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The Undefinable Shadowland

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost . . . (LR 186).

These two lines are a part of a longer verse, and are uttered by Aragorn at the inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. Things that look fair might not be fair and vice versa, a theme familiar to us through Shakespeare and his play MacBeth. I think this applies for many of the major characters in Lord of the Rings. It is easy to say that this character is purely Good, or that character is only Evil, but if you look below the surface, you will see that there is more to it than that. Tolkien's world is not a dualistic world, as the two reviewers, Edmund Wilson10 and Edwin Muir11 , suggest. He has succeeded in making the characters complex, and in many cases, ambivalent. Tom Bombadil is not without faults; Boromir's intention are not entirely wicked; the peoples of Middle-Earth are just as egoistic and self-preserving as the peoples in our own world; Saruman's and Grima's pasts have not been evil, and they have had many opportunities throughout their lives to stay true to the Good cause; and Gollum alone proves that Wilson and Muir have taken their arguments out of thin air. Middle-Earth is not divided into two categories; Good and Evil. There is a grey mass in between. What you have to remember about Tolkien's mythology is that you cannot get an adequate picture of his world just by reading his works once, let alone try to analyse its inhabitants. You owe more to the author than that. It is not always the first impression that is the right one. "all that is gold does not glitter".

In her lecture on Tolkien criticism, "Tolkien-bashing: The First Twenty-five Years", Jessica Yates examined Edmund Wilson's harsh criticism of Tolkien. She made a crucial discovery that gives us an indication of how to judge Wilson as a critic. Discussing the author Gertrude Stein, Wilson stated that just because something is mysterious and new, and that it does not attract our interest, does not mean that it is rubbish, or "balderdash" (Arda12 , 79, 90). Still, that particular word is used by him when he attacks Tolkien and Lord of the Rings in his "Oo Those Awful Orcs", and calls it "juvenile trash". This seems to lessen Edmund Wilson's credibility, and perhaps we should not take his criticism seriously. In his essay "Tolkien and the Fairy Story", R.J. Reilly suggests that Wilson felt insulted at having to review the novel, and that is the reason for this brutal criticism (133). Unfortunately, that one review in particular, did much harm to the immediate success of Lord of the Rings, and in the long run, to Tolkien's status as an author.

Even though Tolkien had no allegorical intentions, he used allegorical components. The fight between Good and Evil are elements which are often used in allegories. It is inevitable to divide the plot into two camps when using such language, because that is what it is all about: the fight between two powerful forces. It is then easy to say that such a story is only about good and evil, as Muir and Wilson have done, and divide it into black or white. But Lord of the Rings is much more than that, which I have tried to prove with this essay. In between Good and Evil, there are many characters, and many distinctions, as there is in our own society. Just because you say you believe in God does not mean that you cannot be wicked and cruel, and quite simply, that is what Tolkien's world is all about: a world with all kinds of people and creatures, ranging from Good to Evil, and where anything can happen without being pre-destinied. In other words, an undefinable shadowland.

Continue to: Works Cited

or go to the Table of Contents

10. Oo Those Awful Orcs!" The Nation, CLXXXII (April 14, 1956).

11. Review in The Observer, (August 1954).

12. Arda is the annual presentation of research made on Tolkien's imaginary world, and is published by Forodrim, Stockholm's Tolkien Society. The word Arda means region or realm in Quenya, one of the Elven languages, and is the name for the Earth.

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