I have to confess that I am a bona fide Lord of the Rings nut. I knew about hobbits, elves, and the great tale of the Ring of Power long before it was made into a cinematic epic. I learned it at my mother’s knee.
The recent movie release of the third and final act in this epic story, The Return of the King, has prompted me to ponder this story and its great themes and its lessons for life. My wife and I braved the North Dakota snows recently to attend and watch the film. It was, for me, an undeniably powerful experience. The movie itself was stunning but it was not the cinematography or the action or the performances that moved me most. It was the story.
Somehow, I came away from this film with a deepened understanding of what I have searched for over many years in trying to fully understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork of fiction and fable. I have longed to capture in my mind the great thematic key to Tolkien’s vision and the world he creates in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think I found an answer.
Every story is a family story.
“I Did Liken All the Scriptures Unto Us”
President Boyd K. Packer has penned perhaps my favorite words about the Book of Mormon and its character. He writes of the Book of Mormon:
“While it chronicles a people for a thousand and twenty-one years and contains the record of an earlier people, it is in fact not a history of a people. It is the saga of a message, a testament. As the influence of that message is traced from generation to generation, more than twenty writers record the fate of the individuals and civilizations that accepted or rejected that testament.” (Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, Bookcraft, 1991, p. 282; emphasis added)
It is the saga of a message.
I love that language. I love that truth. I love that understanding.
I’d like to borrow President Packer’s insight into the great thematic key of the Book of Mormon and liken it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and suggest also that this epic work is nothing less than the saga of a message. That is its allure and grandeur. That is its power.
I do not tend to look to literature for pithy insights or quotable quotes. I love literature because of its power to teach. I look to literature for its depth of meaning and its capacity to lift my eyes and focus my gaze on those things that truly matter. I look for the saga of the message.
Nephi, in his teachings to his people in the Book of Mormon, writes candidly and powerfully of his own use of sacred literature, the scriptures, in such a manner. He recounts in 1 Nephi 19:22-23:
“Now it came to pass that I, Nephi, did teach my brethren these things; and it came to pass that I did read many things to them, which were engraven upon the plates of brass, that they might know concerning the doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old.
“And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”
This process of “likening” that which we learn from the scriptures of the “doings of the Lord in other lands, among people of old” to our own lives and experiences is meant to bless us. Nephi encouraged this process as a teaching tool by his own reading of the stories of sacred scripture. The same process might be used as we are exposed to great literature or great art, in that we ought to be attentive to the lessons taught and what is meant for our “profit and learning.”
I have probably read the Lord of the Rings series a dozen times or more. I have enjoyed its winding tales and the intricacies of each character. But not until now have I seen what, for me, is the genuine message of the Tolkien saga.
Every story is a family story.
The Story of Eowyn and Theoden
Among the great story lines in the Lord of the Rings is the tale of Eowyn and her uncle Theoden, King of Rohan. It is for me a highly poignant story.
Rohan is a besieged kingdom in the world of Middle-Earth and it is led by the aging and errant king, Theoden, who is watched and fretted over by his valiant but besieged niece, Eowyn. Eowyn is not merely a watchful princess, but a warrior maiden who has been trained in the arts of war and longs to step forward in defense of her people. Yet she remains faithfully at her uncle’s side and tries to do all she can to redeem him from the grasp of the king’s “counsellors” who have weakened his will and led him toward defeat. As subtle servants of the evil power, Sauron, they seek to poison his mind against his family and have him yield up his kingly power. Makings of a good story, right?
As a boy, my brothers and I listened for long hours to my mother’s smooth voice as she read to us from the pages of the Lord of the Rings and other great literature. Confined to bed at times due to ill health, she made up for lost opportunities by enriching our world with great books and the power of stories. It was on such a day, listening to my mother’s voice, that I remember hearing the dramatic tale of Eowyn.
In the story, the kingdom of Rohan rallies and eventually comes to the aid of the neighboring kingdom of Gondor in its time of greatest peril. Theoden has regained some of his strength and leads his men to the field of battle, there to face his most terrible threat. On the field of battle and at a moment of great triumph, King Theoden is struck down by the most terrible of evil Sauron’s servants, the Lord of the Nazgul, and there faces death. One young soldier only stands by his side and raises a sword in defense of the king. The dark servant of Sauron laughs and commands the soldier to step aside, for he cannot be slain by any hand of mortal man. And then came this moment in my mother’s calm, clear voice:
“Then Merry [the Hobbit] heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm [the soldier] laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.
