THE LORD OF THE RINGS – J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

The Lord Of The RingsBefore I get to the main course of this massive 7261 words review after the jump, some introductory remarks on my relationship to Tolkien first.

There will be one big problem with this review: I truly cannot assess this book on its own merits. I was 22 when the first Peter Jackson adaptation came out, and over the years I’ve seen all three movies multiple times, as well as the extended versions. Not that I consider myself a The Lord Of The Rings geek – not at all – but the movies were such a dominant cultural force back in the days, with CGI and other special effects on a scale unseen before. In an age before streaming, popping in a LOTR DVD simply was easy escapism, even if you’d seen it twice already.

I had read The Hobbit in translation when I was 14 or so, but wasn’t that impressed, and subsequently got bogged down in a Dutch translation of The Fellowship of the Ring a few months later. When the movies came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like I needed to read the books – as my friends who had read them assured me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the story, so I wasn’t curious – I mean, why read 1000 pages just to get a few scenes with Tom Bombadil or Radagast The Brown? And yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a significant coda, but it wasn’t crucial to satisfy my escapist urges.

Today, I have read the books. I even read the 894-page A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull – well, I skimmed certain parts of that, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek, but the 2014 version of 2005’s Companion was included in the edition I ended up buying. I wanted to have a hardcover edition (with the appendixes) in 3 separate bands – as I’d found that the single tome I bought first was simply not practical to read, so I send that back, and an edition with the Companion turned out to be the cheapest. As I knew I wanted to write this review, I thought it would be interesting to read up a bit on LOTR now that I had that Companion anyway. For those of you interested, I’ve included a short review of Hammond & Scull’s volume at the very end.

All the prefaces and introductions and histories of the work’s origin and quotes from letters and notes and notes and notes did enhance my reading experience. It showed that Tolkien had too much time on his hands, and invested so much in backstories of details that the entire Middle-earth mythos is a work of art so far out there it borders on the insane – the fact that A Reader’s Companion makes crystal clear again and again Tolkien was foremost preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of his creation only amplifies that.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself: I was talking about the one big problem of this review. I will do two things in the remainder of this text:

First, I’ll talk about my reading experience in relation to having seen the movies first, and try to compare the two. That might be of interest to a whole lot of new LOTR readers, as I take it most newbies will have seen the movies first, but it might also be of interest to people who read the books first, as, paradoxically, having seen the movies first also allows me to reflect on the bare bones of the story as story, regardless of medium.

After that, I’ll write a fair bit on what I wrote in my 5500 words analysis of that other monument of speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined. At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control. As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem (…).

It is my firm conviction such is also The Lord Of The Rings most basic problem, and it turns out again that authors are not always the best theoreticians about their own work: Tolkien’s writing on his own writing is a mess.

For those who might be confused by what I already wrote so far: I’m generally positive on this Monument of Fantasy. If pressed, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars as a literary accomplishment – which is excellent: 5-star reads are rare. As a work of outsider art, it’s way off the charts: 5+++ it is!

This text is the longest review I have yet written and especially the part on choice and “acts of will” is heavy with quotes from LOTR itself, but you can skip those if you want. Throughout this review, I will also quote extensively from letters Tolkien wrote, and I’d say those are crucial either way.

If you’re a seasoned Tolkien fan, I’m very curious about your view on what this LOTR newbee wrote about the matter, so don’t hesitate to disagree in the comments.


Frodo & the Ring

There’s no beating around the bush: I do think the 3-part movie is better than the book, that is, if you take Tolkien’s own stated intention from the foreword to the second edition into account:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times excite them or deeply move them.

As for amusement & excitement Jackson’s version succeeds better – especially in the last third, as I felt the book version of The Return of the King to be a bit boring & repetitive at times. The fact that the battles and awesome beasts all are brought to the forefront in the movies, enhances excitement imo.

Also emotionally, the movies worked a bit better for me. It has been said over and over again, but Tolkien’s big book lacks a bit of characterization. Not that the movie does so much better – there’s only so much source material to work with – but as lots of human emotional communication happens non-verbally, just seeing the characters and their facial expressions on a screen enhances our emotional bonding instantly. Add to that the great choice Jackson made to put Aragorn’s relationship with Arwen in the limelight. It might not please Tolkien purists, but in the way Tolkien wrote it, their story doesn’t get enough page time, and as such fails to “deeply move”.

But then again, there is also something else to consider. In a letter to F.J. Ackerman in 1958, Tolkien wrote that the martyrdom of Frodo is “the most important part of the whole work”, as it “is the chief point of The Lord of the Rings that the battles were of subordinate significance.”

As such, I can understand the late Christopher Tolkien to have remarked that he thought Jackson’s movies made a travesty of his father’s work. On the other hand, I do think Jackson succeeded aptly in translating the martyrdom of Frodo to the screen too. As such, Jackson’s version scratches both itches. I also think Tolkien’s supposed philosophical depth is overrated, so I don’t think the movie is necessarily a lighter, derivative affair on that account – but more on that in the next part of this review.

So, how did I experience reading LOTR as a fan of the movies?

I was a bit afraid of the first chapters, as I thought the initial events in the Shire might be a bit boring – it takes some time before the story gets going, in the movie too. But to my surprise, I was wrong: all the details drew me in, and it felt nice to finally be in the book form of this world.

Throughout the entire book, there were also enough details that differed from the movies to keep things interesting, but I have to say an overall sense of wonder simply lacked, as most of the big scenes were in in the movie, and obviously I was familiar with the bulk of Tolkien’s world building. I guess this sense of wonder might be the most important part of the enjoyment for most first time readers.

I was also surprised how firmly the movies were imprinted in my brain. Normally, I’m not a very visual reader – I hardly envision faces for characters when reading – but this time, entire scenes easily came to my mental eye (and ear!), but as a result I also often felt the movies to be more awesome as what was written in the book. Visual readers that haven’t seen the movies might not have this problem: they probably invent their own awesomeness before their mental eye.

I already said so, but I think the book is a bit too detailed at times, and that hurts the tension. It’s hard to answer the question whether that feeling was enhanced because I have seen the movies. My guess is that even if I wouldn’t have seen the movie, I would have still felt that there were too much details. I can’t find where I read it, but there’s truth to the dictum that Tolkien provided too much details where it doesn’t matter (backstory of Middle-Earth), and too few where it does (characterization).

Similarly, the movie avoids the attention & repetition of nomenclature that Tolkien liked so much. A sentence like “But Samwise Gamgee, my dear hobbit – indeed, Sam my dearest hobbit, friend of friends – I do not think (…)” doesn’t charm me.

I’m not sure the appendixes add a lot to the story itself – aside from backstory on Aragorn & Arwen. It does add a lot of depth to the history of the conflict and Middle-earth in general. The love story was included in the movie, and the introduction to the movie also included most of what was necessary, in a quick and salient way – as amusement or excitement a lot better than those rather dry pages at the end of a 1000-page story. The one thing the movies did lack was a clear explanation for Aragorn’s Númenorean/Dúnedain power.

