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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien - Barron's Booknotes
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The forces of good in Middle-earth are engaged in a
continuing struggle against evil. What will be the
final outcome of this struggle? Some readers think
Tolkien indicates evil will prevail, while others say
he's optimistic about the ultimate victory of good.

Those feeling Tolkien thinks evil will win out note
that it's left to seemingly powerless individuals like
Frodo to face the overwhelming force of evil. These
individuals must struggle on with no hope for
assistance from someone more powerful, and with
little hope for victory or even survival. Victory,
when it is achieved, comes only at great cost to the
forces of good. And it seems to win only a
breathing space, barely enough time to recover
before evil again arises and threatens the freedom of

Other readers see a strong vein of optimism in
Tolkien's works. They point to the fact that the
inhabitants of Middle-earth are helped in their fight
by a benevolent power. The workings of that power
are seldom visible to the individuals in the midst of
the action, but a larger viewpoint reveals a grand
design. Even evil deeds are turned to good purpose-
for example, when Merry and Pippin's capture by
the orcs serves to bring them to Fangorn in time to
rouse the Ents against the evil wizard Saruman.
This seems to imply that good is stronger and more
lasting than evil.

Keep these two viewpoints in mind as you read the
book. Look for evidence to support one or the other,
and decide which you think better explains
Tolkien's works.


The question of determinism is only hinted at in the
last chapter of The Hobbit, when Gandalf suggests
to Bilbo that his adventures may have been
managed for some higher purpose. But in The Lord
of the Rings it is repeatedly emphasized that
seemingly random events are part of some grand
design. Each of Tolkien's characters there has a big
or small part to play in that design. The actions of
evil characters are turned to good, against their will.
The main weapon of evil-despair-is used to turn
people from their assigned tasks and so foil the
designs of good. These elements in the works make
people seem like puppets manipulated by opposing
powers of good and evil.

Tolkien, however, also notes the importance of free
will. His characters are free to accept or reject
possible courses of action. The forces of good in
The Lord of the Rings, such as Gandalf and
Galadriel, respect this freedom to choose. They
continually tell others that they not only can but
must make their own decisions. Not even the
prospect of total defeat can justify interfering with
the free will of others. The forces of evil, on the
other hand, seek to destroy free will.

It may be argued that, according to Tolkien, free
will is only an illusion. Many times characters make
important decisions without knowing why they
made them. Bilbo, for example, is never sure just
how he ended up leaving his comfortable home to
join the dwarves on their adventure. Do you think
that such decisions are truly free, or are Tolkien's
characters being manipulated without their
knowledge? Keep this question in mind as you read
the works.

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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien - Barron's Booknotes

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