The Lord of the Rings

by J. R. R. Tolkien

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Hugh T. Keenan (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: Keenan, Hugh T. “The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings: A Struggle for Life.” In Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, pp. 62-80. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Keenan finds that the appeal of The Lord of the Rings for adults lies largely in the trilogy's examination of existential issues and the psychology of childhood.]

Long before The Lord of the Rings became popular with children, educated readers began taking it enthusiastically and seriously. But how could mature readers take to the melodramatic incidents, the superficial brotherhood theme, and the one-dimensional characters of the trilogy? Most only hint at the reason, and few reveal themselves as did W. H. Auden, who says, “by the time one has finished his [Tolkien's] book, one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one's own childhood.”1 This hint from Auden marks the elemental nature of the book, I think. The major appeal of The Lord of the Rings grows from its underlying and pervasive presentation of the basic struggle of Life against Death. Tolkien's thematic presentation explores in its course the psychological meaning of childhood, another strong appeal for the mature reader.

But it is not often realized that psychology rather than philosophy or literary merit is responsible for a large portion of this growing esteem. Sober critics have read the novel as a basic conflict of good and evil in moral or Christian lights. They have debated the novel's determinism or free will. They have made the obvious comparisons between Tolkien's trilogy and the novels of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams.2 One critic has even compared Tolkien's theories about the fairy-tale genre to his practice in this story.3 All of their efforts have been somewhat disappointing, for they have to conclude that The Lord of the Rings differs from more than it resembles any of these philosophies, novels, or theories.

Despite their basic differences, three of the critics—Reilly, Sale, and Spacks—agree that the world depicted by Tolkien is amazingly alive.4 His world includes hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, monsters, and ghosts. The abstracts of Death and Life are personified by the Nazgûls and the tree-like Ents. The creatures of this world interact and communicate to a surprising degree. The Rangers, as Miss Spacks points out, “understand the language of beasts and birds,” whereas Tom Bombadil “is in the most intimate communion with natural forces; he has the power of ‘the earth itself.’”5 Hobbits, men, and even orcs can talk through a universal language, the Common Speech. Some living creatures do not speak the Common Speech, and others which we ordinarily consider as inanimate in the real world are sentient in the world of the novel. These include the Balrog, the other spirits of Moria (i, 428), the Eldar beyond the Sea, and the mountain Caradhras (i, 302-307). Even stone statues cry out a warning in this gothic land (iii, 179), while stones, trees, and blades of grass listen for the advance of an enemy army (iii, 160).

In view of the reiterated fertility-sterility conflict in this world6 and the absence of a clearly defined deity or religion,7 the forcing of a vague moral pattern (good vs. evil) on the book's contents is an unpromising endeavor. Something is more important than good vs. evil. This something is life vs. death. Questions of life and death dominate...

(This entire section contains 5947 words.)

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the minds and actions of the inhabitants. As Sale observes in passing, “The world is alive, and the story is the story of the ways in which it is called on tobe alive when the shadows threaten and darkness grows powerful” (217).

The peculiar achievement of the author is to have created a world which is at once completely (or to a superlative degree) sentient and yet dying, to have presented vividly, objectively, and emotionally the eternal conflict between life and death. The reader of this essay may rightly catch an allusion to Norman O. Brown's Life against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, to which this line of argument is greatly indebted. In applying Freudian analysis to mankind rather than to individual man, Brown concludes that

mankind, in all its restless striving and progress, has no idea of what it really wants. Freud was right—our real desires are unconscious. It also begins to be apparent that mankind, unconscious of its real desires and therefore unable to obtain satisfaction, is hostile to life and ready to destroy itself.8

This statement seems equally valid for the fictional world of The Lord of the Rings.

In Tolkien's trilogy as in the science fiction trilogy of C. S. Lewis (especially the final volume That Hideous Strength), man is bent on destroying himself through sociological, technological, and psychological means. Man's technology is the enemy of his humanity. But whereas Lewis' world is heavily Christian and he traces the source of man's perversity to the influence of the Devil, Tolkien's world is almost nonreligious. He traces the perversity of his creatures—in the Shire and outside it—to their own twisted natures. The greed of the dwarfs for mithril causes them to destroy their home in Moria by disturbing the Balrog (i, 331). Consequently they lose much of their skill in metalworking (i, 241-242). The exiled Númenor have become practicers of the black arts in their vain search for immortality and so have fallen into sloth. Faramir confesses that even “‘Gondor … brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed’” (ii, 286). The pride of Théoden and his people makes them isolate themselves and ally with Saruman, the tool of the Dark Lord.

In Beowulf, Grendel and his mother can be seen as the objectifications (in part) of the flaws of the king Hrothgar and of the faults of his court. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron can be similarly viewed as the objectification of the fears and self-destruction (death instinct) of the inhabitants of Middle-earth.

Frodo, the hero of the trilogy, and his three fellow hobbits overbalance the nine-man fellowship. The question is why are so many representatives chosen from the Shire. To know the answer, we must find out what hobbits are. Then we may be able to understand too why Frodo is made the hero of the novel. Neither he nor his fellow hobbits are daring, handsome, or even clever as heroes typically are.

Exactly what are hobbits? Edmund Wilson, despite what else he says, seems to have a fair answer:

The hobbits are a not quite human race who inhabit an imaginary country called the Shire and who combine the characteristics of certain English animals—they live in burrows like rabbits and badgers—with the traits of English country-dwellers, ranging from rustic to tweedy. (The name seems a telescoping of rabbit and Hobbs.)9

Like rabbits or country folk, the hobbits emphasize family and fertility as manifested by their love for genealogical facts and by their well-populated, clan-size burrows. Their love of domestic comforts is in line with their dual nature. Like children they enjoy birthday parties as frequent as those in Alice in Wonderland, the receiving of presents, and the eating of snacks plus full meals, while they do little work and mostly play. Yet furry and fat like rabbits (or country squires) though they be, they prove to be the human-like creatures most interested in preserving life. The hobbits combine the strongest traditional symbols of life: the rabbit for fertility and the child for generation. They represent the earthly as opposed to the mechanic or scientific forces. Therefore they are eminently suitable heroes in the struggle of life against death.

In the journey to Mordor, these hobbits link the Men of Gondor to the Ents, Gollum, the Rohirrim, the Dwarfs, the Elves, the Barrow-wights, the Orcs, and all the rest of the creatures (except the birds)—even Shelob. Gandalf, whose sole purpose is to preserve the life of the world (iii, 30-31), acts in a similar capacity, but the hobbits become more personally involved. Gandalf interests himself in the fate of future living creatures. The hobbits Merry and Pippin act for the present. Merry becomes the retainer of Théoden (iii, 50-51) and Pippin becomes the retainer of Denethor, the Steward of Gondor (iii, 28).

What justifies Frodo's being the hero? Here one comes to a paradox. Frodo has the usual rabbit-like and child-like nature of a country hobbit. He enjoys smoking, birthday parties, presents, good food, and good company. But as he journeys toward Mordor, he loses some of this vitality. He becomes isolated, less humorous, more rational, and even mystical, in contrast to his old emotional, animal self. In other words Frodo grows up; he becomes adult in a human sense. He becomes conscious of his sacrificial duty. He becomes humble as he learns more about the world outside the Shire and as he perceives the pathos of mortality through the passing of the fair and the beautiful.

The sacrificial nature of Frodo brings us to two interesting points. Since the ensuing age is to be that of Men and since hobbits resemble markedly the Men who live isolated lives, prefer war and comfort to learning and beauty, and pride themselves on their sense of duty and honor, there is a strong suggestion that Frodo and his kind represent psychologically the eternal child who must be sacrificed so that the man may live. The national languages of the hobbits and the Men are very close (iii, Appendix F, 414). Douglass Parker puts it in other terms:

Their [hobbits'] real name, translated as ‘halfling’ is very significant. Half-fairy, half-man, yet neither, they are a transition-stage from the Third Age to the Fourth, and, in the destruction of the Ring by Frodo, Sam, and the erstwhile hobbit Gollum, they are the efficient causes of the transition itself.10

At a more universal level, Frodo is the Child who fathers the Age of Men.

The second point may prove clearer to see. When Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom, he suddenly puts on the Ring and vows to keep it, thus defeating the purpose of the arduous Quest (iii, 223). Why does he do it? Because of the Ring's powers. These include strengthening of hearing, while diminishing sight (iii, 174), preservation of youth if the Ring is kept but not worn (see the cases of Bilbo and Frodo, i, 29, 52), and invisibility when the Ring is worn, plus permanent vanishing if the Ring is worn too long (i, 56). But primarily, it grants one the power to rule and to achieve his chief desire. For instance, when Sam puts on the Ring, he has a vision of controlling the world and making it one large garden (iii, 177). As gardening is the idée fixe of Sam, for him the promise the Ring gives is the world cultivated as a magnificent garden. Gandalf and Galadriel also experience the power of the Ring; it offers them the chance to achieve their most cherished desires. Fortunately all three individuals refuse this unlimited power. Exactly what the Ring promises Frodo at this moment at the Crack of Doom we do not learn. But we may be assured that this includes the power to rule and to dominate in achieving the desire.

Norman O. Brown interprets such aggressiveness as an extroversion of the Freudian death instinct; in this way people repress the recognition of the existence of death.11 Sale comes to a similar conclusion about Frodo's mental conflict at this moment. In speaking of Frodo's blindness to the powers and the results of keeping the Ring, Sale observes

Tolkien does not enforce this irony but he does make clear that the struggle is not so much one of good against evil as of life against itself in its effort to stay alive.


Additionally, since the Ring is a female symbol, the possession—not the use—of it makes Frodo a type of the perfect hermaphrodite, the perfect androgynous Adam, or simply a child. Norman Brown says that for the unconscious or for the child,

the sexual differentiation of the adult libido, as presupposed in genital organization and the human family—masculine aggressiveness and feminine passivity—is a loss of sexual completeness; hence the fact of sexual differentiation is regarded with horror. In each sex, says Freud, it is the attitude belonging to the opposite sex which succumbs to repression. In each sex the unconscious does not accept the repression but wants to recover the bisexuality of childhood.

(p. 132; italics mine)

Frodo's conscious assumption of the Ring is a symbolic assumption of sexuality, a symbolic coitus and acceptance of death. Gollum rushes forward and bites off the finger of the invisible and therefore symbolically dead Frodo. This symbolic castration returns Frodo to life temporarily. But as castration is not unconsciousness of sexual role (the child's state) but loss of sexuality, the act represents a death of the body. On his return to the Shire, Frodo's conduct is marked by passivity as compared to the masculine aggressiveness of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. He becomes a retired, Messianic figure; in a short time, he is almost forgotten by the hobbits whom he leaves for the Grey Havens.

One should notice that this decline in aggressiveness and this change in Frodo's protagonist role are compensated for by an increased focus on the developing strength of Sam (iii, 218). Sam becomes the vital, the interesting hero in the latter pages of the novel. He fights the orcs at Cirith Ungol and becomes increasingly protective toward the rapidly weakening Frodo, who in Mordor loses his zest for life (iii, 215).

This life strength of Sam's comes from his gardening, his relation to the soil. He is the good country person par excellence. Only two characters wear the Ring without ill effects: Tom Bombadil and Sam, who becomes Samwise. As the more primitive, the more vital, and the more mysterious, Tom Bombadil has the greater strength. When he puts on the Ring, he does not vanish. Tom can laugh and then return the Ring to Frodo without hesitation (i, 144). Because Sam is weaker than Tom, Sam vanishes when he wears it. But his vitality and his love for Frodo are so strong that he can return the Ring easily to Frodo (iii, 188).

One may notice that the last volume closes with Sam happily married, a fulfilled adult, the father of his first child. It is he to whom Galadriel entrusts the magic dust which makes the seedlings sprout into saplings in one season, thus replacing the Shire trees destroyed by the Enemy's minions. Since Sam is the agent for this reforestation, he becomes closely akin to Tom Bombadil, who has been called “a kind of archetypal ‘vegetation god.’”12

The marked absence of women in the novel calls attention to its fertility theme, an important part of the continuing struggle of life against death. It might be argued that women are naturally excluded from a battle story. But here the story is more that of a journey than that of a battle or wars. The women are missed. The Ents tell of the disappearance of the Entwives long ago in explaining why there are no young Ents; the dwarfs have few women and fewer children (ii, 78-80; iii, 360). In Gondor, too, there are not enough young people (iii, 24, 36).

In considering the women who are present, we need not be as unchivalrous as Edmund Wilson, who says that “the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horrors would not hurt a fly.”13 Though the ladies are scarce, they do capture hearts. Though a dwarf and an enemy, Gimli becomes enraptured of the elven queen Galadriel, so much so that he offers to fight Faramir. The hobbits—Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam—are charmed by Goldberry, Tom Bombadil's consort. There is the inset story of Tinúviel, the elf queen, and her tragic love for Beren, a mortal man (i, 204-205). This story of Elrond's ancestors foreshadows the love of Elrond's daughter Arwen for Aragorn (i, 239; iii, 252-253). There is Éowyn's unrequited love for Aragorn and her happy marriage with Faramir. There is nurse Ioreth, who is the garrulous domestic. Although her type characterization has charm, it is underdeveloped.

What the trilogy lacks is a mother with children. The women, even if married, are not shown as mothers. They have charm but not earthiness. Or they are cold, though they may not be as cold as the Lady Éowyn. She becomes a Britomartis figure. Disguised as a young man, she rides to the war alongside her uncle Théoden, without his knowledge or consent. After the defeat of Mordor, she abandons significantly her desire to be a soldier or a queen; she elects instead to be “‘a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren’” (iii, 243).

Not until the end of the book do women as child-bearers appear. Then their role is prominent. When Sauron is defeated, the Ring destroyed, and the lands cleansed, there comes a succession of marriages: Faramir marries Éowyn; Aragorn marries Arwen; Sam marries Rose Cotton. The marriage of Aragorn and Arwen has been foreshadowed. That of Sam and Rose is more of a surprise. Like the end of a Shakespearean comedy, the trilogy concludes with a series of engagements and marriages.

One famous female—Shelob—has been passed over. This horror, this travesty of love and generation, refutes Edmund Wilson's pronouncement that the horrors would not hurt a fly. True, if her appearance and function are judged by standards of realism, the giant spider is a flaw. She reminds us of the insect villains of too many poor science-fiction movies. But in the story, Shelob is symbolically appropriate.

She is the feminine counterpart to Sauron. As he represents Death, the opposite of Life, she represents destruction and physical corruption, the opposites of generation and birth. This mistress of Sauron greets the visitors to Mordor with death. Nor does she spare even her own brood, she “who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her” (ii, 333).

When one considers the structure of the trilogy in which these characters play their parts, the struggle of life against death is very important. To a reader of Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, Tolkien's use of the Wasted-Land-and-the-Wounded-King theme is obvious. As Tolkien uses these traditional elements in the fertility theme, Gandalf comes to Théoden's court, rouses the old king from illness, drives out Wormtongue, and thus restores the leader to his people and the land to its former vigor. (There is a parallel to Beowulf and Hrothgar too in all of this.) Traditional elements appear also in Aragorn's restoration of the kingdom of Gondor: the reforging of the broken sword, the return of the kingdom to its rightful owner, and the consequent revitalization of the city and its inhabitants.

Older than these motifs is the seasonal significance of the time span of the novel. The Quest begins in winter, a traditionally dead period. Frodo and his friends leave the Shire on September 22, for Rivendell; they depart from Rivendell on the last of December. The Quest is achieved in the spring, March 25, to be exact. And at the end of a year, Frodo and Sam are home again in the Shire. The traditional associations of the seasons underscore the theme of a change from death to life.

The change in landscape is symbolic. As Miss Spacks observes,

The progress toward the heart of evil, toward the Crack of Doom into which, in the trilogy's central fable, the Ring-bearer must throw his Ring of Power, is a progress from natural fertility to the desolation of nature.

(p. 84 below)

To this observation, one need add only two comments. First, the desolation of nature at Isengard and at Mordor is due to the technological devices of the Enemy.14 Second, the journey does not stop at the Crack of Doom; Frodo and Sam return to the Shire and restore the land to its former fertility. So the complete pattern circles from natural fertility in the Shire to technological desolation of nature at Mordor and afterwards ends at the Shire and fertility again. Or as Bilbo might say, “‘there and back again.’”

Tolkien regards advanced tools and mechanics with suspicion. He praises the hobbits and dwarfs for using only simple hand tools and such necessary, simple machinery as water mills (i, 10). Fangorn characterizes Saruman as having “‘a mind of metal and wheels’” and possessing no concern “‘for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment’” (ii, 76). The land of Mordor itself is a place of “mines and forges” (iii, 201). On the other hand, the Elves have as their concerns, not “strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained” (i, 282).

The numerous tunnels, the trees, and the bodies of water—especially the Sea—are important to the fertility theme, although Mark Roberts doubts that the numerous tunnels are so much Freudian symbols as they are ruts marking the author's lack of inventiveness.15 Some are associated with death and corruption, such as the lair of Shelob, the Paths of the Dead, and the tunnels of Moria. But in the Shire and at Helm's Deep, tunnels are linked with health, happiness, and safety. While none are insignificant, context determines whether they are associated with death or with life. Although trees seem ambiguous at first, they stand for life. The malevolent trees in the Old Forest and in Fangorn are more than offset by the good influences of Tom Bombadil and the Ents. Trees, as a general symbol of naturalness and fertility, are more than commonly important to the hobbits returning to the Shire. The elves are almost druidic in their worship of and empathy with trees. Legolas is drawn to them as strongly as Gimli is to caves. And still better, elves understand the language of the trees. In Lothlórien the elves make their homes in giant trees and venerate especially the mallorn tree. In Gondor one of the primary symbols of the life of Minas Tirith is the White Tree in the courtyard. Its dead trunk and branches betoken the dying of the city. Likewise the discovery of a scion of this tree symbolizes the rebirth of Minas Tirith under the leadership of Aragorn (iii, 250).

Finally there are the Ents—especially Fangorn or Treebeard—and their tree herds. The life history of these living trees demonstrates the literal and symbolical import of their preservation. For as the forests have disappeared by being pushed back, burned, or cut down, the land and its peoples have suffered. The return of the forests to Isengard and to the Shire signals the return of life to the dead and dying lands.

In addition to symbols, we find patterns of contrast in character, incident, and place which define the theme of life against death. At the beginning of the journey, Frodo and the three hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and his consort Goldberry. At the end of the journey, Frodo and Sam encounter Gollum and his mistress-ruler Shelob. Besides the parallels and contrasts of character—Tom Bombadil (life) and Gollum (death), Goldberry (preserver) and Shelob (destroyer)—there are parallel actions. At the beginning of the story, Tom rescues the lost Frodo and company from the Old Forest and then saves them from the Barrow-wights. Later Gollum rescues the lost Frodo and his companion Sam in the wilderness of Emyn Muil and guides them through the treacherous Valley of the Dead. As one guide leads them to safety and life, the other one leads them to treachery and death. While Tom Bombadil cannot be moved by the Ring, Gollum can never be free of it.

The contrasts of Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul are equally clear. The Tower of the Sun, which is held by the Men of Gondor, rises up on the mountain. The Tower of the Moon, which is held by the Enemy, lies in the valley (iii, 160). Both are white-walled cities, but one has the white color of life (though it is dying) and the other has the white pallor of death. The decay of the Babylon-like, seven-tiered city of Minas Tirith is clear to Pippin:

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footstep rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.

(iii, 24)

To Sam, Frodo, and Gollum, Minas Morgul (Ithil) appears even worse:

Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night.

(ii, 312)

Unlike the eager travellers to Minas Tirith, Frodo and Sam pass this dead city with fear and reluctance. The river, the flowers, and even the statuary there are corruptions of life, bitter opposites to the fruitful land of Gondor and the healthful Anduin River:

Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air. From mead to mead the bridge sprang. Figures stood there at its head, carven with cunning in forms human and bestial, but all corrupt and loathsome. The water flowing beneath was silent, and it steamed, but the vapour that rose from it, curling and twisting about the bridge, was deadly cold.

(ii, 313)

The implication left is that as Minas Morgul is, so Minas Tirith will be if the war goes against Gondor.

The decay theme of the trilogy is carried out in the contrasts of Edoras and Minas Tirith too. Of the cities, that of Rohan is the more healthful, the brighter, the stronger in spirit, the more natural. Legolas is first to see Edoras set on a green hill in a valley and close by a white stream. From afar, the elf sees the Meduseld, the hall of Théoden, shine like gold (ii, 111). This land is spring-like, grassy, well-watered, and planted with budding willows and ever-blooming white flowers (ii, 111). The gleam of the armor of the men, their bright golden hair, and their formal yet ceremonious courtesy (ii, 112-116) are in contrast to the dark armor and the coldness of spirit found at Gondor.

The interior of the Meduseld is much brighter and livelier than that of the Hall of Minas Tirith:

The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof. But here and there bright sunbeams fell in glimmering shafts from the eastern windows, high under the deep eaves. Through the louver in the roof, above the thin wisps of issuing smoke, the sky showed pale and blue. As their eyes changed, the travellers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. They saw now that the pillars were richly carved, gleaming dully with gold and half-seen colours. Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade. But upon one form the sunlight fell: a young man upon a white horse. He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind. The horse's head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar. Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.

(ii, 116)

Théoden, their leader, retains some of the vigor of this young heroic man. Though white-haired, the Lord of Rohan leads his men against Sauron's forces and laughs to scorn the wiles of Saruman at Isengard. Even Aragorn recognizes the unfallen state of these Men in contrast to the lesser vigor of those of Gondor (ii, 33).

In Gondor, the Hall of Minas Tirith is much darker, less lively, less human, more like a tomb; its Steward Denethor, unlike Théoden, scorns help, despairs of victory, and commits suicide. Here is the Hall as Pippin sees it:

It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long solemn hall; but between the pillars there stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone.

(iii, 26)

The two halls mirror the different natures of their leaders and peoples.

This contrast of the quick and the dead is seen most simply in the cities of Caras Galadon and its enemy Dol Guldur. From a platform in the ancient city of Cerin Amroth, Frodo sees the green city of the Elves and the dark tower (Dol Guldur) of the Enemy in Southern Mirkwood, the evil forest. Haldir tells him:

In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the very heart of the darkness, its own secret has not been discovered. Not yet.

(i, 366)

Caras Galadon, which from a distance appears “a hill of many mighty trees, or a city of green towers,” (i, 366) reveals itself to be a city built in great branches of the forest, a city gleaming with green, gold, and silver lamps (i, 368). This is the good place for Frodo, Gandalf, Legolas, Aragorn, Sam, and even Gimli the dwarf. But this natural paradise set in a tree is fated to perish and its Elves must depart to the West when the battle against Sauron is over.

Perhaps one more contrasting pair in the life and death theme may be added. In the central incident of the journey through the tunnels of Moria, whose name carries important suggestions,16 we find two contrasting lakes. The one before the entrance is dark, loathsome, and artificial, a product of the evil within; and in it lurks an octopus-like monster (i, 322). Only two ancient holly trees remain there as evidence of benevolent influence and symbols of the former friendship between the Elves and the Dwarfs (i, 316). On the other side of Moria lies the beautiful, natural, life-giving lake of Mirrormere, which is worshipped by the dwarf Gimli as he looks into its depths with Frodo:

At first they could see nothing. Then slowly they saw the forms of the encircling mountains mirrored in a profound blue, and the peaks were like plumes of white flame above them; beyond there was a space of sky. There like jewels sunk in the deep shone glinting stars, though sunlight was in the sky above. Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen.

(i, 348)

By looking deeply into The Lord of the Rings, we see our world and something beyond. The hero, the other characters, and the structure of the trilogy appeal to us not rationally but emotionally. Its characters are caught up in the decay theme of the novel, the eternal struggle of life against death, just as we are. We recognize that the hobbits are emblematic of naturalness, of childhood, and of a life which will yield to the Age of Men with its technology, its rational adulthood, and death. This recognition strikes a sympathetic chord in the human heart. The reiteration of the decay theme and the recognition of the temporary triumph of the forces of life over the forces of death as the Third Age ends—both of these give the book a bitter-sweet tone. This truth of vision makes the book appealing to readers who acknowledge that of them also, at the last, not a shadow of their stooping forms will be seen.17


  1. “The Hero is a Hobbit,” New York Times Book Review (Oct. 31, 1954), 37.

  2. W. R. Irwin, “There and Back Again: The Romances of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien,” Sewanee Review, lxix (1961), 566-578, Douglass Parker, “Hwaet We Holbytla …,” Hudson Review, ix (Winter, 1956-57), 598-609. Roger Sale, “England's Parnassus: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien,” HR, xvii (1964), 203-225, Patricia Meyer Spacks, “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” below pp. 81-99. Douglass Parker gives lesser emphasis to the conflict of good and evil. He says the novel is “the story of the end of an age, an age which the author has gone to a fantastic amount of effort to make specific, to make real. And it is from the varied reactions of races and individuals to this end and to other ends of other ages, past and future, that the meaning of the work arises” (603).

  3. Robert J. Reilly, “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” below pp. 128-150. Mark Roberts, “Adventure in English,” Essays in Criticism, vi (1956), 450-459, examines the same question briefly and gives Tolkien high marks.

  4. “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” 139, 149; “England's Parnassus,” 216-221; “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” p. 95.

  5. “Power and Meaning,” p. 84.

  6. The wasted land or decline theme occurs prominently. See i, 257-258, 271-272, 329-330, 363, 380, 388-389, 392, 393, 396; ii, 45, 71, 287, 311; iii, 22, 36, 151, 155-156.

  7. Faramir does observe a kind of grace before meals (ii, 284-285); there is mention of a god or God, called the One (iii, Appendix A, 317, 344). Spacks uses these slight references to the One in arguing that the world of the novel is guided by a purpose (p. 89 f.).

  8. (New York, 1959), xii.

  9. “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” Nation, clxxxii (April 14, 1956), 312.

  10. “Hwaet We Holbytla,” 607.

  11. Life Against Death, p. 101. Brown acknowledges that this opinion opposes that of Freud who viewed aggressiveness as “a fusion of the life instinct with the death instinct, a fusion which saves the organism from the innate self-destructive tendency of the death instinct by extroverting it, a desire to kill replacing the desire to die.”

  12. Reilly, below, p. 131.

  13. “Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” 314.

  14. Spacks notes (p. 85 below) that the Enemy tends to use “machinery rather than natural forces.”

  15. “Adventure in English,” 459.

  16. Mor is “mountain” in A. S.; but Moria suggests also moira, “fate” in Gr. and mors, “death” in Lat.

  17. I wish to thank Professors Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo for reading the Ms. of this article and offering suggestions for its improvement. Thanks are due also to my colleagues and friendly critics: Stephen Cox, Laura Keenan, and Helen Hollingsworth.


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The Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien

The following entry presents criticism on Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).

A leading philologist of his day, Tolkien was an Oxford University professor who, along with Oxford colleagues C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, helped revive popular interest in the medieval romance and the fantastic tale. Tolkien is best known for his epic fantasy/romance trilogy of novels, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien gained a reputation during the 1960s and 1970s as a cult figure among youths disillusioned with war and the technological age; his continuing popularity evidences his ability to evoke the oppressive realities of modern life while drawing audiences into a fantasy world. Many critics claim that the success of Tolkien's trilogy has made possible the contemporary revival of “sword and sorcery” literature.

Plot and Major Characters

The Lord of the Rings charts the adventures of the inhabitants of Middle Earth, a complex fictional world with fantastical characters and a complete language crafted by Tolkien. The goal of Tolkien's literary life was ultimately to infuse his fairy stories with such exquisitely formulated detail of character, action, philosophy, and religion that they would be as “real” as the most factual nonfiction. Taken together, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with its prelude The Hobbit (1937)—which is based on bedtime stories Tolkien had created for his children—encompasses ten thousand years of Middle Earth history and includes an encyclopedic mythology inspired by but entirely separate from that of the human species. Peopled with a vast array of beings, including hobbits, elves, dwarves, and orcs, as well as the men of Westernesse, Middle Earth is arguably the most comprehensive imaginary world created by a writer in English, other than John Milton's heaven and hell. While not technically a part of The Lord of the Rings,The Hobbit, which is considered a children's story and lacks much of the psychological depth of the trilogy, begins the story of the rings with the reluctant efforts of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to recover a treasure stolen by a dragon. During the course of his mission, the hobbit discovers a magical ring which, among other powers, can render its bearer invisible. The ability to disappear helps Bilbo fulfill his quest; however, the ring's less obvious faculties prompt the malevolent Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor, to seek it. The hobbits' attempt to deny Sauron unlimited power is the focal point of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which consists of the novels The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). In these books Bilbo's nephew Frodo takes over the elderly Bilbo's quest, as Bilbo passes the ring on to Frodo in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring. At this point the wizard Gandalf, who orchestrates many of the adventures in Middle Earth, tells Frodo that the ring has far more important powers than he suspects—that it may, in fact, hold the key to the world's fate. Throughout the trilogy, Tolkien rejects such traditional heroic attributes as strength, size, and bravado. Instead, he has Gandalf deliberately choose the reluctant hobbit heroes, who are small, humble, and unassuming, to guard the ring and thereby prevail against evil.

Major Themes

Despite Tolkien's protests to the contrary, The Lord of the Rings does evoke themes both from earlier literary archetypes and the development of modern culture in the twentieth century. Critics have found echoes from various works of epic and medieval literature, including The Iliad,The Song of Roland,Beowulf,The Elder Edda, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien's work as an Oxford scholar of early literature suggests that he, perhaps even subconsciously, was influenced by the adventure and mythology of these texts. But The Lord of the Rings also appears to address issues specific to the twentieth century, particularly the sense of loss, despair, and alienation that came as a result of the two World Wars. Many have read the trilogy as an allegory of the history of modern Europe, especially the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany. Others see it as a Christian allegory. Tolkien always denied that his books were either allegorical or topical in nature, maintaining that the events that occurred in Middle Earth predate any historical occurrences that Western humans could be aware of. Nevertheless, most critics find that, particularly because The Lord of the Rings was written roughly between 1939 and 1949 and because of Tolkien's own experiences serving in World War I, the influence of the catastrophic events of the twentieth century must have been inevitable.

Critical Reception

Initial critical reception to The Lord of the Rings varied. While some reviewers expressed dissatisfaction with the story's great length and one-dimensional characters, the majority enjoyed Tolkien's enchanting descriptions and lively sense of adventure. Religious, Freudian, allegorical, and political interpretations of the trilogy soon appeared, but Tolkien generally rejected such explications. He maintained that The Lord of the Rings was conceived with “no allegorical intentions …, moral, religious, or political,” but he also denied that the trilogy is a work of escapism: “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. … The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live.” Tolkien contended that his story was “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration,” a “religious and Catholic work” whose spiritual aspects were “absorbed into the story and symbolism.” Tolkien concluded, “The stories were made … to provide a world for the languages rather than the reverse.” Largely because of its fantasy elements and its seemingly anti-war themes, the trilogy was absorbed into popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and references to it appeared in music and materials related to the psychedelic drug scene. Interest in The Lord of the Rings was renewed in the early twenty-first century, with the release of a series of award-winning films based on the novels.

Marion Zimmer Bradley (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: Bradley, Marion Zimmer. “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship.” In Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, pp. 109-27. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Bradley explores the expression of emotion in The Lord of the Rings in its most prevalent form: the love and admiration of young males for older, powerful father figures.]

Love is the dominant emotion in The Lord of the Rings, and love in the form of hero worship is particularly evident in the relationship between Aragorn and the other characters and between Frodo and Sam. Other forms of love are also apparent; the most important of these is heroic love which includes love of honor and love of country; additionally there is Gandalf's paternal and Goldberry and Galadriel's maternal love. Relatively little romantic love is depicted and what is appears to follow the chivalric, although not courtly, love convention. Underlying all of these is the love of the fellowship—that of one man for another; this love extends beyond the initial fellowship as the original members extend their relationship to serve and battle with others.

It should be noted, briefly and in passing, that Tolkien's self-consistent world, along with an alien geography and ecology, has its own appropriate manners, in general those of the heroic ages; they are not the stiff-upper-lip unemotional ones of the modern English-speaking peoples. Affectionate and emotional displays are permitted not alone to women and children, but to men; thus Legolas trembles with terror and wails aloud before the Balrog without his courage or manliness (if this word may be used of an Elf) being suspect; Boromir weeps in passionate repentance after his attack on Frodo, and when he is slain, Aragorn kneels at his side so “bent with weeping” that Legolas and Gimli are dismayed, fearing he too has “taken deadly hurt.” The men display affection freely, e.g., Faramir parts from Frodo with an embrace and kiss; this is simply a pattern of manners and does not in itself merit mention as ballast for the thesis that the major emotional threads of the story are drawn between men.

The prevalent emotion in general is the hero worship of a young man for one older, braver, and wiser. All the company treat Gandalf as an exalted Father-figure, but the major object of hero worship, as opposed to paternal veneration, is Aragorn himself. With the single exception of Boromir, the actual leadership is resigned to him by all; Frodo, a hero in his own right, immediately yields to him:

‘… yes, it was Strider that saved us. Yet I was afraid of him at first. Sam never quite trusted him, I think. …’

Gandalf smiled. ‘I have heard all about Sam,’ he said. ‘He has no more doubts now.’

‘I am glad … for I have become very fond of Strider. Well, fond is not the right word. I mean he is dear to me; though he is strange, and grim at times … he reminds me often of you.’

(i, 232)

Éomer and Faramir, too, quickly fall under Aragorn's spell. The only one who does not is Boromir, and one of the subtlest threads of the story is Boromir's competition for Aragorn's place. In many small episodes he attempts persistently to maneuver things his way, not Aragorn's—not in petty jealousy nor, at first, for any base motive. He is brave and valiant and well worthy of the admiration he gets from the young hobbits; he fights for them and defends them and at least in Pippin's case he partially succeeds (and this is very carefully, deftly studied, for Pippin is the persistent rebel against Gandalf). Slain in the first chapter of Volume II, Boromir is nevertheless a compelling force of emotional motivation throughout the book. He is emotionally present in Frodo's meeting with Faramir and Pippin's with Denethor; further it is Pippin's memory, his admiration for Boromir, that lies behind his service to Denethor which ultimately saves the life of Faramir.

If Gandalf plays the ideal Father, and Aragorn the heroically loved elder brother—and there is some hint of the sullen rivalry between Achilles and Agamemnon in Boromir's jealousy of Aragorn—then Peregrin Took, the hobbit Pippin, is most emphatically the spoiled youngest child. Here we reemphasize the peculiar chronology of fantasy, for Peregrin is twenty-nine years old, but four years short of his “coming of age,” and thus equivalent to a boy in his teens. He is literally treated like a child. He falls asleep and is carried to bed while Frodo talks with the Elves. Elrond's “heart is against his going” on the dangerous Quest. Gandalf, who lets him come, nevertheless, in Pippin's words “thinks I need keeping in order,” and singles him out, several times, for testy rebuke. He is in fact the childish mischief-maker of the company, yet even Gandalf treats him indulgently when he is not squelching his bubbling spirits. This subtle study of Pippin as the “naughty rebel” against Gandalf's kind authority culminates in his logical resentment against being treated as a child, so that his theft of the Palantír—which is treachery in essence—is motivated and at last understood simply as an act of purely childish mischief and devilry. We should note that Gandalf fears and refuses the challenge of the Palantír, pointing out that Pippin's folly helped prevent him from daring to use it himself. He cautions Aragorn against looking into it (ii, 200), but Aragorn later makes up his own mind. And the “moral” of this seems to be that the young, as they grow toward independence, sometimes have their own answers for what their elders fear. However, this father-son relationship remains; during the sequence of the Great Ride, when Gandalf flees on the wings of the wind of war, he bears Pippin with him on Shadowfax quite literally as a small child: “Aragorn lifted Pippin and set him in Gandalf's arms, wrapped in cloak and blanket” (ii, 201). Volume III opens with the passage, “Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf's cloak. He wondered if he were awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream in which he had been wrapped … since the great ride began.” As Pippin slowly recovers, Gandalf first scolds, then lectures, and finally forgives him in true father-fashion. Their relationship in Minas Tirith continues to be that of loving, if stern father, and willful, but no longer rebellious child.

The character evolution of Meriadoc (Merry), the other of the young hobbits, is less obvious and takes place at a somewhat deeper level. Merry, older than Pippin, more sensible and quieter, seems less vital at first and, until Pippin draws attention to himself by the theft of the Palantír, seems to have remained in the background. Yet on second evaluation it becomes obvious that Merry, like a perfectly cast supporting actor, performs his quiet background activities in a perfectly consistent way. It comes slowly to the reader's notice that Merry has, in fact, played a very quiet part in all their adventures. It is Merry who provided ponies for their flight, who led them into the Old Forest, and after the attack on Weathertop it is consistently and logically Merry on whom Aragorn calls for help to bring them, quietly and without credit, through dangers—Frodo is wounded and too burdened, Sam too hostile and absorbed in Frodo, Pippin too irresponsible.

After Pippin's escapade, while the others show concern, Merry simply turns away; he shows all the earmarks of the neglected “good” child resenting the kindness shown to the naughty one who has drawn attention to himself; as Gandalf rides away, his bitter comment to Aragorn is virtually his clearest utterance:

A beautiful, restful night! Some people have wonderful luck. He didn't want to sleep, and he wanted to ride with Gandalf—and there he goes! Instead of being turned into a stone himself to stand here forever as a warning.

(ii, 201)

And it seems significant that after the two are separated, they follow paths similar on the surface but differing greatly in emotional motivation. Both offer their sword and service to a mighty King. “In payment of [his] debt” to Boromir, slain defending him and Merry, Pippin impetuously enters the service of Denethor; Gandalf is astonished saying:

I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. … I did not hinder it, for generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. …

(iii, 32)

But Merry's choice, though equally impulsive, is not motivated by pride:

Filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it. ‘May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap, Théoden King?’ he cried. ‘Receive my service, if you will!’

‘Gladly will I take it,’ said the king; and laying his long old hands upon the brown hair of the hobbit, he blessed him. … ‘As a father you shall be to me,’ said Merry.

(iii, 50-51)

When ordered later to remain behind, Merry reacts with almost childish desperation. “‘I won't be left behind, to be called for on return. I won't be left! I won't!’” (iii, 73). And he disobeys with the connivance of the other “disobedient son,” Éowyn in her male disguise as Dernhelm.

Together Éowyn and Merry face and slay the Nazgûl, both striking an enemy far beyond their strength for the love of a father, Théoden. Later Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry all lie in the shadow of the Black Breath, and additionally Faramir lies in the shadow of a father's displeasure. Gandalf has had to counsel him when he goes in desperation on his last mission: “‘Do not throw your life away rashly or in bitterness … your father loves you, and will remember it ere the end’” (iii, 90). When he is recalled by Aragorn, it is apparent that Merry has been through a profoundly maturing experience:

‘… I would like supper first, and after that a pipe.’ ‘No, not a pipe. I don't think I'll smoke again.’ At this his face clouded.

‘Why not?’ said Pippin.

‘Well,’ answered Merry slowly, ‘He is dead. It has brought it all back to me. He said he was sorry he had never had a chance of talking herb-lore with me. Almost the last thing he ever said. I shan't ever be able to smoke again without thinking of him, and that day, Pippin, when he rode up to Isengard and was so polite.’

‘Smoke then, and think of him!’ said Aragorn. ‘For he was a gentle heart and a great king and kept his oaths. … Though your service to him was brief, it should be a memory glad and honourable to the end of your days.’ Merry smiled. ‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘if Strider will provide what is needed, I will smoke and think.’

(iii, 145-146)

This scene between Aragorn and Merry evidences not only warmth but also Aragorn's humanness; he consoles the grieving Merry, teases him, then confesses weariness, and for the first time Merry speaks in realization of Aragorn's real stature: “‘I am frightfully sorry … ever since that night at Bree, we have been a nuisance to you …’” (iii, 146). And this change in Merry is made more emphatic when, left alone with Pippin, the irresponsible younger hobbit says: “‘Was there ever anyone like him? Except Gandalf, of course. I really think they must be related …’” and, of course spiritually, they are. Then he adds: “‘Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can't live long on the heights!’” (iii, 146). And here it is apparent that, if Pippin has changed from a rebellious child to a loving one, Merry has been far more deeply affected by his service to a beloved king; “‘No, I can't. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose … still, there are things deeper and higher … I am glad that I know about them, a little’” (iii, 146). Few clearer statements could be made of the way in which the young come to the simple but deeply affecting discovery of worlds far outside their own small selfish concerns and events greater than the small patterns of their lives. The experience is universal, even though Tolkien has cast it into heroic mold and scorned obvious moral or allegory.

Whatever hobbit chronology, neither Merry nor Pippin quite achieves full adult stature until they return to the Shire to set their own country in order; Gandalf resigns his authority, saying in effect, “you do not need me … you have grown up.” Then Merry's firmness and Pippin's courage show echoes of Théoden, of Aragorn, even of Denethor and Gandalf. They have to some extent become what they admired. And it is Merry who perceives why Éowyn belongs to the story and Arwen does not. For Éowyn, too, achieves the passing of the “Heroic Age”—the age in which girls rebel against their sex and their limitations and dream of male deeds. Gandalf says with pity:

She, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours … who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, … when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?

(iii, 143)

She does indeed achieve great deeds in male disguise and chafes at her “imprisonment” in the Houses of Healing. When she meets Faramir she is abashed, after she complains to him, thinking that he might see her as “merely wayward, like a child” (iii, 328) yet it is Faramir who sees Éowyn most clearly. He describes her love for Aragorn in unmistakable terms—simple hero worship on a masculine level: “‘And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is. …’” And Éowyn, suddenly understanding, accepts what she is, and is not: “‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders. … I will … love all things that grow and are not barren. … No longer do I desire to be a queen’” (iii, 242-243). In other words, no longer does she desire to be a king, i.e., not to identify with Aragorn, but to be a woman. This is not a new theme—Wagner, at the end of Siegfried, puts such words into the mouth of Brunhilde—but it is apt to the picture of the passing of the Heroic Age.

I have reserved for last, because most intense, the strong love between Frodo and Samwise, and the curious part played in it by the creature Gollum. Toward the end of the third book Frodo and Sam reach classical “idealized friendship” equivalent in emotional strength to the ardor of Achilles and Patrocles or David and Jonathan: “passing the love of women.” Wilson speaks with some contempt of the “hardy little homespun hero” and the “devoted servant who speaks lower-class and respectful and never deserts his master”1 thus displaying a truly cataclysmic ignorance of the pattern of heroic literature. Both Frodo and Sam display, in full measure, the pattern of the Hero in Quest literature, although of another order than the shining gallantries of Aragorn.

Aragorn of course is the “born hero”—son of a long line of Kings, born to achieve great deeds in his time. Frodo is the one who has heroism thrust upon him, and to complete and fulfill the analogy we might say that Sam achieves heroism undesired and unrecognized. Frodo accepts the charge of the accursed Ring because it has come to him by chance and because the great ones—Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel, and even Aragorn—are afraid to trust themselves to the lure of its power. Sam cares even less for heroic deeds; he simply wishes to guard and remain with Frodo. Elrond realizes this even before they set out. “‘It is hardly possible to separate you from him, even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not!’” (i, 284). It is in Elrond's house that the intensity which will eventually enter this relationship is first shown:

Sam came in. He ran to Frodo and took his left hand, awkwardly and shyly. He stroked it gently and then he blushed and turned hastily away.

(i, 237)

Frodo, as a hero in his own right, displays slightly less helpless hero-worship for Aragorn than do the others, though while Aragorn is with them, he bows to his judgment. Sam, during this time, is little more than, as he calls himself, “luggage in a boat,” and at first appears to provide little more than comic relief. This early element of comedy is doubtless what misled Edmund Wilson and caused others to identify him with the type made immortal by Sancho Panza.

It is also traditional in Quest literature that the Hero should have a comic-relief satellite. But Sam, though occasionally witty, is not really a figure of comedy—not in the sense that Papageno, in The Magic Flute is a comic figure. He is blunt of speech and there is the humor of incongruity when he faces down the wise and valorous; e.g., when he defies Faramir, twice his size. But he is far less a comic figure than Butterbur, or even Pippin.

Frodo makes his own choice and proclaims his emancipation from the others at the end of Volume I—as Aragorn clearly realizes when he says: “‘Well, Frodo, I fear that the burden is laid upon you … I cannot advise you’” (i, 412). Frodo is cognizant both of Aragorn's offer to guide him to Mordor and Aragorn's commitment to his word. “‘If by life or death I can save you, I will’” (i, 183). Yet Frodo realizes that Aragorn's quest is not really his: “‘I will go alone. Some I cannot trust and those I can trust are too dear to me: poor old Sam, and Merry and Pippin. Strider too: his heart yearns for Minas Tirith, and he will be needed there …’” (i, 418).

But it is Sam who has courage to speak up and to explain Frodo even to Aragorn, to read Frodo's heart, to disobey Aragorn (the only time any one does so) and to slip off alone with Frodo.

In the second volume Sam has begun to foreshadow the eventual conflict and denouement. Still insensitive, seeing only his own fear for Frodo, he wishes to kill Gollum. Frodo, having come through his own first sufferings to compassion, protects the wretched creature from Sam. And from that moment Sam's love and Gollum's hate become the millstones between which Frodo is eventually broken—both victor and vanquished.

Sam's emotional growth is spotlighted briefly the second time he watches the sleeping Frodo, not helplessly as in Elrond's house. He muses that he loves him “whether or no,” though this is still shown in terms appropriate to the simplicity of the character, as when he coaxes-threatens Gollum to finding better food for Frodo, and then cooks it for him. As Frodo is weakened by the cursed Ring and his Doom, Sam grows ever more fiercely protective; this curious, triangular relationship reaches its apex in Gollum's treachery at Cirith Ungol.

In very strong emotional relationships, particularly among the weak, hatred and love are very much akin. Gandalf, describing Bilbo's first encounter with the wretched, lonely, miserable old Gollum, says:

Even Gollum was not wholly ruined. … There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark. … It was actually pleasant, I think, to hear a kindly voice again, bringing up memories of wind, and trees, and sun on the grass, and such forgotten things.

But that, of course, would only make the evil part of him angrier in the end—unless it could be conquered. Unless it could be cured.

(i, 64)

Gandalf points out too that Gollum loved and hated the Ring, much as he loved and hated himself, and in this fearful ambivalence, Gollum—like a terrible shadow of Frodo himself—comes to have dual love and hate for Frodo as well.

To me the most poignant moment in the three books is that in which Gollum comes on the two friends sleeping: Frodo with his head in Sam's lap, Sam himself fast asleep. And anyone who has noted the small threads running through the story will be reminded of a time very obviously present to Gollum when he, then Sméagol, had a trusted and loved friend, Déagol, who shared his wanderings and searches, whom he called “my love,” and whom he killed for the sake of the cursed thing he later came wholly to love and hate. And in this ambivalent sway of emotions “an old starved pitiable thing” he touches Frodo humbly, fleetingly, “almost the touch was a caress” (ii, 324) but Sam, startled awake, uses rough words to him. And Gollum's momentary softening is once more overcome by a blasting hurricane of hate and rage equal to the pitiable impulse of despair which it displaces.

Sam too is cheated by his own hate. Later because he delays to try to kill Gollum, Shelob has a chance to attack Frodo. Gollum escapes and Frodo lies apparently dead. Here at the apparent bitter end of this relationship, Sam's anguish is difficult to read without emotion. So compelling is it that only in retrospect has it become apparent how Sam's choices here are a shadow of his final status. One by one he forsakes the other possibilities: vengeance; suicide, “that was to do nothing, not even to grieve!” (ii, 341); return for wiser counsel; take the Ring and complete the Quest. Although knowing its full terrible power, Sam chooses the last possibility. Even Aragorn and Gandalf had feared this test. Elrond would not take the Ring, even to guard it. Galadriel, confessing temptation, finally renounced it. Frodo, when he took it, had no knowledge of its awful power. Sam knew but accepted. This is the decisive moment in character development.

In essence the Quest from this moment is Sam's. It is significant that when he believes Frodo dead, for the first time he drops the formal “Mr. Frodo” and cries out “Frodo, me dear, me dear,” (ii, 340) although after rescuing him he returns to the old deferential speech; the “Mr. Frodo” partially restores his sense of security. Sam has become, not the devoted dogsboy of Volume I, or the sometimes fierce, but simple and submissive watchdog of Volume II, but the “tall, towering elf-warrior” of the orc's vision. He renounces the temptation to use the Ring for his own; then flings his defiance against the shadows: “I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell (iii, 185).” When he finds Frodo, beaten, naked and unconscious in the orc-tower, their reunion sets the tone of their relationship from that moment:

Frodo … lay back in Sam's gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand.

Sam felt that he could sit like that in endless happiness; but it was not allowed.

(iii, 186-187)

Instead he gently takes on himself the task of bringing Frodo to the end of his Quest. And here again Sam achieves what no one else has been able to do. Except for Tom Bombadil only Bilbo has ever given up the Ring of his free will, and Bilbo, who did not know its power, achieved this only with Gandalf's help. Yet Sam, after momentary hesitation (“reluctant … to burden his master with it again” iii, 188) immediately takes the chain from around his neck and hands it over; he is wounded but not angry when Frodo, maddened by the thing that is destroying him, turns on him and calls him “thief.”

The surrendered-sword symbolism returns when Frodo allows Sam to keep his elvish sword Sting, saying that though he has an orc-knife, “‘I do not think it will be my part to strike any blow again’” (iii, 204). From this point he places himself unreservedly and passively in Sam's hands, allowing Sam to clothe him, to deal out their food, to choose their road. As his will and endurance are sapped by the destructive, tormenting power of the Ring he speaks of himself as “naked in the dark” (iii, 215) while every thought and movement of Sam's reaches an almost religious devotion and tenderness toward easing Frodo's path, even though he cannot share his torment or even his burden.

This lessening distance and growing devotion, increasing as Frodo weakens, continues to the end of the Quest. When they cast away their arms and gear, Frodo throws away even the orc-knife, saying, “‘I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul,’” (iii, 214) and lets Sam clothe him in the grey Lórien cloak. But Sam, even at that edge of desperation and despair, retains some spark of hope; and though casting away his own treasures, he retains the gifts of Galadriel and the elvish sword which Frodo had given him. Once again, watching awake for the last time while Frodo sleeps, Sam fights his own battle with despair and gives up his own last hopes. Realizing that all he can do is to accompany Frodo to the Crack of Doom and die with him there, he fights the temptation to abandon the Quest, knowing that without his insistent courage Frodo cannot complete it either. In his own unguarded moment of despair he shows how he now regards their death: “‘You could have lain down and gone to sleep together, days ago, if you hadn't been so dogged’” (iii, 216). This last stage, where nothing matters and they may never return, is significantly the first time that his thoughts turn to Rose Cotton—who has never been mentioned before—but “‘the way back, if there is one, goes past the Mountain’” (iii, 216). And at the very end of their Quest, Sam held no more debates with himself—“he knew all the arguments of despair” and had absorbed them. He takes Frodo in his arms trying to comfort him “with his arms and body” so that “the last day of their quest found them side by side” (iii, 217).

This growth in intensity, this closing the distance between the two, each change documented and studied, is surely one of the most compelling analyses of heroic friendship.

Sam's emotional growth is shown at the final meeting of love and hate, when Gollum appears at the last moment. Frodo, far past all pity or humanity (in Sam's vision only a tall figure, with a wheel of fire at its breast) only curses Gollum and threatens him with the Fire of Doom; and here it is Sam the inarticulate who achieves the height of pity and compassion for Gollum's agony, and in his own rough, painful manner, says:

… you stinking thing! Go away! Be off! I don't trust you, not as far as I could kick you; but be off. Or I shall hurt you, yes, with nasty cruel steel.

(iii, 222)

Even at this moment of desperate danger he still mocks Gollum's whining speech.

Frodo at the end cannot destroy the Ring and fulfill his Quest; Gollum's tormented love and hate effects what even the Dark Lord could not do. He tears Ring and finger from Frodo—but his fall into the Crack of Doom, glossed as an accident of his exaltation, is more, far more, than accidental. It has been too carefully prepared by this studied hate and love. Gollum loved the thing which destroyed him and destroyed it in revenge. In “saving” his “precious” from destruction, he genuinely saves Frodo, whom he loves as much as he hates, from destruction too; in seeking to save and destroy what he loves and hates, he saves himself and Frodo by bringing the accursed Ring and his own long agony to an end; Frodo, rather than meeting the total destruction of his own curse, loses only his Ring finger.

When the Quest is finally completed and it seems that nothing remains but death, Sam's attitude is still distinct from Frodo's: “in all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free.” But even so, it is Sam who does not abandon himself to despair. “‘Yes, I am with you, Master,’ said Sam, laying Frodo's wounded hand gently to his breast, ‘And you're with me … but after coming all that way I don't want to give up yet. It's not like me, somehow. …’” And Frodo replies: “‘but it's like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes … we are lost in ruin … and there is no escape.’” Nevertheless he allows Sam to lead him out of the Crack of Doom. Although even there Sam makes jokes, asking if some day they will sing the song of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom, “to keep fear away till the very last,” still Frodo's eyes search the sky to the north, from whence their rescuers finally come (iii, 228-229).

When Sam and Frodo are led before Aragorn it is to Sam, not Frodo, that Aragorn says, “‘It is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me? A long way for us all; but yours has been the darkest road’” (iii, 232).

As indeed it has. Frodo has known torment and agony and terror, but Sam has endured them voluntarily, with no great cause to strengthen his will; rather it was only for the sake of one he loves beyond everything else.

Edmund Wilson has said in his critical review that Frodo is “unchanged” by the Quest. This is manifestly ridiculous. If nothing else, the compassion he shows to Saruman, even at the moment when Saruman has attempted to stab him, is in great contrast to his insensitivity when Gandalf first told him the Gollum story and he cried out, “‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature’” (i, 68). Saruman recognizes this; he says, “‘You have grown very much, Halfling … you have robbed my revenge of sweetness’” (iii, 299).

Frodo shares for a time in the rewards of their labors, but he bears forever the three wounds: knife-wound of Weathertop, for folly; the sting of Shelob, for over-confidence; and the finger torn away with the Ring, for pride.

The recoil of the wounded Hero is mainly, however, on Sam. He longs to stay with Frodo forever, but Sam has achieved true maturity; and as the Heroic Age passes, he longs to put down roots into the soil of the Shire and raise a family. It has been said that significantly this dream comes, first, during the dreadful last stage of the Quest, when Sam, denying himself water so that Frodo may drink, daydreams of the pools of Bywater, and of Rosie and her brothers.

Aragorn, the eldest and the classic Hero, wins his Lady as the reward of all his labors, but Sam is the only one of the characters who truly passes out of the Heroic Age into the world of today. Aragorn becomes a King, but it is aptly Sam who is shown making the actual, personal choice, at the end, between that early flame of true, single devotion which burns up the whole soul in a passion for heroic deeds and the quiet, manful, necessary compromise to live in a plain world and to do ordinary things. Merry, too, has achieved high adult stature; for him, the return to the Shire is like “a dream that has slowly faded” but for Frodo it is like “falling asleep again.” Yet Frodo's quiet dream of peace is never achieved; he has given too much of himself to the struggle to cast away the curse, suffered too much in the achieving of this peace for others. He has won through to nobility and compassion, but hardly.

Sam is torn by divided loyalties: to raise his family or to remain always with Frodo. For Frodo there is no real return, while Sam has returned in heart and soul. It is partly this as well as the “memory of fear and darkness,” which Arwen has foreseen would continue to trouble him (iii, 253) that brings Frodo to his final choice. To me one of the most beautiful and poetic symbols is Arwen's white jewel; even though she lies outside the story, it has a dreamlike coherence, the fantasy of inner understanding. Arwen has given him another gift—the gift she herself has foregone for Aragorn's sake. Frodo chooses the course which Arwen cannot: “‘Some one has to give [things] up … so that others may keep them …’” (iii, 309). How many young, young men had that choice forced on them, in the desperate England of Dunkirk and the Blitz, though the allegory is nowhere that crude?

At their last parting, Frodo shows how clearly he understands the nature of Sam's growth, his change and his conflict: “‘You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years” (iii, 309). He departs with the others and removes the need for Sam to feel “torn in two” by his divided loves and loyalties; and Sam, though grieving and in pain, returns to Rose and his children, to make the Shire even more “blessed and beloved.” Sam can neither be compared to Jurgen who also endures adventures and renounces them nor to another famous adventurer who decides in the end to “cultivate his garden,” for Jurgen and Candide belong to anti-Quest, rather than Quest literature. A truer parallel would be to Papageno in The Magic Flute; Tamino achieved his quest and stood with Pamina before the Sun, but Papageno asked only for a nice little wife and his birds. Yet Sam is a true figure of the Age. He recognized that Rivendell, the Refuge, had, “‘… something of everything here, if you understand me: the Shire and the Golden Wood and Gondor and kings' houses and inns and meadows and mountains all mixed’” (iii, 264-265). Gandalf, too, after his return from death has said: “‘Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been’” (ii, 98). Sam, in becoming Frodo's heir, retains and passes on and keeps alive the memories of the days that are gone. He retains also in himself much of what he has become and known; enriched by the Heroic Age through which he has passed, retains some—though sadly not all—of its glory. He has become, in a way, the beauty of the Elves, the hardiness of the dwarves, the wisdom of the wizards, the gallantry of men, and the sound staunchness, at the root, of the halflings. And so this final relationship, even its failure (for all of Sam's selflessness and love could not save Frodo from his destiny, any more than the downfall of evil in Sauron could save the good things achieved by Elrond and Galadriel) reflects the symbolism of life, and the passing of the Heroic Age. Sam's heroism and devotion is in curious contrast to the humdrum marriage and life he accepts and desires (“one small garden … was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm” iii, 177). The only way to achieve maturity is to leave behind the Third Age with its dreams and desires, its emotions and needs and glories; the only way to remain forever young is to die young. Yet Sam names his daughter for the flowers of Lórien, and the Golden Tree blooms, forever, in the Shire.


  1. Edmund Wilson, “Oo, Those Awful Ores!” The Nation, clxxxii (April 14, 1956), 312-314.

Principal Works

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A Middle English Vocabulary (glossary) 1922

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [translator; with E. V. Gordon] (poetry) 1925

The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again (novel) 1937

Farmer Giles of Ham (short stories) 1949

The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (novel) 1954

The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings (novel) 1954

The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (novel) 1955

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (poetry) 1962

Tree and Leaf [includes “On Fairy-Stories” and “Leaf by Niggle”] (essay and short story) 1964

*The Lord of the Rings [foreword by Tolkien] (novel) 1966

The Tolkien Reader (poetry and short stories) 1966

The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle (lyrics) 1967

Smith of Wooton Major (novel) 1967

The Father Christmas Letters (novel) 1976

The Silmarillion (novel) 1977

Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth (short stories) 1980

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (letters) 1981

The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (essays) 1983

Bilbo's Last Song (verse) 1990

*This trilogy includes the novels The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955).

R. J. Reilly (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: Reilly, R. J. “Tolkien and the Fairy Story.” In Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, pp. 128-50. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Reilly analyzes The Lord of the Rings in terms of Tolkien's theory of the fairy story.]

When J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, appeared some seven years ago, it accomplished on a modest scale the sort of critical controversy which The Waste Land and Ulysses had occasioned a generation earlier. Like them, it could not be easily reviewed; it was anomalous; it forced examination of critical principles; it demanded a judgment that necessarily became a position to be defended. Before the quarrel subsided, the trilogy had been compared to the Iliad,Beowulf,Le Morte d'Arthur, and the work of Ariosto and James Branch Cabell. Critics reexamined the genres of epic, romance, novel, defended their views of such techniques as symbolism and allegory, went beyond the techniques and found themselves talking of fate and free will, essential human nature, natural law. But when the dust had settled, the trilogy remained an anomaly heartily liked or disliked not so much on literary grounds as on fundamental religious or ideological ones. It demanded extraliterary value judgments, and it got them.

Aloof from the quarrel were, and are, the readers of the trilogy, not numerous perhaps, but very enthusiastic. They read it to their children, who are delighted by it; but they also talk of it seriously among themselves. The talk generally turns to myth, epic, archetypal narrative, quest literature, the fairy story mode. On the maps which accompany the trilogy they try to find the Beowulf country, Gawain's likely route in search of the Green Chapel, and Mt. Badon; and they dispute whether Tolkien's Grey Havens, where the fairies embark for the West, is to be equated with the shores from where Arthur was transported to “Avilion,” where “in this world he changed his life.”

Since the issues of the quarrel were never properly resolved and since there seems likely to be continuing, and perhaps growing, interest in the work, I will try to “place” the trilogy in its proper genre—the fairy story mode as Tolkien conceives it. Beyond this, I mean to examine the genre itself as Tolkien has described it, for the genre is perhaps of more significance than the trilogy. The trilogy is at least partly an attempt to restore the hero to modern fiction—fiction which Northrop Frye has accurately described as irony descending from the “low mimetic” mode.1 But the genre of which the trilogy is an example, and which makes possible the return of the hero, is only explainable by a theory of the creative imagination which both utilizes and goes beyond the classic statement of Coleridge. This is what seems to me of significance: that a position so explicitly romantic and so explicitly Christian as I will show Tolkien's to be should exist in our time. Tolkien's theory, like his trilogy, seems anomalous. We should not be surprised if he tried to bring Coleridge up to date—to explain the creative imagination in partly Jungian terms, as Maritain and others have done; but we are surprised to see that he has done just the reverse, has instead taken it backwards and given it specifically Christian implications which it has hardly had since Sidney's Defense.

Why such a position as Tolkien's should exist now is a question for the historian of ideas to answer. That Tolkien's Christian romanticism is not unique is, of course, obvious by reference to such people as C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. The historian will in turn find back of all three the face of Chesterton, and behind him one of Lewis and Chesterton's longtime favorites, George Macdonald. If he looks beyond Macdonald he will come at once to Coleridge; and if there is any such thing as an intellectual wellspring of Christian romanticism, he is surely it. A history of Christian romanticism—supposing that the phenomenon could be isolated and such a history written—would tell us as much of changes in religious attitudes as it would of changes in literary ones, would in fact show that they are closely bound up with each other, as we might expect.2 As a Hartleyan, Coleridge was an atheist; as a Kantian romantic, he was a broad church Anglican, the Sir Thomas Browne of his day. Macdonald's “Universalism” informed his romantic myths, in which a great good is always coming in the only possible way it could come. In the same way Chesterton's romances of Being, such as Manalive, follow on and are part of his Thomistic-mystical religious view, which was broad enough to include William Morris and Macdonald, Browning, Whitman and Dickens, and would include now Joyce Cary, because they all celebrate Being in one way or another, but which excluded Eliot, in spite of his Christianity, and which would exclude now such Christian artists as Mauriac, Greene, Waugh, and Auden.

In the following pages, however, I mean to examine only a single part of this Christian romanticism, Tolkien's Christianized romantic imagination. In so doing I hope to resolve the critical quarrel about the trilogy, help to shape the enthusiasm of the trilogy's admirers, and categorize one more phenomenon in the still to be written history of Christian romanticism.

It is nearly impossible to summarize the trilogy for those who have not read it. It is not the complications of a plot that cause the difficulty, but the complications of a world. The trilogy world, set in the Third Age, so far back in time that it precedes the earliest heroic age, is far richer in levels of being than our own is. Though there are “humans” in this world, they are by no means the central figures. The heroes are hobbits,3 creatures some three feet high with furry feet, who live in burrows in a land called The Shire. Other beings of varying degrees of rationality are the elves, the dwarfs, the orcs (yahoo-like brutes), various monsters, spirits, ghosts, talking trees, even a kind of archetypal “vegetation god” (Tom Bombadil). There are nearly as many languages in this world as there are kinds of beings, and though there is a common language, most of the beings prefer to speak their own tongue. Tolkien has taken some care with these languages, paying most attention to the elvish speech, and part of the charm for those who like the trilogy lies in the songs written in elvish, and in the place names and the proper names of the characters, many of which are philological jeux d'esprit. Thus Sauron, the Enemy, lives in the smoky land of Mordor, “where the shadows lie.” The heroic human who fights alongside the hobbits is named Aragorn. The incredibly old talking trees are called Ents. The courageous dwarf is Gimli, whose ancestors mined gold in the mines of Moria, under the Misty Mountains.

The story itself is of incredible adventure and of war on the largest scale possible in this world. By accident Frodo, the hobbit hero, gains possession of a magic Ring of power lost years before by Sauron. After many intrigues, and councils attended by hobbits, men, dwarfs, and elves, it is decided to destroy the Ring in the only way possible—by throwing it back into the volcano where it was found, Mount Doom, in the heart of the land of Mordor. This becomes the Quest to which the major characters of the story dedicate themselves. They form a company which includes hobbits, men, an elf, and a dwarf. The Quest involves nearly every adventure that ever befell Odysseus, Beowulf, Aeneas or Sir Percival in his Quest for the Chapel Perilous. They are spied on by birds and laid into graves by Barrow-wights. They fight orcs and are set on by wolf packs. They are menaced by the nine flying Ringwraiths, searched out by the scorching, all-seeing eye of Sauron, endangered by the treachery of one of their own company, the man Boromir, who wants the Ring to try to save his own land from Sauron. Worst of all, Frodo becomes increasingly tempted to keep the Ring for himself, and in the end it is really against his own will that the ring is destroyed. Gollum, a stunted, weasel-like creature who was for years the possessor of the Ring, attacks Frodo on the edge of the fiery pit just as Frodo has resolved not to throw the Ring in; Gollum and the Ring both fall to destruction. As a result of the Quest, the power of Sauron is temporarily ended, the wars end, and the Third Age comes to an end.

Now The Lord of the Rings is certainly not a realistic novel, not a symbolic novel, perhaps not a novel at all as we usually understand the term. It would seem closest to “myth,” except that we generally think of myth as some sort of adumbration of what was once either fact, or felt to be fact, or desired to be fact. But here there is no question of fact at all. It is clearly sheer invention, and that is the sharp edge of the razor which both friendly and hostile estimators have had to get over. The trilogy poses the question of the value of invention in our time. It follows, of course, that to ask the value of invention is to assume a knowledge of, and a judgment of, “reality,” and to ask how far, and in what way, and for what reason this invention departs from reality—and whether this invention is justifiable. Most of the essential criticisms of the work resolve themselves to this question.