In line with what I already said above, I think the appendixes don’t make for better literature, but they do make for better art – especially the part of Appendix F on translation is mind-boggling. So simply judged as a story, also here the movie wins in my opinion.

But there is some important stuff on the plus side for the books too. The character of Saruman is drawn way sharper in the book: his downfall from the deluded Machiavellian wizard that talks about “the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” to the petty old man at the end is great. The parlay with Saruman after the Ents have conquered Isengard would have made the movies a lot richer, and it’s a shame as well his appearances near the book’s ending weren’t included in the movie.

Also the scene with the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gates of Mordor should have been included. Jackson tried, but I don’t think it was handled well. The Mouth was portrayed too grotesque, the dialogue cut too much, and Jackson chose to show only Frodo’s mithril-mail, not the sword of Sam, and that made it less logical for Aragon & co to see that the Mouth was bluffing as he talked about 1 tortured Halfling only. I guess the producers knew it was subpar, and the scene was deleted. It’s on YouTube, if you’re curious.

Rated individually, I’d say the first two books get 4 out of 5 stars, and The Return Of The King only 3 – at times a bit too long-winded for my taste. Yet, I’d say the movies all get 5 out of 5 stars, and I have a slight preference for the last one. It goes without saying Jackson stands on Tolkien’s shoulders, and doesn’t deserve even half of the credit for those 15 stars I awarded him, but the fact that he made such an awful mess out of The Hobbit proves that it’s not just the source material that counts.

There’s one important caveat: I don’t think the movies will age as well as the books. Coincidentally, while I was reading, I saw two 10 minute glimpses of the movies on two consecutive Saturdays, as a local TV station aired the series. It struck me how dated some of the effects already seem. Only time will tell if that will mess with the viewer’s experience, and as such the movies’ powers of amusement, delight & emotion.

The Fellowship Of The RingThe Two TowersThe Return Of The King


As I wrote in my introduction, most humans struggle with the reality of us being part of a physical world that is determined. As a result, there’s a fair amount of articles on LOTR & free will. But they are generally bullshit, like this one. How some people experience the story seems to be totally detached from what actually happens. It doesn’t help that Tolkien himself adds to the confusion. Take this passage of the Companion into account:

[Elrond] now says that Frodo has been chose, that he is fated to bear the Ring; but Frodo nonetheless has free will, and may choose whether or not to accept his fate. In his draft letter to Eileen Elgar, September 1963, Tolkien calls Frodo ‘an instrument of Providence’, and makes it clear that his quest succeeded in the end, despite his failure himself to put the Ring into the Fire, because he undertook it with free will, with humility and out of love for the world he knew.

I fail to see how Frodo has free will or makes a free choice. It’s clear that the Ring, nearly from the very onset, has power over Frodo, so surely he wants to hang on to it. Gandalf, when they are still in the Shire, already says “You see? Already you too, Frodo, cannot easily let it go, nor will to damage it.” If Frodo had refused to take up the quest at the Council of Elrond the result would have been that he would have been forced to give up the Ring, and he clearly can not do that. He makes a choice, obviously, but that choice is not made in freedom, nor is it made with full information – so that it can hardly be called a rational choice.

I make that last addition because when we talk about free choice we generally imply that humans are able to rationally debate their actions internally before making them. A rational debate presupposes adequate information, and Frodo clearly doesn’t have that: not when he departs for Rivendel from the Shire, nor when he departs from Rivendel for Mordor.

In a 1963 letter, Tolkien himself writes “it became at last quite clear that Frodo after all that had happened would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring. Reflecting on the solution after it was arrived at (as a mere event) I feel that it is central to the whole ‘theory’ of true nobility and heroism that is presented.”

So it is clear that at the very end, all of a sudden, free will is not important anymore, but, on the contrary, the story hinges on “a mere event”. The destruction of the Ring is an accident, a literal misstep: nor Gollum, nor Frodo want it. It’s plain and simple the result of gravity as a deterministic force.

However, when Frodo refuses to cast the Ring in the fire, he uses these words: “I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine.” Yet, in a draft of this chapter Frodo said, instead: “I have come. But I cannot do what I have come to do. I will not do it. The Ring is mine.” In Sauron Defeated, Christopher Tolkien comments on this change: “I do not think that the difference is very significant, since it was already a central element in the outlines that Frodo would choose to keep the Ring himself; the change in his words does no more than emphasize that he fully willed his act”.

I think what we stumble on here is the age old confusion between making a choice, and making a free choice. The fact that Frodo chooses is not up for debate. Still, I would claim that the draft version is closer to reality. Likewise, it is of very little relevance that Frodo “fully willed his act” as Christopher says. That Frodo wills something is not up for debate either, because again, there is a giant rift between having a will, and having a free will. It’s clear that the Ring determines Frodo’s will at that point, and he is, as Tolkien wrote, “incapable of voluntarily destroying” it. The fact that Christopher nonetheless wants to stress that Frodo “fully willed his act” illustrates the sly power of the illusion of free will, and the distractions of language that illusion feeds on.

It’s more than telling that Frodo is delusional about his own role. After Gollum and the Ring fell into the fire, he even says: “But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring.” As such, Frodo is again a great Everyman, as we all constantly misjudge the nature our conscious agency.

It’s interesting to take a look at another crucial factor in the eventual destruction of the ring. Frodo’s humility has been already named, and also Frodo’s pity towards Gollum has been identified as pivotal. But taken at face value, also this pity was not the result of a free choice, nor a moral one. Early in the story Gandalf reprimands Frodo when Frodo utters he wished Bilbo had stabbed Gollum: “My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” Gandalf clearly is the number one authority figure in the Hobbits’ world, so when He gives advice, it would be utterly foolish not to take it. As such, Gandalf’s words are a divine command, and Frodo just follows it.

But Tolkien fails to see what he has actually written, and ruminates as follows on the matter in a letter from 1955:

To ‘pity’ him [Gollum], to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.

In preparation of this free will part, I had about 50 other quotes I could use to illustrate how characters are determined in their actions, or how Tolkien hints at that at the very least. In the entire book, only two quotes might be read as advocating free will. I maybe missed a few, but I actively read for that, so 50+ vs. 2+ is still a telling tally.

Let me give you the most important ones. Among these quotes you’ll find utterances from different characters, to prove this sentiment is expressed numerous times across the board, by nearly every important character, in all three parts.

Granted, these are quite a lot of quotes, so if you’re not interested in the matter, please, just skip them.

From The Fellowship Of The Ring:

I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. (said by Gandalf, Tolkien’s own italics)

I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. (Sam says this when they find him eavesdropping, and is afterwards ordered by Gandalf to join Frodo to Rivendel.)

