Myth and Fairy-Story
J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, once said, “The original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel—Bilbo ‘remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’: a sentence I find an almost insuperable obstacle to a satisfactory link.” A statement like this leads the reader to the question: what was his purpose in writing the acclaimed The Lord of the Rings trilogy? And in particular, what themes and ideas did he express?
To begin with, Tolkien himself states in his foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring: “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” But plainly more remains to be told. In his essay On Fairy-stories, Tolkien defines the fairy tale in such a way that The Lord of the Rings fits his criteria. He also tells us “that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories. … Critics … are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. … The escapist … does not make things his masters.” In a 1966 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Tolkien also said, “If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.”
These statements indicate that one of Tolkien’s purposes, and indeed themes, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy involved proving that escapism was more than just ignoring difficulties in this world; that, in fact, it could demonstrate the beauties of our own. While in Middle-earth Tolkien completed the most complex and thorough world-building project ever attempted, he always brought back the reader’s attention, usually by means of the hobbits, to the simple, wholesome parts of this world—second breakfasts, cold water on the neck (“it’s like rain on a withered lettuce if you’re short on sleep”), smoking, gardening, long walks through the forest, a hot bath. One cannot miss the repetition of this theme, which permeates the entire trilogy.
Many people have claimed that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory. Although Tolkien always claimed that he did not intend people to interpret the trilogy in that light, he admitted, “I dislike Allegory—the conscious and intentional allegory—yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.” While Tolkien did not wish for people to consider The Lord of the Rings primarily to be an allegory, one cannot read the trilogy without noticing clear parallels between the life of Christ, or the Christian walk, and the events occurring in the story. In Frodo, we see the sacrificial lamb who gives up his life willingly to preserve those of others; in Gandalf, the priest who dies and rises again to protect his followers; in Aragorn, the high king who takes the form of a servant until he comes into his long-prophesied kingdom. Along slightly different lines, in the story of Faramir and Éowyn, we see similarities to the story of Christ and his final union with his bride. And on the villainous side, Sauron shows strong commonalities with Satan, since the Valar and Maiar (of which Sauron is one) show close resemblance to biblical angels, as we learn in greater detail in The Silmarillion.
The story works primarily as a battle between the forces of good and evil. As such it is applicable to virtually any aspect of our lives. Merely experiencing the story encourages readers to defeat evil in their own dark circumstances, just as Sam defeated Shelob in her noisome lair. While The Lord of the Rings is not expressly an allegory in intention, it certainly yields allegorical—or, as Tolkien preferred to express it, applicable—meaning in effect. We can understand the truths of God’s story in a new way because of the different perspective that Tolkien has given to us, a point on which he believed strongly.
One last purpose Tolkien had in creating the series was to write a mythology for England, rather like the northern European countries had in their Norse legends and the Greeks had in their Iliad and Odyssey. “Middle-earth” is a translation of the Norse “Midgard,” the world of men. According to the story, the tales of Middle-earth really happened in England long before recorded history began, in the time when people still believed in elves and dwarves and even interacted with them daily. Tolkien’s mythology brought readers into a rich world they would never otherwise have seen; but Middle-earth is our world and no other.
Thus, we can see that Tolkien’s work in The Lord of the Rings accomplished three purposes: reminding people of the importance of simple things, helping readers understand the gospel through a repeatedly applicable story, and providing England with a mythology. For, as Tolkien said, “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth.”
Anna Huttar, 17, lives in the Charlotte, NC area. A favorite author of hers, N. D. Wilson, has said, “Stories are soul food. Eat right.” Someday she would like to become an author or a professor of English literature, so that she can contribute to the spread of strong, healthy food for the soul.