There can be no doubt as to the leader of the hostile criticism: it is vast understatement to say that Edmund Wilson does not like the trilogy; he apparently felt insulted at having to review it. He can accept it as a “philological curiosity,” but the fact that grown people could take it seriously as literature, and even morality, goads him beyond the bounds of civility. He castigates the reviewers who have commended this “hypertrophic sequel to The Hobbit: Richard Hughes, who mentioned The Faerie Queene in connection with it; Naomi Mitchison, who took it as seriously as she does Malory; C. S. Lewis, who compared Tolkien's inventiveness to Ariosto's and found Tolkien's the better; and Louis Halle, who thought it has the same meaning as the Odyssey, Genesis, and Faust. The only way that Wilson can explain such tastes is to conclude “that certain people … have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.” And though he deprecates both the prose and verse of the work, which “are on the same level of professorial amateurishness,” the crux of his dislike is that the work is “imaginary.” If he must read of imaginary kingdoms, he prefers Cabell's Poictesme. “He at least writes for grown-up people, and he does not present the drama of life as a showdown between Good People and Goblins.”4

And another critic, Mark Roberts, echoes—more courteously—Wilson's accusation: the work has no “relevance to the human situation.” What is essentially wrong with it is that it is “contrived.” “It does not issue from an understanding of reality which is not to be denied; it is not moulded by some controlling vision of things which is at the same time its raison d'être.5

The more friendly estimates turn largely on the same pole. But in these the invention is held to have a moral significance, and thus relevance to the human situation. Michael Straight, who regards the work as one of the “very few works of genius in recent literature,” holds that there is a theme in the trilogy, and that the theme is essentially a moral one: personal responsibility, as symbolized by Frodo and his relationship with the Ring. “In the presence of limited good, and of corruptible man, what is the responsibility of the Ring-bearer? Is it to use present evil on behalf of present good and thereby to ensure the continuation of evil? Or is it to deny present gain in an effort to destroy evil itself?” Thus the work is not escapist; it “illuminates the inner consistency of reality.”6

Another critic, Patricia Meyer Spacks, refutes Wilson by pointing out the ethical character of the trilogy. It is not a matter of Good People versus Goblins; “the force and complexity of its moral and theological scheme provide the fundamental power of The Lord of the Rings.” Frodo and Sam—his hobbit companion—are clearly endowed with free will, and free will “implies a structured universe.” The over-all pattern of the work illustrates one of man's fundamental problems—his relation to the universe. Frodo and Sam's dedication to the Quest shows a sense of duty not merely to themselves; it shows also a “cosmic responsibility, justified by the existence of some vast, unnamed power for good.” Tolkien has rejected realism in order “to talk more forcefully about reality.”7

Douglass Parker reminds the reader of Tolkien's interpretation of Beowulf and holds that what Tolkien has done in the trilogy is to re-create the world, and world view, of the poem. The words that Tolkien took from Widsith to apply to Beowulf can as well be applied to the trilogy: “Lif is laene: eal sceaceþ, leoht ond lif samod, Life is fleeting: everything passes away, light and life together.” There hangs over the tale, he thinks, the same cloud of determinism that hangs over Beowulf. The end of an age is coming, and nothing that men or hobbits or elves can do will forestall that end. In the face of inexorable extinction the only answer that man or hobbit can make is to be heroic. Tolkien has gone to fantastic lengths to make his world “a prodigious and … unshakable construct of the imagination” in imitation of the world of the Beowulf poem because Tolkien feels “that only in this way can he attain what the author of Beowulf (also an antiquary) attained: a sense of man's Verganglichkeit, his impermanence, his perishability.” And this imaginary world has relevance to the real one. His borrowings from, or reworking of, myths from the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Norse provide a bridge from his world to ours; they make “the implicit statement that our world, in the Age of Men, the Fourth Age, is a continuation of his, and will recapitulate its happenings in new terms, as the Third Age recapitulated the Second, and the Second the First.”8

C. S. Lewis, too, sees the meaning of the trilogy as heroism, the heroism necessary to a man if he is simply to live. He does not like to extract a moral from a work which he finds “good beyond hope,” but if there must be a moral, then that is it, “that our victory is impermanent.” The work serves to recall us “from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike, to that hard, yet not quite desperate, insight into Man's unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived.”9

Most of the criticism, as I have said, comes down to the question of whether the book is relevant to life, whether, in Parker's terms, there is a bridge between its invented reality and the accepted reality of our world. The implicit agreement among all the critics noted is that the book can be relevant to life, and can be taken seriously, only if it is in some way allegorical or symbolic. The hostile critics deny allegory of any sort, or find the allegory childish and oversimple. The friendly critics find the allegory serious, complex, and moral. It is almost as if Tolkien had held up a mirror, not to life, but to critical attitudes, and in it each critic had seen himself.

Against all these opinions we must set Tolkien's own remarks on the work, made in a statement to his publisher. Wilson quotes these with great relish, regarding them as the last evidence he needs to show the inanity of those reviewers who found serious value in the work. Tolkien himself has confessed, Wilson thinks, that the work is only “a philological game.” Tolkien has said, “The invention of language is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’.” When people ask him “what it is all about,” he replies that it is an essay in “linguistic esthetic.” “It is not ‘about’ anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.”10 This last disclaimer is for Wilson the end of the matter: that will settle the Manichees!

For my purpose it does not matter much whether Tolkien was being ironic when interviewed, or whether writers' remarks on their own work are to be taken as final evidence as to the nature and meaning of their work. The aim of the critic, as Chesterton once remarked, is to show what the artist did, whether the artist meant to do it or not. But in the interest of truth it should be pointed out that Wilson makes the matter far too simple, and the internal evidence of the work shows this quite clearly. The trilogy may have begun as a philological game easily enough, but other things have grown beneath their makers' hands. And if it were relevant I could cite innumerable passages in the trilogy which are clearly not part of any game, philological or otherwise—passages in which the heart of the author is laid bare for all to see who read them. No one ever exposed the nerves and fibers of his being in order to make up a language; it is not only insane but unnecessary.

However we take Tolkien's remarks, I believe that the genre and meaning of the trilogy are to be found in his essay on fairy stories, published seven years before the first volume of the trilogy, though he has said that the trilogy was some seventeen years in the making. The essay has not been completely ignored in discussions of the trilogy. Straight, for example, points out briefly that the trilogy accords generally with the specifications that Tolkien laid down for the fairy story. And Lewis' review of the second and third volumes spends some time defending the work on a basis which is really part of Tolkien's fairy story thesis, though Lewis does not mention this. But the total relevance of the essay to the trilogy, and the nature of the theory set forth in the essay, have not, I think, been sufficiently examined.

Tolkien's essay attempts to determine the nature, origin, and use of fairy stories. As to the nature of them, no definition can be arrived at on historical grounds; the definition instead must deal with “the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.”11 But this is exactly what cannot be either defined or accurately described, only perceived. Faërie may be roughly translated as Magic, but not the vulgar magic of the magician; it is rather magic “of a particular mood and power,” and it does not have its end in itself but in its operations. Among these operations are “the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires” such as the desire “to survey the depths of space and time” and the desire “to hold communion with other living things.” Travelers' tales are not fairy stories, and neither are those stories which utilize dream machinery to explain away their marvels. If a writer attaches his tale of marvels to reality by explaining that it was all a dream, as in the medieval tradition, “he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”

Now these remarks throw much light on the trilogy. It is a fairy story in the sense just described: it concerns itself with the air that blows through the Perilous Realm of Faërie. It attempts to satisfy “certain primordial human desires.” It surveys the depths of time, as Lewis' interplanetary trilogy surveys the depths of space, and in Tolkien's sense, Lewis' trilogy is thus a fairy story. The story itself is of the Third Age, but the story is full of echoes out of the dim past; in fact, the trilogy is in great part an attempt to suggest the depths of time, “which antiquates antiquity, and hath an art to make dust of all things.” The Third Age is, for the reader, old beyond measure, but the beings of this age tell stories out of ages yet deeper “in the dark backward and abysm of time,” and in fact often suggest that these stories recount only the events of relatively recent times—Browne's “setting part of time”—and that the oldest things are lost beyond memory. All this is to satisfy that primordial desire to explore time, for “antiquity has an appeal in itself.” Fairy stories, Tolkien's among them, “open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.”

And the trilogy attempts to satisfy the other desire, “to hold communion with other living things”—again, as Lewis' trilogy does. The Ents, for example, the great trees of the Third Age, are among the oldest living things. They speak to the hobbits in a language as old, as slowly and carefully articulated, as the earth itself. And when Tom Bombadil speaks, it is as if Nature itself—nonrational, interested only in life and in growing things—were speaking. The elves, the dwarfs, even Gollum and the orcs, are gradations—either up or down—from the human level; they are “other living things” with whom the reader holds communion in the trilogy world of imagined wonder.

Readers of Lewis will recall that he has had much to say of the stories of Beatrix Potter: it was in these that he found the early glimpses of the thing he called Joy. And Tolkien finds something in them of Faërie. They are mostly beast fables, he thinks, but they “lie near the borders of Faërie” because of the moral element in them, “their inherent morality, not any allegorical significatio.” And here is a partial answer to the question which, as we have seen, all the critics of the trilogy have dealt with: the relevance of the work to human life. It is not only through allegory that invented characters and actions may have significance. Allegory is ultimately reducible to rational terms; and in this sense there is no allegory in The Lord of the Rings. But there runs throughout the work an “inherent morality” which many critics have discerned and which some have tried to reduce to allegory. It is the element of the numinous that is to be found throughout the work of George Macdonald and in Lewis' novels. It is the sense of a cosmic moral law, consciously obeyed or disobeyed by the characters, but existing nowhere as a formulated and codified body of doctrine. Patricia Spacks has commented that Tolkien has included in the trilogy “all the necessary materials for religion.” It is even more accurate to say that he has included conscience, which may be defined, for the purposes of the trilogy, as an awareness of natural law. But it is not a rational awareness; that is, rationality plays almost no part in it. It is an emotional or imaginative awareness; the doctrine does not exist, but the feeling normally attached to the doctrine does. The value of this inherent morality, as we will see, comes under Tolkien's heading of “Recovery,” which is one of the uses of the fairy story.

Fairy stories, then, are those which utilize Faërie, the “realization of imagined wonder” and which have, or may have, an inherent morality. Their nature is “independent of the conceiving mind,” or, as Lewis said of Macdonald's myth-making, it comes to us on a level deeper and more basic than that of the conceptual intellect, and must be perceived with the imagination.12

Tolkien's views of the origin of fairy stories take us a step closer to the heart of the matter. The history of fairy stories is “as complex as the history of human language.” In this history three elements have figured in the creation of “the intricate web of Story”: invention, diffusion, and inheritance. The latter two lead ultimately back to the first and do nothing to clear up the mystery of invention. For diffusion is merely “borrowing in space” from an inventor, and inheritance is merely “borrowing in time.” Both presuppose an inventive mind, and it is the nature of the inventive mind that concerns Tolkien.

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things … but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well on any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may make woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

(pp. 50-51)

Clearly, behind this description of the inventive mind is the romantic doctrine of the creative imagination. Faërie is a product of the “esemplastic” imagination, a product of Coleridge's Secondary Imagination, which is an echo of the Primary Imagination that creates and perceives the world of reality.

Nor is the creative imagination to be taken lightly or metaphorically in Tolkien's theory of the fairy story. The writer of the story is really a subcreator; he creates a “Secondary World” which the mind of the reader really enters. Further, the reader's state of mind is not accurately described in the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which indicates a kind of tolerance or tacit agreement. When the story is successful, the reader practices “Secondary Belief,” which is an active and positive thing. So long as the writer's art does not fail him, “what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are … inside.”

Tolkien elaborates, and slightly qualifies, the doctrine of the creative imagination in his discussion of the use of fairy stories. He begins with a dictionary distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination. According to this distinction, the Fancy is the image-making faculty, what Coleridge called “a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space,” while the Imagination is “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” Coleridge thought of the two capacities as wholly distinct faculties, the Fancy being analogous to the Understanding, and the Imagination analogous to Reason. Tolkien would combine them because he believes “the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate. The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength; but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind.” What gives “the inner consistency of reality” or Secondary Belief is not properly Imagination but Art, which is “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation.” Needing a term to express both the “Sub-creative Art” and “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the expression, derived from the Image,” he chooses to use the word “Fantasy.” For the term in the sense in which he means it “combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of ‘unreality’ (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed ‘fact,’ in short of the fantastic.”

He is aware of the implications of the word “fantastic,” that it implies that the things with which it deals are not to be found in the “Primary World.” In fact he welcomes such implications, for that is exactly what he means by the term, that the images which it describes are not extant in the “real” world. That they are not “is a virtue not a vice.” We recall Shelley's lines: “Forms more real than living man, / Nurslings of immortality.” Just because Fantasy deals with things which do not exist in the Primary World, Tolkien holds, it is “not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.” It is relatively easy to achieve “the inner consistency of reality” in realistic material. But good Fantasy is very difficult to write. Anyone, Tolkien points out, can say “the green sun,” but

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

(p. 68)

The fairy story, then, of which the trilogy is an example, uses Fantasy, and so far as it is successful is “story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” That is to say, in dealing with fantastic things rather than with real ones it attempts the purest form of narrative art, and succeeds to the extent that it induces in the reader the state of mind called Secondary Belief. In short, invented stories, if successful, are better and on a higher level than stories which merely manipulate the materials of the Primary World. Here we are reminded of Coleridge's distinction between the Reason and the Understanding, the latter manipulating the “counters” of the real world. Now Fantasy is a higher form than Realism not only because such invented stories are harder to make but because they offer to the reader certain things which realistic stories do not offer, or do not offer to the same degree. These things Tolkien calls Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—re-gaining of a clear view.” Recovery is a means of “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them. …” All things become blurred by familiarity; we come to possess them, to use them, to see them only in relation to ourselves. In so doing we lose sight of what the things themselves really are, qua things—and “things” here includes people, objects, ideas, moral codes, literally everything. Recovery is a recovery of perspective, the old Chestertonian lesson which Tolkien calls “Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian fantasy,” the lesson of Manalive. Fantasy provides the recovery necessary to those of us who do not have humility; the humble do not need fantasy because they already see things as not necessarily related to themselves; their vision is not blighted by selfishness or egotism. Lewis, I have said, defends the trilogy's relevance to life, and he does so in terms of what Tolkien means by Recovery. He has said that the book has some of the qualities of myth:

The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’. … By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we re-discover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.13

Applying the theory of Recovery to the trilogy, then, we rediscover the meaning of heroism and friendship as we see the two hobbits clawing their way up Mount Doom; we see again the endless evil of greed and egotism in Gollum, stunted and ingrown out of moral shape by years of lust for the Ring; we recognize again the essential anguish of seeing beautiful and frail things—innocence, early love, children—passing away as we read of the Lady Galadriel and the elves making the inevitable journey to the West and extinction, and see them as Frodo does, “a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.” We see morality as morality by prescinding from this or that human act and watching the “inherent morality” to which all the beings of the Third Age—the evil as well as the good—bear witness. And, perhaps, the devouring nature of time itself is borne in on us, as it was on the Elizabethan sonneteers, and we learn again from the trilogy that all things are Time's fools, that all comes within the compass of his bending sickle.

If Tolkien is right, if Recovery is what he claims it is, and if Fantasy provides Recovery, then it follows that Fantasy, far from being irrelevant to reality, is in fact extremely relevant to moral reality. And the trilogy, so far as Tolkien's art does not fail him, is an example of the dictum, so favored by the Renaissance critics, that literature is both dulce and utile, that Spenser can be a better teacher than Aquinas.

Finally, Tolkien holds that the fairy story, by the use of Fantasy, provides Escape and Consolation, two elements which are very closely related. In fact, Escape brings about Consolation as its end or effect. Now the fact that the fairy story is “escapist” is the very crux of the accusations brought against it, as we have seen in regard to the trilogy. But Tolkien will not admit that escape is a bad thing. The word, he thinks, has fallen into disrepute because its users too often confuse “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prisonwalls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.

(p. 76)

Thus escape from Hitler's Reich was not desertion; it was really rebellion, a refusal to be identified with Hitler. And, Tolkien thinks, this is often the nature of escape. A man may refuse to write about the world in which he lives not out of cowardice—the usual accusation—but because to write about it is in a sense to accept it. He may, like Thoreau, simply secede. And this is not desertion; it is war; it is “real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt.”

But fairy stories, Tolkien thinks, provide other Escapes, and these bring about Consolations of various kinds. Fairy stories, like other kinds of literature and like many other things as well, can provide a kind of solace in a world of “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.” And this kind of solace or respite is necessary; it is not refusal to face reality, it is a time needed to regroup one's forces for the next day's battle. Thus the poets talk of care-charmer sleep and the sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, but they do not advocate sleeping one's life away. Further, fairy stories, as we have seen, provide a kind of consolation in their satisfaction of “primordial human desires.”

But the major consolation that the fairy story has to offer is one which it contains to a degree that no other kind of literature can equal. It is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”:

Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of the fairy-tale, and its highest function.

(p. 81)

What the fairy story preeminently presents is “the joy of the happy ending,” and it is in this respect that the fairy story, for Tolkien, is related to reality. But the reality is not the reality of this world, the world of flux and opinion: rather the eucatastrophe “denies … universal defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” The good fairy story, by means of its eucatastrophe, gives the reader “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears,” for in the eucatastrophe the reader gets “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. …” The relevance of the fairy story to reality lies in this gleam, which is a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth.”

Thus there are two answers to the question, Is the fairy story true? The first and obvious answer is, It is true if it induces Secondary Belief, if the art has successfully translated the image of the “created wonder.” But that is merely a question of art. The nature of the eucatastrophe suggests that the second answer is infinitely more important, for “in the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” It is in this second truth that the fairy story, for Tolkien, ceases to be merely literature and becomes explicitly a vehicle for religious truth.

God has redeemed man in all man's capacities, and one of his capacities is that of telling stories, especially fairy stories. As Redemption has once more made man in the image and likeness of God, so the capacities of man to some degree echo the capacities of God. In this sense, this second truth of the fairy story is “only one facet of a truth incalculably rich,” for in all spheres of human activity there is necessarily something like the signature of God. The eucatastrophic fairy story, a product of redeemed man, echoes the Gospels, which contain a story “which embraces the essence of all fairy-stories.” For the Gospels contain not only marvels, as the fairy story does; they contain the birth of Christ, which is “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe,” “the eucatastrophe of Man's history.” And they contain the Resurrection, which is “the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.”

The joy which the happy ending of the fairy story gives, says Tolkien, is of the same quality, though not the same degree, as the joy which we feel at the fact that the great fairy story of the Gospels is true in the Primary World, for the joy of the fairy tale “has the very taste of primary truth.” This is the justification of the fairy story—and thus of the trilogy—that it gives us in small, in the beat of the heart and the catch of the breath, the joy of the infinite good news. For “Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of Angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused.”

It is not too much to say that Tolkien's view of the fairy story has made explicit Coleridge's claim for the worth of the creative imagination. The Secondary Imagination, which created literature, was for Coleridge an “echo” of the Primary Imagination, which is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and … a repetition in the finite mind of the external act of creation in the infinite I Am.14 For the fairy story—and the trilogy—are sheer creation, the making of a Secondary World out of, and by means of, the Imagination. That is the special activity of the fairy-story maker, and one by which he becomes, not a writer, but a subcreator of a kind of literature analogous—or more than analogous—to the universe created ex nihilo by the divine Creator. In his degree he creates Joy—or creates what gives Joy—as God, in the purposeful drama of creation, has created what also gives Joy, the world with the Christian happy ending. Speaking of Blake's definition of poetry, Northrop Frye has commented:

We live in a world of threefold external compulsion: of compulsion on action, or law; of compulsion on thinking, or fact; of compulsion on feeling, which is the characteristic of all pleasure whether it is produced by the Paradiso or by an ice cream soda. But in the world of imagination a fourth power, which contains morality, beauty, and truth but is never subordinated to them, rises free of all their compulsions. The work of imagination presents us with a vision, not of the personal greatness of the poet, but of something impersonal and far greater: the vision of a decisive act of spiritual freedom, the vision of the recreation of man.15

Tolkien's defense of Fantasy and, I would add, of the trilogy, in verse in which there is perhaps more truth than poetry, is also a defense and, it may be, the last defense, of the doctrine of the creative imagination, which brings the making of God and the making of man so close that they nearly touch:

                                                            Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

(pp. 71-72)


  1. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N. J., 1957), p. 42.

  2. Some of the materials for such a history have of course already been examined: Hoxie Fairchild's Romantic Faith (New York, 1949), C. T. Sanders' Coleridge and the Broad Church Movement (Durham, N. C., 1942), and Basil Willey's Nineteenth Century Studies (London, 1949), for example.

  3. The hobbits were introduced in Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit (Boston, 1938).

  4. “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” Nation, clxxxii (April 14, 1956), 312-314.

  5. “Adventure in English,” Essays in Criticism, vi (January, 1956), 450-459.

  6. “Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien,” New Republic, cxxxiv (January 16, 1956), 24-26.

  7. “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” above pp. 81-99.

  8. “Hwaet We Holbylta …,” Hudson Review, ix (Winter, 1956-57), 598-609.

  9. “The Dethronement of Power,” above, p. 15.

  10. Quoted by Wilson.

  11. “On Fairy-Stories.” All of Tolkien's subsequent remarks on the fairy story are quoted from this essay.

  12. Preface to George Macdonald, An Anthology (New York, 1947), pp. 16-17.

  13. “The Dethronement of Power,” pp. 15-16 above.

  14. Biographia Literaria, Ch. xiii.

  15. Anatomy of Criticism, p. 94.

Further Reading

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Pearce, Joseph. Tolkien: Man and Myth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998, 242 p.

Critical biography that discusses Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth; includes an “Index of Characters and Places in Tolkien's Middle Earth.”


Callaway, David. “Gollum: A Misunderstood Hero.” Mythlore 10, no. 3 (winter 1984): 14-17, 22.

Argues that Gollum represents the battle between good and evil and may therefore be considered a heroic figure.

Clark, George, and Dan Timmons, editors. J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000, 213 p.

Collection of essays that suggest possible literary influences on Tolkien's development of Middle Earth.

Hibbs, Thomas. “Missing Tolkien: The Cultural Significance of The Lord of the RingsNational Review Online (26-27 January 2002): 1-2.

Rejects common interpretations of The Lord of the Rings as they began to appear with the release of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring and suggests that Tolkien's ultimate meaning in his trilogy was the corruptive abilities of power.

Higbie, Robert, and Joe E. Bryan Jr. “Frodo and Childe Roland.” Mythlore 14, no. 1 (autumn 1987): 57.

Discusses similarities between Frodo's quest and that of Childe Roland in Robert Browning's poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

Pace, David Paul. “The Influence of Vergil's Aeneid on The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 6, no. 2 (spring 1979): 37-8.

Argues that The Lord of the Rings has more in common with the Aeneid than with Homeric epics, with which it is most often compared.

Startzman, Eugene L. “Goldberry and Galadriel: The Quality of Joy.” Mythlore 16, no. 2 (winter 1989): 5-13.

Discusses the concept of joy noted by Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy-stories” as it applies to The Lord of the Rings.

Additional coverage of the Tolkien's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 10; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 56; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, 45-48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 36; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8, 12, 38; Contemporary Popular Writers, Ed. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 160, 255; DISCovering Authors; DISCvering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules:Most-studied Authors,Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Epics for Students, Vol. 2; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 8; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 2, 24, 32, 100; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature Criticism Writers for Children; and Writers for Young Adults.

William Ready (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: Ready, William. “Man for Tolkien.” In The Tolkien Relation: A Personal Inquiry, pp. 115-31. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1968.

[In the following essay, Ready examines Tolkien's thoughts on human nature as they appear in The Lord of the Rings.]

Man is hard to handle. A free agent, often he rejects what he thinks of as the Good, let alone good wizards like Gandalf—good men. For as long as Man lives Nature and all beyond relate to him. But there is something in Man, divine and diabolic, that rejects this. When his malign desire embraces Nature, it is to subdue it and harness it to his will. When his good desire woos it, it is often to escape his manhood and be subject within it, to pull Nature over him like a blanket. The body's chemistry, land, sea, sun and sky are all related this way or that. What is eternal in Man's mind contains this record, but it overlords it with a vain and brave attempt, encompassing catastrophe, to break free of the tutelage that is built within, the Authority, to relate or not to relate as the will moves—not as his memory relates—not to share in love but to control or to cower. Man leaps from ice floe to ice floe, from hummock to tussock, to avoid facing the record and living by it. He rejects the surrender of his will, and his rejection is the cause of much of his woe, and the world's woe. Yet without this free will of his he would not be. This is what makes him a man: the dearest and the most dangerous of creatures. Tolkien knows it too well for comfort.

Man's ego requires that he bestride, control, realize the human condition, but that Man will not do, for long, anyway. If he does, the herd destroys him. Tolkien spells out this in his tale. There is the joy and thrill of it, the reason, whether they know it consciously or not, that the young of this generation embrace him. Never before has Man been so ashamed of his record; he cowers from it. And the young, seeking challenge, looking for the rock, probing their elders more and more to discover it, find only mush, are given pablum to grow fat and sassy on when they seek a stone to hold on to, to climb up from.

The dragons and these “Awful Orcs” that so offended Edmund Wilson in his derisory yet salutary review in The Nation seem but a bored don's blunder to many critics. But always in heroic legend the heroes have been dragon-slayers. Dragons are no idle fancy; they are a potent force that man's imagination has created out of his past. Man's image of himself changes with each generation. Tolkien makes the symbol of the dragon stand for Evil, for Evil does not change with the style; it always retains cognizance, even becomes horribly real, as, for example, when fire-belching tanks lurch over the dirty ground of battle amid flashes, screams and howls overhead toward the resolute few glum heroes of the Infantry, men with weapons in their hands and nothing else, save within, to stop the squealing, treading, clanking, baleful progress of the armor.

Tolkien relates the dragons to monsters of the present without writing a word about these days, about the vast glowering and mindless creature that moves in on Man at Man's bidding, in time of peace and reconstruction, to deliver him from labor, devours the earth, though it comes at first only when Man allows or calls. Man is eased of his burden, impressed by the size, the work that this force can perform. Although the work began when Man assembled this force, the Machine passes beyond Man's recall, replacing the old forms of living with the new. Human actions are now conditioned by the Machine. Things are not done, because the Machines don't like them. Demolition of the past comes easy with the power of this assembled force. Out of the dust of the ruins a modern Sauron, who begins as a Man and becomes a Board of Control, can conjure up visions of Man's future where there is no bloody sweat, no tears; all will be accomplished for Man's appetite with the lift of a finger, the blink of an eye, but at the cost of the deliverance of his future to the Board, computer-oriented Board, clean and shining Board, powerful beyond-all-the-measures-of-ordinary-Man Board. If Sauron has his way, there will be only one Board, and it's mustering, not in the shady cover of Mirkwood, but in carpeted, unbugged or bugged conference rooms, the gleaming glass walls of which look out over the City, down on the World. All that is required of Man is that he deliver his Fate into this calculation in return for a Machine-turned future comfort, and that he keep in cadence with the beat of the program devised and analyzed by some of the shine and some of the dark in his nature—that is all. The very creation of Man as a part of Nature is computed to a pattern that will permit a programmed development of the earth and beyond, by the Board.

Man's very seed will be tapped, analyzed and bottled for the correct ingredients needed for this time or that before it will be permitted to fertilize. Abortion will replace the Blessed Event, Euthanasia the Consolation. Environmental patterns, devised by programmers, correlated with words and sounds, will make poetry, music to dance to, in patterns better than any created by Man in the days when he danced for joy, for birth, for resurrection. The cruel punishment meted out to Prometheus, the fall of the son of Daedalus, the fell project of Pygmalion, all will be seen as mere fantasy, fit subjects for comedy. A fair lady to love will be made by a Higgins out of raw human stuff, not as a satire, but as a process to be lauded. There will be a musical comedy on the Crucifixion, as there are already flesh peddlers of the Old Testament.

Tolkien regards this future somberly; he sees it coming, which is why he is a conservative. Conservatives are disliked not for the right reasons, political, but for the wrong reasons, moral. Tolkien is sharp, and the bite in his writing shows how sharp he can be. When a fellow Oxford don exulted that now Oxford city was becoming alive, relating to progress, the High blocked and fumed with the traffic of Machines, Tolkien asked him how much more alive these cars were than the horse-drawn vehicles that had preceded them. And for most men, cars are more alive than living things. They polish them more than they ever curried horses, feed, scent and sink into them, make fancy women out of them, and killers, too.

Yet Tolkien is no dreamer with straw in his hair, no Endymion wandering around the Sacred Town babbling of brooks where once the wild thyme grew that now are muddied and greased over. Essentially he is a man of the traditional way, an apostle of rather addled common sense who sees Man for what he is and longs for him to put forth in all his staggering and vaulting majesty as the Son of God.

This yearning of Man to relate completely goes back to infancy and prenatal existence. The womb is the haven, flinching from the challenge life throws. Many a Man wants to return to it, and all Nature can be Mother. To be one with Nature and be Man too is unnatural, however much desired when the going gets tough, and the times call for sons of bitches. It is just as unnatural for Man to find a solution to his problems by handing himself over to the care of wise, Welfare-State Saruman, on the Board, who will curdle when he is not obeyed, or to Board member Sauron, who calls on the worst in Man, the nearest the surface and the most responsive, wherein lies the greatest danger of all: final self-destruction. Gandalf therefore is Tolkien's happiest subcreation, for, much against his will, many times, Gandalf backs away from taking over Man's fate, from joining the Board; instead, he poses the eternal dilemma, like Dante to the dreamer on the brim of Hell. He merely offers testimony and advice, shows the way on his great horse Shadowfax—a horse, to show how Tolkien can write,

that might have been foaled in the morning of the world. The horses of the Nine cannot vie with him, tireless, swift as the flowing wind. … By day his coat glistens like silver; and by night it is like a shade, and he passes unseen. Light is his footfall! Never before had any man mounted him, but I took and tamed him. …

Gandalf still talks sense as a wisp of a wizard, foot-sore, old and gray, or shining with his white sort of wisdom. Gandalf knew the unique make-up of Man, he was one himself, in a way, as was Saruman his master and Sauron the evil one of the Gabala, but his shrewdness and learning made wisdom in him, argued him into love—in many ways the only sort of love is that arrived at through the mind's cognition—whereas the romantic nature of his master desired Man's soul for a diadem and Sauron wanted it as the industrial diamond that would permit his gyrating of the world.

Tolkien, through his Trilogy, shows the great value that all Nature and supernature sets upon Man. All, save Man himself, know Man's great value and worth. Poor Faust found out the real price, as did Dan'l Webster, in Stephen Benét's great tale. The Devil would give almost anything, save his own soul, to deny salvation, to get Man into his hands, and the comic irony is that Man will go to the Devil for the treading of a chick, for some tenderloin time, not knowing the price that he commands.

Man, in his womb-like yearning for a haven always closed, which has served only to launch him, not to anchor, seeks ever for a warmth and light that Tolkien shows is not in this world; it cannot be given by other parts of Nature and can only be fleetingly revealed, as a token of what is to come. Tolkien is Token. Kinfolk die and are part of it. Their way in life is the only guide to their final destination. The Cosmos is involved in Man and in his struggle to get beyond his body or stay with it. Occasionally Man sees a light; some are gifted to see over the wall into Death's world before they die and to pass back the news. Now and then Man thinks all things are visible and tangible and grasps at it all, falling through an error that often was a generous and loving search into another pitfall of Evil, waving a panacea as he falls.

The exaltation of all Nature and the Universe has been the theme of the Jesuit priest and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin. His writing has exercised an attraction both within and without his Church for those seeking an answer and a solace denied them by more traditional and orthodox theological writing. It has aroused grave suspicion and caveats from Authority, thereby undoubtedly increasing its attraction. And his theology is attractive and desirable, for it responds to modern Man's dilemma. It cushions the Cross, almost substituting a mindless Joy for Love, and makes One with Nature. His theme is the very opposite of Tolkien's, which above all is traditional, stern and unrelenting in its vigorous portrayal of Man as a being born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. But, as with C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, readers sense a likeness between Teilhard de Chardin and Tolkien, and they are wrong again. Teilhard, that dubious Jesuit, hymns the Universe:

Always from the very first it was the world, greater than all the elements which make up the world, that I was in love with, and never before was there anyone before whom I could in honesty bow down.

His lyrical book of devotion, The Divine Milieu, like hot cakes grasped and devoured by the spiritually hungry, fearful and insecure, is dedicated “For those who love the world.”

This is altogether at odds with the unromantic, unblinking philosophy that Jacques Maritain has distilled from the Greek and the Latin, from his own creed, which fits Tolkien's Trilogy as a sword its scabbard.

Lewis, Williams and their kind, even Teilhard de Chardin, have more in common with Chesterton than ever Tolkien had, although he shared the same Church as G.K.C. There is something basically jolly about Chesterton, and Lewis and his like needed it, mirrored it, so as to whistle past the graveyard. Charles Williams always had in mind that happy land beyond his life. He saw Heaven through the wonders he conjured up on earth.

Never does Tolkien relent in all the sweep of his story into anything romantic or joyful—there is only jollity in the Hobbits—for he realizes that Chestertonian light and cheer are phantasmagoria, and that the Truth, rough and bitter as it may be, can afford the only real solace, the only real aid to Man in his trouble. Chesterton saw this too, as he fleetingly shows here and there in The Ballad of the White Horse, but, a journalist as well as a genius, he had to produce for editors and public, so he served up prose and poetry as if it were foaming brown ale and swallowed his own bitter brew behind the bar. All other relations, save the one that Tolkien delivers, fail at the edge of the grave, although they dance at weddings. Once Tolkien's message—no new one, but the old belief that Man dislikes and in the end rejects—is realized, it is not too hard to bear, even cherish; Man has his dignity. But neither is it easy, although it has its own sardonic humor, a soldier's kind. It is because Tolkien only reaffirms, so beguilingly and exhilaratingly, the old tenet of his race that he insists this work is that of subcreation, not creation. Were Tolkien's tenet of his own creation, as Teilhard de Chardin's message is of his, it would be diminished in significance, a new and fledgling belief, not an ancient-rooted truth revealed again for this time and age.

Tolkien accomplishes this in his tale of this relation so vigorously and gives such enjoyment to the reader with his legendary story of it that, because his story is heard even when it is read, the words sound like an organ in full bellow, working through a light voluntary air to the entire majesty of a symphony, with the grave calm and measured consolation of a recessional.

The entire action of the Trilogy is vivid and continued. The words run ahead of the tale as if they were running footmen bearing burning links into the growing dark of the story. The great art of Story is to tell the reader what is happening not only on the surface, but below and above also and, above all, what is to come, what may be ahead around the turn of a page. Every ploy of literary merit Tolkien can handle he uses to enthrall the reader. The great size of the book needs a heroic resolve even to start, so Tolkien makes it easy, thereby losing some readers but gaining many more, by his Hobbit larking. Possibly Tolkien could never have carried it through but for his domestic stability, any more than he can finish the fourth part of it, the addendum, The Silmarillion, without it, despite learning, craft, listeners and friends, and most of them are new, as the old pass on and he grows old. Moreover, he could never have conceived it alone had he not seen the collapsing of his world, built on his ancient premises.

Tolkien could no more blink this heroic theme, once he had taken up his pen to the task of it, than falter in his creed, and that's been tried and tested. In the end The Hobbit turned out to be not for children, as he had meant it to be, but the hook of his own device that pulled him into the deep of The Lord of the Rings. The great theme of his work he found before him majestically expressed in the words of old that came before his English and produced it. He Englished the beat of the Norse. Courage and its exercise are the only reward, the prosecution of courage that may give a bit more time of light before the dark comes down again, maybe forever. Man is called to the side of Good in his tales, not by a promise of victory, not for a reward in the Hereafter, whatever that may be, but because that is Man's reason for being, to go down battling for the idea of Man, the only piece of Creation not bound by the forces of Nature alone. Time and time again he gives his people and their company a chance to cop out, but with every decision to go on they become stronger in resolution as the strength of their bodies drains. They enrage the corps of the Evil Host of Sauron. Good is seen as a positive, and the use of it, like the use of love, only makes it stronger, as the neglect of it makes it harder to come by. One great advantage unknown to Frodo and his fellowship is that they can see something of the other side, they can understand something of Evil, having tasted it and enjoyed the taint and taste of corruption, furtively, guiltily—as who has not? But the Enemy cannot see their side, cannot conceive what it is to be good. The Enemy has lost the Good, forever: this is a part of their corruption that works against Sauron and his ilk and saves the wretch Gollum for a time, for he still remembers furtively the Good. It is a blessing little realized: that the Bad always underestimate the Good. This works most of the time, too, but mostly in the End, when the Bad put on the pressure.

Friends can be as welcome as good news. It is better to be befriended than to be rich or blooming. Tolkien is conscious of this; it runs all through his tale. From their homes in the Shire he calls his Hobbits, from their warm beds and loving arms—more than that for faithful Sam and more to come for Merry and for Pippin. Friendship is the protection that cannot be bought with anything but the giving of it. Chaos, greed and unreason may win every daily round, the Good may lose, even forever. But for all that, there is an exultant belief that defeat is no reason even to consider surrender when there are still friends. Tolkien, from the well of his learning, from his knowledge of the Norse, fashions a story that honors Man by throwing away the carrot, showing Man he is no donkey, but a lord, able to make his own way even if it ends up in the knacker's yard, able to struggle to death against the rest of the world to the very end—to an end worth fighting for. This is Tolkien's great contribution to those who read his Trilogy. The Ring, the final one, is a terrible instrument of Evil. The struggle for its destruction is the lot of Man, a purpose more worthy than all the promises of carrots, pies in the sky. These are bribes, often well-intended, fit for children and those who grow up only to be old, for those weakened by adversity and environment. These the dying will not forgive, when they need true consolation, realizing that they have been propped through days with lies. Only the Truth brings real compassion and dignity to die with; it cannot be denied.

There is in Tolkien, as there was in the beginning of his kind of Story, in the lands of the North, long before Christ hit them, always good company. That is what Man now lacks, save in primitive societies such as in the Aran Isles. Man does not know it, for he is gelded of it by the world and given sex instead. If there is no friendship, only sex, there is no marriage, only a temporary convenience that should not be bound in sacramental ties. A vow cannot be broken; habit can. And concupiscence, pleasant and devouring as it can be, is the reverse of a contract, because promises are made to be kept, and so is marriage, for better or for worse: there's the nub and rub of it. The lesson of Narcissus is lost: he has become just a pretty boy who looked at himself. Men need their own company, need to match their minds, like minds. C. S. Lewis waxed lyrical over it: “No sound delights me more than Man's laughter.” And in his preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams he is brimming with a wholly natural affection for men such as Williams. And, embarrassing as this might be, Lewis had a point that is lost in this Mom society.

The Inklings found pleasure in their own company. It guarded them and made them ready, through their reading and writings and the conclusions drawn from them, facing thereby some of the blows of their fates that would have finished them had they been alone. And they were all smitten; no Ivory Tower is Oxford, any more than any other place.

The best way one of Tolkien's creations can act is to be a Man. Don Tolkien defends the dignity of being human. The Victorians made do with the antics of animals dressed up in dolls' clothing, speaking quaintly in human kind—there is a touch of this in The Hobbit—before Tolkien came into his prime. The older fantasies cheered men with falsehood and heresies, lulled them with dreams of their own thumb-sucking thinking, until Tolkien revealed a harder, sterner, yet more ancient truth that Man can bear, once he gets the gist of it.

Tolkien will shift uneasily from this version of his motive. The last man to ask motive of is an artist, always; it's not even fair. The interpretation given to his work in one report, following an interview and some accounts of hipster gatherings, where Tolkien's characters, Gandalf and Frodo especially, had been raised on high, in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and in student sit-ins in the University of Chicago, gives a psychedelic twist, a long-haired, uncombed look to his work. “More than a campus craze, it's like a drug dream,” the New York Times had it, and the Hobbits are pinned to print as inventions of a bored Oxford don, as a benevolent, furry-footed, half-pint people “who have taken the rising generation by storm.”

Magic in Tolkien is never mumbo jumbo, kid stuff, a knotted-sheet rope for escape artists. When the earth heaves open or the sky cleaves, Heaven or Hell may be braking through. Heaven is not to be hoped for as coming here, it is not even realized, only sensed as what comes after. When Bilbo and Frodo sailed away to the Grey Havens, in the gentle rain there came a fragrance of sweet flowers, the sound of singing over the water. There, as in a dream, not in this world, Frodo saw the curtain of the rain rolled back and white shores rise bordering a far-away country of green, Hy-Brasil of Erin, maybe, and the sun came up, the sun that was the old glory, not just a ball of molten mass, a source of nuclear power.

Gloriana St. Clair (essay date spring 1979)

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SOURCE: St. Clair, Gloriana. “The Lord of the Rings as Saga.” Mythlore 6, no. 2 (spring 1979): 11-16.

[In the following essay, St. Clair presents arguments against placing The Lord of the Rings as a fairy story, an epic, and a romance, and instead contends that the trilogy is most similar to the genre of the traditional saga.]

One of the most useful aspects of literary criticism is to establish and to assign genres. Placing a modern work, like The Lord of the Rings, in its proper categories helps the reader to understand both the mechanics and the meaning of the work. Various critics have designated The Lord of the Rings a fairy-story, a traditional epic, a romance, and a novel. Each of these terms has some relevance, but none is, I believe as comprehensive and appropriate a genre for The Lord of the Rings as the saga. In this paper then, I wish to point out the weaknesses in the other assignments, to define the saga, and to demonstrate its pertinence to the structure and spirit of The Lord of the Rings.


In 1938 at the University of St. Andrews, J. R. R. Tolkien delivered as an Andrew Lang Lecture an essay “On Fairy-Stories,” which was later printed in Essays Presented to Charles Williams.1 Tolkien's critics have used this essay to measure his artistic achievement in The Lord of the Rings. However, not all the components Tolkien assigned to the fairy-story are appropriate for the trilogy.

The argument of these critics for The Lord of the Rings as fairy-story follows the structure of Tolkien's essay. Mark Roberts in a review notes that “Now it seems clear that The Lord of the Rings is fairy-story according to Professor Tolkien's understanding of the term.”2 Michael Straight especially defends The Lord of the Rings as an illumination of the essay's doctrine of the sub-creator and thus of “the inner consistency of reality,”3 elements that Tolkien says the fairy-story usually offers. Dorothy K. Barber in “The Meaning of The Lord of the Rings” also refers to Tolkien's essay with its theory of the sub-creator and its doctrine of Eucatastrophe.4 And in “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” R. J. Reilly states that “I will try to ‘place’ the trilogy in its proper genre—the fairy story mode as Tolkien conceives it.” (Ibid, p. 129) Reilly continues, “That is to say, in dealing with fantastic things rather than with real ones it attempts the purest form of narrative art, and succeeds to the extent that it induces in the reader the state of mind called Secondary Belief.” (Ibid, p. 144) Barber and Reilly also believe that Tolkien has created in The Lord of the Rings a Secondary World, which is believable and which has its own laws. They apply to the trilogy Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation.

However, these critics have failed to consider all the strictures that Tolkien places on the fairy-story. Although many of the terms apply in part, the comprehensive definition for a fairy-story is not appropriate. For example, in Reilly's discussion of Fantasy, he employs only half of Tolkien's definition; the remainder of the definition cannot be applied. Tolkien defines Fantasy: “For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Subcreative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I purpose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose …” (Tolkien, Op. Cit., p. 47) Reilly, as well as other admirers of the trilogy, states that it contains a Secondary World, which is both consistent and credible. But as Reilly fails to discuss, Tolkien also requires a special kind of presentation for the fairy-story: he demands “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.” Now, it seems to me that one of “Tolkien's most effective methods for creating the sense of reality present in The Lord of the Rings is the matter-of-fact, chronicle-like reporting of events. No imaginative story-teller has spun or invented or embellished this tale; it is presented to the reader as a narrative history of events recorded in the chronicle, Red Book of Westmarch. This invocation of the aura of history is, as will be discussed later, characteristic not of fairy-story but of saga.

After recreating the term Fantasy, Tolkien defines Recovery as the regaining of a clear view, and Escape as the constructive ability of the prisoner to focus his attention on something outside his prison rather than as the cowardly flight of the deserter to avoid Real Life. (Ibid, p. 57-60) Even though Roberts says that he can find no value or clear view in The Lord of the Rings, he charges this inadequacy to the writing style, which offends his tastes and prevents his participation.5 Despite Roberts' opinion, these terms do seem to apply to the trilogy and equally well to many types of literature other than the fairy-story.

Reilly, Barber, and Roberts all believe that the trilogy illustrates consolation, for they all agree that it ends happily in Eucatastrophe, the antithesis of tragedy. Tolkien says of this kind of happy ending that “it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Tolkien, Op. Cit., p. 68.) However, Tolkien's definition of Eucatastrophe does not quite explain the ending of The Lord of the Rings. Although the One Ring has been destroyed, Gandalf warns that evil is not destroyed. If the story had ended with the great climax consisting of the Ring's destruction and the subsequent rescue of Frodo and Sam, then the ending might be considered joyful. But, in fact, as the story continues, evil is discovered thriving in the Shire. This evil is, in turn, overcome, and the magic dust that Galadriel gave Sam erases its scars. At this point, too, the story might have ended happily. But the ending Tolkien chose for the story shows Gandalf, Frodo, Elrond and the other elves setting out for the Grey Havens. Those characters who are the most valiant and imaginative can no longer linger in the world of Middle-earth: the Third Age is at an end.

These critics see in the Grey Havens the Christian Heavenly City: they see the ending as the joyful ascension, without death, of the heroes into heaven. However, in “The Hobbit-Forming World of J. R. R. Tolkien,” Henry Resnik reports that “Tolkien's long acquaintance with Norse and Germanic myths inspired the chillier, more menacing landscapes of Middle-earth, and he makes no secret of having deliberately shaped the two major interests of his life—rural England and the northern myths—to his own literary purposes. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says, ‘I have tried to modernize the myths and make them credible.’”6 Consequently, if the Grey Havens is to be associated with Valhalla rather than the Christian Heaven, then the ending must reflect that interpretation. The Valkyries take the heroes from this life to Valhalla, to a magnificent banquet, sports, and fighting. But Valhalla is not an eternal refuge, only a waiting place until that final confrontation between good and evil. In this final battle, the Gods and the heroes will fight valiantly, but they will fall. The joy of Valhalla is the promise of one more combat, not the infinite Gloria of Christian salvation and everlasting life. The voyage to the Grey Havens is not a eucatastrophic event.

Furthermore, proponents of The Lord of the Rings as fairy-story have ignored Tolkien's comments on the concept of time and the problem of length. Of fairy-stories, Tolkien says that “they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.” (Tolkien, Op. Cit., p. 32) He comments further on time in the fairy-story in a note on Andrew Lang's “The Terrible Head”: “Namelessness is not a virtue but an accident, and should not have been imitated: for vagueness in this regard is a debasement, a corruption due to forgetfulness and lack of skill. But not so, I think, the timelessness. That beginning (‘once upon a time’) is not poverty-stricken but significant. It produces at a stroke the sense of a great unchartered world of time.” (Ibid, p. 84) The fairy-story, as Tolkien sees it, is a world outside of time: yet an awareness of time pervades The Lord of the Rings. The natural time sequence of the story proper is even supplemented by time-oriented appendices, such as “A” “The Annals of the Kings and Rulers,” “B” “The Tale of Years (Chronology of the Westlands),” “C” “Family Trees,” and “D” “Shire Calendar.”

A final disparity between Tolkien's prototype of the fairy-story and the trilogy is length. The examples on which “On Fairy-Stories” relies are drawn mainly from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, Jakob Grimm's Fairy Tales, and George Dasent's Popular Tales from the Norse. The longest story in Lang's The Brown Fairy Book is forty-seven pages,7 in a translation of Grimm's work fifteen pages,8 and in Dasent's volume twenty pages9 while The Lord of the Rings in three volumes runs 1,215 pages including the appendices. With his essay on the fairy-story, Tolkien had printed “Leaf by Niggle” noting that the two are related “by the symbols of Tree and Leaf, and by both touching on what is called in the essay subcreation.’” (Tolkien, Op. Cit., p. 2) This story, which seems to display Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation, covers twenty-five pages.

Thus, because the style of the trilogy does not follow Tolkien's suggestion for the style of Fantasy, because the ending is not Eucatastrophe, because the trilogy is in time, not outside of it, and because the work is far beyond the usual length of the fairy-story, The Lord of the Rings should not be assigned to the genre of the fairy-story.


Another genre suggested for The Lord of the Rings is the traditional epic. In “Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” Bruce A. Beatie argues that the trilogy is a traditional epic: “That is, a work of the genre which includes the Epic of Gilgamesh (from the third millennium B.C.), the Homeric poems and perhaps the Aeneid, the Medieval epics Chanson de Roland and Nibelungenlied, the Russian bylini recorded in the nineteen-thirties …”10 The difficulty with Beatie's assignment is that he is unclear about what actually constitutes an epic. He is particularly confused about the differences between traditional epic and saga.

Beatie bases his conception of the traditional epic more on Rhys Carpenter's Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in the Homeric Epics than on the examples quoted above. Carpenter distinguishes the elements in his title as follows: “Saga, which purports to be true fact and happening held fast in popular memory; fiction, which is the persuasive decking out of circumstance with trappings borrowed from contemporary actuality; and folk tale, which is utterly unreal but by no means utterly irrational—all these can be sewn together in the rhapsode's glittering fabric.”11 Carpenter bases his definition of saga on the questionable concept that all but the most fantastic portions of the saga were to be regarded either as historical or only slightly exaggerated.

Beatie's confusion about epic and saga stems from Carpenter's lack of understanding of the saga: Carpenter employs only the Volsunga saga and the Grettis saga as examples. Of the latter, he says “Folk tale and historic saga and literary fiction all blend harmoniously into the reality of the bleak Icelandic world wherein the sagateller lived.”12 Thus, if the Grettis saga is a blend of folk tale, fiction, and saga, as the Iliad and the Odyssey are, then for these two critics no distinction between the saga and the traditional epic is possible.

However, Carpenter's definition is not quite representative of all the concepts of the epic genre. For instance, M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms defines epic as “a long narrative poem on a serious subject, related in an elevated style, and centered about a heroic figure on whose actions depends to some degree the fate of a nation or a race.”13 Only two parts of the definition apply to The Lord of the Rings: the serious subject and the fate of the whole race. The trilogy does not have an elevated style, does not center on one heroic figure, and is not a poem. Some of the conventions of the epic are also lacking: the Muse is not invoked, the narrative does not begin in medias res, and the catalogues are relegated to the appendices.

Thus, Beatie's special definition of the traditional epic obscures the difference between epic and saga rather than placing The Lord of the Rings in the epic genre. And the traditional definition and conventions cannot be fully applied to the trilogy. Furthermore, it seems best to keep the distinction between prose (even that which contains some poetry) and poetry intact especially since the high ceremonial style seems so germane to the conventions and traditions of the epic.


Another genre considered in connection with The Lord of the Rings is the traditional romance. William Blissett in “The Despots of the Rings” has called it a heroic romance and charted some of its similarities to the Wagnerian Ring of the Nibelung.14 In “The Lord of the Rings: The Novel as Traditional Romance,” George H. Thomson has done a more comprehensive study of the motifs and structures of the trilogy in terms of those of the romance. His thesis is that “With respect to its subject matter, the story is an anatomy of romance themes or myths: with respect to its structure, the story is a tapestry romance in the Medieval-Renaissance tradition.”15 Using the six phases of romance identified by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, Thomson notes the major occurrences of themes quite effectively.

What Blissett and Thomson fail to recognize is that a saga can be a prose Northsea-oriented romance, which has undergone certain stylistic alterations. Frye considers the saga a variation of the romance. He says that “The romance, which deals with heroes, is intermediate between the novel, which deals with men, and the myth, which deals with gods. Prose romance first appears as a late development of Classical mythology, and the prose Sagas of Iceland follow close on the mythical Eddas.”16 As Margaret Schlauch in The Romance in Iceland demonstrates, the romance accounts for two types of sagas: the fornaldarsögur, which deal with the old Norse gods and heroes, and the lygisögur, which were mainly retellings of romances imported from the Mediterranean area.17

These lygisögur naturally display the six phases of traditional romance. In the chapter “Recurrent Literary Themes,” Schlauch takes an imaginary hero Helgi and suggests what the typical course of his adventures might have been in one of these sagas. He is frequently jeopardized at birth by being exposed or offered as a sacrifice to a god. His innocent youth may be spent as a menial: at best he is slow-witted and will not work. His innocence may be threatened by an amorous and evil stepmother whose advances he stoutly refuses. His quest may involve love and/or fortune and/or fame, and he will have to deal with dragons, trolls, and miscellaneous monsters. As his quest forms the main part of the saga, the comedic phases of the romance are frequently quite brief. But the conclusion is usually merry with the traditional proliferation of marriages of the hero and his companions to numerous rescued princesses. Helgi is left, then, “happily married to a princess whom he has won with great effort, and serene in the assurance that his descendants will be no less famous than he.”18 His adventures have followed the pattern that Frye establishes for the traditional romance. (Frye, Op. Cit., p. 198-203)

Frye's third phase of romance, the quest, deserves particular attention since W. H. Auden has so thoroughly established its relevance to the structure and meaning of The Lord of the Rings. Thomson points out, and I concur, that the quest is not a genre in itself but is rather a most “frequent and important form of the romance story.” (Thomson, Op. Cit., pp. 57-58) However, this quest form is not limited to the romance or even to the lygisögur. The quest also occurs in the fornaldarsögur and the family sagas. For example, Auden's essential elements of the typical quest appear in fornaldarsaga, such as Hrólfs saga Kraka, and in family saga, such as Kormáks saga.

The saga also illustrates the tapestry style that Thomson assigns to the medieval romance and The Lord of the Rings. For instance, Snorri uses this skillful movement from one center of interest to another effectively in the Heimskringla.

The stylistic points at which the saga diverges from its predecessor, the romance, are the points which make saga a more appropriate genre for The Lord of the Rings. Both the saga and the trilogy pretend to be history: this pretension to history more adequately explains the beginning and end of The Lord of the Rings than the romance's conventions do. Furthermore, the connotations of romance are a work in poetry related to the Mediterranean culture, but those of the saga are a prose work related to the Northsea culture. The connotations of romance are not applicable while those of saga are.


No investigation of the genres assigned to The Lord of the Rings could be complete without a discussion of the prevalent twentieth-century prose form, the novel. Nevertheless, the problematic nature of the novel complicates this endeavor. Definitions of the novel vary with E. M. Forster's pronouncement in Aspects of the Novel that “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words will be a novel,”19 and Northrop Frye's declaration that since we have no word from the Greeks for prose fiction, the term “novel” has been used for everything and has thus lost its only true meaning. The terms Frye finally suggests are novel, romance, autobiography, and Menippean satire. (Frye, Op. Cit., pp. 306-310) Handbooks such as Abram's Glossary of Literary Terms and Thrall and Hibbard's A Handbook to Literature, supplant definition with discussions of predecessors, of types, and of elements. Clearly, The Lord of the Rings qualifies as a novel under Forster's definition, but if the modern analysis of the fictitious nature of most sagas is accurate, then they qualify as novels, too.

Thus, a work of the unusual nature of The Lord of the Rings only complicates the long-standing problem of defining the novel. And a knowledge of the sagas further confuses both the definition of the novel and that of The Lord of the Rings. Hopefully, a workable definition of the saga itself will distinguish the sagas from the novels and will illuminate the nature of The Lord of the Rings.


Establishing the definition of the saga is difficult. Unfortunately, not all the confusion between the saga and the novel lies in definitions of the novel. Saga specialists have also made the comparison. For instance, Margaret Schlauch in the preface to her translation of the Volsunga saga says that “In taking over this variegated material from the poems of the Edda and transforming it into a prose saga—the equivalent of a modern novel—the Sagaman shows no little literary skill.”20 Halvdan Koht in The Old Norse Sagas speaks of two kinds of popular stories, “pure fiction and historical novels.”21 And, in the “Introduction” to Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Lee M. Hollander's translation of Njála, the editors refer to “the medieval novels we call sagas …”22 Handbook definitions, such as the one by Thrall and Hibbard, stress the place and period of creation rather than the characteristics of the saga. Authorities like Stefan Einarsson in A History of Icelandic Literature devote a chapter to the question.

Therefore, in order to show how The Lord of the Rings fits the saga form, I must commit myself to a statement on what I believe a saga is. Thus, I have compiled from various sources the following definition: A saga is an extended, prose, chronological narrative with these conventions: a concrete impression of location, a protracted interest in genealogy, a zeal for capsule character description, an abundance of action and adventure, and some pretensions to a historical basis. The term “saga” connotes an affinity for the cultural heritage of the North Atlantic peoples.23 Although such a definition should ideally be supported with as many examples as possible, I am going to confine my illustrations of these conventions mainly to some critical commentaries and to the family saga Njáls saga (Njála). At the same time, I shall provide corresponding examples from The Lord of the Rings.

In the body of the definition, the term “extended” is, of course, open-ended: no one wants to say precisely how many pages would be necessary, but in general, scholars call shorter pieces of Icelandic literature þættir, and the longer works sagas. Njála, a trilogy of sorts, is 390 big pages, and the Heimskringla is 854 pages. The three volume 1,215 page The Lord of the Rings is extended.

Similarly, both the sagas and the trilogy are in prose, although most of the sagas, and The Lord of the Rings, too, are embellished with verse. However, as verse is absent or minimal in some kings and family sagas (parts of the Heimskringla and Hrafnkatla, for example), I did not require it as a characteristic in the definition.

Further, all the saga authors try to keep their stories as chronological as possible. Naturally, when they use more than one strand, they must go back in time to the point where they can join the other story line. Tolkien uses this technique especially in volumes two and three where various members of the Fellowship are separated from each other. And even though aphoristic phrases and bits of dialogue do come from their speakers, the saga is, in its essence, a story being told. The word “narrative” in the definition would exclude much that the novel genre may encompass: the sagas and the trilogy are stories told as stories without apology.

The first convention of the saga is the importance of the location to the telling of the story. Many of the Icelandic family saga writers lived in the area they wrote about, and the audience would have immediately noticed any errors. Modern foreign editions of the sagas inevitably contain maps so that the reader can more easily follow the movement of the story. Njála, for instance, has a map of Iceland and on the verso a large scale map of Southwest Iceland. Similarly, The Fellowship of the Ring provides its readers with a two page map of Middle-earth and an enlarged map of the Shire. The Two Towers repeats the map of Middle-earth, but The Return of the King has an enlarged map of Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor. All these maps of Middle-earth show the path taken by the adventurers just as the map of twelfty-century Iceland in Gordon's Introduction to Old Norse shows the routes of Hrafnkel and Sam to Alding.

A second convention, the interest in genealogy, seems tedious to modern readers, but the Icelanders' love for genealogies is shared, Tolkien assures us, by the hobbits. “All Hobbits were, in any case, clannish and reckoned up their relationships with great care. They drew long and elaborate family trees with innumerable branches. In dealing with Hobbits it is important to remember who is related to whom, and in what degree … The genealogical trees at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch are a small book in themselves and all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull” (I, 16-17).24 Nevertheless, the hobbits would have loved Njála, for it begins with “Mord, Hoskuld, and their Kin” and mentions families for most of its cast. Thus, the Appendix “C” “Family Trees” of The Lord of the Rings has its parallel in the genealogical appendices which modern editors frequently supply for the sagas: Turville-Petre's edition of Vïga-Glúms saga has two, for example.

Capsule character description is a third convention of the saga. Although some characters are studies in great psychological depth (Gudrun in Laxdoela, Grettir, and Glúm are examples), most are limited to a briefer treatment. In his introduction to the Saga of the Jómsvikings, Lee Hollander describes this technique:

The family sagas present us with a wealth of sharply etched and individualized portraits: but this author, in consonance with the highly fictive nature of his work, gives us characters which are types rather than individuals. Thus, Bui, Vagn, Sigvaldi are all seen in the one plane of their dominant traits—manly intrepidity, reckless heroism, foxy shrewdness, respectively. Only one character may be said to exemplify all the ideals of heathen Norse antiquity: Palnatoki, warrior and born leader, founder and kingmaker. But contrary to most of the purely fictitious sagas of the North, and in agreement here with the cool objectivity of the family sagas, there is no one “hero” around whom events are centered and whose part we take. Our sympathies are not exclusively engaged on one side, even in the great battle, but veer now to the one, now to the other.25

Much that Hollander observes about The Saga of the Jómsvikings also fits other sagas and The Lord of the Rings. For instance, Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf are the central characters, but Meriadoc, Peregrin, Samwise, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, Eowyn, and Faramir are each heroes in separate spheres.

With so many important characters, the individualized portraits must be handled rather summarily. For instance, in Njála, the sagaman describes Skarphedin: “Now Njál's sons must be named. The oldest was Skarphedin. He was tall, strong, and well skilled in arms. He swam like a seal and he was an excellent runner. Skarphedin was quick in his decisions and absolutely fearless. He spoke trenchantly, (but often) rashly. Yet for the most part he kept his temper well under control. He had brown curly hair and handsome eyes. His features were sharp and he had a sallow complexion. He had a hook nose, his teeth were prominent, and he had a rather ugly mouth, but he looked every bit the warrior.”26

Although Tolkien does not give us the trenchant clues to character that the sagaman often supplies, he does suggest something of the manner of the man along with his initial description of the character's appearance. For example, at the Council of Elrond, Tolkien reveals something of Boromir's character: “And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance. He was cloaked and booted as if for a journey on horseback: and indeed though his garments were rich, and his cloak was lined with fur, they were stained with long travel. He had a collar of silver in which a single white stone was set: his locks were shorn about his shoulders. On a baldric he wore a great horn tipped with silver …” (I, 253). Tolkien allows Boromir's most important characteristic—his hubristic thirst for power—to develop through the action and dialogue of the story, but Tolkien does foreshadow it by mentioning Boromir's pride.

The fourth convention, the abundance of action and adventure, is prevalent in the sagas and The Lord of the Rings. In Njála, for instance, sea voyages, fights, murders, battles, revenge, stealing, horsefights, ambushes, escapes, and burnings follow in close sequence. Action and adventure predominate in The Lord of the Rings, too. There, land and sea journeys, barrow descent, battles, wars, suicide, and attacks by monsters are frequent.

Lack of any emphasis on love or sex is almost a corollary to that much adventure. Even sagas, such as Kormáks saga and Gunnlaugs saga that are primarily love stories, emphasize neither sex nor sentiment. And along with the love story, holmgang, battles, viking raids, and sea voyages form a major part of the story. Similarly, although The Lord of the Rings ends with a triple marriage, sex and romance are not extensively explored.

Finally, the saga conventionally pretends to be history. Students of the saga have argued long and fervently about which sagas are historical and to what degree the historical ones are accurate. For stories that have perhaps boiled long in Tolkien's pot of “oral tradition,” the answer must always be a relative supposition. However, even the blatantly artificial sagas pretend to be historical. Einarsson says that “These types [riddara sögur (knight's tales) and lygi sögur (lying tales)] range from pure history to wild fiction, but practically all the fictitious sagas purport to be historical and deal with semi- or pseudo-historical figures.”27 Thus, every story from the settlement of Greenland to the wildest adventure with a genie in Axia presents itself as history.

With Einarsson's statement in mind, Beatie's blatant dismissal of the “saga-aspect of Tolkien's work” becomes ridiculous. Beatie says that “The saga-aspect of Tolkien's work can be dealt with more briefly. The ‘purportedly true facts’ behind The Lord of the Rings are, to be sure, the product of an incredibly fertile imagination. Whereas for the Nibelungenlied the ‘saga’ consists in the historical destruction of the Burgundians by the Huns in the year 437, for the Chanson de Roland in Charlemagne's expedition to Spain in the year 778, for the Beowulf in obscure Dano-Swedish quarrels of the late fifth century, there is no such kernel of historical ‘truth’ in Tolkien's work.”28 Ironically, none of Beatie's three examples is a saga, which is by definition a prose work.

Yet, Tolkien has a broader perspective on the nature of history. In the “Foreword” to the revised edition of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien confesses his preference for history: “But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers” (I, 7).

And, in fact, he has gone to some lengths to feign a historical basis for his work. In the “Note on the Shire Records,” Tolkien discusses the relationship between the trilogy and its sources: “This account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch.” He explains that the origin of the Red Book was Bilbo's diary, which Frodo brought home from Rivendell and supplemented with his own account of the war. The Red Book, like the Morkinskinna and the Fagrskinna, is named for its binding, a red leather case. Tolkien continues the “Note” with a discussion of the copies of, redactions of, additions to, and repositories of the Red Book, and then he launches into a discussion of supplementary sources such as Meriadoc's Herblore of the Shire, Reckoning of Years and Old Words and Names in the Shire. These books, and others from the library at Great Smials, were used in compiling the appendices for the story of the war of the Ring (I, 23-25). Icelandic scholars would undoubtedly be grateful to have such a clear statement of the use of the Landnámabók, other chronicles, and older sagas in the composition of one of the surviving family sagas.

Clearly, as the “Note on the Shire Records” and Appendices “A” to “F” show, Tolkien has created a historical framework as real as that of many of the sagas. And, this pretension to history is perhaps one of the conventions that places The Lord of the Rings most convincingly in the saga form.

Throughout this paper, I have argued that the genres of fairy-story, epic, romance, and novel should be assigned to The Lord of the Rings only as they are illuminating and only when the full connotation of the generic term, as well as its skeletal definition, aids in that illumination. Thus, in my definition of the saga, I insist on the affinity of the saga to the North Atlantic peoples—the Scandinavians and their heirs in Iceland, Greenland, and England.

The proof of this affinity lies in my doctoral dissertation where I have shown how Tolkien did, indeed, “modernize the myths and make them credible.”29 The traditions of the North pervade Tolkien's work. The chain of being of Middle-earth includes many creatures from Miagara, the home of men in Norse cosmography. But some of the characters are changed and disguised with their names and most obvious characteristics omitted. Some possible reasons for alterations might be a desire to subordinate the sources to the story, the necessities of the plot, and the lack of adequate personages in recorded Norse mythology.

The creatures of Middle-earth, such as elves, dwarves, and trolls, all have analogs in Norse materials. And the Northern superstition about the evil eye culminates in The Eye of Sauron. Certain landscapes, magic rings, named swords, and splendid armor have Norse parallels, and both cultures engaged in riddle games, used runes, and respected dreams and portents. The ethical system of both realms is concerned with pagan virtues, such as comitatus, kinship and revenge.

Moreover, these Old Norse parallels increase in the portion of the trilogy that features the men of Gondor and the Northern Kingdom. Here, Tolkien recreates some of the famous personages of the sagas. For instance, Aragorn is in many ways like an archetypal Norse king. His reforged sword, his white tree, and his use of a leaf in healing could come from the Volsunga saga while his ride through the paths of the dead and his winged helmet may come from Norse mythology.

Considering The Lord of the Rings as saga also prepares the reader for the Ragnanøk (Doom of the Gods) world view and for the loss of the heroic way of life in the ending. Of the several genres that have been assigned to the trilogy, none of them is as suitable as the saga, for none explains the structure, the style, and the orientation as thoroughly.


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader (New York, 1966), p. 2.

  2. “Adventures in English,” Essays in Criticism, VI (1956), p. 454.

  3. “The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien,” New Republic, CXXXIV (January 15, 1956), p. 24.

  4. In Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Neil Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Notre Dame, 1968), p. 39.

  5. Roberts, pp. 455-57.

  6. Saturday Evening Post (July 2, 1966), p. 90.

  7. Andrew Lang, ed., The Brown Fairy Book (New York, 1904), pp. 1-47.

  8. Jakob Grimm, Grimm's Fairy Tales, tr. Mrs. H. B. Paull (New York, n.d.), pp. 45-60.

  9. George W. Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse (New York, 1912), pp. 232-251.

  10. In Mankato State College Series, II (February, 1967), The Tolkien Papers, p. 3.

  11. (Berkeley, 1946), p. 22.

  12. Carpenter, pp. 38-39.

  13. (New York, 1961), p. 29.

  14. South Atlantic Quarterly, LVIII (Summer, 1959), 448-56.

  15. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, VIII (Winter, 1967), 44-45.

  16. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (New York, 1969), p. 306.

  17. (New York, 1934), pp. 1-17.

  18. Schlauch, pp. 95-118.

  19. (New York, 1927), p. 13.

  20. Volsunga saga, The Saga of the Volsungs, The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok Together with the Lay of Kraka, tr. Margaret Schlauch (New York, 1930), p. xviii.

  21. (New York, 1931), p. 40.

  22. Njáls saga, Njál's Saga tr. Carl F. Bayerschmidt and Lee M. Hollander (New York, 1955), p. 5. Icelandic Pet Name: Njála.

  23. Although the wording is mine, this definition is utterly indebted not only to the sagas and introductions I have read but also to Halvdan Koht's The Old Norse Sagas, Margaret Schlauch's The Romance in Iceland, W. A. Craigle's The Icelandic Sagas (Cambridge, 1913) [Reprinted New York 1968], Theodore M. Andersson's The Problem of Icelandic Saga Origins: A Historical Survey (New Haven, 1964), and G. Turville-Petre's Origins of Icelandic Literature (Oxford, 1953). Stefan Einarsson's chapter “The Sagas” in A History of Icelandic Literature (New York, 1957) was particularly helpful.