[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. (…) “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. (…)” (Frodo quoting Bilbo)

But the courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pockeet, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolved hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, (…). (When Frodo is near the Nazgûl, both the actions of his arm and his resolve are described as being outside his control.)

(…) after that your own luck must go with you and guide you (…) (Tom Bombadil)

When Merry notices Black Riders and follows them to see which way they go, Strider says he has “a stout heart” but “was foolish”, and Merry answers: “Neither brave nor silly, I think. I could hardly help myself. I seemed to be drawn somehow.”

There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond. (Strider)

You have come and here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we , who sit here, and none others, must no find counsel for the peril of the world. (Elrond)

At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’ (Frodo at the Council of Elrond)

However it may prove, one must thread the path that need chooses! (Gandalf before Moria)

Pippin felt curiously attracted by the well. (…) Moved by a sudden impulse he groped for a loose stone, and let it drop. (in Moria)

And in the watches I have made up my mind,’ he said. ‘I do not like the feel of the middle way; and I do not like the sell of the left-hand way: there is foul air down there, or I am no guide. I shall take the right-hand passage. (Gandalf’s choice in Moria is more a matter of intuition than of free, rational choice. Moreover, after he has fallen in the abyss, the fellowship doesn’t chose a thing anymore, they just react to events.)

For I know what I should do, but I am afraid of doing it, Boromir, afraid. (Frodo indeed knows what he should do, not what he wants to do.)

Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back! (Boromir)

He is the Bearer, and the fate of the Burden is on him. I do not think that it is our part to drive him one way or the other. Nor do I think that we should succeed, if we tried. There are other powers at work far stronger. (Aragorn on Frodo)

Sam did his best, but he could not keep up with Strider the Ranger, and soon fell behind. (Only then does he goes looking for Frodo. A bit later, Frodo says: “It is plain that we were meant to go together.“)

From The Two Towers:

Almost he yielded to the desire for help and counsel, to tell this grave young man, whose words seemed so wise and fair, all that was in his mind. But something held him back. His heart was heavy with fear and sorrow: (…). Better mistrust undeserved than rash words. (When he thinks of disclosing everything to Faramir for help, again, Frodo’s actions are guided by “something” that doesn’t seem to imply conscious agency.)

If you seem to have stumbled, think that it was fated to be so. Your heart is shrewd as well as faithful, and saw clearer than your eyes. (Faramir to Frodo, introducing also a duality between heart & head, describing the heart as an impersonal actor as well, as something reason has no control over.)

In the morning we must each go swiftly on the ways appointed to us. (Faramir)

I had no lure or desire to do other than I have done. (again Faramir – It’s of note that Tolkien described Faramir as the character that resembled himself the most.)

‘Yet since he [Mithrandir] is gone, I must take such paths as I can find. And there is no time for long searching,’ said Frodo.

Frodo and Sam were plodding along with heavy hearts, no longer able to care greatly about their peril. (near Cirith Ungol)

Then suddenly, as if some force were at work other than his own will, he began to hurry, tottering forward, his groping hands held out, his head lolling from side to side. (near Cirith Ungol)

There was no longer any answer to that command in his own will, dismayed by terror though it was, and he felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside. It took his hands, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast. (Frodo takes the phail of Galadriel, in a confrontation with the Wraith-King.)

Even although Tolkien acknowledges the existence of a “will” here by using that word, it is hardly arguable that, in the face of imminent death, trying to grope for the one thing that might save you is a matter of free choice or even “will”. When Frodo’s actions do something positive, it is suddenly described with the positive noun ‘will’, while it is just the same a process as before, and a bit later Tolkien even describes it as an impersonal “it”, forcing his hand. What is interesting is that Tolkien in this entire passage actually describes how many neuroscientists see consciousness in 2020: as a monitoring device of our own actions, rather than something that makes rational, free decisions.

Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit. (Frodo in Shelob’s Lair)

On the near side of him lay, gleaming on the ground, his elvenblade, where it had fallen useless from his grasp. Sam did not wait to wonder what was to be done, or whether he was brave, or loyal, or filled with rage. He sprang forward with a yell, and seized his master’s sword in his left hand. Then he charged. (This occurs ironically in a chapter called “The Choices of Master Samwise”. A bit later, also Sam’s starts speaking Elvish, “a language which he did not know”. One can hardly call both actions a choice, in both instances he doesn’t or can’t think about it.)

But you haven’t put yourself forward; you’ve been put forward. And as for not being the right and proper person, why, Mr. Frodo wasn’t, as you might say, nor Mr. Bilbo. They didn’t choose themselves. (Sam talking to himself)

‘I’ve made up my mind,’ he kept saying to himself. But he had not. Though he had done his best to think it out, what he was doing was altogether against the grain of his nature. (…) ‘If only I could have my wish, my one wish,’ he sighed, ‘to go back and find him!’ Then at last he turned to the road in front and took a few steps: the heaviest and most reluctant he had ever taken. (Just before Sam hears Orc-voices, prompting him to do something else.)

He was not aware of any thought or decision. He simply found himself drawing out the chain and taking the Ring in his hand. (…) Then he put it on. (Sam)

You fool, he isn’t dead, and your heart knew it. Don’t trust your head, Samwise, it is not the best part of you. (Sam, again intuition vs. rational choice)

From The Return of the King:

‘(…) But I do not go gladly; only need drives me. Therefore, only of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and great fear, and maybe worse.’ ‘I will go with you even on the Paths of the Dead, and to whatever end they may lead,’ said Gimli. ‘I also will come,’ said Legolas, ‘for I do not fear the Dead.’ (Aragorn, and afterwards Gimli & Legolas)

Gimly and Legolas seem to make a free choice here. But what is their alternative? Go back and hide in Rivendel? Go back to Minas Tirith? Wait until Sauron destroys them? A true free choice presupposes 2 equal options – or otherwise the outcome of the choice is determined by the best option – and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

‘(…) for he has done as well as his fortune allowed him, (…)’ (Aragorn on Peregrin)

No choice was left them but to play their part to its end. (on the army at the Black Gate)

As far as he could see, there was only one possible course for him to take: (…). (Sam exiting Shelob’s tunnel)

From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. (Sauron seems to have a will, but his armies clearly don’t. The nature of Sauron falls outside the scope of this review, I haven’t read The Silmarillion, but as far as I can gather, also Sauron was corrupted.)

The Power that drove them [the Nazgûl] on and filled them with hate and fury was wavering, its will was removed from them; and now looking in the eyes of their enemies they saw a deadly light and were afraid.

As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.

But that [Sauron’s victory] has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of a spring in Bree. A chance meeting, as we say in Middle-earth. (Gandalf in Appendix A)

Aside from the will being describe as something impersonal, nearly forcing characters’ hands, there is a lot of talk of fate, predestination, and higher powers guiding actions. It’s like Tolkien tries to have his cake and eat it: either there’s Fate & Fortune, or there’s Free Will. Freedom as a moral force is either absolute, or it’s not.

