22 March, 2019

On The Tolkienic Hero

"Bag End" by Tim Doyle.
You can purchase this print here.
Deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King (1954)

Imagine a story. This story has a hero. By the end of the tale, the hero has done many great deeds. He (or she) has vanquished some terrific evil, journeyed to some distant place, or protected the innocent multitudes from a cruel fate they did not deserve. In a past age, accomplishing feats such as these was enough to earn the title 'hero.' But this hero comes from different times. His heroism is not found in the number of enemies he slew, in the distance he traveled, or in the acclaim of his adoring crowds. His heroism is rooted in his character. The relevant aspects of his character are apparent only to his closest friends. Occasionally even they are not privy to the source of his glory, which the audience only learns of because they have privileged access to the hero's internal thoughts. His heroism is grounded in a firm conviction: he does not want to be a hero.

The hero wants not fame, nor fortune; he is not motivated by power, nor by revenge. He performs his heroics out of necessity, out of duty, or out of the simple fact that he is the only one on the scene. The hero would rather not be out slaying dragons. He earnestly wishes for a normal life. He yearns for a peaceful and settled world where he is not the chosen one. But it is precisely because our hero lacks ambition that he can be trusted. In a world where men ache for power, we cheer for the protagonist who emphatically rejects it. From beginning to end, our hero's defining trait is a desire not to be a hero. Some are born great, others achieve greatness—but we love best those blessed few who have had greatness thrust upon them.

Here I've sketched out an archetypal template. This is the template upon which the vast majority our era's hero-tales are crafted. This is the story of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Jack Ryan. It is Captain America and Spiderman. It is the central trope of science fiction, fantasy, international thrillers, super hero stories, and their "YA literature" counterparts. It is the myth that drives the imaginations of our times.

For all of this we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to thank. I am sympathetic to the argument that Tolkien is the seminal Anglophone author of the 20th century. Perhaps his literary craft is deft enough to deserves that title. Perhaps it is not. Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants' literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered. This is not just because Tolkien's works have been fantastically popular, even decades after its first publication, and in cultural milieus quite divorced from its creation. Nor it is because in Tolkien we find the genesis of so many of our era's most popular genres (fantasy, science fiction, role playing games, and so forth). Tolkien's influence is both subtler and more fundamental than this. Tolkien redefined the way popular literature treats many of its most common themes. This post looks at only one of those themes, but I am comfortable with the contention that Tolkien's work embodies an entire era's way of understanding the world. It is hard to say if Tolkien's Lord of the Rings actually created the central cultural currents of our age or if it is simply their most prominent and enduring incarnation. Either way, Tolkien's work is here to stay.

Readers familiar with Lord of the Rings will immediately see the connections between my opening sketch and the tale of Tolkien's ring-bearer. I  am not going to devote an entire essay to this topic—a great deal has already been written about Tolkien's conception of good and evil, power, corruption, innocence, and heroism, and I see no reason to repeat others' feats here—but I will emphasize two points that deserve strong restatement.

The first point: An aversion to glory is not just the defining character trait of the novel's central hero. The distinction between greatness and power as goods to be strived for versus greatness and power as burdens to be carried is the distinction that sets apart almost of all of the novel's protagonists from their foils.  It is the defining difference between Frodo and Smeagol, Faramir and Boromir, Aragorn and Denethor, and Gandalf and Saruman. The second trait saves Galadriel in exile; the first corrupts Sauron anew after his master's defeat. If one is allowed to describe objects as foils, this same distinction sets Sauron's rings, key to his strategy for corrupting Middle Earth, as a foil to the methods of the 'wizards' sent from Western lands to save Middle Earth.

The second point: Though this conception of power, corruption, and responsibility defines the mythic templates of our day, this is not the myth on which past ages were made. I referenced earlier Shakespeare's line about those who have "greatness thrust upon them." Read it context and you will discover that it written to lampoon, not to inspire. [1] With those lines Shakespeare satirizes the vain and foolish upstarts who assume the privileges of high station without having done anything to deserve them. Shakespeare has nothing against those privileges; his plays assume that any young man worth his weight should be ambitious in their pursuit. But the key is that they must be pursued, and his tragedies and comedies both are filled with good men who leave home to chase fortune and glory.

This was not some new ideal in Shakespeare's day. For the sake of name Athena spurs Telemachus away from home; for the sake of rule she spurs Odysseus homeward bound. Yudhishthira gladly leads his brothers on the path of dharma, but it is a dharma of kingdom and acclaim. Aeneas, Sigurd, Gawain, Gilgamesh, Rama, Song Jiang—search the old epics and annals for the modern distrust of heroics, and you find it in none of them.

There are some limited antecedents. Rome had its Cincinnatus; the Central States had their Yu and Shun. These culture-heroes were famed for their decision to relinquish power for the sake of order. The mytholigized tales of historical heroes like Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang depict them trading victory for righteousness. Milton hoped his epics would redefine herorism from the pursuit of personal glory to the pursuit of God's glory. The world does not lack stories of poets, ascetics, and prophets who forsake rank for purer existence in the wilderness. That success in the world does not bring success in the realm of spirit is ancient truth.

