Man Up

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Six Models of Masculinity
in The Lord of the Rings

It isn’t easy being a man today. In fact, it’s probably harder now than it ever has been. Back in the old days, society worked hard to develop its men. It set out a clear vision of manhood and taught our boys how to live up to those ideals. It honored manly role models. When men fell short of the standard—as they often did—society tended to rebuke them. Producing men with a brave and beneficent masculinity was an important cultural goal.

But today, our culture doesn’t offer those masculine role models nearly as often. And that is a problem that needs correcting. Today’s world desperately needs good men—now more than ever.

orc enemy copyWhy? Because there are bad men too. Lots of them. And only good, brave men, can stop the tyrants from spreading their oppression all over our society. This is something many great leaders have understood. But no one has brought it out in story form better than J.R.R. Tolkien.

Why Tolkien?

Middle Earth

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) is a man I have long admired. I remember my first boyhood encounter with his world. My initial exposure to Tolkien wasn’t through his writings. It was more concrete. I had just moved to Oxford with my parents in the summer of 1981. As I wandered down the lane from the house where my family was staying, I noticed a plaque above a neighbor’s door. It was at 76 Sandfield Road. The plaque said, “J.R.R. Tolkien Lived Here 1953-1968.” There was also a picture of a dragon, a compass, and a hill with a hole in it. Quite fascinating to my eleven-year-old mind. But I didn’t think much more about it.

It wasn’t until I had come home with a new book from Blackwell’s on the Broad Street—the very bookstore that had published Tolkien’s first poem in 1915—that my love for all things Middle Earth was awakened. I read The Hobbit in a day. It was quickly followed by the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve been enamored with the saga ever since.

Tolkien himself was the quintessential Oxford professor. We picture him wearing a tweed jacket as he smokes a pipe by the fireplace and pores over a stack of dusty Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Yet this erudite persona doesn’t mean Tolkien wasn’t “manly.” Quite the contrary: it is very masculine to be wise and scholarly, as we shall soon see.

Tolkien_1916Yet the young Ronald Tolkien embodied other ideals of masculinity as well. According to his online biography, he heeded the patriotic call and joined the Lancashire Fusiliers to fight the Germans in World War I. The new recruit arrived in France just in time for the Somme Offensive, one of the most horrific battles in human history. After several months of combat in the trenches, Tolkien contracted a deadly fever and was sent back to Britain, where he recuperated and finished out his wartime service. All but one of his schoolboy friends, with whom he had once formed a literary club, were killed in combat. At last, having married his beloved Edith, the young professor began to raise a family. Here was a man who cherished the blessedness of peace because he had endured the wretchedness of war.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary depiction of manhood took many forms. Drawing from his LOTR characters, I would like to propose six distinct models of masculinity. These are not separate models that one man has and another does not. Nor is this a personality test in which you discover which one you are. Rather, all six of the models are integral facets of holistic manhood. Your question is not, “Which one am I?” but “Which one do I need to be right now?”

Model 1: Gandalf, the Sage

Tolkien map

One of the rarest and most valuable virtues to be achieved by a man is wisdom. A sage is someone whose words provide insights that most people don’t have. Sages offer a new way of thinking, often through a pithy statement that grabs your mind, makes you ponder, and improves your moral life. Such wisdom is born from deep familiarity with lore: the books and writings that contain a culture’s history and accumulated experience. Consider these sagacious sayings from Gandalf:

  • When Frodo is burdened by the weight of the One Ring and bitterly says, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
  • When the dear friends of the Fellowship are parting forever, Gandalf remarks, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” He understands that grief is a real part of living in a broken world. Even strong men can weep.
  • When Frodo longs for the punishment of twisted Gollum, Gandalf rebukes him: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

lantern

Wisdom, of course, does not only have to be the mark of old men with long, white beards. Young men can be wise too. But they will have to study lore and accumulate knowledge. They will also have to observe life and gain experience. Only then can the sage’s words make magic in the world.

