catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 3 :: 2004.01.30 — 2004.02.12


The moral structure of Middle Earth

Lovers of The Lord of the Rings have had a thrilling, yet at times testy, three years, as they have fretted over potential alterations in the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1,200-page epic, which have brought the Oxford professor’s life-long work to a mass audience. Some have criticized additions and subtractions in the movies while others have praised the films’ overall faithfulness to the original. In the wake of the blockbuster phenomenon, dozens of books have been released to more fully explain the author and his work, because of one thing nearly everyone can agree on—it takes more than ten hours of film to capture the scope of The Lord of the Rings.

Matthew Dickerson has taught about Tolkien and his work at Middlebury College in Vermont, and his Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings offers newcomers a balanced and complete look inside the moral universe of Middle Earth.

Dickerson draws not just on The Lord of the Rings, but also extensively from The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Though millions have read Tolkien’s work, the recent films have introduced many millions more to Tolkien’s imagination, and for them, it is important to note that The Lord of the Rings is only the tip of the iceberg. Tolkien began writing his mythology after his service in World War I. His invented languages and mythology were a private passion for years until the publication of The Hobbit in the 1930s. As a children’s story, the book had limited adult appeal, though it has become a classic children’s book. With the encouragement of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien published his sequel to The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings—in 1954, after more than a decade of work.  Tolkien returned to his private mythology until his death in the early 1970s, the results of which were published posthumously as The Silmarillion. The Lord of the Rings was only a small story within Tolkien’s fantastic imaginary world.

In order to see the whole picture of The Lord of the Rings, Dickerson draws heavily on Tolkien’s other work. As a Roman Catholic writing pre-Christian pagan mythology, Tolkien informed his story with a veiled sense of the divine. This moral background was fundamental to the epic and even offers the reader biblical guidance in “real life.” Dickerson’s criticism gives his readers this moral picture and biblical framework foundational to his mythology.

Tolkien, though immensely popular today, did not enjoy such fame for most of his life, and as Dickerson explains, his work was contrary to the philosophy of his time, and especially today. His belief in right and wrong, good and evil, morality and sin, and forgiveness and salvation defy current attitudes of consumer, feel-good spirituality or philosophic denials of truth. Though Tolkien’s themes come through in the movies and more clearly in his fantasy, for many readers it may take the extra look that Dickerson offers in Following Gandalf. The book may also be used as an introduction to Christianity for non-Christians interested in Tolkien and his work. Following Gandalf may cover Tolkien’s mythology too lightly for the fanatic, but it explores this body of work that is fundamentally Christian, yet accessible to millions.

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