J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most important British writers of the 20th century. And he managed this as an eccentric amateur. A professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien’s first love was languages, and his creation of Middle Earth was in part an excuse to find a place for languages he had invented from scratch. But if The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were simply academic oddities, they would have none of the fame they do today. They delve deeply into Tolkien’s past, and especially his experiences in the trenches of the First World War, where almost all his best friends lost their lives. They also demonstrate Tolkien’s profound — and correct — fear that the 20th century would become a bloodbath.
First World War
The First World War suffuses Tolkien’s work. He was 22 when it broke out, and by 1916 he was on the front line at the Battle of the Somme. The “dead marshes”, the site of an ancient battle through which Frodo, Sam and Gollum pass, is a direct allegory of the war on the Western Front. It was during his time in hospital after catching trench fever that Tolkien first started to dream up his fantasy world.
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The One Ring, and the other rings of power, represent the corrupting ability of power. The race of men are most susceptible to its influence, but even the wizards are not immune. Gandalf refuses to carry the ring when Frodo offers it to him, while his counterpart Saruman is entranced by the ring’s power and joins forces with Sauron because of it.
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Good and evil
The Lord of the Rings is a classic struggle between good and evil. This universal theme is obvious as Frodo seeks to destroy evil, and evil seeks to destroy Frodo. But while the overarching storyline is simply good versus evil, there are also characters whose very selves are split between the two, such as Gollum, Boromir and Denethor. And like all good novels, no character is flawless.
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Tolkien was a profound technophobe. His conservative nature and beliefs can be seen throughout his works, especially in his depiction of The Shire, which is an allegory of pre-industrial rural England. The chapter named “The Scouring of the Shire” sees the industrial technology imported by Saruman as an evil threat to replace the traditional crafts of the hobbits.
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Tolkien’s works have many Christ-like figures. Gandalf’s return to life closely mirrors the resurrection of Jesus. And like Jesus, who carried his cross for the sins of mankind, Frodo carried a burden of evil on behalf of the whole world. Another Christian theme found in Tolkien’s works is the redemptive nature of suffering, apparent in the dreadful ordeal of Sam and Frodo in Mordor.
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