If you really read the fairy tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard’s wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth.
— G.K. Chesterton
I never get tired of talking about Tolkien. And occasionally I see something really great, which I really have to share. Behold, Alan Jacobs taking on a common, but misguided criticism of Tolkien.
It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.
Modern liberalism likes to think that all our problems are epistemological: we are afflicted by never knowing with sufficient clarity what we ought to do. Our fictions tend to reflect that assumption. Tolkien, not being a modern liberal, thought it more interesting to explore situations when people know what they need to know but may lack the strength of will to act on that knowledge. He might say, and with some justification, that contemporary literary fiction is not simplistic in regard to such problems but oblivious to them.
Forgive me, Alan, for quoting about half of your article. It was too good to omit anything.