Every story, long or short, has five dimensions. They are usually called its 1) plot, 2) characters, 3) setting, 4) style, and 5) theme. We could call them respectively, the story’s 1) work, 2) workers, 3) world, 4) words, and 5) wisdom. “Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” So a story’s philosophy is one of its five basic dimensions.
Which “dimension” sold The Lord of the Rings? All five. To be great, a work of art must be great in not just one dimension, but all, just as a healthy body needs to be healthy in all its organs, a healthy soul in all its powers (mind, will, and emotions), and a morally good act in all its dimensions (the deed, the motive, and the circumstances).
A great story must have, first of all, a good plot, a great deed, a good work, something worth doing. You cannot write a great story about saving a button on a sweater and nothing more. You can, however, write a great story about saving the world, which is what Tolkien did.
Second, a great story must also have great characters, or at least one great character (greatly drawn, at least) for readers to identify with, to find their identity in. We become the characters—in spirit, in imagination. No story is great unless it sucks us in, takes us up out of our bodies, and gives us an out-of-body experience, an ekstasis, standing outside ourselves and in another. Great stories give us the grace of a mystical experience, on the level of imagination.
We can identify with nearly all of Tolkien’s characters—even Ents. Who would have believed that any author could conjure up, in adult human beings, literary belief in talking trees? And who else has ever given us more credible Elves? We know these are the real Elves; we must have in innate Elf detector, an innate Jungian archetype of true Elvishness. Even inanimate things—forests, horns, swords—are characters with memorable, credible personalities.
Third, a great story also should have a great setting, an interesting world. Sometimes it is a familiar part of this world, sometimes an unfamiliar part of this world, and sometimes another world. The Lord of the Rings setting is not another world, but a historically unfamiliar portion of this world: its mythical past. “Middle-earth” is an old name for “the third rock from the sun.”
Sometimes, the setting is at a minimum (e.g., in The Three Musketeers, the book, not the movie). Sometimes it is at a maximum, when the setting is the most memorable dimension of all (e.g., City of Joy, again, the book, not the movies, or Hal Clement’s sci-fi classic Mission of Gravity). The importance of the setting varies with the genre. It is the most in epic and the least in drama.
Many readers find the setting of The Lord of the Rings—Middle-earth itself—to be its most captivating aspect. People come together to stage day-long outdoor reenactments of the plot, using many acres of land, many characters in costumes (usually playing multiple roles), weapons, battles, etc. This has never been done for Death of a Salesman.
What of the fourth dimension, style? Sometimes a great story is told in a plain style (e.g., the Koine Greek of Mark’s Gospel), or even a bad style (e.g., the fairy tales of George MacDonald). A great style can sometimes make up for a small story (Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Ernest Hemingway, John Gardner, James Stephens), but more often a bad style ruins a good story (Thomas Wolfe, Olaf Stapledon, David Lindsay, even George MacDonald).
Even his most severe critics admit Tolkien’s excellence in one aspect of style: language, especially his proper names. Tolkien tells us that the whole of The Lord of the Rings emerged from this preoccupation.
But surely the most valuable of all the gifts a story can give us is its fifth dimension: its wisdom, its philosophy, its world-and-life-view, its insight into ourselves and our lives and our world. Stories do not communicate this worldview directly and deliberately (as preaching does) or abstractly (as philosophy does), but they do it. It is therefore perfectly proper to explore this crucial dimension, this depth dimension of The Lord of the Rings, especially if The Lord of the Rings is “the greatest book of the century” and this is, in some ways the greatest dimension of a book. Though Tolkien’s philosophy can be gleaned from the story, the story is not simply a vessel for philosophy. A true work of art, as opposed to a work of propaganda, never is.