If a choice is determined by outside factors, it’s hardly of any use to talk about the morality of intention, nor the nobility of the soul – and it is just that that interests Tolkien as a devout Christian. It seems to me Tolkien could not make up his mind – just like the letters show he was very conflicted about the nature of Evil and the existence of the Orcs’ souls, but that’s a whole other essay in itself.

It’s interesting how this ties into Tolkien’s conservatism, and the elitism that he is often accused of, as being born Noble is no choice either. It seems as somehow Tolkien understood that people are born into a role that will determine them – hence his embrace of Nobility as a concept – but couldn’t follow this thought to its logical conclusion. At the same time Tolkien kept believing in the illusion of freedom, and hence stressed the necessity for Frodo to undertake his actions “with free will, with humility and out of love for the world he knew”. The fact that both humility and love are no choices either, but rather states of being, only reinforces the flimsiness of his philosophical foundations.

In the famous 1951 letter to his first editor, Milton Waldman, Tolkien talks about this duality, and again stresses “acts of will”, failing to see the nature of what he has actually written – as is clear from all I’ve quoted above. This passage again shows talk is cheap, and illustrates some authors are trapped in their own concoctions, and fail to approach their own work with enough objectivity.

But through Hobbits, not Men so-called, because the last Tale is to exemplify most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in ‘world politics’ of unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil). A moral of the whole (after the primary symbolism of the Ring, as the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, ans so also inevitably by lies) is the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar are utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.

If you are not tired yet of my yapping on free choice – I can’t help it – I have two more things to say.

The first thing is that the ability to offer resistance is no proof of free choice existing.

At first it is pretty straightforward, Frodo’s resistance fails quickly:

The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. (…) something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. (…) He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.

He tries to rationalize his failure afterwards.

He bitterly regretted his foolishness, and reproached himself for weakness of the will; for he now perceived that in putting on the Ring he obeyed not his own desire but the commanding wish of his enemies.

But Gandalf tries to console him:

‘Yes, fortune or fate have helped you,’ said Gandalf, ‘not to mention courage. For your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last. (…)’

He does so by introducing the notion of ‘heart’. But as I have already discussed, having heart is not a choice, it’s something you are born with, just like you are born with courage or not. One does not will his or her character out of a vacuum. So I fail to see the distinction between being born with heart/courage and being born fortunate. Fate & heart are the same.

At the end of The Fellowship, there’s this:

The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again, Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. A black shadow seemed to pass like an arm above him; it missed Amon Hen and groped out west, and faded. Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree. Frodo rose to his feet. A great weariness was on him, but his will was firm and his heart lighter. He spoke aloud to himself. ‘I will do now what I must,’ he said. ‘This at least is plain: the evil of the Ring is already at work even in the Company, and the Ring must leave them before it does more harm. I will go alone. Some I cannot trust, and those I can trust are too dear to me: poor old Sam, and Merry and Pippin. Strider too: his heart yearns for Minas Tirith, and the will be needed there, now Boromir has fallen into evil. I will go alone. At once.’

Again there’s the conflicting language: “do now what I must” vs. “free to choose”. But more importantly, consider the choice here.

What’s the choice Frodo needs to make? The choice between keeping on the Ring and by doing so exposing himself to the Nazgûl & Sauron, or taking it off and saving himself, at least for that moment. So the choice between death, or at the very best becoming a wretch like Sméagol, and the choice between life. That’s no choice. Only the depressed might want option 1, and being depressed is no choice, it’s a condition. The Will to Live is Instinct, not moral Choice.

If you want more, there’s a long excerpt from a 1954 letter to Peter Hastings in the Companion on page 376. In it, Tolkien shows he struggles with these concepts, and his thinking is muddled at best.

My final remark on determinism is, granted, anecdotal – a fun fact to end this overly long section.

Some of the letters show that Tolkien at times also saw his own writing as being guided not by his own will, but by something else. Often that something else is partly linguistic, like he describes the origins of the Ents, in a 1955 letter to poet W.H. Auden:

The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark . . . was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait til ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that the Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon (…)

Another illustration is what he writes to his son Christopher:

A new character has come to the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.

The following quote from a 1965 letter tries to tie together a whole lot of the things I touched upon. It is again conflicted, but ultimately refers to a determining logic as the final arbitrator, both in the story itself, as in creating it – as if the story wrote itself.

There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person. I did not ‘arrange’ the deliverance in this case: it again follows the logic of the story. (Gollum had had his chance of repentance, and of returning generosity with love; and had fallen off the knife-edge.) In the case of those who now issue from prison ‘brainwashed’, broken, or insane, praising their torturers, no such immediate deliverance is as a rule to be seen. But we can at least judge them by the will and intentions with which they entered the Sammath Naur; and not demand impossible feats of will, which could only happen in stories unconcerned with real moral and mental probability.

The authors of the Companion suggest reading pp. 83-94 of Matthew T. Dickerson’s Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victories in The Lord Of the Rings (2003) on the issue of choice and freedom in Tolkien’s book. If somebody knows where I can read that, please drop me a note – I’d like to read it for comparison, but I’d be surprised if Dickerson can make a compelling case for freedom of choice, given everything I’ve written above.

It is more than apt that ‘magic’ in Middle-Earth is not something one can achieve. One is born with it. Let that be the moral of this story.


I could have written a section about Tolkien’s dislike for allegory, and how that applies to his own work. Tolkien himself says this:

I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

That sentence hits close to the mark, yet in his letters Tolkien shows again and again that he is very concerned with the content and interpretation of his work – and some of the letters I’ve quoted above illustrate this. Here’s one more:

In The Lord Of The Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. (…) Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants…

Yet to fully explain why I think his thinking on this matter isn’t always crisp would need a whole lot more of words, and I’m trying to wrap up here.

I liked reading The Lord of the Rings a lot – maybe you forgot that after all that talk about free choice and acts of will. If you are a fan of fantasy, the book simply is mandatory. Do try to read it before you see the movies though!

I’m not sure if I will read The Silmarillion – any advice on that is welcome in the comments. I’m sure it will again be off the charts as a work of art. All that history and backstory and thought on the linguistic origins is the work of mad genius – Tolkien is the God-King over his own creation – but I’m a bit afraid it won’t be much more than names & dates on page after page after page, a bit like big chunks of the Appendixes. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek…


A few notes on Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. It’s a treasure trove for hardcore fans for sure. I’d even say it is mandatory if you’re the type of fan that has read The Lord of the Rings multiple times, and plan to read it again. It’s 894 pages, with 15 pages of bibliography and a 64-page index.

It has a lengthy introduction on the history of the book’s origin and publication history, notes on the chronologies, calendars and moons, and some pages on the different maps. It also includes 30 pages of notes on the nomenclature, written by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. The main part follows the text, and offers thousands of notes – some trivial and short, others long, quoting from letters or earlier drafts, and from other scholars, including Christopher Tolkien’s extensive work.

