Tolkien’s Enduring Lessons

Life takeaways from the epic journeys within J.R.R.’s classics

J.R.R. Tolkien changed the world in 1937 when he introduced us all to Middle Earth in his tale of a hairy-footed hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Over the next ten years he expanded on the story of the One Ring and eventually gave us his epic, The Lord of the Rings, in three volumes. Now a timeless classic, and one of the best selling books in the world, The Lord of the Rings was brought to life on the silver screen nearly 20 years ago by Peter Jackson, The Hobbit ten years later.

The stories of Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, and many others has left an indelible mark in all of our minds as a story for the ages. So, what lessons have we learned from these timeless tales? I’m glad you asked!

It’s Hope That Makes us Strong

If we’ve learned one thing at all from Tolkien, it’s that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” A persistent determination is the only thing that kept everyone going, but to what end? What was it that kept every going, even in the face of overwhelming odds? That beautiful little thing called hope. Even in the darkest moment, Gandalf recognized that, “There never was much hope; only a fool’s hope,” and this is what kept him fighting. They dug deep, reached inside of their hearts and fought for a promise of peace, and a home to go back to.

Lord of the Rings characters

Sam (who is the real hero of the story, fight me) kept the hope alive for Frodo, gave him a reason to keep putting one large, hairy foot in front of the other. In a moment of despair, Frodo tells Sam that he can’t keep going, but Sam encourages him by telling him that they were just like the stories they heard growing up, of heroes facing insurmountable odds, but they kept fighting anyway “because they were holding on to something.” Frodo, still despairing, wonders what they could possibly be holding onto, to which Sam replies “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for” (I’m not crying–you’re crying)!

Compassion Leads to Mercy and Sacrifice

One could argue that mercy and sacrifice stem from the same feeling of compassion for others. There are countless examples of characters exhibiting mercy or making sacrifices because of their inherent compassion for others.

When Gollum first makes an appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo tells Gandalf that it was a pity that Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance. Gandalf argues that it was pity that kept Bilbo from doing so. Later, Frodo shows the same mercy to Smeagol when he takes him on as their guide into Mount Doom. Even though it ultimately didn’t end well for Smeagol, one could argue that Sam and Frodo couldn’t have gotten there without Frodo’s compassion for Smeagol.

Frodo and the ring

The other side of mercy is sacrifice, and we see this many times throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where the different characters see that the only way to make things right is to put themselves in harm’s way. Boromir, broken by his guilt over trying to take the ring from Frodo, sees a chance to redeem himself by giving Merry and Pippin time to escape the Uruk Hai, and loses his life in the process. Frodo believes on many occasions that he has embarked on a journey to his death, but keeps going anyway. In their darkest hour, with the forces of Sauron poised to defeat Aragorn’s army huddled at the Black Gate, it is their sacrifice that creates a diversion, giving Frodo a fighting chance.

Greed will Turn Even the Best of us into Monsters

Would we even have The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings if not for the powerful effects of greed? The core of the conflict across the entire epic is the creation of the One Ring by Sauron: “One ring to rule them all.” If Sauron had not been so greedy for power, none of this would have ever happened.

The One Ring had a very strong pull on several characters, and due to sheet force of will most were able to overcome it (Gandalf and Galadriel were sorely tempted to take it but knew it would corrupt them). Frodo, pure of heart, hardy, nigh-incorruptible, also eventually succumbed to the pull of the ring, and it was only the stronger, more deep seated greed of Smeagol that ironically saved the day.

And then there’s Smaug, the dragon that lived under Lonely Mountain defending his lake of gold to the death, torching an entire town in his anger. It seemed inevitable that Thorin Oakenshield, an honorable dwarf who only wanted to bring back the former glory of his people, would succumb to this so-called “dragon sickness,” as well, and it almost led to the complete annihilation of his people. So greed is bad, ok? It makes good people do bad things.

Smaug the dragon

Embrace the YOLO Lifestyle

When Bilbo finally decided to leave the Shire and help Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, he was embracing the YOLO lifestyle. Bilbo decided that, regardless of how predictable and comfortable his home was in the Shire, he knew he needed to get out into the world and go on an adventure or he might regret it for the rest of his life.

Indeed, the Hobbits have an almost enviable attitude toward life in general, that adds a much-needed levity to the darkness permeating Middle Earth. Thorin Oakenshield recognizes this on his deathbed, when he says to Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

The Bonds of Fellowship are not so Easily Broken

Underlying all of these enduring values, of course, is the idea of fellowship. Without each other, Bilbo and Frodo’s quests would have surely failed. Without the support Sam provided for Frodo, without the sacrifices made, and without the lure of adventure and camaraderie, Smaug would still be brooding under his mountain, and Sauron would have taken over Middle Earth. The most enduring value of all throughout the entire epic is that the bonds of fellowship are not so easily broken. As long as we have each other, then the fight is worth it. Not to get too serious and sentimental about it, of course, but without our friends backing us up, what’s the point?

Maybe some other lessons are, keep your hands to yourself (I’m talking to you, Smeagol), and don’t forget leg day (how did Sam fireman-carry Frodo like that if not for his powerful quads)?

What other life lessons do you think we forgot? In what ways has Middle Earth impacted your life? Sound off below; you know the drill.