It’s Time to Remember Tolkien
The Shadow is a small and passing thing.
It is somehow fitting that the great cultural confrontation of the moment is between George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien. Within weeks of each other, two of the most expensive television series of all time debuted on competing networks. HBO is broadcasting House of the Dragon, a Game of Thrones prequel. Amazon Prime is streaming Rings of Power, a prequel to Lord of the Rings.
I’m not here to compare and contrast the two shows. I’ve seen the first few episodes of both, and enjoy them both, but it’s way too early to know what either show will ultimately become. When Game of Thrones debuted on HBO in 2011, its good (but not great) pilot didn’t exactly forecast that the show would eventually become a world-spanning pop culture phenomenon.
Instead, I want to talk about the spirit of the two authors, and the ethos of their two worlds, and why America desperately needs to remember Tolkien again. Back in 2017, just before the premiere of season seven of Game of Thrones—when the show was at the apex of its influence and quality—I wrote a cover story for National Review magazine about the reasons why it had become a sensation.
There were the obvious elements: The story itself is compelling, the writing was (usually) masterful, and the performances were outstanding. But there was something else. Though set in an ancient, mythical land, its ethos felt thoroughly familiar.
Aside from the fight against the White Walkers in the north, the heart of the story wasn’t a classic tale of good and evil, but rather something far more grim. As I wrote, the show (and books) depicted an “amoral society, unmoored from its traditions and full of entitled and ambitious men and women who compete for power with unrestrained viciousness.”
Though there is some sense that one ruler might be better than another (see, for example, Daenerys Targaryen’s famous “break the wheel” monologue), the show took a sledgehammer to moral ideals. Honorable characters were picked off one by one, and the message seemed clear—pursuing virtuous ends by virtuous means was a fool’s errand.
At the same time, Martin was clear-eyed enough to recognize that pursuing virtuous ends by vicious means had its own costs. Either way, virtue is lost. In a profound way, the books and the show made us look in a mirror–the show was a mirror of modern American sensibilities and showed the consequences of modern American morality.
And what were those consequences? Here’s how I ended my piece: “Perhaps the true rule of the game of thrones isn’t “Win or die” but rather “Win and die.” The quest for power, unmoored from virtue, is the doom of us all.”
Tolkien is fundamentally different. If Martin’s work is a mirror, Tolkien’s is stained glass. When you walk into an ancient cathedral, aside from the sheer grandeur of the building itself, the first thing you notice is the stained glass, but not just for its beauty. The glass is a source of light, and the glass typically tells a story—the story of sin and redemption.
You can’t separate Lord of the Rings from Tolkien the man and Tolkien’s time. Tolkien had been to Mordor. He’d fought in the Battle of the Somme in World War I, one of the deadliest battles in all of human history. And it was fought across the blasted landscape of trench warfare, a place drained of all beauty and humanity.
Tolkien had also lived through World War II. He started writing Lord of the Rings in 1937, when Hitler was on the rise. He finished after Hitler’s apocalyptic fall. Tolkien’s work is sophisticated, but it is not written in shades of gray. Evil is very, very real, and while the forces of good might be divided, uncertain, and all too fallible, they are still good.
What makes Tolkien’s work unique is the moral heart of his story and the consistency with which he maintains it. Rather than reveling in the acquisition and exercise of power, “The Lord of the Rings” celebrates its renunciation, insisting that the domination of others is always morally wrong.
You see this in the contrast between two brothers in Lord of the Rings, Boromir and Faramir. Boromir is famously mystified that the beleaguered, outnumbered allies won’t use the great power of the One Ring to defeat their enemies. He ultimately reaches for that power, attempting to seize it by force. He fails, at great cost.
Pages later, Frodo falls into Faramir’s hands, and Faramir learns what Frodo holds:
The One Ring that was thought to have perished from the world. And Boromir tried to take it by force? And you escaped? And ran all the way—to me! And here in the wild I have you: two halflings, and a host of men at my call, and the Ring of Rings. A pretty stroke of fortune! A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality!”
This is the moment of maximum vulnerability. And yet, Faramir chooses a different path:
I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.
One cannot truly defeat the enemy with the enemy’s tools. The ends cannot justify the means, even if the cost of that virtue is ruin and destruction. Tolkien knew that the alternative, the grasp for ultimate power, meant that the contest between good and evil would be transformed into a contest between evils. The raw quest for power will corrupt all it touches.
This is one of the central themes of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s tale of the First Age of Middle Earth and the elves’ great war against Morgoth, an enemy even darker and more powerful than Sauron. While the elves are capable of great acts of courage and building a civilization of great beauty, they’re haunted and ultimately doomed by the Oath of Fëanor, a declaration of eternal enmity against anyone who would withhold the Silmarils (three great jewels) from Fëanor or any of his sons.
But that disaster brings us to the other indispensable elements of Tolkien’s work, the elements that are utterly missing from Martin’s—faith and hope. “Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien once wrote, “is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” At the same time, he also said that it “is neither allegorical nor topical.” In fact, Tolkien said that he “cordially dislike[s] allegory in all its manifestations.”
So don’t read his work like you C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. There is no direct Aslan/Christ figure in Tolkien’s books. But you cannot read this, one of the most famous passages in Lord of the Rings, and not see where Tolkien’s heart lies. This is written from Sam’s perspective, while he and Frodo struggle, hopeless, through the heart of Mordor on their fools’ errand to destroy the ring:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
To become the shadow to defeat the shadow is to forsake that light and high beauty. It’s to substitute the small and passing for the great and eternal. This is a thoroughly biblical ethic, one grounded in the notion that “anyone who finds his life will lose it, and anyone who loses his life because of me will find it.”
In Martin’s Westeros, the rule is different. When you lose, you lose. Thus, while he is grimly realistic about the consequences of the will to power, he offers no hope beyond it. His world is a world of unredeemed Boromirs, and the Faramirs are ground into dust.
But the mirror can lie. The stained glass tells the full truth.
Why does America need to remember Tolkien again? Because we’re mired in Westeros, playing the game of thrones. When you hear words like “fight fire with fire,” or “make them play by their own rules,” or “punch back twice as hard,” or “wield power to reward friends and punish enemies,” you’re hearing an ethos that declares, “win or die.”
Tolkien wasn’t naive. He knew that world. He’d confronted it directly. That’s why characters like Boromir or Fëanor resonate so strongly. In the quest to confront the enemy, you become the enemy. Yet faithful people understand, in Faramir’s words, that they “do not wish for such triumphs.” Instead, they fix their eyes on the “high beauty” that is forever beyond the shadow’s reach.
That’s not a retreat. In many ways, it’s the most courageous form of confrontation. It’s an act of faith that often defies our senses. Everything in us screams at us to claim the ring—to reach for power—and in our frailty, we often yield to that call. But there are no stakes high enough for such a compromise. Even if America is “falling in ruin” and we alone could save her, using the instruments of darkness “for her good and [our] glory,” we cannot become what we oppose.
One more thing …
How do we understand the times in which we live? In this week’s Good Faith podcast, Curtis and I discuss the problem of perspective, and how our recency bias can foster fear and panic. We talk about how God plays the long game, and we should also. Curtis has some fascinating insights. If you haven’t listened before, now’s a great time to start.
One last thing …
Lately I’ve been listening to music by Rich Mullins, a Christian artist who meant a great deal to me in college and law school. He died in a car accident in 1997, and it’s hard to find good video recordings of his music on YouTube. But this recent cover of one of his songs “If I Stand” is wonderful. Enjoy: