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Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings Paperback – October 1, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Dickerson, a teacher at Middlebury College in Vermont and devoted student of Tolkien, begins his work with a strong thematic link to the very popular The Lord of the Rings movies: epic battles. Against the criticism that The Lord of the Rings glorifies war, he argues cogently that Tolkien's original written treatment of these battles provides a very different picture than the films or spin-off video games. He demonstrates how Tolkien offers a deeply nuanced understanding of the nature of war, and how the trilogy criticizes self-aggrandizing glory in battle. As Dickerson moves into the more central, philosophical themes of the books-free will, moral responsibility and ethical absolutes-readers may lose interest, especially when he punctuates discussion of very basic concepts with obscure references from Tolkien's Silmarillion, a work that few will have read: "In contrast to subjective morality, or moral relativism, objective morality is independent of the individual subject.... Feanor's evil deeds, for example, especially the tragic Kinslaying at Alqualonde, are going to be judged." Dickerson's exploration of the nature of the ring's evil power and his final conclusions about the pervasive theological structure behind these stories are engaging, but the verbosity and academic trivia of other sections may alienate some readers.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
About the Author
Matthew Dickerson is a computer science professor at Middlebury College. He is the author of The Finnsburg Encounter and Hammers and Nails. He lives with his wife and children in Bristol, Vermont.
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I especially enjoyed his exploration of how the morality of LOTR related to the Christian faith, since so much of the series seems to show characters in a Christian sort of good vs evil contest yet there is virtually no explicit religion in it.
I bought the book as a gift, but had to read it before giving it away. It made me want to read the LOTR series again.
I'm sure we'll be seeing many "spin-off" books on the market, as more and more publishers take advantage of the interest in Lord of the Rings that has been generated by the films. However, it is quite apparent that this author's presentation is no last-minute thesis, cobbled together to jump on the LOTR bandwagon. His attitude toward the source material is thoughtful and respectful, growing out of a deep understanding of both Tolkien's work and his own Christian faith, and he manages to present a thoroughly Christian viewpoint without preachiness or jargon.
While short and easy to read, the coverage of themes such as "moral victory versus military victory," "the relationship between free will and human creativity," and the contrast of "hope and despair"---although perhaps mentioned in some other recent works---is here explained clearly and discussed thoroughly by a knowledgable author. Dickerson's references to the films maintains an appreciative neutral approach to what has been accomplished in the first two movies, and his book has enough new and original material to make it worth reading even for those who are steeped in Tolkien-related writings.
Dickerson does an excellent job throughout, and has a fine touch in delineating the moral issues behind the characters' choices and actions, and what they can mean for the reader. One quibble -- in his early discussion of the major battles in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, he writes that seeing battle through the eyes of the hobbits (as we do in all cases except the Battle of Helm's Deep and the Defense of Laketown) de-glorifies it. I wanted to see what he would say about the battles of the Scouring of the Shire, which are seen exclusively through the eyes of the Hobbits and seem to me distinctly de-glorified, but he does not analyze these actions in this chapter. He does, however, devote much thought to the Scouring other places in the book.
I also lament the lack of an index. Perhaps, now that we have seen the third of Peter Jackson's movies (not yet released when this book was written) and are seeing more biographical information becoming available on Tolkien's own war experiences (Tolkien and the Great War, War in the Works of JRR Tolkien, and the forthcoming Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull two-volume reference), we may hope for a second, expanded edition with a thorough index. I know I look forward to reading more of Dickerson's insights.