Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

More Than Memory

Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, fifty years hereafter.

Credit: neftali

I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the span of four days. I was 22 years of age, and suffering from a combination of deep personal issues and a severe bout of illness that had wrecked me for over a week. Yes, I had seen the films beforehand, and was a late arrival to the text. Men of my age might remember the paperback combined edition with John Howe’s water-color painting on the cover: Gandalf the Grey walking through a gloomy, misty wood and drizzling rain. One could almost smell the petrichor.

It is difficult to explain what J.R.R. Tolkien can be for a quiet young man in rough times. Many years have passed since then, and more, what with the repulsive new Amazon series. I am not 22. This is, of course, a changed and very different world, one that sometimes I can barely recognize as I have come from the relatively analog early noughties.


The fiftieth anniversary of Tolkien’s death recently passed, marked by the annual gathering of Tolkien admirers in Oxford, England. The sign of timelessness in the enduring wisdom of a classic is not how many interpretations it can muster, but how many people can still debate about the author’s intent—sometimes even when the author has been fairly clear about his philosophical leanings—and how many people can identify it with the metaphors within the work.

Some of it has been tragic. The pervasive singularity of Tolkien’s creation was its representation of a deeply prudent and repressed Anglo-Catholic realism. Tolkien’s personal voice comes out occasionally in his text, as in Treebeard’s declaration that he is on no one’s side, as no one is on his side—a lament for a lost time, before conservatives started to follow liberals and rumble towards modernity, if only at a demure pace, leaving nature behind. In fact, if there is one constant theme, it is a deep, almost Churchillian disdain for an “abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science” and its supporting industry. “The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Forests will fall,” Tolkien warns through Saruman, echoing Leon Trotsky’s call for technology to “move mountains.”

Tolkien was a reactionary, formed by the English shires, brooks, and meadows; his was a sense of natural beauty, harmony and grandeur, and deference to natural common-sense, natural hierarchy, and natural laws. It is difficult to truly explain Bilbo Baggins to anyone who has never seen an English village pub in the Midlands. Twice in his lifetime in the great European catastrophes, Tolkien experienced first-hand the destruction wrought by the scientific advancement of mindless and totalitarian societies led by narrow-ruling elites that had lost all tempering influence from propriety, natural hierarchy, and religious morality in a desire to play god. His battle was one that was forced upon him and his faith.

Tolkien would have been horrified at modern “wars of choices” and top-down social engineering, from euthanasia to transgenderism and physical experimentation on minors, the latest expressions of the forces that he and his dying society fought against. He would have been enraged at the anarchy and disorder on the streets from broken people and privileged classes, backed by a section of Wormtongues in high procedural and political positions. He would have been disdainful, I think, of both the online far-right “manosphere” and the gynarchic liberal-internationalists opportunistically co-opting his language—“Men of the West” preening themselves or fighting the “orcs” in Ukraine—even while rejecting all his religiosity and restraint.

It is quite understandable that Amazon, of all companies, would be interested in remaking the Middle-earth mythos and creating an abomination in place of the original. All things natural and beautiful must burn in the fires of the perverted and the profane. Such is the nature of revolutionary totalitarian art.


I never had to “see myself” or someone with my skin color depicted in Middle-earth to appreciate or like The Lord of the Rings. The wisdom within it is timeless. I hated the Benetton Colors treatment of the new TV series. It is shallow, yes, but of course it also defies all sociological theories of localized social development. Yes, the upper classes in every imperial society have been “diverse,” from Pushkin in Russia to the cosmopolitanism of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. But that is not the managerial box-ticking of diversity casting.

But the original endures, almost like magic, despite its mistreatments. Normal people cannot express in words why they instinctively like the old lost world, just as they cannot explain why the peak of the New Atheism era saw a rise in belief in witchcraft and neopagan idolatry. Not everything can be explained by modern science. Tolkien will continue to be appreciated and interpreted in ways that will defy expectations. His is the only modern epic on a Homeric scale. Everyone can grow within it. Everyone can find hope and faith.

A friend of mine, in his last days, mentioned to me that he was obsessively reading The Lord of the Rings. He was fascinated by the character of Gollum, whom he likened to an addict unable to break the chains of his addiction. Gollum’s final moment was, to him, liberating; it pointed to a higher, better world hereafter.

There was inside him, somewhere, remnants of a civilized, sober, and good man. But not everyone can fight and overcome their demons. My friend died from a heroin overdose when he was 19.

Rationalism will tell you that words can have no real effect on you, because words are not magic, and science says you are just some collected bits of chemistry. Try telling that to a broken and failing 19-year-old, desperately seeking faith, comfort, and a glimpse of high culture in his last, misunderstood days. As Tolkien wrote, “We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”