J.R.R. Tolkien’s Trilogy The Lord Of The Rings – W.H. Auden

March 7, 2011


W. H. Auden


Wystan Hugh Auden was born in 1907 in York, England, the third son of a physician. In 1908 his father became Medical Officer and Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham. Auden attended private schools and then Oxford, taking his degree in 1928.

During the Thirties Auden became by common consent the principal poet of his generation, and other writers such as Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender, in spite of their considerable differences from him, were to be writing under his banner. He supported himself at first by teaching, and was to do this sporadically for much of his life.

But his urge to travel became conspicuous. In 1937 he and MacNeice published their Letters from Iceland, after making a trip to that country at their publisher’s expense. The same year Auden went to Spain in support of the Loyalists. A year later he and Christopher Isherwood went to China, and Auden wrote Journal to a War. In January 1939 Auden and Isherwood left England with the intension of residing permanently in the United States. He became an American citizen in 1946.

Most of his time in later years was shared equally between two residences, one in Greenwich Village (New York City) and the other in Kirchstetten, Lower Austria. But in 1972 he was invited to take up lodgings at his old college, Christ Church, Oxford, and consented to do so. In Vienna, where he had been invited to lecture on his poetry, he died suddenly on September 28, 1973.
From http://www.gpaulbishop.com/

The Setting
Many Quest tales are set in a dreamland, that is to say, in no definite place or time. This has the advantage of allowing the use of all the wealth of dream imagery, monsters, magical transformations and translations, which are absent from our waking life, but at the cost of aggravating the tendency of the genre to divorce itself from social and historical reality. A dream is at most capable of allegorical interpretation, but such interpretations are apt to be mechanical and shallow. There are other Quest tales, a thriller like The Thirty-Nine Steps, for example, which are set in places which we can find in the atlas and in times we can read of in history books. This gives the Quest a social significance, but the moral ambiguities of real history clash with the presupposition which is essential to the genre, that one side is good and the other bad.

Even in wartime, the sensitive reader cannot quite believe this of the two sides which the writer of thrillers takes from real life. He cannot help knowing that, at the same time that John Buchan is making the heroes English and American and the enemies German, some German author may be writing an equally convincing thriller in which the roles are reversed.

Tolkien sets his story neither in a dream world nor in the actual world but in an imaginary world. An imaginary world can be so constructed as to make credible any landscape, inhabitants, and events which its maker wishes to introduce, and since he himself has invented its history, there can be only one correct interpretation of events, his own. What takes place and why is, necessarily, what he says it is.

But the construction of a convincing imaginary world makes formidable demands upon the imagination of its creator. There must be no question which, according to our interests, we ask about the real world to which he cannot give a convincing answer, and any writer who, like Tolkien, sets out to create an imaginary world in the twentieth century has to meet a higher standard of concreteness than, say, his medieval predecessor, for he has to reckon with readers who have been exposed to the realistic novel and scientific historical research.

A dream world may be full of inexplicable gaps and logical inconsistencies; an imaginary world may not, for it is a world of law, not of wish. Its laws may be different from those which govern our own, but they must be as intelligible and inviolable. Its history may be unusual but it must not contradict our notion of what history is, an interplay of Fate, Choice, and Chance. Lastly, it must not violate our moral experience.

If, as the Quest generally requires, Good and Evil are to be incarnated in individuals and societies, we must be convinced that the Evil side is what every sane man, irrespective of his nationality or culture, would acknowledge as evil. The triumph of Good over Evil which the successful achievement of the Quest implies must appear historically possible, not a daydream. Physical and, to a considerable extent, intellectual power must be shown as what we know them to be, morally neutral and effectively real: battles are won by the stronger side, be it good or evil.

