Book Review: Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World

I recently had the pleasure of reading Verlyn Flieger’s scholarly book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Well-written and thoroughly-argued, the book is a stellar example of sound literary scholarship and is necessary reading for anyone looking for a more nuanced understanding of Tolkien’s work and fantastic philosophy.

In essence, Fliger argues that, for Tolkien, the power of language and the power of light remain inextricably intertwined, with the former providing access to the latter. However, Tolkien’s acts of subcreation, especially as represented in his invented English languages, also suggest that language undergoes a never-ending process of (de)volution. While it comes to provide a more nuanced understanding of the world, it also becomes more distanced from the original light from which it originated. Given that in Tolkien’s view language constructs and springs from reality, this has far-reaching consequences.

Most compellingly, in my view, Flieger suggests that Tolkien’s work does not unambiguously elevate light over darkness. Instead, she suggests, Tolkien’s various polarities that exist within the mythos rely upon each other for their construction. Motivated by his Christian (and specifically Catholic) worldview, however, Tolkien also argues that while life, and history, is a long defeat (a Fall), it is humankind’s lot and duty to persevere and retain faith even in the certainty of that defeat.

She traces this motif through much of The Silmarillion. She has a clear, strong grasp of the nuances both of Tolkien’s invented languages (she focuses primarily on Quena and Sindarin), as well as the many branches of the Elves that emerged after their emergence in Middle-earth. She traces a number of interesting features among the most important figures in Tolkien’s most difficult yet ambitious work, including Feanor, Thingol, Beren, and Luthien.

Much of the book remains focused on The Silmarillion. It is only toward the end that Flieger shifts gears slightly and moves into a discussion of the ways in which the characters of The Lord of the Rings, pointing out how Frodo’s sacrifice is so powerful precisely because he journeys, willingly, away from the light of the West and into the encroaching dark of the East. Frodo’s fate, like so many tragic heroes, is to give up everything that he values so that others may possess them. He has given up and gone away from the light, yet there is hope, never entirely guaranteed, that he may regain it.

If there is one quibble I have with the book, it is the lack of a broader sense of the historical context in which Tolkien was writing. Admittedly, this sense may be due more to my own scholarly inclinations (I am an unashamed historicist), but to my mind it goes a long way toward explaining how Tolkien was not an escapist, but rather a writer struggling to come to terms with the world in which he lived.

For the most part, however, Flieger’s is an accessible yet nuanced exploration of Tolkien’s work. Her writing, clear and lucid throughout, makes her an ideal gateway for those non-academics seeking a richer understanding of the works of Tolkien. However, it is advisable to read The Silmarillion in its entirety before tackling Splintered Light.

There is something profoundly satisfying in reading a solid piece of scholarship. As one of those responsible for elevating Tolkien into the ranks of “legitimate” literature, Flieger’s work deserves especial praise. Rather than seeing Tolkien’s work as mere escapist fantasy, or indeed as mere fiction, Flieger allows us to see the way(s) in which it they work as a profoundly subtle and nuanced explorations of the deepest and most troubling philosophical questions haunting the 20th (and now the 21st) Century.

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Are Tolkien’s Orcs Really THAT Evil?

In the moral universe Tolkien created, good and evil, at least on the surface, appear fairly cut and dry.  Races like Hobbits and Men (at least certain types of them) are unequivocally good, while races like Orcs, Trolls, and the lesser types of men are transparently evil.  Anyone who has read his work with any level of attention to detail and depth, however, soon realizes that these moral divisions quickly break down; Gollum was in origin a Hobbit, and even many of the much-vaunted Numenoreans fell under the sway and influence of evil.  But what of the Orcs, those seemingly utterly dispensable minions of both Morgoth and Sauron that periodically emerge to scourge the rest of Middle-earth’s inhabitants?  Can anything even remotely redeeming or laudatory be said of them?

I would like to argue that it can.