  24. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965 c. 1965). Citations in my text are to this edition.

  25. The Saga of the Jomsvikings, tr. Lee M. Hollander (Austin, 1955), pp. 22-23.

  26. Njáls saga, p. 64.

  27. Einarsson, p. 122.

  28. Beatie, p. 11.

  29. Resnik, p. 94.

Jared Lobdell (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Lobdell, Jared. “Defining The Lord of the Rings: An Adventure Story in the Edwardian Mode.” In England and Always: Tolkien's World of the Rings, pp. 3-25. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981.

[In the following essay, Lobdell discusses elements of Lord of the Rings that coincide with the Edwardian adventure story.]

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. …
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said
the Rat.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

It is not at all certain that the game of Quellenforschung (“source-hunting”) is worth playing with The Lord of the Rings, or indeed with most literary creations. Exceptions can be made, of course, for the asking of questions such as “What did Chaucer really do to Il Filostrato?” or for the game-playing demanded by The Waste Land, but there may well be truth to the suspicion that the game in general is not worth the candle. Yet the search for sources can be part of a search for influences, and the search for influences can be both valid and helpful—as when we look for Vergil's influence on Milton or the influence of the ballads on Coleridge. But we must be looking at both form and subject matter.

Now of course Vergil is an influence on Milton, but is not his source. The influence of the ballads on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is obvious, but it would be a brave man who considered them Coleridge's sources. Nevertheless, if there were a number of secondary epics that might have influenced Milton, we should, I think, be justified in looking to see which of them served as a source, in order to see which was most likely to have served as an influence. Similarly, if we were interested in finding out which ballads influenced Coleridge, we might well look through the ballad corpus for parallels—sources and analogues—for the Rime.

This is essentially the kind of endeavor I am engaged in here, for The Lord of the Rings. I want to know what kind of work Tolkien set out to write. To which of the great pre-existing forms of literary creation, so different in the expectations they excite and fulfill (the reader may recognize Professor Lewis's words here), so diverse in their powers, is The Lord of the Rings designed to contribute? Since we do not have available to us any writings in which Professor Tolkien set down the answer to that question, and since (despite the intentional fallacy) it is indeed “the first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship, from a corkscrew to a cathedral, to know what it is,” I think my endeavor is justified. There may of course be better ways than mine to find out what The Lord of the Rings is designed to be, but this way seems to be both promising and untrod.

There are two sets of clues to which we should pay particular heed in a search for those whose writing influenced the form of The Lord of the Rings, and both sets have been largely overlooked. The first set is composed primarily of Tolkien's own comments and secondarily of those few passages in his work where he obviously echoes another author. The second set is composed of the subjective reactions and literary tastes of those readers of The Lord of the Rings who have at least a passing familiarity with the English literature of the period in which Tolkien grew up. The first set of clues provides material for answering the question, “Who, according to what Tolkien wrote, may be considered to have influenced him?” The second provides material for answering the question, “who wrote the kind of book that affects us in the ways The Lord of the Rings affects us and, the dates being right, may therefore have written the kind of book Tolkien would be likely to have read?” (The implicit assumption here is that authors write the kind of book they like to read.)

If we are to make use of both sets of clues, it is of course necessary for us to have some idea of the way Tolkien's mind worked. I suspect there has not been much of value written on this subject, but we can at least make a stab at gaining information sufficient to proceed with our inquiry. We can begin by quoting Tolkien's reaction to the tale of the juniper tree.

“The beauty and horror” of the tale, he says, “with its exquisite and tragic beginning, the abominable cannibal stew, the gruesome bones, the gay and vengeful bird-spirit coming out of a mist that rose from the tree, has remained with me since childhood; and yet always the chief flavour of that tale lingering in the memory was not beauty or horror, but distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr.” And, as I hope to demonstrate, we can see in some of Tolkien's other reading the impress of that dark backward and abysm of time. At the same time, we can see in his childhood reading of dictionaries a fascination with languages. Indeed, his mind was chiefly attuned to languages and the past—which is not, I should emphasize, the same thing as being interested in words and history.

I shall have occasion to refer to this again, but it may be a good thing to mention here Tolkien's reference to the remark of Sjera Tomas Saemundsson: “Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too, or become different peoples.” The languages are more than the words. And, in the same way, the past is more than its history. History is only the facts, or a presentation of the facts, accidentally left to us from the past. We cannot get into the real forest of the past; that is part of what the word “past” means.

It must also be made clear that to give the direction of Tolkien's mind is not yet to explain how his mind worked, only to give what mathematicians might call the parameters of its working. The important thing for us to remember here is that while grammar studies the rules of language, and history studies the rules of the past (one might argue that history is the grammar of the past), Tolkien's reactions to these things were not those of a grammarian. He described The Lord of the Rings as containing “in the way of presentation that I find most natural, much of what I personally have received from the study of things Celtic.” And he once remarked that “his typical response upon reading a medieval work was to desire not so much to make a philological or critical study of it as to write a modern work in the same tradition.”

In Tolkien's professional life the intersection of language and the past came in the realm of philology. In the inward life of his imagination, it came in his creation of a new version of middle-earth. There have, of course, been other versions of middle-earth, from the Midgard of the Norsemen to Langland's fair field full of folk: as Tolkien has reminded us, middle-earth is not his creation, though he created the “Middle Earth” of The Lord of the Rings. That act of creation was necessary before a story could be written about his Middle Earth, but it is the story, and not the creation, that is our subject here.

We know that The Lord of the Rings was not the first or even the second story whose events took place within the bounds of Tolkien's Middle Earth. It is not even certain it was the third story. We know also that Tolkien wrote other stories as his children were growing up, and it may be that these would repay our attention by giving us additional clues for our endeavor (one of these stories, “Mr. Bliss,” has been spoken of as “Thurber without the bitterness”). But since we do not have these additional clues, we may reasonably turn to the clues we have, to see where they will lead us.

First, we may look at the writers whose influence Tolkien himself acknowledged, or to whose works he referred, or whose works he conspicuously echoed. The list is not long, and the first name on it, Sir Henry Rider Haggard, is almost certainly the most important. Indeed, in a telephone conversation with the American journalist Henry Resnick, Tolkien said this of Haggard's She: “I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything—like the Greek shard of Amyntas, which was the kind of machine by which everything got moving.” And, if that were not enough, we have evident parallels between the death of Ayesha (the She of the title) and the death of Saruman. Perhaps it would be well to set them out here.

Haggard's description of the death of Ayesha may be the less familiar of the two:

Smaller she grew, and smaller yet, till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin had puckered into a million wrinkles, and on her shapeless face was the mark of unutterable age. I never saw anything like it; nobody ever saw anything to equal the infinite age which was graven on that fearful countenance, no bigger now than that of a two-months' child, though the skull retained its same size. … I took up Ayesha's kirtle and the gauzy scarf … and, averting my head so that I might not look upon it, I covered up that dreadful relic.

(Dover ed., pp. 222-223)

Beside this may be set Tolkien's description of the death of Saruman:

Frodo looked down on the body with pity and horror, for as he looked it seemed that long years of death were suddenly revealed in it, and it shrank, and the shrivelled face became rags of skin upon a hideous skull. Lifting up the skirt of the dirty cloak that sprawled beside it, he covered it over, and turned away.

(III, 370)

The parallel is not exact, but it is certainly highly suggestive. Nor do I think I would be stretching a point to bring in, as additional evidence, the predominant importance of caves in both Haggard and Tolkien. In King Solomon's Mines, the Don is found dead in a cave on the way, the dead kings are enthroned in the cave, and the travelers are very nearly entombed there as well. In She the secret fire of immortality, which destroys Ayesha, is likewise in a cave—and, of course, both fire and cave have their parallels in Orodruin. And Moria, Shelob's lair—all those dark places where “the flowers of symbelmynë come never to the world's end”—testify eloquently to what is at least a noteworthy similarity between the two. (Freudians may find a different explanation; I prefer mine.)

Perhaps it would also be worth recalling here that Haggard was drawn to Africa, where he had been secretary to the Governor of Natal, because of its mystery, its age-old past, and even (though not so strongly) the majesty of its languages. Given this evidence, I think we will not be far wrong if we assign to Haggard a chief place among Tolkien's literary forebears.

Next among them—and here we may be on more tenuous grounds—we find G. K. Chesterton, between whose works and Tolkien's “On Fairy Stories” we can trace a set of connections, including some Tolkienian passages with a remarkably Chestertonian ring. Let me give you some examples of what I mean. Andrew Lang once remarked that the taste of children “remains like the taste of their naked ancestors thousands of years ago.” Tolkien began his response by saying, “But do we really know much about these ‘naked ancestors’ except that they were certainly not naked?” When Max Muller claimed that mythology was a “disease of language,” Tolkien made this reply:

Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology.

Either response could have been written by Chesterton, and the first, in fact, echoes a passage in The Everlasting Man.

Finally, I would challenge readers who do not recognize it to tell me whether Tolkien or Chesterton wrote the passage which is my third example:

We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm.

In fact, the quotations are from “On Fairy Stories” (from the The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine, pp. 62, 48, 49). Nevertheless, we do not know whether Tolkien read the early Chesterton of The Man Who Was Thursday or The Napoleon of Notting Hill. On the available evidence we can only say that it seems highly likely, and on that basis look briefly at what Chesterton was trying to do, and what it was that he succeeded in doing.

Haggard in ordinary life was a sufficiently prosaic Englishman (an expert on English agriculture) and sought in his books to portray the romance of what everyone could see was romantic. Chesterton, on the other hand, was anything but ordinary (witness the fictional portrait in John Dickson Carr's Gideon Fell), and I think it not coincidental that he sought to portray the romance of what everyone could see was prosaic: “We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station?” It is true that Chestertonian paradox can grow wearying, but the root of his love for paradox lies in the not at all paradoxical belief that the wide world is really a remarkably interesting place after all.

How, then, might this have influenced Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings? Most directly, I believe, in the very character of the Hobbits. As Chesterton's Father Brown is short and round and the essence of the Norfolk flats, so Bilbo Baggins is short and round and the essence of an English shire. Perhaps the Battle of Bywater is not unlike the battles in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Of course, at these points Chestertonian paradox was touching something deep in the paradoxical character of England, and Tolkien could certainly have touched it entirely without Chesterton's intermediation. But I do not think he did.

Third among the authors Tolkien read—and here I claim an unfair advantage in the game of Quellenforschung—was Algernon Blackwood. The evidence I have seen lies in an entry in the original (but not the edited and published) version of the “Notes on the Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings,” in which Tolkien traces his use of “the crack of doom” to an unidentified story by Blackwood. Now for our purposes it is unimportant whether the source of Tolkien's Crack of Doom (in Orodruin) was indeed something Blackwood wrote; what is important is that Tolkien could not have thought it was if he had not read (and been influenced by) Blackwood. I suspect there may be confirmatory evidence for the reading (and the influence) in the character of Old Man Willow, though he is not so terrible as the willows in Blackwood's story of that name.

Blackwood's narrator writes of the “acres of willows, crowding … pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening. … Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened … woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of … a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not invited to remain.” And a little later “the note of this willow-camp became unmistakably plain to me: we were interlopers, trespassers; we were not wanted. The sense of unfamiliarity grew upon me.” And finally (in a passage with Entish—or perhaps Huornish—connotations), “They first became visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes—immense, bronze-coloured, moving. … I saw them plainly and noted, now I came to examine them more calmly, that they were very much larger than human, and indeed that something in their appearance proclaimed them to be not human at all. … I saw their limbs and huge bodies … rising up in a living column …” (Strange Stories, Heinemann ed., pp. 635-6, 644, 647).

The style is different, of course, and yet I catch in Blackwood something I catch in Tolkien but in few others—perhaps at night in the wildwood in The Wind in the Willows also (yet those willows are friendlier). I mean a sense of man (or Hobbit) as interloper in the woods, of the trees as sentient entities, and of something neither tree nor human—nor yet, as with Saki, clearly Pan. And in the same volume (“The Glamour of the Snow” in Strange Stories) I find passages (on pages 125 and 127) that could be glosses on the experience with Caradhras.

Here the hero of the story (not the same as in “The Willows”) “tried to turn away in escape, and so trying, found for the first time that the power of the snow—that other power which does not exhilarate but deadens effort—was upon him. The suffocating weakness that it brings to exhausted men, luring them to the sleep of death in her clinging soft embrace, lulling the will and conquering all desire for life—this was awfully upon him.” And then, as he escapes, “For ever close upon his heels came the following forms and voices with the whirling snow-dust. He heard that little silvery voice of death and laughter at his back. Shrill and wild, with the whistling of the wind past his ears, he caught its pursuing tones; but in anger now. …”

I am not suggesting here that Blackwood is Tolkien's source for the character of Old Man Willow or for the snowstorm at Caradhras; he could be, I suppose, but it is not in this that his importance lies. What I am suggesting is that the cast of Blackwood's mind, as revealed in these passages, is surprisingly like the cast of Tolkien's mind. It does not much matter whether the snow at Caradhras comes from Tolkien's alpine experiences or from Blackwood's. It matters considerably that they saw the snow in much the same way.

Indeed, it matters enough that we should ask what Blackwood was doing in his stories. The answer is that he was creating the modern story of the supernatural—not the pure ghost story of M. R. James or the story of the un-dead that found its best-known expression in Bram Stoker's Dracula, but the story in which (if I may be forgiven a paradox of my own) nature itself is in a way supernatural. To be sure, Blackwood wrote ghost stories and stories of the un-dead, and he wrote stories that did not concern the supernatural at all, but what he added to English literature was a sense of mystery and unreliability underlying ordinary things. Blackwood's vision was of the treachery of natural things in an animate world: call it their mystery if you will, but the mystery has a sinister touch.

It is hard for us to re-create any world-view, especially the view of a world in which we have not lived, but there is little doubt that the generations of England who were brought up on Haggard, on Chesterton, on Blackwood—and on Stevenson, Conan Doyle, G. A. Henty, even Saki—were brought up as romantics, in the common sense of that word. While it is not easy to define romanticism in that common sense, we may at least note that ghost stories and stories of the undead make their first appearance in modern English literature with the Romantics, unless of course one wishes to count Hamlet as a ghost story. In any case, that these generations, and their romanticism, died in the trenches of the Great War is a truism. Like other truisms it is both true and overlooked, as it seems to be overlooked that Tolkien fought in that war and began his first epic of Middle Earth while convalescing.

It should be emphasized that the Edwardians of whom I am speaking were all of them storytellers. Their poetry—one thinks of Masefield or Kipling—was narrative poetry, even if it was not a narrative of princes and prelates. To a greater extent than in most of Victoria's reign, their natural form of narrative was the short story (it is worth recalling that only by an exercise of almost undiluted romanticism did Conan Doyle, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, succeed in writing a satisfactory novel about Sherlock Holmes). But their short stories in many cases, and their novels in some, were installments in a continuing story. I have elsewhere called these Edwardians “world-creators,” and I am not sure how important it is that their worlds were created monthly in The Strand rather than in the three-deckers of Trollope's age. After all, Dickens published his novels in parts, but they are still novels, and (witness the Baker Street Irregulars) the world of Sherlock Holmes is still one world for all that it was created story by story over the years. The important point is that what were being told were stories—not tone-poems, not Dunsanian lyrics, not Mervyn Peake's word-pictures (though they may be first-rate of their kind), but stories.

All this should give an idea, albeit a sketchy one, of what kind of information exists to make up our first set of clues. It must be admitted that the information is not abundant. We have Tolkien's own word for it that he was neither as voracious nor as retentive a reader as his friend Lewis, and of course Lewis wrote that “no one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” (Someone more adept than I at the intricacies of Carrolliana may know why a bandersnatch would be particularly difficult to influence.) Even so, no writer, when young, is immune to influences, and it is certainly reasonable for us to use such clues as we have to try to determine who Tolkien's influences were.

Our second set of clues is, alas, equally sparse. One reason is that critics in general (despite Lewis's lead in his Experiment in Criticism) have not addressed themselves to most works of literature with the question in mind, “How is this book being read?” Another reason, at least as important, is that criticism of Tolkien has generally begun de novo with Tolkien, just as most criticism of science fiction seems to begin de novo with the field of science fiction, as though no other fiction had ever been written. But to this approach to Tolkien de novo there are at least two exceptions that may be of use in our inquiry, both of them provided by English critics. The particular writers they pick as Tolkien's compeers are not, as it happens, the ones I would pick, but this may only mean that their taste in Edwardian literature differs from mine. Even if they are not entirely on the right track, I am convinced at least that the track they are on begins from the right place.

Mr. Colin Wilson suggests a relationship between Tolkien and Jeffrey Farnol. Now to say that Jeffrey Farnol is widely overlooked in histories of English literature is to overstate the notice taken of him, but as Mr. Wilson points out, his picaresque novels were enthusiastically circulated among the members of Tolkien's generation. I do not myself believe that Tolkien read the novels of Jeffrey Farnol, but I emphatically do believe that Mr. Wilson reads Farnol's novels and Tolkien's three-decker for much the same reasons.

Similarly, Mr. Brian Aldiss compares Tolkien to the late P. G. Wodehouse. Now this is curious. Mr. Aldiss is a scholar of science fiction and fantasy, and his discussion of Tolkien occurs in his history of science fiction. Yet for a comparison he goes to an author who did not write science fiction (though he may have written fantasy), and who would not generally be considered to place high on the list of “authors comparable to Tolkien.” Upon consideration, I can see more reasons than were initially apparent for the comparison—Wodehouse was, after all, a world-creator, and of a very English world at that—but linking the two still has a certain oddness to it. Oddness aside, it provides us with the evidence that Mr. Aldiss reads Tolkien at least for some of the reasons he reads Wodehouse.

My own contribution here may be at least as odd. I might reasonably make a general case for the parallel between Tolkienian “scholarship” and the “scholarship” devoted to the arcana of Sherlock Holmes—thus suggesting that some readers turn to Tolkien for the same reason that others turn to 221B Baker Street. I have already discussed the parallels between Tolkien and Rider Haggard, and could easily claim I read one for largely the same reasons I read the other. But I find by self-analysis that—in some moods at least—I read Tolkien as I read Saki (H. H. Munro).

That is a fact. What to do with it is a problem. Presumably I should be able to find an undercurrent of Tolkien's vision in Saki or an undercurrent of Saki's vision in Tolkien, or else find that I am particularly attracted to the Edwardian world-view exemplified by both. For the first, I cannot imagine that Tolkien enjoyed Saki: their humor, if not poles apart, is at least extremely dissimilar, and Tolkien lacks Saki's cruelty. Certainly any connection between Frodo Baggins and Clovis Sangrail is not obvious, nor—to put it mildly—is Comus Bassington the avatar of Gandalf the Grey. Admittedly, both Saki and Tolkien were Tories, and my own mind has that cast, but I would prefer for the moment to leave that line of thought aside as a possible red herring (or perhaps, in the circumstances, a blue herring?). I suspect that my turning to Saki, Mr. Aldiss's turning to Wodehouse, and Mr. Wilson's turning to Jeffrey Farnol have in common principally the fact that each of us is turning to the first (or close to the first) Edwardian author with whom we came in contact. I should note here that Mr. William Ready has observed the Edwardian nature of The Lord of the Rings, but he shuns what I welcome. Still, this is useful confirmatory evidence.

Those who have followed me thus far may think it odd, if not remarkable, that I have managed to discuss the sources and analogues of The Lord of the Rings without turning to the Elder Edda or Beowulf or any of the other commonplaces of the discussions generally heard on the literary genesis of Tolkien's work. But those are properly the subject of another inquiry: they are part of the influence of Tolkien's professional life on his imaginative life (though not the most important part). This, by contrast, is a look at the influence of other imaginative writers on Tolkien's imaginative life, so far as that influence affects the form of his work. By the nature of things (at least according to the “bandersnatch” theory), the terminus ad quem of this inquiry more or less antedates the terminus a quo of the other.

I have noted Tolkien's statement that his first response on reading a medieval work was to want to write a modern work in the same tradition. If that was true throughout his life, and not only of medieval works, then it is certainly proper to look at the kind of stories he read to see what kind of stories he was trying to write. I could wish I had in front of me the earliest manuscript of The Silmarillion as a check on my speculation, but failing that I have The Lord of the Rings, as well as a set of clues on the authors Tolkien read, and a set of clues made up of readers' reactions to Tolkien.

From these clues I would argue, with some confidence, that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien set out to write an adventure story of the Rider Haggard sort, with overtones of G. K. Chesterton and undertones of Algernon Blackwood (to take only the authors mentioned here), an adventure story in what may be called the Edwardian mode. I would like to argue—anticlimax or not—that this “adventure story in the Edwardian mode” was precisely a “pre-existing form of literary creation” with its own set of expectations to excite and fulfill, and its own diverse powers. And I would like to spend some time examining the form.

The Edwardian adventure story might be of the “I have before me as I write” sort (to borrow Peter Fleming's phrase), in which a particular object associated with the adventure leads the author into his book. It might be a fictional travelogue, or at least a travel story, beginning with some such phrase as “It's eighteen months or so ago since I first met Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, and it was in this way.” But however the story began, in general it would, like Conan Doyle's The Lost World, be framed in familiarity.

This is, in many ways, the mode of the fairy tale, though we do not always recognize it because the woodchoppers and petty kings with which the tales begin are, as Professor Lewis pointed out, as remote to us as the dragons and witches to which the tales proceed. But this is not quite the mode of the fairy tale, for the fairy tale begins “once upon a time,” while the Edwardian adventure story begins in rooms in Oxford in the late 1880's, or rooms in Baker Street in the same decade, or with a Fleet Street journalist's assignment to interview an eccentric professor, or with an English poet in Saffron Park in the London of the Edwardian age. In economist's jargon, these beginnings are “time-specific.”

In this adventure story odd and inexplicable things happen, not in Oxford or Baker Street or Saffron Park, but in the land of the Amahagger, or on Dartmoor, or on a lost plateau in South America, or in a kaleidoscopic adventure across a Europe of enchanted scenery and stock characters—the Europe, one might say, of a dream. In no case is characterization the chief concern of the story. Holly and Job in She, Malone and Lord John and Summerlee in The Lost World, Holmes and Watson themselves, the Council of Days in The Man Who Was Thursday—all are types: the “true but ugly,” the “faithful servant,” and so on. That they sometimes, as with Holmes, rise to the dignity of archetypes takes them further yet from the novel of character.

In a sense, even if it is a paradoxical sense, in many of these stories it is the character of nature, and not the characters of any of the actors, that is, as the French would put it, “realized.” That is why Blackwood's “The Willows” follows naturally in the Edwardian mode: there is no real effort at characterization (the author's companion is a stolid Scandinavian), except at the characterization of the willows themselves. And the character that nature bears in these stories is not altogether a good one. (I suspect, by way of personal aside, that this is one of the attributes of Saki's work that appeals to me: there is a fey quality to “The Hounds of Fate” and “The Stag” and a thoroughgoing supernaturalism to “Gabriel-Ernest,” standing in remarkable contrast to the world of Reginald or Clovis Sangrail. For comparison one might look to Badger's house on the one hand, and the Piper at the Gates of Dawn on the other.)

It should particularly be noted that the adventurers in the Edwardian adventure story are, in general, not solitary. They may indeed be “we few, we happy few,” but (if only so that one may tell the story of the others), they are at least two in number—Holmes and Watson, for example. They are likely to be more than two: indeed, the characteristic Edwardian adventure story is that of Sir Henry Curtis, Captain Good, Allan Quatermain, and Ignosi, or of G. E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Edward Malone, and Professor Summerlee—the band of (very different) brothers. And the narrative is in the first person, even if it involves that first person's bringing in parts of the story of which he had no firsthand knowledge. That is, there is a convention that the story should be told by those whose story it is. In general, the narrator is the most ordinary member of the band of adventurers (Allan Quatermain, Edward Malone, John Watson), and the tone of the narration tends to be self-depreciating.

This tone, and the first-person narration, mark the Edwardian mode as something quite apart from the mode of the fairy tale or (pace Edmund Wilson) from the school story—though the school story does perhaps represent a separate but related development from the Victorians. I suppose this Edwardian mode of the adventure story had its origin in the travel journals and first-person newspaper accounts that were conspicuous features of the English and American literary landscape in the second half of the nineteenth century. The names of Richard Burton and H. M. Stanley come immediately to mind, followed by the war correspondent W. H. Russell and the American John Lloyd Stephens, whose Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan is one of the finest examples of this Victorian literature of exploration. It should, however, be pointed out that the self-depreciating tone comes in later, and may have its origins in the tradition of the pukka sahib—stiff upper lip, British understatement, and all that—that is in part the legacy of the Duke of Wellington. In any event, the Edwardian adventure story would appear to be a case of art imitating life.

One could, I suppose, distinguish between this travel literature and the derivative literature of Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle, on the grounds that one is more interested in the traveling and the other in what lies at the end—the object of the quest—thus making King Solomon's Mines or She into a quest story. But I am not sure this would be profitable. The Edwardian adventure story was indeed a story of Englishmen abroad in the wide and mysterious world, but what they were looking for was not so much the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece as—whatever excuse may have been provided by Maple White or the Shard of Amyntas—the wide world itself. (It is worth noting that the best of Blackwood's stories take place on the Danube or in Canada or in the Alps.) And I find this parallels The Lord of the Rings: it does not seem to me that Frodo sets out on a quest much more than Bilbo set out on one in The Hobbit. Certainly Frodo and Bilbo, though they are Hobbits, are Englishmen, and to them the “back again” in the subtitle of The Hobbit is as important as the “there.”

As I have said, the actors in these Edwardian stories were stock Englishmen, most of them. Mostly they returned to England and their workaday lives, if they survived at all. It is not my purpose here to point out in detail how The Lord of the Rings conforms to the Edwardian mode, only to suggest its conformity, but perhaps another example of that mode would not be amiss. The example that comes most quickly to mind (though it is late, having appeared in 1923) is John Buchan's Huntingtower, in which the character of the Scottish businessman is so Tolkienian that one would almost assume that Tolkien took time off from The Year's Work in English Studies to read Buchan. Buchan, admittedly, was Scottish, while the Shire is “forever England”—but that is not an insuperable difference.

The quite ordinary Englishmen (or, occasionally, Scots or Irishmen) who set off on their travels in these Edwardian adventure stories do more than merely see strange sights and have strange adventures: they sense a mysterious character indwelling in the world itself, or at least in that part of the world in which the adventures take place. The story may be of their triumph over nature (as with The Lost World), or it may be of their escape from it (“The Willows”). It may be, in its later and lesser form, a story of romance and a mysterious Russian princess (as with Huntingtower). Or the mystery may be—and frequently is—that of the past mysteriously alive in the present. This is the case with King Solomon's Mines, She, The Lost World, much of Chesterton, and the very idea of the ghost story, whether by Blackwood or M. R. James or whomever. In fact, from the number of examples I can call to mind, this might be taken as a hallmark of the Edwardian mode. To be sure, others have felt the lure of the past: it is a part of the nature of romanticism, and it was a Victorian, not an Edwardian, who wrote (if he wrote nothing else worthwhile) the great line “A rose red city half as old as time.” But the past alive in the present is a recurring motif in the Edwardian adventure story nonetheless.

The framework of the story, even in Haggard's time, is “there and back again.” The “back again” is skimped, and it would appear, in part, a convention necessitated by the first-person narrative: the narrator has to return home in order to tell his story (though Haggard did find a way around this in She). By Blackwood's time—as a result, I suppose, of the short-story form—the framework largely disappears, and we are left with the real kernel of the story, which in Blackwood is the mystery (or the “supernaturalism”) of nature. (Chesterton dropped the first-person narrative, while retaining the viewpoint of the first-person narrator, who likewise must return home to tell the story.)

It may be objected that I have taken three disparate authors and parceled them together very oddly, and that an “Edwardian mode” that overlooks Baron Corvo on the one hand or Henry James on the other is scarcely worth discussing seriously. Now I could look at either of these and find something of the sense of the past I have been discussing here, just as I could find it in Bram Stoker. But what have I, and what has Tolkien, to do with feigned autobiography in the manner of Hadrian VII or novels of character in the manner of The Ambassadors? The ancestry of the adventure story in its Edwardian mode is to be found in Scott and the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities, as well as in Burton, Stanley, John Lloyd Stephens—the list is almost endless. It has its late Victorian affinities in G. A. Henty—and as in Henty's novels, where boys who make their way without benefit of birth are frequently found to have had that benefit all along (but to have been stolen or orphaned as very young children), the Edwardian adventure story is frankly aristocratic in its conventions, as was the Edwardian world from which it came.

That The Lord of the Rings is an exemplar of this Edwardian mode is at the root of the adverse reactions by such readers as William Ready or Edmund Wilson. In a way—and here Mr. Aldiss is quite correct—its basic presuppositions are those of P. G. Wodehouse, though Tolkien's knowledge of political reality was far superior to Wodehouse's (on which see Dr. Plank's essay on “The Scouring of the Shire”). I am not here concerned with the literary value of Edwardian adventure stories (except to note that Lewis's test in his Experiment in Criticism should convince us that they have a value). But Tolkien's adverse critics have in fact been concerned with that value, to the extent of denying that it exists. I am not here concerned with such questions as whether the aristocratic—or the Tory—view of things is the right one. But Tolkien's adverse critics have in fact been concerned with that question, and have come up with an unequivocal answer, unequivocally expressed. What the adverse critics have not been concerned with is what I am concerned with here: using my scattered evidence on sources to find out what kind of work Tolkien is likely to have been writing.

Certainly this adventure story in the Edwardian mode is a prime candidate to be considered the pre-existing form to which The Lord of the Rings was designed to contribute. At the very least, a formal comparison of The Lord of the Rings with various exemplars of the mode should prove to be enlightening. While not making the formal comparison here, I might suggest the lines along which it could be made. Take Conan Doyle's The Lost World as an exemplar. In this story the four travelers come together more or less by accident—or by the machinations of Professor Challenger (who is not with them for the entire journey). The Lord of the Rings has, of course, nine travelers, who come together more or less by accident—or partly by Gandalf's intent (and Gandalf does not make the entire journey with them). The four travel to unknown lands, seeking a way up (and then a way down) a mysterious plateau—involving, on the way down, travel through a cave. The Nine Walkers likewise travel to unknown lands, with Frodo and Sam seeking a way up (through Shelob's cave). The four are types: sportsman, Irish rugger, desiccated (but tough) professor, eccentric omnicompetent. The Nine likewise are types: master and man, enthusiastic but fallible assistants, warrior, king-in-exile, elf, dwarf, and the eccentric omnicompetent, Gandalf.

Further parallels are easy enough to discover. Nature—in the form of prehistoric animals and even (perhaps) the ape-men—attacks the four. Nature—in the form of Old Man Willow or the snow at Caradhras—attacks the Nine. The four come safely through to the triumph; eight of the Nine Walkers do likewise. The story of the four is told by the most “ordinary” of the group, Edward Dunn Malone (but, ordinary or not, “there are heroisms all around us”). Similarly, the story of the Nine is told by Frodo, whom David Miller has called “the common lens for heroic experience”—ordinary on the surface if not beneath it. The very attraction of the lost world is the past alive in the present on the mysterious plateau. And certainly the continually sounding theme of The Lord of the Rings is the past alive in the present: the Ring, Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, the sword reforged, the Barrow Wights—to list examples is to list nearly everything in the book.

I have elsewhere suggested that after the Great War there was a division in the Edwardian inheritance between the storytellers and the world-recreators—between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Angela Thirkell, the pulp writers and the country-house novelists. One might almost say the division was between those who were chiefly interested in the “there” and those who were chiefly interested in the “back again.” I still think that this is true, and that, as I also suggested, Tolkien brought the long-sundered branches of the Edwardian line back together again—for which reason he, more than P. G. Wodehouse, deserved the title of “the last Edwardian.” But I am not sure how much emphasis this merits here. Though the Shire's Tory quality is unmistakable, its idylls include no country houses, and my present concern is not with the Edwardian inheritance so much as the Edwardian mode of The Lord of the Rings—with the fact that, whatever the mode in which others were writing, Tolkien was writing an Edwardian adventure story.

It may be introduced as an objection that the Edwardian mode tended at least toward shorter novels, and in its final form toward the short story. Moreover, the speed of its writing, as well as the pace of its action, was almost journalistic. Haggard wrote King Solomon's Mines in six weeks, and Conan Doyle cranked out Sherlock Holmes at high speed for monthly publication. Chesterton wrote prodigiously, hastily—one might say, gargantuanly. But Tolkien wrote a three-decker novel and he took forty years to write it, if one counts from his beginning The Silmarillion, or twenty-five years, if one counts from the time he began the story of Bilbo Baggins. I think we will find, however, that the variation in the basic form represented by The Lord of the Rings was determined by Tolkien's professional life, and its period of gestation determined the same way. That is to say, what differentiates Tolkien from other writers of Edwardian adventure stories generally would be properly treated in a discussion of the influence of his professional life on his imaginative creation, with the root of the difference lying in the love of language that led him to philology as his life's work.

But that, as Aristotle taught us the formula (long before Kipling), is another story. To be exact, it is the story of the philologist's world, and not the Edwardian mode, of The Lord of the Rings. To write it requires some knowledge of what a philologist does and how his mind works. To write what I have written here so far has required only a knowledge of what it was Tolkien read in the first ten years of this century, or may have read—a far easier requirement, and made easier yet for me by the fact that I was brought up on the same books. To me this game of Quellenforschung has been a game of auld acquaintance, and doubly enjoyable on that account.

But it has been, I hope, instructive to the reader besides being entertaining to me. And its value, I think, is clear: we will be armed against a tendency to attack (or defend) Tolkien on the wrong grounds if we can determine what the proper grounds are—that is, what The Lord of the Rings is intended to be. To go back for a moment to Professor Lewis's example, it is necessary to know what the corkscrew or the cathedral is designed to do before we can say it is well- or ill-designed: once we know what the purposes are, the prohibitionist may attack the corkscrew or the Communist attack the cathedral. And here it is important that we realize one thing: the attack of the prohibitionist or the Communist is not an attack on how well the corkscrew or the cathedral works. The better the corkscrew works, the less the prohibitionist will like it. The more men pray in the cathedral, the more the Communist will seek to shut it down. The greater the success of The Lord of the Rings as an adventure story in the Edwardian mode, the more those who dislike adventure stories in the Edwardian mode will seek to denigrate and depreciate it.

In part, the critical dislike of this mode is merely an example of the critical dislike of adventure stories of all kinds, a point which Professor Lewis illustrated in his essay “On Stories” and which I need not illustrate here. But the dislike runs deeper for this mode than for others, and I suspect that there are those who enjoy Don Quixote or The Three Musketeers who do not enjoy the Edwardian adventure story any more than they enjoy the Chanson de Roland, with its good Christians and bad infidels (“Paiens ont tort et chrestiens ont droit”). The different modes of the adventure story appeal, I believe, to somewhat different—perhaps very different—audiences, and it would be a mistake not to distinguish among these modes.

The particular characteristics of the Edwardian mode that seem to cause the most trouble for the critics are those that apparently form the substratum of almost all popular Edwardian literature: the aristocratic view, the black-and-white morality, the lack of interest in character development (certainly more extreme in this mode than in others), the movement of “there and back again,” the emphasis on “we few, we happy few” (related to, but not altogether the same as, the aristocratic view), the fascination of the past alive in the present, the undercurrent of mystery (or even malignity) in nature. If one looks at the chief forms of the adventure story a few years into the last quarter of the twentieth century, he will find not these but the morally ambiguous: the hard-drinking and hard-wenching private eye, the solipsistic James Bond, the not-so-good sheriff and not-so-bad outlaw. If all these are part of the current mode of the adventure story, we could reasonably expect to find the Edwardian mode disliked.

Now the evidence of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Aldiss (and in conversation I have found others who support his linking of Tolkien and Wodehouse), as well as my own aberration in the direction of the world of Clovis Sangrail, should make it clear that there are some readers who enjoy the Edwardian character of The Lord of the Rings, for all that Mr. Wilson seems a little uncomfortable in his position and Mr. Aldiss speaks of “the counterfeit gold of an Edwardian sunset.” But we must be careful not to claim greatness for Tolkien merely because we are enamored of the Edwardian mode, just as those who dislike it should be careful not to deny him greatness because they are not so enamored.

And yet, I can hear my readers saying to themselves, “This is all very well, but how can he speak of the Edwardian mode of the adventure story in the same terms in which Lewis spoke of something so far beyond it as the secondary epic? Surely it is a little odd to speak of Tolkien in terms that have been reserved for Vergil or Milton. Surely he has lost his sense of proportion.” But a brief explanation should allay such misgivings.

It may indeed be the case that an epic is a greater thing than an adventure story; that does not mean that a given epic is greater than a given adventure story. I could also point out that Milton's “Epic following Nature” is very like an adventure story—perhaps, indeed, it would be well to note this as a corrective to the view that an adventure story is an inferior thing. Moreover, if a critical system is well drawn up, it should be applicable not only to Vergil and Milton but to the writers of three-deckers (let us say Tolkien and Trollope) as well. And there remains the corrective supplied in Professor Lewis's Experiment: if the work is capable of “good” reading (and especially of re-reading), then we had best be wary of dismissing it out of hand, or indeed at all. After all, popular literature (vide Shakespeare in his age) is not necessarily bad, and there is a genuine critical approach embodied in the assertion, “I don't know much about art but I know what I like.”

Admittedly, we are too close in time to The Lord of the Rings to judge its place in literary history. Yet we are not close enough in time, it appears, to judge accurately what it is supposed to be. Tolkien disliked the idea that anyone might write a critical study of his work while he was alive, both because he was a private man not welcoming fame and because he thought it wrong that someone should spin theories about what he had written without checking those theories with him. One appreciates his point, but one must also recognize that it has made criticism of his work more difficult: just as one would have enjoyed a talk with Lewis's ancient Athenian, if not his dinosaur in the laboratory, one would like to have spoken with the last Edwardian.

I suspect more may be recovered than I have recovered here. Haggard and Chesterton and Blackwood were not the only authors the young Tolkien read, and Mr. Wilson and Mr. Aldiss are certainly not the only critics to have examined Tolkien's work in ways that are useful for this kind of endeavor. But I would strongly urge those who seek more information to follow this path. Certainly enough evidence exists to show that The Lord of the Rings is an adventure story in the Edwardian mode. And whether we believe it to be as sublime as the cathedral, or as mundane as the corkscrew, or somewhere in between in merry middle-earth, it should be worth something to us to have some idea what it is.

Jared Lobdell (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Lobdell, Jared. “Tolkien's Genius: Mind, Tongue, Tale—and Trees.” In England and Always: Tolkien's World of the Rings, pp. 73-91. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981.

[In the following essay, Lobdell discusses the widespread appeal of The Lord of the Rings.]

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
History is now and England.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

God gives all men all earth to love
But since man's heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.

Rudyard Kipling, “Sussex”

“The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our
world coeval.”

(“On Fairy-Stories,” p. 48)

We have thus far considered the tale, and especially its Edwardian antecedents and Edwardian mode; the study of tongues and its influence on The Lord of the Rings; and the theology of Tolkien's approach to the Incarnate Mind. Can we, in these three, find Tolkien's particular genius and the reasons for the success of The Lord of the Rings? As the title of this chapter suggests, I believe there is one further reason, one further part of his genius, but that by and large these suffice. They may not be exactly coeval in Tolkien's development (though not far from it), but they are in the development of his creation. And whether we read the passage as describing how Tolkien himself went about his work, or (as I would prefer) we read it as discussing the universal process to which, volens-nolens, his own creation hewed, it still provides a key.

First, the Edwardian mode—the nature of the tale. The great exemplars of that mode—She,King Solomon's Mines,The Lost World—retain their popularity year in and year out, perhaps because of the adventures, but still more, I think, because of the mode. There is something very powerful in the image of the band of brothers abroad in the wide world, something very appealing in Tory England, something much attuned to our age in the idea of the past alive in the present, and something of great power in the commonplace narrator.

I once described the prevalence of Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings as an accidental goodness and took, as a result, a quantity of not-at-all-accidental ribbing from members of the University of Wisconsin Tolkien Society. It was of course accidental in at least one sense (as Carpenter has pointed out, pp. 199ff.) that the Hobbits, almost alone of Tolkien's creations for his children, strayed into his creation for himself. It was certainly a goodness, not only because Hobbits are the most ordinary of ordinary narrators, but chiefly for that reason. By a just instinct, Tolkien found his perfect plain men in the halflings.

Allan Quatermain, at least in Haggard's first books, is a plain, bluff man; a colonial, but very English in his character—English of those great days of Victoria's empire. John H. Watson, M.D., albeit (on some accounts) partly a colonial, is by consensus likewise a plain, bluff man and English of the English. Edward Dunn Malone is Irish of the Irish, but plain enough in that oddly assorted foursome in The Lost World. Even in the real-world antecedents of the Edwardian adventure story, as I noted in the first chapter, we find plain Englishry (of the “pukka sahib” sort)—albeit sometimes, as with Stanley, raised to the theatricality of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” It is evident that this is part of the appeal of the genre, or Stanley—that most complex of plain men—would not have arranged this case of life imitating art. But why is the ordinariness of the narrator important to the success of the narration? Is it because we are ordinary? I think not.

For the plain fact is that no one thinks of himself or herself as ordinary. In one sense, of course, “you have never talked to a mere mortal,” but that is not what I mean. I think we put ourselves not on Watson's level—though surely in real life we should be overjoyed to achieve his dignity, self-lessness, bravery, and love—but between him and Holmes. We see ourselves not as E. D. Malone but between him and Challenger or Lord John Roxton. Yet at the same time we are reassured by the narrator's ordinariness. If this can happen to Dr. Watson, why then, it could happen to us. If Holly can sit before Ayesha in Kôr, we might also. The narrator's plainness serves the function not of making us identify with him, but of reassuring us that this strange adventure really happened. That—paradoxically, perhaps—is what the Hobbits do, and that is why this is an important part of the Edwardian mode. I do not know if earlier traveler's tales had this characteristic (was Sir John Mandeville a plain man?), but certainly it is highly important in the tales we are looking at here.

Of the past alive in the present, the more said, perhaps, the better. This is really (in the forests) the heart of Tolkien's world in The Lord of the Rings, and it is the heart of the Edwardian mode. It is, of course, a creation of the consciousness that the past differs from the present, and that the difference is not purely one of progress. The Middle Ages recognized that change is not necessarily progress, but they did not—as their art shows—realize that the past differed from the present. Neither, for that matter, did the Renaissance. It is only with the coming of the Romantic view—the appreciation of the Gothic, Strawberry Hill, Beckford's Folly, Ann Radcliffe—and especially with Sir Walter Scott, that the difference is appreciated. With Scott it takes root in popular consciousness. Once there, it flowers rapidly. And it is still flowering.

The flowering can be seen in the whole set of beliefs in the occult that has given us The Amityville Horror and The Omen (fulfillment of prophecy being a special case). It can be seen in such staples of present-day fantasy as the Cthulhu Mythos. It can be seen in the search for our roots as well as in the anthropological approach to literature. All these appeal to the desire to have, or read about, the past alive or coming alive now. The phenomenon has something to do, I suppose, with the coming of the machines, with a perception that the Industrial Revolution was a kind of fall from grace. It is not, however, the same thing as that form of conservatism that sees us standing upon the shoulders of giants (from the past) or views the political process as a compact between past and present. The difference between the two is precisely that with the pygmies and giants, or with the compact, there is no discontinuity from age to age; with the “past alive in the present” there is.

This brings us, by a fairly direct path, to the idea of Tory Democracy. In the first chapter I suggested that Tolkien's Tory views, and those of the Edwardian Age, were drawing us afield from our concerns. By that I meant particularly that politics is neither the subject of stories in the Edwardian mode (barring some of Saki's) nor even very important to them. But then, Tory Democracy is not essentially a political doctrine, as those who have tried to practice it have found out. Winston Churchill may have been a Tory Democrat—that is, by way of definition, he believed in an alliance between aristocracy and squirearchy on the one hand and the people on the other. But he became Prime Minister only in that darkest hour when England did come together in fact. He is the exception that tests and defines (that is, “proves”) the rule. Only in 1940, not even in 1945, could Tory Democracy “work” politically. Otherwise, we must accept the doctrine that, in essence, Toryism in any form is that political doctrine which avowedly prefers foxhunting to politics. As a form of Romanticism, based on a love of the land and a kind of longing for hierarchy, the relationship of master (say, Frodo) and man (say, Sam Gamgee), it is related to Chesterton's Distributism and thus to the same impulse that leads Americans back to the land on communes in Vermont. Nor is the communal aspect accidental.

For finally—and we might equally well use the nexus between Churchill and the Battle of Britain as our bridge—we come to the idea of the band of brothers, the final qualifying characteristic of the Edwardian mode. “Never have so many owed so much to so few” could serve as an epigraph for The Lord of the Rings. It could not serve for King Solomon's Mines or The Lost World, because those are essentially private adventures—a fact which should give The Lord of the Rings a substantial advantage over them in the public mind. But all these works have the appeal of the happy few—which is not (and this must be made clear) the same thing as the appeal of the Inner Ring.

We are not talking about the fellow professionals, the theme of so many of Kipling's stories from Soldiers Three on. We are not talking about unofficial hierarchies (as in War and Peace, to take Lewis's example) or about the strength of an appeal that can make men together do very bad things before they are individually very bad men. (This Lewis dealt with, in particular, in That Hideous Strength.) We are talking about the one sense in which The Lord of the Rings is certainly a quest—but I would rather say a “task”—narrative: the sense of great purpose that overshadows and ennobles the characters. Let me give a brief example of what I mean—not from Tolkien's works.

Consider the following chapter titles: “There Are Heroisms All Around Us”; “It's Just The Very Biggest Thing In The World”; “The Most Wonderful Things Have Happened”; “Those Were The Real Conquests”; “Our Eyes Have Seen Great Wonders.” Without further knowledge, to what would we assume these belong? Certainly not to most of our present-day novels, nor to any novel of character. Perhaps to something like a pageant, perhaps even to an imitator of Tolkien, or perhaps (but here we may be led by their appearance in this context) to an adventure story in the Edwardian mode. They are, in fact, the titles to chapters 1, 4, 10, 14, and 15 of The Lost World, and there is about them that sense of purpose I mentioned above. It is especially important that it is “Our” rather than “Mine” eyes that have seen great wonders—a notable contrast for our present age of anomie and alienation.

For that, in the end, may be what explains the power of this image of the band of brothers. As we are increasingly set apart from our fellow men, we fall either into individualism in Tocqueville's old bad sense (into Bishop Bossuet's “every man his own church”), or into the heresy of confusing the Inner Ring, fashioned perhaps from a shared skill but existing largely for its own sake, with the band of brothers that exists for some great purpose. (“For he who fights with me today / Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition”—a pleasant irony, quoting Shakespeare to illuminate Tolkien.) In the United States today, policemen call themselves brothers, as do black men, but, for the most part, a sense of brotherhood is sadly lacking. This may be one reason for the widespread appeal of professional sports: fans otherwise sundered and separate are given the sense of belonging. (The theme song of the Pittsburgh Pirates is “We Are Family,” as the country came to know during the 1979 baseball season.)

Now it is to this need for belonging that the very idea of a company of heroes speaks. For all that Frodo and Sam are master and man, there are Nine Walkers, not two, and that fact, I would argue, is highly—perhaps transcendently—important for the book's appeal. Like the appeal of the past in the present, the appeal of the company comes from our rootlessness and alienation. I do not think it is because we identify with one member of the company and are comforted to find the others around us. Rather it is the very idea of the company that gives us comfort—and, indeed, “comfort” (“strength-with”) is a highly appropriate word.

It is therefore particularly important that we never follow the adventures of a single figure for any significant length of time in The Lord of the Rings: even when we follow only one of the Walkers, he is with new companions. When Gandalf goes alone into the depths with the Balrog, we do not follow him. When Merry and Pippin are dressed as knights of Gondor and the Mark, that is the sign they have found new companions in their endeavor—not that they have left the old. This is a polyphonic narrative of companies, not of individuals: when Sam leaves Frodo it is a wrong choice in more ways than one.

This much Tolkien shares with his Edwardian peers. It is, as we have said, in the concern with language—in the philologist's world—that he parts company with them. It is here also that he parts company with much of the modern world. Our writers “indicate” rather than “say”; policemen in the Watergate case “responded” rather than “went” (or even “proceeded”) to the floor where the break-in occurred; official Washington mushes through page upon page of regulations or announcements in bureaucratese, whose lack of style is matched only by its lack of clarity. I know of one economist whose English seemed particularly dense and who, when questioned, confided that he did not think in English but in computer symbols.

Do we miss this clarity, this style? We do. Even as we speak the gibberish, we reject it, or are at least conscious of its insufficiency. We revenge ourselves upon it by finding beauty in the monosyllabic four-letter-word juvenility of street speech. To be sure, that speech is capable of both strength and accuracy, even poetry, but it rarely achieves it, achieving instead the dreary repetitions of the Orc-minded. In short, language currently seems to approximate the exact contrary to the “speaking in tongues” of charismatic or pentecostal Christianity. Rather than seeming to be meaningless, but really having meaning, bureaucratese and gutter-speech alike appear to have meaning but do not. No wonder we feel the lack.

Now whatever can be said of Tolkien's achievement, there is no question whatever that he uses words accurately and with unusual forethought, even on occasion with that pedantic accuracy which is in effect a play on words (the “Tale of Years”). We may sometimes sense a “Biblical” pastiche, but the same impulse that has led men to impute Biblical authority only to the “sacred English original”—to quote the story told by Miss Sayers—also leads us to welcome the familiar elevated diction and (possibly) rhythms. Whereas, a generation ago, the Bible and Shakespeare were only two constellations in a star-spangled sky of familiar great literature, these days the lights are going out all over the Western world, and even the Bible is more common in hotel rooms than in living rooms. But the memory lingers. A faint breath reaches even the late generations.

The naming and the language, then, are also part of Tolkien's appeal, though that is by way of being an accident. He may have set out to write an Edwardian adventure story (or a secondary epic following nature) when Allen & Unwin asked for a sequel to The Hobbit. He did not set out to appeal to our sense of the lost beauty and nobility of language; that appeal happened because of what he was. And he was as surprised by it as any. This is what we would expect of genius in the old sense; or, to put it another way, it is part of a sense of humor in the Muse. Be that as it may, one need only compare Tolkien's names with those of, say, E. R. Eddison (Lord Gro, Koshtra Pivrarcha) to see a naturalness in one, an appeal to an unremembered past perhaps, and in the other no more than a set of suggestive syllables. Yet Eddison was praised for his naming.

And the Incarnate Mind—the Mind of the Maker? We have drawn from The Lord of the Rings a familiar theology. We have seen a universe poised at a timeless moment different from ours, but in the same process of temptation. We have glimpsed the Holy Spirit abroad in Tolkien's world, and the gifts of the Spirit. This is indeed part of our universe, and we can say that the Poet who uttered it through J. R. R. Tolkien is the Same through whose Word our world was made. Quite so. But in what way does this aid Tolkien's appeal?

There can be several ways of answering this question. We could say—Tolkien would himself say—that we recognize the Original Maker in the act of sub-creation. In the essay quoted at the outset of this chapter he has, in fact, said something very much like that. This we may call the theological answer. Or we could say that the timeless drama of temptation, the sense of great powers moving, the mixed familiarity and strangeness of what happens within us happening within the nations and peoples of Middle Earth, are what speaks to us—especially if we are reassured somehow by the presence of unfallen beings in the drama. This I might call a philosophical answer, and I suspect Tolkien would agree with it also. Or we might say that theological consistency imposes a particular character on any work of literature. That argument has been advanced by Miss Sayers in the essay quoted before; it may be called the literary answer, and it deserves elaboration here.

She made that point in the introduction to her series of radio plays on the life of Christ: “Except a man believe faithfully he cannot—at least his artistic soul cannot—be saved.” Theological consistency, she was claiming (in defense of her own artistic endeavor), imposes a unity equal to, if not the same as, Aristotelian unity. Certainly the polyphonic narrative of The Lord of the Rings has unity neither of time, place, nor action: it is, after all, polyphonic. Nor—in comparison with The Silmarillion, for example—has it unity of language. Yet we perceive it as one work (at least most of us do), despite the publisher's expedient of making it a three-decker, despite the mutilation in the animated film, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune-hunting. Miss Sayers would have answered, as I say, that this unity we feel is theological. But what does that mean and how does it work? After all, most of us are close to being theological morons, either because we do not believe at all or because, having found God, we see no need for mapping His being. Theological consistency is not, on the face of it, something we value.

But we value The Lord of the Rings, and not least because we feel its unity. It is not merely that Men, Elves, Wizards, Dwarves, Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Trolls all act in character, though that in itself is part of this theological unity. After all, acting in character is part of many works of literary art. It is not merely that there is a sense of proportion, of part to part and of the parts to the whole. That also is true, and something of what Miss Sayers was talking about, but it is nothing like a full explanation. It is rather, I would argue, that this theological unity is itself mythopoetic. That is, the proper literary embodiment of theology is myth, or the creation of myth—mythopoeisis. Allegorical presentations, if they do not achieve myth, descend to mere personification, bearing to literature the same relation that mnemonic verses bear to poetry. That much has been noted. But it should be emphasized that myth is the natural result of theological concern, and especially that the more complete and consistent the theology, the more perfect the myth. Let me make it clear that by mythopoeisis I do not mean, generally, fantasy in Tolkien's sense, but precisely the making of myth.

Perhaps the connection between mythmaking and theology has been most widely acknowledged in criticism of Melville's Moby Dick. Not only is the myth of the great sea creature a powerful one, particularly in the United States—witness the recent success of the movie Jaws—but critics have almost universally asked questions exhibiting the theological implications of Ahab's search. Is the whale evil? Why is it white? Is Ahab a personification of some particular characteristic—vengeance, perhaps (but “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ saith the Lord”)? Good questions, these, and nonetheless for having been asked so often.

What has not been so often asked, and what I would like to discuss here, with The Lord of the Rings as my major example, is why myth and theology go together. In part, of course, the answer has to do with a certain sweep—a certain breadth—implicit in both. But it has much more to do with the almost axiomatic fact that both myth and theology deal with gods. We may, to be sure, call them archetypes: we may Platonize them or Euhemerize them. The fact remains that the creatures of the myth simply are, without explanation, without character development. Asking why they are, and particularly asking why they are the way they are, brings us immediately into theology, rather than into literary criticism.

Suppose we ask why Gimli was not tempted by the Ring, whereas Galadriel (for example) was. The answer, I suggest, lies in the very fact that Dwarves generically might be expected to be tempted by the Ring as a ring, as a golden object, and this lower-level temptation would be theologically irrelevant—as though Adam had been tempted to eat the apple because he was hungry. Or suppose we ask why Galadriel was tempted? Tolkien has given us the answer to that question in The Silmarillion, and Christopher Tolkien has added to it in Unfinished Tales: the answer itself is not important, but the fact that the answer is theological is important—indeed, crucial.

As a Christian, I would of course argue that the truth of Christian theology leads to mythmaking more satisfactory than that based on any other theology—in other words, that the Mind of the Maker is incarnate here. But to do so would in our present discussion be a prime example of question-begging. And in any case, mythmaking of any kind seems to appeal to our present age. Those who in the past few years observed books of “Jaws” jokes, stuffed sharks, and “Jaws” t-shirts and games can testify to that. Nor is it only our age: Fenimore Cooper's tales owed much of their popularity, I think, to their mythic quality.

Yet the theology implicit in Jaws is Pelagian if not Paleyite, though in a particular modern form of Pelagianism. (The shark is killed not by the Ahab figure or even by the academic expert on sharks, but by the apparently weak-kneed policeman who hates water.) The theology of Leatherstocking is Christian, though doubtless infected by those various heresies against which the first Timothy Dwight inveighed in his (and Cooper's) days at Yale: Natty Bumppo speaks not to the self-perfectibility of man but to his fall from natural grace. The fall from grace is, of course, the theological underpinning to the myth of the noble savage.

I would argue that it is the theology that captures the audience: we need to be told that our relation is to the scheme of things, to God or gods or the powers that be. But theology is not what the audience thinks is capturing it. What the audience perceives as its captor is the central mythic figure—the shark, Natty Bumppo, the Hobbit—and its element, its proper surroundings. For the shark, like Moby Dick (and here perhaps Jungian psychology could be used to illustrate our point), comes out of the depths of the sea, stirring (it may be) our racial memory. And Leatherstocking strides through the depths of the forest; the key word here may likewise be depths. Tolkien himself has recounted his own reading of those tales: “Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows … and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and, above all, forests in such stories” (“On Fairy-Stories,” 63). And what of Tolkien's own creation? The Hobbits would doubtless say, if they said anything on the subject, that they were in their element at home in the Shire, and in one sense they would be right. But I know few readers to whom the chief appeal of The Lord of the Rings lies in the opening chapters, or even in the Scouring of the Shire. The chief element in which the book functions—Hobbits and all—is the forested earth.

Elementary, you say—though perhaps not so many have seen it as should have—partly because the Hobbits have in a way strayed from another book, another set of stories, into the world of the Ents, the forests at the heart of The Lord of the Rings. In The Silmarillion, if I may be permitted the digression, Tolkien feigns that trees are the leaders, so to speak, of the vegetable kingdom, a point which could be deduced from The Lord of the Rings but which is not explicit there. We have already noted that trees can turn to evil, that they are sentient and capable of being tempted (on which, also, The Silmarillion provides further detail). They are, in short, characters in the story—but they and their forests are much more.

There were olden days when a squirrel could go from tree to tree across Middle Earth; Mirkwood and the Old Forest are relics of those days. The Galadrim are tree-dwellers. The White Tree is the sign of the King's return. Even the Party Field in the Shire centers on a tree—first the Party Tree, then the mallorn. Mellyrn also play a part in the elegy for Arwen and Aragorn (“There at last, when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come …”). We need only look at The Lord of the Rings for the briefest of times to catch a vision of ancient forests, of trees like men walking, of leaves and sunlight, and of deep shadows.

But why is this world of forests so appealing? To that there are at least three possible answers. First, it may be that forests are part of the Jungian memory. Second, it may be (as has certainly been suggested) that Tolkien's love of countryside and distrust of progress is in tune with our Aquarian age of ecology. Third, it may be that the first answer is unnecessarily profound, and the second unnecessarily restrictive and specific; perhaps we should say only that men love trees, and the “citification” of the Western world has made them more precious than ever. In other words, Tolkien's appeal to us may be Fenimore Cooper's appeal to Tolkien.

It may be the trees we love, or the tale, or the tongues, or the Incarnate Mind, or it may be all of these (as I think it is). But why is it Tolkien? Why did John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, of all people, create The Lord of the Rings? To some degree, we have answered that question, by looking at the years and reading of his youth, at his life's work, and at his life's belief. But other Christian philologists grew to manhood in Tolkien's generation. They may have read his creation with enjoyment, but they did not create it. They did not characteristically respond to a work of medieval literature by writing another in the same mode. They did not create Hobbits for their children. They may have written light verse or war poetry or books for children. If they were exactly of his generation they would surely have written war poetry, or poetry after the mode of Rupert Brooke. But that poetry did not become part of a Silmarillion or a song of Middle Earth. What was the particular genius of this member of the King Edward's School Rugger XI, of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, of the Lancashire Fusiliers (Lieutenant), of the OED and Leeds and the University of Oxford (D. Litt.), and the Order of the British Empire (Commander)?

One could answer, I suppose, that the genius attaches itself to the man as a kind of tutelary spirit. One could as well answer that the Muse strikes as she wills, not as we will. It is true. It has the form of an answer. But was it merely the Muse's jest to select Tolkien, a Hobbit himself, to create The Lord of the Rings? It was no jest. For the final thing we must note about The Lord of the Rings is that its success depends on the interplay of Hobbits and ancient world. Like Hobbits, we cannot live very long on the heights. We need rusticity amid our elevated diction, plain gardens amid our forests, inns amid our pleasures and palaces. And the answering of that need is what, in the end, defines Tolkien's genius. With all the other things he was—Edwardian, Tory, philologist, Roman Catholic—he was, finally, and forever is the image of Frodo Baggins. It was noted before that Hobbits strayed from stories he told his children into this greater story: it was noted that Hobbits are an accidental goodness. Just so, but the accident—the straying—was contrived by the Muse. Not in jest. In earnest.

Now the Hobbits, though self-portraits, are self-portraits at the age of forty (or more). The Elves, and most of the rest of The Lord of the Rings, have origins in Tolkien's youth. (The Ents, given that Treebeard's “Hoom, Hoom” is modeled on C. S. Lewis, are later.) The shift from the high style, the elevated diction, to quiet rusticity, is partly a shift in viewpoint from youth to middle age, though Hobbits, like Tolkien himself, seem in many ways perennially youthful. This perennial youthfulness notwithstanding, and the frequent comparisons to children as well, the Hobbits are recognizably the creation of an older man. Had I wished to trespass further on Tolkien's private life, I could have discussed his four children, and his relationship with them; I have not, but the Hobbits are, in effect, part of Tolkien as father—more than as Edwardian, or philologist, or Catholic.

But, it will be objected, the comparisons to children are valid: the Hobbits are childlike (or childish). Yes, but they are not a child's or even a young man's creation. And in this fact lies, I believe, a part of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings. If the forests and Elves, the knights and ladies, and the “paiens ont tort” call to morality are in tune with a youthful romanticism (of a medieval sort), the Hobbits are a kind of reassurance that this youthful romanticism, this version of middle-earth, will continue to have meaning into our own middle age. Rather than the slow decline of youthful hopes, the wearing away of high ideals, the growing success of the world (along, perhaps, with the flesh and the devil), the cynicism and worldly wisdom of a creature accustomed to this fallen existence, there is implicit in The Lord of the Rings a promise. We are promised that within as well as beyond our workaday being there is high adventure, great peril, and the possibility of success in something other than worldly goods. We are assured that the Elven world we longed for is there—somewhere—however much we, like Tolkien, are Hobbits.

We seem to have come a long way from the Edwardian adventure story with which we started back in Chapter I. That pre-existing mode, apparently a slight and merely popular thing, is carrying a whole world for ballast and the Holy Ghost for mast—what have Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle to do with this? Even if we call it not an Edwardian adventure story but a particular kind of secondary epic following nature, its immediate literary forebear is still Haggard, and it is still in the Edwardian mode as we have defined it. At the beginning of this chapter I considered the peculiar appeal of this mode, and particularly that part of it I defined as “the past alive in the present.” Could it be that this “adventure story in the Edwardian mode”—perhaps as a result of this characteristic—is in fact a far greater thing than we have believed it to be? I mentioned that its characters are types who sometimes (as with Holmes) rise to the dignity of archetypes. Could this be an indication that the Edwardian mode, whether we call it adventure story or epic, is mythopoetic?

Haggard was praised by C. S. Lewis as a mythmaker. Sherlock Holmes will live always in our minds at 221B Baker Street, with Mrs. Hudson below and Victoria on her throne. Is this perhaps part of the secret? Is The Lord of the Rings the apotheosis of something that was close to divinity before Tolkien began writing? Even Jeeves is a myth. Even Bertie Wooster. Have we mistaken the quality of the genre? Are we in a way rendering to Tolkien what is not peculiarly his?

For every action, the physicists tell us, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For the Industrial Revolution and the myth of progress that spawned or was spawned by it, there is a counterrevolution and a myth of anti-progress. For the story of man's perfectibility, the magic that makes dross into gold and men into gods, there is the story of man's fall, the black magic that has made dross out of gold and men into devils. But suppose, just suppose, a world in which Eden, though it must be striven for to be maintained, has never been lost. Suppose we have a myth of anti-progress recognizing that change may be ill, but not that it is inevitable. Suppose the contending forces are not the machines on the one hand and King Ludd on the other: suppose they are the machines and the countryside, Eden not at the confluence of the four rivers, nor whose gate is guarded by the angel with a flaming sword, but Eden in an English shire. Suppose it is not the new Jerusalem but, miraculously, something older than the old that is built in England's green and pleasant land.

Am I trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am. After all, weaving a spell is precisely what Tolkien has done, and it is not accidental that spell is the word both for “incantation” and for “story.” Tolkien, by his imagined past, is liberating us from our present, and still more from a future we perceive and fear. We are not, of course, the Englishmen for whom he set out to provide a mythology. We are not the Inklings. Yet we hear what he is saying, for all that we may be overhearing it, and we respond with a quickening of spirit. Frodo lives, and we with him. England lives, and with it, us. But is England's green and pleasant land so powerful a myth within itself that it refreshes us?

The question that concludes this last paragraph, and the one about rendering to Tolkien what is not his alone, may be the same question in the end. The Edwardian mode is peculiarly English, indeed the Edwardian Age was peculiarly English, even when transferred (in the person of P. G. Wodehouse) to the environs of New York City. Why does this vision of England appeal? There will always be an England, but is that any reason it should be firmly engrafted in American hearts—not to mention the hearts of those Dutchmen, Swedes, Japanese, Romanians, and all who have read The Lord of the Rings in translation? The intersection of the timeless moment is England (for all that it is a country of the mind) and always (for all that it never happened). But why is this important?

“God gave all men a land to love”—thus Kipling in praise of Sussex by the sea. But Kipling was born and raised in India, and came to England from his exile. So also Tolkien came—but much younger—from his birthplace in South Africa. The contrast between the arid land around Bloemfontein and the green of England was one of his first memories. He was—to repeat a point I made earlier—in England, loving England, but not of it. Since most of his enthusiastic readers are not of it either, that may be involved in his appeal to us. The question is whether another land could serve the purpose. Could the intersection of the timeless moment be France or Germany? Or must it be England?

Lewis, who was that most English of the non-English, an Ulsterman, would say yes, there is a particular spirit of England, different from the particular spirit of France or Germany. Even if that is true, why would this spirit of England be important to those who neither have seen the land nor descend from those who have lived in it? Tolkien's ancestry was English, as was Kipling's. Ours may not be.

But languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. That is not merely something Sjera Tomas Saemundsson said, or Tolkien repeated. It is not merely a key to Tolkien's critical doctrines or day-to-day belief. It is true, and The Lord of the Rings is evidence of its truth. I cannot speak for those who read it in translation, and I suspect that translators into non-Germanic languages, at least, will have substantial trouble with their task. But we who read it in English are, as English-speakers, the inheritors of Tolkien's English mythology, heirs through that grace of his kingdom. By the fact of our language, whatever our ancestry, we are native to that northwest corner of Europe that is the scene of The Lord of the Rings. The timeless has intersected our English-speaking lives at an English moment: because Saemundsson's words are true, that moment belongs to us. Si momentum requiris, circumspice.

And that, but for some tying up of loose ends, concludes what I have to say. The principal loose end has to do with the matter of temptation: is it somehow illegitimate for us to be invited to observe and even participate in the long process of temptation in an unfallen world? Does this not cheat us by making us think things are easier than they really are? Granted that The Lord of the Rings is theologically accurate, is it not psychologically “escapist” in this way at least? Fair questions, these—but it is the purpose of Eucatastrophic stories to give hope, and the same theology that girds the world of The Lord of the Rings promises us that baptism overcomes original sin. In any case, Tolkien is not calling on us to take action, and his book is not a tract.

For we must be careful not to impute to a work of literary sub-creation the attributes of a Bible. Even if we find ourselves thinking in Tolkienian terms, using his characters and events to interpret our own lives, it is we who are doing this, not Tolkien, nor is he asking us to do it. During his life he accepted, even enjoyed, the efforts of his readers to apply to his sub-creation the same kind of scholarship he applied. He also strongly opposed those kinds of “scholarship” that looked at psychological journeys or involved any form of the personal heresy. He was a maker, not a psychologist, not even a priest.

