Drawing from a background in comparative literature and mythology, Petty studies Tolkien's major works: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, along with short stories, academic essays, and letters to put his legendarium into perspective. Along the way, she offers insights into the major themes of Tolkien's literature writing in a style that is both readable and memorable. She also delivers recommendations for further reading in Tolkien. As we start our search for meaning in the Tolkien's land of heroes, we are transported to an imaginary world, created by Tolkien as "an epic mythology for England" to replace the myths lost by Norman invasion.
Out of our darkest nightmares, they come: monsters both terrible and evil. Tolkien's world includes the most horrid and deadly of beasts with dragons like Smaug, orcs, specters, the dwimmerlasik, and spiders like Ungoliant. Drawing from Tolkien's essay on "Beowulf," Petty explains that monsters are "the means by which the poem... achieves greatness of tone and spirit." The hero must be tried and tested through the darkest of horrors, so that we can gain a true understanding of the character's courage and strength.
With his mindset tinged with shadows from war-time experiences, Tolkien fills his stories with examples of monsters who push the characters to what they think is their breaking points, and then each one of them finds some way to persevere against all odds. All of these examples show how monsters "push the story beyond mere sword and sorcery adventures and into the realm of myth."
A Never-ending Search for Light
"One of the chief weapons of evil is despair," as Petty explains, so it's easy to see why Tolkien drives his characters to despair, with hope "a tenuous commodity."
Petty calls this book "an essay on the resilience of the human spirit." We have an amazing ability to carry on, despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles in what Galadrial called "the long defeat." Even when evil threatens to overwhelm the heroes with monsters, terror and ultimate defeat, the heroes fight on, "hoping only to meet death with honor."
In the end, hope offers them much more than an honorable defeat. While some die, and some are left in terrible agony, our surviving heroes are left with the realization that they have fought a good fight, and they leave the reader with something more important than that.
As Petty explains, "Lurking behind tragedy is a reaffirmation that order can be reestablished and a hope that tomorrow the world will be better." Beyond a readable, insightful addition to Tolkien scholarship, Petty's book offers reasons why Tolkien's works have remained so popular after all of these years. His heroes find hope, even as the world is falling apart around them.
Of the vanished past, Petty says, "We want to experience in our own lives the Undying Lands or the remnant of them that can still be accessed through fantasy."