On Moral Complexity in Stories (and does LOTR have any?)

So, I love The Lord of the Rings.

(For which work of literature the following post contains many a spoiler. Be ye warned.)

It’s always rather bothered me that some people don’t, which in one sense is silly – people’s tastes are different, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even if it’s something you love as much as I love The Lord of the Rings.

gollum confused gif

But under certain circumstances, it’s perfectly valid to be bothered by people’s negative opinions of something you love – when, for example, those opinions are founded in falsehood.

What’s the most common reason people give for preferring more gritty, realistic fantasy like Game of Thrones (which I haven’t read, but it’s the most common example given) to The Lord of the Rings?

Moral complexity, my friends. Moral complexity.

The Lord of the Rings, the argument goes, is almost entirely devoid of moral complexity.  Its characters are paper cutouts in a conflict that, while epic, is very black and white, without subtlety or shade of grey.  While George R. R. Martin creates real people, with real flaws, who act the way real people do.  No one is good.  No one is bad.  Everyone is a conflicted muddle of both, allowing him to deeply explore humanity, morality, and humanity’s often startling lack thereof.

Comments like this used to disgruntle me.  Make me a bit defensive, too.  All right, fine, you can prefer that kind of thing, I guess. Meanwhile I prefer those stark good vs. evil stories.

Because, you’ve got to understand, it’s not that I don’t agree that humanity is complicated, that morality is complicated (in application, at least), that human beings all have a dark side and it’s good for stories to explore this.  I agree with all of that.  I just…prefer not to think about it?  Apparently?  I prefer to exist in my black-and-white fairy-tale bubble?

How pathetic of me.

But I have finally come to the conclusion that I have a better reason than that for being disgruntled.  I have decided that the claim The Lord of the Rings is lacking in moral complexity is about as valid as the equally-common claim, “Atheists are more moral than Christians, because they don’t need a God with thunderbolts in his fists to tell them it’s wrong to murder.”

gandalf facepalm gif

What I mean to say is, it’s balderdash.

The case that The Lord of the Rings lacks moral complexity begins with Sauron. (Which my autocorrect changed to Dayton. Thank you, autocorrect, that’s very thoughtful of you. I do indeed prefer Dayton to Sauron.)

Sauron is the quintessential Dark Lord of Pain and Death and Terror and Night and Utter Evil. You know. The sort of villain they’re always telling us aspiring writers not to write because he’s a cliche, he’s a paper cutout. What reader’s going to be scared of a paper cutout?

aragorn are you frightened gif

I don’t know about you, but I’m plenty scared of Sauron. Although I’ve rolled my eyes at my fair share of mustache-twirling villains, it’s not the idea of pure evil I find unbelievable.

In recent years I’ve picked up N. D. Wilson’s books, and they’ve become new favorites – partly, I think, because of the purely-evil villains. Nimiane is creepy, terrifying, and wholly without redeeming qualities.  Her motive is sort of to rule the world, but it’s sort of the most basic, primal motive ever: hunger. Nimiane really will destroy the world just out of pure, hungry hatred, and I one hundred percent believe it.

Radu Bey, also, is pure evil and wants to rule the world, and I don’t find him unbelievable either. In fact, I think he’s an amazing, amazing villain.  I think these books are amazing, amazing books. This portrayal of evil, some way or another, resonates with me.

Similarly, Sauron doesn’t need complex motivations and a tragic backstory.  He doesn’t even need to make an on-page appearance, ever.  He is there behind the scenes, palpable evil pulling the strings of Saruman, the orcs, the Nazgûl (who are pretty much more than our heroes can handle, all by themselves).  He’s not a paper cutout because he can’t be: he is shrouded in too many layers of shifting, sinister shadow.  And his power is felt everywhere, through his servants.

witch king of angmar gif

But I digress.  The point isn’t whether or not Sauron is a successful villain; the point is whether or not The Lord of the Rings is morally simplistic.  I’ve talked so much about villains because I think, perhaps, there is a difference of opinion there which comes down to worldview.

All I remember about Inkheart (besides Dustfinger and how great yet annoying he was) is this one throwaway line that disturbed me so much as a child: Mo didn’t believe in the devil.  He thought the devil was just something humans had made up.

