It isn’t easy being a man today. In fact, it’s probably harder now than it ever has been. Back in the old days, society worked hard to develop its men. We set out a clear vision of manhood and taught our boys how to live up to those ideals. We honored manly role models. When men fell short of the standard—as they often did—society tended to rebuke them. Producing men with a brave and beneficent masculinity was an important cultural goal.
But now we push our men down. Confuse them. Refuse them. Verbally abuse them. And so we’re going to lose them. What is going on?
One of the worst ideas that has emerged in our culture today is “toxic masculinity.” It doesn’t matter where this notion came from. The point is, it’s everywhere. If you haven’t heard the term, you’ve at least heard the concept: that traditional manhood is poisonous. When men exercise any kind of leadership, or use their strength to shape our culture in a powerful way, they are—so say the critics—a toxic fog upon our society.
That isn’t true. Don’t let anybody tell you it is.
The world needs good men. Why? Because there are bad men too. Lots of them. And only good, brave men, can stop the tyrants from spreading their funk all over our society. This is something many great leaders have understood. But no one has brought it out in story form better than J. R. R. Tolkien.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) is a man I’ve long admired. I remember my first boyhood encounter with his world. My initial exposure to Tolkien wasn’t through his writings. It was more concrete. I had just moved to Oxford with my parents in the summer of 1981. As I wandered down the lane from the house where my family was staying, I noticed a plaque above a neighbor’s door. It was at 76 Sandfield Road. The plaque said, “J. R. R. Tolkien Lived Here 1953–1968.” There was also a picture of a dragon, a compass, and a hill with a hole in it. Quite fascinating to my 11-year-old mind, but I didn’t think much more about it.
It wasn’t until I had come home with a new book from Blackwell’s Bookstore on the Broad Street—the very bookstore that had published Tolkien’s first poem in 1915—that my love for all things Middle-earth was awakened. I read The Hobbit in a day. It was quickly followed by the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve been enamored with the story ever since.
Tolkien himself was the quintessential Oxford don. We picture him with a tweed jacket, a pipe in his hand, and a stack of dusty Anglo-Saxon manuscripts on his desk. Yet this doesn’t mean he wasn’t “manly.” Quite the contrary: it’s very masculine to be wise and scholarly, as we shall soon see.
Yet the young Tolkien embodied other ideals of masculinity as well. According to his online biography from The Tolkien Society, he heeded the patriotic call and joined the Lancashire Fusiliers to fight the Germans in World War I. The new recruit arrived in France just in time for the Somme Offensive, a brutal example of the horrors of trench warfare, and one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
After several months of combat in the trenches, Tolkien contracted a deadly fever and was sent back to Britain, where he recuperated and finished out his wartime service. All but one of his schoolboy friends, with whom he had once formed a literary club, were killed in combat. Now married to his childhood sweetheart, Edith, he began to raise a family. The manly exploits and romantic interests of the young Tolkien have been made into a 2019 motion picture. He was a guy you probably would have liked.
Tolkien’s literary depiction of manhood took many forms. Drawing from his LotR characters, I will now propose six distinct models of masculinity. These aren’t traits that only men can have; women often exemplify them too. But in his stories, Tolkien masterfully describes how these virtues are lived out in a masculine context. All six models depict traits that good men should have. If you are a man, your question is not, “Which one am I?” but “Which one do I need to be right now?”
Model 1: Gandalf, the Sage
One of the rarest and most valuable virtues to be achieved by a man is wisdom. A sage is someone whose words provide insights that most people don’t have. They offer a new way of thinking, often through a pithy statement that grabs you, makes you ponder, and improves your moral life. Such wisdom is born from deep familiarity with lore: the books and writings that contain a culture’s history and accumulated experience. Consider these sagacious sayings from Gandalf:
- When Frodo is burdened by the weight of the One Ring and bitterly says, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
- When the dear friends of the Fellowship are parting forever, Gandalf remarks, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” He understands that grief is a real part of living in a broken world. Even strong men can weep.
- When Frodo longs for the punishment of twisted Gollum, Gandalf rebukes him: “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 judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Wisdom, of course, doesn’t only have to be the mark of old men with long, white beards. Young men can be wise too. But they will have to study lore and accumulate knowledge. They also have to observe life and gain experience. Only then can the sage’s words make magic in the world.
Model 2: Aragorn, the Warrior
Probably the most popular of Tolkien’s LOTR characters is Aragorn. He is a hero of royal ancestry whose restoration to the throne is chronicled in The Return of the King. Aragorn is proficient with a bow and a blade; he makes fires; he hunts game; he leads men and elves and dwarves into battle. After many great sacrifices, Strider the Ranger (his incognito identity) assumes his rightful place as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the king of Gondor. Tolkien writes, “On the throne sat a mail-clad man, a great sword was laid across his knees, but he wore no helm. As [Frodo and Sam] drew near he rose. And then they knew him, changed as he was, so high and glad of face, kingly, lord of Men, dark-haired with eyes of grey.” Truly Aragorn was a warrior-king, a man worthy of the days of yore.