For one thing, we must remember the origins of these terrible creatures.  The Silmarillion suggests that the Orcs were once Elves, taken by Morgoth and tortured until they became something utterly alien to their original natures.  When one considers the extraordinary physical and spiritual agony these Elves must have endured in order to produce the twisted, baneful creatures that we meet several times in the various tales of Middle-earth, one cannot help but feel at least a pang of sorrow and remorse that creatures as fair and beautiful (if often prideful and stubborn) as the Elves should be turned so thoroughly to evil and destruction.

Even though Orcs are cruel and seemingly immoral, hating all things (including, it would seem, themselves), they are not always obedient, nor indeed loyal, to the dark powers that constantly command them (usually through a form of intimidation and the threat of physical violence and pain).  Take, for example, the conversation between Shagrat and Gorbag in The Two Towers.  It quickly becomes clear that these two Orcs, at least, do not wish to be in service to Sauron, for they broach the subject of one day setting up on their own, out of the control and out of the reach of those who have so consistently dominated them and made their lives a misery.  While they will, it is suggested, maintain their Orcish ways, plundering and pillaging those around them, there is something in this particular passage that speaks of a desire to escape from the bonds set about them, that they do not, necessarily, enjoy being evil (though they clearly enjoy the idea of doing evil and violent things).  While they are clearly unrepentantly evil, it is not clear that they are, necessarily, irredeemably so.

Of course, one cannot ignore the fact that, with a few exceptions, the Orcs are rarely given anything remotely resembling character development.  Yet even this, I think, contributes to the reader’s understanding of them as a race victimized and abandoned by those who created them and continues to exploit their labours (which, of course, are not at all appreciated).  In one of his letters, Tolkien referred to them as the rank and file (a clear echo of his own experience in the trenches of World War I), suggesting to me at least that he intended the reader to view them with at least something of a sympathetic eye.  These are creatures, it seems, whose lives have no value and whose deaths (unlike those of Elves, Men, and Dwarves) receive no marker nor memorial from either their own side nor their enemies.

Some of this even bleeds over into Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Saruman, the traitor, asks his Uruk-hai henchman Lurtz whether he knows how the Orcs first came into being.  He notes that they were taken, tortured and mutilated, and rendered into a ruined and terrible form of life.  Indeed, Jackson’s adaptation does an excellent job of showing us the squalour and agony from which the Orcs (or at least this particular breed) are created.

Whatever else one can say about the Orcs, these few vignettes do allow us to see that they are more complex than many have them credit for being.  All of this, of course, raises significant questions about nature and about just how much sympathy we as readers are supposed to have for the alleged nature of these creatures.  I know that I, at least, am moved to at least some measure of…pity?…understanding?…empathy?…I can’t quite decide how to classify my emotions.  The Orcs are, in a way, the abject of Tolkien’s universe, the castoff and the refuse that has to exist in order for the moral order to make sense.  As with most cases of abjection, however, they evoke a complex and often contradictory range of emotional responses from readers, myself included.  But then, it is precisely moral complexity and questions of agency that Tolkien’s work always creates, and that is definitely a good thing.

Why I’m Not a Tolkien Purist

We Tolkien fans are, not surprisingly, a very diverse group.  There are those of us, for example, who are exclusively fans of Tolkien’s original works (and even then there are further subdivisions, as there are those who only like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but not The Silmarillion).  There are those who came to Tolkien and then came to the Jackson films, and then there are those that came in the reverse order.  Perhaps no group is as devout, and often as judgmental, as the purists ( my Mother, who introduced me to Tolkien all those years ago, is most definitely one of them).

I think most Tolkien purists would agree with the assessment that, for them, Tolkien’s words and vision are, if not perfect, then quite adequate as they are and do not need meddling or changing, even in a film adaptation.  The most die-hard among them (the most famous and high-profile being Christopher Tolkien), have even gone so far as to say t Tolkien’s work is, in essence, unfilmable.  How could any film, and perhaps any television series, possibly do justice to a world so elaborately and meticulously developed as Middle-eath and a novel so equally developed as Lord of the Rings?  For that matter, how to convey so many of the rich and deep themes that Tolkien does explicitly through language?

