Imagine a man whose greatest passions in life are reading poetry, writing stories about elves, acting in plays and inventing fictional languages. This man weeps at the choices of his own fictional characters, recites whole passages of ancient poetry from memory, dresses up as medieval warriors, mourns the perceived needless felling of trees, and writes letters from Father Christmas for his children.
Who would automatically associate this man with classic images of virile, chivalrous and inspiring masculinity?
What if to this description you also added that this man was a veteran of the First World War, where he encountered death at an immediacy which no one should ever have to face, where he saw his fellow soldiers horrifically destroyed before his eyes and was forced to eat and sleep surrounded by rotting corpses in fetid trenches, where he knew that at any moment his life could end and he would never see his beloved wife again. Imagine also this man riding his bicycle during the Blitz during World War Two, giving out warning signals for the next Nazi air raid. This man stood up to the anti-Catholic prejudice of his English homeland, never shying away from proclaiming his Faith in lectures at Oxford University whose own dons made discriminatory remarks against Catholics with no regard for himself. This man remained ardently faithful to his wife until death, taught his children to live virtuously and faithfully, hiked the Swiss Alps, escorted immigrant children through France, communicated in German with captured Nazi officers, smoked a pipe, drank beer, and shared tales of heroism and adventure with his friends.
This man was J.R.R. Tolkien, known by most only for his popular stories set in Middle-earth, yet his life of friendships, self-sacrifice, adventure, holiness and intellectual accomplishments is known by few.
If the only description of Tolkien one knew consisted of those added in the third paragraph of this article, many would indeed consider him to be ideally masculine. But what if the details of the first paragraph are added to it? These disparate qualities bring to light an issue of masculinity which has led many to denigrate men with the false notion of ‘toxic masculinity,’ and thus for many men to be ashamed of their masculine natures while women are equally coerced by feminism to (poorly) imitate masculinity themselves, often according to mistaken notions of it that they have been told.
True masculinity, authentic and worthwhile masculinity in accordance with the God-given nature of real men, can take two forms, one good and one corrupted: civilized masculinity, and barbaric masculinity.
Civilization and barbarism have become neglected terms in modern times, when any criticism of behavior or distinctions between persons or groups is considered provocative and offensive, but for the correct roles of human beings in society to be properly understood, particularly for men whose masculinity has become one of the factors most often labeled as responsible for wars and crime, these concepts must be recovered. To be applicable for the pivotal mission of restoring and purifying masculinity today, we must understand what it means to be civilized or barbaric and how these are expressed in the modern world.
Human nature is distinguished from that of other animals by our intellect. Unlike irrational animals, whose actions are driven involuntarily and without resistance to their bodily passions, humans are capable of understanding the true, the good and the beautiful, to judge our actions based on them and then discipline ourselves to live up to these transcendent values. In this way, we do not, contrary to modern popular opinion, adopt artificial behaviors forced onto us by social norms; rather, we become more authentically human, with our highest faculty - the intellect - ordering our animal passions toward the good and thereby granting us true freedom.
Civilization and being civilized are based on this understanding of human virtue. Since the time of the Platonic philosophers, the purpose of society, of the polis, has been the promotion of virtue. The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness acclaimed by the American Founding Fathers were understood within the framework of the promotion of virtue as the foundation of a civilized society. Without this understanding, human society cannot be what it is meant to be and will fall into barbarism.
When a society loses the ordering influence of the intellect, orienting culture and each human person toward the true, good and beautiful via the life of virtue, that society loses its orderly and rational character. Barbarism occurs whenever a society has become determined by the animal passions to which its people are enslaved; like animals, they shun the difficulty and self-sacrifice required for virtue and civilization and instead become so habituated by fear, hedonistic pleasure-seeking and desperate competition that their wills become atrophied and servile. Society thus decays into violence and self-indulgent destructiveness, led like sheep by the elite who use their corrupted intellects as instruments of tyranny over those who lack the will or wisdom to fight back.
This is the environment inhabited by modern men, which they have both inherited and caused themselves. To regain what has been lost, it is essential for men today to recapture not only masculinity itself, without which society becomes not more feminine but more androgenous, confused and immature, but a civilized masculinity, free from the chains of barbarism which debase the good gifts of gender and of the human person.
