Far More Than Fantasy: The Enduring Appeal of The Lord of the Rings. Undercurrents

Twenty years on, I can still remember the palpable sense of excitement as we sat in the packed cinema, the house lights dimmed, and the title card for The Fellowship of the Ring appeared on the screen. A cheer arose from the wildly enthusiastic audience (who had queued for several hours to get into this first screening) as the words of Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett) solemnly intoned: “The world has changed. I see it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air.”[1]

I am a massive Tolkien fan and have been ever since my teens and the day I first picked up a copy of The Lord of the Rings in a London bookshop. I still have that battered paperback on my shelf and I love the cover image by the artist John Howe, showing the wizard Gandalf striding across a hillside somewhere in Middle Earth. Since my teens I have continued to re-read The Lord of the Rings most years and I now have the pleasure of introducing it to my children. To further reinforce my fan credentials, I should let you know that I am writing this in a little wooden garden office we have affectionately named Bag End.[2]

Whether or not you’re a Tolkien fan, it’s hard to deny the huge influence upon literature and culture of his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien has been described as the most influential writer of the twentieth century—whether you measure that by sales (over 600 million copies and showing no sign of slowing), or by the way that Tolkien almost singlehandedly invented the popular fantasy genre.

For a book that is now almost 70 years old, its continuing impact is impressive. The six films based on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have grossed over $6 billion whilst the new spin-off series, The Rings of Power cost Amazon $750 million, making it the most expensive TV series in history. All of this for a book written with almost no sense of commercial awareness—in the case of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s publisher had asked him to write another children’s book as a follow-up to The Hobbit. Tolkien went away and wrote for the next 12 years before finally delivering a thousand-page manuscript entirely unlike anything that had ever been written before. No wonder the publisher’s initial reaction was panic!

Given how utterly uncommercial The Lord of the Rings was, what explains its incredible success and cultural influence? It must be something more than just good storytelling, good writing, good luck, or a sufficient supply of nerds to sustain an industry. Professor Tom Shippey, a world expert on Tolkien, catches something significant when he observes:

“The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, have said something important, and meant something important, to a high proportion of their millions of readers. All but the professionally incurious might well ask, what? Is it something timeless? Is it something contemporary? Is it (and it is) both at once?”[3]

So what was it? I want to suggest that Tolkien said some incredibly important things about two of the most important questions that we face: namely the question of evil and the question of hope. What Tolkien discovered was that fantasy, far from being escapist, was a brilliant way to get us thinking about these themes without realising that we are thinking about them.


J.R. R. Tolkien was one of a generation of “traumatized writers” who lived through the horrors of the First World War, an experience that was utterly psychological devastating. In his first year of service as a soldier he fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and Tolkien would later observe:

 “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”.[4]

The first World War (and later, the Second World War) shattered the naïve belief that many people had nurtured that the world was getting progressively better and that humans were (on the whole) pretty good and decent. Yet in both world wars, monstrosities were carried out by both sides, often by people who believed that the ends justified the means.

We need little reminding of the dreadful reality of human wickedness today. Whether it’s Putin waging war in Europe, the Chinese ethnically cleansing the Uighurs and Tibetans, human trafficking on an imaginable scale, civil wars ripping many countries apart, and, closer to home, Western societies increasingly vicious and tribalized, with new technologies like social media offering us new ways to be mean and beastly, it is clear that something is sick at the heart of humanity.

Tolkien certainly thought so and he considered most of the “answers” he heard about evil to be weak and unhelpful. And so he chose to explore the nature of evil and its effect on us through the medium of one of his most famous creations, the Ring.

The first thing to note are the temptations that the Ring offers to the characters in the story. It offers the power to overcome death (think of Sauron himself, or Gollum, or Bilbo to whom the Ring had given unnaturally long life). This temptation is ever present today, especially in a secular age where for many people staying alive is the only thing that matters. We’re terrified of death, hiding it away behind hospital doors or attempting to “solve” it with technological solutions such as euthanasia.

The Ring also tempts with the power of invisibility—the ability to do whatever one wishes with no fear of being seen. Again, there are echoes in our contemporary age with the tendency for many of us to behave more viciously on social media where we can hide behind the veil of anonymity.

Lastly, perhaps the greatest temptation of the Ring is the power to coerce the will of others, bending them to serve your ambitions, schemes, and designs. The contemporary examples of that temptation are too many to list—whether it’s manipulative politicians, vast media empires spinning their fabrics of half-truths, or closer to home, the tendency we all have in this identity driven age to make everything about me and my desires. As the famous nineteenth-century atheist Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, when you reject God, all that is left is the “will to power”.[5]

Yet Tolkien didn’t merely illustrate the temptations that are whispered in all our ears, but through the Ring explored the idea of creeping corruption, the insidious way that most humans do not become monstrous overnight, but through a repeated series of poor choices, risk becoming ever more twisted. Think of characters like Bilbo (who asks Frodo to let him have a “little peep” at the Ring and then in Frodo’s eyes becomes “a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands”;[6] or Isildur (who refuses to destroy the Ring when he has the chance); or Boromir (who tries to take the Ring from Frodo by force because he thinks it can be used as a weapon against the enemy); or Gollum, or even Frodo himself. Tolkien repeatedly shows us that evil has an addictive quality—that though we think a little dabbling with it is harmless, each time we do so, it becomes easier to give in the next time, until ultimately evil overwhelms us, like the Ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings, who freely chose the gifts of Sauron but ended up utterly consumed.

