Franchises like Game of Thrones and The Witcher occupy a major place in today’s fantasy landscape. Compared to those adult-oriented stories full of death, sex, and blurred moral lines, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings can seem quaint. His tale features good characters vanquishing unquestionably evil ones. And since his elves and dwarves never visit a brothel, Middle-earth has a reputation among some as being primarily aimed at kids. But that’s not only unfair it’s fundamentally wrong. Because while Tolkien’s world is not meant only for “mature” audiences, its themes and insights into life certainly are. And the older you get the more you appreciate just how true that is.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.“
I’m as late an arriver to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books as anyone. I read them for the first time this summer. (That included The Silmarillion, please and thank you.) That’s why I approached them with years of preconceived notions. I only knew Middle-earth through Peter Jackson’s films, which I’ve seen exactly once. That happened during a single day in 2017, long after the movies came to theaters.
By then, George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire had fundamentally shaped my views on the kind of fantasy I thought I liked and why. I love Westeros’s unscrupulous characters and grounded realism. It’s a place where heroes die constantly while villains often thrive. Through that prism I unfairly decided Tolkien’s vastly different world was a world for children.
“It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing.“
I’m (at least) smart enough to know my perceptions don’t represent everyone’s. Or that my ideas are always right. But I knew others also considered Middle-earth child’s play. The Lord of the Rings is labeled appropriate for kids as young as eight. And one of the best lines in Epic Rap Battles of History‘s matchup between the two famous authors conveys the same idea. It features Martin telling Tolkien, “All your bad guys die, and your good guys survive! We can tell what’s gonna happen by page and age five!”
But it didn’t take long for me to feel like a fool of a Took once I began Tolkien’s novels. It was immediately obvious there’s a sophistication and elegance to The Lord of the Rings that can only come from someone who knows the world is not easily separated into right and wrong. They are the works of a writer painfully aware happy endings aren’t even possible because stories never truly end, just the lives of the people in them. There’s nothing childish about Galadriel deciding to aid the Fellowship even though it means the end of everything she loves. Or in a good man like Boromir falling prey to the darkness for just a moment that will sadly define his life forever.
“I would rather spend one lifetime with you, than face all the ages of this world alone.“
That’s because Tolkien’s characters are as complex as any people. Their well-intentioned dreams can lead them astray just as easily as it can lead them to happiness. It’s why his heroes, even the very best of them, are flawed and vulnerable. They’re not always sure what is right and what is wrong. And even when they do they’d sometimes prefer not to act. Frodo isn’t heroic because he goes on his journey willingly. He’s heroic because he goes in spite of his misgivings. If he could find a way not to carry the Ring of Power he would take it.
Even Sam, the best, most loyal friend anyone could ever ask for, has shortcomings that nearly doom the world. He can’t see the humanity in Gollum that Bilbo and Frodo do. The fact Gollum even retains shreds of humanity is itself a testament to the maturity of Tolkien’s story. He’s not a static figure of pure evil. And there’s a special kind of wisdom needed to see the best in people even when they give us every reason not to. Without that wisdom Frodo never would have accepted Gollum’s help. Nor would the Ring have met its end in Mordor.
“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.“
Even the true purpose of Sauron’s ring highlights the solemnity of Tolkien’s tales. The One Ring doesn’t empower everyone with the Dark Lord’s abilities. It only corrupts them. It’s existence is meant to drive otherwise good people to heinous acts. Because Tolkien knows inside all of us is both good and evil. It’s why Gandalf, the wisest of characters, is only smart enough to avoid carrying the Ring. Even he could not wield it. That much power would corrupt even the best of us. It’s why evil endures on Middle-earth throughout every age no matter how many times good defeats it.
“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.”
And for all the many heroes who live to see Sauron’s defeat, the end of Frodo’s story is as heartbreaking as any in fantasy. He not only returns home to find the Shire under attack, he never escapes the great burden he carried. Some wounds never heal. No matter how much good we do (good others might never fully appreciate), sometimes the cuts endured along a righteous path eventually defeat us. And when that day comes we must leave behind those we love to face a world now darker because we are no longer in it.
I promise, even if I had read The Return of the King at eight, I wouldn’t have truly understood the haunting grace of Tolkien’s end. Nor what Gandalf meant when he told Frodo’s friends, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil,” at their final parting.
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.“
To assume, as I did, The Lord of the Rings is only for kids because it lacks adult-only content and most characters survive is to fundamentally misunderstand it. It’s not about who lives and who doesn’t. Nor does it have simplistic notions of good and evil. It’s about what we do with the lives we have and the people we do it with. It’s about understanding that even when you defeat Morgoth or Sauron you haven’t defeated what they represent, because evil endures alongside good inside our hearts. And it’s about knowing that no one, not even the ageless elves of Lothlórien, or the brave little Hobbits who saved the world, will walk Middle-earth forever. It’s fantasy, not fairy tale.
“Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.“
It’s not an indictment of The Lord of the Rings that it lacks the cynicism of other popular fantasies. Nor that it’s appropriate for young readers. Rather it’s a testament to the story, its author, its sincerity, and its honesty that it’s accessible to kids, yet full of beauty and insight that can only be fully appreciated with age. And I only needed to read this story once to know the older you get the more meaning you’ll find within it. Because the closer we get to the end of our own journey, the more we know life is as complicated as people and the line between good and evil is a fine one. Just as it is only with age we can truly appreciate that some day this world’s story will continue even when ours ends. And there’s nothing childish about any of that.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.