by Kevin Leal
In my younger and more vulnerable years—never mind how long ago precisely—a friend gave me some advice. It wasn’t about reserving judgments as a matter of infinite hope (though hope would come indirectly much later). I was a stripling lad of four-and-ten, wandering myopically through the dense jungle of adolescence, and a boy three or four years my senior told me to read The Lord of the Rings. I took up his advice, and, although I didn’t know it until years later, that made all the difference.
In my twenties, when I believed I held the wisdom of countless generations and the intellectual severity to be acerbic in my scorn for the mediocre, I argued with another teacher regarding “literature.” I place term in quotation marks not to suggest the word’s indefinability but rather to indicate that I was speaking on something about which I had no idea. You see, I was arguing for the demanding necessity of hacking through the dense woods of language and subjectivity as the gauges of a novel’s or poem’s greatness. After all, if the author isn’t a master of words and ideas, what is he? Would Picasso be Picasso without knowing the intricate complexities of paint in its myriad forms and applications? What would Rodin be without understanding bronze? Or Bach ignorant of pitch, tone, scale, and instrumentation? With the passion of the newly converted, I mistook linguistic difficulty (and in many cases, sophistry) for truth, convolution for reality, and worse, ambivalence for the true human condition.
As inevitably occurs in such discussions on the nature of literature, The Lord of the Rings was lobbed into the fray by my opponent. I had him! He had just shown himself to be an ignorant boob! I wondered, how could this poor creature be put in front of innumerable young and burgeoning minds? It was criminal. It was worse than criminal—it was lazy. Literary understanding came through great effort, and the appreciation of literature is not dispensed from the hands of a simple-minded soul who believed Tolkien appropriate to any discussion about literary worth. After all, Tolkien wrote children’s stories, and how could those ever hope to grasp and explore the immense subjective complexities of the modern consciousness, wrestling with being and non-being, attempting desperately to assert itself in the face a cruel and indifferent universe? How could naïve delineations of “good” and “evil,” “nobility,” “honor,” and “courage” have any place in a world that had moved beyond such easy and, dare I say, lazy, classifications?
What I’ve come to discover (unbeknownst to me then but horrifying to consider now), was that I was elevating subjective density above objective truth. Believing that everything is open to interpretation, I had quite simply abdicated my responsibility to choose. I had given away the most essential component of human consciousness, retreating to the detached, empty, and sterile stance of what one might call the “wise” and aloof postmodern existentialist, the cliché of a man who has nothing meaningful to live for so he fills the emptiness with “complexity.” He can’t stand the isolation of being surrounded by vistas of bleak and desolate plains, so he plants a forest around himself, choosing one prison over another, not realizing that each paralyzes and corrupts, and becomes, if I may be so bold, preciousss.
I was inspired to write this piece by a seemingly random incident. I was lying on the couch re-reading The Lord of the Rings when my fifteen-month-old little boy enthusiastically ran to me from across the room where he had been playing in the last light of a brilliant sunset blazing through the window. He slapped my book, pointing (as all children learn to do at that age, pointing willy-nilly at anything that strikes their fancy) directly to the following paragraph about Boromir’s funeral:
"Sorrowfully [the remainder of the broken fellowship] cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past many mouths of the Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars."
It’s all there, you see. All of it. The archetypal truth of the flow of time. The leaving of the world, moving from mortal river into endless sea. All the elements of morning, sunset, and night bringing to bear their myriad associations of birth, life, and death. But more importantly, the human connections are there. It’s significant that Tolkien connects Boromir with the past (“son of Denethor”) as well as the future (“…in Gondor in after-days it long was said…”) within the human dimension. The hero exists within both the family and the community, connected to and, when it comes down to it, inseparable from both.
But we must also read this passage with the knowledge that at the end, Boromir failed. He gave in to the lust for power, trying to wrest the ring away from Frodo. Fortunately for us, he comes to realize his grave error, and dies fighting the forces of evil, sacrificing himself which allows his friends to escape destruction. We are heartened also (in a day and age that salivates over the destruction of heroes), that despite Boromir’s faltering, his name lived on in its heroic dimensions rather than the all too human ones. Tolkien gives us both dimensions. The humanity he presents in Boromir’s fall gives us all hope to achieve what Boromir did afterwards, namely to rise above his fallen nature and fight for good—to become legendary, and maybe indirectly, to save the world. It’s not accidental that Boromir’s end at the conclusion of The Fellowship of the Ring foreshadows Frodo’s at the end of The Return of the King, warnings to every saint and hope for every sinner.
Which brings us full-circle (a ring, you say?). In a post-postmodern world where (to paraphrase Yeats) the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, a world that seems to have given in to the temptation to retreat from calling good good and evil evil, wherein a pseudo-intellectual elite, preaching a new orthodoxy of confusion and elevating sophistry over common sense and paralysis over action, has become an infallible priesthood in a new church overseeing the decline of America, where everything is open to interpretation and the massaging of a few facts. Perhaps Sauron is just misunderstood. Or maybe all those murdering Orcs are merely trying to assert their independence in a society that misunderstands them. And maybe Gandalf is just some senile, old war-monger, glorifying war for war’s sake. And there had to be something in it for those hobbits, after all. People don’t give in to delusions of grandeur about saving the world without something being in it for them. Start going through their trash—there’s something in there somewhere.
These preceding ideas might be more realistic or absurd (two sides of the same coin), but they aren’t more real. When it comes down to it, put me on the side Tolkien over Camus, G. K. Chesterton over Bertrand Russell. Too often the realistic is given precedence over the things which really animate us. What did Homer have to do with the realistic? Does Beowulf provide for us only Old English words for “snow”? Is Milton concerned with humdrum wanderings through a squalid London? No. Of course, we’re all subject to our time and place, but I argue that this “truth” is so obvious as to be inconsequential. Despite the differences between the Shire and Carmel Valley, the Gandalfs come to call you to tasks bigger than yourself, maybe even bigger than your potential to succeed. The typical choose Melville’s warm hearth and cozy home (a hobbit hole?), while the heroic go the way of Bulkington, out into the howling infinite. Or even into the depths of Mordor. But I refuse to live in a world where someone tries to convince me that my hobbit hole is really Mordor, and Mordor my hobbit hole.
This is what I mean by the “real.” Without the ability to make accurate distinctions, the Ringwraiths become just other people, with different interpretations of the world and their (and your) place in it. The only problem is that though you refuse to call them servants of Sauron, they don’t. And their goal is the same, whether you face up to it or not. So instead, be Boromir. Be Frodo. Be Saruman, if you must. But don’t place yourselves within the ranks of those mediocre masses too open-minded to stand for very much at all.
“And now,” said the wizard, turning back to Frodo, “the decision lies with you.”
Editors Note: Kevin Leal is an English teacher at Canyon Crest Academy. This piece originally appeared Issue 3 of Pulse. Mr. Leal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org