Future Tense

The Magic of the Lord of the Rings Books

Tolkien wrote in an intimate, original grandeur that I’ve never seen equaled.

lord of the rings.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Amazon.

This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, the New America Weekly. It is the first entry in Summer Reading, a series about the books that changed the way in which the writer sees the world off the page.

My favorite book began with a disappointment: The hero disappeared at the end of its first chapter. This felt like a betrayal, as if the author was deliberately misleading me. I was about 9 years old, and I very much wanted to follow Bilbo Baggins’ next adventure. I’d taken to him slowly. A friend of my parents’ had given me The Hobbit as a gift. The word hobbit sounded funny to me—infantile, even. I started the book out of obligation and without excitement. But somewhere in his journey to a lonely mountain and back, Bilbo, himself a reluctant hero, won me over. Then, at the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo threw a birthday party for himself and walked off “into the night like a rustle of wind in the grass.” It took several hundred pages for me to forgive J.R.R. Tolkien.

By then, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo had taken Bilbo’s place in my imaginings. I won’t recount the plot of the book here, other than to say that Frodo sets out to destroy a ring of great power that Bilbo had found after it had been lost for a very long time. This ring is a crucial implement in a struggle for domination and control of the world in which a major war breaks out, provoked in part by Bilbo’s rediscovery of the ring.

The switch from Bilbo to Frodo was part of a profound shift in tone on Tolkien’s part. The Hobbit is a well-wrought tale for children, something charming in a small way, but the three books that followed achieve a lasting majesty. The Hobbit would have remained, for me, a treasured book of childhood, right there with The Phantom Tollbooth. But the Lord of the Rings trilogy—The Fellowship of the Ring and its companions, The Two Towers and The Return of the King—have lasted me half a lifetime, and I have no doubt they’ll last me the second half, too.

The books take place in Middle-earth, a world of Tolkien’s conception. Part of what I love so much about the books is his audacity. He created languages; he studied the novel world he had created in the style of a disinterested academic historian. This had of course been done before, but as a framing device, and never with Tolkien’s scope and authority. He would admit in a letter decades later to having “constructed an imaginary time” but maintained, in a response to a review of the trilogy by W.H. Auden, that: “I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form … [of] an ancient name for the oikoumenē, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world.”

Tolkien’s ambition allowed him to write in a register of intimate, original grandeur that I’ve never seen equaled. He found his way into that register after a short and enigmatic detour through an old forest. Frodo and his companions arrive in Bree, a small but cosmopolitan town just beyond the borders of the Shire, a sort of rosy stand-in for England that is the hobbits’ home. Frodo reads a letter from a friend after he arrives in Bree:

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

The poem is in reference to a man whose name at birth was Aragorn (one suspects the echoes of “paragon” must be deliberate), who goes by Strider, as a sort of semiclandestine protector of the weak. Sam, one of Frodo’s friends, suspects that the man they meet might be an imposter. Strider replies to Sam’s accusation:

“I am afraid my only answer to you, Sam Gamgee, is this. If I had killed the real Strider, I could kill you. And I should have killed you already without so much talk. If I was after the Ring, I could have it—NOW!’”

He stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed by his side. They did not dare to move. Sam sat wide-mouthed staring at him dumbly.

“But I am the real Strider, fortunately,” he said, looking down at them with his face softened by a sudden smile. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

Reading these books as a kid, one of the great frustrations was that the magic was never very apparent. Gandalf, another of the books’ protagonists, is a magician of great power. But unlike the wizards in the video games popular at the time, he doesn’t often actually cast any spells as such. Rather Gandalf’s power rests on the moral authority of his wisdom, which gives him fortitude. (This seems like a good point to note that the movies based on these books are a tremendous waste of talent—a very good cast and lush cinematography that almost entirely miss the subtle greatness of the books.) At one point, Gandalf gets in a fight with another wizard, formerly his superior, who used to wear white robes but traded them in for multicolored ones in a sort of disruptive innovation: “White … serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken,” Saruman, the rival wizard, says. Gandalf’s reply is one of my favorite rejoinders of the book: “In which case it is no longer white. … And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Like Shakespeare, Tolkien often drops aphorisms in passing. At another point, Gandalf says: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” I don’t love these books for their aphorisms though, or for Tolkien’s mythopoetic historiography. I love them for their emotional texture.

Toward the beginning of the books, the texture is that of a gathering together of friends, a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. In the middle, it’s the flow of adventure itself: the joy of being in the midst of a difficult thing. And at the end, it’s the way in which Tolkien joins the reader in savoring triumph and in an awareness of its inherent futility: “It must often be so,” Frodo tells Sam, “when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” As Sam tells his love interest on returning to the Shire, explaining just how well Tolkien engenders these emotions would take “a week’s answer, or none.”

At one point Aragorn befriends a horseman in the South, far from the Shire, who doubts the existence of hobbits. “[T]hey are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” he asks Aragorn. “A man may do both,” Aragorn replies. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

This is, of course, mostly true—but now and again there are exceptions, and the legends of our time are made by our coevals, like J.R.R. Tolkien. Part of me never entirely got over Bilbo’s marginalization in the Lord of the Rings. But I’ve learned from Tolkien in the decades since I first read him that life’s disappointments are also worth savoring. As Anthony Lane once wrote of P.G. Wodehouse, I’d rather reread Tolkien than read anything else.

Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.