Yet this powerful king was a self-controlled man. He didn’t rush into unjust wars. Aragorn had no chip on his shoulder, no desire to fight simply for the sake of dominance, ego, or the thrill of battle. So humble was this king that at the moment of his coronation, when everyone was honoring his prowess in battle, he bowed before two lowly hobbits and set them on his throne with the cry, “Praise them with great praise!” At all times, Aragorn’s awesome power was under his command. He unleashed it against evil. But until it was needed, he reined it in and preserved it for the day of battle.
Aragorn the warrior was also a provider. He cared for the weak. When the Hobbits were assailed on Weathertop by the Black Riders, it was Aragorn who defended them against those hideous wraiths with a burning torch. Even so, Frodo was stabbed by a poisoned blade. Aragorn the Warrior knew battlefield medicine and found a healing plant to help his friend. The tender warrior always uses his strength, not for pride or selfish gain, but to defend the weak and innocent.
Model 3: Frodo, the Self-Giver
Frodo is often interpreted as the primary Christ-figure in LOTR. He chose to bear a burden that wasn’t his own, one that took a terrible toll and demanded an infinite price. Even so, Frodo walked willingly into the enemy’s lair. He carried on his body an evil curse that he didn’t deserve so he could eliminate it and save the world. This fearsome road Frodo walked to the end, even to the point of death.
When the One Ring was finally cast into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom, the strength of Frodo was spent. He and Sam collapsed side-by-side on an “ashen hill” surrounded by torrents of lava, soon to engulf them. It was from high above, amid the swirling smoke and ash, that Gwaihir the Eagle spotted them. To his sharp eyes, they were only “two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand on a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near. And even as he espied them and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death.”
In that moment, Frodo had come to “the end of all things.” He had proved his willingness to give himself totally for a cause that required the ultimate sacrifice. He had relinquished everything he held dear, everything he left behind in his beloved Shire. And he did so freely, by the courageous choice of his will. “I will take the Ring,” he had declared to the Council of Elrond in his small voice, “though I do not know the way.” And then he gave his all. Just like a man should do.
Model 4: Legolas, the Beauty-Maker
Legolas the Elf was one of the strangest of his race. He made a lifelong friendship with Gimli, a dwarf whose people were deeply repugnant to elves. This reflects Legolas’s ability to see beyond superficial categories or stereotypes. He pursued peace, even when finding it was difficult, knowing that peace between enemies is a beautiful thing.
Legolas was a poet and singer. When the Fellowship came to the mystical forest of Lothlórien, it was Legolas who told them forgotten tales “of sunlight and starlight upon the meadows by the Great River before the world was grey.” And then, while everyone rested by the river after much travail, Legolas sang to his friends. Accompanied by the “music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows,” the noble elf began to sing “in a soft voice hardly to be heard amid the rustle of the leaves above them”:
An Elven-maid there was of old, A shining star by day: Her mantle white was hemmed with gold, Her shoes of silver-grey.
This ancient hymn soothed the Fellowship, bringing peace to their weary hearts.
The attentive eye of Legolas often saw beauty when others missed it, especially in the realm of nature. Legolas was a great lover of the natural world, and he introduced his friends to its charms. When he first saw Fangorn Forest, he rejoiced; when he gazed at the stars, he marveled at their grace; when he contemplated the Sea, he sang of its distant shores. Legolas was not one to stay closed inside a cottage. His intrepid masculinity made him entirely at home in the rugged and refreshing outdoors.
Legolas also appreciated the beauty of good craftsmanship. His gear was well made, and his clothing was attractive and sharp. He paid attention to his appearance, not because he was proud, but because he respected himself. He also honed his skills as an archer so he could carry out his duties with proficiency. His diligent practice with his bow paid dividends when one of the wicked Nazgûl attacked the Fellowship. Legolas’s well-aimed shot turned the Fell Beast away. “Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string . . . The sky was clean again.” Wherever he went, Legolas created beauty and spread goodness. Everyone around him benefited from his art.
Model 5: Gimli, the Energizer
The dwarven race in Tolkien’s world was known for its busy activity. They were constantly digging and building and creating. Tolkien himself had a complex relationship with the world of industry, especially as turn-of-the century England became more industrialized. Felled trees and smoky chimneys are depicted as nefarious emblems in the hands of Saruman at Isengard, or later in his “Sharkey” persona during the Scouring of the Shire. Sometimes, Tolkien literarily rebukes the dwarves for “delving too deeply” and awakening demons, as happened with Durin’s Bane, the fiery Balrog whom Gandalf battled to the death.
Yet in Gimli the Dwarf, we discover Tolkien’s appreciation for industrious work. The dwarves were diggers who created great underground kingdoms and forged many beautiful implements of metal and gems. They also created architectural marvels in stone and masonry. Gimli represents the positive side of productive labor, and the wise use of natural resources. Masculine strength is a powerful force for shaping the world.
