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Angela Sardella
Literature of Tolkien and Lewis
March 1, 2006

Summary: Tolkien in the Land of Heroes, by Anne C. Petty

The world Tolkien created is enormous, and involves many different stories. Trying to force the whole book into one theme is impossible and destructive. However, there are thematic ideas, which are expressed by all the different elements of the story and the way it's told. Anne Petty chose several themes to discuss, but focused a great deal on the "context in which Tolkien presents these themes." The three themes she chose to focus on are "consequences of power," "the sense of loss," and "the need for heroes." However, she also uses the "umbrella theme" of "myth of the fall." With the chapters divided into these four parts, Tolkien and the Land of Heroes discusses topics that are found within Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien himself says that there is no story without a fall, so this idea is featured in his works. Nothing in his world began as essentially evil, yet evil and evil characters are essential to his stories. The question then becomes, according to Petty, "who falls and why, how do they fall, and what are the effects on Middle-Earth and its inhabitants?" (p. 29) Different characters fall in different ways, based on their weaknesses and character traits. Their falls can have far-reaching consequences on themselves and the whole of Middle-Earth. The fall of Melkor, who later becomes Morgoth, in The Silmarillion, is the first one that Petty discusses. By adding his own themes in the creation music, he defies Illùvatar and brings an element of discord and strife into Middle-Earth. However, as Petty notes, it is important to remember that Illùvatar allows it to remain. Evil does not enter Middle-Earth from outside - "the potential for its development is there from the beginning." (p. 42) Melkor's fall comes from his ambition to create, and his decision to strive for the upper hand over Illùvatar. From his fall comes a multitude of others. For instance, Melkor/Morgoth's fall has a direct influence on the fall of Sauron. Sauron is heavily influenced by Morgoth, his obsession with power, and his desire for destruction. However, his interest is less in destruction and more in the desire to "become the dominant power over Middle-earth and have its inhabitants look on him as their god." (p. 57) Sauron then focuses "much of his lesser power" into the One Ring, so that he can enslave others "from a distance and not need to confront them physically at all." (p. 59) His evil comes from his will to dominate, and his willingness to do whatever necessary to ensure his control. The influence of Sauron's fall is obvious - besides the terror he spreads throughout Middle-Earth, he corrupts others such as Saruman, Denethor, and to some extent Théoden. The effects of each of their falls continue to spread throughout Middle-Earth, with many different results. There are also falls within each race, and they happen in different ways. Petty follows the story of each race's fall, but in general, their characteristics can be corrupted and exploited. Whether it be a desire for power, pride, or simply possessiveness, all of these traits come from within and can be dangerous to those who have them.

Directly from this "umbrella theme" of the myth of the fall comes the themes of the nature of evil and the consequences of power. The imagery that Tolkien uses to surround evil is one way to discover its nature - he repeatedly uses descriptions of "shadow" and "flame" to describe it. However, Petty notes that just like Morgoth, neither of these began as evil. Flame originally signified the spark of life, and shadow represented wonder and possibility. But under the corruption of Morgoth, flame meant destruction and violence, and shadow contained danger and unknown fears. For Morgoth, evil came from "the desire to increase his personal power," and he doesn't become truly evil until he "begins to use it deliberately to inflict suffering on beings outside himself." (p. 104) Keeping with the idea of shadow, evil also comes from the concept of terror and fear. The Nazgûl, for instance, are "sinister faceless apparitions," that inspire terror in all the come in contact with. When Frodo walks down the tunnel towards Shelob's lair, he does not know what lies ahead, and there is apprehension and fear that is worse or just as bad as the giant spider herself. These are a few of the examples of the forms that evil takes, but there are many more. Petty discusses the various manifestations of evil in different characters and creatures, but in the end it is obvious that Tolkien had no one blueprint for evil. He dealt with the issue of power in much the same way - it takes many different forms and shapes. Petty specifically focuses on the "contrast between internal (individual, innate) and external (national, mechanistic) expressions of power." (p. 138) However, she also clarifies that they can both be used for good or for evil - "what really matters is who has the power and how they use it given the circumstances in which they find themselves." (p. 139) The Valar possess inner, divine power, but in Melkor it becomes corrupted and evil. This comes in contrast with Gandalf, who possesses inner power, but does not use it for evil. Petty also points out that one great power of many people within Tolkien's universe is the power of voice. This power is used for "evil purpose by Saruman and to avert evil by Gandalf." (p. 147) Gandalf also uses it in Rivendell when he uses the Black Speech to say what's written on the One Ring, and in Bag End to scare Bilbo into giving up the Ring. Saruman, on the other hand, uses it to exert control over Théoden, the Rohirrim, and many other people - it is one of his most famous powers. He uses it to enslave people, unlike Gandalf, who uses it to protect them. On the other hand, there is also external power, which comes from objects such as magic rings or powerful swords. Objects such as the One Ring were created because of a desire for possession and the imposing of personal will on everyone else. Objects of power have the promise of extended power - but it is not a permanent thing. The Elvish rings that were created to protect Middle-Earth cannot stop decay or bring things to life - they simply enhance the power of the bearer. However, for some objects, what is most important is how the owner of the object chooses to use it. The palantíri are not innately evil, but they can be used for evil purposes. In one sense, the One Ring must be destroyed because it can be used only for evil. In many cases, external power follows the same rules as internal power - it is the way it is used that determines its nature.