Now, I’ve never aligned myself with the Tolkien purists, though I do recognize the validity of their viewpoint and am sympathetic to the concerns they raise about, for example, the translation of Tolkien’s work into screen (most notably in the films of Peter Jackson).  However, as a passionate fan of both film and the written word as Tolkien set it out, I always find myself caught in something of a conundrum, one that I’m sure many people who are fans of novels find themselves in when their beloved text is brought to the screen.  However, I do not find myself caught up (as a rule) in the mindset that Tolkien’s vision for his works should be respected at all costs, not least because, as a student of post-structuralism, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and the like, I don’t really think that authorial intention is ever fully recoverable nor should it be the only way that we read or take pleasure from a text.  Again, this is not to devalue that particular way of reading (and, indeed, I think with Tolkien it can be very productive to think through the author-centric perspective), but that shouldn’t, in my view, be the only, or even the dominant, aesthetic criteria by which to judge Jackson, or any other filmmaker’s, interpretation of it.  (Also, if I read one more reviewer or commenter who says that Jackson thinks he’s a better storyteller than Tolkien I think I shall scream).

Part of my coping mechanism has been, I think, to recognize that Jackson is a fan, and that as a result he has a particular vision of Tolkien’s work that he would like the rest of the world to see and enjoy.  This isn’t necessarily to excuse all of the decisions that he has made, particularly when it comes to the recent Hobbit films (though, as I have said elsewhere, I think they are truer to Tolkien’s vision than a lot of people give them credit for being).  After all, I still cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of the were-worms, even though it’s pretty thoroughly proven that they are, tangentially, canonical.  However, thinking of Jackson as a fan, and thinking of any work of adaptation, as a fan text can, I think, allow us as Tolkien fans to begin to find other ways of taking pleasure in and enjoying these texts.  I also remind myself that Jackson, like myself and countless others, particularly those who write fan fiction, has a stake in this vision, which helps me from becoming too irate at the changes he has made.

Remaining wed to a purist point of view, for me at least, proves more crippling than enabling.  Spending the entirety of a Jackson film nitpicking and teasing out every single change can provide pleasure, it is true, but for me it ultimately proves tedious and spoils the pleasure of the visual.  There are, I think, much more compelling ways of talking about the changes required from page to screen, as well as the motivations (both of the filmmaker and others) that motivate such changes.  It also, I would argue, helps us to think more complexly about the ways in which Tolkien’s works change and become ever more enmeshed in the world around them.  I suppose the most compelling reason that I am not a Tolkien purist is my belief that, no matter how many changes are made to Tolkien’s works as they are adapted to different media (and I know I’m not the only one holding out for a TV serial drama to be made at some point in the not-too-different future), the original works, complete with all of the other commentary that both J.R.R. and Christopher, and countless others, have provided, are still waiting for me, resting at their ease on my bookshelf.

In Praise of Christopher Tolkien

Today I finally got around to finishing up a post I started two years ago. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how very much we Tolkien fans–laypeople and scholars alike–owe Christopher Tolkien. From The Silmarillion to The History of Middle-earth (12 volumes!) to the upcoming volume on Beren and Luthien, Tolkien has been a masterful and truly dedicated curator of his father’s literary legacy. While I disagree with some of his positions (particularly about the Peter Jackson films), on the whole I admire him and feel very grateful to him for his willingness to devote his life to cultivating his father’s posthumous reputation.

Imagine how poorer we would be if Christopher (with the assistance of the wonderful Guy Gavriel Kay, a great fantasy writer in his own right) hadn’t managed to carve out a legible narrative from his father’s manuscripts to give us The Silmarillion. While I know that that particular Tolkien work is not to everyone’s taste, it’s important to remember that in many ways this later volume was the core of Tolkien’s entire life’s work. To my mind, no appreciation of Tolkien is actually complete unless one has read The Silmarillion at least once. To this day, I am in awe of the amount of dedication and editorial virtuosity it must have taken in order to gather together such far-flung and often contradictory fragments into a cohesive (and very compelling) narrative.

