Published on June 23, 2021
J. R. R. Tolkien never got far in writing a sequel to “The Lord of the Rings.” He found it “depressing” work and despite a few attempts, the project, tentatively titled “The New Shadow,” never made it past the first chapter. The story would have been something of a thriller, with the peace established after the defeat of Sauron threatened by plots and cults arising from the “inevitable boredom of Men with the good.”
This insight certainly applies to the current leadership of the Tolkien Society (of which Tolkien himself was once president), which has decided to desecrate his work. The group’s latest academic seminar includes presentations such as “Transgender Realities in The Lord of the Rings,” “The Queer in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” and “Destabilizing Cishetero Amatonormativity in the Works of Tolkien.” Were these papers honest scholarship, they would be blank pages. Tolkien was a faithful Catholic whose work reflected his beliefs.
But as Tolkien knew, men are easily bored and dissatisfied, even with the good. So these scholars are narcissistically appropriating Tolkien’s greatness to serve the latest intellectual fashions, rather than appreciating it and engaging with it honestly. Whether just to impress tenure committees or out of true radicalism, these scholars approach Tolkien’s work as Sauron did Middle-Earth — with a lust for domination.
Projecting modern ideological obsessions onto Tolkien’s creation attempts to intellectually subdue someone else’s work. Of course, reading a text always includes interpretation, but interpretation is engagement, not control. Interpretation presumes Tolkien is speaking, or writing, to us. We may actively respond to what he wrote, and even bring our current concerns into our reading, but the author and his creation must be respected as partners in dialogue.
We must be willing to be led by the text — and to accept a “no” from it. The text will not always tell us what we want to hear, and the author might have been horrified at the thought of what we want. To read what we want into the text anyway is to dictate to the work and its author, rather than conversing with them.
Efforts to use Tolkien’s masterpiece to advance today’s ideological fashions arise from our culture’s overwhelming narcissism — assuming tales of Middle-Earth have to be about us and the preoccupations of the moment. For all of their talk of diversity and multiculturalism, people reading through this narcissistic lens cannot bear much variety, or stories about anything but them and their concerns.
This is why so much film, television, and fictional writing is drearily similar, despite a multitude of settings. Whether sci-fi, fantasy, or historical drama, the characters always seem to think and speak in recognizably modern terms. Writers invent worlds and then fill them with stock characters and stories from our own time.
Predictably, this produces bad art and entertainment that is quickly obsolete. Today’s works will soon be out of fashion and perhaps denounced as problematic in their turn. As a result, there’s an incentive to appropriate great works of the past and absorb them into the latest trends.
Some trying to find transgenderism in Tolkien may feel they are doing him a favor; instead of denouncing him, they are finding ways to integrate him (albeit not without problematizing and critiquing him) into today’s vogue opinions. It’s a bit like what Augustine did for Platonism and Aquinas did for Aristotle, only here it is the Catholic writer being brought into a new, post-Christian system of belief.
But this effort illuminates the folly of trying to make Tolkien’s work compatible with today’s trends. The endurance of “The Lord of the Rings,” along with “The Hobbit” and various materials edited and posthumously published by Christopher Tolkien, is not because of the Tolkien Society and its dubious scholarship. These books and their stories are timeless because they present a vision of goodness and beauty far better than what is offered today.
Critics have scorned Tolkien’s tales of magic and monsters as adolescent, but it is our culture that idolized self-indulgent perpetual adolescence. Tolkien’s works use armies of monsters commanded by an incarnate Dark Lord to illustrate adult virtues and moral complexity. His moral vision is far more advanced than those who worship their own desires as the highest good.
For readers who heed him, Tolkien instills a longing for that which is noble and beautiful, and instructs us in the need for humility and kindness. He also tells a good story, which keeps readers coming back.
“The Lord of the Rings” provides an antidote to the problem Tolkien identified in his abandoned sequel. Against the human propensity to become bored, even with peace and plenty, Tolkien sets a story that kindles the moral imagination to aspire to that which is great and beautiful. His work will therefore always resist those who seek to pervert it to their own ends.