The manly trait of endurance is exemplified by Gimli. When tasks become difficult, he perseveres nonetheless. He has a kind of stubborn willingness to keep going even when the workload is too much for others. When the Fellowship—including the frail and short-legged hobbits—have to leave their easy river travel for an overland slog, Boromir shows his apprehension by saying, “That would not be easy, even if we were all Men.” To this, Gimli replies, “The legs of Men will lag on a rough road, while a Dwarf goes on, be the burden twice his own weight, Master Boromir!” Gimli is always ready for the task ahead, and he calls his friends forward with his contagious brand of fortitude and mettle.
Yet Gimli doesn’t just endure his work with a grim determination; he attacks each challenge with zest and enthusiasm. Even his slaying of orcs becomes a warrior’s game with Legolas. And after the work is done, Gimli energizes the times of celebration. Admittedly, the Peter Jackson LotR films depicted Gimli as much more of a partyer than Tolkien did. Who can forget Gimli’s beer-chugging drinking game with Legolas in the movie version of Return of the King? Or his anticipation of Moria’s “Roaring fires! Malt beer! Red meat off the bone!”?
In the actual books, however, Gimli was more sober. Even so, the dwarves were certainly creatures of mirth. The opening sequence of The Hobbit, when Thorin Oakenshield’s party arrives at Bilbo’s house and empties his over-stocked larder, is one of the greatest feasting scenes in all literature. Real men know how to tackle their jobs with all they’ve got; and when the labor is done, they know how to celebrate with gusto, too.
Model 6: Sam, the Friend
In Samwise Gamgee, we discover one of the highest of masculine traits: loyalty to one’s comrades in the journey of life. Real men form profound and lasting friendships. They can love other men deeply, without any strange sexual overtones. One of the classic instances of such love comes from a story that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, would have been familiar with. King David is said to have loved his friend Jonathan so much that when Jonathan died, David exclaimed that their brotherly affection was more wonderful than the love of a woman (2 Sam. 1:26).
Sam commits himself to Frodo like a true friend should do. When the Fellowship breaks up and is scattered, only Sam follows the Ring-Bearer as he tries to sail away. Undaunted, he casts his lot forever with his master. This powerful scene could be interpreted as a symbol of baptism:
“Coming, Mr. Frodo! Coming!” called Sam, and flung himself from the bank, clutching at the departing boat. He missed it by a yard. With a cry and a splash he fell face downward into deep swift water. Gurgling he went under, and the River closed over his curly head.
It’s only when Frodo reaches down and retrieves Sam that he comes up from the deep, “bubbling and struggling,” yet forever changed. Safely in the boat, Sam pledges eternal allegiance to Frodo, his master and friend. The two of them will walk together into the shadows and fires of Mordor.
Sam’s loyalty to Frodo is put to the ultimate test when they finally reach that terrible land. Betrayed by the treacherous Gollum, they’re led into the lair of the fearsome spider, Shelob the Great. Although she stings Frodo and wraps him in her webs, Sam comes to his master’s aid. Snatching up the sword called Sting, he stabs the bloated spider and drives her away. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it,” he declares as he holds the slime-drenched blade. “Come on, and taste it again!” Sam’s loyalty to Frodo empowers his courageous deed.
Yet Sam’s deepest act of loyalty comes when Frodo can no longer carry the weight of the Ring up the flanks of Mount Doom. Frodo falls to his knees and tries to crawl, but cannot. His strength his gone. Tolkien writes the scene with great vividness and emotion:
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. “I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,” he muttered, “and I will!”
“Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.”
And then, hoisting his spent comrade upon his shoulders, Samwise Gamgee begins the final trudge into the fires of doom. The scene is a metaphor for life. Who has not faced terrible trials alone and afraid? And who has not felt the strengthening aid of a companion at his side? When a man comes alongside another in friendship, even life’s greatest burdens become bearable.
Call to Men
Through these time-honored characters, we get a rich picture of true manhood. Tolkien depicted excellent models of masculinity in his books. A true man is mature and skillful in at least these six ways: intellectually, physically, emotionally, artistically, occupationally, and relationally. Again, the question that lies before us is, “Which of these do I need to be right now?”
There is a great scene in The Two Towers when the hobbits Merry and Pippin are given an Ent-draught by Treebeard. The Ent-draught is a drink of magical river water with a taste like earthy roots and a cool night breeze. Just a few sips of this drink adds three inches of height to the friends’ small stature, turning them into the tallest Hobbits who have ever lived.
Real manhood is like this. It isn’t toxic, but intoxicating: a refreshing drink that exhilarates everyone who encounters it. Masculinity is no poison, but a potent elixir that makes itty-bitty Hobbits grow tall and mighty. Don’t you want a drink like that?