Thursday, January 3, 2013

Character and Choice in The Two Towers

Slow reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings can expose surprising nuances in the text. One of the criticisms of Tolkien I've come across is that his characters are uninteresting, flat, reflexively good or heroic, yet their heroism lacks depth because ultimately it is easy, all achievement and no sacrifice.

Yet in the first chapter of The Two Towers we see Aragorn at his lowest: confused, grieving, doubting himself and all his actions. He has no clear path, and rather than confidence and assertion he is trapped in uncertainty. The choice (pursue Frodo and the Ring, or rescue Merry and Pippin) is by no means clear, for the one requires the sacrifice of innocents, the other a terrific risk to the world. In truth, Tolkien has derailed the quest narrative precisely to bring his characters to this point of testing.

One of the odd pieces of received wisdom of modernism in literature is that 'good' characters are inherently dull, whereas 'flawed' characters are automatically interesting. But making the right moral choice is often a complex problem for the good character but irrelevant to the selfish. The interesting choices, then, confront the good and not the bad, and reveal depth in these characters.

Tolkien does not show us Aragorn's bravery or skill in combat in this chapter, but rather his compassion and forbearance for Boromir (the failed hero, lost on the quest). This is what restores Aragorn's sense of direction and sets him on the uncertain path to his inheritance.