This brings up a second loose end. I have from time to time, in what has gone before, explicitly rejected the use of The Silmarillion as a key to The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien the maker made not only the one work, great though that is: he left many works, though this greatest among them. Why not look at them all? Why restrict oneself to this one work, when other parts might provide illumination (especially for Chapter III)?

To this there are two answers. First, I am specifically looking at The Lord of the Rings, partly because the continued success of most of the rest of Tolkien's oeuvre is derivative, partly because twenty-five years is long enough to wait for someone to spend a hundred pages or so seeing what it is that has become so popular. Second, so far as The Silmarillion in particular is concerned, there has not been a full reconciliation between that and The Lord of the Rings: not only are the tone and area of concern different (quite properly so), but on such things as the origin of the Orcs, one book must be wrong (presumably The Lord of the Rings) and one right. Either the Enemy bred the Orcs in mockery of the Elves (The Lord of the Rings) or he captured and perverted Elves (The Silmarillion), and even if we accept the capture theory, explaining away the statement in the earlier book, we are left with the fact that the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings do not sound like Elves in any way, shape, or form. Mockery perhaps, but perverted from Elves, I think not.

In any event, we are considering not Tolkien's appeal, or his achievement, in general, but in this one specific work, different in kind from all his others. I would like to give here some idea of the effect that work has had on me, serving as specimen where I may fail as a literary critic. Let me do so by telling you a story.

In 1967-8 there was a used-book store on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, not far from the library. While I was browsing, I noticed a dog-eared card, posted on the bulletin board, advertising the University of Wisconsin Tolkien Society, and giving the name of its president, Mr. Richard West. I called him (he had, characteristically, forgotten the very existence of the card on the bulletin board) and shortly thereafter went to a meeting of the society. In that society there was a community of spirit as well as of interest. From The Lord of the Rings grew friendship.

The word “grew” is important, of course, but more important was, and is, the friendship. C. S. Lewis, better than most, has described the growth and particular characteristics of friendship, using Tolkien as one of his examples. The critical characteristic is the shared interest, the critical moment its discovery. And if my own experience is representative, part of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings is not only that those who read and revel in it become friends from the moment of meeting, but that they feel themselves Tolkien's friends. This, doubtless, was hard on him: it cannot be easy to have millions of friends one has never met, especially when they call on one without warning or call one long distance in the middle of the night. Tolkien eventually went into seclusion to avoid the importunities of his admirers—which is itself testimony to the degree to which The Lord of the Rings caught them in its web.

The world has changed since those days. Tolkien no longer lives in Oxford, or indeed in the circles of this world. Conferences on Middle Earth no longer meet on midwestern campuses. The long-awaited Silmarillion, though Professor Tolkien himself failed to finish it, is awaited no more. There is no longer a Tolkien Society of America, it having been taken into the Mythopoeic Society in California. The Lord of the Rings is no longer a discovery, or even a cult book. It has, more or less, been brought to the movie screen: that which we so greatly feared has come upon us.

But somewhere (and I do not apologize for borrowing these words) there is a corner of our mind where it is always 1966, with the Tolkiens at 76 Sandfield Road, and always the Great Years in the Third Age of Middle Earth. The timeless moment forever intersects our lives—both lives, in both times. “When Anodos looked through the door of the timeless, he brought back no message.” But when John Ronald Reuel Tolkien looked through that door, he brought us back The Lord of the Rings.

In endless English comfort, by country-folk caressed,
I left the old three-decker at the Islands of the Blest.

—Rudyard Kipling, “The Three-Decker”

Douglas A. Burger (essay date summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Burger, Douglas A. “The Uses of the Past in The Lord of the Rings.Kansas Quarterly 16, no. 3 (summer 1984): 23-8.

[In the following essay, Burger finds Tolkien's allusions to ancient and medieval tales in The Lord of the Rings to be intended as modernized instructional and moral stories.]

Unhindered by the realist's obligation to reflect ordinary, day-to-day life, the fantasist has the special freedom to give form to a fictional world which reflects his own keenest interest and his most profound wishes. Thus when J. R. R. Tolkien turns to fantasy, it is in no way surprising that his work should be deeply indebted to the past, particularly to the past of early legend and medieval tale. He was, after all, the Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, the co-editor of a widely respected edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a trail-blazing critic of Beowulf; and, as he says in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, “As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving.”1 Quite naturally, then, in his trilogy, Tolkien uses the genres, characters, symbolic structure, and often the original languages of ancient and medieval story. He, for example, chooses a form which closely resembles the characteristic genre of the Middle Ages: the romance, with its “Consolation of the Happy Ending,”2 its idealizations, its lush and lovingly detailed descriptions. Many of the features of Middle-earth likewise have their parallels in early literature: the river Bruinen rises against the enemies of Rivendell, just as the river Cronn rises to protect Ulster and Cúchulainn; the Isles of the West resemble Hy Brasil or the Isle of Glass in the Arthur legend; the token of kingship in The Lord of the Rings is the sword Andúril, just as Excalibur demonstrates Arthur's claim to the throne. The languages of the trilogy also have their antecedents in real tongues: the Riders of Rohan speak Anglo-Saxon, and the first names of male hobbits are often “Frankish or Gothic.”3 The examples could be multiplied many times over. Whole books could be written—indeed have been written—enumerating instances of Tolkien's debts to earlier literature.

But the value of old story for Tolkien is shown not only by the fact that the literature of the past provides him with the material and inspiration for much in the trilogy. Inside his fictional world, inside Middle-earth itself, Tolkien makes the point that old tales convey vital truths for the present. “Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years,” says Celeborn, “for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know” (FR [The Fellowship of the Ring], 484). As well as by such explicit statement, Tolkien reinforces the idea in another way: in Middle-earth, what has been regarded as merely legendary often turns out to be actual, historical fact. As Theoden says, “The old songs come down among us … and walk visible under the Sun” (TT [The Two Towers], 197). Much which the more provincial and mundane, like Ted Sandyman, mock as fanciful fabrication ultimately is hard reality. The hobbits, for example, know Mordor only as a “border on old stories” (FR, 81), in Gandalf's words. But Mordor is as real as the hobbits, who themselves are regarded as mere fictions by the Riders of Rohan. “‘Halflings,’ laughed the rider that stood beside Eomer. ‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children's tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’” (TT, 45) Aragorn's reply to the question expresses a central truth about Middle-earth: “A man may do both,” (TT, 45).

In such a world where legends of the past often betoken present reality and at a time of imminent war when the fortunes of all peoples of Middle-earth are becoming interwoven, it is extraordinarily important to know the “old wives' tales,” the legends and histories of one's own and other peoples. To aid in distinguishing friend from foe, to find action appropriate for the demands of the present, such knowledge becomes not just a pedantic love of ancientry, but a vital, urgent need. For example, because Aragorn knows the old story of the oath-breakers, he takes the Paths of the Dead, thereby saving crucial time and bringing an army redoubled in size to strike one of the most important and effective blows in the war of the rings. Besides suggesting practical strategies for the present, past events also guide the free peoples to a judgment about proper moral action. In making the difficult decision about disposing of the Ring, Elrond, along with others of the Wise, first turns to consider the past: “And first, so that all may understand what is the peril, the tale of the Ring shall be told from the beginning even to this present” (FR, 318). Such a recounting of the past shows clearly to those at the Council of Elrond that they must not take the obvious course of action—using the Ring against Sauron—because in so doing they would be corrupted and become new, and possibly worse, Saurons themselves. In this instance, they are saved from evil by awareness of the past, and in general the elves resist evil (though the Silmarillion clearly shows them capable of wrongdoing) because the past is ever fresh in their memories. Because they remember that neither Sauron nor the Ring can be trusted in any way, they have a sure guide for action in the present.

The knowledge of ancient events is shared by many of the admirable characters of The Lord of the Rings—Galadriel, Elrond, Aragorn, Faramir—but pride of place is given to the learned Gandalf, as is wholly appropriate in a world where the mastery of old lore gains a significance that is rarely recognized in the world which we call real. And perhaps more than in any other way, Tolkien stresses the importance of knowing the legendary past by his depiction of Gandalf, who is the scholar-hero of the trilogy. It is he who is preeminent in the struggle to combat Sauron; it is he who unifies the forces of the free; it is he who organizes them and devises the strategy of the opponents of the Enemy. In Rivendell, Elrond calls upon Gandalf last, “for it is the place of honour, and in all this matter he has been the chief” (FR, 328). Elrond's sentiments are echoed when Aragorn selects Gandalf to crown him, because, as the King-to-be says, “He has been the mover of all that has been accomplished and this is his victory” (The Return of the King, 246). The stirring scene constitutes the culmination of an Oxford professor's wish-come-true: his own special scholarly proclivities move out of the study to occupy an active role in the most exciting affairs of the times.

In this role, Gandalf's knowledge of history and legend plays a central part. He uses the past as an inspiration for present deeds, one way in which he “kindles” the hearts of men (one of the functions of Narya, the Ring of Fire, which he wields). For example, he recalls for Frodo the Last Alliance of Men and Elves: “That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall; for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain” (FR, 83). Also as with Aragorn's knowledge of the Paths of the Dead, Gandalf's learning often has immediate practical application. Interestingly, several of the examples of this generalization involve a philological mastery, a skill which Gandalf shares with his creator. He unlocks the western gates of Moria by his recalling the Elvish word mellon, and he gains initial access to Rohan only because he knows the language. An even better example of the practical effect of Gandalf's knowledge of the past and of languages is in his identification of the One Ruling Ring. Because of his tireless research in Gondor's archives of “hoarded scrolls and books” (FR, 330), he unearths Isildur's manuscript and deciphers what “few now can read” (FR, 331): Isildur's notation of an inscription upon the Ring (in the foul language of Mordor), written in an ancient Elven-script of Eregion. When Gandalf, with the soundness of the careful scholar who tests his hypotheses, casts Frodo's ring into the fire and discovers the same words upon it, he is certain that the ring is indeed the ancient Ring of power once forged by the Dark Lord. In addition to being essential to the identification, the ancient scroll tells something of the peril of the Ring. Isildur writes of it: “It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain” (FR, 332), words which recall how Gollum was consumed by thoughts of his “Precious”; and thus Gandalf is given particular cause for fear when a stubborn Bilbo at first refuses to pass on the Ring to Frodo, saying, “It is mine, I tell you. My own. My Precious. Yes, my Precious” (FR, 59).

Though one of the most striking examples, Gandalf's identification of the Ring and his knowledge of its attributes is just one instance out of many which illustrate his constant uses of the learning of the past. Repeatedly Gandalf shares his knowledge, and he makes the past accessible to the present, with his frequent explanations—about the palantiri, the mining of mithril, the seedling of the tree Galathilion, and much else. Just as he reconciles the free peoples and unifies the opposition to Sauron, he plainly perceives it as part of his mission to reconcile ancient wisdom to the needs of the present. In sum, for Tolkien, Gandalf serves as a model scholar in his attitude toward the past and in his uses of past knowledge; and the particular characteristics of the kindly old wizard are conveyed even more sharply and emphatically when his attitudes are compared with another deeply learned wizard of Middle-earth, Saruman.

Saruman is similarly learned in old lore, but his attitude toward past wisdom is quite different from Gandalf's. Saruman becomes perfectly willing to slough off “old allies and policies” (FR, 340), to sacrifice past and present goods for a glorious future. What counts for him is not ancient wisdom, but the learning that will lead to a greater more splendid “Knowledge” (FR, 340), which significantly Saruman couples with “Order” and “Rule” (FR, 340). This, in his words, is “the high and ultimate purpose” (FR, 34)). For him, the present becomes just a matter of “bid[ing] time” (FR, 340), a period during which, he says carelessly, one might”deplor[e] maybe evils done along the way” (FR, 340). Both the past and present become relevant and interesting to him only in respect to the way they apply to his future. The attitude could scarcely be farther from Gandalf's deep respect for the past and his unceasing care for the present.

Yet Gandalf, like Tolkien, knows that “The Road Goes Ever On and On” (FR, 62), in time as well as space. He knows that “The Great Tales never end” (TT, 408). Indeed, Gandalf labors tirelessly and heroically for a future that is far higher than Saruman's “high and ultimate purpose.” The time to come is ever-present in his mind. As he says in the Council of Elrond: “It is not our part here to take thought only for a season or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek for a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.” (FR, 349) Thus Gandalf sees the past and present in relation to a future, but in a significantly different way from Saruman. He knows that the past and the present cannot be discarded without distorting the future, and he sees the passage of time in natural terms: day after night, season following season, and age succeeding age. He speaks not of achievement and accomplishment in the time to come, but of allowing the future to develop naturally, of giving posterity “clean earth to till” (RK [The Return of the King], 190).

With an integrated sense of past, present, and future, Gandalf differs not only from Saruman but from those who would cling to a fixed past, like Denethor. As Steward of Gondor, he is responsible for keeping the kingdom and maintaining its high culture until the coming of the rightful king. But the Stewards have remained in charge so long and so many hundreds of years have passed that the expectation of the King's return has become dim in the minds of both Denethor and his people. In fact, Denethor's essential attitude toward the future is hatred. He shuns it and fights against it, in much the same way that Boromir fights to keep the present glory of Gondor continuing in the future. As Denethor says, “What was is less dark to me than what is to come” (FR, 330). The basically backward-looking quality of the Steward is shown in his land, where the glories now wane and life diminishes. In Gondor, house after house stands empty and still; few children laugh in the streets; and the White Tree, which is the symbol of Gondor's vitality, is dead in the midst of a fountain, whose “falling drops [drip] sadly from its barren and broken branches” (RK, 27). Despite omens of change, Denethor refuses to believe that the true King is actually soon to claim his throne, and the possibility fills him not with joy but with jealousy and the determination to hold fast to what he has. His last words typify his attitude: “I would have things as they were in all the days of my life and in the days of my long-fathers before me” (RK, 58). Such a sentiment shows plainly his dedication to a dying past, and it is a significant part of his final madness. Appropriately, we last see him in the house of the dead, destroying his life rather than facing and accepting change.

Galadriel shares Denethor's wish for a continuance of things as they were and are, and her attitude toward time provides another important element in the structure of parallels and contrasts which build up Tolkien's view of the proper attitudes toward and use of time. Like Denethor, Galadriel maintains the past into the present, and indeed “Preserv[ing] all things unstained” (FR, 352) is one of the functions of the Elven Rings. But her preservation of earlier days is of an entirely different sort. Rather than the sense of decay and aging that marks Denethor's Gondor, in Lórien all seems mint-new. Here the Elder Days “still lived on in the waking world” (FR, 453), and all “seemed at once clear cut as if [it] had been first conceived and drawn … and ancient as if [it] had endured for ever” (FR, 454). Yet despite the fact that Galadriel's maintaining of the past is of a different and worthier sort, even the golden woods of Lórien must pass away. It is a mark of the Elven queen's greatness and wisdom that she recognizes the necessity for change. For their impending loss, Galadriel says, the elves feel a “regret undying” which “cannot ever wholly be assuaged” (FR, 473). Yet unlike Denethor, she actively assists in the change. With precious and useful gifts, with counsel and sympathy, she aids the Quest which will lead to the end of her powers. Only by accepting the One Ruling Ring could she forestall her loss, but she refuses that temptation and accepts her future: “Her gentle voice was soft and sad. ‘I pass the test,’ she said, ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’” (FR, 474)

Like Galadriel, Gandalf labors ceaselessly to usher in an age when his role will be over. As with the other wizards, Gandalf is sent from the Far West at the beginning of the Third Age to challenge Sauron. With the destruction of the Ring, he knows that the Third Age will end and with it his own place and purpose in Middle-earth. But, again like Galadriel, he actively and energetically works to achieve the end of his mission, and his central concern is that the beneficent future which he occasionally glimpses may come to pass.

Frequently, critics regard Tolkien as a crotchety antiquarian who refuses to accept the modern age, and it perhaps is surprising for a mid-twentieth-century author to make such extensive use of material from ancient legend and medieval lore. But the values inherent in the characterization and narrative of The Lord of the Rings show that he recognizes the limitations and distortions possible in a love of the past. The work clearly reveals Tolkien's awareness that one cannot remain buried in a medieval manuscript, aloft in an ivory tower, or singing in a golden wood. But he does believe that the legends of the past contain “word of things that [are] needful for the wise to know” (FR, 484) and that “old songs [can] come down among us … and walk visible under the Sun” (TT, 197). In an interview with Henry Resnick, Tolkien makes the point that he always wanted to work with “mythological things like Greek or Norse myths.” “I tried,” he says, “to improve on them and modernize them … to make them credible.”4 Thus, Tolkien does for our world what Gandalf does for Middle-earth: he tries to reconcile the past of old story to present life. With a labor of love, Tolkien tries to enable the insights of old tales to speak to our present needs, to inspirit and enrich us. And like Gandalf, his concern is ultimately moral. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien strives to make us aware of the universal truths reflected in the works of the past so that in the future “what should be shall be” (FR, 473).


  1. Foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), ix.

  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Tree and Leaf (London: Unwin Books, 1964), 60.

  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965). 516. All subsequent page references to the trilogy will appear in parenthesis following the quotation. I use the following abbreviations: FR = The Fellowship of the Ring, TT = The Two Towers, RK = The Return of the King.

  4. Henry Resnick, “An Interview with Tolkien,” Niekas, 18 (Spring, 1967):40.

Catherine Madsen (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Madsen, Catherine. “Light from an Invisible Lamp: Natural Religion in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 14, no. 3 (spring 1988): 43-7.

[In the following essay, Madsen argues against interpretations of The Lord of the Rings that locate the trilogy as a specifically Christian allegory and contends instead that it is informed by a nonspecific religiosity.]

It was in 1971 that a reader wrote to Tolkien, calling himself “an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling” and saying how profoundly he had been moved by The Lord of the Rings. “You,” he said, “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 413)

Some eight years earlier, though I was too young to put it so clearly, I had a similar response upon first reading the book. There seemed both a brightness and a severity in it, an intensity of focus, that was plainly religious in character, the plainer for not being specifically Christian. In those days I was very impatient with evangelism, and fairly good at detecting it; but what Tolkien seemed to be doing was something quite different. He seemed to present religious feeling, and even religious behavior, without ritual, revelation, doctrine, indeed without God except for two fairly cryptic and untheological references in the appendices. The book seemed to have far less to do with the New Testament than with the mountains I could see out my windows, but it moved me to religion. Indeed, having once goaded my parents in an argument into asking me, “Well, what do you believe?” I ran to my room, brought out the three volumes, and presented them saying, “I believe this.” It was youthful extravagance; but I have never since been sure that it was false.

Subsequently for several years, on the advice of the critics, I tried faithfully to discover in Christianity what I had found in The Lord of the Rings, and on the whole did not find it there. It was not for lack of expectation; I thought, as certain of the critics seem to have thought before publication of Tolkien's biography and letters, that all the Inklings thought the same about Christianity, and that when Lewis spoke Tolkien could not be far behind. But neither Lewis nor Williams, nor indeed Dante or Augustine or Paul or the evangelists, struck the same note. I had a bad dream during that time in which the Elves came sailing back to Middle-earth from the West, and disembarking prostrated themselves before a cross upon an altar, repenting of their love for Elvenhome and confessing Christ. I believe this is the situation in which much of the Christian critical opinion has placed The Lord of the Rings; it has tried to take the enchantment out of it. It has tried to make an independent imagination a means to a religious end. Finding myself strongly drawn to faith by the book, and yet not particularly to the Christian faith, I think this effort to see it as Christian is essentially mistaken.

The critics who have undertaken to “prove” the book's Christianity have used some interesting methods; they have mined it for Christian content with the same ingenuity their spiritual forebears used to find foreshadowings of Jesus among the law and the prophets. The late Professor Kilby, in his Tolkien and the Silmarillion, lays much stress upon motifs which appear both in Tolkien's work and in the Hebrew scriptures (such as the long lives of the patriarchs and the unions between earthly and angelic beings) as though such borrowings were necessarily done for devotional reasons—as though any writer might not borrow powerful images from what is, after all, the Ur-text of Western civilization. Jared Lobdell, in his otherwise insightful England and Always, employs the curious expedient of searching through The Lord of the Rings for examples of the gifts of the Spirit from St. Paul's list in First Corinthians, an exegetical effort which has nothing to do with how a storyteller thinks; he also identifies several characters as “unfallen”, an impression which the subsequent publication of Tolkien's letters has shown to be inaccurate. (See especially Letters, 203-4 and 286-7.) These methods strike me as a kind of pious occultism, which takes to uncovering resemblances and correspondences and hidden meanings simply because the overt meanings they look for are not there. One might as well try to prove that Tolkien was interested in ceremonial magic because Gandalf, Aragorn and Bombadil chant spells. But Tolkien insisted, over and over again, that he was writing a story, not a homily. He was not trying to encode Christian ideas in his work any more than he was trying to deny them. “Nobody believes me,” he complained (Letters, 264) “when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.”

It is clear enough from his own statements elsewhere that Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and took his religion with profound seriousness all his life. But he was not a simple person, and how his Christianity worked on his storytelling is not a simple matter. He disliked preaching, not only in stories but in most sermons (Letters, 75), and his religious feeling was founded not on a sense of the logic of Christianity but on a love for the sacramental Body of Christ (Letters, 53-54 and 338-340). Also, his sense of the purpose of fairy-stories prevented him from making any literal reference to the world's history in his own stories. “If a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep,” he said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” “he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” The effect of any open reference to Christianity in his stories would have been equally fatal. He felt that the Arthurian legend failed as a fairy-story partly because “it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. … Myth and fairy-story,” he said, “as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” (Letters, 144)

Why a man who was clearly committed to his religion should have had an even deeper allegiance to the laws of the fairy-story, I hope to suggest. But it is clear that he did not intend his work to argue or illustrate or promulgate Christianity. Any Christian-seeming images in it are precisely not witnesses to the Gospel: they are echoes. If Elbereth owes something to the Virgin Mary—if one can never again hear the phrase stella maris without thinking o menel aglar elenath—it is her starriness that crosses over into Faerie, not her miraculous motherhood or her perpetual virginity. If lembas, the Elves' waybread, clearly recalls the sacramental wafer as Frodo and Sam subsist on it in Mordor, it is the idea of spiritual food that comes through, shorn of all suggestion or argument of Christ's presence in it. He borrows Christian magic, not Christian doctrine; and Christianity without doctrine is a shadow of itself.

No one, I think, should imagine that by avoiding mention of Christianity Tolkien was in the least attempting to supplant it or subvert it. Nonetheless, his story is not that story. The subcreator makes something different from the creation. By recombining the elements of which the world is made—by translating Eala earendel engla beorhtast into Aiya Earendil elenion ancalima—he makes something unknown and new. What he imagines he makes imaginable. If, for whatever purpose of his own, he imagines a world without Christianity, he makes that world imaginable to his readers; he may even make it worth longing for.


Tolkien's own statement on the religion of Middle-earth is that “it is a monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’ … the Third Age was not a Christian world.” (Letters, 220) Elbereth and the other Valar are not worshipped, though they are praised and invoked (and in The Silmarillion they are called “the gods”). To explain the relationships of God, the Valar, the Elves and Men, Tolkien wrote (Letters, 203-204): “Elves and Men were called the Children of God; and hence the gods either loved (or hated) them specially: as having a relation to the Creator equal to their own, if of different stature.” The Elves have “no religion (or religious practices, rather) for those had been in the hands of the gods” before their exile from the Blessed Realm. The Men of Numenor “escaped from ‘religion’ in a pagan sense, into a pure monotheistic world, in which all things and beings and powers that might seem worshipful were not to be worshipped, not even the gods … being only creatures of the One. And He was immensely remote.”

Indeed, the word “worship” is only used in The Lord of the Rings to denote illegitimate worship. The Men of the Mountains would not fulfill their oath to Isildur because “they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years” (III, 55); when Gollum encountered Shelob he had “bowed and worshipped her” and promised to bring her food (II, 332-333); Galadriel, enacting what she would become if she took the Ring, appears “terrible and worshipful” (I, 381). There is no example of permissible worship to set against these; only the Elves' praise of Elbereth and the moment of silence Faramir's men observe before supper (II, 284). No one ever names the One, except Arwen at Aragorn's deathbed, and then not to worship but to protest the bitterness of the gift of death.

The hobbits, who seem to know nothing of the Valar and little enough of the Elves, have no customs even approaching religion. For those who come into contact with the wider world, love of the Elves becomes the way to religious feeling; but even then there is no deliberate ritual acknowledgement of it, but only moments of wonder. Bilbo in Rivendell makes verses on the stories of the Elder Days, but one feels that this is because he has become cultured, not devout. At one point he says to Frodo, “I'll take a walk, I think, and look at the stars of Elbereth in the garden” (I, 251), but he says it with the gentle urbanity a polite unbeliever might use of the religious observances of his adopted country. It is left to Frodo, whose task leads him into horrors Bilbo cannot imagine, to invoke Elbereth and Earendil as the Elves do—because they are the highest powers he knows; and to Sam, who in Shelob's lair cries out four lines of Sindarin as though pentecostally inspired (II, 339) and later chooses the name Elbereth as a password because it is “what the Elves say” (III, 189). In the end all three hobbits are taken up entirely into the Elvish cosmology—they cross the sea to Elvenhome; but there is never the faintest hint that this has anything to do with God. It has to do with morality, and with extraordinary beauty, and with loss; but none of these things are founded on worship. Worship is not an act the Free Peoples engage in.

It is rather like the epigram of the contemporary secularist Sherwin T. Wine: “The true refusal of idols is the unwillingness to worship anything.” Middle-earth is a monotheistic world—remotely; it has no theology, no covenant, and no religious instruction; it is full of beauty and wonder and even holiness, but not divinity. Even the reader need not worship anything to comprehend it. It is more important for the reader to love trees.

“Natural theology”, in the OED's definition, is “theology based upon reasoning from natural facts apart from revelation.” Unless one is willing to call God a natural fact it is difficult to see how this can be theology at all. The related term “natural religion” suffers from a similar confusion, but less so: it is defined as “The Things knowable concerning God, and our Duty by the Light of Nature”; that “which men might know … by the mere principles of Reason … without the help of Revelation.” Of the two terms, “natural religion” seems to me better suited to The Lord of the Rings, in which the essential fact about God is his distance. It is other “natural facts” such as the Elves, the Ents, the longing for the sea, and the very geography of Middle-earth, on which the religious feeling of the book depends. And it is a kind of religious feeling which is curiously compatible with a secular cosmology.

For example, divine authority is never invoked in the making of moral decisions; and yet moral decisions get made, and often made conscientiously. “We may not shoot an old man so, at unawares and unchallenged,” says Aragorn to Gimli (II, 96); he quotes no chapter and verse, nor does it seem odd that he does not, for by any civilized standard it is difficult to make sniping seem morally defensible. “We must send the Ring to the Fire,” says Elrond (I, 280), again not through any compliance with a divine command but through a kind of high and desperate pragmatism: nothing else will effectively put an end to Sauron's power. Frodo takes on the quest of Mount Doom because no one else is willing to and it must be done. He has no law to guide him, beyond his feelings for Bilbo, and Gandalf, and the Elves, and the Shire; that and a little knowledge of history; yet these are enough to move him to the most painstaking thought and the severest sense of duty of which he is capable. Though Gandalf and Elrond both believe him fated to go on the quest, the fate that chose him is unnamed and inaccessible; what matters is not to identify the prime mover but to undertake the task.

In this and other respects I think the “natural religion” of Middle-earth is similar to what believers and unbelievers alike experience in daily life. Whether or not we invoke divine authority, essentially all of us have only our emotional ties and a little knowledge of history; we can build on these, but we cannot outdistance them; in all our heaviest decisions we try to keep faith with the best judgments of those we love and to act on what we know about the past. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear,” says Aragorn to Eomer (II, 40-41), “nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men. It is a man's part to discern them”—the crucial word being discern, for even if good and ill are unchanging we are bound by the limits of our discernment.

The relationships of Frodo, Sam and Gollum are one illustration of this pattern. Frodo has no pity for Gollum at the beginning of the book, but he loves and respects Gandalf who tells him he ought to. By the time he actually meets Gollum, he has also met Aragorn and Elrond and Galadriel—he understands much more about the Ring and its place in the history of Middle-earth—and he has also suffered terror and hardship, the wound from the Morgul-knife, the loss of Gandalf in Moria, Boromir's assault, and the growing burden of the Ring. He is keeping faith with Gandalf, but also genuinely feels pity, when he tells Sam not to kill Gollum. Gollum, on the other hand, keeps faith with no one but his Precious: he guides Frodo to Mordor simply because he has sworn by the Ring, and he agonizes over a way to circumvent the intent of his promise while keeping the letter of it. His sole emotional bond is to the Ring. It is the possibility of another emotional bond that almost saves him—on the stairs of Cirith Ungol when he finds Frodo and Sam asleep and loves them. And here it is Sam's untaught emotions, his lack of discernment, that wreck any further hope for Gollum.

Frodo's capacity for pity is what makes the destruction of the Ring possible even when he himself is overthrown; because he let Gollum live, Gollum can challenge his ownership of the Ring. At the same time, the scene at the Crack of Doom is one of immense moral ambiguity: good does not triumph over evil, but depends on evil to deliver it. Good and evil change places for a moment when Frodo claims the Ring and Gollum attacks him. As a child I felt that one of the crowning delights of the book—it would not be speaking too strongly to call it a eucatastrophe—was that Gollum got his Precious back: that his wickedness, his horrid speech, his murderous craving and his pitiful existence were taken up into the center and solution of the story, and not by being redeemed but by being allowed to play themselves out. His very nastiness and spite become the necessary tools, shadow and foil to Frodo's decency and courage; the fate that chose Frodo chose Gollum too. Even sin is not wasted but woven into the pattern. In natural religion as in the Gospels, pity is a mystery at the heart of the world; but here it encompasses evil without either punishing or converting it. Gollum is the sacrificial goat that takes away the sins of the world. His life was its own punishment; his death is also his reward.


This is surely a necessary quality of religion without revelation; for without the possibility of direct supernatural intervention, it is the natural beings, incapable of being entirely good, who must bring everything about. Therefore all triumphs are mixed; every victory over evil is also a depletion of the good. They diminish together. Indeed all of Middle-earth is in a state of devolution, a long decline from Elder Days to after-days. The Elves are fading; the Men of Numenor are becoming like “lesser” men. Even the landscape is broken: Beleriand is gone, and Arnor is uninhabited, and Hollin is deserted. The drowning of Numenor has changed the shape of the world.

It is clear that both the light and the darkness in Middle-earth are less than they once were. Morgoth was a greater enemy than Sauron, and the Elves were stronger in resisting him; Morgoth took away the light by stealing the Silmarils, whereas Sauron only blocks the light with a vast cloud of smoke; Elbereth scattered the stars and sent Earendil among them in his ship, but Galadriel only seals a little of that light in a glass. Aragorn is a hero and a descendant of heroes, but he is brought up in hiding and given the name of “Hope”; Arwen possesses the beauty of Luthien, but she is born in the twilight of her people and her title is “Evenstar”; these two restore the original glories only for a little while, before the world is altered and “fades into the light of common day”. Indeed The Lord of the Rings may be read as the story of how the Elves vanished from Middle-earth, fully as much as the story of the unmaking of the Ring. The tragedy of the Ring's destruction is that it cannot do anything positive, only prevent the great evil of Sauron's domination; in fact it guarantees the lesser evil, the departure of the Elves and the beginning of the Dominion of Men. The story has a eucatastrophe, but it has no happy ending.

Whether or not the sense of “fading” is compatible with Christianity may be debated. Certainly Tolkien did not feel it to be contrary. Verlyn Flieger (1983) sees it as evidence of the “precariousness” of his faith: “however he may qualify the pagan point of view, his heart is with the tragedy.” But Tolkien himself, in a letter to a reader, takes it entirely into the Christian framework: “I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’” (Letters, 255, my italics). On the other hand one may legitimately wonder how good he felt the news of the Gospel to be, given the strength of the other feeling. For he himself did not live out of history; he suffered loss without reparation as everyone suffers it, Christian or not. The sense of “fading” is rooted in the central fact of the human condition, prior to all creeds and covenants. We are mortal: we do not see our own works come to fruition, but look back to those who went before us and are gone. Those we most admire we will never meet; we can only try to be worthy of them in our own work. Those we love die, and we lose not only their presence but even a sufficient memory of what they were. Our life is not even a there-and-back-again journey that leaves us in good health and good condition; inasmuch as we take on the responsibilities it lays on us (“I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way”), it brings us to the limit of our endurance—our real limit, not the one we thought we had—and then, if we are still alive, it sends us home to discover that we are not even whole enough to live there. Frodo's woundedness after his journey is not only the inexorable outcome of his ordeal with the Ring, but the thing that happens to all of us. The Christian hope of resurrection is one way of enduring this devastation, but it is one faint possibility in a world of crushing actualities. In the whole long story of the War of the Ring, the one challenge to the mortality of Men is Aragorn's last assertion, “Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory” (III, 344). But what he says just before that has far more conviction, and its language is direct and not speculative: “there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world” (III, 343). His final hope does not cancel this: in fact it seems only to try to soften what cannot be softened. Certainly it does not seem to comfort Arwen.


To answer mortals' suffering on earth with the hope of a compensation from beyond the earth is in fact unconvincing. Any answer to the pain inflicted by nature must come from within nature. A supernatural answer cheats deliberately the primal desire of all rational beings, to have their lives make sense in the terms on which they are lived. But there is another kind of hope in the book, one which has nothing to do with overcoming death, and even has little to do with the future. It is attached to the present, sometimes even to the past, and its effect is not to override despair, but to give people small measures of strength to keep acting in spite of it. It is what the hobbits feel when they see Elves, or the stars; it is what the reader feels about the languages and the half-told histories and the sense of a separate world. It is what Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” calls recovery: awakened senses, immediate attention, or as he says, “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.” It is the sense Frodo has in Lorien the moment his blindfold is removed and he first sees the land:

A light was upon it for which his language had no name. … He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.

(I, 365)

This is a gratitude to other beings for their otherness: a gratitude the hobbits feel most of all toward the Elves and their landscapes, and in a smaller degree toward the Ents, and which extends for the reader over the whole book, into Moria, and the fields of Rohan, and Dunharrow, and even into the Dead Marshes and the barren plains of Mordor, because they are all seen with awakened senses. To my mind, it is the most compelling thing about the book—and also the least Christian: for this kind of attention is unmediated, available to anyone of any persuasion, and not contingent upon belief. (And it is not taught as a part of Christian learning, except to aspiring mystics as an “advanced” technique of prayer.) Nothing in the awakening of the senses points one inevitably towards Christ; if anything, it points one to the world, since it is so often the landscape or the heavens or the beauty of other people that startles the mind into attention. It is true that, in the cosmology of The Lord of the Rings, the Valar shaped the landscape, Elbereth sowed the stars; but Tolkien never forces cosmology into these moments of attention. Most often, the means by which hope comes is indistinct, but the fact of it is clear, as when Sam looks up from the darkness of Mordor by night:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

(III, 199)

There is nothing in this to suggest hope in the sense of personal immortality; even the star may not be immortal, though it will outlast Sam and all his people. For that moment, the unexpected presence of beauty in the midst of desolation is enough to assure that beauty will endure for ever—because of the otherness of the other, because of its very distance; perhaps (could one see it as beauty) because of the very distance of God.

There is another writer whose work is concerned with this kind of direct attention, and who says in philosophical form what Tolkien's story says implicitly; there is no evidence that either had read the other, but the similarities in image and temperament are striking:

It is from the wastes of waters that (pity) reaches our heart. It is from the solemn march of the high stars that it melts the soul. Can pity come from the rocks and forgiveness from the wet sea-sands? Why not? Everything comes from the encounter of the Self with the Not-Self.

(Powys, 1933)

This is John Cowper Powys, like Tolkien a rather unplaceable figure on the margins of twentieth-century English literature. His great project as a writer was to delineate a religious outlook which in his book A Philosophy of Solitude he called Elementalism. In his view, power and solace derive directly from nature, and the capacity for kindness grows out of a knowledge of one's own loneliness, one's direct connection to the elements. It is very much like the phenomenon Tolkien calls “recovery”; and he uses another word to which Tolkien attached importance:

The clue-word, and it is tragically significant that it has become what it has, to all our modern pleasures, is the word “escape”. Escape from what, and into what? Alas! escape from ourselves and into the whirlpool of the crowd! There is only one true escape … and this is a sinking down into the mystery of the inanimate.


The formal theological views of the two men are almost opposite: Powys was an unabashed pagan, and intentionally used the word “worship” toward the elements, meaning that very attitude of mind which Tolkien describes as “seeing things … as things apart from ourselves”. Powys also refused to contemplate worshipping God: he was implacably at odds with a creator whose designs could permit cruelty to exist. Yet between the orthodox teller of fairy-stories and the unorthodox maker of philosophies there is a curious common ground. Both of them cared profoundly about pity; both attached great importance to the otherness of the other; and both showed the spirit's sustenance coming from solitary moments of attention to the natural world. I will give one more example:

Under our feet the earth, above our heads the sky; while the murmur of the generations … mingles with that deeper sound, audible only to ears purged by solitude, whereby the mystery of the Inanimate whispers to itself below the noises of the world.


Thus John Cowper Powys. And Tolkien:

I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was a long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.

(II, 106)

Whoever sent Gandalf back from the dead in this scene is never (except sketchily, in the Letters, 201-203) identified, and in the end it does not matter to the story. What the rocks said mattered too much to be left out. Their “slow everlasting groan” is the theological statement at the heart of the book. The world itself and its wearing—time, and the body, and the elements—is the only revelation we have. Not through our beliefs, but through loneliness, pity, and unmediated attention to these present and imperfect things, do we attain what strength and solace we can have. Tragedy and hope are simultaneous and not sequential. One does not cancel the other. It is a religion more truly catholic than the one Tolkien professed.


This may be the reason for his allegiance to the laws and form of the fairy-story above those of his own religion. He wished, it seems, to show a world on its own terms, in which both catastrophe and eucatastrophe developed from natural facts, because these carry a weight which the supernatural cannot. In the essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien suggests that while the stories of mortals are often occupied with the escape from death, those of the elves must be concerned with the escape from deathlessness. But might not a Christian imagine the escape from Christianity? I do not mean the abandonment of it, which at present is relatively easy for those who incline that way; I mean the escape from its history, its accretions of theology which have put such a strain on both reason and kindness, its exclusiveness of doctrine which has caused such suffering to pagans and heretics, and to Jews; the ugliness and want of intellect in most of its daily celebrations, and the burden of evangelism which sets the individual Christian in a position of superiority which is always impossible to defend. The escape from all this into some state where the heart's reasons for believing can be remembered, some landscape illumined with a light for which our language has no name—perhaps not even the name of Jesus, so weighted down and so abused.

Yet having imagined such a place, how different must be the possible responses among those who read the story. For the writer remains a Christian; he has simply made a new approach to the heart of his faith, more bearable to his mind and character. But not all his readers will be led to Christianity by his work. Or if led there, some may conclude that the fire they sought has in fact struck a different altar: that for them Tolkien has simultaneously made holiness imaginable and made it imaginable apart from Christianity. For Christianity is above all concerned with showing forth, making God visible: either in the Incarnation, in which he is said to have become a man, or in the Eucharist, in which he is said to enter bread and wine. In The Lord of the Rings God is not shown forth, nor does he even speak, but acts in history with the greatest subtlety. He does not violate the laws of flesh or of food, but remains the last Other behind all otherness that may be loved. Those who are struck by this will not turn to the formula et incarnatus est but to a more obscure and paradoxical Hebrew saying: lo sh'mo bo sh'mo, “Where the Name is not uttered, there the Name is present.” For some thousand pages Tolkien refrained from taking the Lord's name in vain; invisible, it illuminates the whole.


Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Kilby, Clyde S. Tolkien & the Silmarillion. Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976.

Lobdell, Jared. England and Always: Tolkien's World of the Rings. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

Powys, John Cowper. A Philosophy of Solitude. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1933.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

———. The Lord of the Rings. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1954.

———. “On Fairy-Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis. London: Oxford University Press, 1947.

J. R. Wytenbroek (essay date summer 1988)

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SOURCE: Wytenbroek, J. R. “Apocalyptic Vision in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 14, no. 4 (summer 1988): 7-12.

[In the following essay, Wytenbroek locates elements of both the biblical and the Old Norse vision of the end of the world in The Lord of the Rings.]

The title of my paper is “Apocalyptic Vision in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” and in it I shall refer to both the Christian view of the apocalypse, as presented primarily in the book of Revelations, and the Norse vision of Ragnarok, as presented in both the Prose and Elder Eddas. Both the Biblical and Norse visions of the last days of the world are very sketchy and open to much interpretation, the Norse Ragnarok being even less detailed and wide in scope than the Christian. Thus in discussing anyone's representation of the apocalypse, we need to be aware of the breadth of possibilities of reading and interpretation, and the almost endless potential for creating details and filling in the many vague, unclear, or apparently missing links and parts of both versions. I am going to argue that Tolkien took some of these allowable liberties with the little information he had before him, and that The Lord of the Rings presents a coherent and in some respects detailed schema for certain parts of the apocalyptic vision of both Revelations and the Eddas.

Firstly, however, I want to establish what I am not trying to do in this paper. I am not attempting to argue, in any way, that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory of the Christian and/or Norse vision of the apocalypse. Tolkien himself argued against The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of any kind, and I emphatically agree with him. It is as work too great in scope and too profound in vision to be fitted into any one symbolic or allegorical system. However, it frequently contains elements and even visions of certain mythic or prophetic events. Consequently, some critics feel it is a history of the prelapsarian world, others, an alternative history to our own where Adam never fell. Some critics argue for Aragorn as the unfallen Adam, others for Frodo as an Adam about to fall but saved by grace at the last moment because of his compassion for Gollum throughout, and because he does not fall of his own free will. All these views have merit, and all enrich our understanding of the richness and profundity of this great epic work of one of the most important writers of the Twentieth Century.

Consequently I am not arguing that The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien's version of the apocalypse. That would be blatantly ridiculous and could be disproven on many counts. However I feel that part of his vision in The Lord of the Rings is decidedly apocalyptic in places, yet is not at all in conflict with prelapsarian or alternative history elements for which other critics have argued, and of which I see many instances. Tolkien's vision is broad enough to encompass all these different elements, and many others, and combine them into one amazingly coherent and harmonious whole.

Middle-earth is a world in decay, a dying world as Tolkien presents it for most of the Trilogy. There are pockets of beauty and peace, uncorrupted by Sauron or Saruman and their emissaries who delight in destroying all beautiful or living things. The Shire is still untouched when the romance begins. Sauron has not yet heard of it and also has not yet the power to stretch his arm so far. But his ignorance lasts only until the second chapter of the book, and from that time on the Shire is endangered. Other pockets of beauty and peace remain, primarily those occupied by powers with whom Sauron dares not tangle until his power is complete: Tom Bombadil's house in the Old Forest, Rivendell, Lothlorien. Both Rohan and Gondor, although still beautiful, are no longer peaceful. Both show the ravages of recent and increasing conflict when we first see them, and Gondor, in particular, is decaying internally, through the weakening rule of the Stewards and its fall from greatness, precipitated by the end of the kingship there, many centuries before. Houses are empty, there are few children born in Gondor, and the weakness and laxness of attention of Gondor allowed Sauron to return to Mordor a few years before the events in this novel, when he captured the beautiful Tower of the Moon, Minas Ithil, turning it into the tower of Minas Morgul, the place of darkest terror in all of Middle-earth.

As decay and dissolution is one characteristic of the times of the apocalypse in both Norse and Biblical versions, another characteristic is apostasy. As Vernon Hyles (in his paper “The Hero and the World: Tolkien's Mythic Hero”) says, “In Middle-earth, Boromir, Denethor and even Sauron represent this falling away from goodness” (p. 3). Apostasy is revealed clearly in Denethor's seduction by Sauron through his unwise use of the palantir, which is a blatant case of the seduction of the very elect prophesied for the last times in the Gospel of Mark (13:22). Saruman is not only seduced but, in many ways, becomes the symbol of the lesser evil figure of the apocalypse, the false prophet, who will rise to power shortly after the rise of Satan's emissary, the Beast (here symbolized by Sauron), in the battle against the people of the earth. Thus many of the figures present in the Biblical apocalypse are represented by their types in The Lord of the Rings.

Norse as well as other Biblical prophecies for this period appear directly in The Lord of the Rings. The sun, which is to go black according to Revelations and be swallowed by a wolf in Ragnarok, are mirrored in the darkened sky of Middle-earth where no sun appears for several days, and which is foretold by Gandalf to the anxious Pippin: “At sunrise I will take you to the Lord Denethor again. No, when the summons comes, not at sunrise. The Darkness has begun. There will be no dawn” (III, p. 38). Also the desolation of the earth through plague, famine, and war prophesied in Revelations has its counterpart in Ragnarok which, it is said, will be “An axe-age, a sword-age, / shields will be cloven, / a wind-age, a wolf-age, before the world's ruin” (p. 86). We see much evidence of the fierce fighting foretold in this prophecy from the Elder Edda. Furthermore, Tolkien has the company tracked and attacked by wargs, Sauron's wolves, before they enter the mines of Moria. This attack is prefigured in the double attack of the wargs in The Hobbit, particularly in the Battle of the Five Armies, which prefigures some of the some of the apocalyptic features of the war in The Lord of the Rings. In Revelations, similar troubles will be visited by God upon the earth to try to turn wicked men to repentance, although in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, Saruman and their forces bring the devastation of the land, the plague of the Black Breath, and war, prophesied in Revelations for the end-times, whereas in Revelations it is God who brings about the devastation.

War is foretold for both Ragnarok and the apocalypse. This war (Armageddon) is, of course, the direct conflict between the powers of good and the powers of evil. Important in both prophecies are men, who will be involved in this conflict and must choose sides. The heroes of Valhalla will ride with the Norse gods to battle, while in Revelations the army of heaven which does battle with the beast and the peoples of the earth whom he has seduced, may contain those faithful who have preceded the then living, in death. Humanity is called to choose its sides, in this great battle, although individual's choices may have been made ages before.

These choices appear in The Lord of the Rings. The Easterlings, Haradrim, Variags, and Southrons are seduced or cowed by Sauron into fighting on his side as the men of Dunland are by Saruman in the battle of Helm's Deep. The very scope of the battle is apocalyptic rather than simply a function of the necessary conflict between the hero and his adversary of romance, or even the larger battles between nations and races of legend and myth. It is a cosmic struggle that has world-wide implications, and has already been engaged in various ways from Bree to Gondor. The major battle takes place on the plains surrounding Gondor, in which the forces of good triumph, as they do at Armageddon. The last stand, however, takes place outside the gates of the enemies stronghold. If the forces of good had failed at this time, then a bleak, Ragnarok-like ending would have been achieved. As Gandalf warned, months before, such a failure would allow the Enemy to “cover all the lands in a second darkness” (I, p. 57). But unlike Ragnarok, which is to end in defeat for the gods and heroes, and with the total destruction of the earth, the Christian Armageddon ends in victory for good, and here Tolkien draws more heavily on the Christian apocalyptic vision. The forces of evil are defeated at the last moment, and a time of peace, harmony, and justice is founded in Middle-earth.

To really examine the apocalyptic overtones of the climactic events presented in The Return of the King, we need to examine the primary characters involved. Central to the apocalyptic vision is Aragorn, warrior hero but king-in-exile for most of the romance. Aragorn's role has been examined and debated by many critics, and while most of them reveal very interesting things about his role and his character, two critics say the most, one through omission and the other, in my opinion, through error. The first, Ruth Noel, gives an excellent account of the heroic pattern inherent in Aragorn's story and role (in her book The Mythology of Middle-earth). She compares him primarily to King Arthur and Charlemagne in her study, pointing out the parallels between himself and the others in his role as warrior-hero, suffering hero, hero who must control the dead to prove his kingship, and king-healer. The other critic I referred to is William Ready who, in a delightfully insensitive series of statements in The Tolkien Relation: A Personal Inquiry says “Aragorn … is almost too good to be human, he has some of the qualities of the noble horse. Man needs more than a dash of pity to be his exciting self; a sharp taste for sin must be in him too, if he is to be wholly vital” (p. 101). What sympathetic Noel misses and unsympathetic Ready pinpoints is that Aragorn in many ways is not, in fact, only a hero like Arthur and Charlemagne. He is definitely a symbol, possibly even a representative, of Christ, in his role of wandering exile, protector and guardian of the weak, fighter of evil and, of course, as king. Therefore Ready is essentially correct, although he lowers Aragorn to the level of a noble beast, missing the significance of his own statement that Aragorn is “almost too good to be human.” As other critics have noticed (and have attributed to his Adamic qualities), Aragorn is essentially an unfallen or sinless character. He is capable of errors of judgement, as we see at Parth Galen, but he seems to have no evil in him. Yet he is not a wooden, two-dimensional character either. He knows deep personal sorrow and grief, and is able to experience and express anger when necessary. He can be moved to pity, compassion, tears, and laughter like any other man. He is a man whose emotions are noble and nobly expressed, but they are nonetheless real for that. His self-doubt, his anguish, and his joy are all convincingly and realistically conveyed, and while we cannot identify with him or respond to him the way we can with the hobbits, he is, nonetheless, a believable and truly human character.

But Aragorn is also “too good to be human.” He may have been tempted by the Ring once and by his own desires once or twice (desires which are of the purest kind and highest order), but he never falls prey to temptation. He is courteous even to the love-stricken Eowyn, and her love, which he cannot return, grieves him rather than annoys or even flatters him. He is righteous in action and judgement, the latter particularly in evidence in the merciful justice he shows Beregond. He is motivated by the highest motives, and even his desires are proven to be righteous.

But much more than these examples indicate his Christ-role in the book. He is of purely royal descent. He is the only man in all Middle Earth who is closely bound the more supernatural of the races that dwell in Middle-earth: the High Elves and the Istari. Tolkien himself said of Aragorn that he “is not a pure ‘Man,’ but at long remove one of the ‘children of Luthien’” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 200). He is brought up by the Elves and is the only man fully apprised of the lore and wisdom of these exiles of the paradisiac, immortal lands beyond the western seas. He also develops a deep friendship with one of the angelic Istari, Gandalf, who acts as his guide and mentor in the early years, and his forerunner in later years. Aragorn symbolically dies by entering the gates of the Paths of the Dead, through which no man has passed alive. He leads his companions into the Paths of the Dead, and both they and the dead follow him out the other side because of the power of his will which, because their wills are given over to him, brings the human companions and Gimli through the Paths of the Dead with their sanity and lives preserved. The dead hail him as their rightful lord to whom they owe obedience and service, and Christ's harrowing of hell is strongly suggested here.

To get a clearer picture of Aragorn as the apocalyptic Christ, let us look at the Biblical description of Christ as He enters the battle of Armageddon as depicted in Revelations 19:11-16:

And now I saw heaven open, and a white horse appear; its rider was called Faithful and True; he is a judge with integrity, a warrior for justice. His eyes were flames of fire, and his head was crowned with many coronets; the name written on him was known only to himself; his cloak was soaked in blood. He is known only to himself; his cloak was soaked in blood. He is known by the name, The Word of God. Behind him, dressed in linen of dazzling white, rode the armies of heaven on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike the pagans with; he is the one who will rule them with an iron scepter, land tread out the wine of Almighty God's fierce anger. On his cloak and on his standard there was a name written: The King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Aragorn is presented, throughout the novel, as faithful and true, both to the cause of right and to his companions. His integrity is revealed many times before he is crowned king, while his justice is revealed primarily following his coronation. He goes to battle on the marches of Gondor, wise in leadership, great in battle, and victorious. His army is small and is pitted against the many forces of Mordor just as the army of heaven is pitted against “the beast, with all the kings of the earth and their armies” (Revelations 19:19). He bears the sharp and dangerous sword Anduril, Flame of the West, that has been reforged. He is the warrior-king who leads the forces of good against the enemy. As warrior-savior of his people, he wins the right to “rule the nations.” Also he arrives at the gates of Gondor with a star on his brow, reminding us of the description of Christ in Revelations 22:16 as “the bright and morning star.”

Following the battle, Aragorn gives further proof of his kingship by entering the Houses of Healing where Merry, Faramir, and Eowyn lie dying, deep in the thrall of the black breath of the chief Nazgul. Using the herb athelas to aid him, Aragorn actually travels into the soul of each, seeking the lost and wandering spirit and calling it back. “Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those that watched felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn's face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked afar in some dark vale, calling for one that was lost” (III, p. 124-25). Here again Aragorn enters the realms of death, this time its borderlands and, having once already proven himself lord of the dead, he now restores the dying from death to life. “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer” says the old wife Ioreth (III, p. 120), echoing Malachi 4:2 in the Old Testament which says “But unto you that fear my name shall the Son of righteousness arise with healing in his wings …” And echoes of this scripture, along with the reference to God as the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:22 and in Job 12:30 as possessing wisdom and strength, are even more strongly woven through the distinctly messianic description of Aragorn at his coronation (III, p. 217):

But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat on his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Faramir cried:

'Behold the King!’

Aragorn has paralleled Christ's wandering exile, his suffering, his voyage into death, the harrowing of hell, and the return into life. However, there is no break in Aragorn's story. He moves from the echoes of the first incarnation straight into those of Christ's return to earth. The title of the third book of the Trilogy is, of course, The Return of the King, easily read as an alternative wording to “the second coming of Christ.” It is first in this book that Aragorn truly assumes his role as leader of the warriors in war and ruler of the people in peace.

The Armageddon of Revelations is followed not by the destruction and remaking of the world, but rather by the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth. During his first incarnation, Christ wandered, an exile from his true Homeland, rootless with “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:50). He came, the first time, as servant, not as leader, ruler and king. His entire ministry on earth consisted of serving, teaching, and nurturing those who sought him out. It is not until his second coming, and after the battle of Armageddon, that he will take his place as king of the world. He is both servant and king, exile and ruler of all. So too is Aragorn. Aragorn spends most of the first two books of the Trilogy serving others. First he serves Frodo and his friends. He continues to serve only as advisor and protector for the fellowship until Gandalf falls in Moria. Even then he assumes his leadership reluctantly, seeking help from Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlorien. Once the Fellowship is broken, he serves again, setting aside his own true and right desire to hurry to the aid of Gondor, choosing instead a lower service by following the captured hobbits Merry and Pippin, in the hope of saving their lives. When Gandalf returns, Aragorn joyfully sets aside his assumed leadership, and follows the wizard on to Rohan, where he continues to serve at Helm's Deep, under the leadership of Theoden.

It is not until he uses the palantir to confront Sauron face to face that Aragorn begins to take on his role as leader and king-to-be. In revealing himself to Sauron, the lines between the two enemies are drawn. For it is Sauron and Aragorn who are in most direct conflict with each other, not Sauron and Gandalf or even Sauron and Frodo. Sauron is the usurper—he is forcing himself, through seduction, fear, and force upon the people of Middle-earth, even as does the Beast in Revelations. Gandalf certainly has no claims to kingship or rulership of any kind in Middle-earth, and in fact rejects just such a suggestion from Saruman, in his early confrontation with the newly-enrobed Saruman of Many Colors. Therefore although Gandalf and the other Istari are the closest beings to the supernatural that there is in Middle Earth (Tolkien has said that they are angels—Letters, p. 202), he is not the one in direct competition with Sauron for the rulership of Middle Earth. Sauron is the false king, attempting to take the place, as does the Beast, of the true King. Of course Sauron, unlike the Beast, does not know that a true king still walks the earth, and thus Aragorn essentially assumes his role as leader and king, when he reveals who he is to Sauron.

Thus Aragorn remains servant until the time is exactly right for him to reveal himself as king. For Christ, the period between his ascension and second coming fill the gap between his role as server and his role as king. Although Aragorn essentially steps into his kingship with his confrontation of Sauron and his conquering of the dead, even as Christ did after his death and the harrowing of hell, neither come into their kingship until after the enemy is defeated. Aragorn does battle and is victorious, but the war is not yet won. He assumes anonymity after the battle and does not enter the city of Gondor as king but again serves, this time in the Houses of Healing, albeit revealing his kingship through his healing hands. But the time when he can reveal himself in all his royalty and majesty comes only after Sauron is defeated.

Aragorn himself is not the direct agent of Sauron's defeat, and this departure from the Biblical text is important to ensure that this part of The Lord of the Rings does not simply become a retelling with added detail of the Biblical prophecy. Aragorn has been, throughout, somewhat dependent on others to play their own essential roles in the correct resolution to the crisis facing Middle-earth. He is warrior-king, but he is not an isolated hero. But then, neither is the Christ of Revelations, nor the gods of Ragnarok. The gods are accompanied by the heroes of Valhalla, each one having his part in the battle. Christ was solitary and independent of others in his first incarnation. However, he is surrounded by saints and the heavenly hosts all through Revelations, and never once appears on his own, after the opening chapter. Again the parallels are striking. For 38 years Aragorn walked the wilds of Middle-earth alone, fighting where and with whom he would, coming and going even in Rohan and Gondor as he felt necessary, having no companions upon whom he relied, and having no real home anywhere, unless it was Rivendell, which was denied him until he had proven himself. For the resolution of the great crisis of the end of the age, however, Aragorn becomes a member of a company, first with the hobbits at Bree and then as one of the Nine Walkers. He is no longer isolated and independent. He is a member of the greater company that aids in the defeat of Sauron, and he is leader of part of the greater company at the end. But he does not defeat Sauron alone, and he risks almost certain death, as does his army, in the heroic confrontation of good against evil before the gates of Mordor. There may be no risk of defeat for the armies of heaven that battle the Beast and his armies, but the heavenly leader is given little prominence in the description of Armageddon. His prominence, the scripture suggests, is to come after the battle, when he is crowned “ruler of nations.”

Sauron and the Beast are defeated. On earth, Christ takes up his role as king and is allotted a limited time to reign there—1000 years. Here again we find a parallel. Aragorn, described at his coronation with much messianic imagery, becomes the just and righteous king of all of Middle-earth. He brings with him all the promise of the millennium stated in other parts of scripture, such as the closing chapters of Isaiah: he rules with justice and wisdom, bringing peace, harmony and virtue. According to William Dowie (in “The Gospel of Middle-earth according to J. R. R. Tolkien”), Faramir's immediate recognition of Aragorn as king expresses “the great yearning of the people of the West—consonant with the Christian vision of man fulfilled only through dependence and humility” (p. 280). He continues: “As Gerardus van der Leeuw observes: ‘Since kingly potency is no personal capacity, all conceivable salvation is expected of it. The king's powers ought to overflow. … As a genuine saviour the king also heals.’ … The institution of kingship signifies, indeed, a forcible and thorough change in human life: everything was waste and misery, but now all is well. Once again the breath of Spring is wafted …” (p. 280).

As suggested in Dowie's last statement, there is rebirth and renewal under Aragorn's rule, as there is to be under Christ's. Evil is subdued, the waste places bloom anew, lives are restored, and even the White Tree of Gondor is reborn, symbolic of the Tree of Life of the Christian tradition that is to grow in the center of the new Jerusalem, as the White Tree grows in the center of Gondor, the King's city. It also suggests the ash Tree Yggdrasill, the tree of life of the Norse myths. Indeed, throughout the romance Aragorn helps sustain life—first in the North where he and his fellow Rangers roam, then at the end in the South. Aragorn as healer not only gives new life to dying individuals, but as healer-king also renews the life of the dying city and the whole realm of Middle-earth. Fertility follows devastation as the land flourishes; Gondor is renewed with the return of the women and children, and the rapid repeopling of the once half-empty city. Beauty and grace are restored to the city of the king as dwarves and elves work together to make it more beautiful and mighty than ever before. Therefore not only is the evil undone and old restored, but the old is actually renewed, made better, strengthened and beautified far beyond its previous strength and beauty. Middle-earth, from the Shire almost to the gates of Mordor itself, is renewed and blossoms under the kingship of Aragorn. It is the prelapsarian world restored, as Christianity believes will happen to our own world during the millennium. The final parallel here with the millennium is that Aragorn reigns for just over a hundred years, only a tenth of a millennial reign but the closest approximation that would fit the story, and still an extremely long time for a mortal. But this fact, like Aragorn's death, falls outside the story proper, and when we leave Gondor for the last time in the book, the king's reign is just beginning and time stretches ahead unhindered by the closing pages of the romance.

With the ending of the Third Age, there is loss. The high elves leave Middle-earth, as do the Istari, the wizards. But once again, in Aragorn much is retained that would otherwise be completely lost. He has elf-blood in his own veins. He was brought up in the house of Elrond, and knows the histories of both the men of the Westernesse and the High Elves since the beginning of time. With his marriage to Arwen Evenstar, he brings a final unity to the two great races of Middle-earth, the Elves and the men of Numenor. His friendship with Gandalf has prepared him for his role as king, and therefore he carries, metaphorically, the spirit of Gandalf with him when he rules. The best of that which is Other, in Middle-earth, therefore, in many senses comes into a unified oneness in the person of Aragorn and therefore the loss of the special peoples of the earth at the end of the Third Age enriches the men of the Fourth, so that they may become more than they were before all things were unified in one man. The messianic concept of the unity of all peoples in Christ is suggested here. In Aragorn, then, all elements of the supernatural present in Middle Earth and the human come together. He is both son of God and son of man, truly a reflection of Christ.

Furthermore, the marriage of Aragorn and Arwen Evenstar is significant. He struggles to achieve his kingship, and in doing so helps save Middle-earth. She is part of all that he has struggled for and saved, and in this role she can be seen, at the end of the novel only, as symbolizing that beautiful bride of Christ, the church, dressed in shining white, who is being prepared for him after his victory over the powers of evil. The suggestion is presented more faintly, perhaps, than many of the other symbols and parallels, but is nonetheless present. This idea is strengthened if the unity of all things and peoples in Christ is recognized also in Aragorn. His marriage to Arwen crystallizes the drawing together of the two great races, the foremost created directly by the creator at the beginning of the Silmarillion. Here at the end of the long ages of the elves' story is the unification of man and elf into a more majestic, fuller whole than man had or could have been before.

The final test of Aragorn's Christlike kingship is shown in three places in particular. The first occurs on the Paths of the Dead, where his will alone draws his living companions through and preserves them from madness. However the Dunedain and Gimli (Legolas alone is unafraid), despite their own terror, follow him freely into the Paths of the Dead, because they love him. Their love of him overcomes their fear, and inspires them to follow him into figurative death. This same love is revealed by Faramir when Aragorn calls him back from the very borders of death. Perhaps the greatest and most moving proclamation of fealty and love in a book so full of love and loyalty is presented in this scene: “Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes, and looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. ‘My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?’” (III, p. 216). Finally the people, who have seen their king mighty in battle on their behalf and know him also as healer and savior, assent joyously to his coronation: “’Shall he be king and enter into the city and dwell there?’ And all the host and all the people cried yea with one voice” (III, p. 216). It is with just such a deep love and joy in him, that the people of God are to welcome the coming again of their king, and to dedicate their lives to his service, following him even into death if need be, in the meantime. The deep and intense love that Aragorn inspires is a true test not only of his right to his kingdom, but of his Christ role in the final events of this romance.

There are, of course, other major characters who have an important role in the apocalyptic events of the final book. Gandalf is very important, and many critics have argued for him as a type of Christ throughout the romance, an argument I in no way wish to disagree with, in essence. However, one critic argues that Gandalf's role is that of the Holy Spirit in many respects, and this reading fits in well with Tolkien's apocalyptic elements in the book. Gandalf is companion and advisor to Aragorn. He also prepares the hearts of those in Middle Earth who can still stand against evil, and prepares the way for Aragorn's coming as king, in many ways. These are all attributes associated with the Holy Spirit, and he is particularly important in that role in The Return of the King.

The hobbits are also important, particularly Frodo. Again there has been a great deal said about Frodo as a type of Christ, and although that is certainly part of his role, I feel that it is perhaps less than is argued by some. Concerning their apocalyptic role, the hobbits are more types of everyman choosing between good and evil. Frodo is a “man” figure who chooses to fight evil as best he can, and he is purified and made holy by suffering, compassion, and his unwavering intention, from chapter two until the end of the romance, for good. However, he would have failed his quest because, of himself, he is not strong enough to stand against the mighty evil of the ring of his own free will at the end, if it were not for the grace given him, through the unlikely vehicle of Gollum. Therefore although he certainly has some Christ characteristics, he does not succeed in his quest in himself as no man can, in the Christian world view. Therefore he is more an Adam figure, saved by grace from the fall, rather than a Christ figure. Furthermore, he is never destined to become a leader or a king. He is the representative of the ordinary Christian in his role in the apocalypse, particularly evident in The Return of the King. His quest is the process by which he is made worthy of his calling and is made Christlike. Sam, Pippin, and Merry are also human representatives, revealing the part small but significant humanity can play in the battle between those greater in power and supernatural stature than themselves.

I have traced Tolkien's vision of the apocalypse very sketchily in this paper. Much more could be said about the role of the hobbits and Gandalf. Many more apocalyptic images, symbols, and parallels could be traced, not only through The Lord of the Rings, but also through The Hobbit,The Silmarillion, and some of the other writings which are still appearing. Ruth Noel has said that Tolkien's works are largely concerned with the denial (or transcendence) of death (p. 26-7). I believe that this statement not only includes the death of the individual, but can be extended to the larger death awaited by the Christians: the death of life as we have known it on earth, and, at the very end, the death of earth itself. The dying of an age is chronicled in a cosmic manner in The Lord of the Rings. But like the scriptural apocalypse, Tolkien does not stop with death. He shows a world reborn, a new age of peace and justice and harmony established. He shows that life must always follow death, even on the cosmic scale. This is the hope of the Christian, and this is the informing hope of this romance built upon Tolkien's own essential Christian vision.

Works Cited

The Holy Bible. Most of the scriptures quoted were drawn from The Jerusalem Bible (which Tolkien helped translate). The Malachi reference was drawn from the King James version.

William Dowie, “The Gospel of Middle-earth According to J. R. R. Tolkien” in J. R. R. Tolkien: Scholar and Story-Teller, eds. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithica: Cornell UP, 1979).

Vernon Hyles, “The Hero and the World: Tolkien's Mythic Hero” presented at the Eighth Conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, March 1987.

Ruth Noel, The Mythology of Middle-Earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987.

William Ready, The Tolkien Relation: A Personal Inquiry (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1968).

J. R. R. Tolkien, Latter, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981).

———, The Lord of the Rings (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1974).

William Edwin Bettridge (essay date summer 1990)

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SOURCE: Bettridge, William Edwin. “Tolkien's ‘New’ Mythology.” Mythlore 16, no. 4 (summer 1990): 27-31.

[In the following essay, Bettridge distinguishes between myth and allegory and shows the ways in which Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings a mythology.]

Myth, as the folklorist and the student of literature normally understand it, is the presentation of dramatic and supernatural episodes to explain and interpret natural events, to make concrete and meaningful and particular an otherwise abstract and difficult perception of man or a cosmic view. It may, in its various forms, explain or raise questions about such fundamental issues as creation, divinity, religion; it may justify rituals, or guess at the meaning of life and death. In short, it provides a narrative, dramatic embodiment of man's perceptions about the deepest truths and most perplexing questions concerning his existence, here or elsewhere.

Since the study of human psychology and literary criticism came to be regarded as near sciences, the study of myth has been intense and often confusing, not to say wrongheaded. After Freud began the plumb the depths of the human subconscious, the tendency grew to see in the tales of mankind, especially those we have identified as mythic, reflections of common truths, hopes, fears, aspirations of races and of mankind generally. Working from Jung's idea of the racial consciousness, thinkers like Philip Wheelwright envisioned an archetypal imagination, something deep and primitive in all that manifests itself in the stories we make and tell and preserve.

Since the nineteenth century, the exploration of man's myths has taken various forms, such as Max Muller's study of folktales as degenerate solar myths, and the even more pervasive Freudian view of the latent sexuality subconsciously implicit in all our conscious activities.

While much that is useful has come from these endeavors, even though individual approaches have fallen into disrepute, the thoughtful student of literature and literary criticism has to see that myth criticism is all too often reductive, reducing all literary variety to an alleged archetypal common denominator. To reduce all literary symbols and meaning to Freudian arrows and circles is not to make literature more accessible; it is to render it dull and unnecessary. This is true whether the criticism is Freudian, or solarian, or Jungian, or whatever.

Still, our great literary monuments from all eras and places at the last deal with a relatively limited range of broad and perennial human concerns. Behind even apparent particularities there lie certain basic philosophic issues common to these particularities. These concerns—the meaning and significance of life and death, of the relationships with one's fellows or deities, of identity of self, etc.—are not easily or effectively discussed in the abstract, certainly not by all who must confront them (as we all must at some time or another); and much of the uniqueness of various periods lies in the choice of symbolic or mythic structures within which they address the old questions. The questions themselves are never new; the freshness, the imaginative impact comes from the novelty and ingenuity, the metaphysical insight of the symbolic vehicle which asks them anew.

Therefore, while I retain my personal suspicions of unrestrained symbol hunting and myth criticism, I am compelled to find at least some of the sources of the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in the imaginative quality of the medium in which he sets forth some of the old questions, a medium that may be viewed cautiously but, I think, legitimately as mythic. Because I do not want in any way to reduce the particularity of The Lord of the Rings, I shall try to investigate these mythic elements or qualities in the context of Tolkien's story and that of others that seem to shed light upon it, trying not to mistake simple universal statements for true myths, and leave the search for Jungian archetypes to others who are perhaps more bold than I, or less devoted to narrative for its own sake.

One last point: a mythic approach to such a work may also be useful if it saves us from a search for allegory, which Tolkien vehemently and, I think, rightly denied existed in his book. Allegory demands unmistakable one-to-one correspondences with observed reality. To search for, much less to find unintended allegory is at least as reductive as promiscuous myth criticism. If Sauron is made to stand for Adolf Hitler, and the Ring for the atomic bomb, and the hobbits for the English people, then we have lost a great deal from the story.

There are various ways in which The Lord of the Rings may be looked at as myth, but three areas in particular may serve as examples: the Quest itself, the outcome of the Quest, and the kinds of characters used to achieve the Quest.


It is in the nature of heroic/romantic literature that it involve a quest of some sort. The hero must leave his familiar surroundings and go somewhere to find adventure. Here it does not seem inappropriate to turn to Freudian symbolism to help us understand what is happening at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. The womblike nature of the safe and comfortable Shire is unmistakable. It wears an aura of green and gold, traditionally the colors of springtime and innocence, as Northrup Frye has shown us. Its soft hills and plentiful but unthreatening woods are obvious feminine symbols, as are the homes of the hobbits themselves: tunnels in the hillsides, with round doors and windows, refuges against all dangers and discomforts. The symbolism is supported by the childlike, even childish, nature of the hobbits themselves, of which more later.

It is from this maternal security that Frodo and his hobbit companions are plucked—in Frodo's case much against his will—and sent into a world of constant hardship and danger, on a mission that they have not sought, do not want, and only vaguely understand.

In a now familiar but useful essay, W. H. Auden has pointed out some of the more important aspects of the quest as it applies here. The road the journey takes is hard and strange, its destination and even its direction often unknown to those who must traverse it. “I will take the Ring, although I do not know the way,” says Frodo at the Council of Elrond. Similarly, such heroes as Beowulf and Sir Gawain (of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) must seek conclusions to their quests that are beyond their ken. Beowulf leaves Hygelac's court, scene of his boyhood and early triumphs, to engage in combat the half-human monster, Grendel, unlike any enemy he had faced before. Sir Gawain is bound by his word to turn his back on the safety and comfort of King Arthur's court to search out—he knows not where—a green giant, who will presumably cut off his head. It is thus a measure, both of the quest and of the hero, that the test be unknown and unknowable, and therefore doubly fearful.

Especially interesting is Auden's suggestion that, since the purpose of the quest is normally to find and possess some precious object or person, Tolkien has created a quest in reverse; its purpose is to get rid of something: the Ring and its threat to the safety of Middle-earth. While this is literally true, of course, we must be careful not to let it direct our attention away from the deeper truth that the hero or heroes of the Quest are in fact in search of something, although they are largely unaware of it or of its true nature until the end. Certainly it is Frodo's discovery of self, the growing confrontation with his true nature, that is central to the book. If this were not so, the story would necessarily end with the destruction of the Ring and the fall of Sauron, with everyone living happily ever after, just like a “proper” fairy tale.

But the quest hero must make a “journey into sorrow,” from which he can never completely return. The Beowulf who arrives in the Danish court, ready to slay the monster Grendel and thereby win fame and fortune, is a brash and naive young man, even a simplistic one. Trials he has had, but he has never had to confront the subtler and more dangerous evils of the world; and it is surely significant that the foe of this first great test is the descendent of Cain, the first murderer, the slayer of kin. Triumphant though he is, Beowulf returns to Hygelac bearing more than glory and treasure. In the recounting of his adventures to the king, the hero reveals a new-found knowledge of the ways and evils of man. Hrothgar's attempt to buy lasting peace with his daughter's marriage is doomed from the outset; for human pride, Beowulf sees, is greater at the last, or at least more durable, than human reason and largely inaccessible to it. Old injuries may not be forgiven and forgotten; and the Heathobard feud will break out afresh sooner or later. Beowulf's entirely accurate prophesy reveals a growth of knowledge that continues by implication throughout Beowulf's life and is the product of his many deeds and experiences. It culminates in the final dragon fight with Beowulf's own recognition of his personal capacity for evil and his participation in the general evil of the human condition, which the poet makes clear by his compression of history at the end of the work, the collapse of the past into the present so that they become one.

Similarly, Sir Gawain leaves Arthur's court untested in any moral way. He is, in his own mind, as well as in the world's estimation, a nonpareil knight. The “pride of life,” as the Middle Ages called it, is obscured at first by the hero's gracious manners and humble behavior. But it is there; and when he is weakened by the rigors of his journey and by his growing fears about the trial to come, and distracted by the vain but repeated attempts of his hostess to seduce him, he falls from his lofty ideals and seizes upon the offer of a magic object to save his life, a worldly life he finds all too pleasant to give up. The fall into self-knowledge at the Green Chapel is precipitous and painful, even though the denouement is comic rather than tragic. Gawain is left with his life and reputation intact, but also with the inescapable truth—his until he dies—that he participates in the frailty and fallibility of mankind.

A final example may be useful, for nowhere is the mythic nature of the quest for and the acquisition of self-knowledge clearer than in the Genesis tale of Creation, especially as Milton has retold it in Paradise Lost. The testing object is explicitly called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (good lost and evil gained, as Adam cries later). Adam's fall from a state of blissful ignorance (a cloistered and untried virtue, as Milton calls it elsewhere) to a most painful state of self-awareness is manifestly the product of his human nature, not of the serpent's temptations. (In this case, the quest, leaving Paradise and going forth into the world, comes after the acquisition of self-knowledge, although it will be in travail in the world that Adam and his wife will come to know fully the implications of what they have learned.)

Frodo Baggins looks little like the giants of heroic literature, nor is he a near-allegorical Everyman; but the origin, conditions, and purpose of his quest are largely the same as those of his more obviously heroic counterparts. He begins in the same prideful ignorance of the realities of life and self. His nature is reflected in the Shire itself—contained, comfortable, parochial little world that it is—and in the personalities of his fellow hobbits: self-centered, lazy, closed-minded, rather bigoted and suspicious of anyone or anything different from themselves, all too often petty and petulant, like children protected by and from things they know nothing about, complacent in the extreme.

It is from this complacency that Frodo is cruelly wrenched. He, no more than we, understands exactly why he is chosen or by whom for this terrifying task, and he is more than a little unwilling to go. His latent wisdom, as much as his present fears, tells him that it will likely destroy him. But few seek to make the “journey into sorrow;” most who appear to go willingly do not know what lies ahead. The reasons why we go when called are various. We may act altruistically for the good of the nation or the race or our friends; perhaps we go seeking glory; maybe we go because we cannot think how to avoid going. But go we must or abandon all pretense of a moral existence. Frodo goes in part because of his Took blood, that part of him that seeks adventure, wishes to transcend the narrowness of Shire life, provokes him on to “manhood” and fulfillment, whatever the price. He also goes because Gandalf, whom he respects, has impressed upon him the need to go. However incompletely, he understands that the Quest is his and may not be rejected. Hesitantly, stumblingly, certainly reluctantly, Frodo sets out on the long road to Mount Doom and to his personal doom, a word we must remember means “judgement.” Like his counterparts in other quest myths, he must leave behind what is safe and comfortable and familiar. Moreover, he must go alone, for one does not go to his judgment with an army or a committee or a staff of lawyers. Ultimately, one cannot find self except in solitude. And, as we know, Frodo's companions are stripped away one by one, until at his moment of truth he has only himself.

Frodo will succeed in his Quest, both in that he will destroy the Ring, and in that he will gain something precious, a new and mature knowledge of self. He pays a terrible price for that knowledge, however, and its possession is as painful as it is valuable. Like Adam, his life has been changed hugely and irrevocably. He can never again see with the same eyes as before, nor return to the childlike world of innocence. If he weren't a hobbit, he'd be a man, both in the sense that we popularly employ the term and in the sense that Tolkien uses it: he shares the tragic knowledge of the men of Middle-earth, whose tumultuous history makes up so much of the appendices (and, of course, The Silmarillion), men such as Aragorn, Frodo becomes old both in years and in the burden of the awareness that he must carry. It behooves us now to consider the nature of that burden.


If Frodo is saddened and unable to return to former joys at the end of his quest, it is because the outcome has been truly “good lost and evil gained.” In the context of the story, the Ring has worked its curse upon the bearer, weighing more and more heavily upon him with each passing day and mile. In the larger context, however, we know that the Ring has no real positive influence of its own; it can only reveal qualities which are already present in those who come in contact with it. As Gandalf says, it confers power according to the stature of the wearer. What it reveals, of course, is Adam's sin, pride, the assertion of self at the expense of others. All who wield the Ring do so in the hope of gaining power, and power means the control of others. The wise, such as Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, know well the temptations of the Ring and the dangers of possessing it and refuse to take it. Those less wise, though perhaps well-meaning in some degree, desire the Ring for the furtherance of their dreams. To the wretched Gollum it confers status such as he has never had and the power of invisibility over enemy and prey. To Boromir it offers the salvation and aggrandizement of his beloved city; his is the warrior, the imperial dream. Perhaps most interesting is the case of Saruman, for in some ways his is the greatest perversion. He dreams of an intellectual utopia, a re-ordering of the world according to his lights. But far more repugnant to us and to Gandalf than the industrial ugliness of his vision are the means which he is willing to resort to achieve it. At the council of Elrond, Gandalf tells of Saruman's attempt to seduce him to his cause. Saruman urged, “We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way (italics mine), but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.” He goes on to make perfectly clear that his goal will be achieved by riding roughshod over any who oppose, in whatever way or for whatever reason. This perverted idealism is frightening to see, and it represents the ultimate in intellectual pride: the insistence upon the primacy of one's own vision of truth and upon imposing it upon others, regardless of the cost. It is the sin both of revolutionaries and reactionaries, and all too often the mark of the intellectual.

As Gandalf has foreseen, the hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo, are less affected by the Ring than their greater counterparts. Their desires, after all, are simple: plenty of food and drink and parties, a maximum of comfort and a minimum of bother. Such goals are largely inconsistent with the lust for power. Moreover, the strength to resist the effects of the Ring that Gandalf has seen in the hobbits derives ultimately from their stubborn moral fiber, from a sense of integrity that remains perfectly and remarkably clear in spite of their pettiness; and it stands them in good stead when the chips are down. Some things are always right and always have been; some are always wrong.

Nevertheless, the Ring reveals pride where it finds it, as does the reflecting pool that Milton's Eve looks into. It has consumed Gollum, who was proud and spiteful to begin with. It reveals in Bilbo a malicious unwillingness to give up the Ring to Frodo. And in a hundred ways of growing intensity it slowly lays bare the soul of Frodo. No remark is more pregnant than one in Frodo's first conversation with Gandalf about the history of the Ring and the story of Bilbo and Gollum. “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance.” It is not Gollum's moral loathsomeness that inspires that remark, nor what he tried to do to Bilbo. It is the difficulty and inconvenience that he is presently causing Frodo. More pointedly, it is Frodo's lack of compassion, which again testifies to the primacy of self. And in Gandalf's reply that the pity Bilbo showed saved him from the greater effects of the Ring is a vital lesson that Frodo will have to learn for himself at great cost.

He does learn it, of course, or perhaps the truth that he has always known deep in his heart asserts itself at need. Mile upon painful mile that he bears the Ring brings him to a fuller understanding of the wretched Gollum (to whom he earlier wanted to deny all hobbit kinship), until it is he who must preach the lesson of pity and forbearance to Sam, who would destroy Gollum out of fear and intolerance, if left to his own devices.

The Ring, then, reveals the essential dichotomy of the human soul, a dichotomy represented mythically in Frodo's moment of truth at the Cracks of Doom. He has journeyed to the moment when at last he can no longer delay the confrontation with his pride, his capacity for sin. At the very end of the quest, when his defenses are lowest, he succumbs to that pride and claims the Ring for his own. But there is more to human nature than pride and evil. Frodo's essential goodness, seen throughout the story and manifested in his growing compassion, saves him from himself. The Gollum that he has pitied and spared leaps out of the darkness to bite off Frodo's finger, together with the Ring, and plunges into the fiery pits below; and Frodo's capacity for evil, mythically embodied in the figure of Gollum, is thus purged. The physical wound is then a symbol of the price of knowledge. It represents the expiation of Frodo's guilt, an expiation made possible by his rejection of the primacy of self: his pity for another. It is interesting to note the use of the same symbol in classical literature. In the Iphigeneia In Tauris, Euripedes has Orestes satisfy the Furies that pursue him with a ritual payment of blood. Even more suggestive is the version of the same story by Pausanias, in which Orestes gives the Furies the blood they seek by biting off one of his own fingers.

The mythic element pervades The Lord of the Rings in the formal language, the hereditary titles, the songs, and the stories that are told and remembered. And Sam gives testimony to the mythic quality of Frodo's experience at the Cracks of Doom, even before he knows that they will be saved, when he laments that he will not be around when the story is told of Nine-Finger Frodo and the Ring of Doom. In this story, as surely as in that of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve, is embodied the essential contradiction of the human condition.

But the story does not end here. Frodo and his companions must return to their own world and find there what life they can. And Frodo learns, as other heroes who make the quest for self must learn, that he cannot go home again. Even after order has been restored to the Shire, and all seems back in its original state, Frodo's wounds continue to pain him, reminding him of his ordeal, of good lost and evil gained. The sweet, comfortable innocence of the Shire mocks him now, for he must see its essential unreality. He stands in contrast to Merry and Pippin, who strut about like overgrown boys, boasting of their adventures, not really understanding what has happened. For while they went on the journey, they did not enter the hell of Mordor, and they did not possess the Ring. They remain untouched, in no important way different from their younger selves. Frodo's somber condition after his return is reflected in the larger conclusions of the quest. Were The Lord of the Rings a fairy tale in the popular sense of the term, it would have ended with the destruction of the Ring and by extension all of the evil forces, with the crowning of the King, the marriages of heroes and heroines, and with some form of the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” But like the Beowulf which so obviously influenced it, Tolkien's book ends on a somber note. The victory is only an interim one. Evil has not been destroyed; it has suffered only a temporary setback, and sooner or later the battle must be joined again. For evil, despite its dramatic embodiment in the story, is not an external force to be contended with and defeated. It lies in man, in his greed and pride, in his essential selfness. This knowledge is the source of Frodo's discontent, and we see it in nearly all of the creatures of Tolkien's world: in the pride and isolation of elves and dwarves, and in the power lust of men, as well as in the obvious evil of orcs and trolls and Ringwraiths. To be sure, with a few individuals of good will, such as Gimli and Legolas, Theoden and Treebeard, the barriers of self can be temporarily and locally broken down and a truce, if not a peace, achieved for the nonce. But the injuries, the old feuds, cannot be forgotten. Sooner or later, self will reassert itself, friends will become enemies, and the world will take one step nearer the end.

Many critics have called attention to the Christian qualities of The Lord of the Rings and of Tolkien's world view. Yet in at least one important way, his mythos is anything but Christian. The Christian myth is essentially an optimistic one. Eve's seed will bruise the serpent's head; through her child Mary will redeem what Eve has lost. The curse of sorrow and toil is upon Adam and his wife, but the promise is there. Tolkien's view is much more Germanic. The world is slowly running down. Men and gods may be loyal allies, but Ragnarok is inexorably coming, and in the end death, the ultimate form and consequence of evil, will prevail and all will be snuffed out. Tolkien's history looks always back, never forward. The future is at best vague and ominous. The King may be on his throne and the Fourth Age begun. But this means the end of the Third Age, with all that is good as well as with all that is bad. The wizards are leaving; the elves are at virtual end of their sojourn on Middle-earth and leave it, filled with melancholy; Elrond's daughter has chosen mortality; and even those authors of peace, the Ring-bearers, must leave. It is no accident that we read the final pages of Tolkien's book with wet eyes and a lump in the throat. He has clearly intended it.

The picture is not entirely of gloom, of course. Life will go on, at least for a time. To set against the growing darkness are the thoughts and deeds of heroes. The Beowulf concludes with the death of its hero and the specter of war and annihilation for his people. His efforts of a lifetime seem to have come to nothing. Or have they? We still have the portrait of the hero, his tireless struggle against overwhelming odds and certain defeat. Too, there is his kinsman Wiglaf, alone of his followers loyal to the King in need, who picks up the sword from Beowulf's lifeless hand to continue the fight. For it is in the ceaseless attempt, not in the victory, that man's dignity lies. As long as there are brave men of good will, men who “will take the Ring, although they do not know the way,” there is reason to continue. Life is hopeless, but it is not futile.


Let me conclude with a few remarks about Tolkien's characters. Few aspects of his book have so distressed his critics, who find the characters variously silly, shallow, unreal, or confusing. The problem seems to me to be that they are trying—consciously or unconsciously—to read The Lord of the Rings as a realistic work of fiction rather than what it is: a romantic quest myth. As Auden has pointed out, the essential quality of the questor is his apartness, his separation from others. This is inconsistent in the end with the subtler kinds of characterization of other forms of fiction, and leads to the creation of archetypes. If the story of the hero is to be the mythic embodiment of fundamental human qualities and questions, it is necessary that certain facets of the human condition be extrapolated and looked at in a kind of isolation, as the hero must look at himself apart from the incidentals of life if he is to discover truth. Subtlety of characterization is, in fact, at odds with the purpose of myth. Adam is no Raskolnikov, but we enjoy Paradise Lost nevertheless.

This does not mean, however, that mythic characterization must be simple-minded. The creator of myths has means at his disposal for attaining necessary depth of characterization. One such means is through the juxtaposition and interaction of characters who may be relatively flat in themselves. The Genesis myth, in Paradise Lost or elsewhere, can best be understood by seeing Adam and Eve as different aspects of mankind, instead of viewing them as discrete characters and trying to decide whether man or woman is responsible for the fall. We see this kind of pairing of characters throughout The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn has his Denethor, Gandalf his Saruman, and so on.

The approach reaches its zenith, however, in Tolkien's treatment of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. We must not overlook the bonds among these hobbits, nor the fact that they are drawn closer and closer together as we near the end of the quest. Tolkien clearly means for us to treat them as a unit.

As the hero of the story (if he is to be so described), Frodo does seem to lack the requisite complexity of personality to show forth the truths the story compels him to carry. His fears and every-growing anguish seem more physical than mental, more external than internal. Despite his partial failure at Mount Doom and his condition at the end of the story, he really is too monolithic (if anyone three feet high can be called a monolith) to exemplify complexity. We must look at him in the light of his companions on the final approaches to the Cracks of Doom. The combination might seem to deny an important quality of the quest myth: the isolation of the hero at the critical moment. But if every man can choose a companion from his life when he goes to judgment, so Frodo can, and even must, take with him to his doom what he is, for on that he shall be judged.

While he has a good deal of charm, Sam Gamgee is largely unattractive as a character. To be sure, he is admirable, loyal and courageous; his dreams and pleasures are simple and altogether commendable. But he is much more monolithic than Frodo is. He is unrelievedly and almost unbearably good and strong. In fact, the only moments in which we see him at all unattractively presented are the natural consequences of his nature. His intolerance of Gollum is the intolerance of what is almost superhumanly good for that which is evil. (It should be noted that Sam does have one lapse into pride, when he puts on Frodo's Ring. He does this, however, only to help his master; and it is a measure of his character that in his vision of himself as Samwise the Strong, he is only the world's greatest gardener.) But Sam is better understood as a character if he is seen as an aspect of Frodo, as a manifestation of the good, the loyalty, the bravery that sustains Frodo and makes possible his endurance of the forces of evil. Gandalf, Elrond, and Aragorn are awed by Frodo's ability to withstand the effects of the fragment of the Morgul knife in the wound that he sustains at Weathertop. It is the strength of his moral fiber that makes this possible, a strength that Gandalf has foreseen. The wizard's choice of Sam as Frodo's companion reflects the same foresight about Sam; Gandalf sees them the same way. Conversely, Sam's narrow intolerance of Gollum reflects Frodo's own earlier attitude. It is only through suffering and the awareness of his own sin that Frodo is able to temper the intolerance of goodness with humanity, with compassion.

Gollum, on the other hand, plays the opposite role. As Saruman represents the evil possible to Gandalf, Smeagol represents the evil possibilities which are a part of Frodo. The insistence of Gollum as being of hobbit-kind is important here. Tolkien is stressing the relationship. Whether Frodo likes it or not, he is closer in nature to Gollum than he realizes until well along in the story. Gollum, interestingly enough, is a more fully developed character than Sam. Doubtless this is true in part because evil is more interesting than good, but also because Gollum reflects to some degree the complexity of Frodo's personality. Nonetheless, Frodo is obviously—physically, mentally, spiritually—squarely between his two companions; and in this triumvirate we are enabled to see the totality of his character.

In this way, myth develops its characters, through fragmentation and subsequent juxtaposition. They are not simplistic, and they certainly are not silly. Such a treatment of personality makes possible the exploration and exposition of the human condition as myth and permits the reader both the sympathetic reaction necessary for his involvement and the objective distance necessary for his contemplation and edification.

Finally, then, it should be apparent that, despite the title of this paper, Tolkien's mythology is not new. It tells old truths and explores the old problems, and in spite of cosmetic differences, does it in the old way. His mythos is old, heroic; simple but not simplistic. It tells no less truth because it is not tortuous or obscure. Perhaps it tells even more truth to an age that has desperately sought such unity of vision, such clarity of insight, not to mention such elegance of expression. I think it therefore not at all surprising that our time has taken this strange, “old” book to its heart.

Stephen Potts (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Potts, Stephen. “The Many Faces of the Hero in The Lord of the Rings.Mythlore 17, no. 4 (summer 1991): 4-11.

[In the following essay, Potts delineates the various “hero cycles” and applies them to The Lord of the Rings.]

Virtually countless are the heroes available to the student of mythology and mythic fantasy, and all but countless the studies and theories attempting to interpret these heroes. As long as mythic and fantastic tales have been seriously gathered and analyzed—that is, roughly since the Brothers Grimm published their Kinder-und Hausmärchen in the era of Napoleon—folklorists and mythographers have been struck by the many similarities among humanity's oldest stories and greatest heroes.

Today those of us who have wandered long in the lands of faerie, myth, and hero saga take such similarities for granted; the Hero, we know, is an archetype, or a collection of related archetypes. That we do hold this truth to be self-evident is attributable to the work of those intellectual heroes who have skirmished in the field where myth and metaphysics meet, scholars of the past century such as Sir James George Frazer, Vladimir Propp, Lord Raglan, Carl Gustav Jung, and Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, frequently the conclusions reached by these men concerning the archetypal characters and patterns appear to have less in common than the heroes and stories they are glossing.

For Frazer, British author of the encyclopedic work The Golden Bough (published originally in several volumes in 1913) most of the world's rituals and hero myths are rooted in the seasonal cycles of fertility: growth, death, decay, and rebirth. The central myth is that of the Fisher-King—represented in figures as widely disparate as Osiris, Adonis, Oedipus, and Christ—the hero whose spiritual and physical health determines that of his followers, who must allow himself to be sacrificed if necessary to permit his community to live, and who thus embodies in his own person the life-force of his people and their bond with nature and the cosmos.

Propp, in his 1926 monograph The Morphology of the Folktale, limited his study to Russian fairy-tales and found 31 motifs that appear with regularity in most of them; his system has been expanded by folklorists to include myth beyond the fairy tale and the Russian tradition.1 A decade after Propp, the Anglo-Irish Lord Raglan took a strictly literary approach in his book simply entitled The Hero. Comparing a number of biblical and literary characters in the Western tradition, from Moses and Oedipus to Arthur and Robin Hood, he listed twenty-two points of likeness that suggest their stories are more mythical than historical.2

It was Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung who popularized the term “archetype” to describe the universal figures arising from the deep structures of the psyche. As he defines it, an archetype is a psychological and mythological motif common to all peoples at all times, which manifests itself recurrently in dreams, mythology, religion, and mass culture. While the conscious representations of archetypes may vary from culture to culture, and individual to individual, the basic templates remain the same: the Trickster, the warrior-hero, the tutelary Wise Old Man or Woman, the animus, the anima, the animal guide, and so on. We can credit Jung and his disciples for the idea that mythic, heroic, and fantastic tales reflect in public form the dream-life of the mind, that world mythology represents in fact the dreams of the species, expressing in symbolic and archetypal form the universal characteristics of the human condition. Like Frazer, Jungians recognize the importance of the repeating life cycles of growth, death, and rebirth, although they are most interested in how these natural cycles imprint in human psychology as the basis of the life-long quest of the individual for personal meaning. The hero, in all its archetypal forms, is the most important figure in this quest, because it represents the struggles of the Self for individuation, growth, and centering. In identifying with the hero, the individual travels with him in quest of the numen, a Latin term (from nuere, “to nod”) that implies “divine will,” borrowed by Jung from the religious psychologist Rudolph Otto to signify the inner powers of the psyche, the universal truth at the center of one's own soul.

Jungians have put together their own pattern for the hero cycle. As one outlines it:

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru. Over and over again one hears a tale describing a hero's miraculous but humble birth, his early proof of superhuman strength, his rapid rise to prominence or power, his triumphant struggle with the forces of evil, his fallibility to the sin of pride (hybris), and his fall through betrayal or a “heroic” sacrifice that ends in his death.3

Joseph Campbell would have to be numbered among the followers of Jung; he quotes Jung frequently in his own work, he edited the Viking volume The Portable Jung, and his own best known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, likewise explores the boundary between mythology and psychology. Like the mythographers before him, Campbell sees an essential unity in the hero myths of all times and places, and attempts to account for them with yet another outline—in this case possessing sixteen points—of what he names, with a term borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the “monomyth.”4

Frazer's anthropological nature-myth scheme, Propp's and Raglan's formalist schemes, Jung's and Campbell's psychological/metaphysical schemes, all represent very different, but intellectually popular, approaches to the study of the hero. If all are valid in some sense [it seems to me they are] they should be able to work together to explain the mythic tales. My own attempts to place the structural patterns and cycles side by side, however, have met with limited success. You do find the elements of death and rebirth at the center of both Frazer and Jung, although one is primarily concerned with seasonal growth cycles and the other with related psychological growth cycles. And one can trace some similarities in the outlines of Propp, Raglan, and Campbell. Propp's 31-point morphology, however, as well as Campbell's monomyth, are condensed to the central three points of Raglan's pattern (points 10-12). Propp and Campbell have more in common: the postponement of the hero's departure, the magic guide/token, the pursuit and rescue, the return, the throne. The differences between them are rooted in the more detailed interplay of subplots in Propp (based on his more specific source material, the Russian folk tale) and in Campbell's psychoanalytical emphasis on familial psychomachia: the brother-battle, the bride-stealing, the atonement with the father.

It is often difficult enough to make these different hero cycles fit traditional myth—especially when, as noted, they do not accord in every respect with one another. Nonetheless, some scholars of Tolkien have in the last quarter-century attempted to apply them to the Middle-earth mythos, and especially to the work that continues to be the central one of Tolkien's canon, The Lord of the Rings. Prominent among recent studies along these lines are Timothy R. O'Neill's The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979) and Anne C. Petty's One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien's Mythology (University of Alabama Press, 1979), which applies Propp, Campbell, and the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss. The common working assumption of such researchers is a good one: to wit, that given his thorough familiarity with mythology—particularly Western mythology (Teutonic, Celtic, Finnish, Classical, and Biblical)—and his effort to bring this intimate and inspired knowledge together in his own act of sub-creation, Tolkien's Trilogy is well worthy of analysis as myth itself.

Following these exegetes, let us begin with the character in the Trilogy who appears to be the most traditional hero, Aragorn. C. S. Lewis was among the early critics who compared his story to those of Ariosto and Childe Roland, while Ruth Noel, in her 1977 book The Mythology of Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), details his links to Arthur, Charlemagne, and by extension all heroes we think of as central to the medieval romance tradition. Noel, in fact, places his history in the context of Raglan's scheme and discovers that he perfectly fulfills the first fifteen functions, from his royal and even semi-divine birth (recall that he has not only elves but Melian, the Maian mother of Luthien, in his ancestry), the attempt on his infant life, and his foster upbringing, to his victory over a figure of evil, his marriage and assumption of the throne, and his peaceful rule. Of the last seven points, the tragic downside of Raglan's hero cycle, Aragorn fulfills only two: he meets with a mysterious death, by his own will, at the top of a hill, the House of Kings near the summit of Minas Tirith (Noel 70-71).

Some early critics lamented the lack of a tragic dimension to Aragorn's history, that element of hybris and doom so characteristic of the traditional hero cycle. Even for a conventional hero Aragorn, they complained, lacked panache; he was too good and solid, to the point of dullness, without the “sharp taste for sin” often found in the heroes of tragic myth.5 The implication of this and like criticisms is that Aragorn evinces neither human flaws nor personal growth during the course of the story, as one would expect in an archetypal quest.

In point of fact, Aragorn does manifest flaws which he must outgrow, albeit minor ones. When we first meet him in the guise of Strider at the Prancing Pony, he is described as a “strange-looking weather-beaten man” in a dark corner, who later reveals “a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes” (I, 168-169).6 He is rangy, skulking, suspicious, and obviously middle-aged. Although he proves his worth as a protector and guide during the remainder of the trek to Rivendell, he remains but a Ranger until the Council of Elrond. There this unprepossessing figure is revealed as the heir of Isildur, to the skeptical glances of the hobbits and Boromir.

Turning to the patterns laid out by Propp and Campbell, we find that in both cases the hero receives a call to adventure which he does not immediately accept, hardly the case with Aragorn. Up to the Council of Elrond, however, Aragorn has functioned more in the role of helper than hero. Not until the Fellowship moves southward from Rivendell does he really begin to come into his own. And it is here that he picks up the cycles: in Propp's scheme, he hits point nine (hero receives a request and is dispatched) and in Campbell's point three (hero receives a supernatural guide and a token of power, respectively Gandalf and the reforged sword of Isildur). With the rest of the Company he moves through Campbell's fourth point, crossing the first threshold, to the fifth, the underworld (Moria). Propp and Campbell agree on the next point, the road of trials, where the hero is tested and attacked.

With the rest of the Fellowship, Aragorn acquits himself superbly during the battles with the orcs in Moria. There can be little doubt, however, that the real hero of Moria, and thus far the real leader of the Fellowship, has been Gandalf. When he disappears with the Balrog from the bridge at Khaza-dum, Aragorn becomes leader by default, a transfer of power marked with his cry “Come! I will lead you now!” His assumption of the cloak of command, nevertheless, comes with deep doubts and, as he states at the beginning of Chapter 6, “without hope.” Even as they leave Moria for Lorien, Aragorn takes them “by the road that Gandalf chose” (I, 349). He clearly has too little faith in his own ability, a too human flaw.

Aragorn continues to function true to Propp and Campbell. According to Propp, the first trials are followed by an encounter with a donor and the reception of a talisman; according to Campbell, the hero meets a goddess and is tempted. It is in Lorien, of course, that Aragorn is interviewed by Galadriel, who tests his heart with the others and finds it strong. In Jungian terms, she is the anima, the female mirror of the souls of the men; her aspect to each man depends on what he brings to the encounter, and, significantly, only Boromir finds her threatening. Aragorn later receives from her the Elfstone and a new name, Elessar, both indicative of his growing powers; in being rechristened the hero is reborn. And, indeed, at this moment the Company sees him anew, “for they had not marked before how tall and kingly he stood, and it seemed to them that many years of toil had fallen from his shoulders” (I, 391). As he gains in heroic stature, Aragorn paradoxically grows younger.

Though now officially the leader of the Fellowship, he remains “doubtful and troubled” about the path they must follow. The kingly hero and the uncertain man continue to co-exist during the river journey southward, nowhere more pointedly than as the Company passes the colossal statues of Isildur and Anarion on the approach to the Falls of Rauros. At that moment, as he faces his legacy, “the weatherworn Ranger” suddenly disappears:

In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skilful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair [no longer flecked with grey] was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land.

‘Fear not!’ he said. ‘Long have I desired to look upon the likenesses of Isildur and Anarion, my sires of old. Under their shadow Elessar, the Elfstone son of Arathorn of the House of Valandil Isildur's son, heir of Elendil, has nought to dread!’

Then the light of his eyes faded, and he spoke to himself: ‘Would that Gandalf were here! How my heart yearns for Minas Anor and the walls of my own city! But whither now shall I go?’

The decision is virtually made for him, of course, at the breaking of the Fellowship, when Frodo and Sam take their own way, leaving Aragorn to pursue the other two hobbits. Although this pursuit misses its mark, it does bring Aragorn back to the reborn wizard.

Gandalf's “death” at Khazad-dum, we discover, caused a quantum growth spurt not only in Aragorn, but in the wizard himself. Like Obi Wan Kenobi in that Campbellian hero-tale Star Wars, his destruction has made him more powerful. Like Aragorn, he too is rechristened; as he, in a metaphoric act, throws off his gray tatters and reveals himself in his new guise, Legolas cries out “Mithrandir!” When Gimli calls him “Gandalf,” the wizard replies, “Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.” But if Gandalf still, he is Gandalf “the White.” Before the bridge at Khazad-dum, he was a Proppian magical helper, a Jungian Wise Guide, the “tutelary” figure or guardian who enables the hero “to perform the superhuman tasks that he cannot accomplish unaided.” (Henderoon, 110). As of his resurrection, however, he appears heroic on his own; the story of his battle with the Balrog and his transfiguration itself suggests the archetypal heroic motif, characteristic of both Frazer and Jung, of death and rebirth. Although most of Gandalf's ordeal takes place offstage, we do see at second hand the descent into the underworld, the battle with the beast, the symbolic entry into the world of the dead, the magic flight, the successful return and the apotheosis—found to different extents in not only Frazer and Jung, but Propp and Campbell.

Indeed, this early in the story Gandalf has already reached the penultimate stage of the Campbellian monomyth, having become a master of two worlds, with power in both the material realm of Middle-earth and the spiritual realm of Valinor. No more does he appear the occasionally tired and cranky old man of his former incarnation. As Aragorn becomes the political leader of the West's forces, Gandalf becomes spiritual leader, in Campbell's term the boddhisattva who, though personally enlightened, chooses to remain engaged in the affairs of humanity to assist others, the divine returned in flesh from Paradise to share his spiritual wealth with a needy world. In fact, he closely resembles Campbell's description of the shaman that is glossed in his discussion of “The Road of Trials,” which outlines the hero's crossing of the netherworld. The hero-shaman “undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, … [to] a landscape of symbolic figures (any one of which may swallow him).”7 If he can overcome the monsters, he returns from the land of the dead cleansed and purified, with his energies and interests focused upon transcendental goals and actions. Finally, like Aragorn, Gandalf actually continues to grow in vigor and power as the battle against Sauron approaches its climax.

Aragorn and Gandalf serve their functions as heroes in tandem—indeed, almost archetypally as the projections of a single psyche. Together they rejuvenate Theoden and defeat Saruman's orcs at Helm's Deep, with Gandalf presiding in the former, more spiritual function, and Aragorn in the latter, more physical one. For a time, Gandalf continues to give Aragorn the direction he still needs, as when he transmits Galadriel's advice to pass through yet another underworld, the Paths of the Dead. At the siege of Gondor, it is Gandalf who as the White Rider challenges his spiritual opposite, the Nazgul, and rallies the hearts of Minas Tirith, while Aragorn rallies the army of the dead and then the forces at the Mouths of the Anduin under the standard of Numenor, thus finally proving his worth as a warrior-king and earning his birthright as the successor to the throne. Aragorn's own spiritual function as Fisher-King, as bringer of life, comes to the fore in Gondor's Houses of Healing after the battle, when he uses athelas to cure Faramir, Merry, and Eowyn, among others.

At the climax of Campbell's heroic monomyth comes “The Atonement with the Father,” which on its surface suggests reparations to and reconciliation with an authority figure, a positive sense suggested by Campbell's own breaking of the word into syllables: “at-one-ment.” In practice, however, and even in the examples Campbell offers, the atonement often turns out to be a Freudian father-son battle, which ends as often with the overthrow of the father figure and the assumption of the father's authority by the son. It is in this sense that Anne Petty, in the aforementioned study, fits Aragorn's tale into the Campbell monomyth; Aragorn's triumph at the siege of Gondor challenges the father figure of Minas Tirith, the old, embittered Steward Denethor, who immolates himself in the voluntary mode of an aging Fisher-King whose reign has come to signify death and decay (Petty 60-1).

At Minas Tirith, Aragorn fulfills the requirements of the full-fledged “hero-warrior” by Campbell's definition:

the sword edge of the hero-warrior flashes with the energy of the creative Source: before it fall the shells of the Outworn. For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past.

(Campbell 337)

In classic human (as opposed to divine) form, the hero-warrior is “the champion of creative life,” clearing away the ogres and tyrants of the past so that new life can grow. Campbell's description of this hero's world sounds like nothing so much as Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age:

The world period of the hero in human form begins only when villages and cities have expanded over the land. Many monsters remaining from primeval times still lurk in the outlying regions, and through malice or desperation these set themselves against the human community. They have to be cleared away. Furthermore, tyrants of human breed, usurping to themselves the goods of their neighbors, arise, and are the cause of widespread misery. These have to be suppressed. The elementary deeds of the hero are those of the clearing of the field.

(Campbell 337-8)

Or as he elsewhere expresses it, in the section on “The Hero as World Redeemer, “the work of the hero is to slay the tenacious aspect of the father (dragon, tester, ogre king) and release from its ban the vital energies that will feed the universe” (Campbell 352).

Aragorn's function as hero-warrior during this part of the tale is precisely that: defeating the dead hand of the past, by redeeming the broken promise of the ghostly army at Erech, displacing the ossified “holdfast” Denethor, and challenging the ancient ogre-tyrant Sauron at his own gates. There is nothing at this stage of Aragorn's earlier indecision, and little of the weatherworn, middle-aged Ranger in the man who ultimately receives the crown:

“Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.”

(III, 246)

Though comparisons to the “old” and “ancient” enter here, these refer to origins, not decay; Aragorn's crowning represents what Campbell—following his models, Frazer and Jung—sees as the cyclical nature of the monomyth, the return to spiritual life at the source.

It is fitting in every archetypal respect that the act that seals his kingship is the replanting of the White Tree: a symbol of life renewed with its roots deep in the soil of Aragorn's fathers, and a sign of the Numenorean numen, the Dunedain's bond to the divine will of Eru and the Valar. Aragorn is the new, fertile Fisher-King, the Master of the Two Worlds of spirit and life. In becoming king, he exchanges what Campbell calls “the virtuous sword” for “the scepter of dominion” (Campbell 345); he also wins his bride (Arwen) and takes the father's place on the throne in a pattern recognized not only by Campbell but by Raglan and Propp as well. This is Tolkien's eucatastrophe, a happy blend of the wish-fulfillment of fairy-tale and numinous power of myth.

Tolkien challenges the tragic hybris of the traditional mythic hero by having Aragorn magnanimously share the triumph; he acknowledges that his heroism is not an individual matter but dependent on the heroism of others by having Frodo and Gandalf pass the crown to him, instead of taking it himself from the tomb of the last king as is the custom in Gondor. Gandalf has already affirmed the importance of heroic teamwork at the Council of Elrond when he tells Bilbo, “only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero” (I, 283), so it should not be surprising that more than one hero appears in the Trilogy. Since Gandalf's own complementary role as hero-shaman has already been outlined, it is time to turn to the story's other recognized protagonist.

Frodo, like Bilbo before him, begins as an immature hero—essentially a child, concerned like all hobbits with the satisfaction of very basic desires: food, security, and companionship. In the Jungian scheme of archetypes, the immature hero should be a Trickster—often with animal characteristics like Coyote, Brer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny—who uses guile and deception to get his way. From the very beginning, however, Frodo is much less the Trickster than his uncle. Indeed, even more than Bilbo Frodo has the quest forced upon him; his idea of such a journey, as he tells Gandalf, is “a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo's or better, ending in peace” (I, 72), in other words, a classic fairy-tale journey. As predicted by Propp and especially Campbell, Frodo refuses the call to carry the Ring, offering it at each threshold to someone else: Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, and Galadriel.

Petty observes that the initiation of Frodo's quest most closely resembles Propp's fairy-tale morphology, beginning with the departure of a family member (Bilbo), the interdiction addressed to Frodo (not to use the Ring), and the reconnoitering of the villain (the appearance of the Black Riders in the Shire) (Petty 35ff.). True to Propp, after Frodo is dispatched, he has a number of adventures in which he is attacked and receives magical aid and tokens, and he receives a wound after direct combat with the enemy: he is rescued from the Old Forest and the barrow-wight by Bombadil; he receives the magic sword Sting; he takes a wound from the sword of the Nazgul. But with the Council of Elrond, Frodo's real quest begins—to carry the Ring to Mordor itself—and here the fairy-tale quest slides into the mythic quest of Campbell. No sooner does he leave Rivendell than, with the other heroes Aragorn and Gandalf, his road of trials commences with the descent into the belly of the whale, the underworld of Moria.

Frodo comes through this passage relatively unscathed, with no more than a bad bruise from an orc-spear; Moria, after all, is the great trial for Gandalf and Aragorn. But then, true to Campbell's cycle, Frodo must endure the meeting of the goddess and the temptation, with Galadriel again in the role of goddess-temptress.8 Having passed his test, he receives a magic token in the form of Galadriel's phial of elven light.

Until the breaking of the Company, Frodo's quest is tied to Aragorn's. Afterward, he continues along his own separate Road of Trials; here Petty points again to Campbell: “The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, and again” (Petty 51; Campbell 109). In Frodo's case, the trials continue to follow the pattern established from the outset: threats by the enemy, temptations to break the interdiction and use the Ring, descents into the underworld, wounding, and a succession of helpers and donors. Early on his separate road, for instance, he is threatened by Gollum, only to win his aid. On the way to Cirith Ungol, he is captured and threatened by Faramir, only to win his. He is eventually led by Gollum into the belly of the beast at Cirith Ungol, and this time experiences a symbolic and nearly physical “death” through the action of Shelob and the orcs.

Unlike Gandalf and Aragorn, however, who emerge from their own journeys through the underworld of the dead more powerful than ever, Frodo is weakened by his passage, both physically and morally. For the remainder of his quest, we see his body and soul increasingly dominated by the Ring, to the point where, as he moves underground for the last time at Mount Doom, it completely takes over, and he falls to the ultimate temptation to claim it. Petty, stretching the Campbellian monomyth to cover this episode, sees it as Frodo's atonement with the divine father, in this case Sauron. Carrying the atonement motif back to its Freudian-Jungian psychoanalytical roots, she regards Sauron as the punishing father figure and Frodo as “the son [struggling] against the father for the mastery of the universe” (Campbell 162; Petty 55). Actually, however, Frodo's act comes not out of heroic strength but out of weakness. If, like all trials in the underworld, this one signifies a rite of passage and a stage in the hero's growth, it is for Frodo the growth of recognition that he too can fall. His moment of greatest hybris leads immediately to the humble and somewhat horrified acceptance of his fallibility. He is, like that other wounded hero Oedipus, much saddened but wizened by self-knowledge at the end of his trials.

On its surface, the rest of Frodo's story suggests Campbell's monomyth: the magic flight and rescue, the crossing of the return threshold, his celebration as hero (the master of two worlds), and his freedom to live. But, unlike the Campbellian hero in his last stages, Frodo has not discovered the bliss within him; he is not at peace with himself. Frodo's achievement of his quest came at too great a personal cost. In explaining the nature of his heroic “failure” to one fan, Tolkien wrote, “it can be observed in history and experience that some individuals seem to be placed in ‘sacrificial’ positions: situations or tasks that for perfection of solution demand powers beyond their utmost limits, even beyond all possible limits for an incarnate creature in a physical world—in which a body may be destroyed, or so maimed that it affects the mind and will.”9

Though Frodo has been compared to a Christian martyr, the archetypal symbolism of his sacrifice goes back far further than the “blood of the lamb”; in fact, Frazer's work overflows with sacrificial gods, kings, and heroes. The sacrifice sits at the center of the Fisher-King myth: out of death, whether real or symbolic, comes renewed life. Frodo, therefore, must in his innocence give up everything—his physical, psychological and spiritual well-being, and ultimately life in Middle-earth itself—so that Middle-earth may thrive. Frodo alone will not enjoy the fruits of the Quest's completion; as he tells Sam, “I have been too deeply hurt. … It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them” (III, 309).

Noteworthy, however, is that Frodo's heroic quest is completed according to the happier patterns of Propp and Campbell, just not by Frodo. This brings us to the character who is arguably the fourth major hero of The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee. He does appear to be the least of the four; he functions for most of the story as Frodo's helper and sidekick, even as comic relief, and as a simple gardener, simple in every sense of the word; he seems from the outset to be of too humble stuff from which to make a hero. As Tolkien's gloss of his cognomen informs us, Sam is “half-wise,” but if the name suggests dimness, it also reminds of the glass that is half full. Sam does have a small measure of wisdom, and this wisdom manifests itself in the course of the quest in Sam's increasing ability to make choices in the face of necessity. At first, like Frodo, he is thrust into events, essentially drafted, though not unwillingly, to be Frodo's companion by Gandalf and later Elrond. Sam's first independent commitment to the fulfillment of the Quest comes at the same time as Frodo's, when the Fellowship breaks up. Both hobbits defy interdictions to do so, Frodo the interdiction against using the Ring, Sam Aragorn's direct command to remain with the Company.

For most of the approach to Mordor, Frodo is still the leader of the little band including both Sam and Gollum, and provides the balance necessary to keep these very different helpers (both in some sense Jungian projections of Frodo's hobbit soul, as the Jungian O'Neill notes) from killing each other. When Gollum abandons them in Shelob's lair at Cirith Ungol, this psychic triumvirate collapses. When Frodo receives the sting of Shelob and “dies,” Sam is left alone to make, as the chapter title has it, “The Choices of Master Samwise.” Like Aragorn following the underworld “death” of Gandalf, Sam must evolve rapidly from helpmate to master of his own doom. That the hero's mantle passes here to Sam is evidenced by his assumption of Frodo's three magic tokens, the sword Sting, the phial of Galadriel, and of course the Ring itself. Although he must return the burden of the Ring upon Frodo's resurrection, he retains the sword and the phial. As Marion Zimmer Bradley observed in a 1966 essay on heroism in The Lord of the Rings, Sam becomes the “tall, towering elf-warrior” seen by the orcs of Minas Morgul.10

She also notes that their relationship has subtly altered by the time Frodo reawakens by drawing attention to the passage that reads, “Frodo … lay back in Sam's gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice or hand” (III, 186; Bradley 121). From this point on Frodo, child-like, is helpless, weak and incapable of making his own decisions; Sam must encourage, prod, and even bodily carry him. Sam thus has evolved from the child-like subordinate to a gentle but parental authority figure, and for the rest of the Quest he is in charge. It is Sam who gets them to their goal at the Cracks of Doom, as it is ironically Gollum who delivers the Ring to the fires. Frodo has no will of his own anymore; he merely endures in the face of forces over which he has no control.

Having been strengthened by the quest, however, Sam—who enjoys with Frodo Campbell's rescue from without, magic flight, and crossing of the return threshold—is the one who wins the fairy-tale rewards of Propp, the marriage (to Rosie Cotton) and throne (the mayoralty of the Shire). Like Aragorn, he rules long and wisely and, significantly for the Frazerian imagery of the story, brings fertility to the Shire, by spreading around the soil of Lorien (thus bringing to the Shire the golden mallorn trees of Lorien as Aragorn brings to life the White Tree of Valinor) and in being fruitful himself; according to the appendix, thirteen children are recorded from the union of Samwise Gamgee and Rose Cotton, from whom several enduring Shire dynasties emerge. It is also consonant with the Frazerian fertility motif that Sam's voluntary departure from the Shire, and his rumored departure from Middle-earth, come on September 22, the autumnal equinox.

If none of this seems proof that Tolkien intended Sam to be seen as a heroic figure (and I was frankly skeptical myself when the possibility was first proposed to me), he does confirm that and more in a 1951 letter to editor Michael Waldman. After expressly comparing the love story of Aragorn and Arwen (as “high” matter) to the “rustic” love of Sam and Rosie, he refers parenthetically to Sam as the story's “chief hero” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 161). If Gandalf is hero as shaman-sage, Aragorn the hero as warrior-king, Frodo the hero as martyr-saint, what sort of hero is Sam?

Although Sam Gamgee lacks the semi-divine or tragic status demanded by most mythic paradigms, he does suggest a lower level hero, the fairy-tale fool of classic tradition, like the various Jacks, little tailors, and youngest sons who from unpromising raw material forge futures of wealth, honor, and power; for this reason, Sam best fulfills the folk-tale morphology of Propp, functioning in this position as a plebeian counterpoint to Aragorn. Tolkien himself describes Sam, in a 1963 letter, as “lovable and laughable” but “trying,” vulgar and smug, in his “mental myopia” a “more representative hobbit” than any other in the story (Letters 329). He is, in short, the hero as humble Everyman, with his own mixture of virtues and vices, among the latter a petty hybris. But what makes his brand of heroism so special that Tolkien would name him “the chief hero” of the Trilogy?

Perhaps the author's own answer may be found in his essay “Ofermod,” his afterword to his verse drama “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son.” Here he praises his Old English model, the poem The Battle of Maldon, as “the only purely heroic poem extant in Old English.” He points in particular to the lines spoken by the old retainer Beorhtwold (“Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.”) as the best expression of the “northern heroic spirit … ; the clearest statement of the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will.”11 Tolkien finds it especially noteworthy that these words are spoken by a subordinate, one who expects to gain neither honor nor glory from victory. Fighting for honor is the less meritorious “chivalric” motivation to heroic action of a Beowulf or, in this case, a Beorhtnoth. Beorhtwold, on the other hand, does what he does out of “the heroism of obedience and love,” (Beorhtnoth 22) when pressed by “bleak, heroic necessity” (Beorhtnoth 20); this is the heroism which Tolkien holds to be “the most heroic and the most moving” (Beorhtnoth 22). This is the heroism of Sam.

The above allusions to Tolkien's own theory of the heroic bring up the question: to what extent did Tolkien himself consciously use heroic archetypes? The Jungian O'Neill makes the case that “Tolkien's work is probably the clearest repository of Jungian themes in recent literature” (O'Neill 16), so much so that he predicates the direct influence of Jung on Tolkien. He cites as further evidence the alleged common origins of Jung's numen and Tolkien's Numenor (O'Neill 163-4), even though Tolkien's letters denied the derivation of Numenor from the Latin (Letters 361). Tolkien's letters also show that he was not reticent about his distaste for psychoanalysis, and particularly psychoanalytical interpretations of myth and literature.

In fact, his various non-fiction writings consistently criticize reductions of the hero myths to formulas and patterns. While in the essay “On Fairy-Stories” he names some common elements of mythic tales, he also expresses his disapproval of the tendency of folklorists and anthropologists to reduce stories to outlines of similar motifs. He acknowledges that such scientific studies “may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth,” but maintains that they miss the point of story-telling;12 to use his metaphor, they pick out the individual threads, but overlook the tapestry. I must suppose, on the basis of this evidence, that he would find Propp and Raglan reductionist, and Jung and Campbell misguided, although there is ample evidence that he was familiar with the nature-myths outlined by Frazer. Alongside the numerous fertility motifs already noted herein is the time frame of the Ring Quest itself, which begins on September 22, the autumn equinox, and ends on March 25, the beginning of spring.13

Actually, I do not believe, nor would I want to believe, that Tolkien needed to copy the formulas of the folklorists and mythographers. He had his own ample background in the mythic, and achieved through literature what the more scientific of the mythopoeic thinkers did with their studies: he brought together the many threads of the myths he knew, invested them with the colors and patterns of his own internal muse, and wove them into the cosmos we know as Middle-earth. In many places in his writings he disclaims having invented his characters and stories, regarding himself as the discoverer and chronicler of preexisting forms.14 And in his conclusion to “On Fairy-Stories,” he refers to the “peculiar quality of ‘joy’” in fantasy which comes from “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (71), that joyful, underlying truth Rudolph Otto and Jung would recognize as the numen. It is not surprising, therefore, that Tolkien's many heroes reflect in their various ways the archetypes and archetypal patterns more methodically delineated by the writers of monographs. That they do is evidence that Tolkien had touched the numinous within himself.

It is a pity that Joseph Campbell did not address Tolkien's opus when he explored modern mythopoeic literature in his volume The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking, 1968), preferring instead the more literarily respectable, at the time, modernist writings of Eliot, Joyce, and Mann. Campbell defines “creative mythology” as springing not “from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience of value.”15 In other words, Campbell's creative mythologist recreates the myths through the medium of his own poetic, mythopoeic spirit and offers them up to the modern world in new and transformed guise.

I do believe that Joseph Campbell would have approved of J. R. R. Tolkien more than Tolkien might have Campbell. In striving to revitalize for his time the myths he loved, like some Fisher-King of fantasy, Tolkien served the same aim as Campbell—to make us feel the numinous relevance of these archetypal tales.


  1. Much condensed to its basic motifs, Propp's morphology runs as follows:

    1. A member of family departs from home (to travel, war, collect berries, or die)
    2. An interdiction is addressed to the hero (don't look in this closet, don't talk to strangers, don't defile my shrine)
    3. The interdiction is violated
    4. The villain reconnoiters (seeks out hero or addresses him)
    5. Villain receives information about his victim
    6. Villain attempts to deceive victim to take possession of him or belongings
    7. Victim submits to deception and thus unwittingly helps enemy
    8. Villain causes harm or injury to member of family or [VIIIa. Member of family lacks or desires something]
    9. Misfortune is made known; hero receives request; is dispatched
    10. Seeker agrees to/decides counteraction
    11. Hero leaves home
    12. Hero is tested, attacked, etc., leading to magical agent or helper
    13. Hero reacts to future donor/helper
    14. Hero acquires magical agent
    15. Hero delivered to object of search
    16. Hero and villain join in direct combat
    17. Hero is branded (wounded, marked, or receives token)
    18. Villain is defeated
    19. Initial misfortune is ended
    20. Hero returns
    21. Hero is pursued
    22. Hero is rescued from pursuit
    23. Hero arrives unrecognized
    24. False hero presents claims
    25. A difficult task is proposed to the hero
    26. The task is resolved
    27. The hero is recognized
    28. False hero or villain is exposed
    29. Hero receives new appearance (new looks, castle, clothes)
    30. Villain is punished
    31. Hero is married, ascends throne

    The full outline can be found in The Morphology of the Folk Tale., 2nd ed., rev. (Austin: University of Texas, 1968).

  2. Raglan's points are as follows:

    1. The hero's mother is a royal virgin.
    2. His father is king and
    3. Often a near relative of the mother, but
    4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
    5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
    6. At his birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or maternal grandfather, to kill him, but,
    7. He is spirited away, and
    8. Reared by foster parents in a far country.
    9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
    10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
    11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon or wild beast
    12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and
    13. Becomes king.
    14. For a time he rules uneventfully, and
    15. Prescribes laws, but
    16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects,
    17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which
    18. He meets with a mysterious death
    19. Often on top of a hill.
    20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
    21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless,
    22. He has one or more holy sepulchers.

    From The Hero. (New York: Vintage, 1956), 174-5

  3. Joseph L. Henderson in Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1964), 110.

  4. Campbell's points are as follows:

    1. Hero receives a call to adventure
    2. H. refuses the call
    3. H. receives supernatural aid (a guide, a talisman, a power)
    4. H. crosses the first threshold, often with brother-battle
    5. The belly of the whale, or underworld
    6. The road of trials (a series of tests, accompanied by helpers; at nadir, undergoes major ordeal, receives reward)
    7. Meets goddess, or is tempted by woman; sacred marriage
    8. Atonement with father, or recognition by divine father
    9. Apotheosis of hero
    10. H. receives ultimate boon, sometimes by stealing bride
    11. Begins return, after refusing it
    12. Magic flight
    13. Rescue from without
    14. Crosses return threshold
    15. Becomes master of two worlds (material and spiritual)
    16. Enjoys the freedom to live.
  5. According to William Ready, as quoted by Paul H. Kocher, Master of Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972), 130.

  6. Volume and page references for The Lord of the Rings are from the Houghton Mifflin edition.

  7. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1968), 101. Indeed, Gandalf shares a surprising number of the characteristics of the shaman Campbell details on page 284 of his book The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York: Viking, 1962): “a mastery of and immunity from fire, ecstatic flight, invisibility, passage beyond the bounds of earth and to upper and lower realms, resurrection, knowledge of former lives, and miraculous cures.”

  8. Galadriel's archetypal function as goddess manifests itself in, among other traits, her timelessness. Petty notes that Frodo's perception of her as “present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time” echoes Campbell's description of the goddess as “the incarnation of the promise of perfection. … Time sealed her away, yet she is dwelling still, like one who sleeps in timelessness …” (Petty 50).

  9. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981), 327.

  10. “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 120.

  11. The Tolkien Reader, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son,” 20.

  12. The Tolkien Reader, “On Fairy-Stories,” 18.

  13. For a fuller listing of Frazerian fertility motifs, see Hugh T. Keenan, “The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings: A Struggle for Life,” Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaacs and Zimbardo. Keenan cites Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance as the best guide to “the Wasted-Land-and-Wounded-King theme” (72), but this book on the Grail legend is linked explicitly to Frazer by T. S. Eliot in his notes to The Waste Land.

  14. In a letter to Michael Waldman, for instance, he says of his stories, “They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things … always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing.’” (Letters 145)

  15. Creative Mythology, 7. In modern secular times, according to Campbell in this volume, myth is no longer the ethnic and religious code it once was, but an expression of “elementary ideas.” The mythopoeic thinker must intelligently make use “not of one mythology only but of all of the dead and set-fast symbologies of the past, [which] will enable the individual to anticipate and activate in himself the centers of his own creative imagination, out of which his own myth and life-building … may then unfold” (677). This process of “creative mythology” suggests Tolkien's own efforts at “sub-creation.”

Elizabeth Arthur (essay date autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: Arthur, Elizabeth. “Above All Shadows Rides the Sun: Gollum as Hero.” Mythlore 18, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 19-27.

[In the following essay, Arthur contends that Gollum is a hero in the sense that he is Tolkien's most complex and human-like character.]

Long after, but still very long ago, there lived by the banks of the great river on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people. I guess they were of hobbit-kind; akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors, for they loved the River, and often swam in it, or made little boats of reeds. There was among them a family of high repute, for it was large and wealthier than most, and it was ruled by a grandmother of the folk, stern and wise in old lore, such as they had. The most inquisitive and curious-minded of the family was called Sméagol.

(I, 62)

Gollum is my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings. Every time I have read the trilogy—and I have read it many times—the thing I have most looked forward to was the next appearance of Gollum in the text. No one, I think, would dispute that Gollum is an important, even a crucial character in the trilogy, since it was with the simultaneous introduction in The Hobbit of Gollum and the One Ring that Tolkien began his exploration of not just the evil but the fascination of power—an exploration which was to climax on Mount Doom, where Gollum and the One Ring went together into the Fire—and there is no question that it is only through Gollum's intervention on Orodruin that the power of Sauron is destroyed and Middle-earth freed from the Great Darkness. Though the fall is glossed over as accidental, the fact remains that but for Gollum, “The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.” (III, 225) Gollum has often been called a monster; I cannot believe, however, that I am alone in my feeling that he is more interesting, and touching, than any other being, good or evil, who dwells in Middle-earth, and that as the most fully rounded character in The Lord of the Rings he is not only the most complex, but ultimately the most important creature Tolkien created.

Indeed, in his way, he is the hero of The Lord of the Rings. One of the most thoroughly satisfying things about The Lord of the Rings, of course, is that, with few exceptions, the good guys are very good, and the bad guys very bad. When the story was first gaining significant critical attention in the United States, there was some criticism leveled at it on the grounds that the extreme polarization of good and evil broke all the rules of good mimetic fiction, that, as Matthew Hodgart wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Alas, in this world there are no goblins or orcs …”1 Twenty-five years later, that comment seems rather silly; The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy and almost anyone would agree that it is inappropriate to try and apply standards of the modern novel to such a work. Fantasy gains most of its strength from the utilization of archetypes; it is powerful and appealing at least partially because it ignores some of the basic principles of realistic fiction. One of those principles, of course, is that all characters should be complexly motivated by often conflicting instincts, and that those instincts should exist on the unconscious as well as the conscious level. But fantasy often breaks the complex characteristics of a single human being down into simple, archetypal components, so that figures which Jung identified as the Wise Old Man, the Good Mother, the Temptress, etc., replace the Person Next Door as the central concern of a writer. And the story does not, on the face of it, seem to have a character with whom the reader is supposed to identify more completely than the rest; it allows the characters taken together to represent the complexity of life. The only exception to this rule may be Gollum; he alone could be removed from the pages of the story and the shores of Middle-earth and, unsupported by his world, retain his power to move us.

Who, then, is Gollum? In “The Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf leaves no doubt about his hobbit origins. Although he has changed almost past recognition, he was once of hobbit-kind and lived peacefully with his family on the banks of the Great River. More than just a common hobbit, he was in fact of good stock, from “a family of high repute, for it was larger, and wealthier than most.” (I, 62) A clear comparison is made with Bilbo's roots. In The Hobbit we are told that: “The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable … most of them were rich …”2 In “The Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf goes on to tell Frodo that Gollum's grandmother ruled the family, “a woman stern and wise in old lore” (I, 62). Bilbo's mother, of course, was “the famous Belladona Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took.”3 We are told in The Hobbit that Bilbo had something “a bit queer” in his make-up, a Tookish curiosity which made him wish “to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves.”4 According to Gandalf, Gollum (who was called Sméagol as a child), was “the most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family … He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools.” (I, 62) The two hobbits, both of wealthy and respectable families dominated by strong women, are both unusually curious youngsters. Gollum, in the days when he was still Sméagol, was, in fact, not unlike Bilbo. As Gandalf points out, even Bilbo's story about their meeting in the cave suggests kinship:

There was a great deal in the background of their minds and memories that was very similar. They understood one another remarkably well, very much better than a hobbit would understand, say, a Dwarf, or an Orc, or even an Elf.

(I, 64)

Although Gollum is indisputably derived from hobbit stock, he has, of course, become something else, “a small slimy creature,” pale and skeletal, wiry and tough. He has borne the Ring for over five hundred years. Since Bilbo bears it for sixty-one years and Frodo for only eighteen, it is clear from the start of the story that Gollum, whatever defects of his character, has been exceptionally unfortunate. Having started life as a hobbit not unlike Bilbo, he has had the misfortune not only to be present at the discovery of the One Ring, but to carry it for almost ten times as long as any other Ringbearer. There is little doubt that Gollum is a picture of what any of the other Ringbearers might have been, had circumstances treated them less kindly, or their own characters been less strong.

It is crucial that Gollum is identifiable as a twisted hobbit, a hobbit who has gone wrong. Although Middle-earth has seven intelligent races, it is the hobbits who dominate the action of the story, the hobbits who represent the dominant point of view, and the hobbits with whom it is easiest for most people to identify. As Deborah Rogers writes, “the hobbits are the race par excellence … Tolkien uses their point of view.”5 Roger Sale says emphatically: “everyone knows that without them the story would not stand a chance. When Tolkien is ‘good with the hobbits’ then everything else seems to go well.”6 In Tolkien's World Randel Helms presents a very good case for the assertion that little major action occurs in The Lord of the Rings which is not precipitated by a hobbit.7 And Elrond makes an unequivocal statement of the hobbits' importance during the Council which establishes the Fellowship of the Ring: “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and councils of the great.” (I, 284) If there is a race which is more likely to nurture the Person Next Door than any of the other races of Middle-earth, it is surely the hobbits, and since Gollum is identifiable as a hobbit, perhaps it is hardly surprising that he is full of complexity, even though his most obvious role is to act as a foil for the other Ringbearers.

Although “foil” may not be the right word, certainly Tolkien sometimes sets up a contrast between Gollum and the other Ringbearers; but very often Gollum is more truly compared than contrasted, and this comparison is made explicitly as several crucial junctures in the Quest. The first of these occurs after Frodo has recovered from the Morgul wound and has met Bilbo in the Great Hall of Rivendell. After the two have talked for a very short time, Bilbo tells Frodo that he would like to see the Ring once more. Frodo feels a “strange reluctance” to show it, but he slowly draws out the chain.

To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.

(I, 244)

The “shadow” is the shadow of Gollum. Certainly this scene demonstrates the extent to which the Ring's absolute power has already taken possession of Frodo's mind; it implies, too, that Bilbo, had he held onto the Ring for very much longer, might well have been transformed into a creature like Gollum. But it also indicates that whatever sympathy we are able to feel for Bilbo, and the Ring-desire of an ex-Ringbearer, we should be able to feel in equal measure for Gollum. The comparison is as important as the contrast.

A similar scene takes place in Book VI. Frodo lies naked in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Sam has found him and told him the Ring is safe. Sam is reluctant to burden his master with it again and offers to share the burden:

‘No, no!’ cried Frodo, snatching the Ring and chain from Sam's hands. ‘No you won't you thief!’ He panted, staring at Sam with eyes wide with fear and enmity.

(III, 188)

Frodo's vision shows him not Sam, but a foul little orc. In this moment, it is Frodo himself who becomes, for an instant, Gollum. Sam has taken on the role of the present possessor of the Ring, and Frodo has adopted the role of the Ring's slave who has lost his precious to another hobbit. Frodo's venomous “No you won't, you thief!” has all the resonance of Gollum's endless and bitter refrain “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it forever!”8 Although Frodo's vision clears, from that point on a significant role-reversal takes place, as Sam becomes the strong guiding force of the Quest, Frodo more and more completely is in the power of the Ring. Clearly the loss of will which Gollum manifests in its most extreme form, is steadily growing in Frodo, and equally clearly the pity we feel for Frodo must extend to Gollum as well. Even Sam, who is not too bright, sees Gollum and Frodo as “akin.” Beneath the cliff of the Emyn Muil, he has the first of two visions:

for a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog. Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another's minds.

(II, 225)

and later, on the slopes of Mount Doom:

Then, suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire.

