In the wake of one of the most horrifying, abominable acts that could possibly be imagined, one is left with a vacant area in your soul, a void that your mind and heart can never fill nor map the depth and breadth of. As we scramble to comprehend our loss or our terror, we find seek solace in the oddest of places.
Last night, my wife and I went to see “The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey“. It was an incredible movie, one that I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time. Just ask my wife. There are purists that will say that the movie embellishes The Hobbit and discount the movie for this reason. I reply that everything we see in the movie was based on either segments taken from The Lord of the Rings or from other works by Tolkien in the world of Middle Earth. In the final analysis, it was a brilliant movie and a wonderfully uplifting balm for a day of evil that truly could have been plucked from the depths of Mordor.
As such, I am going to do something I’ve never done before, but that I feel is both appropriate right now: reprint something I wrote some time ago. Last year, I responded to a question on Quora (if you’ve never visited it, I encourage you to do so, it’s simply a shining spot on the internet) asking whether the Harry Potter books or the Lord of the Rings trilogy were the better work of fiction. I post this now, both in honor of the premier of The Hobbit, but also for a larger purpose: both of these works where the powerless overcome the insurmountable power of evil and triumph. I thinks in a world that is now missing the light and joy of twenty bright and shining souls, we could use a reminder that the smallest things matter.
Which is the better work of fiction?
This is an incredibly tough comparison. I love both Tolkien and Rowlings collected works and both satisfy similar but different parts of me. However, if pressed to choose one, I’d have to say that Lord of the Rings is the better epic.
I agree with previous posters on this topic, with the added observation (or possibly a clarification) that Rowling tells whereas Tolkien shows. I never got the same impression of sweeping, majestic descriptions in the HP series as I did in the Hobbit and LOTR. Perhaps that is part of my preference for Lord of the Rings over Harry Potter. HP feels like a chronicle. By comparison, LOTR is a sweeping, adventure epic. It is simply more grandiose. This is only part of my reason though. Perhaps my most important consideration is how the ‘hero’s journey’ is treated and greater tale that it tells.
In Harry Potter, the story of Harry is predominately one of wish fulfillment. There are worthwhile tales of friendship, faith, love and sacrifice, true. But largely it is about a small boy, gaining entry to a selective and special society and learning mystical powers and then using them to fight injustice and evil and grow as a person. Again, there is nothing wrong with any of this and Rowling does an excellent job in emphasizing the heroism and growth inherent in Harry’s adolescent journey. However, the story of Harry is also something of pre-determinism. From the very beginning, Harry is larger than life: “The Boy That Lived”. All throughout his life, people encourage, protect and foster him. Even those that otherwise despise him (Snape) ultimately sacrifice all for his sake. This is an aspect of all of Harry’s books: the battle between renown and humility, preordination and self-determinism. By no means does Harry allow others to fight his battles or does he take advantage of his fame; indeed he actively fights against these things. But ultimately, Harry was born a hero. Harry is the avatar of every young boy or girl who wishes they were born with riches or fame or superpowers. The greatness always lurked within; it simply must be harnessed.
The story of Frodo is different in fundamental ways. Frodo was born humble. He had no ancient prophesy that he would become the Ringbearer. He was always a simple hobbit. He enjoyed friendship and frivolity and good, abundant food and drink. Greatness was thrust upon him in way it never was upon Harry. Yes, both had an seemingly impossible task ahead, but Harry always had the power (or the curse) to protect himself from Voldemort. Frodo was just a plain hobbit. He had no destiny, no magical powers. He was not descended from a long line of ancient rulers, like Aragorn. He was not the greatest living wizard, like Gandolf. He was not a stalwart warrior like Gimli or Legolas or Faramir. His power came purely from his bravery and determination. Like Harry, there were times when he was protected and assisted. But the bulk of his journey, his trial, was set squarely on his shoulders. He was the one (alongside Samwise) that walked to the literal end of Middle Earth and destroyed the greatest evil the world has ever known. Yes, only Harry could ultimately kill Voldemort, but he had an army of friends and allies who fought alongside him and cleared his way. Frodo did it only with a portly gardener, a glowing blue sword, some crunchy snacks and an evil little creature. Harry grew into what he was destined to become. Frodo grew beyond his limitations, surpassed what was thought possible. To me, that is the greater heroism.
My second reason has less to do with the subject material and more to do with existential context. I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was in college and acquired a complete set of the books. However, I did not actually read these books until the winter of 2000-2001. In the late summer and early fall of 2000, my mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Between November of 2000 and February 2001, my mother was in constant hospitalization. As the disease became progressively terminal, my father and I took turns sitting vigil with my mom. As I grew up, I was exceptionally close to my mother. We were ‘of a kind’. I had already experienced the horror of cancer when my grandfather, whom I was also exceptionally close to as a child, died of brain and lung cancer when I was 14. At 31, watching my mother battle the same unrelenting and destructive force was almost unbearable. Eventually she was placed on life support and was in a coma. My father and I could only watch as she slowly slipped away from us. As I was witness to my mother slipping away from us and from life, I began to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Something about the hopeless struggle, the horrors and degradation occurring outside of the Shire (whilst the hobbits led simple, joyous lives oblivious to what lay just beyond their borders) , the encroachment of an evil that destroyed all and was seemingly beyond defeat spoke to me. Every character’s personal triumphs and travails spoke to me, even the sad obsession and desperation of Gollum. I found courage in Frodo’s stoic acceptance and determination to do what was hard, instead of what was easy. I was buoyed by the desperate bravery of the Rohadrim at Helm’s Deep, of a King saved from dissolution only to see the seeming last days of his rule and of his people. Sitting with my mother in her room, lacking in the warmth and familiarity of home, I could almost feel the same isolation and discomfort of Tolkien’s band of heroes. Most of all, I was both transported from -yet brought more in tune- with my mother’s journey through her own version of Mordor, her battle against her own personal form of evil. Ultimately, just like Frodo who lived through his ordeal only to ultimately join the Elves in sailing to the Grey Shores, my mother survived her time in the hospital, but left us after returning home under hospice care. For me, Lord of the Rings will always be inexorably tied with the loss of my mother. But contrary to spoiling the story, it simply reinforced and emphasized the messages of personal bravery and change that are at the heart of Tolkien’s saga. For me, LOTR feels like a story of my life, of hope amidst hopelessness, bravery in the face of despair, rebirth amongst loss.