It is meticulous about different ways of spelling dwarfs/dwarves/Dwarfs/Dwarves and printing errors in various editions of the book, should stuff like that float your boat. There’s also an index of all the changes that were made for the 2014 60th Anniversary edition by HarperCollins, but that would be interesting for scholars only.

Anyhow: you do not need it as a casual reader, not at all, but it is a tremendous achievement in itself.

TLOTR A Reader's Companion

28 responses to “THE LORD OF THE RINGS – J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

  1. Huh, this is very interesting! 😀

    I read LOTR for the first time when I was seven, and before I had seen the movies I had read it several times more. I don’t like the movies at all, not only because I had my own very firm vision of Middle Earth and all the characters, but also because I agree with Christopher Tolkien that Jackson diminished the meaning of LOTR, effectively turning it into an adventure movie. The lack of Saruman scenes in Shire at the end is for me quite crucial – it’s not only about Saruman’s fall, it’s also about the impossibility of maintaining what was effectively an Utopia; and about Heraclitus’ dictum that one cannot step into the same river twice and that upon coming back you’re not the same person you were while leaving. So, actually, a lot of quite serious themes right there at the end, and none of them triumphalist ;).

    However, I’m not overly concerned with Tolkien’s philosophy, such as it is, because I agree with you it’s muddled and internally conflicted – I think he looked for free will not in the right places 😉 as most of the Ring’s story was predetermined by Tolkien’s own beliefs and the Manichean theology he created for LOTR/Silmarillion. Incidentally, I’d implore you to read Silmarillion, as it’s nowhere near as boring as the Appendices 😉 It is construed as written oral history, so it might be less compelling in terms of well-written action, but there’s actually so much going on in there that I believe it’s really worth reading. And your favorite themes abound! 😀

    That said, I think Tolkien struggled with finding a balance between providential determinism that dominated his theological worldview and the concept of free will which was integral to his political/social views. As you know, my views of free will differ significantly from yours, so I won’t be coming back to this particular discussion here 😉 But for me, Frodo is simply not the right protagonist for searching for free will in LOTR – I think we’d do much better with Arwen, Boromir, Faramir, or even Saruman. Their choices, not led by Providence, remain more free than those of Frodo.

    Great post, Bart!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for the elaborate reply, very interesting points! Give me a few days to respond more thoroughly… In the meantime, I’ll keep a look out for a copy of The Silmarillion 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree the final happenings in the Shire are significant, and I have read others claiming similar things like you do. Agreed on Heraclitus, but but I’m not sure if the chapter hints at the impossibility of utopia, nor that is not triumphalist: in the end, the ruffians are conquered, and Saruman & Wormtongue are killed, and afterwards Sam becomes mayor. It’s more a hick-up than a serious impediment, and in the end all the ‘good’ protagonists fare well and live a happy life (except maybe Frodo, who keeps suffering from his mental & physical wounds).

      It’s interesting you note the Manichean theology. I had I quote about that from the Companion lined up, but chose not to use it. In ‘Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon’ (2003) by Brian Rosebury, Rosebury says: “Nothing could be more false, however, than the notion that TLOTR represents a deterministic, or Manichean, universe of struggle between the innately and unalterable good and the innately and unalterably evil. On the contrary … the imagined world is underpinned by an optimistic, and occasionally explicit theology of quite a different kind. Nothing is evil in the beginning … there is no doubt that we are in an Augustinian universe, in which all Creation is good, and evil is conceived in terms of freely-chosen negation, of a wilful abdication from the original state of created perfection.”

      I have not read The Silmarillion, so I cannot comment fully on the nature of the universe, but if you just look at LOTR, I would have to disagree with Rosebury: evil seems to be evil because it is evil (e.g. Shelob) of because it is enslaved by Sauron (Orcs) or the Ring (Gollum). 

      Maybe both you and Rosebury are right. It seems to me these themes are partly a matter of definitions, the word Manichean can mean different things, and as you say Tolkien clearly didn’t know either, it’s muddled and conflicted.

      Your final paragraph hits the spot: Tolkien tries to have his cake and eat it, like I wrote. I don’t think you can merge providential determinism and free will, and this conflict is found in human society throughout: e.g. we tend to absolve the mentally impaired of their crimes, as they are born that way (God made them so), but when somebody develops criminal tendencies throughout his/her life (de facto in its political/social context) all of a sudden it is a matter of free will.

      Your last sentence introduces another key concept: it is very true that some people are “more free” than others – i.e. there are fewer determining factors in their lives. This notion, that everybody intuitively understands (a drug addict or a prisoner are less free than a regular person), strengthens our illusion that undetermined freedom exists. So I agree 100% that some characters are more interesting than Frodo in this respect.

      As for Arwen: she seems determined by a very basic, primal drive: that of love & procreation, and that drive apparently is bigger than her drive for immortality. Boromir says himself that “a madness took me”, he seems determined by the lust for power and the Ring.

      On Faramir I can agree to an extent. But it is not because he makes seemingly the most rational choice (as the Ring clearly means doom for whoever takes it), that his choice is not determined by his brain and its context.

      Saruman on the other hand at the end seems to me a slave to his emotions, refusing to take the outstretched hand of Gandalf because of hurt pride. His earlier turn to the darkside seems no choice either: his mind was corrupted by Sauron via the palantír. You could say he overestimated himself at first, thinking he could outsmart Sauron, but I wouldn’t say overestimating oneself is a free choice either.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sorry for the late response; the weekend was very busy!

        I think Sam’s mayoral elevation is more of a consolation prize than anything else. I always finish the books with a bittersweet feeling of almost too high costs of victory, and I think this is the way Tolkien envisioned it. As for happiness, I would say that almost none of them really live a happy life, not on the same level of happiness as Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit, at least. Bilbo and Frodo are both too affected by the Ring; the elves abandon the Middle Earth and become displaced – many of them don’t want to go but see no other way. It’s the end of an era, and even Aragorn’s and Arwen’s happy story fails to become uplifting due to the long perspective Tolkien assumes here.

        I’ll not be entrenched where it comes to Manichean or non-Manichean theology; we can call it Zoroastrian 😀
        I know the charge of Manicheism smacks still of heresy in some circles, hence (I believe) this little hastily constructed defense by Rosebury; I see nothing of Augustinian ingenious definition of evil as lack of good in Tolkien; Melkor is the equivalent of Satan/Lucifer, a fallen Angel becoming through the act of defiance nearly as powerful as Iluvatar, and, mostly contrary to Iluvatar, actively engages in the happenings in the Middle Earth – either by himself or by proxies, Sauron the most prominent among them in the Third Era.

        I definitely recommend reading Silmarillion if you’re interested in such things!

        As for determinism; I still believe the difference between us is one of quantity more than quality; I think freedom is gradual, i.e. some people in some situations are more free than others. The difference is, I believe, in the fact that while you look for all the deterministic factors I see in the proliferation of them the center of free will: there are so many things influencing our choices that in the end their influence to an extent negates itself, is equalized – and in this confluence, this nexus of conflicting drives and circumstances lies the possibility of the act that constitutes free will.

