Monday, July 26, 2004


For some time now, I have wanted to write a LOTR post. But I thought that I would rather do it after all the excitement has subsided a bit, if not died down. I absolutely loved the glorious tale. I have to say that as far as the movies are concerned, I liked TTT and ROTK better. But that really set me thinking about why, apart from the grandeur of the movies, LOTR suddenly became so popular.
Well, at this point I remember a story told by Isaac Asimov. He and J.R.R. Tolkien were contending in the same year for the “Hugo” award, the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize or Academy award for science fiction and fantasy. Asimov was dead sure that Tolkien would win the award. He was in awe of the Lord of the Rings, and had read it several times, in fact. So he was pleasantly surprised when he, not Tolkien, won the Hugo. Even after many years, he could not fathom the reason. Incidentally, Asimov won the prize for his famed “Foundation Series”, a set of stories which are as, if not more popular than LOTR. Well, I don’t know why what happened happened. One reason I strongly suspect played a part is that the Hugo is primarily given for science fiction. Tolkien’s work does not really count as science fiction. Perhaps, in a purely fantasy based competition, Tolkien would have emerged the winner.
LOTR is surely one of the classics of our time. But if you think of it, it embodies many of the same principles that are enumerated in the world’s most celebrated epic tales and religious gospels and poems. Many of the characters in LOTR remind us of similar famous characters. The most compelling character in the book is probably Golum, who definitely reminds me of Goethe’s Faust. Just like Faust, he wants the ring and what he thinks is eternal power and happiness. Just like Faust, he is willing to do anything for it. Just like Faust who trades his soul with the devil for eternal life, but is in fact stricken with eternal pain and torment, Golum forsakes all the good in his life for the pursuit of the ring. Which shows that power, no matter how great, can never bring utopian happiness. In LOTR, the central theme is the fight between good and evil, as exemplified by countless immortal tales from cultures around the world. But what struck me more than anything else was the one single principle everyone constantly sticks by and which is really the guiding force of the whole epic. Many people agree that the varied battle scenes in the story are the most inspiring parts. But I think that these scenes are not memorable for the special effects, or for the bravery and valour of the warriors alone. A recurrent theme preceding almost all the battle scenes is a completely gloomy outlook towards the results of the battle. At no point, especially in The Two Towers, is it clear that the ‘good’ men will win the battle. At no point is even their survival a comfortably obvious assumption. At no point is it clear that Frodo is going to succeed. In fact, at every point of the tale, the odds are always against these brave men. But still they decide to persist to uphold their honour. They decide to fight tooth and nail with everything they have got. They strive to give it their best shot, NO MATTER WHAT THE OUTCOME. This strikes me as a golden principle guiding mankind through centuries of struggle and survival. I don’t need to say it but what we are talking about has been said thousands of years ago in a glorious epic, the Bhagavad Gita. Of course, it is not only the Gita which says this, but as far as I know, in almost no other document has the principle been articulated so eloquently and clearly. Although I am an agnostic and not greatly biased towards Hinduism, I think that the great strength of the Gita lies in its generosity. It enumerates many different ways in which the principle can be realized. It teaches the principle in a way which is fit to follow for many men through the centuries; whether it is the Mahabharata’s Arjuna, or the Lord of the Ring’s Aragon. Its truly a universal principle. So if LOTR teaches a universal principle, what is Tolkien’s contribution? As any great author does, Tolkien brings wonderfully to life, men who embody this principle and many others too. The tenacity of Frodo, the singular, almost fanatic nature of Aragon aimed at the defeat of evil, and the determined guiding principles of Gandalf, are all great and tangible examples of qualities which make us great and different. But a more important thing, which I thought was responsible for the success of LOTR was the fact that we are at a stage where we are in danger of forgetting these principles, if not for any other reason, for the reason that the world has become too complicated and utilitarian. Just as the old generation complains about the lack of recognition of the value of good old hard work, so we can all complain about the gradual diminishing in the world, of values which have brought us to this stage of apparent domination of the earth. I think that more than at any time, we are at a stage when the shroud of materialistic and technological contraptions, as well as the great influence of political ideologies has clouded our thinking. And the most dangerous thing is that we are gradually even losing awareness of this deprecation of values. Today, more that 2000 years after these principles were enumerated, it is becoming more and more difficult to actually recognize these qualities. At least that’s what I think. So today, it has become more important that men like Tolkien create these heroes in whom these qualities are firmly pronounced. With the current growth of the culture and sentiment of civilization, I would not be surprised if another Tolkien comes out with another such inspiring story in about fifty years more or so. We will need it even more then. I am not saying that we should start indulging more and more in idol worship. But I do think that we need a reminder, in this more and more complicated world, that these qualities exist and they still matter as much, or actually even more. We need more Aragons and Frodos to save our sanity. In fact, if nobody writes such a book for a very long time, I would be surprised. If the book fails to inspire people when it is written, I would be disturbed.
On a more practical note, Tolkien also weaves a remarkable tale in which the most important character is not necessarily the most inspiring. And so it has also been in real life. A lot of us have great ability, but that ability cannot be realised unless there is someone, real or apparent who can give us strength and has the staying power and tenacity which we may lack. Arjuna had Krishna, Olympic champions have their coaches, and Frodo had Sam. That's why, important as he may be, I always think that the real heroes of LOTR are Sam, and Aragorn, for his sheer staying power.


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