In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey points out that historically there have been two major views of evil.[7] The first view is that evil does not “exist”, but is simply the absence of good; for example those bits of my psychology that are perhaps a bit deficient. The problem with this view is it can lead to naivety (“All I need is a bit of positive thinking or some self-help”). The other ancient view is that evil is a thing, it actually exists, and is deadly serious. The problem here is that it can easily lead to a sense of superiority over others (“I’m okay because I’m a good person; not like those people.”).

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien plays with the idea that there are elements of truth in both those views; for example, consider the scene in Bag End where Gandalf asks Frodo to give him the Ring for a moment. Frodo goes to hand it to the wizard and we’re told that:

“It suddenly felt very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.”[8]

But which is it? Is evil an actual thing—in which case the Ring is heavy because it is evil, imbued with the spirit of its master, Sauron, and it does not want Gandalf to handle it. Or is evil a mere absence, a shadow, an inner psychological weakness—in which case it is Frodo who does not really wish to hand it over.

Tolkien plays with these two aspects of evil throughout the book and not because he was sitting on the fence, but because he believed that both views of evil had something going for them, yet neither is sufficient. And he believed this because he was a committed Christian and his Christian faith was deeply embedded into the structures of The Lord of the Rings. As Tolkien wrote to a friend:

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision … the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”[9]

As a Christian, one of the things with which Tolkien would have been very familiar was the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught his followers and which is prayed regularly by billions of Christians around the world in church services and private devotions. Two of the lines of that prayer run like this:

Lead us not into temptation;
But deliver us from evil;[10]

That prayer seems to recognise that we need help with two things when it comes to evil—first, we need protecting from ourselves; second, we need help from the evil outside. Tolkien wove both those ideas into The Lord of the Rings and indeed in the key scene of the final book, they come to a climax. For on the very brink of the Cracks of Doom, when Frodo makes the decision not to destroy the Ring, the age-old question arises—is this Frodo’s own internal decision, or has the evil force of the Ring overpowered him? Tom Shippey came across a letter from Tolkien in which he comments that the scene at the Cracks of the Doom was deliberately designed to unpack the Lord’s Prayer as a “fairy-story exemplum”.[11]

Is evil internal or external? The Lord of the Rings would remind us that the answer is both—and that we are wholly naïve if we think we are not affected by evil, nor that we need help in overcoming both the evil out there as well as the evil within. Indeed, as another “traumatized writer”, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, reminds us:

“The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through the middle of every human heart and through all human hearts.”[12]


Given a world in which real evil exists—an insidious, creeping evil that can tempt and overpower even the very good, what should our response be? This question leads to the second major theme of The Lord of the Rings, the question of hope.

There is a strong contrast running throughout Tolkien’s book concerning those who have given up all hope and those who, no matter the odds, still choose hope over despair when confronted by evil. On the side of those who have given up, one thinks of the wizard Saruman, who explains his choice to side with Sauron because:

“A new power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all … This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power … Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.”[13]

Or consider the tragic figure of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, who because of the death of his son, the lies that Sauron has been feeding him, and the fear of the battle that lies ahead, has wholly given into despair—a downward spiral that in the end costs him his life.

However, by way of contrast, we have King Théoden (who has also lost a son) who declares that even though they will probably be defeated, he will still lead his calvary in a final charge against the massed ranks of Mordor. Similarly there is Aragorn, at the Black Gates, leading the remains of his army into what appears to be a suicide mission but doing it “for Frodo”. Or Boromir, giving his life in a last stand against the Orcs despite the overwhelming odds. Or the Elves, for over a thousand years fighting what Galadriel calls “the long defeat”,[14] knowing that their time is ending, but nevertheless still opting to choose hope over despair. Repeatedly throughout The Lord of the Rings, the heroes make choices with catastrophic personal consequences because they believe that it is the right thing to do.

You will recall that Tolkien had lived through two world wars and had experienced leaders who had chosen to capitulate in the face of evil; think of Neville Chamberlain and his naive attempts to negotiate “peace in our time” with Hitler. Or so-called “neutral” countries during WWII, like Sweden, which turned a blind eye to evil in return for which the Nazis would leave them alone. Tolkien had little time for the idea that faced with overwhelming evil, the best thing to do was keep your head down, or surrender to despair.