        That said, I still see Arwen’s choice as one of free will – as a nearly immortal creature with a chance for full immortality her need for procreation should be negligible; as we can infer from Banks and others, the unbelievably long life-span should also change our definition of love; in this vein one can find many partners and spend with them in what we’d probably call love many centuries if so chooses.
        Boromir fights the influence of the Ring and this fight, because he knows how it will end for him personally, is the assertion of his free will.

        I agree there is no such thing as perfectly free will; we are influenced by so many things, both material and immaterial. But the way our brains work allows for surprising, unpredictable behavior – and I don’t think it’s just the computational power or the limit on the big data that weighs in 😉 Then again, I think that at this level it’s more of an ideological preference and differences in worldviews and definitions we use than a qualititative difference between our stances on free will/determinism.

        Great discussion, as always! 😀

        Liked by 2 people

        • There might be a Pyrrhic quality to the story, but as nearly all protagonists survive, and those that do die are generally old, so I do not think the text of just LOTR itself justifies such a reading. I do agree however that it has a clear end of an age feeling, and your remarks about how the Elves feel are indeed important. I would not call Arwen & Aragorn’s story not a happy one just because they die of old age in the end.

          I knew Melkor/Morgoth & Sauron had a Luciferian backstory, so I would not call the world Augustian either. I did some research on Shelob for my review, when I still thought I might write something about the evil vs. good dichotomy  – I abandoned that as it became clear to me I would have to read Silmarillion first to do it properly. I did the research because I struck me as odd to label an animal as “evil” as it is done numerous times in the book – even it is giant spider. Anyhow, I did learn Shelob is a descendant from Ungoliant, and that seems to be a figure very near an absolute, evil-in-essence like demon. (So Shelob turned out to be evil simply by descent.) I also noticed that many other evil presences indeed were corrupted by Melkor, hinting at the fact that they were good once too, so that’s points for a ‘Manichean’ interpretation indeed.

          You are right with the quantity vs quality remark (it’s the same thing as my remark on prisoners and addicts), for sure, some people are more free than others – it’s a gradual thing indeed, but that doesn’t make it less determined: less constrained/less determined is not the same as not determined.
          I do not buy the whole the sum is greater than its part theory, nor something undeterministic suddenly arising from a complex cluster of deterministic physical/biological processes like the brain. How would that work logically, deterministic processes negating themselves? Lots of conflicting drives and processes still don’t mean that somehow we can detach ourselves from the deterministic processes in our brains and chose in freedom, free from those processes. It just means that of all this processes/drives one (or a cluster of them) will emerge victorious, so to say.

          (The insistence of humans somehow escaping determinism stems partly from are our deeply ingrained moral sense, to tendency to judge others, and as such neglect that we all live in a deterministic environment. That does not mean we cannot talk about morality anymore – some acts are clearly less wanted (moral) in a society than others – but it does mean ascribing guilt in the ‘you ought to’ fails to see the facts. Clearly some people cause harm (are “guitly” in a practical sense) but as that is also the result of a deterministic chain of events the cause always goes further down the chain, and as such nobody is “guilty” in the moral sense. I think some Eastern religions gained pretty clear insights in that thousands of years ago, advocating a non-judgemental stance instead, as they saw how problematic judging others morally is.)

          Your case on Arwen is the most solid one, but it hinges on the idea that an immortal creature can control his or her drives in a rational manner. I don’t think that idea has much clout in reality. Biological creatures remain biological creatures, and Arwen is one. We hardly care about logical arguments – that has been proven again and again in social sciences. We act on impulse & emotion, and justify our actions/belief rationally afterwards.

          Your remark on Banks and how immortality changes love is very interesting though. The question then remains: what made Arwen choose for Aragorn & mortality? The answer to that question will always be some chain of events, or, at the very least, a idiosyncratic preference of Arwen herself, but preference is not something one choses to have, but something one has. We do not will what we will. The fact that she did ‘chose’ Aragorn over immortality only proves how much of a slave to her emotions she was: according to your Banksian theory she shouldn’t have chosen it.

          Viz. Boromir. He makes a choice, and he has inner conflict, yes. Two conflicting drives fighting each other is no free will imo, as I tried to explain above. It is just another process, and what the outcome of that process will be is the result of internal make-up and external context. There is nothing free (undetermined) about it.

          Agreed 100% that our brain is surprising & unpredictable. I hesitate to leave it at “it’s a matter of ideological perspective”: either we live in world where biological processes are determined, or we don’t. If biological processes somehow escape determinism, we need to do some serious updating to our major scientific paradigms. But true, somebody’s idea on determinism will indeed by influenced (determined) by ideology, yet that fact does not make the idea more (or less) true. I do believe in objective.

          I’m enjoying this, thanks again!!

          Liked by 2 people

          • That’s a discussion we’ll have through the years, I think 😉

            I have an impression determinism is just a mirror image of the theory, or worldview, based on the assumption of the existence of free will – mainly, they both are based on a form of a reductionist black box, located in the human mind. You’re saying Arwen’s or Boromir’s choice was surely determined by a set of factors, but you cannot precisely say what factors played role; just that it wasn’t free because it existed within the constraints of material universe. I’m saying Arwen’s or Boromir’s choice is a result of a conscious decision made among available and understandable to her/him options, i.e. assume existence of free (ish) will. By free will I don’t mean unlimited choice; I define it as the ability to choose from a variety of options of which the chooser is aware. Some of them will be more preferable than others, some more achievable; the ultimate choice based on a set of components I cannot discern any more than you.

            Forgive me the simplification, for the sake of making this comment more manageable: by the “ideological perspective” I meant that the difference between us amounts to a difference in belief: in your case, that of extrapolation of physical, material world to psychological or metaphysical; in mine, that of qualitative difference between the two. I haven’t seen as of yet a definite proof of the deterministic approach to human mind; these that I did read were as ideological as those asserting the existence of free will 😉 so until I get a definite proof, I’ll keep to my preference – and thus we’ve gone full circle 😄

            Liked by 2 people

            • I’m indeed a reductionist – it’s the most logical stance.

              When talking about Boromir or Arwen the main problem is that they are fictional characters, but even when they would be flesh and blood creatures, the fact that I cannot precisely indicate all factors is not proof against these factors not existing, nor against causality/determinism as a principle.

              As for conscious decisions: it’s a persistent illusion. There’s the famous TED-talk by Dan Ariely ( that shows on a very basic, easy & entertaining level that “conscious decisions” are highly problematic as a concept. His claims aren’t based on ideology, but on scientific research. Your definition of free will is interesting: “the ability to choose from a variety of options of which the chooser is aware” – well, it’s that “aware” factor that is problematic, as Ariely shows again and again. And again, that we choose from a variety of options is not up for debate: we clearly do.