Yet by and large, oracles of the human past do not display the sort of distrust for power that is so instinctive to we moderns. The best statement of the modern view was voiced by Lord Acton as the 19th century came to a close:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.[2]
Pre-modern writers were not blind to the abuse of power; they certainly did not believe that the office sanctifies its holder. Instead, they tended towards the opposite view: the office judges its holder. Power did not corrupt those who attained it; it merely provided opportunity prove their true character. A good man would be a good man in power; a bad man would be a bad man in power. But without wealth, rank, or influence, it was difficult to distinguish the first man from the second. Who would revile Nero, peasant responsible for a kitchen fire?

Tolkien did not invent the modern conception of evil. He did not even popularize it—these ideas about leadership,  influence, virtue, and vice swept across the world in the decades following Acton's expression of them. The collapse of the old regimes of Europe and Asia, the disintegrating hold of religion on the social order, the catastrophe of two world wars, and the terrors of totalitarianism gave these notions popular form and mass appeal. Modernist writers were obsessed with these ideas; much of their writing is best seen as an attempt to mould this ethos into written words. In this sense Tolkien was as much a modernist as Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Hemingway, or any other writer who swam in their milieu.

This is not a new argument. What I have written thus far about the contrast between ancient and modern conceptions of power, and Tolkien's firm stand in the modernist camp, has been explored in other works, the most worthy probably being Tom Shippey's Tolkien: Author of the Century.[3] But Tolkien did something more significant than Shippey realizes. After all, many authors of his era attacked older notions of glory, power, and heroism. There is nothing unique in this. But these authors were different from Tolkien in both their tone and purpose: their poems and novels trended towards grim realism or biting sarcasm. Their work was united in pessimism, lauded for clever ironies.

 What more could be expected of them? It was an age where the transcendent had been discredited, power was feared, and heroics distrusted. In this age high culture was turned over to the hands of the ironist. It has stayed in those hands to this day.

But there lies the catch. The ironist inspires no one. He draws absurdity out of our crooked timbers, but he can find no purpose there. He can move to mirth, but not to awe. He provokes disgust, but not commitment. He pokes fun at those who imbue life with meaning, but has no meaning of his own to impart. Some ironists are wry. Some are coy. Some are absurd. Others are simply vicious. But none are wise. The ironist knows the truth but he does not know the Dao.  Yet it is the Dao the masses yearn for.

Tolkien would not have framed things this way, but this is what makes his novel the defining epic of his century. For reasons I will not hazard, men and women pine for heroes. We need the stories of lives lived right. Lord of the Rings was written for an age that doubted this was possible. His stories accomplished something simple but meaningful: they showed what it means to be a hero in an age that did not believe in heroics.

We still live in that age. As long as we view power's corrupting influence with the distrust that Tolkien did, we will continue to live under his shadow. This is why I suspect Tolkien will stick through the centuries. The modernists and the ironists will be remembered by the historians of the future, I am sure—just as hundreds of Elizabethan plays are remembered by Renaissance scholars today. The best of such work may still capture the attention of the literary minded; many still read the work of Aristophanes, Wu Jingzi, and Jonathan Swift today. But no age is defined by its ironists. Ages are remembered by their heroes.

Ours is the age of the Tolkienic hero.


[1] For context see Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5.

[2] Letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887), published in Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1907), edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, Appendix, p. 504.

[3] Tom Shippey, Tolkien: Author of a Century (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 112-161.


Ji Xiang said...

Wow, I didn't realize you were this big of a Tolkien fan!

The Lord of the Rings is a great tale and good fun, and you might be right about the reason why its story has such appeal. But creating the central cultural currents of our age? That is taking things too far, even as a hypothesis.

Matt said...

I really don't agree with this of course, that Tolkien pioneered or popularised a new moral model of heroism that broke sharply from the assumptions in the fiction from the background of which his arose. Though you really seem to be saying that he canonized this outlook in a way that is particularly inspiring or iconic or enduring.

But certainly in a "This is provocative and interesting and worthy of seeing it lovingly eviscerated by a fantasy critic and historian who really knows their stuff" sort of way.

Tanner: Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants' literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered.

I've noticed this argument on your twitter and wanted to reply, as a non-twitter person. Hence, as follows, at length. I'm a skeptic; we collapse Chaucer's age down to Chaucer, because very little other published fiction existed in the time of Chaucer. He's the best of a small crop, and mostly relateable to not so much for reasons of his excellence as an author, but publishing in Middle English and because his social description of the society he lived in is of more curiousity to an educated and contemporary audience than contemporary chivalric romance and chanson (which we are of course largely unable to take as seriously as they did).

