Tolkien, God, and Character Development

Joseph Pearce, in the book Tolkien: Man and Myth tells how, in a 1997 poll, English readers voted J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, the book of the century. The literati were embarrassed by their fellow-countrymen. In a nation that produced the likes of George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, and Thackeray – to name a few – how could the masses choose a fantasy for adolescents as the book of the century?

Months later, The Daily Telegraph took its own poll. Same result. Then the Folio Society asked its ten thousand members to rank their top ten books. Same result. Too bad for the literati, who refuse to believe a novel that isn’t about adultery and self-obsession could be good.

I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time the year I got married. I’d loved reading since I was a boy, but I had never enjoyed a book as much as I did The Lord of the Rings. Still haven’t. I have read Tolkien’s masterpiece once a decade or so since, most memorably aloud to my three sons. It is not the best novel I have ever read, but it is the most enjoyable.

Being a lover of the book, I naturally hated Peter Jackson’s film version and can only imagine Tolkien’s horror. Yes, it’s true the films garnered eleven Oscars, but they manifestly lacked Tolkien’s sensibilities. The book is comprised of 62 chapters, and I can only remember three that are dominated by battle scenes. Compare that to the movie, which is a gory war picture. For Tolkien, the most important battles between good and evil are always fought within, not between, people. Jackson missed this.

There were other things Jackson missed or reinterpreted that annoyed me. Chief among them is one of my favorite scenes in the book, when the protagonist Frodo’s loyal servant Sam lets slip the above-top-secret news that his master is carrying an instrument (for lack of a better word) with the power to bring victory in the war. He betrays the secret to the brother of a man who had already treacherously tried to steal it.

This man, however, is more noble than his brother. When he finds that fate has delivered the instrument into his hands, he refuses to take it. After one of the tensest moments in the novel, it becomes clear that he will not sacrifice his honor by forcefully taking the item.

After the fear and shock pass, a deeply-relieved Sam commends the man. “[You] showed your quality,” he tells him, “the very highest.”

The man shrugs off what he has done: “There was naught in this to praise. I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done.”

But Tolkien, for whom the character of his characters is of supreme importance, expects us to know this is not so. There is nothing worthier of praise than character. To desire to do some evil, yet refuse to do it, is praiseworthy. To have developed the kind of character that does not even desire to do evil is more praiseworthy still.

As a novelist, Tolkien saw the character development of his characters to be an important –perhaps the most important – aspect of his story. In this Tolkien, a devoted Christian, was like the God he confessed. For God, who allows us to be collaborators with him in his grand story, always makes plot serve character. One could almost say the purpose of creation’s plot is, from God’s perspective, the development of a particular kind of character in humans.

According to the Bible, God intends to bestow enormous power on his human characters, rather as Professor Tolkien bestowed enormous power on his character Frodo. At this point in God’s story, most of us have not developed the character required to possess such power without doing harm. But the long story of humanity’s fall and redemption looks forward to the day when that will change, when God will be able to “glorify” his human creatures and give them authority to rule the world. And they will do so justly, as he always intended.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter under the title, 6/2/2018 Character Is of Supreme Importance

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4 Responses to Tolkien, God, and Character Development

  1. Hi Shayne,

    I’ve been thinking about this on and off since I read it three days ago. This is really meaningful to me because it’s how I view life. I believe that we ourselves are playing out ongoing storylines that are shaping us into certain kinds of people. The choices we make not only have consequences; they mold our character. I believe that God works through these storylines to shape us into His people, to the extent that we yield to that shaping. But whether we do or not, the decisions we make turn us into certain kinds of people. Character formation is what the whole thing is about, it seems to me. But I don’t think most of us consider this as we go about our lives.

    Thanks for another thoughtful essay.

    Ron

  2. salooper57 says:

    Ron, I’m not sure that “character formation is the whole thing” (and I expect you’d agree) but it is phenomenally (as in, it actually changes phenomena) important. In “Small World,” you give us a taste of this. Perhaps it’s time for a sequel – or a prequel?
    Shayne

    • Hmm, maybe I didn’t say exactly what I meant, but I was thinking about II Corinthians 3:18, I John 3:2, and Romans 8:29, each of which talks about how the Christian life is meant to shape us more and more into the image of Christ, or into that unique version of Christlikeness that each of us was born to exemplify. And I was thinking that God brings this about day by day as we make ourselves available. It may be a bit much to say that it’s “the whole thing,” but I do think it’s a pretty important thing.

      Thanks for bringing up Small World! It was kind of you to remember that little book a year after you read it. I do happen to be working on another novel that goes a bit more into character development. It’s about a close-knit neighborhood where everybody looks after each other, sits together on each other’s porches on summer nights, helps each other shovel snow in the winter, etc. But then one day the crew of a new reality show called Eminent Domain shows up, and they are told they must compete against each other for the chance to save their home. The central theme of the story is how the choices they make forge their character, for better or for worse. I guess that’s why your essay struck a chord with me.

      I hope you’re having a good summer!

      Ron

  3. salooper57 says:

    I look forward to reading Eminent Domain. Sounds like a great idea, full of possibilities!

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