Themes Of Decay in the Lord of the Rings
Themes of decline and decay run throughout the Lord of the Rings. But that’s not where the story ends.
I’ve probably watched the Lord of the Rings a thousand times. I’ve read the Hobbit a few times, and the other books at least once. But it never struck me until my last watch through how incredibly important themes of decay are to the story. It’s prevalent from the very onset of LOTR — it comes in when Gandalf greets Bilbo and tells Bilbo “you haven’t aged a day”. In fact, Bilbo’s birthday party is what sets off the events of the hobbits leaving the Shire, and it’s one of the ring’s notable powers: its bearer does not age (unless if you are Gollum then I guess you age really badly?). But it is also prevalent in other ways throughout the story. The kingdoms of men have seen better days. There are old ruins lying around everywhere that make you feel as though the vast landscape of Middle Earth was once more vibrant. And it is basically the fear of even greater decay that is the impetus for the story.
So why all the decay? What was Tolkien getting at?
Themes of Decay Were Prominent During Tolkien’s Lifetime
Tolkien did live in England during the height, and decline of the British Empire. Through Tolkien’s lifetime, he witnessed first hand the utter decline of Great Britain from world superpower and vast empire to a country the size of Louisiana. This has to have an effect on you.
What’s more, Tolkien also faced, alongside the rest of England, the possible obliteration of his culture, customs and way of life. In this way, England was a lot like Gondor or Rohan — a country that had seen its glory days pass, but were not yet ready to give up everything they had left.
Tolkien would also have witnessed another decay of sorts fart greater than even England’s failed empire. He would have witnessed the erosion of western civilization that made the horrors of World War I and World War II possible. Once beautiful pieces of countryside were transformed into brutal, inhumane battlegrounds where lice fed on the bodies of soldiers, including Tolkien.
Tolkien’s Catholicism Made Him at Home in Ruins
Another often mentioned part of Tolkien’s inspiration for his fictional universe stems from his devote faith. His Catholicism would also have left a mark and awareness of decay on his life for a few reasons. First of all, the state of Catholicism in England left much to be desired. In fact, it was illegal to be Catholic until 1791, and being Catholic still meant not having many civil rights after that, until 1829. Although now allowed to obtain a degree from university, being Catholic was still not a popular thing, as many in England harbored deeply rooted anti-Catholic sentiments.
Beyond this, however, is the reality that the Catholic Church of England, like Rohan, and certainly like Gondor, has seen better days. This was certainly true at the time of Tolkien, and remains true, today. The great, magnificent churches of England that were once Catholic are so no longer. Instead, Catholic churches have been relegated to smaller, out of the way churches that scream of utilitarianism — something which contrasts greatly with the opulence of places of worship such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, or Westminster Abbey.
A Catholic wandering through England can see relics of Catholic England’s heyday, including hidey holes in the homes of recusant Catholic families where priests and Catholic faithful were once hidden, or in marked spots where Catholic martyrs were killed and buried, and stories of its past still whisper through places like Oxford — originally a Catholic college — where windows venerating saints like Thomas Becket have miraculously survived when all other images of him were ordered struck down.
Tolkien would have been deeply aware of this past glory and modern mediocrity, and maybe in some ways the decay of the countries found in his fictional work mirror that of the decay not only of the Church in England which was a forced decay, but also the decay of the Catholic Church in Europe — something which had been going on since well before Tolkien’s time.
A Culture of Decay
Finally, Tolkien’s own experience with decay in culture would have prompted him to write longingly for times past. Just as one begins to long for rural countrysides like those found in the Shire, Tolkien longed for a different time. In the same way that Sam, Frodo and the gang fear the mechanizations of Sauron and the end of the era of men, so did Tolkien and his Inkling friends fear the cultural, political, and economic mechanizations of the twentieth century. And for good reason — after all, in his lifetime alone Tolkien witnessed several great struggles: two Great Wars to end all wars, and a terrible cold war. He also witnessed the great rise of materialism, and saw technology develop at a frenetic pace, something that would have left the man born at the tail end of the eighteenth century feeling perhaps less at home in the new world.
Catholicism Inspires Hope Through Tolkien’s Work
And yet, in decay is not how his stories end. In fact, there is always a new journey for Tolkien’s characters. For the world of men, there is a new beginning, and new hope arises. For others, new lands await oversea, in a place that seems symbolic of death.
In fact, to Tolkien, success in life was to not be bowed by the fallacies of one’s time, but to persist in one’s course of action despite the world being at odds around you. To him, being a saint in the modern world meant being someone for whom has “for all their imperfections never finally bowed head and will to the world or the evil spirit (in modern but not universal terms: mechanism, ‘scientific’ materialism, Socialism in either of its factions now at war)”.
Indeed, the magic in the world might be gone, the elves and the wizards passed on, and evil may still remain. But through the actions of good men, and by refusing to give into the evil of the age — whatever that may be — one can find reason to hope. There may be no higher evidence of Tolkien’s Catholicism than what is found in this simple theme, that there is only ever one thing that does not decay. And that one thing, not the ring, has the power to save us all from this world’s — and Middle Earth’s — inevitable end.
Originally published at https://www.josephwriteranderson.com on December 7, 2020.