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J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age

by David Brin, Ph.D.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his epic during the dark middle decades of the Twentieth Century, a time when modernity appeared to have failed in one spectacle of technologically amplified bloodshed after another.

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age

Want to forget about terrorism and all those distracting rumors of war? Need to ignore the economy for a while? Got the holiday blues? Our culture has a surefire cure — the traditional spate of post-Thanksgiving movies. This year, despite a clamor over the latest Harry Potter film, much of the attention is going to another fantasy called The Two Towers — part two in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Will it succeed in distracting us for a while, conveying audiences to a world that is at once more beautiful and stirring than humdrum modern life?


Naturally, I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as a kid, during its first big boom in the 1960s. I mean, what was there not to like? As William Goldman said about another great fantasy, The Princess Bride, it has "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True Love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad Men. Good Men. Beautifulest Ladies. Spiders. Dragons, Eagles. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Magic. Chases. Escapes. Miracles."

In 1997, voters in a BBC poll named The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the 20th century. In 1999, Amazon.com customers chose it as the greatest book of the millennium.

Of course there is much more to this work than mere fantasy escapism. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his epic — including its prequel, The Hobbit — during the dark middle decades of the Twentieth Century, a time when modernity appeared to have failed in one spectacle of technologically amplified bloodshed after another. From the nineteen-thirties through the fifties, planet Earth fell into armed camps of starkly portrayed characters, tearing at each other in orgies of unprecedented violence. Titanic struggles, with the fate of all the world at stake.

LOTR clearly reflected this era. Only, in contrast to the real world, Tolkien's portrayal of "good" resisting a darkly threatening "evil" offered something sadly lacking in the real struggles against Nazi or Communist tyrannies — a role for individual champions. His elves and hobbits and uber-human warriors performed the same role that Lancelot and Merlin and Odysseus did in older fables, and that superheroes still do in comic books. Through doughty Frodo, noble Aragorn and the ethereal Galadriel, he proclaimed the paramount importance — above nations and civilizations — of the indomitable romantic hero.


To continue reading, please see THROUGH STRANGER EYES, a collection of book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture, which was released in the Western Hemisphere by Nimble Books and in the Eastern Hemisphere by Altair (Australia). Included are those infamous articles about Tolkien and Star Wars, sober reflections on Jared Diamond's Collapse, and Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, scientific ponderings on Feynman and Gott, appraisals of Brunner, Resnick, Zelazny, Verne, and Orwell... all the way to fun riffs on the Matrix and Buffy!


J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age

about this article

Copyright © 2002 by David Brin. All rights reserved.


In contrast to the real world, Tolkien's portrayal of 'good' resisting a darkly threatening 'evil' offered something sadly lacking in the real struggles against Nazi or Communist tyrannies — a role for individual champions.

An abridged version of "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age" (excerpt published here) appeared in the late-December 2002 online edition of Salon Magazine. It is now reprinted in THROUGH STRANGER EYES, a collection of book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture.


articles, films & books cited here

David Brin, Through Stranger Eyes: Reviews, Introductions, Tributes & Iconoclastic EssaysThrough Stranger Eyes (book)

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The RingFellowship of the Ring (film)

Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersTwo Towers (film)

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition)Return of the King (film)

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and the Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books (books)

The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride (film)


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