John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (better known as J. R. R. Tolkien) is one of my favorite authors. I share with this author his birthday, January 3rd, and this coincidence is a great honor for me, considering my admiration for his life and work. To close the month of our anniversary (!), I decided to write this text about what I think is one of the most incredible riches of his literary legacy: the emphasis on virtues.
The other day I read in the preface of a book1 that the author’s qualification for writing about Tolkien was his love for the subject; by sharing a passion for a person, it is possible for others also to increase their appreciation. Today, if the text is too short to achieve this objective, at least I hope I will awaken in whoever reads it a spark of curiosity to delve deeper into Middle Earth2 and other works from this author’s universe. I wish you could understand how these books go beyond fantasy to be more accurate than we imagine.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a writer, philologist and university professor. For some, he is one of the fathers of fantastic literature, and for fiction lovers, he is the creator of the blockbusters “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. However, this author published more than 40 works and illustrated and translated others. He created complete universes, iconic characters, languages with their own alphabet and scripts, and mythologies that, according to Purtill (2003), are part of a literary myth that is as close as possible today to the original myth. Myth in Tolkien is a form of artistic expression, although it embodies truth and morals and occasionally exposes underlying religious values.
Myths transmit moral values (Purtill, 2003). In Tolkien, it is possible to see Good and Evil as opposites, biblical themes intertwined in the stories, and, in my view, most importantly: the triumph of Good over Evil. This struggle is made by ordinary, almost insignificant people (the hobbits), who, when struggling with their own failures, demonstrate courage, loyalty, and obedience (Akhtar, 2019). Tolkien gave us a hero who fails but ultimately perseveres through his willingness to risk himself for others. The original motivation is loyalty and love toward friends. Thus, in addition to being subtle and deeply connected to real life (Purtill, 2003), his masterpiece is essentially a story of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, and the ingredient for the battle is the virtues.
People are the only beings with free will to choose what kind of life they want, good or bad, through gradual selections, both small and large, over a lifetime. Being good or virtuous can happen by learning, habit, by nature (people are born good), or in some other way, such as against nature or by force. Most philosophers assume one or more of these ways, but those who have children, as stated by Markos (2012), know there is another way: by example, when adopting moral heroes. Moral education takes place powerfully through stories, and reading good literature, along with meeting and relating to people, are effective methods for personal development.
In this logic, Tolkien shows us that heroes and good literature can be a form of learning not only for children. Despite his fantastic universe placing human beings in a shared role with hobbits, dwarfs, elves, and dragons, this author’s work, through virtues, is much more real than we imagine. We live in a society steeped in relativism and existentialism, in which these views have stripped us of transcendent standards and emptied life of higher meaning, purpose, or direction (Markos, 2012). However, Tolkien gave us back a purpose and taught us to reevaluate Good and Evil, using virtues as a tool for the path of living well.
1 The book I mention is “J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion” by Richard L. Purtill.
2 Middle Earth is the fictional land created by J. R. R. Tolkien. Although it looks like another world, the author conceived it as our Earth, 600 thousand years before our time. The history of Middle Earth is divided into Ages, and the books mentioned in this text are set at the end of the Third Age.
Akhtar, Md Selim. J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy fiction “The lord of the rings”: a study of moral victory over evil. Research Journal of English Language and Literature, 7, 1, 2019.
Markos, Louis. On the shoulders of Hobbits: the road to virtue with Tolkien and Lewis. Moody Publishers. 2012.
Purtill, Richard. J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion. São Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003.