Looking back, in the light of the story itself, that’s a very interesting line.  The villains of the story are evils that people really did make up out of their heads. (I think. Like I said, I don’t remember the book very well.)

But to small Sarah, the line was incomprehensible.  Small Sarah could understand not believing in God, but not believing in the devil?  Empirical data about the world surely gave us evidence of him. (Small Sarah’s only interaction with people who doubted God’s existence was, at this point, probably confined to people who didn’t understand how a good God could allow so much suffering and all that.)

Slightly older Sarah eventually came to realize that there are in fact people who don’t believe in the devil. Even people who believe in God but not the devil. (Which still seemed totally backward to her, but whatever.) Slightly older Sarah came to realize that Mo believed (probably) the devil was evil people’s excuse for their own evil, or the only explanation simple folk could find for the incredible depths of depravity their fellow creatures could sink to.

So maybe, thinks current Sarah, modern readers in search of morally complex stories subscribe to Mo’s philosophy.  There is no such thing as Pure, Unadulterated Evil in the world.  There are only humans, their sometimes surprising capacity for heroism, and their always shocking capacity for cruelty.

This means, when looking for moral complexity, they look in a different direction than I do.  I look to find heroes with flaws; they look to find villains with virtues.  Pure evil isn’t convincing to them, and so, by extension, goodness isn’t quite as compelling. Light scattered amidst twilight shadow can’t be as compelling as light shining into midnight.

This gives us stories where we follow what would traditionally be the “bad guys.” Where there are no “good guys.”  Characters make choices we can’t condone, and they make choices that force us to see them, nevertheless, as human beings.  We explore the psyches of murderers.  We discover the depravity that hides in some people’s hearts, and we discover that their hearts are not so different from our own.

legolas uneasy gif

I don’t necessarily think that’s bad.  It’s not what I would care to read a lot of, but there is a place, I think, for those kinds of stories.

Still, stories like that don’t give a complete picture of the world.  Not as I see it.

N. D. Wilson’s villains resonate with me.  They cast his stories in fiercely contrasting colors that hold up in ordinary daylight.  But while reading Dandelion Fire, I most curiously found myself loving another aspect of the story.  Namely, the faeren.

By which I do not mean so much that how faeren mounds and green men were woven into the story was cool (although it definitely was), but rather that I loved the petty squabbling.  You’d think the faeren would be the good guys in the situation, but instead they were a corrupt, complacent, inefficient bureaucratic mess who made everything worse.  On purpose.

fool of a took

And that resonated with me.

In Empire of Bones, which is a book full of dragons, hopeless last stands, ancient evil women making palaces out of people, and a mohawk-sporting Irish monk named Niffy giving the most beautiful and breathtaking speech about love and courage I’ve ever heard, one of the things that captured my imagination most was the crumbling of the Order of Brendan.

There’s nothing, you’d think, so very compelling about that – well-meaning people a little lacking in courage and a little lacking in foresight undone by treachery, partisanship taken too far, and their own unwillingness to open their eyes, until there’s a final shove and everything falls like a house of cards.  It’s sad, but why does it stand out among all the other stuff?

I can’t say for sure.  But that resonated with me too.

I do believe in evil that will triumph unless people stand against it.  I do believe in the importance of honor and the necessity of courage.  I do believe there is right and wrong, a good side and a bad side.  But at risk of sounding like a snobby literature teacher (or, worse, someone who thinks Game of Thrones is better than Lord of the Rings – I know that, not having read it, I can scarcely judge it, but Game of Thrones? There are Reasons I haven’t read it), I also am a little tired of paper-cutout conflict.  White hats vs. black hats. Good vs. evil, no nuance.

I too am hungry for moral complexity.

Not necessarily in my villains, but most necessarily in my heroes.

Maybe that’s why N. D. Wilson’s “good guys” who aren’t resonate so much with me.  They satisfy my desire to see people represented as they are, cowardly and selfish and dishonorable, even when they try not to be.  People with good intentions who nevertheless fail to follow through on those intentions when it counts – when they’re given their bare choice, face to face with the devil.  Some people run. Some people cling to pettiness.  Some people shrug and turn traitor.  As Niffy says, only a few stand up.

good in the world sam

Maybe that’s why The Lord of the Rings is so powerful.

