Home > 1. Famous Poems, 22. Local Poets, Local Heroes, 555. The Golden Thread > “We Must Send the Ring to the Fire.”

“We Must Send the Ring to the Fire.”


J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the greatest work of English literature written during the 20th century. Many things contribute to its greatness: to begin with, a command of English prose that is simply unrivaled; next, an understanding of language and history that enables Tolkien to place his story in the intricately detailed and beautiful world that he imagined, Middle Earth; and then, a plot and structure that pull the reader relentlessly forward to the story’s powerful, satisfying, and heartbreaking conclusion. Beyond these technical achievements, TLotR offers a balanced and comprehensive view of the world, one that encompasses both the darkest impulses of the human heart and transcendent visions of earthly paradise. Tolkien draws from a multitude of English sources going back to Celtic literature, placing them in a Biblical framework that has at its origins the struggle between Good and Evil. Above all, in its respect for English tradition and in particular the gifts of ordinary people, TLotR is perhaps the most characteristic work of English fiction ever written.

Not often acknowledged, the English tradition of prophetic writing includes such varied material as Blake’s poetry and prose, George Fox’s Journal, Le Morte D’Arthur, and Beowulf. In all of these works, we are in the presence of a peculiar genius, one that acknowledges the deep roots of English storytelling while placing it in a framework that links it to the larger concerns and struggles of humanity. Genius is never comfortable, and prophets make uneasy companions, but England has plunged its greatest imaginations into a commonplace milieu that lends them geniality and humor. Whether we are sipping beer at The Ivy Bush, enduring yet another confinement in a stinking 17th century prison, or listening to a scop recite to his harp, hard-nosed reality is never far away. But some realities cannot be contained in the limited world we have constructed for ourselves. To make any sense of the intensities in our lives, we must turn to the poet.

We have less tolerance for encounters with the sublime than earlier generations possessed. Such moments are committed to the university–or to the asylum. This is the chief lesson that modern poets–far more of them than we like to admit–have to teach: our lives have become ugly, stripped of the dreaming that heals us, unable to create much of significance with the wealth we accumulate. It is the artist who teaches us to dream and the English artist who links our dreaming most plausibly to everyday routine.

A fine and necessary art, the art we English speakers have inherited. Why don’t we do more to encourage it?       RT

Photo: A Page from The Fellowship of the Ring with a Copy of the Ring Lying on it; WikiCmns; CC 2.0 w/ attribution; author: Zanastardust.

  1. December 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Travelling on Christmas day, I was listening to a radio carol service. It was a good one with many cross-cultural references, and I was reminded, somehow, of the power of archetypes and how we have yet to really understand their power and reality. The best art, like Tolkein’s, draws on these archetypes, the transpersonal filtering through into the particular, moving us far beyond logic and common sense ever could.

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