Or take, as another example, the publication of the voluminous The History of Middle-earth. While some might find this slow going, I was surprised (upon picking up the first volume some time ago), how eminently enjoyable it was to read. It really is utterly fascinating to see the ways in which Tolkien’s vision slowly took shape over the long years. While the works’ primary value is in showing the working processes of the elder Tolkien’s mind, Christopher’s commentary is often enjoyable, as he always has a keen grasp of his father’s mind, and one cannot help but be in awe of the sheer amount of hours it must have taken him to make his way through the mountains of manuscript pages.

However, it is also important to point out that Christopher has also been slowly but surely solidifying his father’s academic reputation. It’s no secret that J.R.R. was not a prolific writer of academic articles–something no doubt incomprehensible to today’s academics, who seem to exist in a perpetual state of anxiety about their lack of publications–but he had a mind that was more than suited to his chosen profession. One need only look at something like the extensive commentary in the recently published Beowulf  to see that Tolkien was that most extraordinary type of academic, i.e. one who brings a true passion to the material that he taught, translated, and loved.

One area in which I fundamentally disagree with Christopher is in his not-so-secret disgust with the way that his father’s work has been translated to screen. There is, of course, a great deal of discussion among Tolkienists about whether Jackson’s adaptations, and the question of whether or not they were faithful to Tolkien’s original vision (or whether that is even the right question to ask) will no doubt continue to motivate many in the community to write about it. While I disagree with Christopher about this, I do think that his is an important voice. After all, if there is anyone who is familiar with the intricacies of the elder Tolkien’s mind, it would of course have to be this man, who has done so much to excavate and make public his father’s work.

While it may seem impossible that Christoper Tolkien could unearth any more of his father’s work, those of us who just cannot get enough of the elder’s work are in for a treat this spring, when the stand-alone volume finally comes to bookstores. It’s hard not to be in awe of this venerable editor, who even well into his 90s continues to be a custodian of his father’s work and an inspiration to all of us who continue to yearn for more of the old master’s work.

We can only hope that Christopher has at least a few more volumes in the pipeline.

Reading “The Simarillion” Part One

C.S. Lewis once remarked of The Lord of the Rings that:  “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.  Here is a book which will break your heart.”   While LoTR is (perhaps rightly) Tolkien’s most famous work, the work of his heart, as numerous biographers and letters attest, was always The Silmarillion.  Lewis’s words ring even more true for The Silmarillion than they are for LoTR, for though sometimes ponderous, this book is always beautiful, always conscious of the grandness and the significance of its narrative, for it tells the tales of actions and people who will echo down through for the forthcoming ages.

Much as I love (and have long loved) Tolkien’s work in all its forms, my history with The Silmarillion, like many other fans, is somewhat vexed.  My first encounter was with a copy that my Grandma bought me (though not a fan herself, she knew I loved Tolkien’s work).  I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble with it and, being rather young and fickle, I finally gave up.  I returned several times over the years, and gradually made my way through most of the stories  Still, a full appreciation and understanding of the text eluded me.  Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that I usually picked it up after having done one of my periodic readings of The Lord of the Rings, and so my attention would typically shift to something else.

This time, however, I have decided to start with The Silmarillion and only then make my way to LoTR.  So far, I have to say, the experience has been a marvelous one.  Tragedy saturates this work, working at its core, suffusing all that it seeks to portray.  From the destruction and malice wrought by Morgoth upon all things of beauty that the Valar attempt to make, to the ill-fated Feanor and his sons, this work captures the pinnacles and the troughs of the Elves.  Time and again as I have worked my way through it I have found myself as deeply moved, if not more so, than by even the most poignant passages in LoTR.  For all the tales of tragedy and bone-deep sorrow, however, it also contains a great deal of hope, for from the very beginning Tolkien makes clear that even the most hateful and destructive of deeds ultimately work to fulfill the grand purpose of Eru.

