LotRFI Pt.54–Sauron and Evil

Disclaimer: the nature of evil and the way we interpret it is inherently combined with the worldview of the reader. That means that I cannot effectively discuss the depiction of evil in LotR without addressing how my religious upbringing interacted with my ideas of evil in the world. I try to avoid such religious criticism when I can, but it is essential in this post. Feel free to skip to the next post if you are uninterested in this type of commentary.

Image copyright Ted Nasmith

Since I read LotR as a kid, Sauron was a very effective depiction of evil to me. He was a disembodied, vague figurehead who inspired malice in his followers and crushed or corrupted his enemies. He was able to achieve all of this without ever being seen.

This type of pervasiveness made Sauron seem very complex to me as a child. I had a hard time understanding critiques of evil in LotR as being simplistic or naive. How could it be simplistic if it is able to be so pervasive and influential? To me, raised as a Sothern Baptist, Sauron was an accurate depiction of Satan (not the figure, but the figurehead). I did not understand that what people took issue with was the monolithic appearance of evil. As I think back, my lack of understanding is not very surprising to me.

Now we get to things hard to express in writing, especially plain writing without metaphor: As a child, evil was simple to me. Satan was simple to me. It was anything or anyone who caused pain or disagreed with someone I loved. This included those little thoughts of rebellion inside my own mind. Those things which were labeled as evil were to be avoided instantly. As a child, I did not wait to make distinctions or to problematize the character of evil, I fled it. Therefore, Sauron appeared as complex to me as any other evil, because all evil was monolithic.

To contradict myself, channeling my inner Walt Whitman, just because evil seemed simple does not mean that it was easy to defeat or avoid. The way that Tolkien portrays the Ring made sense to me as a Christian. I saw it as an embodiment of temptation. This is how Boromir was corrupted by it, and why each new character was to be mistrusted. Anyone at any time could feel the pull of the Ring and become ‘evil.’

To try to sum up what I have meant to express here: as a child evil was easy to identify, but impossible to avoid entirely. Sauron was a perfect embodiment of this kind of evil, which overlapped with my understanding of Satan from the Christian tradition. This meant that Sauron was, to me, the most effective antagonist I had ever encountered.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To examine Aragorn as a king, and then to start the homeward journey!

What Do You Think?

How did Tolkien’s depiction of Sauron interact with your view of evil?
How did you understand the Ring’s pull on other characters?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.53–Mount Doom

The consistent theme surrounding Mount Doom is whether Frodo fails in his quest. I must admit that this was not an issue to me in my first reading. “Failure” was not really a concept I questioned at all. The quest, in the end, was successful, and Frodo played the largest part in it. Therefore, I saw Frodo as a successful hero. Granted, this interpretation has been problematized over the years, but it is an accurate account of my initial response.

Image copyright Alan Lee

I observed all the instances foreshadowing Frodo’s decision in my subsequent reading. In that first experience, though, Frodo’s refusal to destroy the Ring was an utter shock. Then I read as one dumbfounded as Gollum’s greed brought about the destruction of the Ring. This was certainly a plot twist unlike almost anything else I had read up to that point in my life. Again, I knew that there was no such thing as coincidence in Middle-earth, therefore this seemed like a providential moment. I remembered Frodo’s recollection of Gandalf’s words just prior to entering the heart of the mountain, and the idea of mercy rang through for me, even as a child.

A quick side note, I should mention that, for all the faux grief aimed at Tolkien for calling this most important place Mount Doom, I always rather liked the name. It reminded me of the simple names of the Shire, and made the end seem not so distant or so harsh as it ultimately was.

As a final note, the escape from Mount Doom on the wings of the Eagles was certainly an unlooked-for joy to me. The deterministic coincidences leading up to this occurrence prepared me to accept it as a significant aspect of Middle-earth, not as some form of Deus ex Machina from Tolkien himself. Of course the Eagles came: they were part of the fate that governed the quest from the beginning! This made sense to me in my first reading.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To think about Sauron and Evil, then Aragorn as King.

What Do You Think?

How did you react to the events on Mount Doom?
Which surprised you the most?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.52–Frodo

I have waited this long to address Frodo as a character because he was one of the most difficult characters for me to understand in my first reading. While the narration often seems to hover around Frodo, it was never clear to me what his motivations were or how he was truly feeling, especially in Book VI.

