I recently finished reading The Lord of the Rings to some of my children (their first time, my fourth or fifth). At one time, reading a fantasy novel to one's children might have been considered questionable or even dangerous. Today, there is less conflict over whether wizards and magic should appear in stories; instead, the controversy is over much more foundational truths. The entertainment industry is filled with the ideas that right and wrong are fluid concepts, people are basically good (corrupted only by their circumstances), and one of the greatest goods is to “live your own truth.”
Yet books like The Lord of the Rings still capture the imagination of today's children as they once captured mine (and a generation before mine). Furthermore, these books, though taking place in a fantasy world, are grounded in the truths and realities of our world. In my view, books like these can give our children better information on the real world than many books and movies of today.
Though the truths and lessons in The Lord of the Rings are numerous, here are three foundational truths I find especially evident in this series.
(NOTE: Major plot spoilers ahead.)
1. Good and evil exist.
The Lord of the Rings has a stark divide between the forces of good and evil. Sauron and his minions want to rule the world with the power of the Ring; Gandalf and his friends want the world to remain free. Unlike many stories of today that portray a sympathetic villain, Sauron is essentially the Devil, and his orcs, Black Riders, and other corrupted creatures are utterly evil. On the other side, Gandalf, aided chiefly by the elves, leads the forces of the good that still exists in Middle-earth. Though certain characters inhabit the gray areas between good and evil, it is easy to distinguish the boundaries of black and white.
Of course, this divide in the real world is not as obvious. But in truth, there is always an ongoing spiritual battle between good and evil . We may not be able to physically see our enemies (or guardians), but stories like this one can remind us that they are still there.
By contrast, few books and movies of today are based in worlds with an ultimate Good and ultimate Evil. And even most Christian entertainment fails to show spiritual battles so powerfully. Fantasy can provide a unique window into the forces of good and evil in our world that many other genres cannot.
2. Good people are capable of being corrupted, and bad people are capable of being redeemed.
Consider Saruman and Gollum. Saruman is a good character gone bad, corrupted by his pride and the thirst for power. Yet when Gandalf and Frodo have opportunities to do away with him, they both let him go in hopes that he might one day realize the error of his ways. Gollum, despite chiefly being a “Stinker,” has the “Slinker” part of his nature as well—not good, but seemingly willing to become good. Frodo clearly believes Gollum is capable of redemption, and there is one moment where he seems to be right. Near the end of The Two Towers, Gollum finds Sam and Frodo asleep, and as he watches, he seems almost to change his mind about betraying them.
As for the good characters, many have some type of fault, and none are completely immune to the temptation of the Ring. Gandalf and Galadriel, some of the most powerful good characters, are both given opportunities to take the Ring and must struggle with their own urges before they can “pass the test.” Those who are not presented with direct opportunities to take the Ring (Aragorn, for example) still strongly support its destruction, implicitly fearing that it could corrupt them also. The childlike hobbits are probably the closest to being incorruptible, but Frodo shows what could have happened to them all when he succumbs to the Ring at the last minute.
We also witness characters wavering between the good and the bad. Theoden starts out as the weak and witless king with a mind that has been poisoned by Saruman, but once he is freed by Gandalf, he is a noble character until his death. Denethor, on the other hand, has faithfully led his people, yet after Sauron deceives him, he kills himself out of despair. But perhaps the most poignant example is Boromir, who demonstrates both a fall into evil and a redemption of his honor. He begins as noble and brave, yet through the best of intentions, he falls prey to the draw of the Ring and attempts to steal it. Yet he immediately repents and soon afterward gives his life in defense of his friends.
In short, one of the major themes of the book is that while anyone is capable of redemption, no one is so naturally good that he can fully withstand the pull of evil. This message is completely at odds with the “wisdom” of today, which says our noble or problematic qualities are merely products of our upbringing. I find it much more hopeful to think that we are naturally flawed, but we all have an opportunity to be made whole.
3. Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
Though this quote from the movie is not found in the books, I think it's a good representation of one of the key points. Frodo, though small and certainly no great warrior, is determined to be the best qualified for the momentous task of taking the Ring to Mount Doom. I am reminded of Scriptures about God's power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), and about members of the body of Christ that seem to be weak and yet are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22). It is encouraging to think that though I may feel small, God still has plans for me that only I can accomplish.
While young people today may be encouraged to believe in themselves and told they can change the world, they are also told that the secret to happiness is living out their own truth—in other words, doing whatever their heart tells them to do. There is no concept of eternal purpose, or any sort of life mission beyond “eat, drink, and be merry.” In contrast, stories of unlikely heroes may awaken a natural longing to do and to be a part of something beyond our own selfish desires.
I hope that one day more writers and moviemakers will arise to bring foundational truths back into focus. But until that time, revisiting the old masterpieces works for me.