But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’ . . . There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.” (The Return of the King, p. 823)
And there Eowyn slew the great dark Lord of the Nazgul. She withstood evil in defense of the kinsman she loved, and brought peace to his passing.
What is this story if not a story of family love? What is its message if not the message that family ties bind us to those we love not only in times of plenty but in times of pain and darkness and peril? Each story is a family story.
As I have thought of Eowyn and her courage, I have also begun to think about other mothers and daughters and women who take upon themselves the cause of kinship. Are there women such as Eowyn who have watched the men they know and love sink into darkness and despair? Are there women such as Eowyn who have stood faithfully by and struggled for the souls of men who become possessed by evil influences around them? Are there women such as Eowyn who have stretched forth their hands to send back the face of sin when it threatens the family members that they love? There are such women. They are Eowyn. I have seen them. I have known them. I have loved them.
Eowyn’s sacrifice for the love of her family, of her people, is a beacon of insight into the devotion engendered by the bonds of family kinship. And yet it does not leave Eowyn unwounded. It leaves a shadow upon her. There is a cost. And yet, without that cost and her great love evil itself might have won the day.
Every story is a family story.
The Friendship of Frodo and Sam
The theme of home and family is echoed in myriad ways throughout the tale of the Lord of the Rings, and more lessons and marvelous messages become apparent the more that idea is pondered. Yet among them all, perhaps the most compelling comes through in the story of the friendship of Frodo and Sam, the hobbit Ring-Bearer and his gardener, who travel from their beloved Shire to the dark lands of Mordor on their ceaseless quest.
Tolkien seems to use the peaceful life of the hobbit-folk in the Shire, their land and home, to constantly remind us that the story of the great quest in the Lord of the Rings is really not about the quest at all. It is about the quest for home and the price we must pay to preserve home and family. The real adventure is coming home.
The great symbol of temptation in Tolkien’s epic is the Ring of Power, a ring forged by Sauron himself (the Dark Lord) that is suggested to give the bearer ultimate power and domination over others. And yet, this temptation is an illusion for wearing the Ring will lead ultimately only to enslavement by evil. Frodo the hobbit must bear this Ring back to the land of Mordor where it was created and destroy it in order for the peoples of Middle-Earth to be saved. Sam is his trusted and faithful companion.
At one point in the story Frodo has been captured and Sam continues on alone for a time with the burden of bearing the Ring now upon him. Its power tempts him and he imagines taking it for himself. These passages draw sharply the theme of home versus hell. The story reads:
“[Sam] felt that he had from now on only two choices: to forbear the Ring, though it would torment him; or to claim it, and challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows. Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
“In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.” (The Return of the King, pp. 880-881)
Think of the temptations of the world to wealth and fame and power and then remember this line: “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”
A garden of one’s own to till is all our need and due. An image of home. One’s own hands to work and build and create a humble and loving home. Not the hands of others to build palaces and cathedrals and skyscrapers-too often in homage to the gods of this world.
This extraordinary moment reveals the contrast between the temptations of the world offered by Satan and the humble blessings of home that are promised and blessed upon us by heaven. And we are given the power to make a choice as to what we will choose.
The friendship of Frodo and Sam leads them together upon their quest to destroy the Ring of Power to the fires of Mount Doom. Their quest is successful and their road then returns once again in time toward the Shire from which they set out. Again, many lessons might be pondered from this story, but at the ending of the tale is this simple conclusion:
“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more.
And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. Well, I’m back,’ he said.” (Return of the King, p. 1008)
A warm place. A loving hand of welcome. A humble meal. A child’s sweet kiss.
A return to home.
Every story is a family story.
Well, such are my musings on the topic of hobbits, elves, and The Return of the King, as shared in the great Tolkien epic the Lord of the Rings. For me, the great thematic message of this epic is the story of the true grandeur that exists in seeking to create the haven of hearth, home and family love. It is always in peril. It is ever at the cost of sacrifice and tears and courage and love that we preserve it in our lives. It is too easily lost if it is not valued and it is not easily regained once it has been shaken or destroyed.
It is the saga of a message. As you read the books or see the films, let this message be one message that captures your understanding and imagination. And then, as Nephi instructs, let us think upon how such lessons might persuade us to “believe in the Lord [our] Redeemer” and be “for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23).
Every story is a family story.