To indicate the magnitude of the task Tolkien set himself, let me give a few figures. The area of his world measures some thirteen hundred miles from east (the Gulf of Lune) to west (the Iron Hills) and twelve hundred miles from north (the Bay of Forochel) to south (the mouth of the River Anduin). In our world there is only one species, man, who is capable of speech and has a real history; in Tolkien’s there are at least seven. The actual events of the story cover the last twenty years of the Third Historical Epoch of this world. The First Age is treated as legendary so that its duration is unknown, and its history is only vaguely recalled, but for the 3,441 years of the Second Age and the 3,021 years of the Third he has to provide a continuous and credible history.

The first task of the maker of an imaginary world is the same as that of Adam in Eden: he has to find names for everyone and everything in it and if, as in Tolkien’s world, there is more than one language, he has to invent as many series of names as there are tongues.

In the nominative gift, Tolkien surpasses any writer, living or dead, whom I have ever read; to find the “right” names is hard enough in a comic world; in a serious one success seems almost magical. Moreover, he shows himself capable of inventing not only names but whole languages which reflect the nature of those who speak them. The Ents, for example, are trees which have acquired movement, consciousness, and speech but continue to live at the tempo of trees. In consequence their language is “slow, sonorous, agglomerated, repetitive, indeed long-winded.” Here is only a part of the Entish word for hill:


The extremes of good and evil in the story are represented by the Elves and Sauron, respectively. Here is a verse from a poem in Elvish:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna miriel
o menel alglar elenath! Na-chaered palan diriel.
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aer, si nef aearon.

And here is an evil spell in the Black Speech invented by Sauron:

Ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakata-luk, agh burzum-ishi-krimpatul.

An imaginary world must be as real to the senses of the reader as the actual world. For him to find an imaginary journey convincing, he must feel that he is seeing the landscape through which it passes as, given his mode of locomotion and the circumstances of his errand, the fictional traveler himself saw it. Fortunately, Mr. Tolkien’s gift for topographical description is equal to his gift for naming and his fertility in inventing incidents. His hero, Frodo Baggins, is on the road, excluding rests, for eighty days and covers over 1800 miles, much of it on foot, and with his senses kept perpetually sharp by fear, watching every inch of the way for signs of his pursuers, yet Tolkien succeeds in convincing us that there is nothing Frodo noticed which he has forgotten to describe.

Technologically, his world is preindustrial. The arts of mining, metallurgy, architecture, road and bridge building, are highly developed, but there are no firearms and no mechanical means of transport. It is, however, a world that has seen better days. Lands that were once cultivated and fertile have gone back to the wilderness, roads have become impassable, once-famous cities are now ruins. (There is one puzzling discrepancy. Both Sauron and Saruman seem to have installed heavy machinery in their fortresses. Why, in that case, are they limited to waging untechnological warfare?) Though without machines, some people in this world possess powers which our civilization would call magical because it lacks them; telepathic communication and vision are possible, verbal spells are effective, weather can be controlled, rings confer invisibility, etc.

Politically, the commonest form of society is a benevolent monarchy, but the Shire of the hobbits is a kind of small-town democracy, and Sauron’s kingdom of Mordor is, of course, a totalitarian and slave-owning dictatorship. Though the unstated presuppositions of the whole work are Christian, we are not told that any of the inhabitants practice a religious cult.

The Elves, the Wizards, and Sauron, certainly, and perhaps some others, believe in the existence of the One and the Valar, to whom He has entrusted the guardianship of Middle-earth, and a Land in the Uttermost West which I take to be an image of Paradise.

The Quest Hero
In our subjective experience, of which the Quest is, I have suggested, a literary mimesis, what we ought to become is usually dependent upon what we are; it is idle and cowardly of me if I fail to make the fullest use of any talent with which I have been endowed, but it is presumptuous of me to attempt a task for which I lack the talent it requires. That is why, in the traditional Quest story, the hero desires to undertake the quest and, even when to others he appears lacking in power, he is confident of success. This problem of vocation is specifically dealt with in one Quest tale, The Magic Flute. Prince Tamino is the typical hero, who must dare the trials by Fire and Water to attain wisdom and win the hand of the Princess Pamina.