Model 2: Aragorn, the Warrior

warrior sword

Probably the most popular of Tolkien’s LOTR characters is Aragorn. He is a hero of royal ancestry whose restoration to the throne is chronicled in The Return of the King. Aragorn is proficient with a bow and a blade; he makes campfires; he hunts game; he leads men and elves and dwarves into battle. After many great sacrifices, Strider the Ranger (his incognito identity) assumes his rightful place as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the King of Gondor. Tolkien writes, “On the throne sat a mail-clad man, a great sword was laid across his knees, but he wore no helm. As [Frodo and Sam] drew near he rose. And then they knew him, changed as he was, so high and glad of face, kingly, lord of Men, dark-haired with eyes of grey.” Truly, Aragorn was a warrior-king, a splendid ruler worthy of the days of yore.

Yet this powerful king was a self-controlled man. He did not rush into unjust wars. Aragorn had no chip on his shoulder, no desire to fight simply for the sake of dominance or ego. So humble was this king that at the moment of his coronation, when everyone was honoring his prowess in battle, he bowed before two lowly hobbits and set them on his throne with the cry, “Praise them with great praise!” At all times, Aragorn’s awesome power was under his command. He unleashed it against evil. But until it was needed, he reined it in and preserved it for the day of battle.

Aragorn the Warrior was also a provider. He cared for the weak. When the Hobbits were assailed on Weathertop by the Black Riders, it was Aragorn who defended them against those hideous wraiths with a burning torch. Even so, Frodo was stabbed by a poisoned blade. Aragorn the Warrior knew battlefield medicine and found a healing plant to help his friend. The tender warrior always uses his strength, not for pride or selfish gain, but to defend the weak and innocent.

Model 3: Frodo, the Self-Giver

Frodo is often interpreted as the primary Christ-figure in LOTR. He chose to bear a burden that was not his own, one that took a terrible toll and demanded an infinite price. Even so, Frodo walked willingly into the Enemy’s lair. He carried upon his body an evil curse that he did not deserve so he could eliminate it and save the world. This fearsome road Frodo walked to the very end, even to the point of death.

one ring

When the One Ring was finally cast into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom, the strength of Frodo was spent. He and Sam collapsed side-by-side upon an “ashen hill” surrounded by torrents of lava, soon to engulf them. It was from a high above, amid the swirling smoke and ash, that Gwaihir the Eagle spotted them. To his sharp eyes, they were only two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand upon a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near. And even as he espied them and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death.

In that moment, Frodo had come to “the end of all things.” He had proven his willingness to give himself totally for a cause that required the ultimate sacrifice. He had relinquished everything he held dear, everything he left behind in his beloved Shire. And he did so freely, by the courageous choice of his will. “I will take the Ring,” he had declared to the Council of Elrond in his small voice, “though I do not know the way.” And then he gave his all. Just like a man should do.

Model 4: Legolas, the Beauty-Maker

more trees

Legolas the Elf was one of the strangest of his race. He made a lifelong friendship with Gimli, a dwarf whose people were deeply repugnant to elves. This reflects Legolas’s ability to see beyond superficial categories or stereotypes. He pursued peace even when finding it was difficult. Yet Legolas was willing to work for this relationship, knowing that peace between enemies is a beautiful thing.

Legolas was a poet and singer. When the Fellowship came to the mystical forest of Lothlórien, it was Legolas who told them forgotten tales “of sunlight and starlight upon the meadows by the Great River before the world was grey.” And then, while everyone rested by the river after much travail, Legolas sang to his friends. Accompanied by the “music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows,” the noble elf began to sing “in a soft voice hardly to be heard amid the rustle of the leaves”:

An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.

This ancient hymn soothed the Fellowship, bringing peace to their weary hearts. It was an artistic offering; for Legolas knew art’s healing power.