Those who complain of Tolkien’s writing for being black-and-white are, I suspect, looking in the wrong place.  Villains aren’t, of necessity, a story’s only repository of moral complexity.  Stop fixating on the villains for a second – stop looking at Sauron, or even at Saruman or Gríma Wormtongue or Gollum (who is, I think, actually a very morally complex villain) – and look at the good guys.  There are shades of grey there enough to satisfy the ‘satiable Elephant’s Child himself. (We can now check Just So Stories off the list of Fantasy Stories From Sarah’s Childhood to Appear Tangentially and Irrelevantly in This Post.)

Take the protagonist.  Frodo Baggins – the goody-two-shoes little hobbit from Wholesomeville, the Shire, who selflessly volunteers for the hopeless mission, never appreciably wavers from his purpose, makes the right choice again and again and again…and, in the end, at the final pinch, throws all that away.  In Tolkien’s world, even pure-hearted everyman heroes from down home have some inner darkness, and Frodo embraces his. He makes the wrong choice; he falls. His innate hobbit goodness doesn’t triumph over the baser elements of his nature.

frodo ring

Yeah, Tolkien – simple black-and-white morality, the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad Tolkien – he Went There.

I haven’t read many of those stories with extremely morally grey characters, where you want to like them but they’ve done terrible things and keep doing terrible things, but I am skeptical they could be as effective as that one choice of Frodo’s.

frodo it's done

The more you think of it, the more surprising it is that Tolkien went there.  It’s so heartbreaking.  But beyond that, it’s so chilling – because as much as I would prefer to think Frodo acted out of character, I don’t think he acted out of character.

They’re right, the people who say humans are capable of any atrocity, even the very good ones.  They’re right when they say stories that reflect our usually losing struggle with morality are the most true to life.  The only thing they’re wrong about is placing Lord of the Rings outside this category.

The fact that there is a truly evil side and a truly righteous side in its central conflict doesn’t diminish that.  The fact that Tolkien is more interested in exploring his heroes’ struggle with darkness (not a simplistic struggle, nor even always a victorious one) than his villains’ occasional glimmers of light (although don’t forget Gollum) doesn’t diminish that.

dark galadriel

So, I think, The Lord of the Rings is morally complex after all. In the best of ways.  Or at any rate in a way that makes it horrifying, heartbreaking, strangely hope-filled, and one of my favorite stories ever written.


So…yeah. What do you guys think?


[Frodo isn’t my only example, by the by; I have whole arguments ready for Boromir, Denethor, and Gollum and half-formed thoughts regarding Faramir, Éowyn, and Theoden.  But this post is already long, even for me, so I shall leave that for another day.  Frodo is the example who sums it up best, probably, anyway.]



Published by sarahseele

A Christian, cat owner, college kid, and writer. Fond of stories. Fond of rain.

18 thoughts on “On Moral Complexity in Stories (and does LOTR have any?)


    It’s so strange to me when people decry pure evil villains as unrealistic, because it’s not like we don’t have plenty of real life examples of exactly that! Hitler. Stalin. Mao. They killed millions without a second thought. And, in LoTR’s case, I’ve never seen Sauron as the point of the story anyway. The point, to me, is Frodo’s struggle with himself and the cute squad dynamics. So, while I definitely will concede the point that Sauron isn’t the strongest villain–he spends almost the whole story off-screen or off-page–Sauron is more of a symbol. But I think the villains you do see, like Saruman or Denethor, are definitely strong enough to make up for it.

    Really, Frodo means a lot more to me as a character now than he did to me when I was younger. To me, his arc is about coming out of a depression spiral and recovering from trauma, but I think he means a lot of different things to different people, and…he’s just such an amazing character. I loves him. That scene toward the end with him and Sam climbing up to Mount Doom was just…*cries* (I’ll admit I’m going a little more off the movies here than the books, it’s been a while since I read them!)

    I kind of wonder what some people are going on about when they talk about gritty realism and then their examples are always stories that are blatantly not realistic and are just edgy and exploitative. A lot of the stuff these people talk about is just…not realistic?? at all??