There are tales here that evoke and tap into the deep wells of emotion of all myth, and in that respect Tolkien has succeeded in what he sought:  the creation of a grand mythology for England.  His Elves, especially the Noldor (of which Feanor is one of the chief and most notable), are a people high and proud, and rightly so.  They are in many ways the apogee of sentient life in this world, but with that great power and wisdom comes also their greatest weakness.  Beauty in this world always comes with a price, and such is the case with the eponymous Silmarils, whose beauty is the root of the revolt of some of the Elves.  Just as importantly, however, beauty is also transient, which for the immortal Elves remains a source of their greatest sadness.

This is also a world where an oath can have far-reaching consequences, even when those who take it no longer dwell in the mortal world.  Such is the case with Feanor, with the result that he and his sons commit hideous acts of violence and betrayal, forever earning the enmity of some and the displeasure of the Valar.  Though Feanor dies fairly early on–which is itself a tragedy, given that he possesses one of the strongest, most vibrant, and most gifted spirits among the Elves–the oath that he and his sons swore, and the Silmarils they were so desperate to regain, will haunt the rest of the tales of the Elves, a source of inspiration and of destruction, the terrible double-edged sword of unearthly beauty.

It is therefore quite easy to see why this was the work that Tolkien worked on off and on for most of his life.  I’m not going to lie, however.  It is often quite difficult to keep all of the names and relationships straight, in large part because so many of the major characters have names that begin with “F.”  Nevertheless, if you can keep those straight (and in a world in which Game of Thrones is so popular, that may not be as much of a challenge for some), this book is immensely rewarding, a work of exquisite beauty and depth, full of all of the action and betrayal that we seem to desire from our fantastic fiction.  It does not, perhaps, have the same earthy libidinal drive of Martin’s work, but it does possess a grandeur and a splendour that earns it its place in the epic fantasy pantheon.

Who Owns Tolkien?

In case you missed it, Peter Jackson recently announced that, unless the Tolkien Estate grants permission to utilize any of Tolkien’s published works (other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), there will no more Tolkien films made in the foreseeable future.  This should come as no surprise to any of us who have kept up with the Tolkien family’s responses to Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R.’s work.  Christopher Tolkien, his father’s appointed literary executor and hagiographer, has been very vocal about his disdain for Jackson’s films, as well as what he views as the ultimately destructive force of his father’s popularity.

The deep ambivalence, and often outright hostility, expressed by the Tolkien Estate, and Christopher Tolkien in particular, reveals the vexed status that Tolkien’s original works represent in the world of literature and literary study.  Almost from the moment that The Lord of the Rings was published it ignited a firestorm of debate among literary critics, with some defending it as a work of literary genius and others (unsurprisingly) dismissing it as exactly the opposite.  Indeed, it is largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Christopher Tolkien that we have as much as we do of Tolkien’s voluminous unpublished work, both that associated with Middle-earth, such as The Silmarillion and the more recent The Children of Hurin–as well as his translation work, such as the newly released Beowulf.  We likewise have him to thank for the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which chronicles the laborious process by which his father brought his miraculous world to such detailed and exquisite life.

Small wonder, then, that Christopher expresses such vexation at what he perceives as the banal nature of the appropriations of his father’s work and the subsequent sullying of his literary reputation (and the Estate’s resultant efforts to solidify and protect Tolkien’s legacy).  While I sympathize with the desire to render Tolkien a respectable and accepted figure of literary study–there is something validating, after all, in having one’s favourite author finally accepted into the canon–I also worry that much is being lost, and overlooked, by these attempts to assert ownership over Tolkien’s work and legacy.  For one thing, it buys into the very ideological system that sets up an artificial, and ultimately stultifying, distinction between the popular and the literary, between the vulgar pleasures of the masses and the loftier intellectual pursuits of the intelligentsia.  After all, just because a text is popular does not mean that it cannot be literary (whatever the hell that means) and have something significant and meaningful to say about the world.  For another, this denies the agency, the pleasure, and the complexity of various types of fan production, of which Jackson’s films stand as one of the foremost exemplars (say what you will about Jackson, there is no doubt that he is a Tolkien fan and that his films are made for fans).

