“Bag End” by Tim Doyle.
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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.
Imagine a story. This story has a hero. By the end of the tale, the hero has done many great deeds. He (or she) has vanquished some terrific evil, journeyed to some distant place, or protected the innocent multitudes from a cruel fate they did not deserve. In a past age, accomplishing feats such as these was enough to earn the title ‘hero.’ But this hero comes from a different time. His heroism is not found in the number of enemies he slew, in the distance he traveled, or in the acclaim of his adoring crowds. His heroism is rooted in his character. The relevant aspects of his character are apparent only to his closest friends. Occasionally even they are not privy to the source of his glory, which the audience only learns of because they have privileged access to the hero’s internal thoughts. His heroism is grounded in a firm conviction: he does not want to be a hero.
The hero wants not fame, nor fortune; he is not motivated by power, nor by revenge. He performs his heroics out of necessity, out of duty, or out of the simple fact that he is the only one on the scene. The hero would rather not be out slaying dragons. He earnestly wishes for a normal life. He yearns for a peaceful and settled world where he is not the chosen one. But it is precisely because our hero lacks ambition that he can be trusted. In a world where men ache for power, we cheer for the protagonist who emphatically rejects it. From beginning to end, our hero’s defining trait is a desire not to be a hero. Some are born great, others achieve greatness—but we love best those blessed few who have had greatness thrust upon them.
Here I’ve sketched out an archetypal template. This is the template upon which the vast majority our era’s hero-tales are crafted. This is the story of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Jack Ryan. It is Captain America and Spiderman. It is the central trope of science fiction, fantasy, international thrillers, super hero stories, and their “YA literature” counterparts. It is the myth that drives the imaginations of our times.
For all of this we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to thank. I am sympathetic to the argument that Tolkien is the seminal Anglophone author of the 20th century. Perhaps his literary craft is deft enough to deserves that title. Perhaps it is not. Either way I wager that in a few centuries time when our descendants’ literary memory has collapsed our age down to one author (as we have done with the ages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton), Tolkien will be the man remembered. This is not just because Tolkien’s works have been fantastically popular, even decades after its first publication, and in cultural milieus quite divorced from its creation. Nor it is because in Tolkien we find the genesis of so many of our era’s most popular genres (fantasy, science fiction, role playing games, and so forth). Tolkien’s influence is both subtler and more fundamental than this. Tolkien redefined the way popular literature treats many of its most common themes. This post looks at only one of those themes, but I am comfortable with the contention that Tolkien’s work embodies an entire era’s way of understanding the world. It is hard to say if Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings actually created the central cultural currents of our age or if it is simply their most prominent and enduring incarnation. Either way, Tolkien’s work is here to stay.
Readers familiar with Lord of the Rings will immediately see the connections between my opening sketch and the tale of Tolkien’s ring-bearer. I am not going to devote an entire essay to this topic—a great deal has already been written about Tolkien’s conception of good and evil, power, corruption, innocence, and heroism, and I see no reason to repeat others’ feats here—but I will emphasize two points that deserve strong restatement.
The first point: An aversion to glory is not just the defining character trait of the novel’s central hero. The distinction between greatness and power as goods to be strived for versus greatness and power as burdens to be carried is the distinction that sets apart almost of all of the novel’s protagonists from their foils. It is the defining difference between Frodo and Smeagol, Faramir and Boromir, Aragorn and Denethor, and Gandalf and Saruman. The second trait saves Galadriel in exile; the first corrupts Sauron anew after his master’s defeat. If one is allowed to describe objects as foils, this same distinction sets Sauron’s rings, key to his strategy for corrupting Middle Earth, as a foil to the methods of the ‘wizards’ sent from Western lands to save Middle Earth.
The second point: Though this conception of power, corruption, and responsibility defines the mythic templates of our day, this is not the myth on which past ages were made. I referenced earlier Shakespeare’s line about those who have “greatness thrust upon them.” Read it context and you will discover that it written to lampoon, not to inspire.  With those lines Shakespeare satirizes the vain and foolish upstarts who assume the privileges of high station without having done anything to deserve them. Shakespeare has nothing against those privileges; his plays assume that any young man worth his weight should be ambitious in their pursuit. But the key is that they must be pursued, and his tragedies and comedies both are filled with good men who leave home to chase fortune and glory.
