In presenting a world that is rich with community and tradition and goodness, Tolkien has provided an antidote to the world we inhabit today.
One might argue that the Star Wars world is more morally complex because it does not present a simple Manichean struggle between good and evil, instead inhabiting a gray world of ambiguity. Not only is this understanding at odds with a normal viewing of the Star Wars “space opera” (as Wikipedia deems it), but it gets the point of these stories wrong. We learn from a story not in the degree that its world resembles our own, and not even in the way that it presents real-world struggles, but to the extent that the story teaches us virtue. In this regard, by exploring the value of friendship, the power of sacrifice, and the importance of home—themes Star Wars barely touches—Lord of the Rings takes the cake.
At the beginning of the original Star Wars space trilogy we see Luke living in the middle of the desert with his aunt and uncle and their collection of droids (which, it turns out, are indeed the ones we’re looking for). Elsewhere on the planet, there are sand people—they who walk in straight lines to hide their number so they can sneak up on people, make odd noises, and bash some heads in. There are the Jawa traders, who seem nice enough and give us the droids that begin the adventure. And of course there are the diverse inhabitants of Mos Eisley, that “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that Luke and Obi-Wan visit in order to find themselves a pilot so they can go meet Luke’s long-lost sister and save the world from the Galactic Empire. This is Luke’s home, such as it is.
We meet other worlds—and we see other worlds destroyed—but Tatooine seems pretty normal, providing Luke a boring and safe upbringing, though one that isn’t particularly enriching. (It seems his sister, Leia, got the longer straw at the initial split. She got to be a princess.) Nowhere, though—with the possible exception of Endor, home of the loveable hunter-gatherer Ewoks and the Redwood National Forest—do we find a world that seems inviting, a world in which we could find ourselves living and thriving. This is a universe in decline, perhaps tired by years of war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, but perhaps weakened also by constant travel and the diaspora of its peoples. Unless one counts the prequel trilogy (which I don’t, scarred by memories of an idiot Jar Jar Binks and an Anakin Skywalker that rivals his future son in levels of whininess and teenage angst), we don’t really get a picture of what life was like before the war—though one imagines it wasn’t all that different. It’s not abundantly clear what it is that these Rebels are fighting for, what it is that they wish to preserve or how the world they ruled would look different from that which the Empire controls.
Maybe all this makes Star Wars morally complex. Its world is tired, and in the pictures of everyday life—the Mos Eisley Cantina, Jabba the Hut’s club, even Luke’s home—one finds a portrait of a morally ambiguous place, a place without place, a home without home, a community without community. Even its character development is gray but unsatisfying: Luke falls in love with Leia, not knowing she’s his sister; the deepest friendships we see are between the robots C3P0 and R2D2 (and maybe Han Solo and Chewbacca, though it isn’t clear if the former can actually understand the latter or if he’s just making fun of the Wookie by constantly saying “You said it, Chewie!”); and our deepest moment of empathy with the characters may be when Han is frozen and turned into metal. (Leia is very saddened by this.) Maybe this is complexity, or maybe it’s just a diminished world and we just call it complex because we don’t find goodness in it—and because it reminds us too much of our own.
The Lord of the Rings’ Middle-Earth is far richer. The communities we meet there are unique and lovely in their own ways: the hobbits of the Shire, the elves of Rivendell, the noble men of Rohan and Gondor. Because Tolkien and Jackson have painted such stirring images of these places, showing us glimpses of their rich histories and of what life was like before the war, we can taste the communities at their best even as we see them at their worst, as when Denethor the Steward of Gondor refuses to defend the kingdom he has been entrusted with. We know what it is that rallies these communities, what it is that Merry and Pippin and Frodo and Sam have set off to defend and to which they long to return.
The Lord of the Rings is an adventure story to be sure, one in which good and evil are explored and pitted against each other and in which the former, as it must, wins. But it’s also a story about friendship and homecoming, and in this regard it has much more to teach us than Star Wars ever could.
The Shire is an idyllic, romantic England, complete with cottages and farming and lots of pipe-smoking and ale-drinking. One might say it’s not very complex. (The horror.) It’s boring to the adventuresome Took cousins, who set off with Frodo and Sam not entirely sure what they’re getting themselves into, but ready for an adventure that their homeland cannot provide.