But beside him stands Papageno, who is, in his own way, a hero too. He is asked whether he is prepared to endure the trials like his master, and he answers no, such dangers are not for the likes of him. “But,” says the priest, “if you don’t, you will never win a girl.” “In that case,” he replies, “I’ll remain single.” This answer reveals his humility, and he is rewarded with his mirror image, Papagena. In contrast to him stands the villain Monostatos. Like Papageno, he is incapable of enduring the trials, but unlike him, he lacks the humility to forego the rewards of heroism; he is even unwilling to accept an equivalent of Papagena and demands nothing less than the Princess.

But there is another kind of vocation which may be called religious. Not everybody experiences it, and even for those who do, it may concern only moments of their life. What characterizes the religious vocation is that it comes from outside the self and generally to the self’s terror and dismay, as when God calls Abraham out of the land of Ur, or when a man, by nature physically timid, is called to enter a burning building to rescue a child because there is no one else around to do it.

Some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and Aragorn, for instance, are expressions of the natural vocation of talent. It is for Gandalf to plan the strategy of the War against Sauron because he is a very wise man; it is for Aragorn to lead the armies of Gondor because he is a great warrior and the rightful heir to the throne. Whatever they may have to risk and suffer, they are, in a sense, doing what they want to do.

But the situation of the real hero, Frodo Baggins, is quite different. When the decision has been taken to send the Ring to the Fire, his feelings are those of Papageno: “Such dangerous exploits are not for a little hobbit like me. I would much rather stay at home than risk my life on the very slight chance of winning glory.” But his conscience tells him: “You may be nobody in particular in yourself, yet, for some inexplicable reasons, through no choice of your own, the Ring has come into your keeping, so that it is on you and not on Gandalf or Aragorn that the task falls of destroying it.”

Because the decision has nothing to do with his talents, nobody else can or should try to help him make up his mind. When he stands up at the Council of Elrond and says: “I will take the Ring though I know not the Way,”‘ Elrond replies: “It is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right” (I, 284).

Once he has chosen, Frodo is absolutely committed; the others who set out with him are not:

“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom; on him alone is any charge laid — neither to cast away the Ring nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy, nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside to other paths as chance allows. The further you go the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid upon you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts and you cannot foresee what each may meet on the road.”
“Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.
“Maybe,” said Elrond; “but let him not vow to walk in the dark who has not seen the nightfall.”
“Yet sworn vow may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli. “Or break it,” said Elrond. “Look not too far ahead. But go now with good hearts.” (I, 294)

The Conflict Of Good And Evil
If it is a defect in the usual Quest tale that Good triumphs over Evil simply because Good is more powerful, this is not a defect that can be avoided by giving Good no power at all. Quite rightly, Tolkien makes the elves, dwarves, wizards, and men who are Sauron’s opponents a formidable lot indeed, but in sheer strength, Sauron is, even without his Ring, the stronger. Yet their power has its part to play, as Gandalf points out:

Victory cannot be achieved by arms…. I still hope for victory, but not by arms. For into the midst of all these policies comes the Ring of Power, the foundation of Barad-dizr, and the hope of Sauron…. If he regains it, your valor is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again…. This, then, is my counsel. We have not the Ring. In wisdom or great folly, it has been sent away to be destroyed, lest it destroy us. Without it we cannot by force defeat his force. But we must at all costs keep his Eye from his true peril. We cannot achieve victory by arms, but by arms we can give the Ring-bearer his only chance, frail though it be.” (III, 154-56)

The Quest is successful, and Sauron is overthrown. One of Tolkien’s most impressive achievements is that he convinces the reader that the mistakes which Sauron makes to his undoing are the kind of mistakes which Evil, however powerful, cannot help making just because it is Evil. His primary weakness is a lack of imagination, for, while Good can imagine what it would be like to be Evil, Evil cannot imagine what it would be like to be Good. Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn are able to imagine themselves as Sauron and therefore can resist the temptation to use the Ring themselves, but Sauron cannot imagine that anyone who knows what the Ring can accomplish, his own destruction among other things, will not use it, let alone try to destroy it. Had he been capable of imagining this, he had only to sit waiting and watching in Mordor for the Ring-bearer to arrive, and he was bound to catch him and recover the Ring. Instead, he assumes that the Ring has been taken to Gondor where the strongest of his enemies are gathered, which is what he would have done had he been in their place, and launches an attack on that city, neglecting the watch on his own borders.

