In 1997, British readers voted The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien the “book of the century” in a national poll. The book’s victory startled and disturbed many academic and media elites. (One London reporter is said to have responded to the news with, “Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear.”)
But this poll was not an anomaly. Tolkien and his heroic fantasy have won several other similar polls over the past few years. Voters in a poll at Amazon.com even elected it the “book of the millennium”! It wasn’t for nothing that biographer Tom Shippey dubbed Tolkien “Author of the Century.”
In his newest Great Books Audio CD, Dr. Ken Boa explores the reasons for The Lord of the Rings’ enduring popularity. Despite its cool reception from modern critics who find it old-fashioned and lacking in psychological depth, it is, as Ken says, “a book which penetrates factions.”
That’s because it handles themes, ideas, and feelings that resonate with us all: loss, self-sacrifice, friendship, nostalgia, and so much more. It is, Ken says, “unabashedly anti-modern,” while still dealing in its own way with modern concerns.
Even though Tolkien painstakingly created another world full of fantastic creatures—which is itself a major part of his appeal—his portrayal of emotions and struggles common to all humans is very real indeed.
And there’s a reason for that. As Ken points out, and as I’ve discussed before on BreakPoint, Tolkien’s work is steeped in the Catholic faith that was the center of his life and thinking. He was a friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis.
Ken goes so far as to say that The Lord of the Rings is a “specifically Christian myth,” and that any attempt to strip it of that meaning is a serious misunderstanding of Tolkien’s work.
That’s not to say that it’s openly Christian; in fact, Tolkien set the story in a “pre-Christian world.” But it’s based upon, and it faithfully reflects, a Christian understanding of the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—the pillars of a biblical worldview.
This is why Tolkien can present such powerful depictions of good and evil, showing that the best of us can be tempted to fall into sin, and the worst of us have the potential to be redeemed. This is why his characters are capable of both great joy and great melancholy, sometimes at the same time. They rejoice in their victories, but still feel a sense of longing for the way the world used to be before the fall and the loss of innocence.
And it’s why Tolkien understood that the scientific age in which he lived “didn’t wipe out the deep human need for story.”
In fact, Ken says, some stories “are like dreams, but dreams that can be shared by an entire culture, wholesome dreams that restore a balance to the psyche by turning our energies and our thoughts towards truth, dreams that resemble an oasis in the desert. Reading them can be a bit like praying.”
The Lord of the Rings is one of those stories, and for that reason, no matter what the critics say, people will always respond to it—not just on an emotional and intellectual level, but on a deeply spiritual one.
Visit BreakPoint.org today to see how you can subscribe to Dr. Ken Boa’s insightful Great Books Audio CD Series.