In Search of Better Stories

Perseverance Pays off in my March Through Middle Earth 

    I decided to persevere in the stony ground and vast deserts of Middle Earth, and at long last, I found gold.

     The awkward songs diminished, and the long, tiring discussions of Elvin’s etymology ceased. Hobitan law and Middle Earth geography lessons faded away. Prancing Tom Bombadil vanished, and finally, mercifully, happily, we got down to it. — The Story

And I must say it is a good one.

     The Hobbits come through. It’s impossible not to love Samwise and Frodo and Hobbits in general. They possess everything good about humans, minus the bad stuff. Hobbits are not enamoured with power, control, and status; wealth doesn’t have the same damning effect on them as it does us. Greed is a foreign concept. They like the simple things. Beer, good company, lots of food, pipeweed, and long stories told around the fire. They don’t have any need to fight, but if it comes down to it, there is no one braver.

     The bad guys deliver. There is nobody like poor bi-polar Gollum; he is a one-of-a-kind character. He is wicked, courageous, selfish, and inventive. As you get to know him, you almost feel for the little wretch as he self-destructs in the search for his precious.

     While I loved the overall story, I will leave the telling of it to others. My interest lies chiefly in answering the following questions.

 

      1. Why do the good guys rarely slay their enemies outright?

      1. Why do we love the underdog story?

         Why do the good guys rarely slay their enemies outright?

         Over the course of three very large books, Gollum never ceases in his hunt for the Hobbits. Duplicity and murder are number one and two in his playbook to get the ring back. By the time we get to the Shelob part of the story, Gollum’s life has already been spared once or twice. He doesn’t care about Hobbiton’s mercy; he lures them right in so the massive spider can kill Frodo and Samwise. Miraculously, the Hobbits survive the trap, but if Gollum ever shows up again, and the Hobbits best him in battle, surely his life is forfeit, right?

         Wrong! On Mount Mordor, he re-surfaces to murder the beleaguered Hobbits; he is defeated and should be killed. Look, I really liked Gollum; he is a complex character with a fascinating backstory and features that make the reader care about the poor wretch, but the ring makes him irredeemably wicked. Even still, Frodo, against Sam’s better judgment, lets him go. Frodo doesn’t want to be the one who chooses life or death for another creature. But all of us readers know that he can’t live anymore. He is too much of a threat to our heroes. He has crossed that line, so what does the author do? He finds a way to kill the villain without having the good guys do the dirty work. A struggle, a finger chomped off, a cliff by the side of a volcano, greed for the ring, a stumble, and that’s the end of Gollum.

         The same thing happens to the duplicitous wizard Saruman at the end of book three. Even though this rotten wizard has destroyed the Shire and spilled Hobbition’s blood, Frodo won’t judge him. To the shock of all, he chooses mercy and lets him go. It was almost a terrible mistake; the wizard stabs Frodo as he leaves, which would have been the hero’s end had it not been for his body armour, but no matter, Frodo, rubbing his bruised side, proceeds to let the unrepentant villain go. It’s wrong; of course, it’s wrong; all of us readers are disgusted by this idiotic gesture of mercy. The author senses the breach of morality we are all feeling, so he conveniently deputizes the wizard’s evil servant to kill the scoundrel, and we all sigh with justice-filled relief.

         Tolkien wants us to believe that the best people in the world are not vindictive; they don’t hold grudges, and they are quick to forgive. They believe that good will ultimately overcome evil, but more than that, they believe good sometimes even controls evil, using it to accomplish an even greater good. If it weren’t for evil Gollum, Frodo would have never been able to rid himself of the ring. The ring had finally corrupted even this most noble and pure of Hobbits. As he stood at the flaming mount, he was overcome by its power. He could not destroy the ring. If Gollum hadn’t lurched forward, bit Frodo’s finger, and stumbled with the ring into the inferno below, Middle Earth would have been lost. It seems to me that in Tolkein’s mind, evil must always be swallowed up by good. Evil, though terrifying and dangerous, can never win. Evil is a boomerang that will, in the end, always strike itself, and I suppose that is why the heroes don’t always feel the need to smite evil wherever they find it. Mercy is better because maybe forgiveness will make evil disappear, but even if it doesn’t, evil will eventually collapse in on itself.

         For me, who is the hero? Is it merciful Frodo who forgives bad guys even to his own peril, or is it Sam wise who knows a bad egg when he sees one and has the courage to strike? It has to be a bit of both.

         The application in real life for me is that forgiveness is the right course, but justice must also be served. Backdrooping this tension is the firm belief that evil will ultimately fail and sometimes so spectacularly that it gets used as a tool for good. — Envision Gollum tumbling into the lava lake, gripping the ring and screaming, “My precious!”

    Why do we love the underdog story?

        In a world dominated by male heroes, a she-warrior arises who we all love. She wants to join the fight to save her country, but Aragorn gives her the “stay home with the women and children.” speech. Eowyn doesn’t agree with the future King’s gender role perspective and tells him so in no uncertain terms. This is significant given that the story was written in the 1950s. Disagreement turns to disobedience. She disguises herself as a man and heads off to war. It’s a good thing, too, because there is a nasty creature that strikes down her father and stands ready to kill vast swaths of good guys. Eowyn stands over her fallen father and bars the beast from its finishing blow. She threatens to smite the fearsome monster should he step any closer. The creature laughs spitefully and tells her that no man can stand before him, to which she whips off her helmet, unfurling her golden tresses, and says as she raises her sword in defiance,

    “I am no man!”

    Against all odds, Eowyn, with the help of a brave little hobbit, wins the fight.

         We love the underdog story, don’t we? Why? Maybe deep down somewhere, we know that equality is a better way, but our world is fraught with inequality. We use money, race, nationalism, religion, ideology, appearance, strength, and gender to create categories that keep some people powerless and other people powerful. Deep down, this doesn’t feel right, so when someone from a traditionally lesser category smashes the barrier and levels the playing field, we feel good about it. Every society seems to have some caste system. Either overtly like in India or apartheid South Africa, or covertly like in every Western country in the world. Every time I do a fist pump and celebrate an underdog victory. I hope it’s because the inner part of me longs to see a world where we all view ourselves as equally valuable.

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    One Response

    1. Hmmm… a pretty Anabaptist (pacifistic?) reading of Tolkien, my Mennonite friend. I love it!

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