One of the gifts which has seemed to come my way in early retirement is all the time I could wish to read, something that has all too seldom happened in the life of this reader. It is one of the most delectable feasts of retirement! As I finished my annual reading of The Lord of the Rings, I found myself comparing it to the plethora of fantasy that has exploded in the years since the masters wrote, Tolkien and Lewis.
Last year, with time on my hands I wondered how many copies of The Lord of the Rings had been made, and I saw figures of many hundreds of millions sold, with Lewis himself following with about half the number of The Chronicles of Narnia. These past decades I have thirstily searched for more good fantasy and I found myself comparing Tolkien’s work with all the others, discovering some distinctive differences that possibly can separate it from all others.
It is a trek that I have long been on—that of searching for other works that compare to the greats, for I have been a lifelong reader who discovered The Lord of the Rings in 1969 and later, after I became a believer, The Chronicles of Narnia. I did not even consider Christian fiction until I was about 30, and having devoured all of Lewis that I could find (nonfiction), I finally discovered his fiction. In the decades since then, I have read (and reread) many good works, sometime well put together, but not even rising close to their masters. I cannot even begin to estimate how many forwards started with the author’s confession that he or she started at a very early age with devouring the works of Lewis and more often, Tolkien, and that reading gave them a lifelong impetuous towards writing fantasy.
The key to understanding Tolkien or Lewis is to note the basis of their starting premises. They both were highly trained professors in English literature, but more importantly, they viewed their world through the lens of being Christians. Grace reflected the beginning and ending of their world outlook, and that grace is transplanted throughout their writings. They, from different theological perspectives, one Catholic and the other the Church of England, but both knew absolutely that grace was given, and not to be earned. I will save Lewis’s writings for another time; there is more than enough evidence to cover in The Lord of the Rings.
But first let me broadly paint all the others, which seem to me to be always built on the foundation of works. Their plot shows a hero, gifted with some talent, usually magic, who acts more surprised about their discovery of their magical talent than seems to be warranted for such a tired theme. The character begins to work their talent, and often it works most dismally at first, erratically so that it cannot be trusted to be there when needed. Often the character is remonstrated to take training, which he or she finds frustrating. Eventually the character has to dig a little bit deeper, try a little harder, and the hero at last emerges.
While it follows the traditional Christian theme, it only does so in the “crucifixion- resurrection” sense that in its broadest themes but mimics the Greatest Story. Tolkien masters this plot idea magnificently, as more than one character is put under the cross, or crucified almost beyond repair, and then raised again. We see it most poignantly in the character of Gandalf, lost in the deepest abyss, but raised to be Gandalf the White. The problem of those lessor writers is that they have stopped with this basic plot.
They do not share the foundational beliefs of Tolkien and thus they cannot hope to emulate him. It is all about the main character trying a bit harder, and digging a bit deeper that finally resolve the climax. With Tolkien it is seldom about trying harder; rather it is a sense of every character (that is good) that they are part of something bigger than they are, that there is a sovereignty of which they are just a part, a piece in a mosaic that is beyond the character’s imagination. Indeed, it is meant to be bigger than even the reader can imagine, and it is not until we read The Silmarillion that we begin to see that sovereignty start to be unraveled.
I will give just a few examples, for the books contain entirely too many examples to be closely cited. First, when Frodo is first warned about the ring with Gandalf, Gandalf says, “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.” Here the sovereignty of the unseen is declared, and no less than Elrond states this theme again, “If I understand aright all that I have heard,’ he said, ‘I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?”
Elrond’s comment is exactly what I think Tolkien wants you to believe—that the four most unlikely beings were chosen out of time for just such a time as this. Each of the four hobbits meets his tasks unfit, and apparently unable to complete them. Pippin acts like an immature teen, and Merry is little better, yet Merry is the one to kill the Captain of the Black Riders, and Pippin is at hand to stop the madness of the Steward, Denethor, and save the life of Faramir. Still more of this inability is present in Frodo, who gives in to the Black Riders at nearly every turn, and in the end puts on the Ring, declaring himself to be the Lord. He is only saved by the greed of Gollum, who manages to bite off his finger before falling into the abyss. Sam is perhaps the strongest character, faithful to his master albeit in his bumbling way. Still, Sam considers himself an unlikely hero, and is amazed that he is considered such in the end of the story.
Each of the four hobbits share this common trait. They are forced into a complex problem which the book suggests repeatedly that they do not understand, and each of them bumbles through their tasks, getting the “grace” at the last moment to successfully accomplish them. Contrast the normal fantasy as outlined above, with the main character digging a bit deeper, training a bit more, and reaching a new level of knowledge. It thus is not at all by grace; rather it is works which a better time is reached. Tolkien knew nothing of these works. In Tolkien’s thinking, the elves were themselves unable to produce good works. In fact, he introduces us to the hobbit-world with the reader learning that all of the elves themselves were under a terrible doom, and Sauron himself was just a remnant of that doom, with the whole world in danger of disappearing into a black abyss of darkness without end.
All of which brings me to the conclusion that Tolkien is great because his characters are almost without hope of success, and their triumph in the end is entirely due to grace—a message profoundly resembling that which is found in the Gospel. Christ came to the cross, dying for sins, that you and I, who are totally inept, might find grace to help in the hour of need. Most of the other authors are engaging in self-redemption, and their works suffer as a result. So there you have it. Tolkien is greater because of the grace in his story, and the other authors are lessor because their books are works-based, very comparable to those who would attempt to save themselves without grace.
1. Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 56). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
2. Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 270). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.