              The fact that we cannot discern the components fully is at face value much more an argument against “conscious”, “aware” decisions than it is against humans being biological animals embedded in a causally determined physical/chemical world.

              I think Alex Rosenberg’s ‘Darwinion Reductionism’ offers a very solid case for reductionism, I reviewed it a few months ago (, and I wouldn’t say his arguments are ideological.

              Definite proof that will satisfy everybody (including the religious & magical thinkers) is a couple of centuries off, I guess, if we’ll even get there. For that there should be a definite Theory of Mind, and my hunch is that we will never achieve that 100%, that it is epistemologically out of our reach – the brain & the emergence of consciousness are indeed a black box.

              Still, there’s every indication that the psychological is determined by the biological, and the biological is determined by physics/chemics. Just drink a glass of alcohol, and you’ll notice. People with a cerebral haemorrhage will testify too.

              I’d go as far saying that my viewpoint is a matter of preference: I’d prefer to have a free will. 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

  2. “Liking” this on general principle. Long day, so I’ll be back tomorrow to comment…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I found your thoughts on how the movies influenced your “mind” visuals when reading the books to be what happens to most people who watch a movie that is based on a book, first. It is one of the reasons I tend to NOT watch a movie first if I know I have even the slightest interest in reading the book it was based on. But I’m also biased as I’m an avowed reader and not a movie watcher.

    Tolkien was a linguist, first and foremost, so his idea of what constitutes “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times excite them or deeply move them” is going to be quite different from a modern culture that has grown up on movies like Die Hard, Matrix and John Wick. That is one of the reasons I had such a hard time with Silmarillion. It’s a boring history book :-/ At the same time, I’m also old enough to realize just how foundational Tolkien’s writings and ideas are to the whole SFF genre.

    In regards to the movies, what don’t you think will age? What is it about the FX that struck you? I’m not a big movie watcher, so I need that kind of thing spelled out.

    Getting into the Free Will, etc parts. I think you and Tolkien simply have very different definitions of what Free Will is, or isn’t. Tolkien is operating within the framework of a Divine Omniscient Being while you’re operating under the terms of a godless world. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that you have all the issues you do with him in that regards.

    Near the end of your Free Will talk, I do take issue with your “that is no choice” language. But even then I believe that is because of your world view and how it shapes what you think Free Will is. Or, I take issue with it because of my world view and what I think of as Free Will, etc.

    You mention the muddledness of Tolkien’s position several times and my take isn’t so much that his position is muddled as that the very issues you’re talking about are just that complicated.

    Great essay and I hope you had a lot of fun writing it. I mentioned the Silmarillion above, but it gets the “don’t bother” vote from me unless you want backstory that isn’t action’y at all. I’d toyed with the thought of reading Christopher Tolkien’s 12 Volume Histories, but after my recent read of the Silmarillion, that is never going to happen 🙂

    Here’s to hoping your next post isn’t so far away! 😀

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for that! Give me a few days to react in a more meaningful manner. Surprising how you & Ola differ on Silmarillion.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Good point on judging LOTR. But that cuts both ways – readers in 2020 will have grown up on movies, so my remark about the movies maybe having ages by now, also apply to your argument about judging the book in its historical perspective. Tolkien’s own ambitions  of amusement, delight, etc. will always be contextual: amusement now is a bit different from the 1930ies or the 1950ies.

      As for the aging of the movies: I think the blue or green screens already show very clearly, those techniques have advanced today to give a much better, seamless quality. It didn’t show back in the days, but now that we know better from contemporary experience, it’s very clear they used blue/green screens for certain scenes. I didn’t see scenes with CGI created creatures like trolls, but I guess technology has advanced for them too.

      I can’t really judge what will not age – I guess everything to a certain extent, and I should really watch the movies in full again to answer that.

      What was great back in the days was the care for visual details Jackson had. Allegedly he made every weapon, every helmet, every piece of armor unique. That shows – most other movies up till then would have used generic weapons for thinks like the Orc army. I also read that he really paid attention to sound design, recording massive crowds in a football stadium to roar etc. like the Orc army, and that also works much more realistically than digitally copying a few roars. There were other examples of both things back in the days in the press, but I don’t remember them. I also think the CGI was top notch for the time, so those 3 things account for part of the movies reception almost 2 decades ago. If I’m not mistaken they were the first fantasy movies with really high production values & standards.

      I agree 100% that part of the debate on Free Will is definitions, and some of the discussion are semantic, in the end. But the thing is that I think some definitions amount to fallacies, and that includes the way Tolkien seems to approach it.

      I’m not necessarily operating under the terms of a godless world – I’m agnostic, but true, a person that believes 100% sure in the Christian god in a non ‘predestinatory’ fashion (so not like lots of protestants do), Free Will becomes a matter of belief & religious dogma, not of science.

      What exactly do you take issue with in my “that is no choice language”. These parts might be the most interesting to talk about some more to see where we truly differ in opinion.

      Very true indeed that the issues are very complicated. Muddled might be a too negative term. But, if I’m honest, I do think that my perspective is internally more consistent than Tolkien’s. I’m not saying I think I’m 100% right or sure – I’m 100% not sure – but to the best of my abilities, it’s the best answer I have at the moment to explain my experiences of reality.

      Thanks for the compliment, and thanks again for taking the time for your elaborate answer. Discussion like this always helps to clarify some issues from the review, and further hone my thoughts.

      I did enjoy writing it, although I must say it was also something of a burden. Life is pretty hectic here the last couple of weeks (nothing bad, just hectic) and the prospect of starting yet another review I knew was going to take some time to write was a bit daunting – as I said elsewhere, only typing up the quotes took my 4 hours.

      I also wanted to do such an influential book justice, so much has been written about it already, and I know lots of readers will have read it themselves, and have strong opinions of their own, so I couldn’t just do a short write-up – or at least I didn’t know how to do an interesting one.

      On the Silmarillion, the tally is 2-2 at the moment. Ola kinda sold me it’s something else than the Appendixes, but I’ve had pretty strong It’s Lord of the Boring-vibes from you and somebody else I trust that also adviced against it, so I’m still on the fence.

      Christopher’s 12 Volume Histories, I can’t imagine ever reading those. That would be an expensive investment for starters, let alone the time it would cost me. I think they would bore me out of my mind. I liked LOTR, and parts of the Companion, but I think I’ve had enough – there’s so, so much else to read.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Trying to comment in order here (I’ve got a second tab open, hahaha)

        See, I dismiss outright any right of modern culture as it is nothing but shallow drivel. So giving any weight to someone’s thoughts who judges everything from a strictly modern outlook is akin to me giving weight to a pig’s opinion 😉 Call me Mr Snobby McSnobson, hahahaha!

        I haven’t watched the movies in almost 10 years, so I’ll take your word that those things (the various color screens) show up. Sadly, now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll probably be extra vigilant about looking for them when I do watch the movies. Thanks for that 😉 I must say, you’ve given the movies way more thought than I ever have.