How can this goal be achieved? What tactics can be employed to rescue masculinity from the darkness of barbarism and sterile effeminacy into which it has been connived? To help answer these questions, it can be useful to recall two examples of men from literature, one a paragon of civilized masculinity, and the other a pariah of barbaric masculinity. Following the exemplary model of J.R.R Tolkien given earlier, these literary illustrations can be taken from his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings.
While his great epic, a tale of heroism, sacramental transcendence, simple joys of friendship and home, and poignant insights into the very heart of evil can yield many examples of both types of masculinity, arguably the most civilized man depicted is Aragorn. An orphan, like many of Tolkien’s great heroes, Aragorn is raised within the enchanted atmosphere of the elves. Under the tutelage of Elrond, elven-king and possibly the greatest scholar in the history of Middle-earth, Aragorn is taught the true, the good and the beautiful. He learns of the history of Middle-earth, the traditions of his own ancestry through the relics preserved by Elrond himself, and his destiny as the prophesied restorer of the royal house of Men.
He absorbs the immortal wealth of knowledge and art whose marriage characterizes the nature of elves, once symbolized by the Two Trees of Valinor in ancient days. From the elves, to whom knowledge is gleaned immediately and art realized more effortlessly than for men, Aragorn gains true wisdom - the understanding of truth and its application in the moral life of virtue - while also discovering the riches of poetry and song which open the door to the connatural intuition of beauty, lifting his spirit above the brutality and evil which he will face in the journey of his life.
Alongside this humanistic upbringing, Aragorn also explores the world, self-sufficiently subsisting in its wildernesses, encountering its diverse environments, adversaries and free peoples, and during these exploratory meanderings he becomes further trained in virtue by lending his services as a warrior, helping to defend the lands of Rohan and Gondor which will one day be under his royal protection, as well as the regions of the north whose ancient loyalty to his ancestral kingdom of Arnor has long been forgotten - except by the hobbits, whose idyllic Shire becomes of special interest to him and the remnants of the men of Arnor, known as the Rangers of the North, of whom he is their chieftain. Acting as guerilla sentinels and knights-errant, fighting off unseen evils in the wilderness unbeknownst to the hobbits and their human neighbors, these valiant men serve to protect an oasis of simple peace and natural goodness for which all who struggle against evil hope to one day enjoy themselves.
When the time comes, Aragorn begins his fated journey not only for the sake of Middle-earth, but also inspired by the love of Arwen, the elven daughter of Elrond, whom Aragorn has loved since his youth. Like a chivalrous medieval knight, Aragorn loves Arwen not for what she can give to him, but for the transcendent beauty and virtue which she upholds and inspires him to pursue, as well as to the new life which will one day personify the love they share for one another. Unlike the pornographic debauchery of self-indulgence and dehumanized debasement of modern ‘romances,’ the romance of Aragorn and Arwen is one of true, authentic love within the complementarity of man and woman, each giving of themselves fully to the other according to their unique sexual and personal gifts. Aragorn refuses to wed her, much less indulge any bodily urges, until he has completed his quest and become worthy of her; not until he has accomplished his destiny and become a true, authentic man of virtue and honour does he finally fulfill his deepest longing.
What does this brief sketch of Aragorn’s life show us? Even without any familiarity with Tolkien’s work (something that should be remedied as soon as possible!), Aragorn is a powerful and shining example of true civilized masculinity. He is not merely a warrior, a man of strength, power and determination - yet he is these things as well. Similarly, he is not merely a poet, a man of compassion, artistry, wisdom and romance - yet he is these things as well. These two sides of his character, the spirit of the warrior and the spirit of the poet, are fused as the civilized, chivalrous warrior-poet, the king who, like Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and St. Louis IX in history, was truly worthy of his authority. Following his example, we men should strive to neglect neither side of our masculinity, the warrior or the poet. To neglect either is to become barbaric, whether the savage brute or the effete degenerate.
Opposing this image of civilized masculinity in Aragorn is not one particular character, but rather the spirit of the orc, what Tolkien called “orkishness.” While many characters in The Lord of the Rings could be said to represent both the effete degenerate, such as Gríma Wormtongue or even Denethor, Tolkien portrays few individual villains who are truly savage brutes, since even the Witch-King and Saruman are both learned and scheming figures. However, the orcs are savage brutes par excellence.
