(Major Spoilers for The Lord of the Rings trilogy are included in this article).
The Lord of the Rings wrestles with the problem of entropy. Its heroes battle against the ever-increasing power of darkness. The walls of the keep crumble, the nations are in decline and the will of the warrior is shaken. Evil stretches its long fingers into many places. Only one course of action will lead to victory. The probability of success is very low. Middle-earth people appear to be in a losing fight against their inevitable doom.
The fraught setting of JRR Tolkien’s story was informed by his interpretation of Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology. In his lecture ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and its Critics’ (1936) he advanced the idea that the ancient Germanic tribes had a dualistic view of the world. There was Odin and the gods who lived in Asgard on the mountaintop. He has established the cosmological and moral order of the world. From the corpse of Ymir he fashioned the universe and reigns as king of the Aesir. The gods are at war with the monsters. Their enemies include the jötnar, the giants, Jörmungandr, the world-serpent, and Fenrisúlfr the wolf. These creatures exist on the margins of this world, encroaching upon the fabric of Odin’s domain from their realm, ‘The Other’.
To help the Aesir in their fight, Odin sent out the Valkyrie to bring the greatest warriors to Valhalla. In the midst of battle, they are appointed to die. Most people descend to Helheim in the afterlife, but these mighty men ascend to Odin’s hall. There they will become the Einherjar. They will feast and train, preparing to fight at Odin’s side against the monsters at Ragnarök. Reality is a perpetual conflict, the gods and men facing off against the giants who threaten the fabric of being. Humanity’s greatest heroes join the fight against entropy.
Using the Norse myths as a guide to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs, Tolkien interpreted the metaphysical geography of the Old English poem Beowulf in a similar way. Men live in great halls like Heorot, the home of King Hrothgar. In these dwellings lords give gold, warriors feast and bards recount the deeds of the brave and the bold. It is a place of safety. Beyond the walls of the hold lies a wilderness. In the wild places, we find Grendel, a man-eating giant or troll. He is a cursed ‘Son of Cain’; he is an enemy of God. There are witches and dragons that wreak havoc. The icy weather afflicts those who venture forth from the warmth of the hearth. Within the landscape of the Saxon imagination, there were islands of safety surrounded by seas of monstrous foes who are at war with man and God.
The Saxon worldview is present in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The reader first encounters the Shire, the land of the Hobbits. It is an idyllic place inspired by rural England. With its green fields, rustic simplicity, and homely comforts, the lives of the hobbits seem to be untouched by evil. As the characters move beyond its borders, we learn that the outside world is a dangerous place. Orcs, wolves, and trolls lurk in wait for the weary traveler. The servants of the Dark Lord Sauron are in pursuit of Frodo as he carries the Ring of Power. The heroes are in a race to stay one step ahead of the dark forces that wish to ensnare them. Even the natural world is a threat. In the Old Forest, the tree Old Man Willow attempts to devour Merry and Pippin. The mountain Caradhras seems to be a malevolent force that uses the weather against the advance of the Fellowship.
There are places of refuge. The heroes find rest in the Elven dwellings of Rivendell and Lothlórien. But these paradises are only kept safe by a vigilant watch. The same is true of the Shire. The Rangers of the North patrol its border. They hunt down and kill those monsters who would harm the defenseless hobbits. Outside of these harbors of respite there is, for the most part, a hostile landscape. And the shadows are encroaching upon these fragile oases. They face a ‘Long Defeat’.
Tolkien believed that Germanic mythologies were tragic in character. Everything ends in defeat. At Ragnarök, the gods and men are killed by the monsters. Odin is devoured by Fenrir; Thor and the World Serpent slay each other; Sutr envelops Asgard and the Earth in fire. Tolkien ignores the possibility of renewal hinted at with the return of Baldr and the dead from Helheim because it is the inevitability of loss that characterizes Anglo-Saxon literature. In Beowulf, Grendel invades the sanctuary of Heorot. He terrorizes its inhabitants. The titular hero restores order by killing the giant and its mother. However, the darkness is only held at bay. Many years later, Beowulf, now king of his people, sets forth to fight a dragon that is ravaging his lands. Though he, with the aid of his nephew Wiglaf, slays the monster, he is mortally wounded during the fight. At his funeral, an old woman breaks out in lament. She gave voice,
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
of her worst fears, a wild litany
slavery and abasement.
