Is The Lord of the Rings a great book or not?In the Western tradition, from Homer and Aeschylus on, the essential mark of a great book is that it must have a dilemma. It is not enough to have a ripping yarn populated with vivid characters and eloquently written: the narrative has to be built on a crisis that cannot be solved, a conflict that cannot be won. A struggle of right versus wrong might be entertaining but is not fundamentally interesting; however, a struggle of right versus right will hold our attention for centuries. Why is this? — it must be because deep down in our hearts we know that our own lives are dilemmas, which both make us truly alive and also destroy us. Thus, the heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone is right in her stand on natural bonds, but so is her adversary Creon in his stand on political necessity. In the Iliad, who is right, Achilles or Agamemnon — and who has the greater excellence, Achilles or Hector? In Plato’s Apology, were the Athenians right to kill Socrates, or would they have been right to let him live? All the Platonic dialogues are built on dilemmas. Even in Greek mathematics the most significant propositions involve contradiction or paradox. I would also argue that the greatest Eastern classics are also caught on horns: thus the Mahabharata, with its perplexities concerning dharma and its deep ambivalence towards its heroes, is a greater epic than the Ramayana, which is too simply black-and-white. In Chinese, Confucius and Mencius are fascinated by seemingly balanced moral alternatives; and is there a book anywhere that is as abundant with dilemmas as Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian? In short, if The Lord of the Rings is only about the war between good and evil, in which the good triumphs, then it may be a rousing and edifying epic but it is not a great book. What lifts Tolkien’s work into greatness is Frodo’s dilemma, which breaks him.
At the beginning of the “Homeward Bound” chapter, we learn that Frodo is not well:
‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
Gandalf did not answer. (268)
What is this wound? We have watched him getting physically injured several times, and he has been treated by the best possible doctors — but there is something more. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. The “and” is powerful: I am hurt by a wound, but also by a memory. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. The second “and” stands out, suggesting that the real pain is not physical. Gandalf’s “alas” says that he knows what is going on, and that he knows that Frodo knows. There is no real going back: yes, there is a kind of apparent going back, but no real going back. Their conversation is like a patient talking with his doctor about a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Frodo asks Where shall I find rest? is it a rhetorical question, or a real, desperate question? Gandalf’s silence is full of meaning: either nowhere, or who knows?
Frodo’s anguish is the profound mystery at the heart of the book; it has been prefigured by the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum. Perhaps Tolkien has too much tact to drag this mystery into the light of day and tell us straight out what it is, but it could also be that while he feels it the author himelf doesn’t comprehend it well enough to give words to it. On one level we are witnessing the post-traumatic stress of a sensitive soul who has seen pure evil and all the darkness possible in this world, face to face. After such an encounter it is not possible to return to ordinary life unshaken; the very existence of so much evil will cast everything in permanent shadow. But there is more to Frodo’s trauma. A little later, as they are heading home:
‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’ (276)
While Merry feels that he is waking up, coming to his senses again, Frodo is sad to lose his hold on the hyper-reality of the epic world: his old hobbit life will be less vivid, less real, less interesting. The painful struggle to destroy the Ring, in all its misery and horror, is preferable to the tedium of comfortable mundane living. If it was Merry who voiced this, we would understand it more easily, because he at least has experienced the rush of battle and heroic action — but all Frodo has experienced is plodding hardship and literal torture.
Tolkien’s description of his fits of anguish can sound like an account of withdrawal from heroin addiction:
Sam stayed at first at the Cottons’ with Frodo; but when the New Row was ready he went with the Gaffer. In addition to all his other labours he was busy directing the cleaning up and restoring of Bag End; but he was often away in the Shire on his forestry work. So he was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.
‘It is gone for ever,’ he said, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’
But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself. (304)
The white gem was given by Arwen in anticipation of his need: “When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you….this will bring you aid.” (253) It is either a magical antidote to a supernatural poison, or a more benign addiction to replace the harmful one. He clutches it in exactly the same way he used to clutch the Ring: has she given him a souvenir of hope and brightness to balance out the nightmares, or a milder version of the Ring, keeping him anchored to the period in his life when he felt most alive but without letting him be devoured by it? There is one more recurrence of the memory:
One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.
‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.
‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’
But then he got up, and the turn seemed to pass, and he was quite himself the next day. It was not until afterwards that Sam recalled that the date was October the sixth. Two years before on that day it was dark in the dell under Weathertop. (305)
The memory is of having been stabbed by the Witch-King and almost dying; it was Frodo’s baptism into death, his first experience of what it might be to fade away into nothing. On first consideration, this would seem to be the opposite of what I have described earlier as a more vivid hyper-reality. We have seen throughout journey to Mount Doom that Frodo has been largely absorbed in brooding, which is interrupted occasionally by Sam, who can make him laugh. It is a little like the devotional brooding of a monk, who goes through his daily tasks with his mind on God, and also like the brooding of someone enthralled by an intense inner experience that he cannot relinquish. It bears very little resemblance to Sauron’s obsession with the Ring, which is actually only an obsession with the power it represents; but we see in Frodo’s brooding, as well as in Gollum’s evident love for it, that the Ring brings much more than power. For Frodo and Gollum, putting on the Ring means connecting with something more intense than life can offer; it is not necessarily pleasant or blissful, and perhaps it cannot be expressed in any language of duality. Someone who through the Ring has experienced this higher state cannot go back and live in a world of simple moral valuations. The power of the Ring is that it releases its wearer from commitment to moral distinctions by acclimating them to the larger-than-life state of soul in which the wearer is willing to sacrifice anything to remain bound to this wonderful thing.
For a person of shallow character or wicked desires, this is not a problem: the Ring simply brings him what he he thinks he wants. However, for a decent person who cares about goodness and other people, the Ring comes as a terrible dilemma. It is essentially a Romantic dilemma, well expressed in poems by Coleridge, Keats, and Yeats. In Keats’ “Nightingale” Ode, the speaker seeks to escape this world of suffering into a realm of transcendent beauty through the song of the nightingale, but by the end of the poem finds himself alone and forlorn on a desolate shore. The decent, thoughtful person cannot be happy without love, goodness, other people, the pleasures of life; but after experiencing the Ring, he also cannot live without connection to the dark, intense, inner reality in which these mere human values mean nothing. The tension between these two poles is more than Frodo can endure; it exhausts him and drains his will to live. On the surface, the epic tale is a triumph of light over darkness, with Frodo as the principal hero; but under the surface, it is a tale about the gradual breaking of a sensitive, intelligent being who loses interest in ordinary living because only the destroyed Ring could have given him something more vitally satisfying.
In the end Tolkien brings Frodo to a place very similar to the “magic casements opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,” where Keats’ speaker finds himself bereft:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (310)
The journey to the Grey Havens is an image of a beautiful, chosen death. The poetically noble, who cannot bear to live any more in the Age of Men, decide to relinquish the world to its new owners, and Frodo — incapacitated for life — disappears with them into the dream world of legend, to which he belongs more than to this life. Is this a sad or happy ending? From the point of view of life, it is sad that the most complex, lovable character in the book, the one who has undergone and achieved the most, has been rendered unfit to live; and from the point of view of legend, Frodo is complete, has achieved everything he has set out to achieve, and he can vanish now in his fulfillment. Why wish anything more for him? He gets to fade away gracefully at his climax and not be reduced over the years, like most of us, to a boring, garrulous anticlimax who lives in the past. The dilemma of Frodo was born with the germ of unrest at the beginning of the tale, where already he knows he is not a hero of legend but also cannot be content to be just a hobbit; it then grows into something that both culminates and kills him.
His dilemma is the heart of the entire book. Without it, we have just another tale of epic heroism. With it, we have a novel about the perplexed meeting of two incompatible worlds. It is not that the book contains no other dilemmas: Sam, Eowyn, Gollum, Faramir, and Denethor all have dilemmas that deepen the tale. But Frodo’s dilemma runs through the entire book like a diameter, and pierces it with an insoluble problem. We want long lives of pleasure and comfort, of material and social stability, of mundane virtues and cozy excellences, all warm and rounded — but we also want to risk ourselves in life-quests and life-missions, to be grand and save the world with a sword, to experience a great love and a great death. If we are lucky, like Merry, we get to partake in conventional heroism against a conventional monster; but if we are less lucky, we get to do the dirty, painful grind-work of the mission, in which we find ourselves transformed bit by bit into something very close to the darkness we are fighting — and from this transformation there is no going back. It is the same struggle we see in modern superhero stories, in which too our little lives are not enough and we have to do something stereotypically great, like save the world: some heroes do it by fighting, and others do it by becoming the villain in some way. At the end of the first war Isildur removed Sauron’s ring by cutting off his finger probably while his men hold him down; it is no coincidence that Frodo loses his own finger with the Ring. He knows what it is like to have been Sauron and Gollum, and this knowledge is the “long burden” that fulfills him, bringing out depths of power and goodness he never knew he had — and that also renders him unable to live in any earthly society.