    Also, call me crazy, but I don’t really WANT realism in my stories. In my stories, I want love that lasts your whole life, and people who can manipulate entire palaces, and people who die tragically in each others’ arms. Isn’t realism a bit boring? Besides, realism is different for different people, isn’t it? Things I would consider absolutely insane have happened in other people’s more adventurous lives, and I’ve had things happen that other people might consider absolutely insane. Some people are just Like That. They live much more entertaining lives than we could and they look good while living them. (Also, some people are genuinely good and they are NOT naive peons who end up dead for their trouble. Can you tell I’m bitter over bad stories I’ve read?)

    But why DOES ‘realistic’ mean ‘gritty’ in people’s minds? It’s never made sense to me. Where does that come from?

    Anyway, this post is such a good analysis of LoTR, and there’s honestly more I could say, but this is already getting kind of long! (Also, as a side note, I have not read or watched GoT, nor do I want to. It sounded kind of silly, and I can watch good politically-focused shows that AREN’T somewhat exploitative.) LoTR has so much heart, and while I DO tend to prefer very morally complex characters, I think these stories have always stayed with me for this reason. They aren’t realistic, but they do reflect humanity. They are stories about what humans go through, despite everything about ring-wraiths and orcs and long-lost kings. They’re about love, trauma, sacrifice, and war. What’s more realistic than that?

    I’m sorry for the long, long comment, and I hope it all made sense. It can be hard for me to double-check my comments that get really long like this XD

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Okay but EXACTLY. (And, can you imagine a book that tried to humanize Hitler? Like, that just seems kind of…gross, to me. Not because Hitler wasn’t a human being – he was, and that’s scary – but because I don’t see how you’d do something like that without to some extent trivializing or excusing the evil things he did. Which is gross. Although I did once read a really interesting book about the army of Chinese Communists before they had gained power, and seeing Mao as a leader and hero in their eyes was WEIRD but it didn’t strike me as gross.) There are people in ACTUAL HISTORY who, as far as we can tell from their actions anyway, were purely evil. ACTUAL HISTORY, guys.
      I mean, I hate to even concede that Sauron isn’t a strong villain, lol. Because, like you said, he’s kind of a symbol, and I think he’s a SUPER POWERFUL one? But in the end, what does it matter? He’s not onscreen, but Saruman and Denethor and the Ringwraiths are, and they’re perfectly successful villains.
      YES, I do think the point is Frodo’s struggle with himself (and the cute squad dynamics, OF COURSE. I love those so much, don’t you? Legolas and Gimli but also all the relationships that develop), and…obviously the struggle is also with an outside force, but I LOVE that the greatest danger ends up being NOT that outside force, but his inner struggle. Like…that’s just so powerful to me, somehow.
      (I’m rambling, sorry. LotR is one of my favorite books, hence I have really strong feelings about it, also I am tired right now —>>>ergo, this is not the most coherent comment ever.)

      Frodo IS amazing. *cries with you*
      (Oh, wow. I hadn’t thought of quite that interpretation of his arc, but I see it!)

      Yeahhh, exactly. Realism isn’t quite as easy as being as recklessly edgy and exploitative as you possibly can…Also, what a bleak view of reality, if you really think that.
      (To be fair to people saying they want realistic fantasy [bit of a contradiction in terms, there, lol], GOT is not the only example I’ve heard given. It’s the only one I know anything about though.)

      Haha, I feel EXACTLY the same. Can’t we have fun and idealism in our fiction? Isn’t that sort of the POINT? Also, some loves DO last a lifetime!! and some people do wield incredible behind-the-scenes power, and some people DO have epic things happen to them. So writing about stuff like that is HOPEFUL. It won’t happen all the time, but it CAN happen. Like you’re saying, defining “realism” as “my experience of reality” is…more than a bit narrow. And not very fun. (Please, save me from the Good Naive Souls With Principles who unfailingly end up dead for their troubles. PLEASE. GENUINELY GOOD IS NOT SYNONYMOUS WITH STUPID OR INCAPABLE.)

      I don’t know, I don’t know. *shakes head*

      Thank you, Becky. ❤ (I agree 100%. It does sound silly, and it does sound exploitative. And I love politics-heavy fantasy stories, but I can find preferable ones elsewhere, thank you very much.)
      "They aren't realistic, but they do reflect humanity" – YES. That sums it up really well. I think the ring-wraiths and the orcs and the long-lost kings are, like, this cool vehicle to let us explore love, trauma, sacrifice, and war and see them anew, in this fresh setting, and…I like that. It's kind of how people tend to think; on the surface we're bothered about various surface-level things, but underneath we're thinking about universal values and questions. And focusing straight on those underneath things can make them LESS clear. The extra fantasy trappings can actually help us think about real things more deeply than we perhaps would otherwise. (I'm sorry, that probably made no sense.)