Secondly, the kind of Evil which Sauron embodies, the lust for domination, will always be irrationally cruel since it is not satisfied if another does what it wants; he must be made to do it against his will. When Pippin looked into the Palantir of Orthanc and so revealed himself to Sauron, the latter had only to question him in order to learn who had the Ring and what he intended to do with it. But, as Gandalf says: “He was too eager. He did not want information only: he wanted you, quickly; so that he could deal with you in the Dark ‘Power, slowly” (II,199).

Thirdly, all alliances of Evil with Evil are necessarily unstable and untrustworthy since, by definition, Evil loves only itself and its alliances are based on fear or hope of profit, not on affection. Sauron’s greatest triumph has been his seduction of the great wizard Saruman, but though he has succeeded in making him a traitor to the cause of Good, he has not yet completely enslaved him, so that Saruman tries to seize the Ring for himself.

Lastly, unforeseeable by either side, is the role played by Smeagol-Gollum. When Frodo first hears about him from Gandalf, he exclaims:

“What a pity Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” .. .

I cannot understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? … He deserves death”

“Deserves it! I daresay he does…. [But] do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.” (I, 68-69)

Gollum picks up Frodo’s trail in the Mines of Moria and follows him. When Frodo manages to catch him, he remembers Gandalf’s words and spares his life. This turns out to his immediate advantage for, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have found their way through the Dead Marshes or to the pass of Cirith Ungol.

Gollum’s motives in guiding them are not wholly evil; one part of him, of course, is waiting for an opportunity to steal the Ring, but another part feels gratitude and genuine affection for Frodo.

Gandalf was right, however, in fearing that there was little hope of his being cured; in the end his evil side triumphs. He leads Frodo and Sam into Shelob’s lair and, after their escape, pursues them to Mount Doom and attacks them. Once again they spare his life. And then the unexpected happens:

There on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.

“Master!” cried Sam.

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, … it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.

“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight…. Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him….

Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe…. The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the Ring, a finger still thrust within its circle…

“Precious, precious, precious!” Gollum cried. “My Precious! O my Precious!” And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell…

“Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,” said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away…

“Yes,” said Frodo. “… Do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.” (III, 223-25)

The Fruits Of Victory
“And so they lived happily ever after” is a conventional formula for concluding a fairy tale. Alas, it is false and we know it, for it suggests that, once Good has triumphed over Evil, man is translated out of his historical existence into eternity. Tolkien is much too honest to end with such a pious fiction. Good has triumphed over Evil so far as the Third Age of Middle-earth is concerned, but there is no certainty that this triumph is final. There was Morgoth before Sauron and, before the Fourth Age ends, who can be sure that no successor to Sauron will appear? Victory does not mean the restoration of the Earthly Paradise or the advent of the New Jerusalem. In our historical existence even the best solution involves loss as well as gain. With the destruction of the Ruling Ring, the three Elven Rings lose their power, as Galadriel foresaw:

“Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten.” (1,380)

Even Frodo, the Quest Hero, has to pay for his success:

“But,” said Sam, and tears started from his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire. . . for years and years, after all you have done.”

“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” (III, 309)

If there is any Quest Tale which, while primarily concerned with the subjective life of the individual person as all such stories must be, manages to do more justice to our experience of social-historical realities than The Lord of the Rings, I should be glad to hear of it.

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One comment

  1. [...] The other is by W.H.Auden, reviewing the Lord of the Rings: [...]

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