        I hope I didn’t come across as trying to define what Tolkien himself thought. I can tell this subject (Free Will) is pretty important to you, so I was just trying to throw some other thoughts into the mix.

        The issue I had with “no choice at all” was that it WAS a choice. From what I read, it seemed like you would call something not a choice if it didn’t fit your definition of free will. Which makes sense in the context, but it just brings us back to the definition of what is free will. It’s too bad you can’t talk to Tolkien, as I bet that would be fascinating for both of you 🙂

        I hope you take it easier for any future reviews. Otherwise you’ll review yourself out of doing reviews 😀

        As for Silmarillion (again), I’m currently reading the appendices to Return of the King and all I can think of is “Silmarillion”. Now, if you’ve never read it, it might be worth it just to have it under your belt. Like reading some of those classics.

        I’m of your mind when it comes to the Histories. Plus, if I don’t know it, I can’t complain when Amazon makes its prequel series. I’ll just be along for the ride and enjoy it.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’ve been multiple tabbing the entire time – the hallmark of efficiency.

          I generally think a large percentage of everything is shallow drivel, both old and modern culture, so I guess we agree 🙂 Judging a work of creativity is always double: there’s the context in which it was created, and there’s the context in which it is experienced now. Agreed that you can’t approach something with a contemporary perspective only and claim to give a full appraisal.

          No sweat, you didn’t come across as somebody who claimed to know Tolkien’s thoughts.

          Agreed that a big part of the debate is definitions. The language surrounding all this is muddled. I do think people make choices the entire time, I just think these choices are determined. The word ‘choice’ however, implies freedom for most people, and I take issue with that – not with choice itself. The same goes for having a will. Everybody has a will, but again that word implies that will to have a certain free, rational quality. Etc.

          I guess my next review will be a fairly dry account of 2019’s ‘Becoming Human – A Theory of Ontogeny’. It might not please the readers who are only here for the speculative fiction, but it’s a great non-fiction book on human development in children. Afterwards, I think I’ll read the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. The third part ‘The Mirror And The Light’ will be released this week. It’s about 800, 900 pages, so I guess reading and reviewing it might take some time, the previous two books also promted fairly long reviews – fantastic, rich books btw, you should give them a try. But again, historical fiction, not sci fi or fantasy. Maybe I’ll try to reread Dune Messiah, or read some other short vintage scifi book before I’ll read Mantel to even things out.

          As for Silmarillion: my mind is set on ‘no’ for now.

          Thanks again! Your comments somehow often allow me to vent some meta-blog stuff, and that’s nice, as I’m not the person who writes seperate posts for updates & reading plans etc.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, a massive work like the LOTR did require an equally massive – and very compelling – review, indeed! 🙂

    The difficulties in reconciling the different “presentations” of free will: on a very basic level, since I lack the appropriate knowledge to discuss this topic with the depth it deserves, I think they stemmed from Tolkien’s struggles to reconcile his profound real-world beliefs with the structure of a secondary world in which those beliefs could not be applied.

    The Silmarillion: I vote yes 🙂 My first read left me somewhat puzzled, because I expected something similar to the LOTR, but in more ancient times, so it did not match those expectations. A second read – and a couple of others after that – made me appreaciate its nature not only as “ancient history” but as a window on Tolkien’s scope for the creation of Middle Earth. And I recommend reading it with a Beleriand map or Karen Wynn Fonstad’s atlas at hand – it helps a great deal.

    Book vs. movies: my first encounter with the LOTR goes back some 45 years, and when the movies were announced I was beside myself with the excitement of finally seeing Middle Earth take life on a big screen, and in this respect I was not disappointed. Much as I enjoyed the movies overall, I had the definite sensation that Jackson did somewhat lose control on the desire to… put his mark on the story, so that – moving from Fellowship to RoTK – he made changes in characterization, for example, that went against those portrayed in the book. A few examples could be the turning wise Legolas into someone who kept uttering the obvious; or steadfast Gimli into a comic relief, and so on. These were however fairly minor “sins”, while one of the major ones was the scene in which Frodo, convinced by Gollum, turns Sam away: even under the influence of the Ring, Frodo would not have done that to his “friend of friends” and that went against everything we know of their friendship so far. Still, I have not gone as far as wanting to burn Jackson’s effigy as some of the more… ahem… radicalized 😀 Tolkien enthusiasts have done…

    Liked by 3 people

    • As I’ve said to the other commentators, give me a few days to get back to you!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are absolutely right: I think at the heart of the problem is a conflict between his religious upbringing, and the realist scientist he was too, to formulate it yet another way.

      As for Silmarillion, I think I still hold the position I described in my response to Bookstooge, and I’m quite sure that I’m not going to read it multiple times. Yesterday another friend of mine told me he got bogged down in it. I do however feel that Tolkien’s scope is maybe the quintessence of LOTR – the off the charts outsider art I talked about in my review – but I think I already got a real glance at that by reading the Companion – an incomplete one, granted.

      You are right some characterization was altered to have it suit Hollywood, but I do not think that hurts the overall story. Maybe the book was in need of some comic relief too 🙂

      I totally forgot the scene in which Sam got turned away – but again, it provides for some internal conflict, not necessarily bad. I do think the friendship does come across on the screen. Maybe too much even, I think – conservative and all – Tolkien also wrote something of hierarchy & the master-servant relationship into the book, with Sam being a very devout servant – maybe some of that got lost in favor for friendship in the movies.

      Thanks for the elaborate reply, as I’ve written before, these exchanges do enhance the review a great deal!


  5. What an interesting review, taking a very close look at one of the more interesting aspects of the Trilogy… and it’s such a rare occasion, that the discussion below is perhaps even more interesting. It took me a long time, as March was busy and I knew it’s gonna be a long reading, but it turned out to be a very rewarding one. I need to find time to finally go through the Companion fully, that’s one of the conclusions (I’ve… leafed it through, a few times).

    I fell in love with Tolkien early, too early to seriously think about how he confronts the free will question. You make him seem more modern than he ever planned to be, or even realized 😉

    Personally, I’m with Ola on this issue, but I don’t have anything smart to add, great exchange of views! In the end, Bookstooge is right – very complicated issues are being discussed here, and I see it as another proof of Tolkien’s greatness than he can be used to fuel this discussion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey, thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. I was wondering when you’d chime in… I thought the discussion was very interesting too, it forced me to be more specific – it would be great fun to see Ola pick it up again, but I would understand if she’d leave it at that – there’s more in life than online discussions.

      I’m not sure if the fact that we can have a discussion about it is proof of Tolkien greatness though, at least, not of his philosophical-conceptual greatness, as I think much of the discussion stems from conflicted stuff in Tolkiens’ thinking/writing, but as I implied, that’s not to bash on him, it’s in our nature to be conflicted about these complicated things.

      Liked by 1 person

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