      Okay, first of all, I wish even my less-long comments made as much sense as your long, long comments. (This one being a prime example. I'm so sorry.) And also, THANK YOU SO MUCH for this long, long comment! I love long comments, and this one especially because you said so many good things and I've been thinking about them and just…I like this comment! Do not apologize for it! XD

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a FANTASTIC post, Sarah! I’ve never quite understood the whole “LOTR isn’t morally complex” argument, but could never really put it into words. You NAILED it. *words failing* Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh well this is beautiful. SO beautiful. I despair of coherency in this comment.

    (Game of Thrones, a worthy competitor to The Lord of the Rings? ….but isn’t it….like…a soap opera disguised as medieval fantasy?)

    Everything you say about evil is so good. I read Inkheart for the first time the other month, and that line where Mo says he doesn’t believe in the devil disturbed me, too. “Empirical evidence”–yes, yes, I love all your points there. (What’s that bit Chesterton has in the very beginning of Orthodoxy, about skinning the cat? How modern philosophers deny the cat rather than admit that there is such a thing as evil?) Because evil as a deadly, corrupting influence that DOES things, ruthlessly and without reason for doing them–that rings true. Sure, most villains start out as people who think they’re in the right or at least that they’re not that bad…but after a certain point, doesn’t evil eat away at us? Haven’t we all felt a taste of it in our own souls–a rage that hungered for wrong to be done to the object of our hatred (even if it was just our 5-year-old-brother pulling our hair)? “Hunger”–that’s a good word you use there. Evil does have something inherently hungry in its nature, and it’s not a good hunger, it’s a destructive hunger, one that’s never filled. Like the devils in Screwtape.

    Basically, yeah. The devil is real. And as a thing I was reading in a Catholic newspaper recently pointed out, the consequences when we stop believing in the devil are very very bad. Cuz if there’s no real evil, what’s the point of being good?

    And what you say about Frodo. ❤ FRODO. I never understood, when I was younger, why he caved to the Ring in the end. I think I understood it so little that it didn't even bother me. But I begin to see its awful significance. I need to read the book again.

    (This whole post put me in mind to reread LOTR, really. I was this close, when I finished reading it at 11:00 last night, to creeping back downstairs and pilfering Tolkien's hefty masterpiece from its spot on the school room shelf and sneaking it back upstairs for a late night of trekking through the Shire. Would that I had done so.)


    1. (Haha! I’m pretty sure “a soap opera disguised as medieval fantasy” is EXACTLY what GOT is, though. XD)

      (Ooohh I had forgotten all about that bit in Orthodoxy. How there has always been disagreement about what to DO concerning the problem of evil but now suddenly we’re denying that there even IS evil? Which is the least sensible solution of all, because the cat at the very least is right before our eyes. Yes. I remember this part now. Incidentally, I must reread Orthodoxy.)
      Mm-hmm! Evil does eat away at us. Even from my own experience I know that, as you say. And how else does ANYONE do some of the things human beings have done? No one commits genocides because they had a sad childhood and now they’re angry about it, or even because they’re wildly prejudiced against a group of people; it goes deeper than that. You can’t just do horrible things and have no regret unless you been DAMAGED, by an outside force – which we all have been, and we’ve all invited the outside force in ourselves, but without our striving to cast it back out again, it will eat away at us. It really will.
      Yup, the hunger of the devils in Screwtape has always seemed…a very apt depiction. Uncomfortable, but apt.

      That’s a very good point. Good and evil sort of lose meaning if they lose existence. Their existence IS their meaning. And not believing in evil means, basically, that ideals are fun but not important, and that there’s no reason to do anything but look out for #1. Which, yeah. That’s not a good place to be.