Another very important theme in Tolkien's work is the sense of loss, the idea that time cannot be turned back and that there is an inevitable sadness in what Petty calls "the impermanence of our universe." (p. 178) She then asks if immortality would really be paradise or if we really want permanence. Tolkien addresses this question in the contrast between men and elves. Elves "must remain on earth until the world ends" (p. 178), and this, to many of them, is a burden. Tolkien was familiar with the sense of the relentless movement of time, and it plays a heavy part in the lives of the population of Middle-Earth. He also uses it in his world creation, in the feeling that his world is enormous. The elves, who have seen all the ages of the Earth, feel an incredible sense of loss in the aging of the world. The men are given the "gift" of mortality and free will, but, as Petty says, "this practically ensures that they will be endowed with a restlessness and dissatisfaction...which could lead them into all sorts of temptation." There is tension between men and elves as a result - both envy each other and their separate gifts. But there are many other relationships that are explored in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien incorporates the theme of love between elves and humans as well as relationships between Aragorn and Eowyn, the Ents and the Entwives, and many more. There are themes of friendship and companionship in the whole Fellowship as well as between certain members. Melancholy can come from the loss or lack of fulfillment of any of these relationships. Petty discusses certain examples of this sadness, such as Théoden's grief over his son Theodred, or Denethor's madness as a result of the loss of his beloved son Boromir. In all cases, the sense of loss is closely linked with personal relationships. It is also related to Tolkien's love of nature. Assault of the natural world plays a big role in his stories, and it is well-known that he loved "the outdoors and the wildness of the natural world." (p. 219) All over Middle-Earth, in both the farming of men and hobbits and the destruction caused by the Orcs, nature is threatened. The Elves lament this change and "long for the loss of their ancient knowledge." (p. 232) Yet Petty says that, in the case of farming and agrarian habitation, "Tolkien was willing to accept some level of control over nature as long as things were put right in the end." (p. 235) He condemns the evil destruction and machinery of the Orcs, but raises the question of whether it is okay to farm it. According to Petty, "he suggests that loss can't be avoided, but it can be managed." In some ways, this is a good treatment of the sense of loss - it is there and must be dealt with on many levels, but it can be managed and, mournful and changed though we may be as a result, we can still go on with our lives.

There is much darkness in Tolkien's books, and in them, evil is one of the central themes. However, they are not completely dark or depressing, because there are also extremely important elements of heroism and hope. In looking at the heroes of Lord of the Rings, Petty draws from the descriptions of heroes set forth by Northrup Frye, and adds one hero type of her own. She then follows the journeys of several different heroes within Tolkien's books, analyzing them based on these hero guidelines. Beginning at the top of the hierarchy with the Mythic Hero, she describes Gandalf's role in Lord of the Rings. As the Mythic Hero guidelines dictate, Gandalf has supernatural powers, and his story revolves around a grand theme of saving the world. His role is that of a guide and a leader - he uses his great power to lead people in the right direction. Gandalf is still susceptible to mistakes - he gives Saruman the benefit of the doubt and goes to him for council, even though he "should have seen the potential danger." (p. 270) Gandalf stops tracking Gollum when he leaves the Shire, and later finds out that he was headed for Mordor. He does fulfill his mission of the completion of the Ring Quest, but even though he plays an important part in that Quest, he is not the only hero. In fact, there is no one hero. Many characters fill the roles of heroes, but it is only by their combined efforts that Middle-Earth is saved. Frodo, for instance, is "the hero of choice for many readers," (p. 276) and his journey is easy to identify with. He is an ordinary person with a comfortable life, but also has "a concern for others" that "becomes both his doom and his saving grace." (p. 277) He goes on the Ring Quest to "protect not just his comfy Shire but all the world." (p. 278) Along the way, his compassion becomes more pronounced - carrying the Ring gives him "a pity for wretchedness that doesn't show up until he's had a taste of it himself." (p. 277) Frodo goes from wanting Gollum to be killed to pitying him, because he has some idea of what Gollum has been through. This sympathy turns out to be very useful - because he saved Gollum's life, when he finally gives into the Ring, Gollum is there cause its destruction. It is Frodo's choices that lead to the Ring's destruction, even if he himself did not throw it into the fire. And yet, it cannot be claimed that he is the only hero. There are many other characters that have a heavy influence on the destruction of the Ring. Petty also discusses Aragorn, Sam, and even Saruman (as a tragic hero), and their heroic influence on the Ring Quest. As she says, "all of Tolkien's heroes are flawed or conflicted in some way...they may be archetypes, but they are not stereotypes." (p. 286) Likewise, he is a master at having them interact. All of their journeys are woven together so that the story could not happen if one hero was missing.

In the concluding chapter of her book, Petty discusses the theme of "hope and the human spirit." The heroes succeed because of their persisting hope, no matter how faint it is or how horrible the odds are. As she says, "Tolkien's books must be offering readers something more than mere escapism...given their longevity on the bestsellers lists. It's the 'applicability'...of the characters and their exploits that matter." Tolkien believed that there was still good in human nature, and that characteristics like Frodo's mercy or Sam's persistent hope would offer "a way to emulate the divine and perhaps secure mercy for oneself." (p. 301) Although his books are epic and elevated, his characters are individual and real. The themes still resonate today, and it is because of these elements that the book has lasted and will continue to last throughout the ages.

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