J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental fantasy novels, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), have a great deal to teach about friendship. Many readers first encounter these works in adolescence, when our first encounters with friendship are forged—and, unfortunately, tested and maybe broken—by fallen humanity.
But even if we first came to Tolkien in adulthood, we can recognize the appeal of his stories to the notion of fellowship. The appeal lasts not only because the book presents shining images of stalwart friendships among its characters, but also because the book itself can be a friend in moments of friendlessness.
I’m not suggesting that the solace of a great book like The Lord of the Rings can ever replace the incarnate personhood of human beings that true friendship requires. But I think that the reason it seems like it can is that Tolkien gives us literary friendships that can seem more real than our “merely human” ones because of Tolkien’s Catholic conviction that there is a transcendent grace that lifts the “merely Hobbit” or “merely Elvish” friendships out of their mundane limitations.
Many Tolkien scholars have argued that Tolkien’s fantasy is successful because he can convince the reader that elves and rings of power and seeing-stones and wizards are real. But I think that the greatest literary magic of Tolkien is his ability—founded on his fervent belief—to convince the reader that friendships that cannot be broken by the fires of hell really exist.