The Wall Street Journal publishes a weekly article entitled “Masterpiece”, featuring iconic visual art, music, film, architecture, literature, and poetry, but I’ve yet to see J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in that space. Maybe because it’s a too-familiar storyline: a world besieged by a superhuman power, with whom a weak-seeming company contends. The company displays surprising talents and tactics, and after many miseries, the world is made right.
Apart from being the first of its kind in the modern era, what claim can such a story have on a pretension to serious literature, much less a masterpiece? Moreover, Tolkien employs an archaic compositional style, and gets sidetracked with myth spinning, history lessons, and song-singing, not to mention an insidious thread of virtue, and a celebration of culture, tradition, and hierarchy at odds with the zeitgeist of the modern world.
At its core, The Lord of the Rings is nothing like its fantasy clones, because its roots go much deeper, they drink from eternal truths, without offering simplistic, trendy, or treacly answers. Starting with the Ring itself, a symbol of human obsession that represents the small and enormous, obvious and invisible, fleeting and ingrained obsessions that plague every one of us. Ours may not be rings of great power; rather, the things and behaviors that tug on us and draw us like magnets. Like Bilbo after his birthday party when the Ring he’s supposed to leave for Frodo finds its way into his pocket, we can be oblivious to these obsessions, or we explain or excuse them away.
In the course of the book, we meet a number of characters who fall under the sway of the Ring: Isuldur, Smeagol, Bilbo, Boromir, Frodo, even the stalwart Sam. As do many of the obsessions we experience, the Ring promises much, but delivers misery. In Gollum, we see the fruits of long-term possession of the Ring—terrible to behold, though it’s even worse to witness its creeping hold on Bilbo and Frodo.
Read more at Catholic World Report.