Image copyright John Howe

Frodo was my least favorite of the hobbits when I first read LotR. I found him very difficult to identify with because he seemed more focused than the other hobbits and, generally, kept his gaze toward greater concerns than the others. In a way, it strikes me now, Frodo is a more adult figure than the other hobbits. While he is not on the level of the Big People with his knowledge and experience, he is more mature and worldly than any of the hobbits, or at least he acts that way. I never liked Frodo’s character very much because he struck me as the patient sufferer, a role I never have been able to relate to; I have often been accused of not suffering fools gladly.

Even though this is the case, I still respected him greatly for the role he plays in destroying the Ring. When I heard others contend that Sam, not Frodo, was the true hero of LotR, I was defensive immediately. Frodo carries a burden unique from the rest of the Fellowship. I understood that distinction instantly, and felt that awarding the title of hero to anyone else was demeaning that burden. While I admired Frodo and thought him the true hero of the story, I could not see much of myself in him.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To Mount Doom, then to think about Sauron and the nature of Evil in LotR​.

What Do You Think?

How did you first read Frodo as a character?
How did he compare to the other hobbits?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.51–Cirith Ungol

Book VI was very different from anything I remember reading before it. The brooding darkness of Mordor sat on every page, and the malaise of the place seemed to imbue itself into me as I read. I remember wishing that I could read about Gondor again and feeling slighted that I was left uncertain as to the outcome of the battle at the Black Gate. Frodo and Sam seemed like two very unlikely heroes in this setting, surrounded by darkness and so vastly outnumbered that their quest seemed impossible; however, I am getting ahead of myself.

Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

The Tower of Cirith Ungol was a pinnacle of Frodo and Sam’s journey. Here I experienced Sam’s meta-moments again, his commentary on how good always shines out among the darkness. I have felt this passage keenly in subsequent readings. In my first readings, though, it seemed like wishful thinking. Sam projecting what he wants to be true on his physical surroundings instead of observing what is verifiable in the moment.

This made his song that much more awe-inspiring to me. In the face of utter defeat, Sam sings a song of courage and fortitude. This took my breath away. The fact that this song is what helps him find Frodo was mind-bending to me. I would have said that it was far too coincidental, if I believed that coincidence was possible in Middle-earth at the time. I already knew that coincidence was just another word for fate, or destiny, in this story. I believed that there was a purpose or reason (perhaps these descriptors should be capitalized, but I am no theologian) behind the events of the story, and that was the only reason why I did not feel the plot a bit forced here.

As a side-note: the escape from Cirith Ungol and the trudge across Mordor have the unenviable designation as those passages that I remember least from my first reading. In fact, I did not realize that a Wraith descends upon Cirith Ungol until a second reading.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s take a look at Frodo, then Mount Doom!

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of the Mordor scenes?
What was your favorite scene from the Tower of Cirith Ungol?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.50–The Last Stand

This part of the text has an odd place in my recollection. I remember thinking about how each man who took part in this march was remarkably brave, and how I could relate to the men whom Aragorn allowed to turn back and accomplish a lesser deed because their valor faltered. I cannot remember a time when I felt as much tension or anticipation for the battle before the Black Gates as I did for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Honestly, the largest part of this campaign that I remember is Pippin’s experience in the final battle. His narrative voice as the battle begins, and then the way his story is obscured by unconsciousness reminded me of Bilbo. This was especially true when the Eagles appear and Pippin claims that they were

‘in [Bilbo’s] tale, long long ago’ (RK, V, x, 893).

Just over the precipice of such a great battle, the narration cuts short and leaves much to the reader’s imagination. It is not until several chapters later that a recap of this battle is given, and in a very detached manner (except for the emotional asides from the tellers). Not only is this a trick of narrative to add suspense, but it puts Pippin squarely in the Bilbo-like (Bilboian? Bilboic?) role, which was significant in my first reading.

Image copyright John Howe

Aside from this one aspect, the other parts of this chapter were less engrossing to me than the previous chapters. I followed Aragorn’s logic, and I thought that he led his campaign well, I just had a difficult time investing in these events. I think that part of my lack of investment is because I did not believe that they would die—this is probably in large part because I realized that half the book remained ahead of me, and I had no knowledge that the narrative would jump over and follow Frodo and Sam for much of the next book.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed the interaction between Sauron’s messenger and Aragorn/Gandalf. Their acerbic back-and-forth and posturing was very interesting to me.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Into Book VI with Frodo and Sam!

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of these passages and what did you think of the Mouth of Sauron?
​Did you connect Pippin and Bilbo?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!