      Yes, I doubt it’s something one realizes when one is younger? I had somehow managed to avoid any spoilers about the end of LotR when I first read it, and I was HEARTBROKEN. But I was not quite so chilled as I am now. The awful significance took a while to dawn, in my mind at least. But yeah…it’s a beautiful story; there’s so much depth and truth and poetry to it. I’ve been late-night-trekking through the Shire myself, here recently, and it’s AMAZING. I should say a reread is in order. A reread is never out of order, really. 🙂


  4. You make a lot of really fantastic points in this post! As an avid LOTR fan, I applaud your defense of it. It DOES have moral complexity, even though it has absolute evil and absolute good. I am bothered by stories that claim to be more “realistic” that focus only on how there really isn’t good and evil, there is just humanity and everyone is an incomprehensible mixture of both. Because while there is truth to that, I believe that there is more to the world’s morality than just people and their actions. I also don’t think that a character can’t be complex if they don’t do super horrible things. I haven’t read/seen Game of Thrones but from what I’ve heard about it, I wouldn’t say that those characters are more “real” just because they do terrible things and are conflicted about it. There is more to humanity than that. Characters like the hobbits struggle and overcome (or don’t), but a person who is a murderer isn’t a more real person because of that. That kind of gets troubling, don’t you think? If characters are more real the more awful they are, then does the same apply to real people? You are more real the more bad you’ve done? I don’t know, but it’s a weird concept. It’s like the cynicism thing, where we have the idea that badness is more real than goodness. Obviously no one is going to believe an all good character, but don’t we believe in a God that is wholly good? And a devil that is wholly bad? I guess where it doesn’t resonate is when we have humans that fall into these categories. Humans ARE a mixture of both, and even the best person has the capacity for the worst evil. I like to explore that in what I read and write, but I don’t like it when it gets to the point where everyone is miserably awful and there is no absolute good or absolute evil, just people hurting each other and victimizing each other. That’s depressing, and I don’t think it’s reality. Reality does have a real battle between good and evil, and good is going to prevail. That’s why the classic fairy tale is sometimes more true than the gritty “realistic” fantasies today. There is still moral complexity in something like LOTR. In some things it seems like they’ve passed the line between moral complexity and complete lack of morality. What are we basing morality on in the first place? There has to be some absolute point on which to fix our ideas, or they all wash away into incomprehensibility.
    Anyway. That was kind of long. I agree with you that their is moral complexity in The Lord of the Rings, and I appreciate you bringing it up. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love this comment. And I’m going to just agree with everything you said and maybe not say much myself because you said it wonderfully…
      But YES. Yes, why do people talk like you can only be complex if you’ve done horrible things? I know plenty of people in REAL LIFE who are wonderfully complex, interesting people, that I would totally read a book about. Have they done horrible things? No. That’s a flawed definition of “complex.” I think people demanding that kind of “complexity” all the time has less to do with a desire for complexity and more to do with a desire for melodrama tbh.
      Ohh. Yes. That is a troubling and weird concept. I have never thought of that angle of it before. But if that’s what you’re saying about fictional characters…that the worse they are, the more real they are…then isn’t that also what you’re saying about real life people? You can’t say the one without saying the other. Believing that man’s inherent goodness will always come uppermost is obviously a lie, but yes, believing good CANNOT overcome evil is just another, more insidious lie. (Although, I thought it was interesting, and that was kind of what I was thinking with Frodo in this post, was that even by that standard of “moral complexity,” which I do not agree with, Frodo is still complex.)
      Yeeahhh, “morally complex” can turn into “completely without morality,” that’s for sure. And you do need a standard of Absolute Good and Absolute Evil, or nothing makes sense. *nods*
      Thank you for this comment! It was wonderful, which means the longer the better. 🙂 And yes, we must defend The Lord of the Rings, because it’s just absolutely wonderful. AND morally complex. 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      1. (Ohmygosh YES what a good point that “more bad” does NOT equal “more real.” Like….the very essence of evil is an eating-away at the real/good, right? Devils can’t create, they can just corrupt. O.O)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh thank you I’m glad you liked it. ❤

      I agree! Boromir's arc is amazing, with pride and temptation and fall and redemption, and Gollum is so weirdly sympathetic even though he's also kind of THE WORST…yeah. xD There really is a lot there, isn't there?