Like Beowulf, Saxon elegiac poetry expresses a deep sense that entropy will be victorious. The author of The Ruin ambles through a once mighty Roman town reduced to rubble. The Wanderer remembers a past time of merriment and gold-giving that is now reduced by fate to a crumbling wreck. The whole world has become ‘a wilderness’.
Tolkien thought that it was important that in this ancient literature that it was the monsters who overcame the gods and men. If the enemy was another tribe, the conflict would be political. But Grendel is a threat to all people. He is an enemy of God and humanity. He represents something that afflicts us all. Giants, dragons, orcs: each in their own way symbolize or express the threat of time, suffering, and death. These foes erode a man’s life regardless of what side he is on. No civilization is immune from their reach. Even the immortal elves could not maintain their paradises forever. Entropy is a perennial threat to every individual and group. It attacks us all, paying no heed to who we are, where we come from, or how virtuous we are. The Grim Reaper visits the wicked and the righteous, the young and the old, the strong and the weak. We struggle with and eventually succumb to a hostile world.
The heroes of Middle-earth also face ‘The Long Defeat’. On several occasions, they are placed in situations where they are up against overwhelming odds. This dynamic, repeated throughout the story, is in play at the Barrow Downs. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin have left the house of Tom Bombadil and are on their way to the village of Bree. It is there that they will meet the wizard Gandalf the Grey. To get there they must pass through a dangerous country. In that land lie the tombs of ancient kings. Despite their best efforts, the group are ensnared by a Barrow-wight, a ghost. The spirit sets a spell on the four hobbits. Frodo wakes up inside a barrow. His friends are comatose on the floor. As he gropes around in the dark for anything that will help, he hears a chilling song.
Cold be hand and heart and bone,
And cold be sleep under stone:
Never more to wake on stony bed,
Never, till Sun fails and moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
And still on gold here let them lie,
Till the dark lord lifts his hand
Over dead sea and withered land.
All seems lost. Darkness will engulf the hobbits. The Ring of Power will return to Sauron. The world will become a wilderness. This is fate.
The Norse and Saxon response to impending defeat was that of heroic spirit. Odin did not wallow in pity at the prospect of unalterable doom. He rose to meet it in battle. Tolkien called this attitude ‘Northern Courage’. It was characteristic of Old English legends. In The Battle of Maldon, the beleaguered Anglo-Saxon warriors take a last stand against their Viking adversaries. As the oncoming foe advances to meet them, an old housecarl cries out,
Our hearts must grow resolute, our courage more valiant,
Our spirits must be greater, though our strength grows less.
In the Anglo-Saxon mind it was imperative to show indomitable will in the face of death. Defeat did not invalidate the cause or heart of those who stood their ground to the very last. This steely resolve was particularly praiseworthy when motivated by a love of one’s lord or kin. To go down swinging was glorious. For this reason, some men might be reckless, risking themselves and those under their command for the sake of honor. For example, Beowulf intends to fight the dragon alone, rather than with his bodyguard, in pursuit of greater glory. He thereby needlessly endangers himself and the governance of his people.
The heroes in The Lord of the Rings are not afflicted by vainglory or pride. They display Northern Heroic Courage at its most pure. When all seems lost, King Theoden leads his men in a final charge against Saruman’s Uruk-hai at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. He does so again at the Pelennor Fields. Aragorn marshals his forces for one last stand at the Black Gate of Mordor in the hope that it will buy time for those attempting to destroy the Ring. But nowhere is the spirit of the Saxon imagination better expressed than when Frodo wakes up in the Barrow-wight’s lair.
When he came to himself again, for a moment he recalled nothing except a sense of dread. Then suddenly he knew he was imprisoned, caught hopelessly; he was in a barrow. A barrow-wight had taken him, and he was probably already under the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights about which whispered tales spoke. He dared not move but lay as he found himself: flat on his back upon a cold stone with his hands on his breast.
But though his fear was so great that it seemed to be part of the very darkness that was around him, he found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.
