Tolkien on the Window to the Truth By James Reed
J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” makes use of the analogy of a smudged window, as his version of Plato’s cave, to illustrate the notion of universal truth; that our vision can become distorted or smudged. He saw the use of fantasy of tapping into the well-spring of universal religious truths about the human condition, well-illustrated by his epic tale, The Lord of the Rings. Literature can help clear the window to truth.
The extract below discusses Tolkien’s story, "The Fall of Numenor,” which tells the tale of how a great people can become corrupted by the lust for power and things that they were not meant to have, leading to civilisation collapse. There is that theme as well in The Lord of the Rings, with the rings of power, and the one ring to rule them all, corrupting all men who mange to come into possession of it. Such literature provides powerful metaphors for conservatives to ponder, and of more impact than a mere essay or political treatise, as important as these documents are.
Literature can speak to all men, not just the intellectuals.
“The modern conservative movement faces a crisis of meaning. We pay lip service to certain “ideas,” but there seems to be little consensus on what those ideas are, either because we have forgotten them outright or because our movement itself no longer adheres to them for guidance. America’s conservative voice that has traditionally cried out to steer the ship from crashing ashore has sunken to a whisper. “Conservative” events now seem like an endless circus act of grifters coming together to celebrate nothing, offering shallow speeches with vague references to “preserving freedom.” The American right needs a revival of ideological vision to inspire young people into seeing the beauty of universal truth in our foundational values again.
Enter Oxford professor and modern mythmaker J.R.R. Tolkien. In Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” he uses an analogy of a smudged window to describe a person’s view of universal truth. Man, by nature, can occasionally take the beauty of faith, family, and duty for granted. His view of beauty can become blurred, his window smudged. Tolkien argues that fantasy stories can be a strong tool for removing the smudge from your window to bring back into view the light and majesty of truth.”
Tolkien used his fictional stories to convey universal and religious truths about how we should live, and the American right should take a few notes from them.
There really is a Tolkien lesson for everything, whether you’re discussing religion, technology, industrialization, history, politics, or environmentalism. The themes that dance across the pages of his writings seem endless, and you may discover a new point almost every time you read.
One Tolkien story conservatives can learn from is "The Fall of Numenor." "The Fall of Numenor" or "Akallabeth" ("The Downfallen") is the tale of the greatest nation of men to exist in Tolkien’s legendarium, one whose material success, technological prowess, and military might were surpassed by no other nation, whether of elves, dwarves, or other men.
Numenor had everything: wealth, comfort, pleasure, disease-free living, longevity, and wisdom. Many blessings were gifted to the Numenoreans by angelic beings who governed the world on behalf of the creator for man’s contribution in defeating the evil Morgoth (the fallen angelic being of Tolkien’s fictional world). The men of Numenor worshiped their creator, whom they called Eru, and had a shared set of beliefs rooted in objective truth and moral values. They were blessed, and Numenor in turn blessed other nations, for a time. They shared their wealth and knowledge with the weaker men of the world in order to build them up from an existence that had become brief and grim.
However, the men of Numenor became unsatisfied with their many blessings, as men tend to do. The only thing lacking in their charmed lives was immortality, which they were never destined to have. The long life they had been given, typically hundreds of years, was not good enough for them. Material blessings beyond the imagination meant nothing if they could only enjoy them temporarily.
Over generations, the Numenoreans' hearts became more crooked. They began to reject Eru, no longer offering worship on the mountain where they prayed. Numenorean kings slowly eradicated the cultural traditions of their fathers, at first privately and then boldly. They grew to hate the laws and moral values that governed them and resented the restraint of death. The material wealth and military might of Numenor at this time, however, continued to grow.
Then Sauron entered the picture. Sauron was a Maia and servant to the evil Morgoth, who turned away from Eru. Sauron counseled the open ear of a wicked and powerful Numenorean king named Ar-Pharazon. He convinced Ar-Pharazon to destroy sacred cultural symbols and institutions, telling the king that Eru was a lie and that his representatives sought only to keep men restrained by mortality and subservient to the forces of good.
Sauron convinced the king through subversion to disregard traditions further, commanding them to commit evil acts to extend their life spans. Ultimately, Eru destroyed Numenor for its wickedness, sparing only the few who kept the faith. Those faithful few went on to Middle-earth and continued the story all the way up to Aragorn their descendant (you already know who that is).
The story of Numenor is a rich warning from Tolkien on what happens when rot and corruption begin to poison a nation and the hearts of its people.
As Numenor started to descend into discontent, the people's morality began to bend. Factions arose to either preserve or destroy its sacred cultural institutions. One faction in particular, the King's Men, sought to subvert the ideals of what made Numenor great in the first place in an effort to pursue immortality. Sauron convinced the King's Men and their wicked leader, Ar-Pharazon, to cut down and burn the White Tree of Nimloth. This tree was a cultural institution in Numenor that had stood for over a thousand years. Sauron hated it because it was a symbol of the blessing that the Numenoreans received for their faith and loyalty to the forces of good. Sauron redefined the tree as a symbol of Numenor’s oppression. The voice of the Faithful men of Numenor had become so quiet that they were unable to stop this atrocity from taking place.