In 1500 (waaay after Chaucer) there are about 5 unique new book titles per million published in England, most of which will be non-fiction. In 2009 there's about 2000 and a much higher population - https://ourworldindata.org/books. Even in 1610 (the 17th century!) there is almost no work categorised as fiction being published in English.

We telescope down to Chaucer and Shakespeare primarily because there's not much else, and they both suit modern sensibilities better than anything else of their time and clearly stand above their peers in skill. For Tolkien, the literature of the 20th century is voluminous (if much less so than the literature of the future will be), he's not much better than his peers (indeed, even within fantasy, he's not even particularly good) and we have no idea if we what he writes will suit the sensibilities of a future audience, and "translate", at all.

J Burnett said...

His position is that LOTR EMBODIES the spirit of the age, not that it created it.

Lexington Green said...

You are right about the scale of Tolkien’s influence. He is underrated because he is disdained by academics. His influence is universal and saturated our culture. Star Wars and Harry Potter, to pick two massive examples, are downstream from Tolkien, and would not exist without him.

T. Greer said...


This holds true for Chaucer but not for Shakespeare. 600 plays remain from Elizabeth's era alone; several times that were performed, but later lost.

My view on this question is shaped by reading "must read lists" of the 19th and earlier 20th century. (You can an interesting example here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Literary_Taste:_How_to_Form_It ). I notice something of a pattern: historical memory for the last hundred years or so is very distinct. People remember specific decades as having their own flavor, and remember works for about each decade. (For us, that is the 1920s to the present day). But go back a bit further and things start to blend together (can you think of many books distinctive to 1912 vs. 1902 vs. 1892?). But generally speaking the century previous has pretty sharply defined set of memories as well (that's our 19th century). But by the time you go two centuries back, things reduce themselves into half century blocks or so, with connoisseurs perhaps remembering more than the common memory. (Something very similar happens to music too, by the way. Classical music is old enough that entire 50 year periods are mostly remembered by single names, but you see the same general pattern in other genres--how many band musicians can you name except John Philip Sousa? I'd argue that something similar has happened with films as well. We have a decade by decade granular appreciation for films since the '60s... but for most, the decades before that blend together into a few big names. Give it a century more and I doubt more than one or two names from that era will be remembered!)

So take this list by linked to above, compiled in 1909. He groups things into three categories: from Beowulf to Dryden (800-1700 AD); 18th century, and the 19th century. In group I he lists 29 poets and four prose writers we would call "fiction" today (along with a greater number of philosophical and memoir material). In group II he lists 23 authors of prose fiction and 18 authors of poetry (again with large number of nonfiction writers not included here). In group III he lists some 38 poets and some 40 novelists.

Now you can say there were more novelists in the 19th century than the 17th, and you would be correct. But this is rather besides the point. 19th century English novels has largely been reduced in our age to a handful (Austen, Shelley, Dickens, Bronte I and II, Eliot, Hardy, and Conrad), and poets to just as small a number (Blake, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, the Brownings, and I suppose Housman and Kipling, who cross over into the 20th century). But of course there were hundreds of novelists and even more poets published in English across that century. Hundreds and hundreds. Yet the reduction occurs.

So I a comfortable with the prediction that--given enough time--our age will be reduced to but a few authors. If we are lucky it will be reduced to more than one.

The question is: which author will it be?

Our subjective judgements will play a part in our guessing of course. I find the claim "he's not much better than his peers (indeed, even within fantasy, he's not even particularly good)" obviously false and utterly nonsensical, so don't know quite how to argue with it. For 'future' sensibilities: I suggest only this. One, we are already *in* the future, several generations past that book's first publication. Second, the book's reception across the world may suggest something about its long term potential in a different cultural context than the present. I have met the Tolkien crazed in the far reaches of the world. I can say that for very few works of art.

random observer said...

Insightful, but I would partly exempt Luke Skywalker from the list.

Like Harry Potter, he has a destiny rooted in his past that is at first unknown to him. Unlike Harry Potter, he does not just want to be normal or live a quiet life. He has elements of the more classic heroic youth- even in a backwater, he dreams of heroism and glory, though he starts out very unready for it. He is even impatient with the training, considering it at many points too slow. He is not a reluctant hero until well into his story. Not, I would say, until his first confrontation with Vader.

Matt said...

600 plays is still a pretty small sample size to produce too much that's enduring, and satire and comedy ages fairly badly.

Re; the Victorian Era, I can't speak for the United States, but in Britain we certainly also remember Conan-Doyle, Stoker, Haggard, Carroll, Gaskell, Stevenson, Wells, Wilde, Trollope, Thackeray, and not as curiosities or scholarly footnotes, but as the authors of regularly adapted art (how many read them in the original is harder to say).

I wouldn't argue against attrition over time (older works are crowded out by newer works which are more immediately culturally relevant). But it's hard for me to believe that we reduce to a similar size corpus of well known works over time, invariant to how much was produced. A similar *proportion* of what was produced, that I could believe.