J.R.R. Tolkien’s 3 Responses to the Modern World’s Madness
Today is the 132nd birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, the famed and beloved author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” among many other books. Although they enjoy almost-universal acclaim, Tolkien’s books are especially popular amongst Christians, who keenly discern in them subtle and profound allusions to living a Christian life.
In letters, the Oxford professor and devout Catholic described his own Middle-Earth-based mythology as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” explaining, “The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” While there are countless deeply Christian meanings woven into “The Lord of the Rings,” today may be a good opportunity to look at the three men Tolkien presents to readers as possible responses by the good or virtuous to the madness and depravity of the modern world.
While Tolkien’s first published Middle-Earth book, “The Hobbit,” is a relatively simple adventure story, wherein the heroes learn courage, wisdom, forgiveness, and loyalty, “The Lord of the Rings” occupies the same world but takes place on a much grander scale, allowing for finer shades of subtlety. In the lengthy, epic novel, much of Middle-Earth is at war, and the Dark Lord Sauron is forging new alliances in a bid to dominate the entire world. The situation is bleak, even dire, and intentionally so. Tolkien once explained, “I am a Christian … so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of the final victory.” That’s a surprisingly bleak outlook from the man who invented the happy-go-lucky Hobbits; but Tolkien’s work contains what he sees as the different ways the men of today can respond to that “long defeat.”
One of the men Tolkien presents to us is Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. Although the character is largely loathed for how he’s portrayed in Peter Jackson’s 2003 adaptation of “The Return of the King,” Tolkien paints a slightly different picture of the man, a picture we will now attempt to rehabilitate.
Denethor is in Tolkien’s books a towering figure of strength, virtue, and unbending will. The Steward of Gondor, who rules over the ancient kingdom of Men until the true King returns, has waged war against Sauron’s forces for ages, and it is largely his leadership and the courage he inspires in his men which has kept the Dark Lord constrained so long to Mordor, right on Denethor’s border. The good wizard Gandalf describes Denethor as “proud and subtle,” a man of great “lineage and power, though he is not called a king.” Gandalf explains that Denethor “is not as other men of his time,” and has such a tremendous power of will and presence of mind that he can often see “much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.”
Worth noting is Denethor’s resilience to Sauron’s tempting promises of power and allegiance. The wizard Saruman, Gandalf’s superior, is one of the Maiar, which are the equivalent in Tolkien’s mythology to archangels. Saruman is powerful and learned, but uses a magical “seeing-stone” to communicate with the spirit of Sauron. He is corrupted and bends his will to Sauron’s, raising a barbaric army to destroy the world of Men from the West while Sauron attacks from the East. Denethor also has one of these seeing-stones but is of such strong and noble will that the Dark Lord cannot corrupt him — a mere mortal. In an essay on the seeing-stones, Tolkien wrote, “Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits. Saruman fell under the domination of Sauron ... [while] Denethor remained steadfast in his rejection of Sauron, but was made to believe that his defeat was inevitable, and so fell into despair.”
Denethor is confronted, over the course of his life, with great losses. After bearing him two sons, his wife died, and the Steward of Gondor withdrew within himself, becoming grimmer, colder, and sterner. He waged war against Mordor, aided by his sons, both beloved captains in Gondor’s army. When his elder son Boromir died, Denethor fell more deeply into despair. He was also disheartened by the knowledge that Sauron had amassed an army of mercenary Men from south of Gondor, who were marching on the country’s capital. When his younger son was wounded in battle, Denethor believed him dead and faulted himself. He built a funeral pyre and ended his own life.
This is one response Tolkien presents to us: a noble man, not susceptible to corruption, who becomes so disheartened by the chaos, depravity, and destruction he witnesses that he finally gives in to despair. Although Tolkien notes the Steward’s noble qualities, he does so not to uphold Denethor as an example to emulate but to warn that even the noblest of men, who cannot be brought low by greed or lust, may still succumb in the end to despair. Denethor’s is not a happy nor even a heroic tale, but one filled with grief and grimness. Scholars often compare Denethor’s despair to the madness of King Lear in the eponymous play by William Shakespeare. Just as the Bard offers Lear as a warning, so also does Tolkien offer Denethor. The warning is clear: although history may be a “long defeat,” we cannot lose sight of the hope for the final victory.