While Frodo encapsulates the warrior spirit in this episode, he also shows its apparent futility. He is tasked with taking the Ring of Power to Mordor so that it can be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, thereby overcoming the threat of Sauron. If he fails, Sauron will regain the Ring and, with its power, take over Middle-earth. Throughout the story, the Ring ensnares characters with false promises. It tempts Boromir, a mighty warrior of Gondor, to take it from Frodo by force so that he can defend his people with its power. The wizard Saruman is lured by the possibility of using the Ring to bring order to the world. But such noble ambitions are blurred with the desire for power itself. Those who give into these temptations become a husk of themselves, as seen in the figure of Gollum. Once a normal hobbit, he has given his whole being to the service of the Ring. It has left him an emaciated ghoul, an unnatural creature that drinks the blood of men. He has become an inversion of what he should be.
Throughout his journey, Frodo battles with the Ring and, in so doing, with himself. He resists the temptation to take the Ring as his own. Tolkien goes so far as to say that nobody could have done as well as Frodo during the Third Age. Using all his willpower, the hobbit manages to take the Ring into the heart of Mount Doom. Yet, when all he must do is let the Ring fall from his hand into the molten flames below, he is overcome. It is a failure, but not in the sense of any wrongful behavior on Frodo’s part. He was beaten by a stronger foe. The Ring was just too powerful, too alluring, and in the end his resolute will was snapped. Even Northern Courage and Heroic Spirit falter before the darkness. No creature is strong enough to resist the forces of evil forever. No one can resist the desire for power indefinitely. We all fall.
This, for Tolkien, is where the Saxon worldview ends. At best, we can hope for a glorious defeat. But our heroes are overcome and fall into moral failure. It is a dark, depressing perspective. It is a worldview that accepts the reign of entropy. However, this is not the end of the story. The Lord of the Rings delivers a message of hope. When evil is about to triumph, rescue is at hand. As King Theoden leads his knights in one final charge against the Uruk-hai, Gandalf the White arrives with Erkenbrand and many warriors. They charge down the hill and relieve the beleaguered defenders. The day is won. Saruman’s forces are routed. The same pattern repeats throughout the tale, reaching its climax at Mount Doom. When Frodo takes the Ring for himself, it looks like Sauron will be victorious. Slavery, domination, and death are on the horizon for the free peoples of Middle-earth. But at that moment Gollum, overcome with lust for the Ring, attacks Frodo. He manages to take it off the hobbit and, dancing with joy, slips into the fires below. The Ring is destroyed and Sauron is defeated. Gollum saved the world, albeit unintentionally.
This narrative arc is what Tolkien called a ‘eucatastrophe’, a good catastrophe. In his 1939 lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ he put forward the case that this kind of plot was at the heart of fantasy and fairy stories. The heroes are placed into an impossible situation. Destruction seems inevitable. The tide of battle turns when an unexpected saving force intervenes. Defeat becomes a victory, and despair, and terror turn into joy and laughter. Crucially, this plot structure presupposes the possibility and reality of time, suffering, and death, for they provide the context for the great reversal. The sudden, unlooked-for help that rescues the day evokes an overwhelming delight in characters and readers. This profound relief and happiness arising from this act of ‘grace’ can move grown men to tears.
In Middle-earth, eucatastrophes are not coincidences. They are not the result of luck or blind chance. Throughout the story, it is hinted that there is something going on beyond what is immediately apparent. Gandalf the Grey explains to Frodo that when Bilbo Baggins found the Ring of Power,
There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thoughts from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Behind that, there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. 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. And that may be an encouraging thought.
In Letter 192 to Amy Ronald, Tolkien made a similar point regarding the events at Mount Doom. When Frodo failed to destroy the Ring, ‘The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’ (as one critic has said).’ These comments leave many more questions than answers. Who or what is this Other Power? How does it relate to Middle-earth? How does it act in the world? Why does it do so? Why is it present and yet apparently absent?
These questions go beyond the scope of this article (though those who would like to know more may find some suggestive answers in The Silmarillion). What matters here is that Tolkien attributes to this reality the eucatastrophe at the climax of the book. Though there is no mention of this power or person when Gollum takes the Ring from Frodo and, accidentally, falls to his doom, in some sense it was behind the free actions of Frodo, the Ring and Gollum. It ‘wrote’ the story of Middle-earth in this way. And, by extension, it directed, in some way, all the events of history so that they would consist in a series of eucatastrophes.
