J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been capturing people’s attentions for generations. Some are attracted by the grand, sweeping story, others by the descriptions of Middle-earth, and still others by the vast assortment of characters. But what everyone seems to see in LOTR is that there is a realness to it; something about the book feels right and true, a quality that most other fictional stories lack. With most fantasy books, it is as though one is looking at a painting – with The Lord of the Rings, it is as though one is looking through a window, or perhaps Galadriel’s Mirror.
There are several explanations for this phenomenon: Middle-earth is supposed to be an alternate version of our own world, Tolkien paid great attention to detail and researched his work well, or he was simply an excellent writer. All of these are true of course, but there is another dimension as well, one that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece.
Plato was a Greek philosopher who was a student to Socrates and a teacher to Aristotle. As you might know, Plato was rather famous for saying some pretty smart philosophical things. One of his greatest philosophical ideas was simply called Plato’s Divided Line. Now to explain fully the entire Divided Line would take far more room and brain power than necessary, so for the purposes of this article I will only explain the concept of Platonic Ideas. Imagine a tree or a dog. There are a plethora of different varieties of trees and dogs, and yet all of them fit into one category of Treeness or Dogness. And yet Treeness does not have a brown trunk and green leaves, because there are hundreds of trees that don’t fit those criteria. Likewise, Dogness doesn’t have four legs, a tail, and fur because there are many dogs that don’t have all of those components. Indeed, if that is all it takes to be Dog, then how does one distinguish from Cat? But in spite of all this, we see any tree or any dog and immediately identify them with some idea of Treeness or Dogness. On Plato’s line, material objects are separated by a horizontal line from the Ideas of objects, and the material is merely some sort of copy of the eternal, immaterial Idea. We are subconsciously aware of all sorts of Platonic Ideas even though we only see the physical copies of them in our everyday lives.
Now this might seem a little complicated and rather off topic, but let me apply it now to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s work is so potent because everything in his books is a copy of some Platonic Idea. The character of Aragorn, for example, is undeniably kingly. Something about Aragorn stirs a desire to bow our knees to him, and he commands our respect in a way that is different from any other character. Aragorn somehow has all the qualities of the Platonic Idea of Kingness. Another example would be Hobbits. Hobbits don’t exist in reality – it is a simple fact. And yet, when we read about Hobbits it is as though we are learning about something that we always knew was there but had forgotten about. There always was a space in our minds that was missing Hobbits, though we didn’t know what Hobbits were – but when we discover them, they seem like a perfectly natural thing along with oceans, green, clothing and music.
Elves are another interesting example. Prior to The Lord of the Rings, Elves were considered to be Santa’s helpers: tiny, jolly creatures with cheeky grins, bell-tipped shoes, and striped stockings. Tolkien’s Elves are tall, regal, beautiful, and powerful, nearly exact opposites of the accepted conventions. And yet, something about Tolkien’s Elves seems right and true. Why do the Elves of the North Pole suddenly seem so plastic and contrived once we discover the Elves of Middle-earth? Perhaps it is because we all have some Platonic Idea of what Elfness, or as Tolkien would have it, Elvishness, should be. Tolkien’s Elves fit such an Idea so perfectly we wonder how we ever could have thought otherwise, and Santa’s Elves fall sadly short. But even though Tolkien’s Elves fit the Idea of Elvishness so well, even they, like dogs and trees, are not by any means cookie-cutter copies of each other. The Elves of Mirkwood differ from the Elves of Lórien, the High-Elves differ from the Sylvan Elves, Elrond differs from Galadriel. (Somehow, Peter Jackson failed to capture such Elvishness in his Hobbit movies with the additions of Tauriel and Legolas, although he succeeds quite well in The Lord of the Rings for the most part.) Samwise struggles with this Platonic Idea when he attempts to explain his impression of the Elves to Frodo:
“…I reckon there’s Elves and Elves. They’re all Elvish enough but they’re not all the same… they seem to belong here, more even than Hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say, if you take my meaning… If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.”
“You can see and feel it everywhere,” said Frodo.
“Well,” said Sam, “you can’t see nobody working it.”
This is the ultimate trick to Platonic Ideas: they are tangible, they resonate deep inside us, and yet we can’t quite lay our hands on them. We know they are there, but they are too deep to fully understand.
Peter Kreeft in his book The Philosophy of Tolkien uses the example of the four forests mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, Mirkwood, The Old Forest, Lothlorien, and Fangorn, and comments on how one could not possibly be mistaken for any of the others:
“When we read The Lord of the Rings, why do these forests seem “real” or “true”? Why do we believe them? Not because they are like the forests we have walked through in this world, but because the forests we have walked through in this world were a little like them. Tolkien’s forests do not remind us of ours; ours remind us of his.”
Kreeft points out that C.S. Lewis uses Platonic Ideas in his Chronicles of Narnia as well. Once again, where most fantasy books are like looking at a picture, in Lewis’ books that picture comes to life and fills the room, exactly like what happened to Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace in the very beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In Narnia, the children from Our World have the very same experiences in the story that the readers have mentally while reading. Somehow, Narnia seems potentially accessible to us as well, if only we could find the right wardrobe or doorway to reach it. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes the sound of Boromir’s horn so potently that the reader hears it with their heart, if not their ears:
“Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.”
This is not the flat, ferry-horn blast that we hear in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the books, but a vivid, striking, powerful call that pierces our hearts. Lewis does the same with Susan’s horn in Narnia, except that he makes the horn so powerful it literally tugs the Pevensie children into another realm, once again placing Narnia in a place in our minds that seems almost accessible. Somehow, we know in our hearts how such a horn would sound – and if ever we heard it, we too could enter that realm.
Why are Narnia and Middle-earth so real? Why do their characters, stories, and sounds have an innate realness to them somehow? Well perhaps, in some way or another, they are real: they are shadows and copies of some sort of truer Narnia and Middle-earth. Lewis himself explains the idea through the words of the old Professor Kirk (a character who is coincidentally based on Tolkien himself), when he is explaining Narnia at the end of The Last Battle:
“All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia… and of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream… It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
***this article was strongly inspired by The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft, specifically the chapter concerning metaphysics***
 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien, HarperCollins 2002, pg. 363
 The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press 2005, pg. 45
 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, HarperCollins 2002, pg. 415
 The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis, Harper Trophy 1985, pg. 195