On January 3rd, J. R. R. Tolkien turned 126 years old. Since I’m super into current events like this, it got me thinking it had been a while since I watched the Lord of the Rings movies, or read the book—though I did reread The Silmarillion some time last year. It also got me thinking about what an immense contribution Tolkien made to my life, and the larger world of fantasy in general, and why he means as much as he does, today.
I visited Middle Earth in a rather roundabout way. I bought a ticket on a false premise: my mother, who had read the book nearly two decades before she told me about it, tried to sell the story thus. ‘There’s this world, and there are all these races, and there’s a war brewing. And this one guy has to stop the war.’
‘So who is the Lord of the Rings?’ I asked, impressed by this succinct summary.
‘He’s the rightful ruler of the world, but he’s been missing for a long time.’
‘And the guy has to find him and give his ring to him?’
If you think about it, this summary actually works, if the ‘guy’ in question is a member of the Nazgul. My mother wrote the first revisionist version of Tolkien’s epic, well before it became fashionable. How hipster.
Anyway, you can imagine that, when I actually read the story, it was completely different, the very opposite. Still, though I had been lured to Middle Earth under false premises, I fell in love with it irrevocably. I found it amazing that someone had actually made this place up, and cared enough about it to make up languages. Not just create them, literally build them, accounting for how languages developed and grew, taking into account things like movement of people and their evolving culture. It was quite spectacular.
Now, a lot of people might think that some aspects of Tolkien’s world and work are incredibly dated. The problematic portrayal of women, race and class are some of the reasons why he’s hauled up by critics, as well as the book’s lack of interest in dealing with real-world-style politics, not the kind Dany and the residents of Westeros have to. But no one can deny that Tolkien gave fantasy a mainstream standing, the sort of status make-believe worlds have in the canon and the marketplace alike. And Tolkien also gave fantasy that element that really distinguishes it, in my opinion, from myth: the gift of hope.
Myth and fantasy go hand in hand, yes. Fantasy as a genre borrows a lot from myth, right from the hero’s journey to various monsters and demigods that populate the trove across the world. But where myth is often messy and amoral, fantasy has much clearer vision of what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’. This is probably because they’re usually more…human, being Elves and Dwarves and magic notwithstanding. Yes, characters are increasingly growing darker and have visible shades of grey, but we still know, for all the loss of light and corruption in Westeros, that something makes the Starks more ‘good’ than many of their counterparts, or elevate Dany’s scenes to the level of ‘epic’. Where fantasy loses the vested
religiosity or belief that may be inherent in myth, it retains its ability to induce awe and adds real-world morals. We can care about the people of Middle Earth or Westeros, or any other fantasy world, because they, like us, adhere to certain unspoken ideas of good and evil. Some of them might ignore those codes, like people in the real world do, but they still exist.
The quality of hope has no better personification than Samwise Gamgee, the faithful hobbit of The Lord of the Rings. Sam is really a nobody; he’s Frodo’s gardener, who literally gets hauled into the adventure because he’s eavesdropping outside the window. He has no illusions about himself, and that’s what enables him to succeed on his quest, even where Frodo falters. He makes a promise to get a job done, and he does it. But unlike Frodo, he doesn’t lose the sense of idealism that he started out with. In fact, he periodically reminds Frodo of why they’re doing the things they’re doing, best exemplified in this line: ‘There’s still some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’
At every point in a series, there comes a moment when someone or the other remembers something like this, that there is light (or in the case of Wheel of Time, Light) and that’s why people have to continue doing the ‘right thing’. I would argue that the best example of this sort of ‘hope’ in A Song of Ice and Fire is Dany, who has many such epic aha moments (like when she walks into the fire). The ‘good’ in Westeros is much less abstract than it is in Middle Earth or Potterverse, and everyone is chasing their own agenda, but we root for some more than others because their agendas are less obviously evil, even taking into account the cruel context.
Sam is surprisingly perceptive, and his ability to not just push through, but remain uncorrupted, is one that not many heroes, not even kid hero Harry, can boast of. I’d argue that there’s a bit of him in all of us. ‘There’s some good in this world’ is a surprisingly simple but effective slogan, and honestly, the only way, sometimes, to get through the day.
So here’s to being more like Samwise in 2016.