(III, 221)

The first scene enacts two recurring themes of the book: the interchangeability of ruler and ruled and the thin line that divides madness from sanity. Any ultimate condition has the potential for reversal. In the second scene Frodo is clearly on the brink of that at ultimate condition: he may be robed in white, but he holds at his breast the wheel of fire. Tolkien is paving the way for the moment at the Crack of Doom, when Frodo fails in his resistance to the Ring and when Gollum and Frodo switch roles at last. Gollum is indeed the “shadow of a living thing.” He is the dark side of Frodo's white fire at this last crucial point, and as the shadow of greatness, he must have the potential for greatness himself.

But our perceptions of Gollum's complexity do not all grow out of the way that he mirrors Frodo. He exists as a character in his own right, and his fascinating ambiguity can serve to locate many of the story's major explorations. Gollum is far from one-sided, and his ability to remain multi-faceted after five centuries of carrying the Ring illuminates Tolkien's treatment of power and of the hobbits as representatives of the kind of power which is good in Middle-earth: the power to resist, the power to remain unchanged. As Gandalf says of Gollum:

He had proved tougher than even one of the Wise would have guessed—as a hobbit might. There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark.

(I, 64)

The hidden strength of the little people does not produce towers and kings and great warriors, but it is, in the end, the decisive power of courage, willpower and kindness. “They are a remarkable race,” says the Warden of the Houses of Healing. “Very tough in the fibre, I deem.” (III, 147) All the hobbits prove their strength at one time or another—Pippin actually confronts Sauron without suffering permanent harm, Frodo carries the Morgul-knife silver for seventeen days, Merry recovers quickly from the Black Breath—but it is Gollum who exhibits the most extraordinary toughness of all. Although he has been dominated by the Ring for more than five hundred years, he has not fallen under the dominion of the Ring's Master. He is still free to hate Sauron; he is not a Ring-Wraith. Even while he is Gollum, tied to the Ring “with no will left in the matter” (I, 64), he remains Sméagol as well. And as Sméagol, he's enough to break your heart. I cannot agree with Agnes Perkins and Helen Hill who write in their essay “The Corruption of Power”: “The most complex character to succumb completely to the desire for power is the loathsome creature from The Hobbit, Gollum …”9 Complex he is. Loathsome he is not. Although he is a schizoid character, his Sméagol side is very hobbit-like still.

Not least of Sméagol's endearing qualities is his charming manner of speech. In The Hobbit, the first thing he says is “Bless us and splash us, my precioussssss!”10 and he continues to talk in this child-like way all the way to the wastes of Mordor. “Wake up, wake up, sleepies!” he whispers to Frodo and Sam in the journey to the crossroads. “They mustn't be silly,” he hisses (II, 310). He can also be delightfully sarcastic. When Frodo asks him if they must cross the Marshes, Gollum answers:

No need, no need at all … Not if hobbits want to reach the dark mountains and go to see Him very quick. Back a little and round a little … Lots of His people will be there looking out for Guests, very pleased to take them straight to Him, oh, yes.

(II, 233)

So striking are Gollum's fussy verbal peculiarities that Sam can scarcely say a sentence to Gollum without parodying him, and though obviously this serves in part to illuminate their kinship—the intensity with which Sam dislikes Gollum might be the result of his inability to gain perspective on a creature who is like a twisted reflection of himself—it also simply draws additional attention to those peculiarities and the way that they make Gollum seem consistently human. When he says to Sam, on the slopes of Mount Doom:

Don't kill us … Don't hurt us with nassty cruel steel! Let us live, yes, live just a little longer. Lost, lost! We're lost. And when Precious goes we'll die, yes, die into the dust.

(III, 221)

he invokes sympathy in a way that none of the “loathsome” creatures ever do.

After Gollum makes his promise to Frodo on the edge of the Marshes, Tolkien writes:

he was friendly, and indeed pitifully anxious to please. He would cackle with laughter and caper, if any jest was made, or even if Frodo spoke kindly to him, and weep if Frodo rebuked him.

(II, 225)

In his essay “Aspects of the Paradisiacal in Tolkien's Work,” U. Milo Kaufmann remarks that readers of the story:

should notice one ramification of the paradisiacal which in fact constitutes a flaw in the probability of The Lord of the Rings, namely the way Gollum the monster keeps his promises.11

I would say that the flaw lies rather in Kaufmann's reading of the story, since Gollum is held to most of his promises by the power of the Ring itself. But he does more than simply keep his promises. He is often spontaneously helpful and good-hearted. When Sam asks him to find them something to eat in Ithilien, Gollum comes back with two rabbits, which he gives without demur to Sam, though he himself is very hungry. He guides the hobbits faithfully through the Marshes, despite his numberless opportunities for deserting them, betraying them, or murdering them, and when they tire, he is kind and understanding and encourages them to go on.

Now on we go! … Nice hobbits! Brave hobbits! Very, very weary, of course; so are we, my precious, all of us. But we must take master away from the wicked lights, yes, we must.

(II, 236)

Only after he is reminded of the strength and cruelty of Sauron—when the Nazgûl fly overhead—does he conceive the idea of taking the Ring for himself, and even once the idea has begun to trouble him, he still retains traces of goodness; there's a chink of light in his brain. He argues with his Gollum side: “But Sméagol said he would be very very good. Nice hobbit! He took the cruel rope off Sméagol's leg. He speaks nicely to me.” (II, 236) Responding with great hunger to Frodo's kindness, Sméagol comes, in fact, to truly love him, with that part of his mind which is still free. Of course he hates Frodo also, in much the same way that he loves and hates the Ring, and loves and hates his precious self. Torn between responding to love with love and protecting himself from evil with wickedness, Gollum eventually betrays the hobbits largely from his fear of Sauron. These would be complex feelings for an archetypal Monster, but not for a believable and struggling hobbit/human.

Then, too, Gollum retains an ability to appreciate the beauty in life, and has a genuine fear and hatred of the wasteland. A wholly evil creature would hardly be able to talk about Minas Ithil like this:

Tales out of the South … about the tall Men with shining eyes … and the silver crown of their King and his White Tree: wonderful tales. They built very tall towers, and one they raised was silver-white, and in it there was a stone like a moon, and round it great white walls,

(II, 249)

or to remember Mordor with nothing but horror, horror not just at the torment he endured, but at the place itself. When he discovers that Mordor is Frodo's destination, his reaction is one of graphic loathing:

Ach! Sss!’ said Gollum, covering his ears with his hands, as if such frankness and the open speaking of the names hurt him. ‘We guessed, yes, we guessed … and we didn't want them to go, did we? No, precious, not the nice hobbits. Ashes, ashes and dust, and thirst there is; and pits, pits, pits, and Orcs, thousands of Orcssess.’

(II, 222)

Thus, after bearing the Ring for centuries, Gollum is still himself: a hobbit at heart. He is certainly wicked in a large part of his being, the part with which the Ring has become inextricably linked. In his Gollum phase, he addresses himself as “my precious,” a term which he uses indiscriminately for the Ring as well. But, as Frodo notices, he also sometimes uses I, and it is always a sign that sincerity is present. As Gandalf says of Bilbo in The Hobbit, and as he says of Frodo twice in the story, “there is more to him than meets the eye.” Kindness, an appreciation of beauty and good tales, humor and sarcasm—these are all attributes of complex human beings, as is Gollum's love of fish, an appreciation of the pleasures of the table which is not unlike the passion of hobbits for mushrooms.

Do we need more evidence that Gollum is anything but a monster? Then we should look to the most touching moment in the entire story, when Gollum, warring all the way with his better self, has led the hobbits into the Tunnel of Cirith Ungol, in the hope that when Shelob has eaten the hobbits she may discard the Ring or give it to Gollum as a reward. Frodo and Sam are sleeping when Gollum returns from a scouting expedition; Frodo rests with his head in Sam's lap. Gollum looks at them, as they lie peaceful and trusting in their sleep.

A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up toward the pass, shaking his head as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved, pitiable thing.

(II, 324)

When Sam wakes up suddenly, he speaks roughly to Gollum and “the fleeting moment” passes beyond recall. But the fact is that it has happened and that Gollum has had a moment of potential greatness, a moment in which love has almost conquered the overwhelming might of evil. As Roger Sales writes:

Sméagol loves the specialness that is Frodo's care of him. The love is almost without parallel in our modern literature, because it is neither filial nor sexual but the tentative unbelieving response to a caring so unlikely that it seems heroic even to Gollum.12

And Gollum's ability to love Frodo is decisive in locating his position in Middle-earth's scheme of good and evil. If, as W. H. Auden writes, “the primary weakness of evil is a lack of imagination, for while Good can imagine what it would be like to be Evil, Evil cannot imagine what it would be like to be Good,”13 then Gollum epitomizes the struggle between the opposing forces: he can imagine what it would be like to be good.

As I have noted before, good and evil are clear and consistent in Middle-earth and, with few exceptions, the good guys are very good and the bad guys very bad indeed. But this is not to say that the demarcation between them is unfailingly rigid. Some characters—Elrond, Arwen, Treebeard—are indeed wholly good, and other characters—the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr, the Nazgûl, the Orcs—are indeed wholly evil. Most of the characters, however, contain both good and evil, and though some resist temptation more successfully than others, even the best may fall and the worst repent. Each of the major characters is revealed at some point in relation to the temptation of the Ring: Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, Boromir, Faramir, Denethor, Saruman, Frodo and even Sam, are all exposed to the lure of absolute power. Four of them succumb to it—Boromir, Saruman, Denethor and Frodo—but the first three of those characters play only peripheral roles in moving the action of the story forward, and Frodo falls only at the very last. But Gollum vacillates back and forth between the possibility of good and the lure of evil, and this lies right in the middle of the spectrum of Tolkien's exploration. He might be said to represent the average soul.

One of the central questions posed by the story is what the possibility of unlimited power will do to those who desire or possess it. The answer, of course, is that power corrupts. Randel Helms writes:

part of the reason Tolkien's vision is so necessary to so many is that it provides a richly satisfying experience of a fully worked out mythological influence, spiritual and probably eternal, against which man is doomed to fight, but which he has no hope of conquering on his own.14

But if evil, once it has possessed a person, is allowed to win without any further struggle, then there would not be much hope for us mortals, since all of us are, incipiently, Gollums, likely to be present when a Ring of Power is found. If Gollum, who was unfortunate enough to be swimming in a river when a circle of bright gold glittered on its bottom, had been irrevocably lost, what kind of hope could the world have retained, and what kind of interest would that world hold for readers? But Tolkien implies that there is at least a chance that Gollum may be cured before he dies, and this chance, this hope, reverberates throughout the story. Gollum reflects the position of Middle-earth itself; when Gandalf says, “Alas, there is little hope … for him,” then adds, “Yet not no hope,” (I, 64) he might, with a change of pronoun, be speaking not of Gollum but of the world, since the Quest seems a fool's errand from the first and there is little hope that the Ring will go into the Fire—but not, thank God, no hope.

Gollum also reflects the position of Middle-earth in the struggle of life against death. That struggle is all-pervasive in The Lord of the Rings, extending from the broadest plot-line to the narrowest examinations of character and landscape. “The war … is the story of the fight of the world in all its variousness to stay alive when … the darkness threatens to obliterate the natural separateness of living things,” writes Roger Sales, and he goes on to point out that the world itself is peculiarly alive.15 In the land of Hollin, Aragorn senses watchfulness and fear in the land itself, and when the Army of the West approaches Mordor, it is noted that “Tree and stone, blade and leaf, were listening: (III, 160). Growth and greenery are associated with the forces of good; in Lothlorien, even the houses are made of growing trees. Desolation is always associated with evil, as is machinery; Fangorn characterizes the traitor Saruman as having a mind “of metal and wheels,” and having no concern for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. In Mordor, nothing will grow but a thorn bush. Hugh T. Keenan notes:

The peculiar achievement of the author is to have created a world which is at once completely (or to a superlative degree) sentient and yet dying, to have presented vividly, objectively and emotionally the eternal conflict between life and death.16

Like the vision of the Ancient Mariner, Gollum contains the central conflict in his very being, he is Death-in-Life, a perversion of life from the encroachments of death. In this, Gollum stands alone. The orcs are wicked, but they are alive—they need food and drink, and they can presumably die of old age, unlikely though it is that they will get a chance to. The Nazgûl are dead—they neither eat nor drink, they do not have bodies, and they will endure for as long as the Ring does. But Gollum is both alive and “dead”; he is four hundred years too old for any creature of his race, and although he must eat and drink, he seems able to get along on less than any other living creature would deem possible. He lives on the lowest forms of life—as Sam guesses—“worms or beetles, or something slimy out of holes” (II, 233). The highest form of nourishment which he desires is raw fish, which is the lowest form of animal life although also, significantly, a common fertility symbol, and when he attempts to eat lembas, the food of the Elves, he spits and coughs, saying that it tastes like “dust and ashes” (II, 229). Perhaps the most explicit description of his deathly appearance comes after the passage of the Dead Marshes:

an eagle poised against the sun … might have paused to consider Gollum, a tiny figure sprawling on the ground: there perhaps lay the famished skeleton of some child of Men, its ragged garment still clinging to it, its long arms and legs bone-white and bone-thin: no flesh worth a peck.

(II, 253)

And, of course, although Aragorn and Gandalf search for Gollum initially through a great part of the wilderness, it is in the Dead Marshes that Aragorn finally confronts him: “Lurking by a stagnant mere, peering in the water as the dark eve fell, I caught him, Gollum. He was covered with green slime.” (I, 266) In fact, although Gollum lurks always on the edge of the company's trail, both the first and the second time that he actually confronts a company member, the meeting takes place by the Marshes of the Dead. Not only does he always seem to surface there, but by his own account he is the only creature in Middle-earth who can find a safe path through them. Yet he does not love them. He calls the candles of the corpses “Tricksy Lights.” He hates the stink of the Marshes, but “good Sméagol bears it,” though he does not bear the Tower of the Moon, which has become a place of death; he urgently tries to get the hobbits past its exhalation of decay. As in the spectrum of good and evil, Gollum vacillates between life and death, like a reflection of Middle-earth itself.

In fact, even the events which are precipitated by and which surround Gollum enact the central laws which govern Middle-earth. Randel Helms, in his essay “Tolkien's World,” attempts to summarize the internal laws of Tolkien's fantasy world. Three of the laws which he distinguishes are: The cosmos is providentially controlled; Intention structures results; All experience is the realization of proverbial truth. Helms writes of the first law:

Perhaps the clearest example of the working of Middle-earthly Providence is in Gandalf's remark to Frodo about the discovery of the Ring: ‘I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’17

But surely an equally important demonstration of this truth lies in the numerous references to the part which Gollum may play in the Quest, a part which cannot be predicted or defined. Gandalf says “my heart tells me that he has some part to play, for good or ill, before the end” (I, 69). Later he points out to the Council—after Gollum's escape from Mirkwood has been reported—that “he may play a part yet that neither he nor Sauron have foreseen” (I, 269). And Gandalf several times makes the point that “even the Wise cannot see all ends.” Clearly, there is some power working behind Gollum, a power which is intimately tied up with the structure of Middle-earth. Since in the end the part he plays is, against all possibility of prediction, a good one, to some extent he must be seen as an instrument of Providence when he takes the Ring to its destruction.

He is also, however, demonstrating the essential truth that on Middle-earth good intentions lead to good results.18 At various time Gollum's life is spared by Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and Sam, and they are all well rewarded for showing pity and mercy. Gandalf explains to Frodo that Bilbo took so little hurt from the evil of the Ring and escaped its power in the end because he began his ownership of the Ring by showing mercy to Gollum. By extrapolation we may be assured that Middle-earth takes so little hurt from the evil and escapes in the end because the representatives of Middle-earth acted with mercy to Gollum, who thus survived to become the saviour of the world.

The proverbial truth expressed thus by Théoden, “Evil will shall evil mar,” is intimately connected with the way that good intentions lead to good results in Middle-earth. Examples of evil tripping up evil abound in The Lord of the Rings,19 but again one of the most important demonstrations of this truth can be found in the role Gollum plays in the latter part of the Quest. As Gandalf (speaking of Gollum), says to Pippin, “A traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.” (III, 89)

When Frodo is stuck beneath the cliff of the Emyn Muil, unable to find a way forward and equally unable to retreat, the future of the Quest looks very dim. There are Nazgûl flying overhead and orcs about. Suddenly there arrives the only creature in Middle-earth who knows the way across the Dead Marshes: Gollum, drawn only by his hatred for the bearer of the Precious and by his lust for the Ring itself. Of course, as I have pointed out, Gollum leads them safely in part because he comes to feel affection for, and gratitude toward, Frodo. But Gollum arrives in time to save the Quest as a result both of his own evil intentions and the good intentions of those who have spared his life. When Frodo sees that the Morannon is impassible, Gollum, his better self defunct for the moment, tells Frodo that there is another way into Mordor. Planning treachery, Gollum hopes to lead the hobbits to Shelob. The Pass of Cirith Ungol is, however, quite literally the only other way into Mordor—and the only force which is capable of leading them there is the evil will of Gollum.

The most striking and important demonstration of this pattern in Middle-earth is also the climactic event of the story. The scene at the Crack of Doom has been called “one of the most perplexing episodes in The Lord of the Rings.20 But when Gollum is seen as the complicated character that he is, a struggling human being as well as a symbol of the battle between opposing forces, then the scene at the Crack is not perplexing, but a masterful culmination of themes and motifs. The climax begins when Sam, carrying Frodo on his back, is suddenly struck from behind by Gollum, who has caught up with them. In hand to hand combat Frodo defeats Gollum, who crouches at his feet. Sam sees Frodo as a figure robed in white who holds at his breast a wheel of fire:

Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. “Begone and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into Mount Doom.”

(III, 221)

The reader's thoughts should turn back to the scene beneath the Ephel Dúath when Frodo reminds Gollum of his promise:

You swore a promise by what you call the Precious. Remember that! It will hold you to it; but it may seek a way to twist it to your own undoing … In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command.

(II, 248)

Frodo has now given that command. Although he is not, on the slopes of Orodruin, actually wearing the Ring, the Ring's power has become so great as it draws close to the fire where it was forged that, as Frodo tells Sam, “I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.” (III, 215) There is no veil between Frodo and the power on his breast, and when he says to Gollum “If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom,” he says so with the power of the Ring behind his words. Gollum, bound to the Ring by his promises and his centuries of enslavement, cannot escape the power of that statement, which becomes simply a statement of what must be now. When Gollum ‘touches’ Frodo, he does so by biting off his ring finger:

‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My precious! Oh, my precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone.

(III, 224)

Gollum is indeed “cast into the Fire of Doom,” by the power of his own complex shackles to the Ring. And here is the ultimate demonstration of the truth that evil works often against itself. For how could be Ring know that it would be in Gollum's hand when it invested with the power of evil Frodo's command to Gollum? The greatest power of evil works here for the accomplishment of great good. Moreover, in one masterful stroke, Tolkien indicates again that the cosmos is providentially controlled. For although no one living could foresee the role Gollum would play, yet Gollum is there at the crucial moment, when Frodo claims the Ring for his own.

Patricia Spacks writes of the fall into the Fire, “In the presentation of this event the idea of free will intimately involved with fate receives its most forceful statement.”21 I have always been a great believer in both destiny and free will, and perhaps that is why The Lord of the Rings became an important book for me; all the characters in the story perceive their own actions as the result of free will and all have good reasons for their actions—they are motivated—and yet the underlying pattern of Middle-earth works always in favor of goodness. Well, Gollum, more than a monster, more than a symbol, is also an agent of that pattern.

The pattern takes over partly because in the final moments of his life Gollum is no longer acting from his own free will. In the space of four pages dealing with the scene upon Orodruin, Tolkien four times mentions Gollum's “madness.” When Gollum attacks Frodo, Tolkien notes that “a wild light of madness flamed in his eyes.” Gollum turns and follows Sam up the slopes of the mountain with “a wild light glaring in his eyes.” When Sam comes to the edge of the Crack, he sees Gollum “fighting like a mad thing.” And when Gollum snaps off Frodo's finger, he holds aloft the Ring, “dancing like a mad thing.” If Gollum is mad then he is clearly no longer morally responsible for his actions and though he has completely failed in his ability to resist evil, he himself is neither evil nor good any longer; the two poles which have been struggling in him struggle no longer and the “underlying pattern” of Middle-earth is free to function, turning Gollum into an agent of good through the power of the law that evil often defeats itself.

Of course, Tolkien brands Gollum as mad for another reason as well. When Frodo says, “I have come … But I do not choose to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!” (III, 223), this must be perceived not as the victory of the evil in him over the good, but simply as a crucial failure of the will to resist any longer; must, in fact, be understood as the madness that the Ring imparts, sooner or later, to all its bearers. If this were not so, the very strength of the Ring as a symbol would be undermined. In fact, when the Ring is destroyed, Tolkien writes that in Frodo's eyes there was “peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness.” (III, 224) Even though Frodo fails at the end, it is essential that he remain admirable, and in order to function effectively as Frodo's inverse image or alter ego, Gollum must fail for the same reason that Frodo fails, because of a madness. The instrument of the Ring's destruction is, in fact, not simply Gollum, but Gollum and Frodo together, both beset by madness and no longer in possession of their wills.

I have argued up to now that Gollum is the most fully developed character in the Ring story; implied that if he is a monster, he is merely the monster in all men. He is not terribly evil; he is not terribly good. He is weak, limited, vulnerable, at once very frail and in his struggle to win out against his wicked instinct—very heroic. He is a hobbit, which is to say a human being, and in his lust for power and his tentative response to love he embodies the dilemma which besets all men. Both through acting as a foil to the other, more appealing Ringbearers, and through his personal charm—his verbal tics, his spontaneous helpful actions, his appreciation of Frodo's kindness and of the beauty of life itself—Gollum demands the sympathy of every reader. He has two sides to him, one representing life and goodness, the other death and evil, and the battle which those two sides engage in is heartbreakingly close to the battle we all engage in, and the one which is portrayed in any character in a good piece of modern non-fantastic fiction. In this world there are no goblins or orcs, nor any Aragorns or Gandalfs either, but there are certainly a lot of Gollums. And insofar as Gollum precipitates and is surrounded by events which enact the central laws of Middle-earth, he might be called a modern hero, one who—for all that he does wrong—at least does one thing right: he takes the Ring into the Fire.

Certainly it is fitting and inevitable that Gollum and the Ring are destroyed simultaneously. Gollum has, in effect, been given life by the Ring, and when it is destroyed he will die in any case. Sam does not, however, describe Gollum as dead. When he reflects upon the part Gollum has played, he says that he is “gone beyond recall—gone forever.” (III, 225) There can be no final victory for good or evil, for life or death; with each generation the struggle begins anew. But just as evil can be for a time defeated, so the perversion of life can be, for a time, banished.

But how can an accidental fall be called in any way heroic? Well, perhaps it is not entirely accidental. As Gollum stands on the brink of the Crack of Doom, holding aloft a bloody finger and a shining band of gold, he is happy for the first time since he lost the Ring to Bilbo, and at peace for the first time since he murdered to gain it. Re-united with the thing which has consumed his life, Gollum has fulfilled his own personal quest and has nowhere left to go. He knows, he must know, that when Frodo claimed the Ring for his own, the Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and shaking his mind free from all his stratagems and wars, had bent his whole mind and purpose upon the Mountain. Even as Gollum stands there crowing, the Nazgûl are hurtling toward Orodruin, faster than the winds themselves. And Gollum's last wail from the depths, after all, is not a scream of anguish, but the word “precious,” as bright as living fire. Even as he falls, plummeting toward death, he holds the golden thing aloft, crowing with great joy. Who is to say what is really in Gollum's mind? Since we are dealing with a character who, unlike most characters in fantasy, is complexly motivated by often conflicting instincts, I hope it is not stretching a point to suggest that those instincts may exist on the subconscious level as well as the conscious level. Surely it is not usual for a man to want to destroy something which he both loves and hates, particularly if he otherwise must lose it, and not unheard of for him to wish to die in a moment of great ecstasy. Gollum is human enough to choose to destroy the Ring which has destroyed him, even if that choice is made unconsciously.

I think it would be difficult to argue that Gollum is the hero of The Lord of the Rings if we are dealing with an absolutely traditional fantasy—one in which the hero really has to be a Hero, a figure who follows the pattern described in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. But although Tolkien's story is certainly not a work of traditional fiction and it certainly does capture Jungian archetypes in many of its characters (Shelob might be seen as the Devouring Mother, for instance; Galadriel as the Good Mother) neither does it follow the traditional pattern of a fantasy, in which a single individual (a Hero) engages in a process which Campbell describes as Separation/Initiation/Return, goes through terror or self-annihilation for the purpose of re-birth, and emerges victorious. This is a book about—in C. S. Lewis' brilliant phrase—“the dethronement of power,” and individual Heroes, even vulnerable Heroes, cannot be central to a book with such a theme. Had Frodo put the Ring into the fire, the balance of the story would have been destroyed. He would have become a kind of Christ-figure and that would not have served to dethrone the concept of power. The Lord of the Rings is not an ancient myth, it is a twentieth century novel, and the twentieth century has not proved to be a time when individuals can rely on other individuals to save the world. Societies have become entirely too complex for the individualistic ethic to be anything but dangerous; no man can rely on one person to make all wrong things right. The best that we can hope for is that working as a community of men we may avert catastrophe—and thus Tolkien's choice to have a kind of committee (the Fellowship) take the Ring to Mordor and to have a weak and inadvertent saviour carry it into the flames is crucial choice both in terms of the story's theme and in terms of its great appeal.

Of course, Frodo does experience separation, initiation, and return, and he does go through terror and self-destruction for the purpose of re-birth, but he is scarcely the only character in the book who does that—Gandalf is lost in the Mines of Moria and Aragorn tested on the Paths of the Dead—and, most importantly, Frodo does not emerge victorious. He does not make a conscious or even an unconscious choice to destroy the Ring or part with it, and after its dissolution he never has a happy day again. He returns to the Shire only to pass some little time there, taking no real action, until he decides to set sail for the outer lands—decides, in fact, to die. In her essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” Ursula LeGuin argues that this is something entirely new to fantasy and science fiction as a genre—a vulnerable, limited, rather unpredictable hero who finally fails at his own quest. LeGuin argues further that although Frodo is not a fully developed novelistic character, it is when put together with Sam and with Gollum and Sméagol that we find a complex and fascinating character indeed. In passing, she writes, “Gollum is probably the best character in the book because he got two of the components, Sméagol and Gollum.”22

Well, I think LeGuin is on the right track, but that she does not follow it quite far enough. I agree with her that what ultimately carries any great work of fiction is a Mrs. Brown, a real person with whom it is possible to identify and through whom one can perceive the tragic struggle of all men, the struggle to find light on the other side of darkness. And I agree with her that Frodo is a real person, though not quite a real as Gollum. But I think that Gollum is a strong enough character to stand on his own nasty little feet as a Mrs. Brown—that far from being merely Frodo's alter ego or doppleganger, Gollum does not even need Frodo to be an alter ego for him. It seems to me that having two of the components—darkness and light, the Self and the Other, the Slinker and the Stinker, as Sam calls them—is quite sufficient to define a truly developed character. We may dislike Gollum because he so brilliantly manifests the disagreeable weakness of mankind, or pity him because he suffers from it, but we may not ignore the ways in which he is absolutely central to the theme of The Lord of the Rings, and the ways in which his embattled personality—the Self which has almost been consumed by the Shadow—still fights almost to the end to let that “chink of light” penetrate the darkness in which he lives. And though he hates and fears the Sun, and travels by night whenever he can, in the end it is his action, (even if it is an action motivated by unconscious desires), that frees the world from the Great Darkness. Gollum is nobody's Shadow; he carries his own Shadow with him, and that makes him a whole person. He is certainly not a Hero; but I think that he is a kind of hero, a nasty, snivelling, struggling, touching, heartbreaking man who is fighting the long defeat, and who destroys the Ring because he loves and hates it, because he is happy at last. Although this may not seem much of a testament to Tolkien's optimistic view or the future of the world itself, and of the power of life to work somehow toward the good. When the oldest hobbit frees himself from his bondage to evil, he frees the earth as well.


  1. M. Hodgart, “Kicking the Hobbit,” New York Review of Books, VIII, 8 (May 4, 1967) p. 11.

  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), p. 15.

  3. Ibid., p. 16.

  4. Ibid., p. 28.

  5. Deborah Rogers, “Everyclod and Everyhero: The Image of Man in Tolkien” in A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell (Illinois: Open Court, 1975), p. 71.

  6. Roger Sale, “Tolkien and Frodo Baggins” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1968), p. 263.

  7. Randel Helms, Tolkien's World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 90-98.

  8. Tolkien, p. 93.

  9. Agnes Perkins and Helen Hill, “The Corruption of Power” in A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell (Illinois: Open court, 1975), p. 60.

  10. Tolkien, p. 79.

  11. U. Milo Kaufmann, “Aspects of the Paradisical in Tolkien's Work” in A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell (Illinois: Open Court Press, 1975), p. 150.

  12. Sale, p. 286-7.

  13. W. H. Auden, “The Quest Hero” in Tolkien and the Critics, Ed. Isaacs and Zimbardo (Indiana” University of Notre Dame, 1968), p. 57.

  14. Helms, p. 67.

  15. Sale, p. 263.

  16. Hugh T. Keenan, “The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings: A Struggle for Life” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaacs and Zimbardo (Illinois: University of Notre Dame, 1968), p. 64.

  17. Helms, p. 80.

  18. Ibid., p. 80. Helms argues that the basic difference between the moral structure of Tolkien's world and our own is that on our earth the intention directing an action has less than nothing to do with the result of that action, but on Middle-earth moral law has structured reality and “the meaning of all its actions is reducible to the terms of a mathematical truth table.”

  19. For example, it is Saruman's evil greed which causes the transportation of Merry and Pippin to the eves of Fangorn just in time to arouse the Ents to the destruction of Isengard. Similarly, only Grishnakh's desire for the Ring gets them safely beyond the battle. Wormtongue's hatred for Saruman and Gandalf results in the palantir of Orthanc reaching the hands of Aragorn, who uses it to precipitate the Battle of the Pellenor Fields. Thus the war comes before Sauron is at his full strength, and Gondor's victory can be seen as a result of Saruman's greed, Grishnakh's greed, Wormtongue's hatred, and Sauron's own greedy haste.

  20. Patricia Spacks, “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Issacs and Zimbardo (Illinois: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1958), p. 94.

  21. Ibid., p. 95.

  22. Ursula K. LeGuin, “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” in Science Fiction at Large, Ed. Peter Nicholls (London: Victor Gollancz LTD, 1976), p. 21.


Helms, Randel. Tolkien's World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Issacs, Neil D. and Zimbardo, Rose A. editors. Tolkien and the Critics. Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1968.

Lobdell, Jared, ed. A Tolkien Compass. Illinois: Open Court, 1975.

Nicholls, Peter. Science Fiction at Large. London Victor Gollancz LTD., 1976.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Boston: Ballantine Books, 1966.

———. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Charles W. Nelson (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Nelson, Charles W. “The Sins of Middle-earth: Tolkien's Use of Medieval Allegory.” In J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, edited by George Clark and Daniel Timmons, pp. 83-94. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Nelson examines the ways in which the characters in The Lord of the Rings personify various sins and virtues in the traditions of medieval allegory.]

During the Council of Elrond, the elven lord declares that “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so” (The Fellowship of the Ring [FR] 350). This statement reflects Tolkien's version of creation in which Erú intended that everything should be good. Yet even early in The Hobbit, evil obviously exists in Middle-earth—and not only in Dol Guldur—as first the trolls and then the goblins demonstrate their wickedness all too clearly. After the almost fatal adventure on Caradhras in FR, Aragorn remarks that “there are many evil and unfriendly things in the world … that are not in league with Sauron, but with purposes of their own” (378). Among these are Shelob, the Balrog, and the “nameless things” gnawing at the roots of the world that Gandalf observes during his pursuit of the Balrog under Moria (The Two Towers [TT] 128). All these instances remind us of the extent to which evil has permeated Middle-earth.

Another kind of evil in Tolkien's world poses an even greater threat to the good characters: the wickedness within members of the various races of Middle-earth. Sméagol, Boromir, Saruman, and Denethor are all examples. None of them were villainous at first, but their moral failures endangered the Fellowship and its mission. Indeed, almost every character in the story could turn to evil. In a series of related scenes, every major figure is tempted by the power of the Ring and resists or fails. Gandalf explains that the power in the Ring works on the major flaw of all characters and by this means attempts to turn them to evil (FR 91).

Thus in the adventures of his main characters, Tolkien shows the origins of evil through the faults of individuals; moreover his work as a whole may embody a moral philosophy. Tolkien suggests this aim in his letter to Milton Waldman:

Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.

(The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 144)

In one sense, then, The Lord of the Rings [LR] may be a morality tale in which Tolkien's entertaining adventures teach serious moral lessons. He has declared this purpose of his writing:

[T]he encouragement of good morals in this real world by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments that may tend to bring them home.

(Letters 194)

But how does Tolkien go about this? Ever since the publication of LR there has been much discussion of his use of multiple races and peoples in his sub-creation of Middle-earth. Many critics such as Paul Kocher in Master of Middle-earth, Randel Helms in Tolkien's World, Robert Reilly in “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” and Richard Purtill in J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion have examined these characters in detail and theorized about their roles in the trilogy. Purtill even begins to examine the traditional Seven Deadly Sins as exhibited by the peoples of Tolkien's world, but soon leaves off (76). Given his understanding of the Middle Ages, it would seem plausible that Tolkien may have used his various peoples in a similar way to medieval writers—as the personified figures of the principle vices in the Christian code known as the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Pride, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, Lechery, and Anger. With her emphasis on repentance and goodness, the medieval Church naturally provided a parallel list of the Saintly Virtues, which were the remedies for these sins: Generosity, Humility, Meekness, Zeal, Abstinence, Chastity, and Patience. These lists are of ancient origin and appear first in the writings of the desert monks and anchorites early in the Christian era; these traits were referred to as the faults that most disturb the monastic life (Bloomfield 23).

These figures of sin were most popular and best known during the Middle Ages, when they were used more than any other allegorical depiction to graphically portray the effects of these most ancient of vices (Robertson 118). Chaucer's the “Parson's Tale” is just one example of a detailed and graphic treatise on these sins and their attendant vices. Well into the twentieth century, the official catechism of the Catholic Church (in which faith Tolkien was raised and lived) still used these traditional figures showing the results of sin to impress their seriousness on the young (Baltimore 48). What could be more natural than for Tolkien to adapt this venerable device to his own purposes as part of the moral teaching that he acknowledges his work has? He clearly uses this device and points his readers in the right direction through his insistence on the greed displayed by the dwarves and the way in which it shaped their characters. From this starting point, the identification of his races and their characteristic sins clearly show themselves.

Here we will consider the mortal Men and the shapes of the old men assumed by the Maiar who came to Middle-earth in the guise of wizards as one race, and the Orcs, Hobbits, Ents, and Elves as the others. Their characteristic sins as Tolkien describes them are: Dwarves-Greed, Men-Pride, Elves-Envy, Ents-Sloth, Hobbits-Gluttony, Wormtongue-Lechery, and Orcs-Anger. Among the medieval writers who describe and depict the Seven Deadly Sins, William Langland in his Piers the Plowman (ca. 1385), John Gower in his Confessio Amantis (1390), and Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Pardoner's Tale” (ca. 1395) give the fullest portrayal of each sin individually and include the sub-vices attendant to the major transgressions. These works will be our guides in this examination.

Since Tolkien clearly depicts the dwarves as representations of Greed, it is appropriate to begin with this Deadly Sin, especially because in the framework of Tolkien's own world, possessiveness is one of the worst of transgressions; this is starkly evident in Sauron's overwhelming desire to own all of Middle-earth and its peoples, in Saruman's desperate attempt to control all the lands around Orthanc, and in Gollum's insane attachment to the One Ring. Interestingly, Chaucer's Pardoner repeats this sentiment in the tag line to his sermon, “Radix malorum est cupiditas—Greed is the source of all evil” (Tales 336); Chaucer also depicts a scene of friends murdering another friend for possession of the gold, just as Smeagol murders Deagol for the same reason. Gower, as well, reminds us that in the beginning, Adam and Eve lived happily in the garden; there was no strife for worldly goods because all things were held in common and no one wanted what he did not have. Soon, however, avarice appeared with all the other wrongs associated with it as Adam and Eve argued even about which parts of the garden each owned (Gower 179). And Langland makes the figure representing this sin a gross caricature:

And then came Covetousness; no words can describe him, he looked so hungry and hollow, such a crafty old codger! He had beetling brows and thick, puffy lips, and his eyes were as bleary as a blind old hag's. His baggy cheeks sagged down below his chin, flapping about like a leather wallet, and trembling with old age.


This portrayal could be compared to the condition of Thrain when Gandalf finds him “witless and wandering” in the dungeons of Dol Goldur (Hobbit 35). It does not take long for this sin to appear in Hobbit; at Bilbo's unexpected party, he perceives through the dwarves' songs their “love of beautiful things made by hand and by cunning … the desire of the hearts of the dwarves” (25). Much later, Thorin will not admit his real mission to the elf king for fear of having to share the treasure of Smaug with someone else. When the company finally gets into the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves' fascination with and delight in the gold and jewels goes on far longer than Bilbo's, whose thoughts naturally turn to the more practical considerations of food and drink.

In LR, we learn that the greed of the dwarves specifically for mithril (whose worth was ten times that of gold and later beyond price since it was so scarce) brought about their own destruction and downfall: “[T]hey delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane [the Balrog]” (FR 413). As mentioned above, Gower also describes the attendant vices that come along with the Seven Deadly Sins. First, with Greed comes Covetousness, which Thorin displays when he talks and dreams of the Arkenstone and his plans for possessing it again. It even leads him to agree to some of Gandalf's demands in order to regain it (Hobbit 262). Ingratitude is the second of the malignancies associated with Greed and, again, Thorin's behavior toward Bilbo clearly shows this in the same incident of the Arkenstone. Forgetting all his promises of service, gratitude, and reward as well as the deeds performed by the hobbit, Thorin sends him away with threats of physical violence. The third and final vice resulting from Greed is robbery, of which all the dwarves, but especially Thorin, are guilty as they are determined to hold off the armies of men and elves rather than part with any of Smaug's treasure—even though Tolkien clearly states that much of it was the rightful property of the elf king and the men of Dale (250). Earlier, Smaug mentions this in his questioning of Bilbo while planting doubts about the arrangement he made with the dwarves. While waiting for Dain to arrive, Thorin schemes to keep even the fourteenth part of the trove, which he promised in exchange for the Arkenstone. Interestingly, though, Thorin eventually realizes the evil of his besetting sin and the harm it has caused. In what is perhaps the most moving moment of the entire story, the dying King under the Mountain asks forgiveness of Bilbo Baggins and clearly admits, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (273).

Although the order and number of the Deadly Sins has changed a number of times, according to one of the traditional arrangements, Pride is the most ancient of evils and the worst of these offenses. It was, after all, the sin of Lucifer, Son of Morning and the brightest of the angels, who would not be subservient to lesser creatures, and also of Adam and Eve, who would be like gods, knowing both good and evil. Appropriately, then, Tolkien devotes the most time to this wrong and its representatives, mortal men and wizards who appear in the bodies of old men.

Saruman is overcome by pride when he entraps Gandalf at Orthanc, demanding cooperation in his plans to dominate Middle-earth. Saruman's long disquisition on the exercise of power refers to the old order and formal alliance that must be swept away along with sneering asides about the fading races, which Saruman views with contempt (FR 339-40). His argument, in spite of Tolkien's denials (FR 11-12), definitely echoes Hitler's justifications for World War II. Saruman's claim that he is best fitted to wield the power of the Ring and pathetic attempt to set himself up as a secondary Dark Lord, complete with ring, tower, and orcs, particularly disgusts Gandalf. “We must have power,” Saruman insists, “power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” But Gandalf is certain that there will be no “we” when he hears Saruman's bold declaration: “I am Saruman, the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colors!” (339).

This same vanity and vainglory are seen in the behavior of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, when he speaks to Gandalf, who has just arrived in the Citadel. After a long rehearsal of his own accomplishments, Denethor dismisses the advice of the wizard and concludes:

Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need; but you deal out such gifts according to your own designs. Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men's purposes, however worthy.

(The Return of the King [RK]29)

Even his use of the title betrays him, for as Gandalf reminds him on more than one occasion, he is the Steward of Gondor and therefore answerable to a superior. This lesson, however, is lost on the broken old man, which is made clear in the episode in the Fen Hollen when Denethor again reacts angrily to Gandalf's attempts to remind him of his station:

But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of Gondor of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even when his claim is proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.

(RK 153)

Yet, as Steward, it was his prime responsibility to return the throne to its rightful heir. Through his portrayal of Denethor's actions, Tolkien reflects the impulse of medieval writers to descry sin and wrongdoing.

As in his description of Greed, Gower also lists some of the attendants that usually accompany Pride. The worst of these is disobedience of which several examples are evident in Tolkien's story. Boromir, son of Denethor, brazenly disobeys the instructions given to the members of the fellowship never to attempt to handle the Ring and to protect and aid the ring-bearer; at Amon Hen, he attacks Frodo in hopes of gaining the ring for himself:

How it angers me! Fool! Obstinate fool! Running willfully to death and ruining our cause. If any mortals have claim to the Ring, it is the men of Númenor, and not Halflings. It is yours by unhappy chance. It might have been mine. It should be mine. Give it to me!

(FR 518-19)

Saruman is likewise guilty of this wrong since the Valar sent him to aid the peoples of Middle-earth in their struggles against the Dark Lord. In his disobedience, he sought an alliance with Sauron intending to become a second Ringlord. Denethor also disobeys his oath as Steward, assuming to himself powers that he would never have even if he reigned as king, as Gandalf sternly reminds him in the Hallows of Gondor:

Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death. … And only heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair.

(RK 152)

Gower next lists Complaint as an attendant of Pride. Boromir's behavior displays this wrong: he constantly complains of the suffering he and his city have gone through already in defense of the Southern Kingdom. More tellingly, as Faramir reports, Boromir had whined to his father that those who have served as Stewards as long as their family should become Kings. Denethor is not entirely corrupted by his own pride and corrects his son's misapprehension (TT 346).

Presumption also attends on Pride in the Confessio Amantis and in the incidents involving Denethor and Saruman cited above. The most obvious example, however, occurs in the behavior of Grima Wormtongue in the Court of Theoden (TT 143-44). Supposedly the counselor of the King of the Golden Hall, he presumes to speak for the Lord of the Mark, even giving orders to Éomer and then imposing restrictions on the actions of the visitors to the court. Not satisfied with enfeebling Theoden to the point of inactivity, Grima behaves as if he were already on the throne. Gandalf, impatient at bandying words with the sycophant, unleashes his power and leaves Wormtongue groveling on the floor in a serpent-like position while the wizard stands over him, denouncing the traitor's actions.

Boastfulness is the last of the flaws connected to Pride, and again Tolkien gives us several examples of it in the behavior of Boromir, Saruman, and Denethor, all of whom we have already seen commit the greater sin of arrogance. Each of these characters takes credit for and brags of accomplishments that they actually have only helped to achieve. Boromir, for instance, boasts of many victories that were really won as much through the bravery of the men of Minas Tirith and the courage of his brother Faramir as by his efforts. As with the dwarves and Greed, Tolkien has a mortal man demonstrate Pride's opposing virtue: Humility. Aragorn, though the uncrowned King of Gondor and heir to the lines of Isildur and Anárion, offers to accompany the hobbits in his guise of a ranger to serve and protect them. “‘I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will’” (FR 232). Even after he has triumphed on the Pelennor Fields and the crown is his, Aragorn will not accept the throne until all things are reordered in Minas Tirith and shuns any pomp and ceremony when entering the city (RK 162-64).

The third of the Deadly Sins is Envy, and its representative race are the Elves. At first glance, this might seem to be a contradiction, for the Elves are the Children of the Stars, and presented as the favored race created by Erú and nurtured by the Valar. But sin can wear a face of beauty, as demonstrated by the sin of Lucifer, Son of Morning, who was the most beautiful of all the angels until he fell into hell and became Satan. The history of the Elves includes several transgressions: the theft of the light of the Two Trees by Fëanor, and the departure of the Noldor from Valinor against the command of the Valar. In the Second Age, there is the deception of Sauron, which tempted the elves to reveal the secrets of ring-making, which led to the troubles of the Third Age. Envy, however, appears in Hobbit when Thranduil, Legolas's father, is envious of the elf lords of old whose treasuries bettered his own (163). He was likewise jealous of the dwarves who held all the riches of Smaug—including some that were rightfully his. In this same vein, we see one of the lesser vices of Envy described by Gower—Detraction or denigration of others. Several times during the action of LR, various elves (including the Lord Celeborn, consort of Galadriel) speak disparagingly of the dwarves or make references to imagined wrongs in the past (FR 445, 462).

It is their immortality, however, that makes the Elves especially liable to Envy. Although they can be wounded or killed as in the great battles of the past of Middle-earth, Elves can live forever, slowly aging, but never growing old, suffering neither sickness nor other weaknesses of the flesh. In a world of constant mutability where everything else ages and dies, such a gift can lead to boredom or stagnation or the desire to dominate the lesser races. As Tolkien explains in a letter to Michael Straight, immortality led to the elvish melancholy that appears many times in the trilogy; as they form alliances with and get to know members of the other races, the mortals die and new generations come along (Letters 236). This becomes a great burden as ages pass and the world changes around them, but they remain constant. This leads to two of the weaknesses displayed by the Elves—constantly looking to the past and an unwillingness to change. Thus, Sam and the Company felt like they were walking in a past age in Lothlórien, and Galadriel fears the probable results of the successful achievement of the Quest of Mount Doom (FR 474).

Envy is also very evident in the Elves' resentment of the Gift of Men from Ilúvatar—which is death. Even in The Silmarillion, the Valar perceived that the Elves' immortality was no gift in a Middle-earth that was itself mortal. With his younger children, mortal men, Erú was more careful and gave them the chance to leave the circles of the world forever. Even in their afterlife, the Elves will not be reunited with the other races as seen in the Choice of Luthien, who gives up her immortality in the Undying Lands to spend an eternity with Beren in the Halls of Mandos (FR 259-60). This is likewise why the final parting of Arwen and Elrond is so bitter—because it is forever. Ironically, the men of Middle-earth do not often see Death as a “gift” and envy the Elves because they are immortal. This even led to the downfall of Númenor when Ar-Pharazôn sought to wrest immortality from the Valar (The Silmarillion 334-37).

The Elves' envy also manifests itself in a vice Gower associates with that sin: withdrawal. Since they cannot relate successfully with mortals, the Elves have begun to withdraw—not only into their secret enclaves, but also out of Middle-earth and into the Undying Lands. “‘They are sailing, sailing, sailing over the Sea, they are going into the West and leaving us’” remarks Sam, even before the adventure begins (FR 70). With few exceptions, the Elves have withdrawn so far that they have lost interest in Middle-earth, viewing themselves almost as exiles. When Gildor Inglorion and his company encounter Frodo, Pippin, and Sam on their second night out, he is reluctant to part with much knowledge or advice and tells the hobbits bluntly

The Elves have their own labors and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures on earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or by purpose.

(FR 121)

This sentiment is echoed in an almost cruelly pointed statement made by Lindir in the House of Elrond: “It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals. … To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different, or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business” (FR 309-10). Still, as in the case of the first two Deadly Sins, Tolkien again shows us one of the representative race overcoming this vice when Glorfindel expresses the eleven willingness to assist the quest of the ring, despite the chance that in the One Ring's destruction, the power of the elven rings will fail and with it, the future of the race in Middle-earth: “‘Yet all the Elves are willing to endure this chance, … if by it the power of Sauron may be broken and the fear of his dominion be taken away forever’” (FR 352).

The next of the Deadly Sins to enter in Langland's work is Sloth who appears

all beslobbered with his gummy eyes. “I shall have to sit down,” he said, “or I'll fall asleep. I cannot stand or prop myself up all the time, and you can't expect me to kneel without a hassock. If I had been put to bed now, you'd never get me up before dinner was ready, not for all your bell-ringing—not unless nature called.”


Tolkien's venerable Ents demonstrate this sin. Treebeard tells Pippin and Merry that many of his race have grown sleepy, almost “treeish” and have taken to standing by themselves, “half-asleep all through the summer” (TT 92). This inactivity, this lack of resolve has left the Ents forgotten by many of the other peoples of Middle-earth. And the Ents' sloth has also given Sauron and his minions their opportunity. Langland's description of this sin gives its attendant evils more emphasis than any other. He first lists delay as one of the characteristic malignancies of Sloth; Treebeard makes clear that his is one of his own faults: “But Saruman now! Saruman is a neighbour: I cannot overlook him. I must do something, I suppose. I have often wondered what I should do about Saruman” (TT 89-90). Upon hearing Pippin and Merry's story, delay comes to an end. Treebeard announces that he has summoned an Entmoot, something “which does not often happen nowadays” (TT 97-98), but which he now feels is overdue.

The second evil of Sloth is forgetfulness, a natural result of inertia. When he first meets the hobbits, Treebeard has trouble remembering the old lists of the creatures of Middle-earth. He has likewise almost forgotten what the Entwives look like and has problems remembering their names. The next wrong associated with Sloth is negligence, of which Treebeard accuses himself and his fellow Ents, who have failed in their duties as shepherds of the trees. In the face of the attacks and maraudings of Saruman and his orcs, they have been negligent too long, such as Skinbark, who was “wounded by the Orcs, and many of his folk and his tree-herds have been murdered and destroyed” (TT 92). In reaction, he went up in the high places amid the birches and would not come down. Treebeard then explicitly indicts himself for idleness, a fault Langland also associates with Sloth:

Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost for ever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip.

(TT 91)

Again, though, the race chosen to illustrate Sloth also demonstrates its opposite virtue. Treebeard grows so angry at the treachery of Saruman that he rouses up all his fellow Ents and they set out to redress the wrongs done against them and their trees: “To Isengard! … We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door; For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars—we go to war!” (TT 106). Note how Tolkien encourages moral behavior here and elsewhere by showing, rather than exhorting, virtue in action; this technique appears less didactic than what the medieval sources have done.

Next in Langland's parade of evil is Gluttony, who

could neither walk nor stand without his stick. And once he got going, he moved like a blind minstrel's bitch, or like a fowler laying his lines, sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards. And when he drew near to the door, his eyes grew glazed, and he stumbled on the threshold and fell flat on the ground.


In Tolkien's world, the hobbits sometimes display this vice, for we learn early in Hobbit that Bilbo (and all hobbits) expect frequent, full meals. Indeed, Mr. Baggins is so flummoxed after Gandalf's initial visit that he has to calm his nerves with some more cake. We hear about his well-stocked larder during the unexpected party and listen to Bilbo's complaints throughout the story that he has missed so many meals that he has lost count and wishes to be back in his cozy hobbit hole—eating. The first incident in FR is the parallel long awaited party at which it “snowed food and rained drink” and from which many of the guests had to literally be carried home because they were so satiated (60). Later on in the adventure we are told that hobbit children learn to cook as soon as they learn to read (if not before) because food and eating are such important parts of their existence. When Frodo and Sam are alone in the wilds with only Gollum as their guide, Sam notes his master's gauntness and decides that he must cook something nourishing (TT 325). This love of food and drink explains the characteristic plumpness of most adult hobbits, justifies the reference to Bilbo's bulging waistcoat, and anticipates the description of a dumpling-shaped Mr. Baggins running down the road after the departing dwarves.

In his panegyric on the Deadly Sins, Chaucer's Pardoner has a lot to say against the activities and attitudes of some individuals who seem “to make their god their belly.” As well, the Pardoner points out the connection of Gluttony to other evils:

O gluttony, with reason we complain!
O if one knew how many a malady
Must follow such excess and gluttony,
To eat with moderation he'd be able
Whenever he is sitting at his table.

(Tales 341)

Tolkien is also aware of this, for the hobbits' girth seems to be connected with their indolence; when we see them at home, they appear to spend most of their time eating, drinking, and attending parties. Plumpness prompts their aversion to adventures. The well-fed and cautious Mr. Baggins dismisses Gandalf with a curt, “we have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing things! Make you late for dinner!” (Hobbit 16). Both Bilbo and Frodo, as their adventures go on, shed their excess weight due to short rations and activity. In Elrond's house, Frodo speaks as he sees his reflection in a mirror: “‘Yes, you have seen a thing or two since you last peeped out of a looking-glass’” (FR 295). Attendant on this loss of weight seems to be a growing willingness to go on adventures and even behave heroically if the situation demands without so much as a backward glance at their well-stocked holes. In the woods, on the second night of their journey to Crickhollow, the hobbits meet Gildor, who tells them the “‘wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out’” (FR 120). As they shed their excess weight, the hobbits develop constancy, bravery, and a sense of moral responsibility that enables them to go out on adventures and indeed do great things. Perhaps this is what Tolkien himself had in mind when his narrator comments on halflings: “There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final desperate danger to make it grow” (FR 192).

It is not seldom that one sees
The rage of lechery today,
Take what it will, and where it may.
For love, which is devoid and bare
Of reason, as all men declare,
When heedlessness and folly fire
Its wild voluptuous desire,
Spares not a thought for kin or kind.

(Gower 260)

Thus John Gower introduces the figure of Lechery into his work. Tolkien gives this sin sketchy treatment. Its representative is again a mortal man, albeit a twisted caricature of one. Grima Wormtongue, already examined as a figure of presumption, assumes the power and authority of his Lord, Theoden. Worse still, he has betrayed the master and the people he was supposed to serve. He did, indeed, fill the role of counselor to the Lord of the Riddermark of Rohan, but the advice he gave was dictated by Saruman to assure the inactivity and, eventually, the fall of the Rohirrim. Gandalf theorizes correctly that Wormtongue's promised reward included a vast share of the treasury of Meduseld, and more importantly the hand of Éowyn on whose person Grima had long cast lecherous eyes and lascivious looks. The wizard further charges, moreover, that Wormtongue had “haunted her steps” (TT 153), which sounds like stalking. A major difference in Tolkien's treatment of this vice is that there is no repentance on the part of an offender. Grima is twice given the opportunity to renounce his wrongs and join the forces of the free peoples. But each time he chooses to continue in the evil life, and he eventually is shot down by the hobbit archers for his murder of Saruman on the very doorstep of Bag End (RK 318, 365).

Anger, the seventh of the Deadly Sins, first appears in Gower's Confessio Amantis so described:

If thou wouldst know all sins,
Most alien to the law is one
Well known on earth to human-kind
Since ever men had swords to grind:
And, in the power of this Vice,
Good friends have often, in a trice,
Been maddened by the merest chance.
And yet the Vice does not enhance
Men's pleasure: where it most achieves,
There also most mankind it grieves.


Tolkien chose to depict Anger in the figures of the Goblins and Orcs, who seem to be in a constant rage at the other races of Middle-earth or with each other. Treebeard explains that the orcs were made by Morgoth in the Great Darkness as counterfeits of the elves. As the Children of the Stars were noble, logically the orcs were villainous. When they first appear in Hobbit, the Great Goblin gives a howl of rage and gets so angry that he jumps off his throne and rushes at Thorin (71). In the camp of the orcs who capture Merry and Pippin, Grishnákh and Uglúk perfectly manifest the noisy and brawling irritability that characterizes this race at all times: “‘Curse you! You're as bad as the other rabble; the maggots and the apes of Lugbúrz’” (TT 66). In Cirith Ungol, Shagrat and Gorbag aim their wrath and rancor against one another as often as against Frodo and Sam:

“Got you Gorbag!” cried Shagrat. “Not quite dead, eh? Well, I'll finish my job now.” He sprang onto the fallen body and stamped and tramped it in his fury, stopping now and again to stab and slash it with his knife.

(RK 218)

Finally, on the crest of the Morgai, Sam and an exhausted Frodo listen to the angry words of a soldier orc and a small tracker until the fury of the smaller goads him into shooting his comrade with an arrow (RK 242-43). Since they exist in a world so full of mistrust and violence, it is easy to understand why Orcs are so easily made angry.

Attendant on anger are two ancillary vices—hatred and war. The hate orcs feel for the other races of Middle-earth is clearly described in both Hobbit and LR. In Hobbit, Tolkien informs us that “Goblins are cruel, wicked and badhearted. … They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything” (69). In RK, after we have encountered many more of this vile folk, Frodo further explains:

Orcs have always behaved like that, or so all tales say, when they are on their own. But you can't get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two would have seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead.


As for their practices of violence and war, goblins “don't care who they catch as long as it is done smart and secret and the prisoners are not able to defend themselves” (Hobbit 69). In a manner similar to Wormtongue and his wrongs, the orcs are given the chance to repent of their evil and escape punishment. This occurs at the Battle of Helm's Deep when Aragorn warns them to withdraw or “‘[n]ot one will be left alive to take back tidings’” (TT 178). Like Wormtongue, the orcs refuse this offer—and the result is the same: death at the hands of those against whom they felt such anger.

In the tradition of Gower, Langland, and Chaucer, then, Tolkien did indeed “reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth” in an effort to foster virtuous behavior as some medieval writers did through the ancient device of the figures embodying the Seven Deadly Sins. By depicting the vices and virtues of his characters, Tolkien encourages his readers to adopt a new awareness of right and wrong so that by the end of the books, their understanding is very different from when they started. At the conclusion of Hobbit, Gandalf remarks to Bilbo, “You are not the hobbit that you were,” (281) and in the final pages of LR, Saruman says to Frodo, ‘“You have grown Halfling, … you have grown very much. You are wise.” (RK 364). If Tolkien has been successful in his use of these medieval figures of sin, these observations are true of the readers as well.

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———. A Reader's Guide to THE SILMARILLION. London: Thames, 1980.

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Purtill, Richard L. J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion. New York: Harper, 1984.

Reilly, Robert J. “Tolkien and the Fairy Story.” Thought 38 (1963): 89-106.

Robertson, D. W. A Preface to Chaucer. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962.

Tyler, J. E. A. The New Tolkien Companion. New York: St. Martin's, 1979.

Jane Chance (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Chance, Jane. “Knowledge, Language, and Power: The Two Towers.” In The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, rev. ed., pp. 59-94. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Chance examines the effects of the characters' relative level of articulateness in The Two Towers.]


The Two Towers, [Towers] as much as any of the three parts of The Lord of the Rings, [LotR] dramatizes the power of language to change, control, dominate—and release. The diminution of intelligent life subverted by its own desires is reflected in the simple baby talk of Gollum to his Ring, his “Precious.” And the elevation of intelligent life to supernatural being—the Elves—is similarly reflected in their language and song, their ability as Namers, their hold on the past: “Elves made all the old words” (2:85). Between these two extremes appear other species and types, such as the greedy Orcs (like Grishnákh, who is manipulated by the captured Merry's own words, once the Hobbit understands the Orc's desire) and the long-remembering and all-male Ents (like Treebeard, whose memory and thinking powers are considerable). The Ents have also (like the Elves) composed songs, perhaps more as mnemonic devices than as tributes to history, and have designated certain words to mean ideas (“hill,” for example, is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here for a long time [2:87]).

The astute reader might well ask, Are the Orcs in book 3 merely a deeper echo of Gollum in book 1, broadened into a species inarticulate in its subjugation, divided into warring factions by the opposition between Saruman and Sauron? And are Fangorn and the Ents merely an echo of Old Man Willow in the Old Forest? Is Tolkien intentionally rewriting book 1?

While it is true that Tolkien has moved away from the Hobbits of the Shire and Buckland and into a country ravaged by the conflicts of more powerful warlords, he is not at an imaginative loss here. The trees of the Old Forest are rooted—and envious of those creatures that can move. The Ents can move and in fact have cut off Saruman's escape from Isengard. They are the leaders of trees, tree-herds, like shepherds, taught by the Elves (2:89). Their resistance to and rebellion against Saruman is enhanced by the wizard's own destruction of the trees—Old Man Willow-like, Saruman hates living things and has piecemeal cut down trees of the forest, for he “has a mind of metal and wheels” (2:96). In fact, Ents are not exactly trees, or were not. Treebeard tells Merry, “Sheep get like shepherds, and shepherds like sheep, it is said; but slowly, and neither have long in the world. It is quicker and closer with trees and Ents, and they walk down the ages together. For Ents are more like Elves: less interested in themselves than Men are, and better at getting inside other things. And yet again Ents are more like Men, more changeable than Elves are, and quicker at taking the colour of the outside, you might say. Or better than both: for they are steadier and keep their minds on things longer” (2:89). The Ents are one of the four Free Peoples—Elf, Dwarf, Ent, and Man (2:84).

The tragedy of the Ents is the loss of the Entwives. The Entwives desired order, plenty, and peace—gardens. In contrast the Ents desired wandering, great trees, high woods, and mountain streams. When the Darkness came, gradually the difference between male and female widened until the Entwives became only a memory—lost entirely to the Ents. Division and difference in book 1 threatened the harmony of the Shire community, but the threat was diluted by the political skills of Bilbo (and later Frodo), who incarnated those differences in his (their) own temperament. The mating of different Shire families, different types, resulted in progeny whose understanding transcends the limitations of either parent. But for the Ents and Entwives, regeneration of kind remains an impossibility, and darkness and division mark their history. What the Ents do have is strength—the Trolls (made by the Enemy) counterfeit them, as the Enemy also created Orcs to counterfeit Elves—although, as Treebeard declaims to Merry, “We are stronger than Trolls. We're made of the bones of the earth” (2:113).

The Ents' songs—songs that promised the union of Entwives and Ents—reflect their withering nature and history, except that, as Treebeard notes, “songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely” (2:114). Intelligent tree-herds, these Ents incarnate the idea of growth that stultifies because its intelligence cannot tolerate female difference. (It is interesting that Tolkien sees cultural and biological differences between male and female Ents; in this one specific way he anticipates the French feminist theorists Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous.)

In a sense the Ents also project the masculine division between Saruman and Sauron—and the lack of female principle, which Tolkien identifies with the cultivated garden, order, and plenty, as opposed to the wildness of the distant wood, adventure, and distance. It is this female power of healing, growth, and regeneration that Tolkien associates with the creativity of the Elves (also to be lost by Middle-earth, like the disappearing Entwives) and even, to an extent, in the pastoral Shire. For this reason the emergence at the end, in book 6, of the aptly named wife of Sam—Rose—epitomizes the return of female difference to balance harmoniously with the masculine in the epic's final symbolic “marriage.”

Power, so Tolkien insists, must be shared with those individuals and peoples who are different, in gender, nature, history, and temperament. Those who would lead must tolerate difference in expression, latitude, and space rather than choke, ignore, abandon, repress, or kill it. LotR is the story of difference articulated, nearly crushed, and only then restored. For Tolkien, power involves all that is, has been, and will be allowed to continue. Towers, at the heart of this story, intensifies and explains the nature of difference when domination of one by another is compelled. Let us turn first to book 3.


The two strands of the narrative in book 3 (like the two towers of Orthanc and Cirith Ungol in books 5 and 6) symbolize difference and division in the Fellowship and on Middle-earth. Hence the story itself is divided, twin, separated. In the second part—the “upper,” or alto or “commanding,” part of the narrative (or polyphonic drama)—the “superior” representatives in the Fellowship must look for clues about the missing Hobbits Merry and Pippin and also Sam and Frodo (2:5). Like the Entwives, the Hobbits are “lost,” but in another sense the “lost” Hobbits are not so much inferior, unheroic, insignificant (or different) as they are, in reality, more important: the little Hobbits are the story. Tolkien valorizes the marginal and impotent by turning upside down the normal power relationships. Legolas the Elf, Gimli the Dwarf, and Aragorn the Man must search for and follow them; it is a humbling and necessary experience. To do so, these three must decipher riddles—the signs left by the Hobbits to mark their journey. And to detect these signs the three must understand the nature of the Hobbits they are following—they must forget themselves and identify with, or understand, the Hobbit.

One riddle concerns their horses missing in the night (2:116), startled away with gladness. Another concerns the means by which Merry and Pippin escaped from the Orcs (2:117). Legolas understands that the bound Hobbit has escaped from the Orcs by cutting his bonds with an Orc-knife (both bonds and knife remain behind): “But how and why? For if his legs were tied, how did he walk? And if his arms were tied, how did he use the knife? And if neither were tied, why did he cut the cords at all? Being pleased with his skill, he then sat down and quietly ate some waybread! That at least is enough to show that he was a Hobbit, without the mallorn-leaf” (2:117-18). Legolas, though, is not sensitive enough to the ways of Hobbits to unravel the entire story. Aragorn also spots Orc-blood and hoof-prints, thus understanding an Orc was killed and hauled away, with the Hobbit not seen: “But it is a comfort to know that he had some lembas in his pocket, even though he ran away without gear or pack; that, perhaps, is like a hobbit” (2:118). Even Aragorn does not understand why the Orcs did not seek out the other members of the Company but instead turned away, unless they were commanded to seize live Hobbits; he does understand the divisive nature of the Orc enough to imagine Orc treachery for Orc ends (2:119). It is Elf and Man who are more sensitive to the Hobbit nature; Legolas is also sensitive to the dark wood of Fangorn into which the split Company must now descend (“Do you not feel the tenseness?” he remarks [2:120]). And yet even the Dwarf Gimli has learned to accept this Wood-Elf (“though Elves of any kind are strange folk”) and the comfort that Legolas offers him (“Where you go, I will go”) (2:120). It is a strange marriage of opposites, this “fellowship” of Dwarf and Wood-Elf, and yet it epitomizes a type of United Nations of Middle-earth that must eventually allow all different nations to coexist in peace in the coming Fourth Age, of Man.

The reader must also “track” their progress. The characters now command the attention of their reader, again subverting the hierarchical power relationship a less skillful author might imagine inheres in the artistic process, for art does consist of signs, riddles, and clues, which the perceptive tracker pieces together (and which that “tracker” could shut down merely by closing the book). Help is provided by Gandalf the Grey, who (deus ex machina-like) reemerges here as Mithrandir—the White (2:125).

Note that Gandalf speaks in “riddles”: “No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying” (2:127). Gandalf's clarification to Aragorn spells out Tolkien's concept of knowledge of difference as power, to be used successfully by the Fellowship until the ultimate moment in this story. Gandalf the White acknowledges that Sauron understands that the Ring is carried by a Hobbit and attended by a Fellowship, but because Sauron is limited by his own desire, his own self (read, selfishness), he cannot understand the nature and motivations of his adversary, which are so different from his own. Gandalf explains: “He supposes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. … That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream” (2:127).

Because of Sauron's inability to think like a non-power-seeking Hobbit, he does not guard carefully enough the borders of his own Mordor. He lacks the imagination that propels the small Hobbit to take the offensive—“attacking” Mordor by destroying the one object that could guarantee the diminutive being's power. Furthermore, the divisiveness of the Dark Community has erupted into the treachery of Saruman against his own Master, a rebellion fueled by Saruman's Sauron-like greed for the domination and power afforded by possession of the Ring. And thus Saruman similarly does not understand Hobbit difference enough to use that knowledge as power. In his desire for the Ring, Saruman has plotted to capture Merry and Pippin, which has only brought them more efficiently and quickly to Fangorn—in accord with the Company's quest. Gandalf comments on Saruman's inability to perceive difference, both of Hobbit and of tree: “He does not yet know his peril. There is much that he does not know. I look into his mind and I see his doubt. He has no woodcraft. He believes that the horsemen slew and burned all upon the field of battle; but he does not know whether the Orcs were bringing any prisoners or not. And he does not know of the quarrel between his servants and the Orcs of Mordor; nor does he know of the Winged Messenger” (2:129). Unfortunately, Saruman must have the Ring in order to battle Mordor, and he will not have it; he also fights Rohan, and he does not suspect that the Ents will unite to destroy him and his axes as Saruman has attempted to destroy them one by one.

