#1 Thing I've never liked about LORD OF THE RINGS

#1 Thing I've never liked about LORD OF THE RINGS

There is #1 thing I’ve never liked about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

Tolkien is a founding father of my favorite genre, Fantasy. I do hold him in the highest regard. While I love the Middle-earth stories in general, this one thing has always bothered me and I’ve never quite been able to let it go. 

It’s entirely possible Tolkien wrote these themes unintentionally. But I admit that seems unlikely, considering how meticulously he wrote across his grand epics of Middle-earth. (Even going so far as to have a spiritual advisor for Lord of the Rings.)

In the end, I still want to assume the best. I never knew Tolkien personally, of course. We can make good guesses as to what he believed himself (he was a devout Catholic who made no secret of his faith). But in the end, he’s not here to speak for himself on the matter.

That being said, I still have one HUGE problem with his work.

A lot of people laud Tolkien for writing a “good, old-fashioned good vs. evil” epic.  Many people appreciate his simplistic approach to good and evil. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. I have no issue with this necessarily. 

Lord of the Rings is not about good triumphing over evil

I’ve heard many times that Tolkien’s work is about good triumphing over evil. This is where I disagree. Quite simply, there is no real redemption in the Middle-earth universe. 

Minas Morgul in the books (and in the movies) is home of the Ringwraiths, but at one time was a great city of Men. Due to the influence of Sauron, it became corrupted. In the appendices of Lord of the Rings, we find out that Aragorn as king has the city demolished to purge the corruption from the land. Destruction is the only solution.

This is the attitude Tolkien takes toward everything that becomes corrupted in Middle-earth.

Destroying evil things or people is always presented as the best and only option in Middle-earth

Again and again, we see that in Tolkien's universe, destruction and death are the only solutions to evil. Evil objects must be destroyed as well as evil people—even if those evil people show remorse.

Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring breaks his oaths and tries to take the Ring from Frodo while under its influence. He realizes his mistake and seeks redemption, but is killed by the Orcs sent to capture Merry and Pippin. 

Grima Wormtongue in the books ends up a fugitive in the Shire, doing Sauruman’s bidding. He realizes he screwed up, expresses regret, and turns on Sauruman, but is still hacked to death by a band of angry Hobbits. 

There is also, of course, Gollum/Smeagol. We get four books of Gollum becoming less Gollum and more Smeagol, only for him to still succumb to the Ring’s power and try to take it back. He too ends up dying (horribly). 

Even if a character is "tainted" unwillingly, they must be destroyed

Even if the “taint” of evil touches a character unwillingly, it continues to dominate their destiny. Frodo is stabbed by a Morgul blade and if not for the quick actions of Elrond, would have become an undead slave to the Ringwraiths. Even after that, he loses his enjoyment for Middle-earth and ultimately sails to Valinor–Tolkien’s metaphor for Heaven, again presenting passage into the next life (death) as the only solution. 

In the lore, Celebrian (daughter of Galadriel, wife of Elrond, and mother of Arwen) is captured by Orcs and tortured until her sons rescue her. Elrond is able to heal her physical wounds, but she’s still so affected by the trauma that she leaves her parents, husband, and children, also to sail for Valinor. 

Orcs were made evil against their will, but must now suffer forever for it

The primary example of beings that are unwillingly corrupted is, of course, Orcs.

In the lore, Orcs are Elves that were tortured into perversion by Melkor and are now forever evil, cursed and hunted like animals by their untainted cousins. They have their own language and culture that is hinted at in the books, but apparently still no sense of morality.

They are now slaves to their twisted darkness and little more than animals with no hope of redemption ever.

Again, there is no healing and the only feasible solution following an encounter with evil is for the characters to die/leave the world entirely. Death is the only redemption that exists in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Not everyone deserves a redemption arc

Yes, sometimes bad guys need to stay bad. Yes, sometimes a horrible end is what a character had coming. Sometimes trauma is too much for people. Sometimes we try to help people and they can’t be helped. But every time?

I've also heard the argument that not everyone deserves a redemption arc. I think this is silly because by definition, no one deserves a redemption arc. That's the whole point.

Even in instances where characters sustain injuries and are healed, Tolkien makes sure we know that injury forever changed them. With the exception of perhaps Éowyn, it’s made clear that their life is lessened for that experience. 

Fantasy authors with strong redemption arcs

Oddly enough, I think George R.R. Martin has better examples of redemption arcs than Tolkien. 

Tolkien’s contemporary, C.S. Lewis, definitely had a better grasp of redemption. Though written for a much younger audience, Lewis devoted incredibly deep and heartfelt subplots to the idea of restoration, forgiveness, and healing. 

While I still love Middle-earth and will always love Tolkien, this is one thing that I continue to dislike about his work. As someone who LOVES redemption arcs, the glaring lack of them in Lord of the Rings has always disappointed me.

Do you think there’s something I missed? What are your thoughts on redemption in Middle-earth?

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I’d argue that Boromir did get his redemption before he died. Grima was a hateful murderer, not someone filled with true remorse. Even Sauruman was given several chances at redemption, but he rejected them all even with his last breath.

I think even Mordor was eventually restored to its natural beauty as the taint of Sauron was slowly purged and most of the humans who sided with the dark lord were pardoned and given their freedom.

Bilbo and Gandalf both spared Gollum even though they knew he was a violent killer either out of pity or because they knew he might have an important part to play before the end on the side of good even if against his will.

The treatment of the Orcs and Goblins and Trolls is where he really strayed into unredeemable evil. If there was anything I would change about his stories it would be that.

Fred De Mars

I’m no Tolkien scholar, but my understanding of at least the orcs is that he also struggled with their origin and how that affects their role in the story and the universe; the popular story of their origin is one of several that Tolkien had come up with but ultimately decided were unsuitable for one reason or another. It was Christopher Tolkien who selected the origin most popularly known for publication based on the notes his father left behind.


I just discovered you and I just saw this, so even thought I’m late to the party I wanted to put down some thoughts! So I think you have a very interesting and valuable point here, but I do think there is a wee bit more that could be said. To address the idea of characters who are “unwillingly tainted” by evil, one important context for this may be the trauma of WWI, which Tolkien and his contemporaries experienced first-hand. The “shell shock” diagnosis (which would later develop into our understanding of PTSD) was still in its infancy, and there probably was no help or cure for these men in their lifetime. The fact that Tolkien has the Gray Havens in his mythology I think says more about his hope in the healing power of a life after death than about his view of the nature of evil. This leads me to think of Frodo’s injury as him being irreversibly touched or affected by evil, rather than somehow tainted by it.

As far as the orcs go, I’m not sure there is much I can say in Tolkien’s defense and I’ll confess I haven’t thought too much about it before. The only thing that comes to mind is the Old Testament narratives of God’s deep anger against spiritual evil, with again the only remedy being complete destruction. I of course have no way of knowing if that was something Tolkien was thinking of, but the parallel is interesting. And of course if this is the same God who later becomes human and dies for the redemption of all mankind, then I wonder if there can be space in our narratives for different ways of dealing with evil, both of which could be significant and meaningful, or at least teach us something new about the nature of the world. I might be stretching this here and I’m sorry for the long post! But you really made me think, so hats off to you!


I would suggest you read Volume 1 of Arifureta, then you might better understand Tolkien.


Huh. I was never certain why I found Tolkien’s books so unceasingly dark. Now I think I know. Thanks for such an interesting and well thought commentary!


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