The desire to lift Tolkien’s fantasy works above the allegedly vulgarizing tendencies of the masses (of whom Jackson is seemingly the exemplar par excellance), permeates not only responses to the films, but also the ways in which Tolkien critics and scholars have tended to view the enthusiasm of the legions of fans who have sought to claim Tolkien’s work as their own.  Indeed, the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has proven to be a double-edged sword, for it is precisely their popularity with the masses (often referred to with the usual round of derogatory labels associated with fandom) that has made them so susceptible to the charges of non-seriousness and mere escapism that have long haunted it (as well as the fantasy genre more generally).  Even Neil D. Isaacs, one of the foremost Tolkien critics and an important founding figure of Tolkien Studies, somewhat dismissively referred to the climate of fandom as “faddism and fannism, cultism and clubbism,” a not uncommon set of pejoratives for those who dare to engage to enthusiastically with their chosen text of reference (as Henry Jenkins has often pointed out in his scholarly defense of fandom).  Fan devotion, in this schema, interferes with and may actually undermine an attempt to engage with genuine criticism.  Seemingly, neither fans nor filmmakers have the true right to an appreciation of Tolkien’s work; that honour apparently belongs to the Tolkien Estate and to the lofty efforts of those trained in literary criticism.

So, to return to the question that titles this blog post:  who owns Tolkien?  Or, putting it perhaps somewhat differently, who should own Tolkien?  While I do not want to dismiss the value of Christopher Tolkien’s work (nor that of the Tolkien Estate more generally), nor that of the many literary critics who have done much to show the philosophical and philological depths of Tolkien’s work, I would like to suggest that the legions of fans of Tolkien’s work also have a stake in their beloved fan object (whether that be Tolkien himself or any of his works).  Acknowledging the meaningfulness of their modes of engagement–whether or not you agree with the types of pleasures they take or in the meanings they produce–will not, I think, take away from the grandeur and the genius of Tolkien’s creation, nor will it sully his literary reputation.  In fact, I would argue that it will do exactly the opposite.  Granting fans (including Peter Jackson!) their due as producers of culture, meaning, and value, I suggest, would do much to enhance Tolkien’s reputation.  After all, he wanted to produce a legendarium, a mythology, for his beloved England.  What better way to pay homage to that majestic vision and purpose than by allowing those who devote much of their time and their mental and intellectual energies to delving into Tolkien’s work–whether in the form of fan-fiction, fan videos, or work of amateur or scholarly criticism–a greater stake in Tolkien’s legacy?  I can think of no better tribute to this “Author of the Century” (as Tom Shippey calls him), than allowing everyone to have their own piece of that inheritance.

Tolkien and the Political Pleasures of Sadness

One of the things that always stands out to me upon reading Tolkien’s work, whether that be The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion, is the pervasive sense of sadness and loss that permeates his literary endeavours.   Time and again, the reader is made to realize that victory always carries with it a core of sadness and that, perhaps, this sadness is one of the defining characteristics of the human (and Elven) condition.  Indeed, Tolkien himself suggests as much in a letter to his publisher regarding his aspirations for The Silmarillion:  “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall–all stories are ultimately about the fall–at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (147).  For Tolkien, the fall, and all of the bitterness and strife that comes with it, remains an essential part of our humanity and is crucial to our way of making sense of the world.

