There Are No Mere Mortals in Lord of the Rings

A complex moral universe requires a richness of different character levels, and the ability to move between them.

Drawing on Northrop Frye’s famous concept of the five literary modes, I’ll argue first for the proposition that the moral universe of The Lord of the Rings is, from this perspective, simply more complex than that of Star Wars. I’ll then suggest why it is also perhaps from a Christian perspective a better and truer moral universe.

Frye’s concept of the five literary modes, offered in his classic Anatomy of Criticism, was first adapted as a tool for analyzing the remarkable complexity of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey. Essentially, the five modes designate five different levels of being which the central characters of a story inhabit.

  • At the top is the mythic, where gods and goddesses duke it out in battles that transcend mere mortals and even nature itself. (Example: Zeus.)
  • The next level is romantic, the tales of heroes that are mortal, to be sure, but only just, lying beyond the reach of any of us. (Example: Beowulf.)
  • High mimetic concerns kings, queens, nobles and great warriors, people who perhaps could be like most of us, but by virtue of birth or extraordinary ability occupy a higher station. (Example: Othello.)
  • Low mimetic centers on the world of the everyday, with shopkeepers, soldiers, and frustrated lovers. (Example: Elizabeth Bennet.)
  • Ironic designates the underclass, the ghetto, or the ridiculous, characters who by poverty, physical or mental disability, or lack of education and education occupy a sphere that we are tempted to look down upon or laugh at. (Example: Stephen Blackpool.)

Tom Shippey argues in his J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century that one of the things that makes The Lord of the Rings extraordinary is how fully it spans the entire spectrum of these five modes; it is a world fully populated at every level of being. From Sauron at the top, the Istari Gandalf and Saruman and the High Elves Galadriel and Elrond gradually descend from the level of myth to the level of romance. Key characters like Arwen, Aragorn and Legolas are firmly situated in the romantic register, while others like Denethor, Faramir, and Theoden occupy the higher echelons of the high mimetic, a category that also includes characters such as Gimli, Eomer, and even Frodo (certainly Frodo as he is by the end of the tale). The low mimetic is less populated, but its characters—preeminently Merry and Pippin—play very central roles in the story. Arriving at the ironic register we find characters such as Sam Gamgee, Wormtongue, and finally Gollum/Smeagol.

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Now Star Wars too can boast a universe almost as complex and multi-layered. The mythic mode does not correspond to any characters per se, but is represented by the ever-present Force. On the high end of the romantic, the larger-than-life hero, is Yoda, and the other key Jedi characters, good and evil, operate largely within this register and the higher echelons of the high mimetic. Noble characters such as Queen Amidala, Princess Leia, Senator Palpatine (before he becomes the Emperor), and Imperial officers fill out the high mimetic category, and the low mimetic is dominated by the memorable personality of Han Solo. Ironic characters populate each film, including perhaps Chewbacca and R2D2 (if only because they are incapable of human speech), C3PO, and both the ridiculous Gungans and the delightful Ewoks.

But notice an important difference.

In Lord of the Rings, each of the five levels is irreducibly moral; that is to say it is populated by characters who are full-fledged moral agents, characterized by the difficult moral choices they make, which earn them either respect or reprehension from the reader. Sauron may seem almost an impersonal force, evil by nature, but we know from the backstory that he chose evil at one point, and Gandalf and Saruman certainly appear as full-fledged moral agents.

But there is no one in Star Wars to display what moral agency might look like at this mythic level. The Force is notoriously impersonal, and Yoda, the only personal being who verges on the mythical, does not really seem like a fully-realized moral agent. To be sure, he is good, not evil, but we rarely if ever see this goodness realized and achieved through an obviously good choice in the midst of moral quandary; we never see Yoda face and overcome the temptation of power in the way that Gandalf does, or Saruman fails to do. At the middle three levels, to be sure, Star Wars offers us some excellent displays of moral agency in the fact of trials and temptations, most preeminently in the profound struggles of Anakin and then of Luke. But in each of the Star Wars films, the ironic serves as little more than comic relief. Jar-Jar Binks and C-3PO make decisions with important consequences, to be sure, but these consequences appear almost always as inadvertent side-effects of thoughtless actions, not the results of decisions that we either applaud or condemn.

In Lord of the Rings, on the contrary, perhaps the very most interesting explorations of moral agency take place at the ironic level, in the persons of Sam Gamgee and Gollum/Smeagol.

A Christian Moral Universe

When we look at the list of characters occupying these five levels in each story, we may be struck by something else as well: they are not static. Some characters rise to a higher mode in the course of the story, like Aragorn, Gandalf, or Frodo in LotR, or Anakin/Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars; others move down it, such as Saruman or Denethor in LotR or Princess Leia (who in the course of her relationship with Han Solo, becomes less a princess and more “one of us”) in Star Wars.

But as soon as I have provided these examples, you may notice something else quite striking: in Lord of the Rings, you only rise to a higher mode by being morally good, and only fall by being morally bad. In fact, once we note this principle, we can see it operative in almost every character. The virtuous characters are in almost every case ennobled in the course of the story—Sam Gamgee, Merry, Pippin, Frodo, Theoden, Aragorn, Gandalf—while the vicious ones are without exception debased—Saruman, Denethor, Wormtongue.

In Star Wars, on the other hand, there does not seem to be any correlation between moral virtue and becoming more noble or larger-than-life. Do not misunderstand me as saying that there is no correlation between virtue and reward or vice and punishment in these films; clearly it doesn’t pay, in the long run, to be evil. But virtue and vice do not correspond to anything ontological in the Star Wars moral universe: Anakin and Palpatine become more detestable in their corruption, and even biologically deformed, but they do not become more contemptible; on the contrary, their aura of power increases, quite unlike the steady diminution of Saruman. Nor is this any surprise, since good and evil—the Dark and Light sides of the Force—are equally ultimate in this universe.

In the Lord of the Rings, however, being is coordinated with good, unbeing with evil. Those who do good are progressively ennobled and even divinized, those who do evil are progressively debased and deformed (Gollum being perhaps the starkest illustration). The Lord of the Rings reflects the profound admonition of Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory that

“it is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

It is telling in this regard that by the end of the Lord of the Rings, the low mimetic mode is almost completely empty of characters—there are no ordinary people anymore. Even Sam Gamgee, who might seem quintessentially ordinary, sails away into the West to share in immortality at the very end of the story. By the end of Star Wars, on the other hand (or at least the provisional end as we have it in Return of the Jedi), most of the characters still very ordinary: to be good is quite a separate matter from to be.

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