July 06, 2004

LOTR As Parable On Aging

The Lord of the Rings trilogy covers quite a few of the classic mythic themes found all over the world. One common such story is the coming of age, and looked at in that way, Tolkien developed not only a growing up but a growing old parable. There are characters and situations that can be taken to represent all stages of life, and the lessons that have to be learned on the way to a whole and integrated adulthood. (The author in no way implies any particular level of authority to speak on the topic.)

Not only do the characters face or represent the various obstacles of age, but even the backdrop of Middle Earth itself undergoes these changes. Passing from an era where there were powerful gods and monsters, to an era where magic and great struggle are replaced by ordinary concerns.


The ranger starts the story with a deep fear of success twisting a desire for self perfection. There are responsibilities waiting for him, but he isn't sure he's up to the task.

He worries and doubts himself. Yes, great-great-grandpa was king, but look what happened to him. If the mighty hero whose quick thinking turned imminent death into a stunning defeat for Sauron screwed things up, how much better can I expect to do?

Aragorn struggles against both real and perceived weaknesses. He punishes himself for mistakes he's afraid he might someday make, turning the striving towards improvement into a Sisyphean task he can never finish. He has completely internalized his criticisms of the world, and picks the safe choice of falling in love with someone who seems unattainable.

He overcomes the paralysis of his self-doubt only when he realizes that people he cares about depend on him. He's needed, and accepts himself out of necessity. His drive towards betterment is no longer motivated by the fear of accomplishment, and he can finally listen to the advice of someone who has already achieved what he wants to do. Elrond has fought Sauron and survived, he has accepted the responsibility to become a monarch, and come to terms with love. Until Aragorn wanted these goals more than he feared them, Elrond's help and advice would have been useless.

In taking his place in the world and accepting himself, Aragorn transforms a host of insurmountable obstacles into a series of manageable challenges he can take on one at a time.

Arwen and the Elves

The fabled elf maid loses her immortality for love. This transition happens completely when a person enters into a committed relationship or accepts a caretaker role such as parenthood. Carefree attitudes and feelings of invincibility are replaced with the certainty that unless somebody walks out early, the end will come in the form of sickness or old age, and finally death.

Once Arwen makes the decision to choose a close relationship, the vulnerabilities of her partner become her own. As Aragorn's life hung on the fate of the Ring and Middle Earth, so too did Arwen's once she chose to stay with him. Because they are unfamiliar, the weak spots of a partner or family member can weigh more heavily on us than our own weaknesses. Aragorn's fate has always been tied to Middle Earth, he's concerned, but not paralyzed by it. Arwen has always expected to cross the sea with her people, and realizing the danger in her new choice is overwhelming.

Arwen's ship will never come now. Even when all she loves and stayed for is dead, it will still be too late to pick up where she was. The elves, the fellow immortals of youth, have all moved on to other places. Their departure represents the road not taken, and the realization of life's shortness.

The elves leave when one realizes that life choices will be rather narrower than the CEO-ninja superspy-rockstar-science genius career path that a person may have been hoping for. Life can still have joy, value, and accomplishment. But it isn't going to be what you wanted, which is a little sad, even when you decide that it's worth it anyway.


Frodo represents the death of illusion about the inevitable goodness of oneself and the world.

The Ring torments him by drawing evil beings and situations to him. As a protected child, he longed for surprises, and trusted those around him. His increasingly dangerous experiences tell him that surprises are as likely to be bad as good. That trust is more nuanced, and should be more carefully given.

But the most fearsome aspect of the Ring is the evil it calls forth in its bearer. The seeds of greed, malice, fear, paranoia, and despair that live in everyone answer to it. The bearer now doubts not only those around him, but himself. His fear of the world now rests on the terrifying revelation that he has the capacity to be as evil in his desires as any opponent or enemy.

At the end, when the Ring is destroyed, Frodo at first can't decide whether or not he wants to follow it. He doubts his own worthiness after falling into temptation, he wonders if it won't be the last time. But he clearly also misses his torment, longs for it. Perhaps the certainty he felt when he yielded to the call of the Ring echoed in its way the certainty of youthful innocence. And whether certainty is bad or good, it's always more comfortable than doubt.

Ultimately, Frodo can no longer bear the pain of his wounds. Frodo departs when an individual decides that the weighty matters of good and evil must be put aside for the mundane concerns of everyday life. For most, they are relegated to the safety of liquor bottle philosophy, church attendance, or as some would have it, blogging, never again to touch the shores of everyday consciousness.