This was not some new ideal in Shakespeare’s day. For the sake of name Athena spurs Telemachus away from home; for the sake of rule she spurs Odysseus homeward bound. Yudhishthira gladly leads his brothers on the path of dharma, but it is a dharma of kingdom and acclaim. Aeneas, Sigurd, Gawain, Gilgamesh, Rama, Song Jiang—search the old epics and annals for the modern distrust of heroics, and you find it in none of them.
There are some limited antecedents. Rome had its Cincinnatus; the Central States had their Yu and Shun. These culture-heroes were famed for their decision to relinquish power for the sake of order. The mytholigized tales of historical heroes like Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang depict them trading victory for righteousness. Milton hoped his epics would redefine herorism from the pursuit of personal glory to the pursuit of God’s glory. The world does not lack stories of poets, ascetics, and prophets who forsake rank for purer existence in the wilderness. That success in the world does not bring success in the realm of spirit is ancient truth.
Yet by and large, oracles of the human past do not display the sort of distrust for power that is so instinctive to we moderns. The best statement of the modern view was voiced by Lord Acton as the 19th century came to a close:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Pre-modern writers were not blind to the abuse of power; they certainly did not believe that the office sanctifies its holder. Instead, they tended towards the opposite view: the office judges its holder. Power did not corrupt those who attained it; it merely provided opportunity prove their true character. A good man would be a good man in power; a bad man would be a bad man in power. But without wealth, rank, or influence, it was difficult to distinguish the first man from the second. Who would revile Nero, peasant responsible for a kitchen fire?
Tolkien did not invent the modern conception of evil. He did not even popularize it—these ideas about leadership, influence, virtue, and vice swept across the world in the decades following Acton’s expression of them. The collapse of the old regimes of Europe and Asia, the disintegrating hold of religion on the social order, the catastrophe of two world wars, and the terrors of totalitarianism gave these notions popular form and mass appeal. Modernist writers were obsessed with these ideas; much of their writing is best seen as an attempt to mould this ethos into written words. In this sense Tolkien was as much a modernist as Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Hemingway, or any other writer who swam in their milieu.
This is not a new argument. What I have written thus far about the contrast between ancient and modern conceptions of power, and Tolkien’s firm stand in the modernist camp, has been explored in other works, the most worthy probably being Tom Shippey’s Tolkien: Author of the Century. But Tolkien did something more significant than Shippey realizes. After all, many authors of his era attacked older notions of glory, power, and heroism. There is nothing unique in this. But these authors were different from Tolkien in both their tone and purpose: their poems and novels trended towards grim realism or biting sarcasm. Their work was united in pessimism, lauded for clever ironies.
What more could be expected of them? It was an age where the transcendent had been discredited, power was feared, and heroics distrusted. In this age high culture was turned over to the hands of the ironist. It has stayed in those hands to this day.
But there lies the catch. The ironist inspires no one. He draws absurdity out of our crooked timbers, but he can find no purpose there. He can move to mirth, but not to awe. He provokes disgust, but not commitment. He pokes fun at those who imbue life with meaning, but has no meaning of his own to impart. Some ironists are wry. Some are coy. Some are absurd. Others are simply vicious. But none are wise. The ironist knows the truth but he does not know the Dao. Yet it is the Dao the masses yearn for.
Tolkien would not have framed things this way, but this is what makes his novel the defining epic of his century. For reasons I will not hazard, men and women pine for heroes. We need the stories of lives lived right. Lord of the Rings was written for an age that doubted this was possible. His stories accomplished something simple but meaningful: they showed what it means to be a hero in an age that did not believe in heroics.
We still live in that age. As long as we view power’s corrupting influence with the distrust that Tolkien did, we will continue to live under his shadow. This is why I suspect Tolkien will stick through the centuries. The modernists and the ironists will be remembered by the historians of the future, I am sure—just as hundreds of Elizabethan plays are remembered by Renaissance scholars today. The best of such work may still capture the attention of the literary minded; many still read the work of Aristophanes, Wu Jingzi, and Jonathan Swift today. But no age is defined by its ironists. Ages are remembered by their heroes.
Ours is the age of the Tolkienic hero.
 For context see Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5.
 Letter to Mandell Creighton (5 April 1887), published in Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1907), edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, Appendix, p. 504.
 Tom Shippey, Tolkien: Author of a Century (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 112-161.