As the adventure progresses, the four hobbits’ friendships with each other deepen. Pippin and Merry mature and they learn the value—and the cost—of loyalty and of fighting for things because they are good, even as it seems hopeless to do so. Pippin offers himself as servant to Denethor; Merry to Gondor’s king, Theoden. Even so, they dream of home, singing of the Shire’s Green Dragon Inn after a victory in The Return of the King movie: “You can keep your fancy ales / You can drink them by the flagon / But the only brew for the brave and true / Comes from the Green Dragon!”
Then there’s Sam. One can scarcely imagine a more loyal friend than he, who endures the evil of the Ring just as surely as Frodo does but has to face it coming from the mouth of his best friend. Sam, whose desires are pure and whose courage exceeds that of any character, is driven by his love of what is his: his friendship with Frodo and his love for the Shire. As Frodo himself recognizes, “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” Sam’s is a simple love, perhaps, but a noble and honest one, and it’s one from which we can learn. “Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?” Sam asks as they near the top of Mount Doom, both of them overcome with exhaustion and despair. “It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields…and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
Frodo, of course, does not remember the taste of strawberries—“nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass.” He has been changed by his journey, by the evil of the Ring. Like all of the hobbits, but more so, he will never be the same and will never be able to fully return to his former life in Bag End. Indeed, he will join Bilbo and the Elves on their journey out of Middle Earth and into Valinor, the Undying Lands, where he may at last find rest.
* * *
In the novel The Four Men, Hilaire Belloc tells of his narrator’s journey home and of the three traveling companions he meets on the way. Even as they affirm the loveliness of home and of our attachment to its particulars—as Belloc writes, “there is always some holiness in the rising of rivers, and a great attachment to their springs”—the companions realize that they cannot, in some ways, ever fully return home. Grizzlebeard, the oldest of the four, explains: “For my part, I have travelled widely . . . I have come back to the flats of my own country . . . Then indeed I have each time remembered my boyhood, and each time I have been glad to come home. But I have never found it to be a final gladness. After a time I must be off again, and find new places.”
And so it must be for the returning hobbits. In the movie version of events, in stark contrast to the very changed hobbits, the Shire they return to is largely the same, untouched by the outside world. They are greeted not as the heroes they are but with suspicion for ever having left. It is, in some ways, a more appropriate ending than the book’s—in which the war-hardened adventurers lead the other hobbits to overthrow the rule of the evil wizard Saruman—for it teaches us that in returning home the hobbits have given up being fully understood, for only the people in the outside world know and appreciate what they went through and how they have changed. And so though they have returned home, their homecoming is bitter sweet.
From the Lord of the Rings we learn of the value of adventure, of the possibility for learning and comradeship and growth that it affords. And we learn of the virtues of home, of attachment to its particularities—Sam’s strawberries, Merry and Pippin’s favorite ale at the Green Dragon. But we also learn that the return is ultimately not fully satisfying, that we can never be truly and completely known even in the place we know most fully and surrounded by the people who know us best. This is why Frodo and Bilbo had to leave for Valinor to find rest, and it’s why we hope for the world to come. We long for its final gladness.
In the final chapter of his biography on Charles Dickens, G. K. Chesterton considers the moral meaning of the writer’s stories, and his conclusion can well be said of Tolkien and his world:
The hour of absinthe is over. We shall not be much further troubled with the little artists who found [Tolkien] too sane for their sorrows and too clean for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what [Tolkien] meant, and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as [Sam and Frodo and Merry and Pippin] travelled. But here at least is part of what he meant: that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel, but that our travels are interludes in our comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure forever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet [Tolkien] and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from great flagons at the tavern at the end of the world.
This is the complex truth of the Lord of the Rings. In presenting a world that is rich with community and tradition and goodness, Tolkien has provided an antidote to the world we inhabit today. If Star Wars presents a world that is shallow and gray and ambiguous—one which reminds us of our own—it is Tolkien’s world that we desperately need to hear.
 Here I gratefully acknowledge that I learned both of Chesterton’s Dickens biography and of Beloc’s novel through Fr. James Schall’s Final Lecture at Georgetown, appropriately titled “A Final Gladness.” It is well worth viewing in its entirety.
Barrett Bowdre is a John Jay Fellow, a graduate of Furman University, and a law student at the University of Alabama School of Law.