That the Company was not sure whether the obscure figure they saw was Gandalf or Saruman pinpoints the ambiguity of signs and the difficulty in “reading” (meaning “understanding”) correctly. Gandalf does know the answer to this and many other questions, which makes him dangerous. He also knows that the path to victory passes through death and despair—a path the Company must choose on its own, emulating the metamorphosis of Gandalf as the White. In fighting the Balrog (“In that despair my enemy was my only hope” [2:134]), Gandalf brought him to the Endless Stair where he threw down his enemy, who broke the mountainside. Thereafter Gandalf entered darkness, wandering, and was sent back naked and forgotten, until the Windlord took him again to Lothlórien to be healed (2:134-35). Accordingly, the Company members learn from those Elves the way of their victory:

Near is the hour when the Lost should come forth,
And the Grey Company ride from the North.
But dark is the path appointed for thee:
The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea.


What Gandalf means is that his enemy's knowledge (in lieu of his own) provides his only hope of survival, in that the Balrog will attempt to save himself, and therein lies Gandalf's survival. Because Gandalf's situation is so hopeless, he must trust in his adversary's knowledge, which gives him power. Thus he advises the Company, and in particular Aragorn, that their hope lies paradoxically in a path through despair; that their lives can be preserved only through death; and that their future exists only insofar as they acknowledge the mistakes of the past—that is, in the restorative aid of the Dead Company, a foil for them.

From here on in book 3 of Towers the message that knowledge—language—confers power and that the road to hope passes through despair is parlayed by means of various dramatic reenactments of the previous scene. Théoden emerges as a wise leader from the despair successfully wrought by Wormtongue's self-serving and critical words; in contrast, Saruman as a fallen leader refuses all hope in the prison of Orthanc that he has created for himself out of incomplete knowledge. That Wormtongue the bad servant will, by the novel's end, become the ignominious servant “Worm” of the snarling “Sharkey” (or Saruman)—also a bad servant, of Sauron—seems entirely logical and appropriate. That Rohan and Isengard as places that Wormtongue and Saruman control are exchanged for the more humble Shire by the trilogy's end mirrors the epic devolution of the two. Just so, their cleverness diminishes into wordless animality (“Worm,” “Sharkey”) to signal their moral and natural deterioration. In addition, both will help finance the disgusting Lotho Sackville-Baggins in his apparent rise to power back at the Shire, to return us at the end of LotR to its beginning, in “The Long-Expected Party.” In Tolkien, Worm is a worm and Sharkey is a shark—the word for the thing, the name, always reflects its true nature. The two major confrontations of Wormtongue and Saruman with the members of the Fellowship show us how.

In Rohan (chapter 6) the reader (like the Company) confronts the recently erected chauvinistic barrier of language: “It is the will of Théoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends” (2:143), the guard replies when Gandalf asks why they do not speak in the Common Tongue. (It was not always so in Rohan, we learn later [2:160].) The assumption is that Rohan's own folk will speak their own tongue and thus will pose no threat to their tribe. And yet it is Wormtongue who has imposed this literalistic and superficial barrier to ingress—Wormtongue, the traitor working close to the throne for Saruman (himself a traitor in the “House” of Sauron). In a similar literalism the hall guardians demand that the weapons of the Company be left outside the hall (2:144), an ironic gesture, given the debilitating ruin of king and country wrought not by sword but by tongue, and words, of the king's counselor who encourages him to eat and rest rather than to fight and rule (2:157). Aragorn counters the edict of Rohan with a similar spell as he unbuckles the Blade that was Broken: “Here I set it … but I command you not to touch it, nor to permit any other to lay hand on it. … Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil's sword save Elendil's heir” (2:147). Words here muster greater power than swords, and past words—history—muster greater power than do present words. And so the guard responds admiringly to Aragorn, “It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days” (2:147; my italics).

The conflict is one of wills, and of the wills of two kings, rather than of swords per se. Théoden is (supposedly) king in his own hall, but Aragorn, king of all Men. Who is to say Aragorn is the rightful king to whom even Théoden owes allegiance? And who is to say the staff on which Gandalf leans is an old man's stick or a wizard's wand? Háma the hall guardian ultimately allows Gandalf to pass with staff in hand because “in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose” (2:147). Perhaps Háma has long realized that the “king” in his own hall is ruled by his counselor Wormtongue.

To expose vulnerability (whether of nation or of person) to another means letting down barriers both literal and figurative; Wormtongue has operated and operates now by working on Théoden's fear. Wormtongue reiterates the “bitter tidings” preceding the arrival of “Gandalf Stormcrow”—the death in battle of Théodred, Théoden's son, and the stirrings of the Dark Lord in the East (2:149). Wormtongue even inverts Adam's creative role as Namer (or the Middle-earth equivalent, the Elven role of naming) in churlishly calling Gandalf Láthspell, “Ill-news” (2:149). Furthermore, Wormtongue denigrates the wizard's present mission through a reminder of the past mission to Rohan, along the way discrediting Gandalf's followers as “[t]hree ragged wanderers in grey, and you yourself the most beggar-like of the four!” (2:150). The bringer of ill tidings must himself be evil, and so Wormtongue's skewed and rude logic instructs Théoden, just as the wearer of ragged clothing must himself be a beggar in need of aid.

Gandalf's lesson to Wormtongue (and Théoden and Rohan) reveals clearly that appearances may mask a higher reality—a lesson in symbolism and courtesy. The appearances of the three followers belie their regal identity, that is, as Elendil's heir, Elf, and Dwarf. Moreover, Gandalf reveals that these three are clad in humble raiment because the Elves bestowed that gray clothing on them. But this bestowal is falsely termed by Wormtongue an alliance with the deceptive, web-weaving “Sorceress of the Golden Wood” (2:150), Galadriel herself.

Gandalf then, snakelike, sheds his false outer appearance of the weak old man, dependent on staff, to sing of Galadriel without stain—that is, to reveal the truth, to put on the new person: “The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls” (2:151). Wormtongue twists words and meanings to serve his own purpose, and that of Saruman, but it is not the purpose of truth or of Rohan. Furthermore, Wormtongue's counsel to Théoden has heightened the fear of the old king in order to subvert Théoden's sovereign role to that of the “serving-man,” Wormtongue.

Gandalf's rescue alerts Théoden to light instead of dark, to hope instead of despair, by means of encouraging instead of critical and destructive words. Wormtongue has scolded Théoden, “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff? That fool, Háma, has betrayed us!” (2:151), criticizing both Théoden's folly in not listening to Wormtongue and Háma's folly. What exactly does Gandalf say to evoke a change in Théoden that restores him to his rightful place as sovereign? He urges optimism—courage and wisdom—in a respectful manner. Gandalf declares, “Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings” (2:151).

In short, the suspicions and fears of the hall guardian—and the resistance to differences in language and nationality—reflect the darkness within the tribe and its king, the despair to which all (save Éomer) have succumbed when heeding critical and punitive words. Whom can one trust, if all are untrustworthy? Whom can one trust, if one remains safely incarcerated indoors, too old to venture out into danger? Whom can one trust if one cannot trust oneself? Yet the chief danger to Rohan all along has come from within, from that familiar sameness mistaken as loving and protective—Wormtongue. Once again Tolkien trumpets forth the power of language to destroy and manipulate—or to recuperate and restore. Once again real knowledge depends on a recognition of good beneath superficial difference and seemingly humble appearance.

Facing fear rather than evading it (or protecting against it) and conquering self-pity become Gandalf's counsel once again. As he and Théoden face Mordor, the wizard announces, “[T]hat way lies our hope [read, Frodo and Sam], where sits our greatest fear [read, Sauron]. Doom hangs still on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while [read, to buy extra time for Frodo and Sam to return the Ring safely]” (2:154). And when Théoden complains of war and evil in that old age he had imagined as deserving peace, while the “young perish and the old linger,” Gandalf reminds him that he no longer wears a sword: “Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword-hilt” (2:154). Gandalf reminds the king, in short, that kings are kings, whatever their age, because they command in battle and rule. The sword is a symbol of power, both physical and political; to deprive a king of his sword is to deny him his rightful role, to diminish his power. Thus, the converse is true: to return a sword is to acknowledge and respect strength. This the true servant Éomer does: “As [Théoden's] fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry. … ‘Arise now, arise, Riders of Théoden!’” (2:155). Trust becomes the operative word of counsel.

Indeed, when Théoden “trusts” that Wormtongue will accompany him to battle, the true cowardice of the false servant stands exposed. The choice that Wormtongue makes reveals his own weak and untrustworthy nature—to stay behind in safety or, if that is not possible, to return to Saruman. Wormtongue's literalism sees Théoden as old, incapable: “But those who truly love him would spare his failing year” (2:158). Saruman's servant fails to understand that love means respect for inner capability—leadership—despite the outer limits of physical strength. Gandalf shows all that which Wormtongue subverts in order to win Éowyn as his prize (2:159). This is the Worm's true goal, this Satan-like seduction of Théoden. The soothing and appealing words of the Snake tempt more, perhaps, but as Théoden acknowledges later of his true servant Éomer, “Faithful heart may have froward tongue” (2:161).

The tribe of Rohan convinces us that the old may be stronger than their appearance suggests; so also we will learn later that the most valorous warrior may indeed be female rather than male. Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, will serve Rohan in battle better than any other Rider from the Mark. She is also awarded lordship of Rohan in their absence. Throughout, ignominious Hobbits, the frail elderly, and the female occupy for Tolkien the most heroic roles. It is interesting to note, given Háma's previous “folly” in admitting the ragged Company with Gandalf's staff, that Háma the hall guardian offers Théoden the advice to make Éowyn lord. Háma's wisdom sees beneath surface difference. This facility that makes Háma an invaluable counselor and a trustworthy “reader” of the text of human character.


The second locus in which knowledge, language, and power emerge as central to victory in a dramatic battle occurs not so much at the literal battle of Helm's Deep as at the final meeting at Orthanc, the palace of Saruman that becomes his prison. There, too, the battle is one of words, one in which Gandalf again functions as a principal to overcome Saruman, a far more cunning adversary than Wormtongue. Like Grishnákh and later Wormtongue, Saruman is a traitor—to the White Council he supposedly leads. As Wormtongue serves Saruman, so Saruman, by reading the palantír, inadvertently and unknowingly serves Sauron, who controls its visions and hence knows its users.

Of the two towers of this second volume, one belongs to Saruman's Orthanc, and the other, to Shelob's Cirith Ungol. And yet even in book 3 the way to that first tower is through the hall of Rohan, where the servant of Saruman has attempted to destroy king and nation. Wormtongue, even in the Shire, will kill his leader after a final verbal abuse—the traitor will once again betray his own “master.” In the second half of Towers Gollum functions with Frodo as a type of Wormtongue to Théoden in the service that he provides, ultimately betraying Frodo and Sam to Shelob (Saruman's counterpart in this second half) as Rohan has been betrayed to Saruman.

Saruman, then, and the spider Shelob (Sauron's “cat”) represent two monstrous “servants” to Sauron. Their two towers project forth their differing powers. “Orthanc” (or Mount Fang, “Cunning Mind”) celebrates in its iconology the intellectual perversion of Saruman. Just so, “Cirith Ungol” (“Pass of the Spider”) typifies in its dramatic purpose (the capture of prey) the physical horror embodied in the greedy Shelob.

Saruman's particular gift has always been his ingenuity, a wizard's knowledge set to the capitalist's profit motive, at whatever the cost. Accordingly, Saruman has interbred Orcs with goblin Men to withstand the coming of the sun and therefore to fight successfully during the day (2:180). This entrepreneur has also enlisted the hate of the Wild Men of the hills for the Men of Gondor and Rohan in the battle against Aragorn and his Company. Saruman's technological mind has sought the wasting of forests and Nan Curunír (the Wizard's Vale), where Isengard is located, to power his factories, smithies, and furnaces. And so Saruman exploits the labor of slaves, and the dark architectonics of Orthanc and wasteland in the once-green valley clarify his self-aggrandizing purpose: riches and power.

For example, Orthanc is surrounded by one protective, great ring-wall of stone, “like towering cliffs” (2:203), perhaps to suggest to the reader its similarity to the one controlling Ring. Only one entrance is carved into the southern wall, and it leads to a tunnel stopped at both ends by iron doors. That the ingenuity of Saruman has been employed to increase the efficiency of his instruments of imprisonment and empowerment is reflected in the excellence of these iron doors: “They were so wrought and poised upon their huge hinges, posts of steel driven into the living stone, that when unbarred they could be moved with a light thrust of the arms, noiselessly” (2:203). Saruman has exchanged the green, fruitful, bowl-shaped plain within the wall for dark stone flags and for chained marble and metal pillars marching in columns. The many houses that he has cut into the walls overlooking the open circle resemble a honeycomb; the plain, too, has been “bored and delved. Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead” (2:203). Iron wheels revolve; night vapors steam. All roads run to the center of Isengard, where the black rock tower of Orthanc in its construction also mirrors the complexity and violent wickedness of Saruman's own cunning mind, even though the tower was made not by him but by “builders of old” (“yet fit seemed a thing not made by the craft of Man, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills” [2:204]). Saruman rapes Middle-earth in his painful acquisitive progression toward power. The violence of his desire matches the “gaping horns” at the top of Orthanc, “their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives” (2:204).

Saruman's specific contribution to Orthanc—once beautiful and always strong, the residence of great lords and astrologers, or Magi (2:204)—has been its reshaping to what he imagines are his own purposes: “being deceived—for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor” (2:204). Saruman's creativity, then, is a blank, a zero, nothing—a mirror imitation of that destructivity typical of the power of Sauron: “What he made was naught, only a little copy, a child's model or a slave's flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength” (2:204).

What destroys the doors of Isengard is the “Great Sea” that fills the “bowl” of the plain of Isengard and isolates the single tower of Orthanc. The River Isen has been dammed up by the furious Ents in order to flood Isengard's tunnel and thus overwhelm the city. Appropriately, the tree-killer Saruman is overcome by trees—and the rocks of Isengard torn asunder by the root-splitting power of the victimized. Of course the Ents and Huorns cannot best a wizard, but the elemental antagonism (“Wood and water, stock and stone” [2:223]) is fulfilled by their united efforts: “Isengard looked like a huge flat saucepan, all steaming and bubbling” (2:225). What gets “cooked” is of course Saruman.

We might add to Tolkien's empowerment of marginalized peoples and societies the trees—and their Ents and Huorns. The exploited helpless—whether aged, female, childlike, or even plantlike in nature—are urged into heroism and action throughout. Even the childlike (and seemingly superfluous) Merry and Pippin in their separate adventure with Orcs and Ents assume new identities after a heroic metamorphosis into door-wardens: Merry introduces himself as Meriadoc, son of Saradoc; Pippin, as Peregrin, son of Paladin, “of the house of Took” (2:206). We relive the encounter of the Split Company with Háma at the door to the palace in Rohan. The Hobbits prove able enough to withstand the patronizing and frustrated diatribes of Gimli and Legolas as they scold the little fellows for their childish truancy (“You rascals, you woolly-footed and wool-pated truants!” Gimli cries [2:207]). It is Pippin who responds drily, “One thing you have not found in your hunting, and that's brighter wits” (2:207). Even the Company finds itself at odds, the greater and stronger treating the smaller and weaker as literally as do Háma and Wormtongue in the earlier encounter.

Here Théoden is offered the opportunity to greet them with the real authority of a wise leader, and he does. When he learns these are Hobbits—whom he first identifies by the name he knows best, “Holbytlan”—he is corrected by Pippin (“Hobbits, if you please, lord”), and he courteously respects both their language (so different from his) and their otherness by symbolically bowing to them: “No report that I had heard does justice to the truth” (2:207). There is majesty in graciousness and humility, in respect for the Other, Tolkien seems to say. Where Gimli and Legolas fail, at least mildly repeating the errors of Wormtongue, Théoden succeeds well. Even when Théoden acknowledges of the Hobbits that “there are no legends of their deeds, for it is said that they do little,” he never uses this hearsay to denigrate them: “But it seems that more could be said” (2:208). Trust and openness, toleration and good manners—all are qualities necessary in the politic leader Théoden epitomizes.

The meeting between Saruman and Gandalf, however, operates on a different level. Saruman holds power—has held power—because of his voice (as chapter 10 reminds us, “The Voice of Saruman”). “Wormtongue” as a name has hinted at the ability of Gríma to twist language and words to seductive ends (that is, urging Théoden to eat and rest rather than to fight and lead—words of counsel that only at first glance seem thoughtful and solicitous of the king's welfare). Saruman's eloquence far exceeds Wormtongue's because it springs from wizard-cunning masked by kindness and graciousness (all those qualities that the good king Théoden has so amply demonstrated). The difference is that Saruman's voice seems to be separate from his actions—what he says and what he does are twin, dual: “Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard. … Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable” (2:234).

Saruman's voice (and note how disembodied and dehumanized Tolkien imagines it) is evil because its beauty arouses the envy of its listeners: “Desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves” (2:234). The wizard's spell works to seduce them into his power because it makes all other voices (especially voices raised in disagreement) seem “harsh and uncouth” and thereby arouses the anger of its listeners. Saruman's voice seduces by arousing the listeners' admiration for the speaker, who seems so bent on helping and understanding the listener. When Saruman addresses Théoden (“O worthy son of Thengel the Thrice-renowned!” [2:235]), not only does he employ flattery and rhetoric to convince the “mightiest king of western lands” of his desire to aid him in his hour of need—which is what we all want to hear (“Why have you not come before, and as a friend?” [2:235])—but he also deliberately lies and intimidates through fear (“still I would save you, and deliver you from the ruin that draws nigh inevitably, if you ride upon this road which you have taken. Indeed I alone can aid you now” [2:234]). The courtesy and seeming respectfulness of Saruman seem appropriate to the stature of the king he addresses. And the fear of which Saruman reminds the Men of Rohan is omnipresent and all too powerful: “And over their hearts crept a shadow, the fear of a great danger: the end of the Mark in a darkness to which Gandalf was driving them, while Saruman stood beside a door of escape, holding it half open so that a ray of light came through” (2:235).

Desire and fear, the twin weapons of the orator, are reduced to nothing before the level and plain truth, which is what both Gimli the Dwarf (the species closest to earth) and Éomer the good servant, who formerly offended by speaking unwelcome words, offer in response. The first weapon, desire, reminds the Company and Rohan that Orthanc's language always speaks in reverse: “The words of this wizard stand on their heads. … In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain. But we do not come here to beg” (2:235). The second weapon, fear, reminds Théoden of the present situation and the treachery of this “old liar with honey on his forked tongue” (2:236). It is Saruman who is the “trapped wolf,” not they. Théoden chooses the honesty of common folk and speaks plainly himself: “Harsh as an old raven's their master's voice sounded in their ears after the music of Saruman.” And Théoden's refusal to acquiesce leads to Saruman's hissing metamorphosis into snakelike negativity and crushing belittlement (“Dotard!” Saruman then calls Théoden) (2:237).

Saruman's pride so puffs him up that to him all others appear diminished. To the proud, all outside the Self is Other, different. And so Saruman then appeals to Gandalf in what seems “the gentle remonstrance of a kindly king with an erring but much-loved minister. But they were shut out, listening at a door to words not meant for them: ill-mannered children or stupid servants overhearing the elusive discourse of their elders” (2:238-39). Gandalf laughs, however, and asks him only to come down—that is, to humble himself as well as to literally step down from the tower—and thereby admit his error and save himself. The monster that Saruman has become refuses and Gandalf, now the White and superior in the Council to Saruman, casts him out of both the order of wizards and from the Council (2:241). “He will not serve, only command” (2:242) is Gandalf's accurate assessment. But Gandalf will do nothing to him, because he does not long for mastery, and because “[o]ften does hatred hurt itself” (2:243).

The last contest in book 3 belongs to Pippin and Sauron, through the farseeing but dangerous crystal globe of the palantír held by Saruman, at least until Wormtongue heaves it down near his head. The temptation to look into “that which looks far away” (2:258), especially because Pippin has touched it, provokes the most unlikely contest, that between Hobbit and Dark Lord (2:252). The palantír has a magical power like that of the Ring; that Pippin succumbs (as Frodo does to the Ring at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring) is no surprise. And yet the seemingly crushing loss to Sauron (for Pippin faints in terror after his “interrogation”) is actually a victory: Sauron's assumption is that this Hobbit is imprisoned in Orthanc by Saruman and thus the Red Eye will lose precious time because of this error, for the real Ringbearer is nearing Mordor. Once again the Enemy's own literalism, ignorance, and pride reduce his power; once again a marginalized protagonist succeeds because of them.

Humility in Tolkien is always ultimately successful, especially in this case, as it has saved Middle-earth: had Gandalf been tempted to look within, he might have lost the battle with Sauron (2:255). How appropriate that the greatest wizard is rescued from the possibility of his own subversion by the least of the Hobbits. The power of humility and ignominy, and of language (again symbolized by the visionary palantír), will be extended and deepened in the next book, in which the stage is further reduced to an even more crucial Hobbit level.


Isengard and Mordor have managed to communicate by means of the palantír that links Sauron and his “servant” Saruman. The link between books 3 and 4 of LotR is provided by the two towers of Sauron's “servant” Saruman and his “cat” Shelob. This political theme of good and of good service unifies the whole of Towers, just as the dehumanization of culture and civilization darkens into the increasingly interiorized drama of Sam and Frodo, servant and master, in the fourth book. More insistently now, Tolkien will ask, How knowledge, if no language? What power is conferred in the absence of language, at that moment when speechlessness, either silence or disordered sound, crosses into the bestiality of a Shelob? When Sam and Frodo leave the “Window on the West” in book 4, “all about them was silence. The birds seemed all to have flown away or to have fallen dumb” (2:386). What is the significant difference between the dehumanization of a wise wizard and the privileging of the cruel and predatory greed of a powerful giant spider? In what ways is uncontrolled irrationality (Shelob) more dangerous than uncontrolled cunning (Saruman)? Is uncontrolled irrationality even conscious of difference in the way we have been defining it? Can degeneration and reification be undone, moral consciousness retrieved?

In the East, Mordor is named after the Anglo-Saxon word for “death.” Accordingly, the land it names conveys the idea of violence and extinction of the Other. The separation between Self and Other suggests difference; a wise leader will acknowledge and respect differences in order to attract followers. In Mordor, there is no such thing as separation of Self from Other: difference is consumed, swallowed up, by the Self. It is this particularly monstrous and uncivilized tyranny that Shelob represents. Here death means the murder of the Other and therefore the unnatural insistence upon the Self at the expense of the Other. It is no coincidence that, as Frodo and Sam trek through the dead lands, the “wind was chilly and yet heavy with an odor of cold decay” (2:266). Frodo's ironic heroism demands that he move slowly if inexorably toward self-sacrifice—and the Shadow that threatens to extinguish him and the Ring.

Gollum, who follows these “thieves” in the hopes of recuperating his Precious, hates them (2:280), his very hate the seed of murder (Mordor, death). And yet in his incarnation of the death of Other, symbolized by Mordor, he reveals the isolation of the Self that must destroy or assimilate the Other in order to survive. In a telling incident in “The Taming of Sméagol” (chapter 1), Frodo once again has the opportunity to kill Gollum, who has tracked Frodo and Sam to their hiding place near a precipice. Gollum, however, pleads for mercy, identifying himself as the prey of the “cats” (2:280; Frodo and Sam?), and therefore foreshadowing the later attack on Frodo by the farlarger and more predatory “cat” of Sauron, Shelob. Gollum's reason for pleading clemency is his loneliness, his isolation, or—given the seeming singleness of his identity—his nature as difference personified. He is unique, he is one, and in his grotesque singleness, his Otherness, he desires companionship—the acknowledgment that difference is meaningless: “They won't hurt us will they, nice little hobbitses? We didn't mean no harm, but they jumps on us like cats on poor mices, they did, precious. And we're so lonely, gollum. We'll be nice to them, very nice, if they'll be nice to us, want us, yes, yess” (2:280).

The incident also reminds Frodo of his earlier reaction to Gandalf's recounting of the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum, when Bilbo's pity stayed his hand. At the time Frodo's indignation denied him mercy, and yet at this moment, now that Frodo “sees” (read, understands) Gollum, Frodo does in fact pity the degenerate Hobbit (2:281). Frodo's pity urges him to reach out to that tiny speck of Hobbit, of grace, of nonbestiality, still inherent in Gollum's nature, that which separates the nearly inarticulate (“Gollum,” a gulp) from the bestial (such as Shelob). And so Frodo respects Gollum's difference and appeals to their common denominator of Hobbitness by addressing the creature, not by the humiliating and degrading (if accurate) name Gollum but by the original and untarnished name Sméagol (2:283). Frodo also tells him the truth—another gesture of respect: they are headed for Mordor. What Frodo and Gollum share, it appears, is a desire to prevent the Ring (“Precious”) from falling into the power of Sauron. This desire unites them in a common goal: safe passage through the Dead Marshes.

Gollum initially refuses this respect for his difference, apparently preferring his present nonself: “Don't ask Sméagol. Poor, poor Sméagol, he went away long ago. They took his Precious, and he's lost now” (2:283). Gollum prefers the easier state of annihilation of consciousness, past, and self in which he exists as Gollum, the name for a sound made when swallowing, like that made when speaking or eating. Frodo offers him the hope of the recovery of self: “Perhaps we'll find him again, if you come with us” (2:283). Frodo treats Gollum-Sméagol as Théoden does Pippin, with respect and courtesy, and Frodo similarly provides leadership by offering encouragement, hope, and praise. Like Théoden, Frodo is motivated by pity, mercy, and love. This arouses in both Pippin and Gollum a latent and grateful desire to serve.

The ceremony of investiture performed on Gollum by Frodo (2:285) invites the doglike Gollum to swear by the Precious to freely do what the lordly Frodo wishes, to be “very very good” and to never let “Him” have the Ring. The feudal relationship between them here seems to heighten their difference: “For a moment it appeared to Sam that his master had grown and Gollum had shrunk: a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a little whining dog” (2:285). Ironically Gollum will keep his promise to Frodo until he bites off his lord's ring finger. This bite (a final gollum?) serves all far better than he knows and even in treachery enables a rescue of Middle-earth that leads to Gollum's own annihilation. Hobbit Frodo and former Hobbit Sméagol are, however, more same than different at this instant of mutual identification in book 3: “Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another's minds” (2:285). Their kinship presupposes Gollum has a mind to reach. Gollum has been raised to consciousness and premeditation by a ceremony resembling that of a wedding in its union of opposites—of course one not marked by difference in gender, class, or race but by difference in moral values. After this event Gollum whines and hisses less and is more eager to please because he is now more Other-directed: “He spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. … He would cackle with laughter and caper if any jest was made, or even if Frodo spoke kindly to him, and weep if Frodo rebuked him” (2:286). It is Frodo's words of acceptance that catalyze this change in Gollum-Sméagol.

In book 4 the symbolic settings developing these ideas appear in the Dead Marshes, the Garden of Gondor where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum encounter Faramir the Steward, brother to the dead Boromir, and Cirith Ungol. Betrayal and service become polar extremes on a political continuum that ultimately inverts itself: betrayal can in reality be service, just as service (as we have learned, in book 3 through Grishnákh, Wormtongue, and Saruman) can in reality be betrayal. Who is to decide what service is? Who is to decide what betrayal is? And who knows absolutely? Does Gollum in actuality betray Frodo? Does Frodo fail to protect his servant Gollum? And when at the end Master Samwise must make hard choices as Ringbearer, does he choose out of wisdom or out of vengeance? Who is master? Who servant?

Gollum's metamorphosis is marked by a kind of primitive, body-directed song:

The cold hard lands
they bites our hands,
they gnaws our feet.
The rocks and stones
are like old bones
all bare of meat.


That food imagery surfaces in his composition reflects Gollum's obsessions and—as Sam puts it—in general what heroic narrative rarely describes, “the problem of food” (2:288). Can heroism continue if the body is not fed? Sam later quotes his father: “Where there's life there's hope … and need of vittles” (2:392). Gollum also sings a riddle about catching a fish (“never thirsting, ever drinking; clad in mail, never clinking” [2:288]). Food, we recall, has always been the Hobbit's passion. A Hobbit being compelled into a heroic mode, being denied his passion, and having his survival depend on the knowledge of an un-Hobbit in whom he must trust is a most unnatural situation.

The Dead Marshes (east of the Emyn Muil) includes the graves of Men and Elves killed during the Battle of Dagorlad, “when Sméagol was young” (2:297). Along with Orcs the corpses peer out from the water when candles are lit: “They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead” (2:297). This mockery of the Last Alliance (read, representatives of all races united in a common purpose at death) signifies the past failure to resist Sauron. The Marshes thus symbolize death and despair (Mordor) and act as a psychological deterrent to the Fellowship's progress: to move forward they must conquer their own aversion to death and failure, their lack of hope at the possibility of succeeding, the ultimate futility of their mission. How can mere Hobbits succeed against Sauron when led by a treacherous creature like Gollum and when so many have failed in the past?

What keeps them going is that they are attempting not to battle Sauron—to test him in physical combat—but merely to return the Ring to its source. Still, the despair and darkness take their toll on all of them, especially Gollum (who has been captured once before and who is terrified of the Dark Lord) and Frodo. Frodo's Ringbearing wearies him to exhaustion—“He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards” (2:300)—and his awareness of the gaze of the Other stultifies him. It is the latter awareness that Frodo must resist even more than the former, a resistance to being seen, reified, petrified: “The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable. So thin, so frail and thin, the veils were become that still warded it off” (2:301).

The Eye is not yet aware of where Frodo is, but the Hobbit can sense its ever searching power, Medusa-like in its ability to paralyze. (It epitomizes the criticism directed at the Other, the different: the gaze is one of hostility, wrath, death, annihilation.) For Gollum, “lust of the Ring that was so near” counters the “pressure of the Eye” and conflicts with the promise to guide them that he has made to Frodo (2:301). Only Sam does not notice the “dark cloud that had fallen on his own heart,” so concerned is he with Frodo. The pressure of darkness brings to the fore latent desire and fear. In passing through the Dead Marshes, the Company must struggle with its own dark emotions, the worst of which is despair. Even once past, the land they encounter is a wasteland (“gasping pools … choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about … like an obscene graveyard in endless rows … a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing” [2:302]).

The paramount desolation of the land mirrors the desolation of Gollum's soul: we are exploring the symbolic landscape of degenerate and blasted intelligence. Can moral choices be made at all in the face of such absolute devastation and nothingness? The drama of Gollum-Sméagol is played out in a soul debate in which the Promise vies with the desire for the Ring, liking and respect for Frodo with hatred for Bilbo (who “stole” the Ring) and for Sam (“the nasty suspicious hobbit” [2:304]), all intermingled with fear of Sauron.

The way out—the moral way out, for an immoral being caught between impossible pressures—is to deny culpability for desire by transferring responsibility to some other agency—Shelob in this case (“She might help” [2:305]). If the giant spider kills the Hobbits, then Gollum is free to snitch the Ring and he has not in fact broken his literal Promise to Frodo. This logic involves a neat side-stepping of the moral issue—a means of lessening intolerable pressure through rationalization.

The pressure increases when they discover that Cirith Gorgor, the Haunted Pass where the Teeth (or Towers) of Mordor stand watch, is fully guarded (2:308). This unfortunate circumstance tightens the screws for Gollum, too, once he understands the firmness of Frodo's resolve to continue onward. Gollum does wish to serve his Master; he has brought them to the Gate, as Frodo has requested; he does not wish the Ring to fall into Sauron's hands; and by obeying Frodo he disobeys Sauron, whom he fears and hates. The path Gollum suggests is the path of least resistance, into Shelob's lair (read, the way of rationalization). Does Gollum deceive Frodo by offering him this alternative? Or does he aid him?

Frodo uses the only weapon he has against such easy moral evasion: the harsh clarity of truth. In his foreshadowing the end of LotR, Frodo paints clearly the consequences of Gollum's desire for the Ring: “You will never get it back. In the last need, Sméagol, I should put on the Precious; and the Precious mastered you long ago. If I, wearing it, were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or to cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command” (2:314). At the end, Gollum so desires the Ring that he obeys when Frodo apparently commands him to leap into the precipice, but, equally, the Precious ultimately also masters Frodo. Thus, Gollum's final desire (and treachery) indeed represents a final service—to the Precious and to Master Frodo. If both master and servant “fail” against the power of the Ring, their matched failures nevertheless balance against the fate of Middle-earth: the Free Peoples are saved. Gollum's biting off of the ring finger repeats history, given Isildur's cutting of Sauron's finger in the past.

The Tower of the Moon (the alternate way into Mordor, which Isildur originally built) is unguarded, or at least inhabited only by “dreadful things” (2:316)—that is, by Shelob. Is Gollum telling the truth here? Or is he lying in order to obtain the Ring? Frodo believes that Gollum did leave Mordor by means of his own cunning rather than by the directive of Sauron: “For one thing, he noted that Gollum used I, and that seemed usually to be a sign, on its rare appearances, that some remnants of old truth and sincerity were for the moment on top” (2:318). Gollum's consciousness has been enhanced to the point that his sense of self (“I”) has begun to return—that which distinguishes him from mere being (“gollum”) and therefore marks him as capable of moral choice. Indeed, Gollum now speaks in complete sentences rather than baby talk, and his conversation reflects rational patterns of thought.

Good service, in the next few sections of book 4, proves to be more complex and knotty than the good master anticipates. The rabbits that Gollum catches and Sam cooks give them away by their smoke—but Sam, the good servant, betrays them to Faramir, good Steward of Gondor and a helpful friend, who then, Gandalf-like, rescues and revives them with food, water, and, best of all, sleep. Good service leads to better service. Furthermore, when Sam inadvertently reveals the presence of the Ring to Faramir (2:366), his failure (or treachery) does not lead to Faramir's seizure of the Ring (a matching treachery), although it might have. Finally, Faramir, good Steward that he is, wishes to shoot Gollum because he has seen (and fished in) the Forbidden Pool, but is prevented by Frodo, who then “betrays” Gollum's trust by summoning him to be bound by Faramir for his own protection (2:376-77).

Faramir correctly advises Frodo not to trust Gollum (2:381), and yet Frodo has promised to protect him and to follow him to Mordor. To violate that pact would be treachery on Frodo's part: “The servant has a claim on the master for service, even service in fear” (2:375). All of them (except Faramir) in these chapters seem to fail through treachery, but it is apparent treachery only. Even Sam's unthinking desire to cook the rabbits—the providing of physical sustenance to enable clear or moral choices—reflects a strong motivation to serve his master. This it accomplishes better than he might have hoped, because of the resultant rest and refreshment they obtain through Faramir's discovery of them. Even the unwitting revelation of the Ring's presence tests Faramir's service; he succeeds where his brother Boromir has failed. The smoke is a signal, a communication to others, in a land without language. To cook one's food is a sign also of civilization (no raw fish for these Hobbits). And to resist the desire for the Ring proves the excellence of one's stewardship—proves indeed one's humility and lack of selfishness.

The respite in the Garden of Gondor thus opens a “Window in the West” for each of these good servants to see more clearly, to understand (each other and oneself) better, and accordingly to hope more firmly in the future. Given the greatest barrier to their mission—despair, an internal failure of understanding, or the death of the Self, Mordor—the apparent signs of failure here are actually signs of survival, continuation, and life. They do eat; Gollum does come when summoned; Faramir does not kill Gollum, imprison Frodo, or seize the Ring. Sam therefore does serve the mission better than he imagines. And the insight into themselves and into their own resilience and dependability strengthens their hope. The episode thus functions analogously to the palantír episode at the end of book 3: if the palantír allows the gazer to see far, the “Window in the West” allows the gazer to see close, to gaze inward. The episode also functions analogously to the Lothlórien episode in book 2, when Galadriel offers Frodo and Sam the opportunity to look into her mirror and foresee the future in order to arm themselves with the weapon of knowledge (as Gandalf's history of the Ring has armed Frodo with knowledge of the past in book 1).

The City of the Ringwraiths, or the Tower of the Moon, differs from Isengard and the Tower of Orthanc in the emptiness of its intelligence (Orthanc signifies “Cunning Mind”—perverse and perverted intelligence): “In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night” (2:397). The wall and tower of Minas Morgul (“Tower of Black-Magic”) were originally named Minas Ithil (“Tower of the Moon”) before capture and inhabitation by the Nazgûl. In this tower close to Cirith Ungol, “Pass of the Spider,” Frodo's loyalty to his best self and to the mission is tested by his desire to put on the Ring and thus reveals his presence in Mordor to Sauron. The spiritual and intellectual emptiness of Minas Morgul attests to the blankness and indifference to any choice at all as the chief peril to Frodo's success now.

Accordingly, when Frodo desires to put on the Ring as the Black Rider pauses before their hiding place (2:400-401), he initially dissociates himself from the will, moving his hand toward the Ring: “It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch towards the chain upon his neck. Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing, a thing lying hidden near his breast” (2:401): The Phial of Galadriel counters the nihilism and domination that threaten Frodo, at least here. The Phial also helps him turn away Shelob when the Hobbits reach the top of the stairs and the tunnel guarded by the malicious spider (2:419). (Frodo continues to feel, however, that Shelob's eyes “are looking at me, or thinking about me: making some other plan, perhaps” [2:421].) And the Elven blade Sting cuts through the net of cobwebs halting their progress through the dark tunnel. But neither is sufficient against the malice of Shelob and the treachery of Gollum: Shelob captures Frodo and Gollum lunges at Sam.

These twin adversaries at first glance seem oddly disparate. Gollum has so progressed in moral metamorphosis that his relationship with his master might be characterized as loving and the sameness of the two identified as Hobbit: “Then [Gollum] came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched [sleeping] Frodo's knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing” (2:411).

Perhaps Tolkien manifests the civilization and humanization (Hobbitization?) of Gollum in order to make more horrible Gollum's final treachery in this volume—to allow to be killed what Gollum most loves next to the Precious. Indeed, when Sam surprises him “pawing at master,” Gollum is portrayed as “almost spider-like … crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes” (2:411). Surely Gollum resents Sam's label of “sneak”—that is, he resists Sam's intolerance of difference in Hobbit nature. And yet what is spiderlike in Gollum is that unthinking and inarticulate existence that depends for its survival on eating—gollum. As Shelob is described, “she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness” (2:422). The sheer continuation of nature depends on ingestation and reproduction of kind but cares nothing for incest or slaughter of kin—it is mindless and immoral: “Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen” (2:422). She is the gollum counter to Sméagol, “and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret” (2:423).

As the principle of unthinking life indifferent to moral choice, Shelob incarnates the instinct to survive that separates the dead from the existent. Morally and spiritually, however, the malice she represents is also indifferent to all else except sentient Self: “Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her” (2:423). Shelob's desire, then, is for “sweeter meat”—an unabated hunger, as if she were appetite itself (so called Sauron's “cat” [2:424]). For this reason she is more dangerous even than Gollum: no one can use logic to analyze her twisted motivations, as Gandalf does with Saruman, because Shelob is moved solely by appetite in her actions. Tolkien's point is that food exerts a far more primordial and necessary attraction than treasure.

The adversaries of Frodo at the end are many—the will of the Ring (or of Sauron), operating through himself and on Gollum; Sauron himself and his Nazgûl; and the mindlessness of Shelob, his “cat.” What may be less clear (because apparently less important and less clearly defined) are how those same adversaries confront Sam differently and the reasons for his consequent choices in the similarly entitled chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise.”

When Sam becomes Ringbearer, he has had little or no opportunity to exercise mastery of self or self-discipline, a handicap underscored by his own difference from Frodo. Sam's genealogy and family history differ from his master's: he is not Baggins-Took, or an orphan, or the cousin of Bilbo. Furthermore, his vocation and class depend more on manual labor and earth-tilling than on the leisurely pursuit of scholarship and books, as was the case with Frodo and Bilbo. Thus, Ringbearer Sam's uncontrolled anger at Gollum initially urges pursuit of the creature in mirror image of the ancient malice of Shelob: “For the moment he had forgotten everything else but the red fury in his brain and the desire to kill Gollum” (2:427). Later a similar mirroring wrath fuels Sam's attack on Shelob: “No onslaught more fierce was ever seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth, alone will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate” (2:428). The Phial of Galadriel with its light burns Shelob back into her lair. Most important, it is Sam's hearing rather than his vision that is heightened by wearing the Ring after he has determined Frodo is dead, which means that he can understand the Orcs he overhears. This precipitous act of Ring wearing thus affords Sam the miraculous opportunity to learn that Frodo is not dead (2:444) and to change his disastrous course of action from dutiful Ringbearing to the more appropriate, serviceable rescue of his master. Like Frodo, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Faramir, Sam resists the temptation to become Lord of the Ring: he remains what he is, a servant rather than a master. Indeed, Sam's propitious leaving of Frodo for dead convinces the Orcs that this “regular elvish trick” is intended to deter them from capture of the “big fellow with the sharp sword” (2:443).

Through his new linguistic understanding, Sam determines that Frodo lives—for Shelob never binds with cord unless she's hungry—but she “doesn't eat dead meat” (2:444). Sam's lesson here and the lesson in this second volume is not only that knowledge, conveyed through language, is power, but that the source of that knowledge is equally important: “You fool,” Sam says to himself, as the Gollum-like adversary he last confronts, “he isn't dead and your heart knew it. Don't trust your head, Samwise, it is not the best part of you. The trouble with you is that you never really had any hope” (2:444). Like Saruman, Sam has denied hope to himself as well as to Gollum. Like Shelob, he has reacted angrily rather than wisely to this crisis. And like Gollum, he has seemingly abandoned and betrayed his master to dark powers: “Never leave your master, never, never: That was my right rule. And I knew it in my heart. May I be forgiven!” (2:445).

Saruman, Shelob, Gollum, and Sam—unlikely adversaries but all similar in one way or another. From the great knowledge of Saruman to the inarticulation of Shelob is not so great a step—even Saruman is reduced to inarticulate rage when his schemes are foiled. The anger of all leads to murder, Mordor, and the one tower is keyed to the second, at the edge of the wasteland. At the moment Sam is poised to step over that line, his heart and the fullness of its knowledge rescue him. Through recovery of himself he is able to rescue Frodo and thus facilitate the salvation of Middle-earth.

Jane Chance (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Chance, Jane. “The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's Epic.” In Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, rev. ed., pp. 141-83. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Chance examines the tension in Lord of the Rings between the values of the age of Germanic heroism and those of the later Christian age.]

But as the earliest Tales are seen through Elvish eyes, as it were, this last great Tale, coming down from myth and legend to the earth, is seen mainly through the eyes of Hobbits: it thus becomes in fact anthropocentric. But through Hobbits, not Men so-called, because the last Tale is to exemplify most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in “world politics” of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil). … [W]ithout the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.

—J. R. R. Tolkien Letter 131, to Milton Waldman of Collins (c. 1951)

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.

—J. R. R. Tolkien Letter 142, to Robert Murray, S. J. (1953)

The epic form has proven useful in reflecting the clash of value systems during periods of transition in literary history. In the Old English Beowulf, Germanic heroism conflicts with Christianity: the chivalric pride of the hero can become the excessive superbia condemned in Hrothgar's moralistic sermon. Similar conflicts occur in other epics or romance-epics: between the chivalric and the Christian in the twelfth-century German Nibelungenlied and in Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century Le Morte d'Arthur; between the classical and the Christian in the sixteenth-century Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser; and between chivalric idealism and modern realism in the late-sixteenth-century Spanish epic-novel of Cervantes, Don Quixote. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings [LR] delineates a clash of values during the passage from the Third Age of Middle-earth, dominated by the Elves, to the Fourth Age, dominated by Men. Such values mask very medieval tensions between Germanic heroism and Christianity evidenced earlier by Tolkien in his Beowulf article.

In this sense The Lord of the Rings resembles The Hobbit, which, as we have seen previously, must acknowledge a great thematic and narrative debt to the Old English epic, even though The Hobbit's happy ending renders it closer to fantasy in Tolkien's definition than to the elegy with its tragic ending. The difference between the two most significant Tolkienian works stems from form: Randel Helms notes that the children's story narrated by the patronizing adult in The Hobbit has “grown up” sufficiently to require no fictionalized narrator in the text itself and to inhabit a more expansive and flexible genre like the epic: “[W]e have in The Hobbit and its sequel what is in fact the same story, told first very simply, and then again, very intricately. Both works have the same theme, a quest on which a most unheroic hobbit achieves heroic stature; they have the same structure, the ‘there and back again’ of the quest romance, and both extend the quest through the cycle of one year, The Hobbit from spring to spring, the The Lord of the Rings from fall to fall.”1 Although Helms does not mention their relationship with medieval ideas or even with the Beowulf article, still, given this reworking of a theme used earlier in The Hobbit, I would speculate that The Lord of the Rings must also duplicate many medieval ideas from The Hobbit and elsewhere in Tolkien.

As an epic novel The Lord of the Rings constitutes, then, a summa of Tolkien's full development of themes originally enunciated in the Beowulf article and fictionalized later in other works. It was, after all, begun in 1937—the same year The Hobbit was published and a year later than the Beowulf article—and completed in 1949, prior to the publication of many of the fairy-stories (1945-67) and the medieval parodies (1945-62). Its medial position in Tolkien's career indicates how he articulated his major ideas generally and comprehensively in this mammoth work before delving into their more specialized aspects in the later fairy-stories and parodies.

As a synthesis of Tolkienian ideas, both Germanic heroic or medieval and Christian, The Lord of the Rings reconciles value systems over which its critics have debated incessantly and single-mindedly. Some critics have explored its major medieval literary sources, influences, and parallels, particularly in relation to northern saga and Old and Middle English literature, language, and culture, chiefly Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.2 Other critics have explored its direct and indirect religious, moral, or Christian (Roman Catholic) aspects.3 No one seems to have understood fully how the dual levels of the Beowulf article might apply to The Lord of the Rings, although Patricia Meyer Spacks suggests provocatively that at least one level does apply: Tolkien's view of the “naked will and courage” necessary to combat chaos and death in the context of northern mythology (as opposed to Christianity) resembles the similar epic weapons of the Hobbit-heroes of his trilogy.4 In addition, no critic has seemed to notice that even in genre and form this work combines an explicitly medieval bias (as epic, romance, or chanson de geste) with an implicitly Christian one (as fantasy or fairy-story).5 The most interesting and most discussed genre has been that of medieval romance, with its tales of knights and lords battling with various adversaries.6

Its title, The Lord of the Rings, introduces the ambiguous role of the ruler as a leader (“The Lord”) with power over but also responsibility for others (“the Rings”). Elsewhere in Tolkien's critical and creative works the lord has been depicted as an excessively proud Germanic warrior bent on the sacrifice of his men for his own ends (for example, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son”), or as a humble Elf-king modeled on Christ, intent on sacrificing himself for the sake of his followers (for example, “Smith of Wootton Major”). So in this epic Sauron typifies the Germanic lord in his monstrous use of his slaves as Gandalf typifies the Elf-king or Christ-figure in his self-sacrifice during the battle with the Balrog. But there are hierarchies of both monstrous and heroic lords in this epic, whose plenitude has frustrated critical attempts to discern the hero as either Aragorn, Frodo, or Sam—or, including Gollum, all four.7 Aragorn may represent the Christian hero as Frodo and Sam represent the more Germanic hero—that is, the subordinate warrior—yet all three remain epic heroes. The complexity of Tolkien's system of heroic and monstrous “lords” in the trilogy becomes clearer through an examination of its structural unity.

In defining the parameters of the work's structure,8 Tolkien declares that “[t]he only units of any structural significance are the books. These originally had each its title.”9 This original plan was followed in the publication in 1999 of the Millennium edition, with its seven slim volumes, one for each renamed book and the appendices: book 1 is “The Ring Sets Out”; book 2, “The Ring Goes South”; book 3, “The Treason of Isengard”; book 4, “The Ring Goes East”; book 5, “The War of the Ring”; book 6, “The End of the Third Age”; and book 7, “Appendices.” Apparently Tolkien had initially substituted titles for each of the three parts at the instigation of his publisher, although he preferred to regard it as a “three-decker novel” instead of as a “trilogy” in order to establish it as a single, unified work, not three separate works.10 But in either case, with six books or with three parts, the title of each thematically and symbolically supports the crowning title, “The Lord of the Rings,” by revealing some aspect of the adversary or the hero through a related but subordinate title that fixes on the Ring's movements and the ambiguity of its “owner” or “bearer,” and each of the three parts is itself supported thematically and symbolically by its two-book division.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the focus falls upon the lord as what might be termed both a hero and a monster, a divided self discussed in chapter 1, “The Critic as Monster.” Frodo as the “lord” or keeper of the Ring in the first part mistakes the chief threat to the Hobbit Fellowship (a symbol of community) as physical and external (for example, the Black Riders) but matures enough to learn by the end of the second book that the chief threat exists in a more dangerous spiritual and internal form, whether within him as microcosm (the hero as monster) or within the Fellowship as macrocosm (his friend Boromir). The Fellowship of the Ring as bildungsroman echoes the development of the hero Bilbo in The Hobbit discussed in chapter 2, “The King under the Mountain.”

The Two Towers shifts attention from the divided self of the hero as monster to the more specifically Germanic but also Christian monster seen in Saruman (representing intellectual sin in book 3) and Shelob (representing physical sin in book 4), who occupy or guard the two towers of the title. This part duplicates material in The Hobbit outlining monstrosity in terms of the Beowulf article and the Ancrene Wisse discussed primarily in chapter 2, “The King under the Mountain.”

The evil Germanic lord often has a good warrior to serve him; the figure of the good servant merges with the Christian king healer (Aragorn) who dominates The Return of the King in opposition to the Germanic destroyer (Denethor) in book 5, the consequences of whose reign lead to a “Return,” or regeneration within the macrocosm, in book 6. Ideas in this last part mirror chapter 3's “Christian King” appearing in fairy-stories and chapter 4's “Germanic Lord” appearing in medieval parodies. The structure of the epic then reveals a hierarchy of heroes and monsters implied by its title but also summoned from Tolkien's other critical and creative works.


Because the title of The Fellowship of the Ring links the wandering “Fellowship” with the “Ring” of The Lord of the Rings, a subtitle for the first part of the epic might be “All that is gold does not glitter, / Not all those who wander are lost.”11 Thematically, the title and its “subtitle” suggest that appearance does not equal reality: the Ring appears valuable because it glitters; the wandering Fellowship appears lost. But in reality the gold Ring may not be as valuable as it appears and the Fellowship may not be lost; further, the wanderer to whom the lines refer, despite his swarthy exterior and wandering behavior as Strider the Ranger, may be real gold and definitely not lost. As the king of light opposed to the Dark Lord, Strider returns as king after the Ring has been finally returned to Mount Doom, ending the aspirations of the Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring as a title stresses the heroic mission of Aragorn's “followers” to advance the cause of the good king. The band of gold represents by synecdoche the power of the evil Lord of the Rings, to be countered by the “band” of the Fellowship, whether the four Hobbits in book 1 or the larger Fellowship of Hobbits, Wizard (Istar, most likely a Vala), Elf, Dwarf, and Man in book 2.

Because the Fellowship is burdened with the responsibility of bearing the Ring and because its presence attracts evil, the greatest threat to the Fellowship and its mission comes not from without but within. The hero must realize that he can become a monster. The two books of the The Fellowship of the Ring trace the process of this realization: the first book centers on the presentation of evil as external and physical, requiring physical heroism to combat it; and the second book centers on the presentation of evil as internal and spiritual, requiring a spiritual heroism to combat it. The hero matures by coming to understand the character of good and evil—specifically, by descending into an underworld and then ascending into an overworld, a natural one in the first book and a supernatural one in the second. The second book, then, functions as a mirror image of the first. These two levels correspond to the two levels—Germanic and Christian—of Beowulf and The Hobbit. For Frodo, as for Beowulf and Bilbo, the ultimate enemy is himself.

Tolkien immediately defines “the hero as monster” by introducing the divided self of Gollum-Sméagol and, then, to ensure the reader's understanding of the hero as monster, Bilbo-as-Gollum. The Cain-like Sméagol rationalizes the murder of his cousin Deagol for the gold Ring he holds because it is his birthday (LR, 1:84). Sméagol deserves a gift, something “precious” like the Ring, because the occasion celebrates the fact of his birth, his special being. The parable of Sméagol's fall illustrates the nature of evil as cupiditas, or avarice, in the classical and literal sense. But as the root of all evil (in the words of Chaucer's Pardoner, alluding to St. Paul's letter to Timothy), cupiditas more generally and medievally represents that Augustinian self-ishness usually personified as strong desire in the figure of Cupid (=cupidity, concupiscence or desire). The two names, Gollum and Sméagol, dramatize the fragmenting and divisive consequences of his fall into vice, the “Gollum” the bestial sound of his swallowing as an expression of his gluttony and greed, the “Sméagol,” in its homonymic similarity to “Deagol,” linking him to a group of others like him (the Stoors, as a third family-type of Hobbit) to establish his common Hobbitness—and heroism.12 That is, Gollum's psychological resemblance to the Hobbits is revealed when good overpowers the evil in him and, as he witnesses his master Frodo asleep in Sam's lap, he reaches out a hand to touch his knee in a caress. At that moment he seems “an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing” (LR, 2:411).

But also, Tolkien takes care to present the good Hobbit and heroic Bilbo as a divided self, “stretched thin” into a Gollum-like being because of his years carrying the Ring. The scene opens after all with Bilbo's birthday party, to reenact the original fall of Gollum, on his birthday. The role of Deagol is played by Bilbo's nephew Frodo: on Bilbo's birthday, instead of receiving a gift, Bilbo, like Gollum, must give away a gift—to the other Hobbit relatives and friends and to Frodo, recipient of the Ring. But at the moment of bequest Bilbo retreats into a Gollum-like personality as illustrated by similar speech patterns: “It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious” (LR, 1:59). Bilbo refuses to give away the Ring because he feels himself to be more deserving and Frodo less deserving of carrying it. Later the feeling is described as a realization of the Other as monstrous (presumably with the concomitant belief in the self as good). In the parallel scene at the beginning of book 2, Bilbo wishes to see the Ring, and so he reaches out a hand for Frodo to give it to him; Frodo reacts violently because “a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him” (LR, 1:306; my italics). The Ring, then, a sign of imperial or ecclesiastical power in medieval contexts and a sign of the conjugal bond in personal and familial contexts, appropriately symbolizes here the slavish obeisance of Sméagol to Gollum and a wedding of self to self, in lieu of a true wedding of self to Other.

That is, wedding the self to Other implies a giving up of selfishness out of love and concern for another being. An expression of such caritas is hinted at in Gollum's momentary return to Hobbitness, when he seems to show love for his master Frodo, and is symbolized by the “band” of the Fellowship to which each member belongs—another “Ring.” Such caritas opposes the view of the Other as monstrous. Even Frodo at first sees monstrous Gollum as despicable: “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had a chance!” (LR, 1:92). But just as the hero can become monstrous, so also can the monster become heroic: it is Gollum who helps Frodo and Sam across the Dead Marshes and, more important, who inadvertently saves Frodo from himself; Gollum also saves Middle-earth by biting the Ring off Frodo's finger as they stand on the precipice of Mount Doom in the third part. Therefore, Gandalf cautions Frodo to feel toward the despicable Gollum not wrath or hatred but love as pity, as Bilbo has manifested toward Gollum: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need” (LR, 1:92). Gandalf explains: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least” (LR, 1:93). This pity as charity, or love binding one individual to another, cements together the “fellowship” of the Hobbits in book 1 and later, in book 2, the differing species who form the enlarged Fellowship. The “chain of love” such fellowship creates contrasts with the chains of enslavement represented by Sauron's one Ring. Described as “fair” in the Middle Ages, the chain of love supposedly bound one individual to another and as well bound together the macrocosm of the heavens: Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy terms it a “common bond of love by which all things seek to be held to the goal of the good.”13 After Boethius explains that “love binds together people joined by a sacred bond; love binds sacred marriages by chaste affections; love makes the laws which join true friends,” he wistfully declares, “O how happy the human race would be, if that love which rules the heavens rules also your souls!” (The Consolation of Philosophy, book 2, poem 8, p. 41).

The chain of enslavement, in contrast, involves a hierarchy of power, beginning with the “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them” (LR, 1:7i), and encompassing the seven Dwarf-rings (could they be found) and the nine rings of the “Mortal Men doomed to die,” the Ringwraiths.14 If love binds together the heavens and the hierarchy of species known in the Middle Ages as the Great Chain of Being—which includes angels, humankind, beasts, birds, fish, plants, and stones—then hate and envy and pride and avarice bind together the hierarchy of species under the aegis of the One Ring of Sauron the fallen Vala. Only the “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky”—the loftiest and most noble species—were never made by Sauron because, says Elrond, the Elves “did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things sustained” (LR, 1:352).

Tolkien intentionally contrasts the hierarchy of good characters, linked by the symbolic value of fellowship into an invisible band or chain of love, with the hierarchy of evil characters and fallen characters linked by the literal rings of enslavement—a chain of sin.15 It is for this reason that the miniature Fellowship of Hobbits in the first book draws together in love different representatives from the Hobbit “species” or families—Baggins, Took, Brandybuck, Gamgee—as the larger Fellowship in the second book draws together representatives from different species—the four Hobbit representatives, Gimli the Dwarf, Strider and Boromir the Men, Legolas the Elf, and Gandalf the Wizard (Istar, Vala). In both cases, however, these representatives are young—the heirs of the equivalents of the “old men” who must revitalize and renew Middle-earth because it too has become “old” and decrepit, governed by the spiritually old and corrupt influence of Sauron. Symbolically, then, these “heirs,” as the young, represent vitality, life, newness: Frodo is Bilbo's nephew and heir, Gimli is Groin's, Legolas is Thranduil's, Strider is Isildur's, Boromir is Denethor's, and the remaining Hobbits are the still youthful heirs of their aged fathers. Only Gandalf as the good counterpart to Sauron is “old.” In part Gandalf constitutes a spiritual guide for Frodo, especially in book 2, as Aragorn-Strider constitutes a physical (literally powerful) guide in book 1.

The necessity for the young figure to become the savior hero (like the novus homo) of the old is introduced by Tolkien in the first pages of The Fellowship of the Ring. Note the spiritual oldness of the fathers of the miniature “Fellowship” of Hobbits: the old Hobbits view those who are different, or “queer,” as alien, evil, monstrous, or dangerous because the fathers themselves lack charity, pity, and understanding. They condemn the Brandybucks of Buckland as a “queer breed” for engaging in unnatural (at least for Hobbits) activities on water (LR, 1:45). Yet these old Hobbits are not evil, merely “old.” Even the Gaffer vindicates Bag End and its “queer folk” by admitting, “There's some not far away that wouldn't offer a pint a beer to a friend, if they lived in a hole with golden walls. But they do things proper at Bag End” (LR, 1:47). Gaffer's literalness—his “oldness”—is characteristic of the Old Law of justice (note Gaffer's term “proper”) rather than the New Law of mercy. Such old Hobbits also lack imagination, an awareness of the spirit rather than the letter. Sam's father expresses a literalism and earthiness similar to Sauron's: “‘Elves and dragons’! I says to him, ‘Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you’” (LR, 1:47). This “Old Man” Tolkien casts in the role of what might be termed the “Old Adam,” for whom Christ as the New Adam will function as a replacement and redeemer. A gardener like Adam at Bag End, Gaffer condemns that of which he cannot conceive and accepts that of which he can—cabbages and potatoes—and presents his condemnation in the appropriately named inn, the “Ivy Bush.” Although his son Sam is different and will become in effect the New Adam of the Shire by the trilogy's end, generally, however, earthbound Hobbits (inhabiting holes underground) display a similar lack of imagination, symbolized by their delight in the pyrotechnic dragon created by Gandalf. They may not be able to imagine Elves and dragons, but they love what they can see, a “terribly lifelike” dragon leaving nothing to the imagination (LR, 1:52). This dragon, however, unlike that in Beowulf, poses no threat to their lives. In fact, it represents the “signal for supper.”

The “New Man” represented by the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin then must overcome a natural inclination toward “oldness,” toward the life of the senses inherent in the Hobbit love of food, comfort, warm shelter, entertainment, and good tobacco. All of the Hobbits do so by the trilogy's end, but Frodo as Ring-bearer changes the most dramatically and centrally by the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. His education, both oral lessons from guides and moral and life-threatening experiences, begins with the gift of the Ring after Bilbo's birthday party.

Designated as Bilbo's heir and recipient of the Ring at the birthday party (chapters 1-5) in the first book, Frodo is also designated as the official Ring-bearer after the Council of Elrond (chapters 1-3) in the second book, to which it is parallel. In the first book Gandalf relates the history of Gollum's discovery of the Ring and Bilbo's winning of it, and he explains its nature and properties. In the second book, at this similar gathering, the history of the Ring, from its creation by Sauron to the present, and the involvement therein of various species are related. The birthday party that allows Bilbo to “disappear” as if by magic from the Shire is like the council that allows Frodo and other members of the Fellowship to “disappear” as if by magic from Middle-earth—and from the searching Eye of Sauron, for the Dark Lord will never imagine them carrying the Ring back to Mordor. Further, the distribution of gifts to friends and relatives after the party resembles the council's decision to give back the “gift” of the Ring to its “relative,” the mother lode of Mount Doom. The gifts in each episode make explicit the flaws of the recipient: Adelard Took, for example, receives an umbrella because he has stolen so many from Bilbo. In a sense Sauron too will indirectly receive exactly what he has always wanted and has continually tried to usurp or steal—the Ring. The point of these parallels should be clear: the concept of the divided self or the hero as monster was revealed in the symbolic birthday party through the figures of Gollum-Sméagol, Bilbo-Gollum, Frodo-Gollum—the hero as monster suggested by the notion of the “birthday.” For the reader, Tolkien warns that the most dangerous evil really springs from inside, not from outside.

This message introduced at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring is what Frodo must learn by its end. The “Council of Elrond,” its very title suggesting egalitarian debate among members of a community rather than group celebration of an individual, symbolically poses the converse message, that the most beneficial good similarly springs from the inside but must be directed to the community rather than to oneself. The humble member of the council—the insignificant Hobbit Frodo—is ultimately chosen to pursue the mission of the Ring because he is insignificant.16 Frodo's insignificance in the community there contrasts with Bilbo's significance as a member of the Shire community. However, as the chapter of “A Long-Expected Party” (or what might be called “The Birthday Party”) had dramatized the presence of evil among inheritance-seeking relatives (specifically the greedy and self-aggrandizing Sackville-Bagginses), so the “Council of Elrond” indicates the potential of evil threatening the Fellowship from within through the greed and self-aggrandizement of some of its members—Men like Boromir.

In the first book Frodo comes to understand evil as external and physical through the descent into the Old Forest, a parallel underworld to the supernatural underworld of Moria17 in the second book. Both Old Man Willow and the barrow-wights represent the natural process of death caused, in Christian terms, by the Fall of Man.18 Originally the Old Forest consisted of the “fathers of the fathers of trees,” whose “countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice” (LR, 1:181), as if they had sprung from the one Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden. The ensuing history of human civilization after the Fall of Adam and Eve resulted in similar falls and deaths: “There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them and the stone doors were shut and the grass grew over all” (LR, 1:181). As Old Man Willow and his malice represent the living embodiment of the parent Tree of Death, so the barrow-wights represent the ghostly embodiment of the dead parent civilizations of Men: “Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind” (LR, 1:181). The Hobbits' first clue to the character of the Old Forest (note again Tolkien's emphasis on oldness) resides in the falling of the Hobbits' spirits—a “dying” of merriment—when they first enter. Their fear, depression, and gloom are followed by the deathlike sleep (again, a result of the Fall) as the chief weapon of Old Man Willow (LR, 1:165). All growth in Nature is abetted by sleep and ends in death, usually after oldness (again, the Old Man Willow figure). The barrow-wights who attack the Hobbits later in the Old Forest are also linked to the earth, like the roots of Old Man Willow, but here through the barrow, a Man-made grave which they inhabit as ghosts. The song of the barrow-wights invokes coldness and death, literally, the “bed” of the human grave, where “Cold be hand and heart and bone, / and cold be sleep under stone” (LR, 1:195).

The attacks of the Old Man Willow and the barrow-wights on the Hobbits are stopped by Tom Bombadil and his mate Goldberry, who personify their complementary and positive counterparts in Nature.19 The principle of growth and revivification of all living things balances the process of mutability and death: what Goldberry lauds as “spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after!” (LR, 1:173), omitting autumn and winter as antithetical seasons. Tom Bombadil as master of trees, grasses, and the living things of the land (LR, 1:174) complements the “fair river-daughter” dressed in a gown “green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew,” her feet surrounded by water-lilies (LR, 1:172). Because their role in Nature involves the maintenance of the existing order, their songs often praise the Middle-earth equivalent of the medieval Chain of Being:

Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!

(LR, 1:171)

As the Old Forest depresses the Hobbits, Tom Bombadil cheers them up so much that, by the time they reach his house, “half their weariness and all their fears had fallen from them” (LR, 1:171). It is no accident that Tom Bombadil always seems to be laughing and singing joyously.

Frodo learns from the descent into this underworld of the Old Forest that the presence of mutability, change, and death in the world is natural and continually repaired by growth and new life. In the second book he learns through a parallel descent into the Mines of Moria that the spiritual form of death represented by sin stems from within the individual but is redeemed by the “new life” of wisdom and virtue counseled by Galadriel, the supernatural equivalent of Tom Bombadil, who resides in the paradisal Lothlórien. The descent also involves a return to the tragic past of the Dwarves, who fell because of the “oldness” of their kings, their avarice; the ascent involves an encounter with the eternal presence of Lothlórien, where all remains new and young, and filled with the healing spirit of Elven mercy and caritas.

The Dwarves led by both Durin and later Balin fell because of their greed for the jewels mined in Moria20—its depths a metaphorical equivalent of Old Man Willow's buried roots and the deep barrows inhabited by the wights. But unlike the sense of material death pervading the Old Forest, the death associated with the Mines of Moria is voluntary because it is spiritual in nature and one chooses it or at least fails to resist its temptation: this spiritual death exists in the form of avarice. Gandalf declares that “even as mithril was the foundation of their wealth, so also was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane” (LR, 1:413). Durin's Bane, the Balrog, monstrously projects the Dwarves' internal vice, which resurfaces later to overpower other Dwarves, including Balin. It is no accident that Balin dies at Mirrormere, a very dark mirror in which he is blind to himself. His mistaken goal of mithril and jewels contrasts with that of the Elves of Lórien, whose Galadriel possesses a clear mirror wisdom.

Lórien of the Blossom boasts an Eternal Spring where “ever bloom the winter flowers in the unfading grass” (LR, 1:454), a “vanished world” where the shapes and colors are pristine and new, for “[n]o blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything, that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain” (LR, 1:454-55).21 In this paradise of restoration, like that of Niggle in “Leaf by Niggle,” time almost ceases to pass and seems even to reverse, so that “the grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair” (LR, 1:456). Evil does not exist in this land nor in Galadriel unless brought in from the outside (LR, 1:464). The physical and spiritual regeneration, or “life,” characteristic of these Elves is embodied in their lembas, a food that restores spirits and lasts exceedingly long—a type of communion offered to the weary travelers. Other gifts of the Lady Galadriel—the rope, magic cloaks, golden hairs, phial of light, seeds of elanor—later aid them either physically or spiritually at times of crisis in their quest, almost as a type of Christian grace in material form.22 Like Adam and Eve forced to leave paradise for the wilderness, although taking with them its memory as a paradise within, “happier far,” in Miltonic terms, the travelers leave Lórien knowing “the danger of light and joy” (LR, 1:490). Legolas reminds Gimli the Dwarf that “the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlórien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale” (LR, 1:490). Gimli's Dwarfish and earthbound nature compels him to deny the therapeutic value of memory: “Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram” (LR, 1:490). The mirror to which he refers in Westron is called “Mirrormere” and, instead of reflecting back the faces of gazers, portrays only the reflection of a crown of stars representing Durin's own destructive desire. In contrast, the Mirror of Galadriel with its vision of the Eternal Present, connoting supernatural wisdom, invites the gazer to “see” or understand himself, however unpleasant. Gimli is wrong; memory is a mirror and reflects back the consolation of truth, at least for those wise and steadfast beings like the Elves, whose “memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves” (LR, 1:490).