    You raise some very good points and your arguments are sound. And nothing makes me quite so happy as when my favorite book is well defended! 😂

    To be honest, I never really spent much time considering moral complexity in Lord of the Rings. I just always knew it was there. (I’ve never heard anyone say it lacks moral complexity, but I also live under a rock, sooo…😉😂) Moral complexity in LoTR, and books in general, is a highly intriguing thing to consider, so I thank you for this wonderful post that has gotten me interested. 😀

    From now on, I think I should just refer to Sauron as Dayton…tis a highly preferable name. 😂

    I really liked how you pointed out that Sauron (excuse me, Dayton) doesn’t need complex motivations or a tragic backstory, because he’s freaky enough just from what we see in his servants. The Nazgul are terrifying, in my opinion, and just the thought of someone worse then them, who THEY bow to, is enough to scare me forever.

    I agree with you that there is a place for stories that explore the beauty and darkness of the human heart and the reality that even the best of men are flawed. But I think there’s a place for “good guys vs. bad guys” type stories too…sometimes we just need stark reminders that goodness and truth will win in the end. ❤️

    I wonder if maybe one of the most important messages from LoTR is that all humans are capable of succumbing to great evil. A central part of the story is about Frodo’s struggles to not give into the evil that is constantly pulling at him. Tolkien shows us, through Gollum, Wormtongue, and Saruman (and other characters) what happens when we stop resisting the evil and give in. And he shows, through Aragorn, Sam, and Gandalf (among other characters) what happens when we resist it and keep fighting for goodness and beauty. I think it’s a very frightening and important but also hopeful message. (I think Boromir is a particularly hope-giving character…that even when we fall, we can rise again.)

    I have a love/hate relationship with the way the directors chose to portray Faramir and the way he interacts with the ring. In the books he tells Frodo right out that he wouldn’t take the ring even if he stumbled upon it by the road. Faramir is kind and helpful to Sam and Frodo in the book but in the movie he comes across as rather harsh, and in the beginning is rather determined to take the ring to his father. In the books, Faramir doesn’t come across as a very morally complex character in the books but somehow I still LOVE HIM SO MUCH. (not entirely sure why but anyways. 😄)

    Ahh, the more I consider it the more I am convinced that the Lord of the Rings is in fact a very morally complex story!

    FRODO. ❤️ I never could understand why people called him “whiny” and “annoying”. I mean, you try to carry an all-powerful ring that is slowly sucking the life out of you all the way to Mount Doom and see how far you get! 😠 The older I get and the more familiar I become with the Lord of the Rings the more I love Frodo. HE’S JUST SUCH A GOOD CHARACTER!!!

    Ok, I want to go on screaming about everything I love in LoTR but I’d better stop because this comment will get way to long and confusing, soooo I’ll just stop here. 😛

    This such a marvelous post, Sarah, and I now have a quite a lot to think about! 😀 The gifs were perfect, by the way, and I think this line “Or at any rate in a way that makes it horrifying, heartbreaking, strangely hope-filled, and one of my favorite stories ever written.” is LoTR in a nutshell. 😊❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. AWW THANK YOU, EDEN. ❤ ❤ (And may I just say, you have excellent taste in favorites.)

      You know, I don’t think I’d have ever thought to spend time considering moral complexity in LotR (or books in general) either, without people saying it didn’t have any, so…in that sense I’m grateful to them? XD Because yes, I do think it’s a rather fascinating thing to ponder.

      The Dark Lord Dayton. That is a MUCH better name!! I shall never think of him as anything else henceforward.

      YES. The Nazgul FREAKED ME OUT. They still do. Book One of Fellowship is the scariest part of the whole thing to me, because of them. *shudders* And it’s even worse because Frodo has really no idea what he’s dealing with? And you’re like Frodo no get away get away don’t put on the Ring noooooo.
      Yeah. The Nazgul freak me out. And I think that was kinda brilliant of Tolkien, really. I mean, how’s he going to portray the Scariest Evilest Baddest Bad Guy Ever with proper scariness by merely having him show up and do some stuff and describing him? Far more effective (at least to those of us readers with overactive imaginations, lol) to have these really scary things that are STILL way less powerful and scary than Lord Dayton himself. My imagination takes off with that kind of fodder, and yes, Strider, I AM frightened. XD

      I agree 100%. Sometimes we do need stark reminders that goodness and truth will win in the end. *nods*
      Actually, isn’t LotR kind of both? Because it totally explores human morality and how even good people mess up very badly, but ALSO it’s this stark good-vs-evil story where good wins in the end IN SPITE OF EVEN THE GOOD GUYS SOMETIMES FAILING. That’s really cool, and I just thought of that. TOLKIEN WROTE SUCH AN AMAZING STORY OH MY GOODNESS.
      (But yes. Stories that are just about goodness standing up to evil and winning out – we need those.)