Yet this is all very well, you may ask, but what if the odds are truly overwhelming? If the Swedes had resisted Hitler, wouldn’t they have been conquered? What if a Putin-like mad man really did hover his finger over the red button saying, “Allow me to do what I want, or I flick the switch?” Since he was a young man, Tolkien had loved the tales of Norse mythology which are fascinating because like so many mythologies and religious beliefs, end with a climactic battle between good and evil. But in that mythology, the forces of evil won and history ended with Ragnarök, the destruction of the gods.

Tolkien thought a lot about the issues this idea raised: if you knew that evil was going to win, should you just pick the winning side? Should you align with Mordor, switch over to Putin, side with the Nazis? Or was the right thing to do to fight for good, even if you knew that you were going to lose? Tolkien believed that courage meant that it was: as Sam Gamgee puts it powerfully in the movie version of The Two Towers:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? … [But] there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”


Although Tolkien was a deeply committed Christian, this did not lead him to write naïve answers to life’s toughest questions into The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes Christians are caricatured as being tempted to simplistic “it’ll all be right in the end” answers, but Tolkien refused to go that route in his epic novel. However, as he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“I am a Christian … so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains some samples or glimpses of final victory.”[15]

And such glimpses of final victory can likewise be seen within The Lord of the Rings. For example, there are numerous hints of the idea of resurrection (for example Tom Bombadil’s command to the barrow-wight to go ‘where the gates are ever shut, till the world is mended’).[16] Even more powerfully, there is the concept of eucatastrophe, a word coined by Tolkien as the antithesis to ‘catastrophe’ to describe the way that just when things seem their very bleakest, sometimes it turns out that Providence is working something very different behind the scenes. Think of the moment where the armies of Gondor are about to be defeated at the Gates of Mordor whilst simultaneously at the Cracks of Doom all equally seems lost (Frodo has failed and Gollum has recaptured the Ring, only at that very moment to fall over the cliff, plummeting to his and the Ring’s destruction, thus bringing about the end of Sauron’s power). As Tolkien wrote in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:

“[Eucatastrophe] denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [=good news], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[17]

Tolkien was not willing to merely repeat the Christian story, nor to construct a simple allegory (a medium he said he was not fond of) but he scatters hints and pointers to the Christian story throughout The Lord of the Rings—from themes such as evil and courage, or self-sacrifice and self-denial, or joy and hope.[18] Indeed, it is surely no accident that Aragorn, the “king” in The Return of the King also bears an Elvish name, Estel,[19] which means “hope”—a pointer to the return of the true and greater king whose return is our only hope in the face of evil.

Why has The Lord of the Rings had such enduring power? Because Tolkien understood not merely that great stories can be truly captivating, but that the most captivating stories derive their power from the extent to which they foreshadow, hint at, and point to the greatest story of all—the story of the Jesus and his ultimate defeat of evil that has all the greater power because it is true.[20]

[1]       In the book, those words are spoken by Treebeard the Ent, in the chapter ‘Many Partings’ in The Return of the King.

[2]       I wanted to call it Rivendell but my nine-year old daughter, who possesses the gifts of sarcasm and honesty in equal amounts, remarked: “Daddy, Rivendell was the home of the elves, who were six-foot tall and blonde. You’re short and grey. You need a hobbit-y name.” And so Bag End it was.

[3]       Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2000) p. xxvi. I owe many of the observations in this essay to Shippey.

[4]       J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Foreword to the Second Edition’, The Lord of the Rings.

[5]       This is a concept that Nietzsche used repeatedly, initially in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). See also Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (1901).

[6]       ‘Many Meetings’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

[7]       Shippey, Tolkien, p. 128ff.

[8]       ‘The Shadow of the Past’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

[9]       Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 172.

[10]      Matthew 6:13.

[11]      Shippey, Tolkien, p.142.

[12]      Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) p.75.

[13]      ‘The Council of Elrond’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

[14]      ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’, The Fellowship of the Ring.

[15]      J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘From a letter to Amy Ronald 15 December 1956’, Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (editors), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (London: George, Allen & Unwin, 1981).

[16]      ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’, The Fellowship of the Ring. See too the discussion in Shippey, Tolkien, p.178.

[17]      J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories (London: HarperCollins, 2014 [1947]) p.75.

[18]      It is worth noting that when one consults the chronology of The Lord of the Rings found in appendix B of The Return of the King, one discovers that Tolkien has aligned his story with the key dates of the Christian story; for the Fellowship depart from Rivendell on Christmas Day, December 25th, and the Ring is destroyed on March 25th, the traditional date of Easter in the Old English calendar.

[19]      See Appendix A, part V, The Return of the King.

[20]      This was a point that J. R. R. Tolkien made to C. S. Lewis and was instrumental in the latter’s conversion; see Justin Taylor, ‘85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth’, The Gospel Coalition, 20 September 2016, bit.ly/3GrDwUf.