Tolkien Considered as a Meanie

You know, it always amazes me how much Tolkien gets under some people's skin. You don't just get people who shrug and say, "Eh, I'm not into him." You also get your David Brins going on for ages about every way he's bad. And you get your Jacqueline Careys simultaneously leeching off Tolkien and bashing him.

Eh, whatever. Brin, Carey, I'm sad for you.

But the thing that kills me is that Tolkien is also constantly bashed for being part of his own genre, for following the traditions of fantastic literature and folk tales. God forbid that kings should happen to be noble, wizards even semi-wise, or monsters forces of evil and chaos.

Now, is probably not meaning to bash Tolkien. (He apparently does mean to bash Catholicism.) But he's just wrong when he says, "….the Fundamental Attribution Error which crops up in the work of Tolkien and his children, evil is essentialistic in a character, not a function of their circumstance. In some ways Carey’s work has a closer affinity with Greek mythology, with its Prometheus-like Sauron equivalent. In contrast Tolkien might not have been totally delusional when he stated that LotR was “fundamentally a Catholic work” in that his cycle did not explore the messy shades of gray which comprise such a vast arc of human experience."

Ooooohkay. You've never talked to a priest, have you. They only hear confessions of people's deepest darkest secrets, so obviously they know nothing about the complexity of human nature. (I understand that not all people <i>agree</i> with the Church, but calling her ignorant is an awfully ignorant thing to do.)

The Catholic position on shades of gray might best be described as a variant of Joe Bob Briggs' views on movie death: ANYONE can sin at ANY TIME for ANY REASON. But God will also save ANYONE at any time if they repent, ESPECIALLY at the last possible moment. So ANYONE can do amazing and heroic good.

Tolkien's work does indeed reflect this view.

Moving on to the main topic, anybody who's read anything written by Tolkien in civilian life, so to speak, would never have said this. Heck, anybody who's read anything about the trenches of WWI would never have presumed to think that Tolkien didn't know about "messy shades of gray".

(This is right up there with complaining to your Depression-era elders that they don't know anything about hardship, bitching to Vietnam vets about Midwestern bugs and humidity, and telling someone stationed in the Gulf about the horrors of getting sand in your shoes on vacation in Florida.)

Now, the question is this: did Tolkien react to "messy shades of gray" in his life by producing art with them, or without them?


Tolkien's art is multi-level. There are angelic gods, and near-angelic Elves, who made their moral decisions long ago. (Galadriel is still paying for hers.) There are demons, who also made their decisions to fall long ago, and demonic minions, who never truly had much free will or gave it up freely for illusions of power. There are noble heroes with powers beyond normal mortals, and mighty wizards, both of which are called to rise higher, or refuse and fall farther. But most of normal life among normal people (Hobbits, Dwarves, and the exotic race called Men) is conducted along normal lines. Since most of the people we meet are ordinary people living ordinary lives, we generally have little opportunity to see their moral mettle. But pressure makes them make various moral choices — generally a mixture of good and bad; also variously cowardly and brave, reckless and sensible.

The Shire and Bree folk contain some very messy shades of gray. Lobelia of the Silverware is a prime example. She was horrible, hateful, annoying, and closely related to both Bilbo and Frodo. In every petty occasion, she was petty. She even raised her son to be a collaborator and a dupe. But then, when all hope was gone from the "good" people of the Shire, she became equally annoyingly persistent to the Shire's invaders. Just a stubborn old lady who didn't know when to quit — a hero of the Resistance. Tolkien made us hate her. Tolkien made us love her. She was thoroughly Lobelia both ways.

Does anyone claim that Faramir didn't fully experience messy shades of gray? Or Eowyn? Or Aragorn? How about our favorite Ent? How about Gollum? And just look at the Hobbits, their bizarre lives and hard choices. So you see that it's a ridiculous charge.

The thing is, Tolkien went to the trouble to characterize even evil creatures and people: orcs (Grishnakh, Shagrat, and Gorbag), dragons (Smaug), Gollum, Saruman, and Sauron himself. He didn't have to do that; very few authors manage such things convincingly for even a line. Tolkien takes the trouble to look through their eyes.

Now, it's true that he doesn't spell certain things out. "Now, children, if you were born from a twisted demonic experiment on captured elves and dimly knew that you should have been near-immortal and beautiful and of genius intelligence, and you were continually kicked around, starved, and abused your whole life, you probably wouldn't be a very good person even if you didn't have a demon doing his best to suppress your free will. And if you were a good person, you'd have been killed by your fellows a long time ago, so you wouldn't be in this story."

I suppose such double standards are a sort of compliment to Tolkien, but as he's not a near-immortal Elf or a Maia running around on Middle-Earth, it's not really fair to expect such supernatural ability to satisfy every reader's bizarre little desires. But at the least, you shouldn't accuse him of faults he doesn't have.

UPDATE: I should add that I really do like's blog, and that it is well worth reading. I just think that on this topic, has made an error.


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3 responses to “Tolkien Considered as a Meanie

  1. Great post, but one nitpick- shouldn’t it be “trenches of WWI ” ?
    Speaking of which, have you read “Tolkien and the Great War” by John Garth. ? If you haven’t, do- it’s a great read, and it thoroughly supports your argument. (The part that hit me hardest was early on- it showed how Tolkien and his fellow grads followed a custom at King Edward’s School- the graduates who had been on the rugby team would visit and play against the school’s current squad. There were 15 men in Tolkien’s rugby squad. By 1918 four of them had been wounded- and another four were dead. )

  2. Erk! What a typo!

    Somewhere, I typed “impuned”, too. Humiliation is doubtless good for the soul….

  3. Thanks for posting this! Good job.

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