Does Frodo have to leave when he suffers this awakening? Maybe not. But it's the most common choice, and perhaps the strongest desire.


The all-wise and powerful protectors of childhood vanish miraculously as soon as it becomes apparent that they're just ordinary people. In seeing Sauron's vast and inhuman threat replaced by a sea of petty grievance and flawed mortals with broken hearts, Gandalf is now seen as he is.

Gandalf is skilled, and he has wisdom by virtue of having been around a lot and paying attention. But his most important function is to convince the younger people in his care that they are equal to the tasks set before them. Once he has taught the protective lesson of confidence and persistence, his work is done.

The wizard counselor is mortal after all. His power and experience are no longer mythic when the youth becomes just another adult to whom other adults are no longer mysterious.

Gandalf also symbolizes the importance of letting go, and realizing the point where you've given enough help and now need to step back. He knows when it's time to recognize the transition to responsibility in others, accept them as equals, and not feel threatened. He's the parent and mentor who has mastered the challenge of allowing that step and remaining beloved, rather than forcing a fight to be free of his authority and becoming despised.

Gollum and Saruman

Though evil and twisted, Gollum plays a key part is saving Frodo. He has been where Frodo is going, both inside and out. Gollum proves in himself the futility of hatred. He hates the Ring, and is therefore tied to it. As long as Frodo hates and rejects him, Gollum will always return. It's only when he takes the final leap that allows him to understand that he has the capacity to be Gollum that he can then fight him off and reject that path.

Saruman represents the pitfalls of arrogance, but also the betrayal of the respected guardian. He begins as the White Wizard, the representative and protector of civilization. But he succumbs to fear, losing faith in the importance of his cause. He comes to desire only power, wanting to compensate for the sense that things are out of control.

Most of the evil creatures in the story were just born that way, or at any rate, their turn towards the dark side is beyond the scope of the narrative. But Gollum represents the corruptibility of the decent Everyman, and Saruman the corruptibility of those who believe that they act in the service of the greater good. Without their example, it's too easy to comfortably feel that evil is 'out there somewhere,' instead of recognizing its seeds in the self and respected others.

Not only do they teach that motives should be questioned, but priorities and perspective. They illustrate that it's perilously easy to do very bad things while believing in one's own correctness.


Sam is the path to the end of torment, and aging with grace. Accepting the role of caretaker, Sam knows that ordinary pleasures can't be taken for granted. In a life that will mainly be occupied by awkward hassle, occasional peril, and periodic embarassment, everyday happiness needs to be grabbed with both hands.

While he understands the importance of a given emergency, his vision is broader than the moment. His faith that things will eventually return to the way they always were, more or less, never wavers. He gains greater courage through greater adversity, but his motivations of faith and love remain a constant source of strength.

It isn't a newfound courage that enables him to pull Frodo back from the brink of Mt. Doom, but faith in someone he loves. He's seen Frodo at his worst and darkest, when he was willing to throw away the lives and future of all Middle Earth. He knows that without the appearance of a wake-up call in the form of Gollum, things were likely to end very badly. But Sam sees the whole of his friend and his life, and he doesn't question that Frodo can and should be pulled back.

Sam is the better angel of our nature that has faith in us even as it reproaches us in our darker hours. If we were past saving, we would also be past hearing his reproach. Though his disappointment can be cutting, the grace is that Sam always knows that life is a team effort. He never expects all strength and virtue to manifest in one person, and represents the renewal of faith through forgiveness and acceptance.


Theoden didn't achieve everything he wanted, and what he did achieve, it wasn't by himself. He made bad decisions that hurt those in his care, for which he had to work to make amends. There wasn't time for everything he'd wanted to do, and when he's called upon to aid Gondor, he comes with less strength than he'd hoped.

Despite these regrets, he dies with dignity, and in peace. He found the courage to fight the good fight. He lived to recognize the fruits of his labor in the character and strength of the generation that will replace him. He can accept their love as a recognition of his worthiness, and so accept his own life.

Even on the horror of the battlefield, his last thoughts are of the good things in his life. He takes his battles with him in death, considering them reconciled, and leaves only his blessing to those who come after.

Posted by natasha at July 6, 2004 07:40 PM | Entertainment | Technorati links |

Really nice essay on this subject, natasha. I really liked the characters Tolkien created and all the depth he gave them in his story.

Posted by: Mary at July 7, 2004 07:25 AM