The attentive eye of Legolas often saw beauty when others missed it, especially in the realm of nature. Legolas was a great lover of the natural world, and he introduced his friends to its charms. When he first saw Fangorn Forest, he rejoiced; when he gazed at the stars, he marveled at their grace; when he contemplated the Sea, he sang of its distant shores. Legolas was not one to stay enclosed inside a cottage. Nature called him forth, beckoning him with its beauty. His intrepid masculinity made him entirely at home in the rugged and refreshing outdoors.

armor 2Legolas also appreciated the beauty of good craftsmanship. His gear was well made, his clothing attractive and sharp. He paid attention to his appearance, not because he was proud, but because he respected himself. He also honed his skills as an archer so he could carry out his duties with proficiency. His diligent practice with his bow paid dividends when one of the wicked Nazgûl attacked the Fellowship. Legolas’s well-aimed shot turned the Fell Beast away. “Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string . . . The sky was clean again.” Wherever he went, Legolas created beauty and spread goodness. Everyone around him benefited from his art.

Model 5: Gimli, the Energizer

The dwarven race in Tolkien’s world was known for its busy activity. The dwarves were constantly digging and building and creating. Tolkien himself had a complex relationship with the world of manufacturing, especially as turn-of-the century England became more industrialized. Felled trees and smoky chimneys are depicted as nefarious emblems in the hands of Saruman at Isengard, or later in his “Sharkey” persona during the Scouring of the Shire. Sometimes, Tolkien literarily rebukes the dwarves for “delving too deeply” and awakening demons, as happened with Durin’s Bane, the fiery Balrog whom Gandalf battled to the death.

blacksmith

Yet in Gimli the Dwarf, we also discover Tolkien’s appreciation for industrious work. The dwarves were diggers who created great underground kingdoms and forged many beautiful implements of metal and gems. They also created architectural marvels in stone and masonry. Gimli represents the positive side of productive labor. When masculine strength is motivated by ingenuity, not greed, it can be a powerful force for shaping raw materials into something better than their natural state.

The manly trait of endurance is also exemplified by Gimli. When tasks become difficult, he perseveres nonetheless. He has a stubborn willingness to keep going even when the workload is too much for others. When the Fellowship—including the frail and short-legged hobbits—had to leave their easy river travel for an overland slog, Boromir showed his apprehension by saying, “That would not be easy, even if we were all Men.” To this, Gimli replied, “The legs of Men will lag on a rough road, while a Dwarf goes on, be the burden twice his own weight, Master Boromir!” Gimli was always ready for the task ahead. He called his friends forward with his contagious brand of fortitude and mettle.

Yet Gimli didn’t just endure his work with grim determination; he attacked each challenge with zest and enthusiasm. Even his slaying of orcs becomes a warrior’s game with Legolas. And after the work is done, Gimli energizes the times of celebration. Admittedly, the Peter Jackson LOTR films depicted Gimli as more of a partyer that Tolkien himself did. Who can forget Gimli’s beer-chugging drinking game with Legolas in the movie version of ROTK? And if you’ve seen the movies, you can probably still hear Gimli’s eager anticipation of Moria’s dwarven hospitality: “Roaring fires! Malt beer! Red meat off the bone!”

meat 2

In the actual books, however, Gimli was more sober. Even so, the dwarves certainly were creatures of mirth. The opening sequence of The Hobbit, when Thorin Oakenshield’s party arrives at Bilbo’s house and empties his over-stocked larder, is one of the greatest feasting scenes in all of literature. Real men know how to tackle their jobs with all they’ve got. And when the labor is done, they know how to celebrate with gusto, too.

Model 6: Sam, the Friend

one ring again

In Samwise Gamgee, we discover one of the highest of masculine traits: loyalty to one’s comrades in the journey of life. Real men form profound and lasting friendships. They can love other men deeply, without any sexual overtones. One of the classic instances of such masculine love comes from a story that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, would have known well. King David is said to have loved his friend Jonathan so much that when Jonathan died, David exclaimed that their affection was more wonderful than the love of a woman (2 Samuel 1:26).

Sam commits himself to Frodo like a true friend should do. When the Fellowship breaks up and is scattered, only Sam follows the Ring-bearer as he tries to sail away. Undaunted, he casts his lot forever with his master. This powerful scene could be interpreted as a symbol of baptism:

“Coming, Mr. Frodo! Coming!” called Sam, and flung himself from the bank, clutching at the departing boat. He missed it by a yard. With a cry and a splash he fell face downward into deep swift water. Gurgling he went under, and the River closed over his curly head.

