Social Sensitivity

In his preface to the trilogy, Tolkien distinguishes between allegory and applicability in literature. While he disclaims having imposed any allegorical significance on his story, he asserts the right of readers to apply the story as they see fit. In light of this disclaimer, it seems contrary to his intention to interpret The Lord of the Rings as political or social allegory, as some critics have done. On the other hand, readers in all generations can apply to their own age some of the overall principles embodied in the trilogy. The fact, for example, that elves, dwarves, hobbits, and human beings can set aside “racial” differences to work together for the welfare of Middle-earth can be extended to a hope that modern human races can set aside their differences, no more deeply embedded than the distrust between dwarves and elves.

Many battles take place in Middle-earth-often violent and bloody ones. The heroes fight bravely, sometimes against terrible odds, but nowhere do the “good” characters rejoice in fighting, except perhaps when Fangorn and the ents delight in overthrowing the tree destroyers, Saruman and his orcs, or when Legolas and Gimli compete in the number of orcs slain. Before the Battle of Bywater, after the return to the Shire, Frodo directs his companions to avoid killing their enemies if possible. Even Saruman would have been spared if his own cruelty had not provoked the enslaved Grima to turn against him.

Evil is readily recognizable by its ugliness and by its fruits. Goodness is equally recognizable, and its fruits are more lasting. The author does not preach, but his good characters exemplify in action the virtues of mercy, perseverance, generosity, and friendship. Sauron, Saruman, and the Ringwraiths all embody the vices of hatred, greed, and the thirst for power. The influence of Sauron on those who once were normal men demonstrates the pervasiveness of evil, as does the ugliness of Sauron’s land, Mordor. While the destruction of Sauron and the Ringwraiths suggests that evil can be overcome, it does not imply that the destruction of a major source of evil eliminates all evil. The Southrons continue to fight after Sauron’s power collapses, Saruman’s petty destroyers of good continue their work in the Shire, and Aragorn finds it necessary to establish guardians for his borders. Middle-earth after Sauron is no utopia, but it is a world very much like ours, one worth cultivating to bring forth beauty and goodness. In Gondor and in the Shire hope lives on.

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