The Lord of the Rings is about men, their deeds and courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Which makes it strange that they in the main get an incredibly raw deal.
I have to say I absolutely love the books: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), The Silmarilion, The Unfinished Tales, and the other works in the same area. The films were cinematographic masterpieces, although not sufficiently true to the original for my tastes. The problem I have is one of motivation for the men involved.
If you’re a man in Middle Earth, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be inferior in some significant way to any other intelligent creature you come across. You can’t be wise, in any absolute sense: the elves and the wizards live essentially forever, and they have wisdom sewn-up. You can’t be strong, because dwarves and elves (again) are stronger and have more stamina. You can’t be artistic, because elves (yet again) are the undisputed masters of all the high arts, and will condescend to teach you what crumbs of their learning you can grasp during your incredibly short lifespan. You can’t even be relaxed and laid-back, because hobbits will always make you look stressed-out. Evil’s not an option, as Sauron is the ultimate baddie and has legions of orcs (who are corrupted elves in the books, and so have many of the advantages of elves without the goodness).
If you’re a man, all you can do is die gloriously.
LOTR is essentially an epic poem in the mould of the Iliad. At the risk of gross over-simplification, epic poems only have three sorts of characters:
- Heros, who do all the things worth reporting
- Love interest, who are pursued (and generally won) by heros
- Arrow-fodder, who are killed by heros
In the Iliad, Achilles, Agamemnon, Paris, Hector and a few others fall into the first category; Helen into the second; and everyone else into the third. (Menelaus is a kind of not-quite-major character who’s not completely insignificant, but he’s there to provide an excuse for the war in the first place.) Arrow-fodder comprise all the minor characters: they can be brave or dastardly, but typically only occupy the very edges of the story and won’t have their characters developed any more than is necessary to set off the heros and make it clear why they have to be killed in their particular way.
Compare this with LOTR. The major characters are obviously Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and the rest of the fellowship, plus Saruman. There’s Arwen, who (in the book at least, although not the films) is just love interest, and Eowyn. And then there are the minor characters: hordes of orcs to slaughter, Men of Rohan and Gondor — and that’s about it.
There are a small number of less-than-major characters: Denethor, Faramir (who’s essentially just another love interest to get Aragorn off the hook with Eowyn), Treebeard. And there’s another population of less-than-major characters who are major elsewhere: Bilbo, Tom Bombadil, Galadriel, Elrond. All these are bit-players in LOTR but have a major part in either The Silmarillion or one of the other tales. (Elrond is something of an exception, in that his main claim to fame is having been around at lots of significant events. He just never gets a chance to be a protagonist.)
But the thing with being a man in Middle Earth is the way in which your actions are so circumscribed. No man in LOTR actually dies anything other the gloriously. Even Boromir is redeemed through his death. Even the evil men are happy to go down fighting. It’s as though men’s sole virtue is to have a bad time and then die.
Aragorn escapes this fate, and is the only heroic (in the epic sense) man in the story, but even he is doomed to failure by his mortality, and you can’t escape the suspicion that Gondor will collapse as soon as he’s dead. From the elves’ perspective, destroying Sauron is an absolute good, and they can then all leave for the lands over the Sea which are a remnant of earlier, better times; from men’s perspective, it’ll probably be a Pyrrhic victory at best.
In many ways LOTR is a story about passing. The elves’ time in Middle Earth is past — although I think the films grotesquely overstate their predicament compared to the book — and men can’t ever build anything permanent because they just don’t have the wisdom/lifespan/art/strength/goodness to cut it. That of course is what sets LOTR apart from “happily ever after” fantasy (like David Eddings’ works). By the end of the book, though, everything looks drab, and without Sauron there won’t even be any worthwhile evil left. You have to wonder what will men find to motivate themselves, when the best is all in the past and even glorious and worthy death is denied them. One can imagine a lot of drunken fireside reminiscence going on.
If that weren’t bad enough, anyone who’s read The Silmarillion knows that Middle Earth has been passing for a very long time. Even though in LOTR Sauron is the ultimate in badness, in the greater scheme of things he was only a servant of Morgoth, the really, really ultimate baddie. Even an evil that threatens to engulf the entire world in the Third Age is only a shadow of what evil used to be like in the First Age — modern evil just can’t cut it.
It seems a pretty depressing view of history and heroism, but maybe that’s the point: that the Fourth Age will be a post-heroic let-down with everyone left dissatisfied and wishing for the days when there were orcs and dragons and Black Riders and magic.