But, of course, the Professor offers a better example of how to respond to the depraved modern world — in King Théoden of Rohan. The similarities between Denethor and Théoden are striking: both fault themselves for their sons’ deaths, both are noble men, and both are faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. But where Denethor gives in to despair, Théoden carries on the fight against evil, with or without hope of victory.
The first example of this is in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Théoden and his men have barricaded themselves in the fortress’s final keep, after the armies of Saruman breach the outer wall and take over much of the stronghold. Théoden declared the battle lost, but Aragorn (we’ll get to him in greater detail later) reminded him, “You said this fortress would never fall while your men defend it. They still defend it, they have died defending it.” Théoden mused, “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?” Aragorn urged the King, “Ride out with me. Ride out and meet them.” Encouraged and emboldened, Théoden responded, “For death and glory.” He and his knights mounted their steeds and rode out to hack and hew at their enemies, eventually defeating Saruman’s army.
In the second instance, Denethor lit the beacons of Gondor, calling for aid from Rohan against the amassing armies of Mordor. Théoden answered the summons and he and a small host of Rohirrim rode to meet the enemy at the Pelennor Fields. Mustering his mounted knights, Théoden issued a rousing battle cry:
“Arise, arise, riders of Rohan!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered!
A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now, ride to Gondor!”
The terminology used is almost apocalyptic, filled with images of war and violence. Théoden led his men in routing the mercenary army that caused Denethor to despair before facing the Witch-King of Angmar, the leader of the Ringwraiths, Sauron’s chief lieutenant, who cannot be killed by any mortal man. Théoden is, sadly, slain.
Théoden’s will to fight is not predicated on hope of victory but on love of what is good and, consequently, hatred of what is evil. Initially, that love of what is good extends only to his own people and country, but he grows to recognize that if evil is not confronted in Gondor, not only will that noble nation be lost, but Rohan will fall next. He fights against what he believes to be certain death not necessarily because he hopes to defeat the enemy, but rather simply because it is the enemy and must be fought. In fact, Théoden is perhaps most like Tolkien in this regard: he expects to see no more than a “long defeat,” but he maintains hope in his heart for the final victory, even if he himself does not live to see it.
The man who does see that final victory is Aragorn, the true King of Gondor — the final and best example Tolkien offers of responding to the evil, madness, and depravity of the modern world. Like Denethor, Aragorn is descended from the Men of Westernesse, a noble race of long life and great strength. Like Théoden, Aragorn fights against evil for the love of that which is good. But unlike both, Aragorn not only hopes for but partakes in the final victory.
Tolkien introduces Aragorn as Strider, leader of the Dúnedain Rangers and a friend of Gandalf. Over the course of “The Lord of the Rings,” Aragorn is revealed to be the heir to the throne of Gondor, who has lived long in exile, preparing to reclaim the throne. He assists Théoden at the Battle of Helm’s Deep and rides with him to come to Gondor’s aid. But before reaching the Pelennor Fields, Aragorn departs, choosing to enter Dunharrow and call the Ghosts of Dunharrow to fulfill the oath they made and broke to Aragorn’s forefather. After the capital of Gondor is rescued from Sauron’s siege, Aragorn leads the Men of the West in a march to the gates of Mordor, hoping to draw Sauron’s armies out so that the One Ring can be finally destroyed.
Aragorn’s march to Mordor echoes Christ’s death on the cross. The Men of the West have no realistic hope of victory against Mordor, making Aragorn’s charge against the Black Gate self-sacrificial. While noble Théoden gives his life to oppose evil, Aragorn courageously offers his life to secure the final victory.
The war which engulfs Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is not so very unlike the spiritual war which now engulfs our own Western world. As Christians struggle to confront the evils of abortion, transgenderism, homosexuality, pornography, and a whole host of other moral ills, we may seek inspiration from the heroes of Tolkien’s world who waged war against the Dark Lord.
**Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that January 3 was Tolkien's 123rd birthday.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.