This feature of The Lord of the Rings was influenced by Tolkien’s Roman Catholic and Christian faith. Towards the end of ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tolkien claimed that there had been a eucatastrophe in real history. The coming of Christ, the incarnation of the Son of God, is the great reversal of human history. Human nature has been redeemed by its union with the Divine in the life of Jesus Christ. The estrangement between God and man has been overcome. In turn, the resurrection of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the incarnation. The crucifixion of Jesus seemed to herald the victory of evil and death over God’s love. But Christ rose from the dead, an event that was not expected. The ravages of time, suffering, and death have been overcome in Christ. The eucatastrophe of the Gospel is the decisive answer to the entropic darkness that threatens to drag us down into the abyss.
Tolkien’s belief in the ‘myth-made history’ or ‘myth-made fact’ was the basis for his hope in the future. He affirmed the Old English conviction that, when left to human strength, all ends in defeat. He went further. He thought that even our heroes fall into moral failure. This view was informed by the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin. But it seems that Tolkien thought that the Gospel answered the tragedy recognized by the Norse view of the world. The Divine has already achieved ultimate victory and can bring about eucatastrophes today and tomorrow.
This may seem like the natural place to end the discussion. But The Lord of the Rings does not finish with the defeat of Sauron. Tolkien has something more to say. After their adventures, the hobbits return to the Shire. When they arrive home, they find their beloved paradise turned into a dystopian nightmare. Saruman’s thugs have enslaved the defenseless hobbits. Ugly buildings have been erected, and basic freedoms curtailed. Trees have been hacked down and the mill pumps pollution into the waters. Those who have resisted are locked away and one hobbit may have been the victim of cannibalism. Just as Grendel violated Heorot, so too has the Shire been ravaged by evil.
Though the heroes drive out the ruffians and renew the Shire, a doubt has been planted by Tolkien in the reader’s mind. Could this happen again? If malevolence could break into this rural paradise once, can it return? And while the Shire was saved, not everything survived the ravages of the war. With the destruction of the Ring, the power of the elves has diminished. They must leave Middle-earth or degenerate into lesser forms of life. Frodo’s physical and spiritual wound does not heal. He too must leave for the land beyond the sea.
The defeat of Sauron does not bring about the end of evil. The Long Defeat is still inevitable. Darkness can enter the home and not all things are saved. While the tide of time, suffering and death can be halted, this is only momentary. Ultimately, it will take Divine intervention to redeem the world. Scattered throughout Tolkien’s notes are hints that such would be the eventual fate of Middle-earth. The Other Power would remake reality following the final defeat of evil, a narrative arc paralleling the events of the Last Judgment in Christianity.
The presence of evil in the Shire expresses many of Tolkien’s sentiments concerning the changes he saw in his own day. Like many British men, he had fought in World War One. Surviving the hellscape of the Somme, he returned to his homeland having defeated ‘the Enemy’. Yet what he found in the years following was haunting. He had grown up in a leafy village outside of Birmingham, but in time it was subsumed into suburbia. Rows of houses replaced the green fields he had once played in with his brother. Industrial tendrils spread themselves across the land. Technocrats advanced a materialistic ‘robot age’ wherein the pursuit of progress was more important than the old tales and simple life. The England Tolkien fought for was being destroyed by the ‘spirit of Mordor’.
Where does this leave us? What do we do in the face of entropy? Tolkien’s stories do not give us easy answers. They give us ways of seeing reality, incorporating multiple perspectives on the matter. The Lord of the Rings takes seriously the danger of entropy. It recognizes the inevitability of decline, failure, and suffering. The story acknowledges that these afflict all people, whether they are on our side or not. It offers grounds for hope in a world ruled by a God of love who works history towards a series of eucatastrophes. But at the same time, it recognizes that does not mean we are guaranteed a final victory over evil, at least in the normal course of history. It is a fulsome engagement with the problem of decline.
Perhaps we should not be concerned with the fate of reality. As Gandalf reminds those in attendance at the Council of Elrond, ‘We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one’. The task before us is, as he tells Frodo, ‘to decide… what to do with the time that is given us’. Before us is a present evil. It is up to us how we respond to the onset of entropy. We can do no other. Nothing else is within our control. What we choose to do may come undone. It probably will, given the fallibility of human courage and endeavor. But we can try our best. The rest is up to the Other Power.