Like those throughout history who have despised the monuments of order, reason and virtue in society and have sought to tear them down or corrupt them with vile defacements, the orcs of Middle-earth did not wish to build up a rival civilization or to accomplish some perceived higher end using evil means. Rather, they were bestial slaves to their passions, interested only in domination, corruption, and placating the wills of their masters of whom they lived in terror and yet groveled at their feet for cast-off scraps of favor within the hierarchy of evil. Corrupting the grand halls of the dwarves of Khazad-dûm; defiling the holy ground of Lothlórien with their wanton destruction and murder; ripping down the venerable forest of Fangorn to fuel the hellish furnaces of Saruman’s war machine; mocking Aragorn’s attempts to convert the deceived Dunlendings at Helm’s Deep; and defacing the decapitated head of a statue from an ancient king of Gondor in Ithilien: all of these acts are representative of what could be called the barbaric masculinity of the savage brute. They are indeed strong, in a physical sense; they are dominant, ruthless and insensitive to concerns other than their own. And yet, their wills are corrupted, weakened and servile. What appears as strength is in fact desperation.
This observation leads into the other aspect of the orcs’ barbaric masculinity, namely, effete degeneracy. It could be difficult to image both brutality and effeminacy existing simultaneously, but in orcs they evidently do. While they are brutal, warlike and destructive, they are equally craven, totally devoid of courage and fortitude, averse even to sunlight, water and anything that is natural or holy, like the blessed visages and artefacts of the elves. Like the Nazgûl, who are themselves orkish, the orcs have no self and are thus abominable, reduced from what is natural to a lack of being, grasping in the dark for whatever may give some temporary satisfaction for their subjugated desires. Driven by fear and desperation, they lack the courage to become vulnerable, to reach out for what is transcendent in the true, the good and the beautiful, and instead only ruin things that are made by others or clutch onto what is beneath their dignity as created beings. Indeed, in Tolkien’s later writings, he described orcs not as corrupted elves, as in his earlier notes, but as mere beasts possessed by Sauron, his mouthpieces without any independence of their own; the application of this to humanity, by their own free will, can be seen by the Nazgûl, who are undead and yet unliving, walking shadows without any will other than that to which they have submitted themselves and which can never bring true freedom or happiness.
As Tolkien intended, this spirit of orkishness is widely observable in the primary world. While Aragorn is an ideal exceeding what even the most heroically virtuous men are likely to achieve in this life, yet a role model to whom we should look as we strive to improve and grow, the orc is a taint on our nature, caused first by original sin and compounded by our own daily choices. Whenever we succumb to our passions, giving no consideration of right or wrong and allowing our reason to be swayed by baser urges, popular fashions or diabolic temptations, we become more and more orkish. Treating others with indignity, acting dishonorably as children of God made in His image, insulting women, taking advantage of the weak, or promoting that which is corrupt in enmity to God and the heritage of tradition handed down to us, we become savage brutes. Likewise, when we shirk our duties, failing to give what is justly due to God, country, family and honour, to defend the weak or fight for justice against evil, sacrificing our own security and comfort for the good of others according to the will of God; or when we fail, through laziness, acedia, despair or hedonism, to not only defend what is good but to actively build it up, risking the scorn of others while promoting truth and beauty through the arts and humanities, we become effeminate degenerates, weaklings who are unworthy of the divine mission appointed for all men: to fight for the good by both conserving and constructing it.
By these examples from Tolkien’s life and writings, the true nature of masculinity and its potential to fall into either savage or degenerate barbarism if it is not civilized by virtue may become clearer to us, as has been one of the primary purposes of hagiographies and great myths throughout history. Becoming authentic men is not only a matter of worldly strength and power; nor is it only a matter of tentative fragility, hedonistic desperation and the domination of those weaker than ourselves. Rather, masculinity involves a higher calling, a vocation to true strength and vulnerability that are far higher than any debased orkish corruptions: the vocation to virtue and the building up of truth, goodness and beauty. This is civilized masculinity - chivalrous knighthood, the warrior-poet, the saintly king and the elven ranger of legend.