Monday, January 14, 2013

Tolkien's Greatness, Part 1: Tragic vs. Triumph

How many of you are familiar with the structure of the old heroic tales? Basically, the saga focuses on one hero, usually a warrior or a king. He does many amazing things, but he has one fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. This was prominent in Greek literature - Antigone, Oedipus, and Achilles all come to mind - and also in Medieval England among King Arthur's knights. That was also true in Steinbeck's The Pearl, just without the amazing feats. Long story short, most of the heroic tales are tragic in the end.

Tolkien's stories - not necessarily his writing, and not just the Lord of the Rings - have been my favorite stories since fourth grade. Many people have asked me why that is, and usually my answer is, "They're just plain epic!" In my defense, fundamental things sometimes can't be explained, and to the world of fantasy writing, Tolkien is to a large extent fundamental. I mean, come on, the guy redefined fantasy writing!

Anyway, ever since seeing The Hobbit in December, I've been considering why exactly I like Tolkien's stories. The just plain epic contribution does a lot to make his stuff fantastic. Then there's his indications that just anyone can have an adventure, but I'll comment more on that later. For me, in order to like a book, it is absolutely essential that there be good characters. That is where I began tracking down why I like the world of Middle-Earth so much. From there, my thought process went something like this:

Who are my favorite Middle-Earth characters? Aragorn, because he does eventually save the kingdom of Gondor; Boromir, because he believed in his people and in all the members of the Fellowship, including the hobbits; and Thorin, because Thorin was an exiled king like Aragorn, but unlike Aragorn he believed in his people.

Actually, Thorin is really a lot more like Boromir. I guess Tolkien liked Thorin so much that he wanted him, or someone like him, back in the trilogy, and so he came up with Boromir. They're very similar; after all, both of them are very proud of their people, and both of them struggle with temptation - Boromir with the Ring, and Thorin with the Arkenstone. They both overcome their temptations to die heroes.

Hey, unlike a lot of the "classics" out there, when Tolkien's characters get bugged by temptation, it's not always their downfall; in fact, more often then not, their temptation becomes their triumph.

Yes! I have figured out why Tolkien's work is so special! His heroes are burdened with weaknesses, pride and selfishness prominent among them but not the only ones unlike Greek literature, and they nonetheless overcome them and go on to be heroic. Their glory is that they overcome the weaknesses within.

Need examples? Consider:

Boromir - pride and coveting the Ring, but in the end he did let Frodo and the Ring go, and he died saving Merry and Pippin.

Aragorn - fear that led him to live a life in exile instead of taking his mantle as king, but he also overcame his weakness and became King of Gondor and Arnor.

Eowyn - her weakness was despair, but she overcame that (with the help of Faramir)

(...while I'm thinking about him)
Faramir - he was so desperate to earn his father's love that he nearly did what he knew was wrong to earn it. But he also defeated his weakness and allowed Frodo and Sam to continue.

Not all of Tolkien's tempted characters overcame their temptations - namely Denethor and Gollum - but what a change from so many other epics! Tolkien's heroes don't fall prey to their temptations; instead, they fight back and emerge victorious. And isn't that what a hero is, after all?

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