Northrop Frye and the divine majesty of ‘The Lord of the Rings’

Twelve years after reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings literary trilogy of high fantasy, I find myself revisiting the elegant film trilogy which was completed before I set eyes on the books. But I also find myself taking interest in Northrop Frye’s framework for literary criticism, which distinguishes the mythic transcendence of certain characters from the ironic immanence of others. The human being, in Frye’s taxonomy, lies in between satirical and serious modes of presentation. In Lord of the Rings, many characters mix these three modes, roughly defined by Aristotle’s threefold distinction between non-human animals, human beings, and gods. We are ‘political animals’, or animals aspiring to be angels. This spiritual aspiration is continuously frustrated by our physical limitations — no surprise to the philosopher Plato. And yet, we still aspire.

Rivendell, dwelling of elves, and birthplace of the Fellowship of the Ring.

In The Lord of the Rings, the old world of magic fades with the rise of a new world of technology. The realm of man is torn between these poles, compelled to balance one with the other, as encapsulated in the marriage between the romantic heroes of Aragorn and Arwen, between the species of human and elven. The aspiration to godlike status masks the importance of those species that do not seek absolute truth (elves) or absolute power (men). Hobbits value good food and the peace on which it rests. Dwarves value treasure. And orcs, or fallen elves, are compelled to serve their masters in whatever foul tasks to which they are entrusted.

The defeat of the Ring of Power depends, on the surface, on a marriage between gods and men, but on deeper observation involved a certain concession to the beast below. For only with the creature Golum do hobbits Frodo and Sam defeat the Ring-master Sauron by destroying his ‘One Ring to Rule Them All’. Only by balancing our natural needs can the supernatural be unlocked. The risk is that technology annihilates morality with a fetish for biology. By defeating Sauron and Saruman’s industrial revolution, this risk is postponed, but not eliminated — especially given the philosophical elves from whom political men take inspiration leave the scene at the end of the ‘third age’.

What, then, is to stop a slow-moving crisis from engulfing Middle Earth? Indeed, nothing. For if it is a tale of the middle ages and the loss of classical antiquity, the real tragedy of Lord of the Rings is revealed in the modern world, and the eclipse of divine majesty in a new dark age of technology. What comes next is anyone’s guess. But re-visiting Middle Earth may help us find a middle way, for our own time. The time is late, but not too late to act. Indeed, that is the best way to wait. For impatience frets away time. Patience uses time well. So should we.

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