      My head’s going to fall off pretty soon, I’m nodding so often and emphatically, but YES to this entire paragraph. Just YES. (And BOROMIR. I don’t remember when exactly I started loving him, because I know I didn’t at first, but his arc is one of my favorites. So hope-giving, as you said. Redemption. I love redemption arcs. At least well-done ones. And Boromir’s is especially good because you see the fall AND the redemption. ❤ Yeah. It's amazing. It means a lot to me, for some reason. [Also Boromir loves his brother so much, something I just realized this reread, and AGH. MY HEART.])

      I think everyone I know just straight-up hates how Faramir was changed in the movies…but I'm going to agree with you. It's love-hate for me too. Because…it really works with his whole trying-to-please-his-father thing? It doesn't completely destroy Faramir's "I-wouldn't-pick-it-up-if-I-found-it-by-the-roadside" attitude toward the Ring either, because he isn’t taking it because he’s interested in its power for himself. He just wants his dad’s approval. (Although…why you would want movie-Denethor’s approval I’m not sure. I am far more upset about how the movie shortchanged Denethor’s character than Faramir’s…)
      But I still like book-Faramir way better. 😀 And I suppose he isn’t super morally complex, but I think he has a bit of a struggle with the same issues as his father. Like, Denethor gives in to despair, and Faramir, having a less brash personality than Denethor or Boromir, also does, but it’s less obvious? And to a lesser extent? He doesn’t let it drive him insane or to do bad things, but he still kind of loses hope, I think, and is saved by others – like Pippin, Gandalf, etc. There’s this enormous thematic undercurrent of GRACE running through so many of the characters’ journeys (including, very notably, Frodo’s), and I love that SO MUCH.

      FRODO IS AMAZING. ❤ ❤ Frodo haters don't know what they're talking about.

      Thank you so, so much for this comment, by the way. It made me very happy. LotR is the best, and so are flailing but thoughtful conversations thereon. XD (I could scream forever too. I know this reply was really long…and included some screaming…and hopefully it wasn't TOO confusing.)
      (Also. I'm so glad you liked the gifs. I had so much fun finding them all…but then I somehow got them all in the wrong format? [Technology: not my strong suit.] So then I had to hunt them ALL up again and get them in the right format. I think it was worth it, though. XD)


  6. Okay, so this is a fantastic post!!! Ah!!! Well done!!

    For all those who say that there isn’t moral complexity in LotR, um, do they completely forget about Boromir? He is my go to example because he wasn’t ever my favorite until I watched the movies. The Ring puts darkness into anyone who goes near it. Even Frodo, who tried so hard to not succumb , was a victim to it. They claim that the characters like Sam and Faramir are too “perfect” because they weren’t tempted (which they changed Faramir in the movie a little and I wasn’t that happy because he is fine how he is!) but they were. They just “ran away” from it (in a way) because they knew what it would kill them and that they weren’t strong enough, but therefore proving how strong they are. I

    XD Sorry, I don’t know how much sense is there, but I just wanted to say that I agree with you!!


    1. Oh my goodness thank you!!! I’m glad you liked it. 😀

      That’s what I wonder! XD Boromir is SO morally complex. His arc is just so cool. Exactly!!! NO ONE can resist the ring, no matter how ‘good’ they are. Wise characters like Sam and Faramir just did their best to put that temptation out of their heads and out of their grasp. I’m not happy with how they changed Faramir in the movie either; and it’s silly to say he wasn’t tempted in the book. He WAS tempted! He just didn’t give in. (It wouldn’t be a very morally complex story if EVERYONE gave in to temptation, any more than if NO ONE did, haha.) Yes, “therefore proving how strong they are,” I love that. Their humility about their own weakness proved their strength.

      There was a lot of sense in there lol, and I loved everything you said! Thank you so much for this comment, Movie Critic!


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