Aug 20, 2012

What Tolkien wanted you to understand about yourself through Lord of the Rings

Peter J. Kreeft’s stimulating book The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings takes a look at philosophical questions raised and answered in Tolkien’s work (as well as introducing us to helpful explanations from Tolkien’s private letters). On the issue of human identity Kreft reminds us that only human beings  ‘can fail to achieve our nature’. Here’s a short extract on the theme and how Tolkien seeks to illustrate it from the lives of Frodo, Sam and Golem.

When the object we desire is God, or that which God is (truth, goodness, and beauty), the object is not possessable. And paradoxically, only then are we fulfilled, when we do not possess the object that we desire but it possesses us. But when we make anything other than God the object of our desire, when our goal is possessable, we are undone. This dark path began in Eden. Once we laid hands on the fruit we desired, the horrible effect took place immediately: it laid its hands on us. The self was ‘unselfed’ – not filled but emptied, not enhanced but devastated. The object grew into a god, and we shrank into slaves. We exchanged places: we became the objects, the its, and it because the subject, the I. We found our identity in what was less than ourselves, in what we could possess. We who began as the Adam (man) became the golem, the ‘un-man’.

Frodo and Sam illustrate one half of this paradox, Golem the other. Frodo and Sam attain and save their selves because they give themselves away for others, for the world. And not for some abstract cause but for each other and for the Shire. In contrast, Gollum is obsessed with his “cause”: possessing the Ring. His selfishness is so self-devouring that he almost has no self left. He talks to himself more than to others; he often makes no distinction between himself and his “Precious”; he is confused about who he is. He speaks of himself in the third person. (“Don’t let them hurt us, Precious!”) It is the Ring that is now the Precious, and Gollum has lost his preciousness, his value. He has become its slave, and it has become his master. In fact it has become the self, the person, the subject, the actor, and Gollum has become its passive object, its IT. He is nothing without the Ring, He cannot distinguish himself from the Ring. He is the Ring, The person has become a thing. He has lost his soul.

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