It's not about the richness and depth of the world he created, where you would capture fleeting glimpses of a long lost past, more so than any other novel. The depth and richness is unmatched, but that's not the source of the greatness. It's the topic - and Tolkien's recounting of that topic - that is the source of its greatness.
Many 20th Century authors took on the theme of despair. Tolkien did, too, but always twinned with the key theme, temptation. Perhaps the greatest scene in Peter Jackson's The Fellowship Of The Ring was Frodo offering the ring to Galadriel (you'll have to follow the link to watch, because New Line Cinema seemingly doesn't understand New Media, and so embedding is disabled):
Frodo: I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.Temptation - the temptation of great power, to be used for great good. Galadriel sees where that future leads, and turns away, and passes the test. The Ring would be too much for her.
Galadriel: I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp. You will give me the Ring freely!
Galadriel (with the voice of the Ring): In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!
It is said that Tolkien was not a master of characterization, and it's true that many of his characters are stereotypes. Even Sam (my favorite) is really pretty two dimensional, acting as part prop, part Greek Chorus for the major action.
But Frodo and Gollum are two of the most memorable fictional characters of the 20th Century, as they play out a detailed passion play of Temptation. They are in essence mirror images of each other, the yin and the yang of Temptation - or more properly the Faust and anti-Faust. One has given in to Temptation, long ago, and been all but destroyed by it. The other fights the Temptation, in no small reason because of what he sees it has done to the other. It is a towering psychological and spiritual story of Despair, Temptation, and Salvation. Nothing else in the 20th Century approaches it.
Via Toaster 802, we find this same story playing out at Sipsey Street Irregulars:
CA falls into Denethor’s Trap. I do not blame him; I am prone to the same conclusions. Remembering that there is a higher purpose to History is the only thing that keeps me from despair. We do what we ought; we do what we must, regardless -- the end-game of history is written despite our efforts. Even if the glory that was the West goes down to utter ruin (as part of Almighty God’s master plan for the end times), we cannot, if we are to be true to our God and to our duty, true to America’s promise of ordered liberty and to our free heritage, do anything less. Yet in being true to our principled heritage we cannot fall into the tactics or adopt the unprincipled stance of our opponents.People look around at our country, and despair for its future. They look at the Threeper manefestos, and the voice of the Ring whispers in their hearts. Their despair makes the temptation sharper.
I am concerned that CA, and others sharing his frustration, are advocating that direct actions be taken by Team Restoration – before the necessary breaches of the peace can legitimatize such actions … Yet see my response to his “We’re losing, Mike” comment in the post below. We have never been closer to awakening that remnant of actual Americans; we are still not past Ms. Wolf’s “awkward time.”
I'm pretty late to the gun party - I didn't really start shooting until 4 years ago, and I've not even been blogging for three. I'm new, so I'm not sure how much my voice counts. But here's the important part: in the midst of despair, the dawn is breaking. We're winning.
A majority of states have "shall issue" laws. Several are legalizing Open Carry. The idiotic Assault Weapon Ban expired and is dead as a doornail. Heller stopped the worst of the bans, and McDonnald made it the law of all 50 states. Gun ownership is way up, CCW licensing is way up, and even the shooting of a Congresswoman isn't enough to jump start the moribund gun control movement. The Brady Crew seem to be in permanent Sad Panda mode.
In the broader world, the Progressive Agenda has peaked, and is receding. The Tea Parties have upset the existing too-comfortable elites from both parties, Government Technocrat legitimacy is at an all time low (world wide, not just here), and the question is not whether power will devolve from the center, but how much and how fast.
Sure, none of these battles are won, but we're winning. Listen with the ears of history, and you will hear the creaking and cracking of the entire statist edifice.
But how do you stop all this? How to you entrench the Elites and put an immediate and irreversible end to all this progress? Form Threeper cells and start shooting:
To beat the swine we are up against, we are going to have to be worse than them. Attila the Hun would have laughed at, and then trampled, the Queensbury Rules. We're going to need ruthless killers, not dreamers and moral men.You cannot use this Ring. It will destroy you - as the public recoils in horror from your ruthless killers - or you and your gangs will succeed. That will be even worse - the anarchy that follows the collapse of the governments and the emergence of a truly ruthless Attila-like strongman will be the end of much of the population.
No thanks. Maybe it's because I'm a Johnny Come Lately, but I will not walk that road with you. It doesn't lead to salvation and redemption, but to the abyss.
Frodo: He deserves death.In Tolkien's story, Frodo does not come through unscathed. He loses much that is precious to him, as we can expect to lose much that we would keep. Life is change, some for the better and some for the worse. But Frodo's great victory was that he kept his soul. Surrounded by despair, we must not lose ours.
Gandalf: Deserves it! I daresay he does. 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 judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.
UPDATE 24 February 2011 17:54: Some insightful thinking on this subject, that's worth your while.