Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings / Matthew Dickerson -- Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003

A common criticism of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is that it glorifies war and violence.  It is not hard to draw this conclusion in light of the numerous battle scenes depicted in the work and the military heroism of many of its main characters.  According to Matthew Dickerson, such a reading is superficial and a more discerning reader will see exactly the reverse.  War and violence are not glorified.  They are portrayed as the horrible acts of evil forces.  The wisest of the characters are repelled by war and violence and only resort to it out of desperate necessity.

Central to Dickerson's argument is an examination of the words, actions, and motivations of Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Frodo, and Faramir.  Dickerson rightly observes that the most thoughtful and insightful commentary about war and violence come from these "wisest" characters.  Each exhibits a deep reluctance to engage in violence and in the case of Gandalf, Faramir, and Frodo, the characters overtly recognize the moral  value of their adversaries. Gandalf is noted as saying, "Many that live deserve death.  And some that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  For even the very wise cannot see all ends."  Gandalf pities Sauron's slaves, Faramir regrets the death of a man deceived by Sauron to fight against Gondor, and Frodo shows mercy, time again, to Gollum.

One of the most telling passages in condemnation of war comes from Faramir:  "War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.  Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise."  And against violence, Frodo is noted as saying, "Fight?" said Frodo.  "Well I suppose it may come to that.  But remember: there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side.  Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians' orders because they are frightened....And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped.  Keep your tempers and hold your hands to the last possible moment!"

One might wonder if these statements by characters that are certainly portrayed as wise by Tolkien are enough to contradict the general martial tone of much of the story, but Dickerson does an admirable job revealing nuances in the story and its telling that strengthen his conclusions.  After reading Following Gandalf one understands how The Lord of the Rings became so popular among the anti-war college students of the 1960s and 1970s.   War was upon us.  What was morally significant was how we dealt with it.

There is much more in Following Gandalf that deserves attention:  the importance of moral victory as opposed to military victory, mediation on freedom and creativity, power, hope and despair, and the Christian elements in the work.  There is, however, at least one current in Tolkien's work that is overlooked (or at least under-examined and that is what Tolkien thought of as the a great virtue of Northern European peoples: the willingness to remain true to one's duty in the face of certain defeat.  Certainly this virtue is most clearly revealed in times of war, but it is by no means inapplicable in other circumstances.  So too the nearly pacifist wisdom of many of Tolkien's characters hold lessons for us beyond the obvious circumstances of the novel.

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