Tolkien builds sadness into the very core of his created world, for it suffuses the ontology of both branches of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men.  For Elves, sadness comes from many sources, not the least of which is their immortality, but also from their love of the world and their agony at its hurts.  For men, sadness is of an altogether different nature, stemming from their finite nature, for though some are blessed with extraordinary long life, they nevertheless remain haunted by the fact that they must one day leave the world of mortals, and it remains unclear in the legendarium (even to the Valar, the chief servants of Iluvatar), what lies for humanity beyond the confines of the mortal world.  At its heart, then, Tolkien’s world is structured by and imbued with a profound sense of impending doom and sadness.

This is not to suggest, however, that it is a fatalistic sadness.  I would argue that it is precisely through sadness that Tolkien’s world offers the hope of salvation; it is through perseverance even in the face of ultimate doom that hope finds its way into many of Tolkien’s larger works.  Thus, Gandalf and Aragorn lead the attack on the Black Gate, knowing full well that they in all likelihood will not survive, but knowing that there is no other choice.  Frodo and Sam continue on their quest to Mount Doom, knowing that they may perish before they go there, but they do so anyway, soldering through the sorrow and despair they feel.

At the same time, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings suggest that, no victory can ever be fully complete.  Sauron may be defeated, but a new shadow will arise to take his place.  What is more, the downfall of the One Ring, though utterly necessary for the survival and flourishing of Middle-earth, will also spell the doom of the Elves and the fading of all that has been wrought with the Three Rings they bear.  Galadriel makes this clear to Frodo, when she passes her own test of temptation, knowing as she does so that she will diminish and go into the West.  The entirety of LoTR is suffused with this great sorrow, that at the end of it all the world of the Elves and all the beauty they bear will at last come to an end.  Even The Hobbit, light-hearted though it is, has in its ending a tinge of that sadness, not only with the death of Thorin and his nephews Fili and Kili, but also in the fact that Bilbo’s quiet life, and that of his beloved Shire, has been fundamentally changed.

Sadness also permeates The Silmarillion.  Even as the Valar endeavour to create things of beauty Melkor/Morgoth brings them to ruin, blighting with sorrow all that should bring nothing but joy.  Likewise, the  enchanted Silmarils, though jewels of surpassing and exquisite beauty, are themselves the source of uncounted sorrows for all that come into contact with them.  Beauty and sadness are constantly intertwined with one another in the connected tales of The Silmarillion; the text even suggests that not only can one not exist without the other, but that they are mutually constitutive.  Beauty can and does smite us with the sorrow of its own fading and failing and becomes all the more precious for  the ability to conjure up so many conflicting desires within us.

Whatever you think about Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien, I believe he has gotten this bit right.  To this day, the ending of The Return of the King, with Annie Lennox’s powerful and piercing rendition of the song “Into the West,” inspires in me an almost sublime sadness, a mingled sense of loss and hope.   That, to me, manages to make up for Jackson’s excision of “The Scouring of the Shire.”  Although I have not yet seen the final chapter of his The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo’s haunting assertion in one of the trailers that he will tell the tale of those that survived and those that did not, paired with Billy Boyd’s hauntingly lyrical voice, suggests that this film too will into the profound well of sadness that lies beneath the surface of Tolkien’s upbeat novel.

Like Tom Shippey, who suggests that Jackson’s films are in some ways refreshingly different from traditional Hollywood fare, I applaud Jackson for his ability to evoke in us a sense of the sublime sadness that for me characterizes Tolkien’s moral and aesthetic vision.  Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly room for joy and optimism in our world.  But sadness does not always have to be seen in a negative light, for as Gandalf says:  “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”  It can indeed help us to be more appreciative and more sensitive to the world around us, to the beauty of the nature and its inhabitants.  By realizing the fragility and impermanence, and thus the exquisite beauty, of everything around us, we can hopefully learn not to take things for granted.  Tolkien’s works have much to teach us about how to engage ethically and considerately with the pressing moral and ecological issues of our day, if we but have the wit to see it.