America has many of its own King's Men moving about the land to subvert our institutions. For generations, factions have formed to renounce our core identity, and many conservatives have stood by while this rejection has metastasized in many forms. Consider the tearing down of our monuments or the establishment of critical race theory and leftist gender ideology to subvert the next generation’s views of objective truth and our shared values as Americans. Malicious characters make lifelong careers from redefining our cultural symbols as testaments to oppression. American holidays like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving are now scrutinized and rebranded as the celebrations of privileged bigots who have not been sufficiently re-educated. We are, however, encouraged to participate in whatever left-wing celebration is happening any given week, and if you don’t, then shame on you, fascist.
There is no shortage of opinion pieces written telling people to “shout their abortion” or celebrate childlessness as if it’s a virtue in a world that is increasing in anti-human attitudes. Those are things you’re allowed to celebrate. The American right cannot continue to cede ground to subversive individuals who seek to destroy and replace what we hold dear. The mainstream conservative approach in recent years has become, “Give a little ground — take a monument down, bake the cake, wear your mask. If you comply on a few things, maybe they won’t hate us so much.” They will always hate you, and it will never be enough.
Sauron himself saw the might of Numenor; he knew that the men of the West had become so strong that he would not be able to overthrow them with military might alone. He chose to enter Numenor as an adviser who would subvert Numenor from within. He went about the land pitting neighbor against neighbor, persecuted the faction of faithful men who refused to bend the knee to his will, and began encouraging the king to throw them in prison on false charges of disloyalty to the regime.
In America today we find ourselves in an unprecedented time when a former president of the United States is facing a list of legal charges designed to neutralize opposition to the ruling administration. Concerned parents are labeled “domestic terrorists” by Merrick Garland’s “Justice” Department for showing up at PTA meetings in protest against gender ideology being taught to their children. Meanwhile a leaked FBI memo reveals intentions to investigate American Catholic churches to find what are called “radical Traditional Catholics” for being pro-life. Conservatives cannot afford to take a passive position on these issues. There can be no neutral.
What fills the void when you can no longer celebrate the sacred? Every culture in history that has had its norms removed has always found something to replace them. The Vikings abandoned the Nordic pantheon for Christ; Islam supplanted Zoroastrianism in Persia. What morality will reign in the United States should those who seek to destroy the foundation of our culture succeed, offering nothing in return but cynical secular humanism?
Sauron certainly provided new activities to fill that void for the Numenoreans.
Numenor at its founding had a fixed morality. Right and wrong were black and white and held in the heart of every man in that blessed land. Numenor’s ultimate decline was its rejection of the objective morality that was given to the Numenoreans. In their decadence, they began to love their creator less in their hearts, resenting the fact that they must face death while the Elves did not. They began neglecting their customs of worship on the mountain in favor of vain and wicked pursuits, desperately trying to cheat death in any way that they could. Tolkien states, “But those that lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry, desiring ever more goods and more riches; and ... the offering of the first fruits to Eru was neglected, and men went seldom any more to the Hallow upon the heights of Meneltarma.”
Sauron finally persuaded the men of Numenor to follow a new morality and to worship Morgoth, a being he called “the Giver of Freedom.” Sauron promised that Morgoth would free them from the restrictions that the forces of good had imposed upon them. They would be granted immortality if they would be willing to turn from the light and worship this “Lord of Darkness.” Sauron’s convincing culminated in his words to the king: “For Darkness alone is worshipful” and “the increase of [your] power shall find no end.” The Numenoreans surrendered themselves to Sauron and began committing human sacrifices to this “Giver of Freedom.” Ultimately, Sauron persuaded the Numenorean king to attack the Valar, heavenly beings whom Eru placed on Earth to be its governors, a vain effort that led to Eru breaking the Earth open and swallowing Numenor into the depths of the sea. Sauron was able to destroy Numenor by subverting morality and replacing truth with lies. The few voices willing to call it out were shouted down or systematically neutralized.
American society faces a similar threat. No one is taking part in human sacrifice (we hope), but we are degrading into a culture of vain subjectivism. Men are pressured to be politely moderate or altogether silent in their faith, and the moral truths that we took for facts are now presented as mere societal constructs.
The modern left demands that we celebrate leftist causes and reject our own, “for their causes alone are worshipful.” The nothingness of our culture is leading to an unprecedented mental health epidemic, marked by rampant drug use and rising suicides. The left preaches that when we release ourselves from our God, our norms, and our traditional restraints, we will be truly free, yet everywhere we look, people are in chains. Establishment conservative voices rarely, if ever, have a true response to our rotting culture beyond empty platitudes and passive sloganeering. We can’t fill the void with a conservative movement unwilling to take defined stances on objective morality.
America finds herself at the brink of catastrophe, not one so dramatic as Tolkien’s destruction of Numenor, but a catastrophe nonetheless. Tolkien, a passionate man of faith, took real-world moral struggles and interwove them with his fantasy stories. The American right can learn from the failure of the Faithful men of Numenor who were unable to turn the tide of subversion that plagued their country and stop Sauron from encouraging their countrymen to abandon their faith and cultural traditions. The American left’s abject moral relativism promotes a deconstruction of truth, and conservative voices must have a loud and unwavering rebuke. Americans need a revitalization of faith, family, and service to community again. Individuals must be willing to stand in the gap and say no to the Saurons of the world who would force their new moralities upon you and your family. If we stand firm in preserving our beliefs and holding true to objective morality, we can define a better path forward for the conservative movement.”