It is only when Frodo reaches down and retrieves Sam that he comes up from the deep, “bubbling and struggling,” yet forever changed. Safely in the boat, Sam pledges eternal allegiance to Frodo, his master and friend. The two of them will walk together into the shadows and fires of Mordor.

Sam’s loyalty to Frodo is put to the ultimate test when they finally reach that terrible land. Betrayed by the treacherous Gollum, they are led into the lair of the fearsome spider, Shelob the Great. Although she stings Frodo and wraps him in her webs, Sam comes to his master’s aid. Snatching up the sword called Sting, he stabs the bloated spider and drives her away. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it,” he declares as he holds the slime-drenched blade. “Come on, and taste it again!” Sam’s loyalty to Frodo empowers his courageous deed.

volcano

Yet Sam’s deepest act of loyalty comes when Frodo can no longer carry the weight of the Ring up the flanks of Mount Doom. Frodo falls to his knees and tries to crawl, but cannot. His strength his gone. Tolkien writes the scene with great vividness and emotion:

Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. “I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,” he muttered, “and I will!”

“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.”

And then, hoisting his spent comrade upon his shoulders, Samwise Gamgee begins the final trudge into the fires of doom. The scene is a metaphor for the journey of life. Who has not faced terrible trials, alone and afraid? And who has not felt the strengthening aid of a companion at his side? When a man comes alongside another man in friendship, even life’s greatest burdens become bearable.

A Call to Us All

single tree

Through these time-honored characters, we get a rich picture of manhood. Tolkien depicted excellent models of masculinity in his books. A true man is mature and skillful in at least these six ways: intellectually, physically, emotionally, artistically, occupationally, and relationally. No man can exemplify perfection in each of these realms. Yet any man can display these virtues and grow in them. Do not despair of being an imperfect sage, warrior, self-giver, beauty-maker, energizer, or friend. Instead, as you go through life, just ask yourself, “Which of these do I need to be right now?” And then do what is required.

potion 2There is a scene in The Two Towers when the hobbits Merry and Pippin are given an Ent-draught by Treebeard. The Ent-draught is a drink of magical river water with a taste like earthy roots and a cool night breeze. Just a few sips of this drink adds three inches of height to the friends’ small stature, turning them into the tallest hobbits who have ever lived.

Real manhood is like an Ent-draught. It isn’t toxic, but intoxicating: a refreshing drink that exhilarates everyone who encounters it. Masculinity is no poison, but a potent elixir that makes itty-bitty hobbits grow tall and mighty. Don’t you want a drink like that?

6 thoughts on “Man Up

  1. Dr. Litfin, great read. I agree that our society had lost it’s “ manhood”. I have a pastor friend I was talking to about the statement on wisdom and knowledge . He said the he did Not need more knowledge right now, ( He has a doctorate also) what he needs now was more WISDOM to act on the knowledge that he has now and then He will go get more knowledge!
    I have read and re read Dr. Hendricks book Iron sharpen Iron and in that book he wrote that we men need 3 men in our lives. A Paul, Barnabas and Timothy.
    Please say Hi to your Dad for me.
    Pat McConnell
    Roger Litfin was our assistant Pastor At Immanuel

  2. An insightful look into some of my favorite characters, from one of my favorite authors. 🙂

    But as I read this, I’m also struck with the fact that these aren’t gendered traits. That is, both the women and men I respect most are sages, warriors, providers, self-givers, beauty-makers, energizers, and friends.

    So, while yes, every man should strive for these ideals and can be inspired by these characters, so should every woman (and I would guess that both genders are equally inspired by LOTR for the same reasons).

    Additionally, in as much as these are aspects of Christ’s character, aren’t they aspects for everyone to live up to?

    Instead of a post about masculinity at its best, I would love to see an article about “Humanity at its best” (as Confucius would put it).

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