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.