & Charles and resolved to read them this year.
Blah blah blah…can’t wait to own the hardbacks…why did I wait so long…blah blah blah…
So, in case you’ve been living under a rock, LOTR is a three-part epic fantasy which details of one hobbit named Frodo Baggins, tasked with carrying the One Ring of Power to Mordor to destroy the great and evil Sauron once and for all so that all of Middle Earth can live in peace. There’s lots of other things that happen too; I just don’t feel like summarizing them. The Fellowship of the Ring is the first book of the three, building off the events of The Hobbit and setting the stage for Frodo’s quest to the destroy the Ring.
I feel no need to comment on the style here; it’s a fantasy book, so it’s full of medieval language and more proclamations of Alas! than you can wave a scimitar at. I also don’t really feel the need to elaborate on the fact that Tolkien basically set the standards for fantasy as a whole; there’s not a fantasy writer in this world that hasn’t been influenced by Tolkien’s works, and it’s easy to see why. When you create your own universe, including your own languages and your own race (Orcs), it’s hard to not be influenced by it (and there’s no shame in it, either).
Bottom line, if you’re a reader in any way, it’s hard to imagine someone reading this and NOT liking it, aside for just not being a fantasy fan. It’s a classic for a reason. It’s the second bestselling book ever, behind Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (of all things…), and it invokes a deep sense of adventure and excitement in the reader. It makes me want to go out, slay dragons and orcs, and see the world. I loved reading this, I imagine I will enjoy the rest of it, and I will pass it on to my kids one day, hopefully in the form of a first-edition (if I can get my hands on a set).
However, there’s a certain confusion I feel when I read this in regard to the 21st century…let me attempt to articulate this as best I can. GK Chesterton once said this of fantasy…
Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.
LOTR is no exception here. Here, evil is easily identified, and evil can be beaten, even by a small halfling carrying a ring to a fiery mountain in a dark land. I think no truer words have been spoken about fairy tales, and they’re why we NEED fairy tales i our world today.
What I think is harder to identify, however, is where the dragon is that needs slaying.
Tolkien wrote these stories before and during WWII. In this time, the world had a common enemy in the Axis powers and their desire to rule the world. The Allies came together to do battle with the Enemy and slew the dragon for all to see. America takes most of the credit for this; but what happens when you defeat a monster, and suddenly become obsessed with making sure no other monsters raise their heads?
This isn’t a rant about the USA being a monster, just a reflection on how muddy the waters have become at identifying evil. Some would identify that evil as anything threatening the American way of life. For many years after WWII, we engaged in a Cold War with Russia, working hard to contain Communism wherever that dragon reared its head. Now, we engage in a war on terror, fighting that dragon wherever it rears its ugly head. That’s what many people I know stand on: fighting for the American way of life against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
What happens, however, when you begin to ask what made the dragon so angry in the first place? Are there really men in this world that are just born evil and simply want to watch the world burn, as Alfred tells us in The Dark Knight, or do men become that way because of their circumstances, perhaps even the actions of a group of people trying to protect their way of life?
In Tolkien’s time, the enemy was obvious, and that shows in these books. The orcs are out to destroy all good things in the world. Sauron wants to rule with an iron fist of fear and misery, and it’s up to the inhabitants of Middle Earth to rise up and take a stand against evil.
Today, though we wish to stand against evil (and there is evil out there to stand against), who is our true enemy?
Where is the dragon?