This lesson in natural and supernatural evil and good also functions as a mirror for Frodo to see himself. He must learn there is both Dwarf and Elf in his heart, a Mines of Moria and Lothlórien buried in his psyche. Having learned, he must then exercise free will in choosing either good or evil, usually experienced in terms of putting on or taking off the Ring at times of external or internal danger. While his initial exercises are fraught with mistakes in judgment, the inability to distinguish impulse from deliberation or an external summons from an internal decision, eventually he does learn to control his own desires and resist the will of others. Told by Gandalf to fling the Ring into the fire after just receiving it, “with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away—but he found that he had put it back in his pocket” (LR, 1:94). As Frodo practices he grows more adept but still slips: at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, his attempt at singing and dancing to divert the attention of Pippin's audience from the tale of Bilbo's birthday party allows him to become so “pleased with himself” that he puts on the Ring by mistake and becomes embarrassingly invisible. The physical dangers Frodo faces in these encounters culminate in the attack of the Black Riders one night and later at the Ford. The Ring in the first instance so controls his will that “his terror swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring, desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. … [A]t last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand” (LR, 1:262-63). As a consequence, Frodo can see the Ringwraiths as they really are, but, unfortunately, they can also see him, enough to wound him in the shoulder. The worst test in the first book involves the encounter at the Ford. Counseled first by Gandalf to “Ride” from the Black Rider attacking them, Frodo is then counseled silently by the Riders to wait. When his strength to refuse diminishes, he is saved first by Glorfindel, who addressed his horse in Elvish to flee, and again by Gandalf, who drowns the horses of the Black Riders when they prevent Frodo's horse from crossing the Ford.

While Frodo fails these major tests in the first book and must rely on various manifestations of a deus ex machina to save himself, his established valor and courage represent the first steps to attaining the higher form of heroism expressed by wisdom and self-control in the second book, a heroism very like that Germanic form exhibited by Beowulf in the epic of the same name.23 Frodo's physical heroism evolves in the combat with physical dangers in book 1: his cry for help when Merry is caught by Old Man Willow; his stabbing of the barrow-wight's hand as it nears the bound Sam; his dancing and singing to protect Pippin and their mission from discovery; his stabbing of the foot of one Rider during the night-attack; and his valor (brandishing his sword) and courage (refusing to put on the Ring, telling the Riders to return to Mordor) at the edge of the Ford. But this last incident reveals Frodo's spiritual naïveté: he believes physical gestures of heroism will ward off the Black Riders.

Only after Frodo's education in the second book, which details supernatural death and regeneration instead of its more natural and physical forms, as in the first book, does he begin to understand the necessity of sapientia, in addition to that heroism expressed by the concept of fortitudo. In the last chapter, “The Breaking of the Fellowship,” he faces a threat from the proud and avaricious Boromir within the macrocosm of the Fellowship. Fleeing from him, Frodo puts on the Ring to render himself invisible and safe. But this unwise move allows him to see clearly (too clearly) as he sits, symbolically, upon the Seat of Seeing atop Amon Hen (“Hill of the Eye”), built by the kings of Gondor, the searching of Sauron's own Eye.24 What results is a second internal danger—the threat from within Frodo, the microcosm. A battle is staged within his psyche, and he is pulled first one way, then another, until, as a fully developed moral hero, he exercises the faculty of free will with complete self-control: “He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!” He feels the struggle of the “two powers” within him: “For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger” (LR, 1:519). In this incident, parallel to the encounter of the Riders at the Ford in the last chapter of the first book, Frodo rescues himself instead of being rescued by Glorfindel or Gandalf. Further, in proving his moral education by the realization that he must wage his own quest alone to protect both their mission and the other members of the Fellowship, he displays fortitudo et sapientia (fortitude and wisdom) and caritas (charity)—hence, he acts as that savior of the Fellowship earlier witnessed in the figures of Tom Bombadil and Strider in the first book and Gandalf and Galadriel in the second. His education complete, Frodo can now function as a hero for he understands he may, at any time, become a “monster.”

The turning point in the narrative allows a shift in Tolkien's theme and the beginning of the second part of the epic novel in The Two Towers. The remaining members of the Fellowship are divided into two separate groups in this next book, a division symbolizing thematically not only the nature of conflict in battle in the macrocosm but also the psychic fragmentation resulting from evil. It is no mistake that the title is “The Two Towers”—the double, again, symptomatic of the divided self. There are not only two towers but two monsters.


The two towers of the title belong to Saruman and in a sense to Shelob because the quest of the remainder of the Fellowship in book 3 culminates in an attack on Orthanc and because the quest of Frodo and Sam in book 4 leads to their “attack” on Cirith Ungol, the sentry tower at the border of Mordor guarded by the giant spider.25 Both Orthanc and Cirith Ungol copy the greatest tower of all, the Dark Tower of Sauron described as a “fortress, armory, prison, furnace … secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength” (LR, 2:204). Through these two monsters represented by their towers, this second part of The Lord of the Rings defines the nature of evil in greater detail than the first part. Thus, it also introduces the notion of the Christian deadly sins embodied in the monsters (found in the Ancrene Wisse), which must be combated by very Germanic heroes.26

The tower image is informed by the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. In this biblical passage, at first, “[t]hroughout the earth men spoke the same language, with the same vocabulary,” but then the sons of Noah built a town and “a tower with its top reaching heaven.” They decided, “Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth.”27 Their desire to reach heaven and “make a name” for themselves represents the same desire of Adam and Eve for godhead. Because these men believe “[t]here will be nothing too hard for them to do” (11:6-7), the Lord frustrates their desire by “confusing” their language and scattering them over the earth. Their overweening ambition and self-aggrandizement result in division of and chaos within the nation.

Selfishness, or cupiditas, symbolized by the Tower of Babel, shows how a preoccupation with self at the expense of the Other or of God can lead to confusion, alienation, division. The recurring symbolism of The Two Towers in Tolkien's work helps to break down this idea of cupiditas, or perversion of self. The Tower of Saruman, or Orthanc, means “Mount Fang” in Elvish but “Cunning Mind” in the language of the Mark, to suggest perversion of the mind; the Tower of Shelob, or Cirith Ungol, means “Pass of the Spider” to suggest perversion of the body. While the creation of the Tower of Babel results in differing languages to divide the peoples, the two towers in Tolkien express division in a more microcosmic sense, in terms of the separation and perversion of the two parts of the self. Saruman's intellectual perversion has shaped his tower (formerly inhabited by the wardens of Gondor) to “his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived—for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor” (LR, 2:204). Specifically, the pride and envy of Sauron impel him to achieve ever more power as his avarice impels him to seek the Ring and conquer more lands and forests through wrathful wars. Like Saruman, Shelob “served none but herself” but in a very different, more bestial way, by “drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness” (LR, 2:422). Her gluttony is revealed in her insatiable appetite, her sloth in her demands that others bring her food, and her lechery in her many bastards (perhaps appropriately and symbolically quelled by Sam's penetration of her belly with his sword). Never can Shelob achieve the higher forms of perversion manifested by Saruman: “Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up” (LR, 2:423). Guarding the gateway to Mordor at Cirith Ungol, Shelob suggests another guardian—of the gateway to Hell. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan's daughter Sin mated with her father to beget Death, the latter of whom pursued her lecherous charms relentlessly and incessantly.28 In this case, Shelob is depicted not as Satan's daughter but as Sauron's cat (LR, 2:424).

Tolkien shows the analogy between the two monsters and their towers by structuring their books similarly. The perversion of mind embodied in Saruman is expressed by the difficulty in communication through or understanding of words or gestures in book 3, and the perversion of body personified in Shelob is expressed by the difficulty in finding food and shelter, or hospitality, in book 4. Specifically, Wormtongue, Grishnákh, and Saruman all display aspects of the higher sins of pride, avarice, envy, and wrath through their incomprehension or manipulation of language. Gollum and Shelob both illustrate the lower sins of gluttony, sloth, and lechery. Each book centers on the adventures of only part of the Fellowship, the nobler members in book 3 (Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, and Merry and Pippin) and the more humble members in book 4 (Sam and Frodo). In each book, too, the adventures progressively become more dangerous, the enemies encountered more vicious.

The Uruk-hai in book 3 illustrate the disorder and contention caused by the literal failure to understand languages. When Pippin first awakens after being captured, he can understand only some of the Orcs' language: “Apparently the members of two or three quite different tribes were present, and they could not understand one another's orc-speech. There was an angry debate concerning what they were to do now: which way they were to take and what should be done with the prisoners” (LR, 2:60); debate advances to quarrel and then to murder when Saruman's Uglúk of the Uruk-hai kills two of Sauron's Orcs led by Grishnákh. The parable suggests that the tongues of different species of peoples create misunderstanding and hence conflict, disorder, and death, because of the inability to transcend selfish interests. Because they do not adhere to a common purpose, their enmity allows the Hobbits their freedom when Grishnákh's desire for the Ring overcomes his judgment and he unties the Hobbits just before his death.

This literal failure to communicate is followed in book 3 by the description of a deliberate manipulation of language so that misunderstanding will occur. Wormtongue's ill counsel renders the king impotent and his people leaderless. As a good counselor, Gandalf begs Théoden to “come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings” (LR, 2:151). When Théoden spurns the “forked tongue” of the “witless worm” (the Satanic parallels are surely intentional) in exchange for wise counsel, the king of Rohan leaves the darkness: he stands erect, and drops his staff to act as “one new awakened.” Gandalf—unlike Wormtongue, who has manipulated others by means of belittling words into death and despair—wisely counsels life and hope. Such good words unite the Rohirrim and the Fellowship in a common purpose—fighting Saruman—rather than one that divides, like that of the quarrelsome Uruk-hai and Orcs.

If Gandalf awakens Théoden from a sleep caused by evil counsel, then Merry and Pippin awaken Treebeard from no counsel at all, given his sleepy neglect of his charge as Shepherd of the Trees.29 While Treebeard has been used as a source of information by Saruman, the latter has not reciprocated, even evilly: “[H]is face, as I remember it … became like windows in a stone wall: window with shutters inside” (LR, 2:96). But Treebeard must realize the threat to Fangorn posed by Saruman, who “has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far they serve him for the moment” (LR, 2:96). Saruman has abused Nature's growing things by destroying the trees and twisted human nature by creating mutants and enslaving the will of Men like Théoden to obtain his own will. In the Entmoot, an orderly civilized debate in contrast to the quarrels of the Orcs and the one-sided insinuation of Wormtongue, language serves properly to unite the Ents by awakening them to Saruman's threat. These talking trees—signifying the principle of reason and order inherent in Nature as the higher complement to the principle of life and growth signified by Tom Bombadil—join with the Men of Rohan (as Riders complementary to the Rangers we met in the figure of Strider in the first book) to combat the evil represented by “Cunning Mind.”

These episodes that delineate the problem of language and communication in the attempt to join with or separate from the Other culminate in the most important episode of all in the chapter entitled “The Voice of Saruman.” Here, in the final debate between the fallen and the reborn Wizards, Saruman fails to use language cunningly enough to obtain his end and hence he loses, literally and symbolically, that chief weapon of the “cunning mind,” the palantír (“far-seer”). Unctuous Saruman almost convinces the group that he is a gentle Man much put upon who only desires to meet the mighty Théoden. But Gimli wisely perceives that “[t]he words of this wizard stand on their heads. … In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain” (LR, 2:235). In addition, Eomer and Théoden resist the temptation to believe the wily ex-Wizard, so that his truly corrupt nature30 is then revealed through the demeaning imprecations he directs toward the house of Eorl.

The emphasis upon language in this book shows that human speech can reflect man's highest and lowest aspirations: good words can express the love for another as cunning words can seek to subvert another for the speaker's own selfish ends. The archetypal Word is Christ as the Incarnation of God's love;31 but words or speech in general, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas in his essay “On Kingship,” naturally distinguishes human from beast because they express a rational nature. However, the misuse of reason to acquire knowledge forbidden by God leads to human spiritual degeneration and the dehumanization of the Other. On the one hand, such behavior marks Saruman as a perverted Wizard accompanied by his equally perverted servant, Wormtongue—their perversion makes them monstrous. On the other hand, to underscore the extent of Saruman's perversion this book is filled with examples of the heroes' difficulty in communicating with others and understanding the signs and signals of another's language.

Thus, for example, when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli find the Hobbits missing but their whereabouts unknown, they face an “evil choice” because of this lack of communication, just as Merry and Pippin, once captured, almost succumb to despair because they do not know where they are or where they are going (LR, 2:59). In the attempt to pursue the Hobbits, the remainder of the Fellowship must learn to “read” a puzzling sign language: the letter S emblazoned on a dead Orc's shield (killed in Boromir's defense of the Hobbits), the footprints of Sam leading into the water but not back again (LR, 2:25), the heap of dead Orcs without any clue to the Hobbit presence (LR, 2:53), the appearance of a strange old man bearing away their horses (LR, 2:116), and the mystery of the bound Hobbits' apparent escape (LR, 2:116). All of these signs or riddles can be explained, and indeed, as Aragorn suggests, “we must guess the riddles, if we are to choose our course rightly” (LR, 2:21). Man's quest symbolically depends on his correct use of his reason; the temptation is to know more than one should by consulting a magical device like the palantír.

If book 3 demonstrates the intellectual nature of sin, then book 4 demonstrates its physical, or material, nature. Although the structure of Shelob's tower of Cirith Ungol ends this book as Orthanc ends the third, the tower is never described in this part. Instead, another tower—Minas Morgul—introduces the weary group to the land they approach at the book's end. In appearance Minas Morgul resembles a human corpse: “Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night” (LR, 2:396-97; my italics). The holes might be a skull's. As a type of corpse it focuses attention on the human body, whose perverse desires preoccupy Tolkien in this book.

So Gollum's obsession with fish and dark things of the earth disgusts Frodo and Sam: his name as the sound of swallowing aptly characterizes his monstrously gluttonous nature. Again, when Gollum guides the two Hobbits across the Dead Marshes, it is dead bodies from the battle between Sauron and the Alliance in the Third Age, or at least their appearance, that float beneath the surface and tempt Gollum's appetite (LR, 2:297). But the Hobbits' appetites result in trouble too: they are captured by Faramir when the smoke of the fire for the rabbit stew cooked by Sam and generously intended for Frodo is detected (just as Gollum is captured by Frodo at Faramir's when he hunts fish in the Forbidden Pool). Faramir's chief gift to the weary Hobbits is a most welcome hospitality, including food and shelter as a respite from the barren wasteland they traverse. Finally, the Hobbits are themselves intended as food by Gollum for the insatiable spider Shelob. Truly the monster (whether Gollum or Shelob) is depicted as a glutton just as the hero—past, present, or future (the corpse, the Hobbits, Faramir)—is depicted as food or life throughout this book. Physical life can end without food to sustain the body; it can also end, as the previous book indicated, because of an inaccurate interpretation of language to guide rational judgment.

These monsters representing sin are opposed by heroes constructed as Germanic lords and warriors. As we have seen, Théoden the weak leader of Rohan is transformed by Gandalf's encouragement into a very heroic Germanic king in book 3, unlike the proud Beorhtnoth of “The Battle of Maldon.” In book 4 the Germanic warrior or subordinate (chiefly Sam) vows to lend his aid to his master out of love and loyalty like the old retainer Beorhtwold in “The Battle of Maldon.” The bond between the king as head of a nation and the reason as “lord” of the individual corresponds to that between the subordinate warrior as servant of the king and the subordinate body.

To enhance these Germanic correspondences Tolkien describes Rohan as an Old English warrior nation complete with appropriate names32 and including a suspicious hall guardian named Hama, very similar to the hall guardian in Beowulf, and an ubi sunt poem modeled on a passage from the Old English “Wanderer,” as the following pair of passages from The Two Towers and that Old English poem attest:

Where now the horse and rider? Where is the horn
          that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright
          hair flowing?

(LR, 2:142)

Where went the horse, where went the man? Where
          went the treasure-giver?
Where went the seats of banquets? Where are the hall-

In addition, throughout book 3 Tolkien stresses the physical heroism of the Rohirrim and the Fellowship in the battle at Helm's Deep, which resembles those described in “The Battle of Maldon,” “Brunnanburh,” and “The Fight at Finnsburg.”

But in book 4 the heroism of the “warrior” depends more on love and loyalty than on expressions of valor in battle. Four major subordinates emerge: Gollum, Sam, Frodo, and Faramir. Each offers a very Germanic oath of allegiance to his master or lord: Gollum, in pledging not to run away if he is untied, swears by the Ring, “I will serve the master of the Precious” (LR, 2:285). So Frodo becomes a lord, “a tall stern shadow, a mighty lord who hid his brightness in grey cloud, and at his feet a whining dog” (LR, 2:285). Gollum must also swear an oath to Faramir never to return to the Forbidden Pool or lead others there (LR, 2:379). Sam similarly serves his master Frodo but, like Gollum, betrays him, not to Shelob but to Faramir, by cooking the rabbit stew. Likewise, Frodo the master seems to betray his servant Gollum by capturing him at the Forbidden Pool even though Gollum has actually saved him from death at the hands of Faramir's men—“betray,” because the “servant has a claim on the master for service; even service in fear” (LR, 2:375). Finally, because Faramir has granted Frodo his protection, Frodo offers him his service while simultaneously requesting a similar protection for his servant, Gollum: “[T]ake this creature, this Sméagol, under your protection” (LR, 2:380). Ultimately even Faramir has vowed to serve his father and lord, Denethor, by protecting this isolated post. In the next part of the epic Denethor will view Faramir's service as incomplete, a betrayal. Because Faramir has not died instead of his brother Boromir, he will seem to fail, just as the warriors lying in the Dead Marshes have apparently succeeded only too well, given the fact of their death in battle. While the exchange of valor or service for protection by a lord duplicates the Germanic contract between warrior and king, the exchange in The Two Towers seems fraught with difficulty because of either the apparent laxity of the lord or the apparent disloyalty of the subordinate.

The enemy, interestingly enough, functions primarily as a version of Christian rather than Germanic values, but still there is some correspondence between the ofermod of the Germanic lord and the superbia of the Christian, both leading to other, lesser sins. The Germanic emphasis in this volume does continue in the next part of the epic but ultimately merges with a more Christian definition of both servant and king.


This part of The Lord of the Rings sees the climax of the struggle between good and evil through battle between the Satan-like Dark Lord and the Christ-like true king, Aragorn. Because Aragorn “returns” to his people to accept the mantle of responsibility, the third volume is entitled The Return of the King, with emphasis upon “kingship” in book 5 and “return” in book 6. Dramatic foils for the Christian king as the good steward are provided in book 5 by the good and bad Germanic lords Théoden and Denethor, whose names suggest anagrams of each other (Théo + den: Dene + thor). The good Germanic subordinates Pippin and Merry, whose notion of service echoes that of the good Christian, similarly act as foils for the archetypal Christian servant Sam, whose exemplary love for his master, Frodo, transcends all normal bounds in book 6. Finally, the concept of renewal attendant upon the return of the king pervades the latter part of the sixth book as a fitting coda to the story of the triumph of the true king over the false one.

The contrast between the two Germanic lords is high-lighted early in book 5 by the offers of service presented respectively by Pippin to Denethor in chapter 1 and by Merry to Théoden in chapter 2. As the Old Man, the Germanic king more interested in glory and honor than in his men's welfare, Denethor belittles Pippin because he assumes smallness of size equals smallness of service. This literalistic mistake has been made earlier by other “Old Men,” especially Beowulf critics, the narrator of The Hobbit, and Nokes in “Smith of Wootton Major.” Why, Denethor muses, did the “halfling” escape the Orcs when his much larger son Boromir did not? In return for the loss of Denethor's son, Pippin feels moved—by pride—to offer in exchange himself, but as an eye-for-an-eye, justly rendered payment of a debt: “Then Pippin looked the old man in the eye, for pride stirred strangely within him, still stung by the scorn and suspicion in that cold voice. ‘Little service, no doubt, will so great a lord of Men think to find in a hobbit, a halfling from the northern Shire; yet such as it is, I will offer it, in payment of my debt’” (LR, 3:30). Pippin's offer is legalized by a contractual vow binding him both to Gondor and the Steward of the realm either until death takes him or his lord releases him. The specific details of the contract invoke the usual terms of the bond between lord and warrior: according to the Germanic comitatus ethic, Pippin must not “fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with vengeance” (LR, 3:31).

Merry's vow to Théoden, in contrast, expresses a voluntary love for, rather than involuntary duty to, his king, characteristic of the ideal Germanic subordinate in Tolkien's “Ofermod” commentary. And Théoden, unlike Denethor, represents the ideal Germanic lord who truly loves instead of uses his Men. Viewing Merry as an equal, he invites him to eat, drink, talk, and ride with him, later suggesting that as his esquire he ride on a hill-pony especially found for him. Merry responds to this loving gesture with one equally loving and spontaneous: “Filled suddenly with love for this old man, he knelt on one knee, and took his hand and kissed it. ‘May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap, Théoden King?’ he cried. ‘Receive my service, if you will!’” (LR, 3:59). In lieu of the legal contract of the lord Denethor and the servant Pippin there is Merry's oral promise of familial love: “‘As a father you shall be to me,’ said Merry” (LR, 3:59).

These private vows of individual service to the governors of Gondor and Rohan are followed in chapters 2 and 3 by more public demonstrations of national or racial service. In the first incident the previous Oathbreakers of the past—that is, the Dead of the Gray Company—redeem their past negligence by bringing aid to Aragorn in response to his summons. This contractual obligation fulfilled according to the letter of prophecy, Théoden and his Rohirrim can fulfill their enthusiastic and loving pledge of aid by journeying to Gondor. They themselves are accompanied by the Wild Men in chapter 5 as a symbolic corollary to their spontaneity, love, and enthusiasm—the new law of the spirit.

In addition, two oathmakers of Rohan—Eowyn and Merry—in contrast to the Oathbreakers mentioned above, literally appear to violate their private vows of individual service but actually render far greater service than any outlined in a verbal contract. When Eowyn relinquishes her duty to her father and king, Théoden, of taking charge of the people until his return, by disguising herself as the warrior Dernhelm so that she may fight in battle, she also allows Merry to relinquish his vow to Théoden when he secretly rides behind her into battle. But when Théoden is felled by the Nazgûl Lord, it is she who avenges him—Dernhelm “wept, for he had loved his lord as a father” (LR, 3:141)—as well as Merry: “‘King's man? King's man!’ his heart cried within him. ‘You must stay by him. As a father you shall be to me, you said’” (LR, 3:141). Dernhelm slays the winged creature ridden by the Lord of the Nazgûl; Merry helps her slay the Lord. The service they render, a vengeance impelled by pity and love for their lord, is directed not only to the dead king and father Théoden, or to Rohan and Gondor, but to all of Middle-earth. Interestingly, her bravery in battle arouses Merry's: “Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided” (LR, 3:142). Simple love for another results in Merry's most charitable and heroic act. These subordinates have completely fulfilled the spirit, if not the letter, of their pledges of allegiance to their lords.

Tolkien also compares and contrasts the lords of book 5. The evil Germanic lord Denethor is matched by the good Germanic lord Théoden; both contrast with the Christian lord Aragorn. Denethor fails as a father, a master, a steward, and a man (if the characteristic of Man is rationality). In “The Siege of Gondor” (chapter 4) and later in “The Pyre of Denethor” (chapter 7), Denethor reveals his inability to love his son Faramir when, Lear-like, he measures the quality and quantity of his worth. The Gondor steward to the king prefers the dead Boromir to Faramir because of the former's great courage and loyalty to him: “Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard's pupil. He would have remembered his father's need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift” (LR, 3:104). So he chastises Faramir for his betrayal: “[H]ave I not seen your eye fixed on Mithrandir, seeking whether you said well or too much? He has long had your heart in his keeping” (LR, 3:103). Even in the early chapters Denethor has revealed his failure as a master: he has assumed that the service of a small individual like Pippin must be domestic and menial in character, involving waiting on Denethor, running errands, and entertaining him (LR, 3:96). As a steward of Gondor Denethor fails most egregiously by usurping the role of lord in his misguided zeal for power and glory and by using his men to further his own ends. He views this act in monetary terms: the Dark Lord “uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?” (LR, 3:111). Unlike Théoden, who heads his troops on the battlefield, Denethor remains secure in his tower while his warriors die in the siege of Gondor. Most significantly, he fails to exhibit that rational self-control often described in the Middle Ages through the metaphor of kingship. Such unnatural behavior results in despair and irrationality and he loses his head. When he nurses his madness to suicide and adds even his son Faramir to the pyre, he is termed by Gandalf a “heathen,” like those kings dominated by the Dark Power, “slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death” (LR, 3:157). As Denethor succumbs to his pride he refuses to “be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. … I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity” (LR, 3:158). Symbolically, the enemy hurls back the heads of dead soldiers branded with the “token of the Lidless Eye” to signal the loss of reason and hope—the loss of the “head”—and the assault of despair on this city and its steward (LR, 3:117).

Théoden and Aragorn epitomize in contrast the good king. As a Germanic king Théoden serves primarily heroically after his contest with Wormtongue, giving leadership in battle and loving and paternal treatment of his warriors outside it, as we have seen with Merry. So he rides at the head of his troop of warriors as they near the city and provides a noble and inspiring example for them to follow:

Arise, arise …
Fell deeds awake fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

(LR, 3:137)

The alliterative verse echoes the Old English heroic lines of “The Battle of Maldon” in both its form and content.

Aragorn differs from Théoden in his role as Christian king because of his moral heroism as a healer rather than his valor as a destroyer.34 Ioreth, the Gondors' wise woman, declares, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known” (LR, 3:169). In “The Houses of Healing” (chapter 8), Aragorn carries the herb kingsfoil to the wounded Faramir, Eowyn, and Merry to revive and awaken each of them in highly symbolic acts. Also known as athelas, kingsfoil brings “Life to the dying”: its restorative powers, of course, transcend the merely physical. It represents life itself juxtaposed with death, similar to the restorative powers of the paradisal Niggle in “Leaf by Niggle.” Indeed, when Aragorn places the leaves in hot water, “all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory” (LR, 3:173). In awakening Faramir, Aragorn awakens as well knowledge and love so that the new steward to the king responds in words similar to those of a Christian disciple: “My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?” (LR, 3:173). In contrast, instead of responding rationally to the king, Eowyn awakens from her deathlike sleep to enjoy her brother's presence and to mourn her father's death. Merry awakens hungry for supper. The revival of self witnessed in these three incidents symbolizes what might be called the renewal of the three human faculties: rational, appetitive, and sensitive.

Structurally, Tolkien supports his thematic contrasts and parallels. The House of Healing presented in chapter 8 is positioned back-to-back with chapter 7's House of the Dead, in which Denethor commits fiery suicide. More than physical, Denethor's death is chiefly spiritual. Both a spiritual and physical rebirth follow Aragorn's laying on of kingsfoil in the House of Healing. This ritualistic and epiphanic act also readies the narrative for the final symbolic Christian gesture of all the free peoples in the last two chapters of book 5. In “The Last Debate” (chapter 9) they decide to sacrifice themselves, if necessary, out of love for their world in the hope that their action will distract Sauron long enough for Sam and Frodo to reach Mount Doom. As an entire community of “servants,” they each alone act as freely, spontaneously, and charitably as did Merry or Eowyn toward Théoden earlier. Aragorn declares, “As I have begun, so I will go on. … Nonetheless I do not yet claim to command any man. Let others choose as they will” (LR, 3:192). Even the title of “The Last Debate” portrays the egalitarian spirit of the group.

In contrast, in the last chapter (10), “The Black Gate Opens,” only one view—that of the Dark Lord, voiced by his “Mouth,” the Lieutenant—predominates. Sauron too demands not voluntary service but servitude: the Lieutenant “would be their tyrant and they his slaves” (LR, 3:205). Finally, the arrogance of Sauron's “Steward” functions antithetically to the humility and love of the good “servants” and stewards. Mocking and demeaning them, Sauron's Lieutenant asks if “any one in this rout” has the “authority to treat with me? … Or indeed with wit to understand me?” (LR, 3:202). The Lieutenant's stentorian voice grows louder and more defensive when met with the silence of Aragorn, whom he has described as brigandlike.

Although this “attack” of the free peoples on the Black Gate of Mordor seems to parallel that of Sauron's Orcs on the Gate of Gondor in chapter 4, it differs in that this attack on the Black Gate, from Tolkien's point of view, is not so much a physical attack as it is a spiritual defense by Gondor. In this present instance, when the peoples realize that the Lieutenant holds Sam's short sword, the gray cloak with its Elven brooch, and Frodo's mithril-mail, they almost succumb to despair—Sauron's greatest weapon, as witnessed in the siege of Gondor. But Gandalf's steely self-discipline and wisdom so steady their nerves that they are buoyed by his refusal to submit to the Mouth's insolent terms. Well that he does, for Sauron then surrounds them on all sides, betraying his embassy of peace. They are saved from physical destruction by the eagles as deus ex machina and from spiritual destruction by Frodo, Sam, and Gollum as they near Mount Doom in book 6.

The Ring finally reaches its point of origin in the first three chapters of book 6. Initiating the romance idea of “Return,”35 this event introduces tripartite division of the book in narrative and theme. In chapters 4 to 7 Aragorn returns as king of his people, after which his marriage to Arwen, in addition to Faramir's to Eowyn, symbolizes the renewal of society through the joining of different species, Man and Elf, and of different nations, Rohan and Gondor. A later marriage will represent a more natural form of rejuvenation, when Sam the gardener marries an appropriately named Rosie Cotton, as if to illustrate further the imminent fertility that will emblazon the reborn Shire, and they conceive Elanor, whose Elven name sums up the equivalent of grace. Finally, in the third part (chapter 8), Frodo and his Hobbits return to the Shire, where the false “mayor” Sharkey is ousted and a new one, Sam, elected. In the last chapter Tolkien hints at more supernatural forms of return and rebirth. On one level, those chosen few “return” to the Gray Havens, where they seem to acquire an immortality reminiscent of Christianity. But on another level, others of a less spiritual cast must return to the duties of the natural world. So Sam returns at the very end, a “king” who must continue to serve his “people,” his family, and his “kingdom,” the Shire, by remaining in this world: “‘Well, I'm back,’ he said” (LR, 3:385).

Throughout the first part of book 6, before the Ring has been returned and Sauron similarly “returns” as gray smoke (in contrast to the Gray Havens reached by Frodo and Gandalf at the end), Sam exemplifies the ideal Christian servant to his master, Frodo, in continuation of the Christian-king-as-servant theme enunciated in the last part. Physically Sam provides food for Frodo as he weakens, offers him his share of the remaining water, carries him bodily over rough terrain, and lifts his spirits. But spiritually Sam serves Frodo through the moral character that reveals him to be, as the most insignificant Hobbit and character in the epic, the most heroic.36 Sam will become an artist by the work's end, but even during the trek across Mordor his sensitivity to spiritual reality is expressed by his understanding of the beauty beneath the appearance of waste, of light beyond darkness, of hope beyond despair.

This insight is triggered by the appearance of a star above, an instance of divine grace that illumines understanding and bolsters hope: “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. … Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's ceased to trouble him” (LR, 3:244). Strangely, Sam remains the only character who has worn the Ring but who is never tempted to acquire it by overpowering his master. Yet like Frodo earlier, Sam refuses to kill the detested Gollum when an opportunity arises because of his empathy for this “thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched” (LR, 3:273). Having borne the Ring himself, Sam finally understands the reason for Gollum's wretchedness. This charitable refusal permits Gollum, as a foil for the good servant, to serve his master and Middle-earth in the most ironic way imaginable. When Frodo betrays himself enough to keep the Ring at the last moment, Gollum bites off both Ring and finger only to fall into the furnace of Mount Doom, the most ignominious “servant” finally achieving the coveted role of “Lord of the Rings.” The least dangerous adversary finally fells the most dangerous—Sauron.

In the last two parts, the reunion of the entire Fellowship and all the species, the coronation of the king, and the double weddings mark the restoration of harmony and peace to Middle-earth. Symbolically the Eldest of Trees blooms again to replace the barren and withered Tree in the Court of the Fountain (LR, 3:308-9). A new age—the Age of Man, the Fourth Age—begins. Even in the Shire rejuvenation occurs: note the domestic and quotidian image implied by the title of chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire” (my emphasis).

In a social sense the Shire must be washed and purified of the reptilian monsters occupying it. Once Sharkey and Worm have disappeared, Sam the new Mayor as gardener can replenish its natural stores as well. After he plants the seed given him by Galadriel, new trees, including a mallorn with silver bark and gold flowers, burst into bloom in the spring. The lush growth introduces a season or rebirth in Shire year 1420 through sunshine, rain in moderation, “an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth. All the children born or begotten in that year, and there were many, were fair to see and strong, and most of them had a rich golden hair that had before been rare among Hobbits. The fruit was so plentiful that young Hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream. … And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass” (LR, 3:375). Sam as gardener becomes a natural artist who fuses together the Niggle and Parish of “Leaf by Niggle.”

The ending of this epic may seem optimistic. But as the Second Age has passed into the Third, so now the Third passes into the Fourth, a lesser one because dominated by Man, a lesser species than the Elf. Also, as Sauron replaced Morgoth, perhaps an even Darker Lord will replace Sauron in the future. Yet Tolkien's major interest does not lie in predicting the future or in encouraging Man to hope for good fortune. He wishes to illustrate how best to conduct one's life, both privately and publicly, by being a good servant and a good king, despite the vagaries of fortune, the corruption of others, and the threat of natural and supernatural death.

So this epic constitutes a sampler of Tolkienian concepts and forms realized singly and separately in other works. The critic as monster depicted in the Beowulf article reappears as Tolkien the critic in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings, a “grown up” version of Tolkien the narrator in The Hobbit. The hero as monster finds expression, as it has earlier in Bilbo, in Frodo, who discovers the landscape of the self to be a harsher terrain than that of Mordor. The series of monsters typifying the deadly sins—Saruman, Shelob—ultimately converge with the evil Germanic king of the trilogy—Denethor—combining ideas of the “King under the Mountain” in The Hobbit with the idea of the Germanic lord presented in “The Homecoming” and other medieval parodies. The good Germanic lord, hero-as-subordinate, too, from The Hobbit and the medieval parodies, converges with the Christian concept of the king-as-servant from the fairy-stories, in the last two volumes of the trilogy.

In addition, the genres and formal constructs that Tolkien most loves reappear here. The preface, lecture, or prose nonfiction essay is transformed into the foreword; the “children's story” for adults is expanded into the adult story of the epic, also for children; the parody of medieval literature recurs not only in the epic or romance form used here but also in the presentation of the communities of Rohan and Gondor; the fairy-story with its secondary world of Faërie governed by a very Christian Elf-king is translated into Elven form here.

Thus, all of Tolkien's work manifests a unity, with understanding of its double and triple levels, in this respect like the distinct dual levels, Germanic and Christian, of Beowulf first perceived in Tolkien's own Beowulf article. So the Tolkien reader, like Bilbo in The Hobbit and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, must return to the beginning—not to the Shire, but to the origin of the artist Tolkien—in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”


  1. Randel Helms, Tolkien's World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 21. For the entire analysis of the parallels, see chapter 2, “Tolkien's Leaf.”

  2. For its medieval (and classical) linguistic, literary, and mythological sources, influences, and parallels in general, see, for example, Caroline Whitman Everett, “The Imaginative Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien” (master's thesis, Florida State University, 1957), chap. 4; Alexis Levitin, “J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings” (master's thesis, Columbia University, 1964), chap. 2; John Tinkler, “Old English in Rohan,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Notre Dame, Ind., and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 164-69; Sandra L. Miesel, “Some Motifs and Sources for Lord of the Rings,Riverside Quarterly 3 (1968): 125; E. L. Epstein, “The Novels of J. R. R. Tolkien and the Ethnology of Medieval Christendom,” Philological Quarterly 48 (1969): 517-25; Lin Carter, Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings (New York: Ballantine, 1969), passim; Kenneth J. Reckford, “Some Trees in Virgil and Tolkien,” in Perspectives of Roman Poetry: A Classics Symposium, ed. G. Karl Galinsky (Austin, Tex., and London: University of Texas Press, 1974), pp. 57-92; Charles A. Huttar, “Hell and the City: Tolkien and the Traditions of Western Literature,” in A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Press, 1975), pp. 117-42; and Ruth S. Noel, The Mythology of Middle-earth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977).

    For the source and genre of LR as northern saga, see especially Gloria Ann Strange Slaughter St. Clair, “The Lord of the Rings as Saga,” Mythlore 6 (1979): 11-16; St. Clair's earlier “Studies in the Sources of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,Dissertation Abstracts International 30 (1970): 5001A (University of Oklahoma); and more recently, St. Clair, “An Overview of the Northern Influences on Tolkien's Works” and “Volsunga Saga and Narn: Some Analogies,” in Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Keble College, Oxford, 1992, ed. Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. Goodknight, Mythlore 80 and Mallorn 30 in one volume (Milton Keynes, England: Tolkien Society; Altadena, Calif.: Mythopoeic Press, 1995), pp. 63-67 and 68-72.

    On the conflict in The Lord of the Rings between the Germanic pessimism that lif is læne (life is loaned) (from Old English literature) and the medieval Christian idea that submission to God's will provides hope in a transitory world without meaning, see Ronald Christopher Sarti, “Man in a Mortal World: J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings,Dissertation Abstracts International 45 (1984): 1410A (Indiana University). On the similarity between Unferth (in Beowulf) and Wormtongue, see Clive Tolley, “Tolkien and the Unfinished,” in Scholarship and Fantasy: Proceedings of the Tolkien Phenomenon, May 1992, Turku, Finland (special issue), ed. K. J. Battarbee, Anglicana Turkuensia, no. 12 (Turku: University of Turku, 1992), pp. 154-56; on the influence of Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon on Tolkien's epic, see George Clark, “J. R. R. Tolkien and the True Hero,” in J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, ed. George Clark and Daniel Timmons (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 2000), pp. 39-51.

    Tom Shippey analyzes the indebtedness of “Orcs,” “Ents,” and “Hobbits” to Old Norse and Old English etymologies in “Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings,” in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Story-Teller: Essays in Memoriam, ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1979), 286-316. For analyses of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew antecedents of Tolkienian names, see Dale W. Simpson, “Names and Moral Character in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth Books,” Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 6 (1981): 1-5. Note that Shippey also traces the influence of Old Norse and Old English on detail used by Tolkien in the trilogy, such as the word “fallow” as an epithet for an Elven cloak, names of characters, and place names. See also Tom Shippey, Road to Middle-earth, 1982, rev. ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1992).

    On Frodo compared to Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, particularly in relation to the loss of innocence and understanding of self, see Christine Barkley and Muriel B. Ingham, “There But Not Back Again: The Road from Innocence to Maturity,” Riverside Quarterly 7 (1982): 101-4; see also Roger C. Schlobin, who looks for parallels between the characters of Sir Gawain and The Lord of the Rings, in “The Monsters Are Talismans and Transgressions: Tolkien and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in Clark and Timmons, pp. 71-81.

  3. For religious, moral, Christian, or Roman Catholic aspects of the trilogy, see Edmund Fuller, “The Lord of the Hobbits: J. R. R. Tolkien,” Books with Men behind Them (New York: Random House, 1959), pp. 169-96; Patricia Meyer Sparks, “Ethical Patterns in The Lord of the Rings,Critique 3 (1959): 30-42, reprinted as “Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaacs and Zimbardo, pp. 81-99; Levitin, “Inherent Morality and Its Concomitants,” chap. 5 of “J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” pp. 87-106); Sandra Miesel, “Some Religious Aspects of Lord of the Rings,Riverside Quarterly 3 (1968): 209-13; Gunnar Urang, “Tolkien's Fantasy: The Phenomenology of Hope,” in Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, ed. Mark R. Hillegas (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), pp. 97-110; Paul Kocher, “Cosmic Order,” chap. 3 of Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972); and Richard Purtill, Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1974). Other references will be cited where relevant.

  4. Sparks, pp. 83-84.

  5. For The Lord of the Rings as traditional epic, see Bruce A. Beatie, “Folk Tale, Fiction, and Saga in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” in “The Tolkien Papers” (special issue), Mankato Studies in English 2 (1967): 1-17; as fantasy drawing upon epic, chanson de geste, and medieval romance, see Carter, pp. 96-133; as fantasy, see Douglass Parker, “Hwæt We Holbytla …” (Review of Lord of the Rings), Hudson Review 9 (1956-57): 598-609; as fairy-story, see R. J. Reilly, “Tolkien and the Fairy Story,” Thought 38 (1963): 89-106, reprinted in Tolkien and the Critics, pp. 128-50; as a genreless work, see Charles Moorman, “The Shire, Mordor, and Minas Tirith,” in Isaacs and Zimbardo, Tolkien and the Critics, pp. 201-2.

  6. The most satisfying genre may be that of the romance, drawn from medieval or Arthurian antecedents. Characteristic of romance are its symbolism, quest themes of search and transition, the sense of death or disaster, and the maturation of the young. But Tolkien inverts the romance structure so that Frodo relinquishes his quest at the end and the heroes peacefully overcome death. See George H. Thomson, “The Lord of the Rings: The Novel as Traditional Romance,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 8 (1967): 43-59; Richard C. West, “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings,” in Lobdell, A Tolkien Compass, pp. 77-94; Derek S. Brewer, “The Lord of the Rings as Romance,” in Salu and Farrell, pp. 249-64; and David M. Miller, “Narrative Pattern in The Fellowship of the Ring,” in Lobdell, A Tolkien Compass, pp. 95-106. See also, for the influence of French and German Arthurian romance (and the Perceval story) on Tolkien in LR, J. S. Ryan, “Uncouth Innocence: Some Links Between Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach and J. R. R. Tolkien,” Inklings-Jahrbuch 2 (1984): 25-41: and Mythlore 11 (1984): 8-13. For a tracing of the Fellowship's journeys through various kinds of landscape in LR, see the fifty-one maps in Barbara Strachey, Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J. R. R. Tolkien'sThe Lord of the Rings” (London: Harper Collins, 1998; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

  7. For Aragorn as hero, see Kocher, Master of Middle-earth, chap. 6; for Frodo, see Roger Sale, Modern Heroism: Essays on D. H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J. R. R. Tolkien. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1973); and for Aragorn as the epic hero and Frodo as the fairy tale hero, see Levitin, pp. 60-76. Because heroism and ofermod are incompatible, it is difficult to choose “the Hero” of the work; see Miesel's brief mention of this idea in “Some Religious Aspects of Lord of the Rings,” p. 212; further, real heroism depends more on service than mastery, making Sam, who resembles Niggle in “Leaf by Niggle,” the best choice for hero: see Jack C. Rang, “Two Servants,” in “The Tolkien Papers,” pp. 84-94. See also Flieger's concept of the split hero, in four individuals, which she identifies with the multigenre form of The Lord of the Rings: for Frodo as the fairy-tale hero, Aragorn as the epic hero, Gollum as the Beowulf monster (who combines Grendel and the Dragon), and Sam Gamgee as the loyal servant Wiglaf in Beowulf and Bedivere in Morte d'Arthur, see Verlyn Flieger, “Medieval Epic and Romance Motifs in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,Dissertation Abstracts International 38 (1978): 4157A (Catholic University of America); and the article that epitomizes her argument in “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaacs and Zimbardo, pp. 40-62.

  8. For other views of structure in the trilogy see, for example, Helms, “Tolkien's World: The Structure and Aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings,” chap. 5 of Tolkien's World.

  9. Quoted from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien appended to Everett, p. 87.

  10. In addition to the innovative millennium edition (London: Harper Collins, 1999), The Lord of the Rings has also been published in a single-volume, “India paper” deluxe edition, with slipcase, by Allen and Unwin (London, 1968); again, without a slipcase and on regular paper, in 1991 (London: Harper Collins); and in quarter-leather with a slipcase and in limited numbers (London: Harper Collins, 1997). That these formats change the way the reader understands The Lord of the Rings is important in grasping Tolkien's intentions.

  11. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 3 vols., 2d ed. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 1:231.

  12. See David Callaway, “Gollum: A Misunderstood Hero,” Mythlore 37 (1984): 14-17, 22.

  13. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (Indianapolis, Ind., New York, and Kansas City: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), p. 97 (book 4, poem 6). On the Great Chain of Being, the “fair chain of love,” and the Renaissance concept of discordia concors (also found in Hugh of Saint Victor) and its influence on order in the trilogy, see Rose A. Zimbardo, “The Medieval-Renaissance Vision of The Lord of the Rings,” in Tolkien: New Critical Perspectives, ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981), 63-71: there is a place for all beings and things in Middle-earth, so that evil arises when one being or thing seeks its own desires without regard for the whole. For the Boethian reconciliation of Providence, Fate, and free will, as a source for the conflicting statements Tolkien makes in the trilogy about chance and intentionality in the universe, see Kathleen Dubs, “Providence, Fate and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings,Twentieth-Century Literature 27 (1981): 34-42.

  14. For an incisive discussion of the origins, kinds, and natures of the rings, see Melanie Rawls, “The Rings of Power,” Mythlore 40 (1984): 29-32.

  15. For a classification and discussion of good and/or evil species, see Rose A. Zimbardo, “Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaac and Zimbardo, pp. 100-108; Thomas J. Gasque, “Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaac and Zimbardo, pp. 151-63; Robley Evans, J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1972), chaps. 3 to 5; and Kocher, Master of Middle-earth, chaps. 4 to 5.

  16. The insignificance and ordinariness of Tolkien's heroic Hobbits are glossed in several of his letters, particularly 180, 181, and 246: see J. R. R. Tolkien, Letters, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: Allen and Unwin, 1980; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), pp. 230-32, 232-37, and 325-33.

  17. For a discussion of the descent into Hell in the second book and its traditional implications, see Huttar, “Hell and the City,” in A Tolkien Compass, ed. Lobdell, pp. 117-42.

  18. On Old Man Willow and Tolkien's empathy with trees, see Verlyn Flieger, “Taking the Part of Trees: Eco-Conflict in Middle-earth,” in Clark and Timmons, pp. 147-58.

  19. On Tom Bombadil as an embodiment of the classical and medieval god of nature (or human nature), drawn in part from John Gower's Confessio Amantis, see Gordon E. Slethaug, “Tolkien, Tom Bombadil, and the Creative Imagination,” English Studies in Canada 4 (1978): 341-50. On Tolkien's theology of nature and grace, see also Colin Duriez, “Sub-creation and Tolkien's Theology of Story,” in Battarbee, pp. 133-49.

  20. On the names of the Dwarves, see Patrick J. Callahan, “Tolkien's Dwarfs and the Eddas,” Tolkien Journal 15 (1972): 20; and for their connection with Norse mythology, see Brunsdale, “Norse Mythological Elements in The Hobbit,” Mythlore 9 (1983): 49-50; and Lynn Bryce, “The Influence of Scandinavian Mythology in the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien,” Edda 7 (1983): 113-19.

  21. See also, for Tolkien's Paradise, U. Milo Kaufmann, “Aspects of the Paradisiacal in Tolkien's Work,” in Tolkien Compass, ed. Lobdell, pp. 143-52; and for Valinor as based on the Earthly Paradise, Gwenyth Hood, “The Earthly Paradise in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,” in Reynolds and Goodknight, pp. 139-56.

  22. On the Roman Catholic and religious features of The Lord of the Rings, see Miesel, “Some Religious Aspects of Lord of the Rings,” pp. 209-13; Catherine Madsen, “Light from an Invisible Lamp: Natural Religion in The Lord of the Rings,Mythlore 53 (spring 1988): 43-47; and Carl F. Hostetter, “Over Middle-earth Sent unto Men: On the Philological Origins of the Earendel Myth,” Mythlore 65 (spring 1991): 5-8.

  23. On the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic heroism of Frodo, see George Clark, “J. R. R. Tolkien and the Hero,” in Clark and Timmons, pp. 39-51.

  24. The emphasis on sight and seeing is often linked in the trilogy with the palantíri, one of which Saruman has and that Sauron uses to control him, so that Frodo's “sight” here atop the Hill opens up new vistas and visions beyond his capability: see J. R. R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), pp. 421-33.

  25. For the two towers of this volume as central symbols, see also Tolkien's own unused designs for the cover, in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), pp. 179-83. The two towers were used recently on the cover of a Harper Collins reissue, for the second of the three volumes (London, 2000).

  26. Ancrene Wisse treats the deadly sins as animals, as we have seen previously. Tolkien himself links propensities to different sins among different species—sloth and stupidity, with the Hobbits; pride, with the Elves; envy and greed, with the Dwarves; a type of pride (“folly and wickedness”), with Men; and a more dangerous form of pride (“treachery and power-lust”), with Wizards, in letter 203 (Tolkien, Letters, p. 262). On deadly sin in The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, see Charles W. Nelson's recent discussion, “The Sins of Middle-earth: Tolkien's Use of Medieval Allegory,” in Clark and Timmons, pp. 83-94. See also, for a comparison of the battle between Sam and Frodo and Shelob and the battle between the Vices and Virtues in Prudentius's Psychomachia, J. S. Ryan, “Death by Self-Impalement: The Prudentius Example,” Minas Tirith Evening Star 15 (1986): 6-9.

  27. Genesis 11:1-4, The Jerusalem Bible, ed. Alexander Jones (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), p. 26. Tolkien participated as a principal collaborator (one of twenty-seven) in the translation and literary revision of this Bible.

  28. For parallels between The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and Milton's Paradise Lost, see Debbie Sly, “Weaving Nets of Gloom: ‘Darkness Profound’ in Tolkien and Milton,” in Clark and Timmons, pp. 109-19.

  29. On the Ents, Treebeard, and Old Man Willow, and Tolkien's indebtedness to the Green Knight, see Verlyn Flieger, “The Green Man, the Green Knight, and Treebeard: Scholarship and Invention in Tolkien's Fiction,” in Battarbee, pp. 85-98.

  30. For information about the Wizards, see Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, pp. 405-20.

  31. For the theological concept of the Word of God (=Jesus Christ, his Son, or the incarnation of God's love), as the basis for Tolkien's literary aesthetic, see S. T. R. O. d'Ardenne, “The Man and the Scholar,” in Salu and Farrell, p. 35. Just as the combination of adjective and noun in the Anglo-Saxon kenning gave the Anglo-Saxon scop with his wordhord control over the thing described, so kennings allow Tolkien to create his own world, through the compounds and epithets for the One Ring, the Ring of Power, the Ring of Doom, Gollum's Precious, etc. Tolkien's constructed languages also give insight into the peoples who use them: Dwarvish is Old Norse; Quenya and Sindarin, High-Elvish and Common Elvish, as languages of song mirror Faërie's desire for good; Black Speech is suited to a race whose dentals consist of fangs and is therefore not a good language for song. See Anthony J. Ugolnik, “Wordhord Onleac: The Medieval Sources of J. R. R. Tolkien's Linguistic Aesthetic,” Mosaic 10 (winter 1977): 15-31. In this case, “Sauron,” as a name that describes his being, derives from the Greek for “lizard.” See Gwyneth E. Hood, “Sauron as Gorgon and Basilisk,” Seven 8 (1987): 59-71.

  32. For Rohan as Old English, see Tinkler, “Old English in Rohan,” in Tolkien and the Critics, ed. Isaac and Zimbardo, pp. 164-69.

  33. My translation of lines 92-93. See the original in The Exeter Book, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, in vol. 3, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (Morningside Heights, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1936).

  34. For Aragorn as a healing king, and the medieval and Renaissance antecedents of the concept, see Gisbert Krantz, “Der Heilende Aragorn,” Inklings-Jahrbuch 2 (1984): 11-24.

  35. For a related discussion of the implications of return and renewal in the last book see Evans, J. R. R. Tolkien, pp. 190-93.

  36. See also Jack C. Rang, “Two Servants,” in “The Tolkien Papers,” pp. 84-94.

T. A. Shippey (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Shippey, T. A. “The Lord of the Rings (3): The Mythic Dimension.” In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, pp. 161-225. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

[In the following essay, Shippey finds mythic-allegorical elements in The Lord of the Rings relating to events of the twentieth century, although contends that the trilogy is not an allegory of World War II.]


In the ‘Foreword’ to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence’. As with the denial of any link between rabbits and hobbits (see chapter I), the evidence is rather against Tolkien here. He was perfectly capable of using allegory himself, and did so several times in his academic works, usually with devastating effect. In his 1936 lecture on Beowulf, for instance, Tolkien offered his British Academy audience ‘yet another allegory’ (it was not the first in the lecture), about a man who built a tower. He took the stone for the tower from a ruin, ‘an accumulation of old stone’ in a field, part of which had also been used to build the house in which the man actually lived, ‘not far from the old house of his fathers’ (i.e. the ruin). But his friends came along, noticed at once that the tower was made of older stones, and laboriously knocked the tower down to examine the stones, look for carvings on them, prospect for coal, and so on. Then some of them complained that the tower was in a terrible mess, while even the man's descendants murmured that he should have spent his time not building the tower but restoring the ruin. ‘But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea’ (see The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, [Essays] pp. 7-8).

There is no doubt that this is an allegory, for Tolkien says so himself. A brief study of it, concentrating on the elements italicized above, may explain exactly what Tolkien meant by the word, how he expected allegories to work, and why he disliked both word and thing when they were misused. Tolkien's little story is an allegory of the progress of Beowulf criticism, one of the major features of which, up to Tolkien's time, had been a conviction that the poet had written the wrong poem. Its accuracy, or ‘justness’ to use Tolkien's own term, is hard to appreciate without the kind of awareness of Beowulf scholarship which Tolkien's original audience may be supposed to have had, but in brief one could say that:

The old stone, i.e. the ruin = the remains of an earlier, heathen, oral poetry which the Beowulf-poet might have known about

The house the man lives in, also partly built from the ruin = Christian poetry contemporary with Beowulf like the poem Exodus (Tolkien's edition of which was published posthumously in 1981), which also drew on the early oral poetry

The tower, of course = Beowulf, and the man = the Beowulf-poet

The man's friends who knock his tower down = the dissectionist critics of the nineteenth century, who concentrated their efforts on pointing out where the poem had gone wrong

Finally, the man's descendants, who wished he had restored the old house = British critics like W. P. Ker and R. W. Chambers, who rejected dissectionism but said repeatedly that they wished the poet had written an epic about history rather than a mere fairy-tale about dragons and monsters.

The main point about the above, though, is the repeated = sign. Tolkien did not think that allegories made sense unless you could consistently and without error fill these in. And to him the function of allegory was usually, as in this case, as a reductio ad absurdum. Anyone listening to Tolkien's allegory of the tower would sympathize with the tower-builder, and not with the short-sighted fools who destroyed it. Therefore, Tolkien implied, they should sympathize with the poem and not with its critics.

That was why Tolkien, in the ‘Foreword’, dismissed contemptuously those who would see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of World War II. In the first place, as he pointed out, he started work on it ‘long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster’. But in the second place the ‘equals’ signs were missing. One could, of course, say that the Ring = nuclear weapons, the coalition of Rohan, Gondor and the Shire (etc.) = the Allied powers, Mordor = the Axis powers, all of which has some general plausibility. But in that case what does the destruction of the Ring and the refusal to use it equal? As Tolkien wrote in the ‘Foreword’, if this equation had been true, ‘the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron’, as nuclear weapons were used against Japan; Barad-dûr would have been ‘occupied’, as the Axis powers were by the Allies; Sauron ‘would not have been annihilated but enslaved’. As for Saruman, the unreliable ally, who would presumably have to ‘equal’ the USSR, he would ‘in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches’ and ‘made a great Ring of his own’, as the Russians used German scientists (Mordor) and Western agents (treachery) to make their own nuclear weapon. There could have been a Middle-earth allegory of World War II, Tolkien showed—but it would have been a quite different story, a significantly different story, from The Lord of the Rings.

One can accept, then, that Tolkien disliked vague allegories, allegories which didn't work, though he accepted them readily in their proper place, which was either advancing an argument (as in the Beowulf example) or else constructing brief and personal fables (like, in my opinion, some of his shorter pieces to be discussed in chapter 6). He was however prepared to accept something which might well look like allegory to the unskilled, as he also said in the ‘Foreword’. Immediately following on from the sentence quoted at the start of this chapter, he wrote:

I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

To this he added further, ‘An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience’; but his experience, he reminded readers, probably went back further than theirs. 1914 was just as bad as 1939, if you were young then: ‘By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead’. And ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, with its felled trees and polluted rivers, reflected a process which went back long before the austerity years of the Labour government of 1945-50, so that the chapter ‘had no allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever’. But that did not mean it meant nothing, and nor did the rejection of the World War II/nuclear weapons allegory mean that The Lord of the Rings had nothing at all to do with Tolkien's early twentieth-century experience.

Hints of correspondence between our history and the history of Middle-earth are in fact fairly frequent. Frodo says, when Gandalf tells him that the Shadow has returned to Mordor, ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time’, and Gandalf replies, ‘so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide’. The phrase ‘in my time’ may recall Neville Chamberlain's now infamous promise, on his return from capitulating to Hitler in Munich in 1938, that he brought ‘peace in our time’. He did not. Frodo's wish to put the whole thing off (not cure it) is as short-sighted as Chamberlain's turned out to be, and when Gandalf says ‘that is not for them to decide’, he is condemning the whole discredited idea of ‘appeasement’. Much later Elrond, looking back on the past, remembers the time ‘when Thangorodrim was broken, and the Elves deemed that evil was ended for ever, and it was not so’. The idea that evil could be ended ‘for ever’ may recall the belief that World War I was fought as ‘the war to end all wars’; but Tolkien himself lived both through the time of that belief, or that assurance, and its total failure with the second outbreak of world war in 1939.

More significantly detailed, perhaps, is the side-issue of the Rammas Echor, which is what the men of Gondor call ‘the out-wall that they had built with great labour, after Ithilien fell under the shadow of their Enemy’. This is first mentioned when Gandalf rides in to Minas Tirith with Pippin (V/1). It is still at this moment under construction, or under repair, and Gandalf tells the men working at it that they are ‘over-late’. The wall is a waste of time, so ‘leave your trowels and sharpen your swords!’ They ignore him and carry on, and the next time the Rammas is mentioned, it is in council (V/4) when Denethor insists that the wall, ‘made with so great a labour’, cannot be abandoned. Faramir objects to the idea of garrisoning it, seconded by Imrahil, the Prince of Dol Amroth, but Denethor insists, and it is his insistence that leads to the wounding, and almost the death of Faramir later on in the same chapter. That apart, the Rammas Echor plays no real part in the story, and the vignette of Gandalf and the trowellers could have been left out without disturbance. On the other hand, the image of men and labour wasted guarding a wall which served no purpose could hardly fail, in the 1950s, to remind readers of the Maginot Line, built (or half-built) in order to secure France for ever from German invasion, but in the end strategically pointless, influential only in contributing to a sense of false security. French experience is glanced at also in the encounter near the end of Book V with ‘the Mouth of Sauron’. He presents the terms of Sauron's offer as follows, but I gloss them in the language of twentieth-century history: first, Gondor and its allies are to withdraw beyond the Anduin, taking oaths never again to attack (there will be a peace-treaty and an armistice); second, ‘All lands east of the Anduin shall be Sauron's for ever, solely’ (sovereignty over the disputed territory of Ithilien, the Alsace-Lorraine of Middle-earth, is to be transferred); third, there will be an area west of Anduin which ‘shall be tributary to Mordor, and men there shall bear no weapons, but shall have leave to govern their own affairs. But they shall help to rebuild Isengard … and that shall be Sauron's, and there his lieutenant shall dwell’. Gandalf and the others see through this last proposal straight away, but it is in effect the creation of a demilitarized zone, with what one can only call Vichy status, which will pay war-reparations, and be governed by what one can again only call a Quisling. ‘Vichy’ and ‘Quisling’ are words which were only proper names before the 1940s, without political meaning. As with Frodo's wish for postponement, which could become appeasement, they represent a natural urge to salvage something out of defeat, but an urge which Tolkien's own western world had learned by recent and bitter experience was even worse than the alternative.

Finally, in spite of Tolkien's own denials, one might wonder again about the ‘applicability’ of ‘the Scouring of the Shire’. Tolkien said flatly that the chapter did not reflect ‘the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale’ (i.e. in the late 1940s); and for proof of this pointed out that it was an essential part of the plot, ‘foreseen from the outset’, and that the slender ‘basis in experience’ which it did have in fact dated much further back, to the time before World War II and indeed before World War I, when places like his old home in Sarehole, Warwickshire, were being drawn into the industrial Birmingham conurbation. Yet, as Tolkien also said, ‘applicability … resides in the freedom of the reader’, not ‘the purposed domination of the author’. For most readers in the 1950s, as for anyone who still remembers the time, the homecoming chapters were bound to have points of resemblance with England—perhaps most of all because here and there they seem slightly out of place in Middle-earth.

Take, for instance, the matter of pipeweed. There no longer is any in the Shire, for Hob Hayward reports that ‘All the stocks seem to have gone … waggon-loads of it went away down the old road out of the Southfarthing’. One wonders where to. Saruman has certainly become a smoker, which may explain the small amounts being traded earlier on, but he cannot be smoking ‘waggon-loads’ of it himself, and it seems hard to believe that he is either selling it or issuing it to his followers in Isengard. In the 1940s and 1950s, though, it was common in Britain for shortages to be explained with a shrug and the words ‘gone for export’; this created exactly the annoying paradox of the Shire, of plenty of production but no consumption and no other visible benefit. More significant may be the curious ‘socialism’, so to speak, of Sharkey and his men. They are robbers and bandits, and Sharkey/Saruman's only goal is vengeance, as he says himself, but it is strange that the ruffians camouflage their intentions with some sort of ethic of fairness. ‘It's all these “gatherers” and “sharers”’, says Hob Hayward again, ‘going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again’. Farmer Cotton confirms that they gather stuff up ‘for fair distribution’, and the quotation marks indicate that that is their phrase, not his; he also admits that some fraction of this does come back, as the ‘leavings’ at the Shirriff-houses.

All this seems oddly euphemistic for Middle-earth, whose villains usually feel no need to conceal their intentions. But Sharkey's men do actually seem to believe their own rhetoric themselves. ‘This country wants waking up and setting to rights’, says the leader of the Hobbiton ruffians, as though he had some goal beyond mere hatred and contempt for the Shire, and in so far as this ever becomes visible, it seems to be more industrialization, efficiency, economy of effort, all things often and still wished on the population of Britain. The trouble with that (as developments after the publication of The Lord of the Rings have tended to confirm) was that the products of efficiency-drives were often not only soulless but also inefficient. Why do Sharkey's men knock down perfectly satisfactory old houses and put up in their place damp, ugly, badly-built, standardized ones? No one ever explains, but the overall picture was one all too familiar to postwar Britons, as was the disillusionment of returning from victory to poor food, ration-books, endemic shortages, and a rash of ‘prefabs’ and jerry-built ‘council houses’. So was the suspicion that behind every ‘Lotho Pimple’ or domestic tyrant, there was some more sinister force, which would eventually take over and indeed devour the wretched Lothos. In ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ one can be sure that there is a good deal of Tolkien's own early experience and personal feelings, especially over the loss of trees; though one can also see why he would not want these late chapters to be taken as a mere allegory of or attack on the Socialist government of Britain 1945-50, for that would be a petty and a transient conclusion for a work of such scope. Nevertheless, just as the Rammas Echor sounds a warning against the wish for safe solutions which bred the Maginot Line, so ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ gives a reminder that the loss and damage of wars do not end with the victory parades, but drag on in the drabness and poverty which Orwell (writing at exactly the same time) projected into the future as the ‘Ingsoc’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four.


There is a strong applicability, furthermore, in the characters Saruman and Denethor. One of the things that connect them is this. As I have said many times already, one of Tolkien's characteristic activities was the antiquarian one of showing old words and beliefs and habits, like the riddle-game, persisting in to modern times. But he was also capable of working the other way: taking something apparently distinctively modern, and wondering what it would have been like in the different circumstances of an archaic world. Is the modern element really modern? Or was it there all the time, unnoticed, waiting to be revealed?

These questions apply with particular force to Saruman. One should note to begin with that his name, as so often, comes from a philological puzzle, though it is one which no one had identified before Tolkien, and to which he gave a highly personalized solution. The puzzle is what the word searu might mean in Old English (searu is the recorded West Saxon form, *saru would be its unrecorded equivalent in Mercian, the language of the Mark, Tolkien's West Midland home). This word survives in several compounds, and it has associations first with metal—Beowulf's mail shirt is a searonet, a searo-net, sewed, we are told, by the cunning thought (orþanc) of the smith. The Danish hall of Heorot is held together by searo-bonds, presumably iron clamps. The standard translation for searo here is something like ‘cunning’, and this fits with other uses, such as the description of the thoughts of wizards as searoþonc, ‘cunning thought’. The word has ominous suggestions as well, in the adjective searocræftig or the noun searoniþ, ‘cunning-crafty’, ‘cunning-spite’. Finally it is connected also with treasure, which may be a searugimma geþræc, a ‘confusion of cunning gems’; in one final crux, one Old English poem declares, making the word into a verb, sinc searwade—‘treasure was cunning’. The standard dictionary suggests that this means it ‘left its possessor’, but Tolkien was more likely to think it meant the exact opposite, treasure stayed with its possessor, gave him the ‘dragon-sickness’ of which the Master of Laketown died.

Saruman could then mean simply ‘cunning man’, itself an old designation for a wizard, and so suitable enough. But behind that one may see that for Tolkien the Old English word expressed very accurately a complex concept for which we no longer have a term. What does Saruman stand for? One thing, certainly, is a kind of mechanical ingenuity, smithcraft developed into engineering skills. Treebeard says of Saruman that ‘He has a mind of metal and wheels’; his orcs use a kind of gunpowder at Helm's Deep, and later on he uses against the Ents a kind of napalm, or (remembering Tolkien's own war experience) perhaps one should say a Flammenwerfer. This might in itself be ethically neutral, and Tolkien had a lifelong sympathy with all kinds of creative endeavour, including the forging of the Silmarils and ‘the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic’, the ‘desire of the hearts of dwarves’ which Bilbo feels for a moment in chapter 1 of The Hobbit. Yet in the dwarves, just as in the Old English poem mentioned above, this love can lead on to something greedier and more treacherous, the ‘bewilderment of the treasure’ which works on Thorin as on the Master of Laketown. There is another connection entirely personal to Tolkien. In his childhood he lived in the village outside Birmingham then called ‘Sarehole’, and feared the bone-grinding millers he and his brother called ‘the White Ogre’ and ‘the Black Ogre’ (see Biography, pp. 20-21). Sarehole Mill became for him an image of destructive technology, remembered in the scenes with the miller Ted Sandyman in the Shire. How suitable that ‘Sarehole’ could be taken to mean ‘the saru-pit’ or possibly ‘the sere pit, the withered pit’. Ted Sandyman is withered, in a way, says Farmer Cotton (VI/8): ‘he works there cleaning wheels for the Men, where his dad was the Miller and his own master’. His is not the dragon-sickness associated with gold, but it is a metal-sickness associated with iron, and both sicknesses are catching and potentially fatal.

One sees ‘Sandyman's disease’ in an advanced form in Saruman: it starts as intellectual curiosity, develops as engineering skill, turns into greed and the desire to dominate, corrupts further into a hatred and contempt of the natural world which goes beyond any rational desire to use it. Saruman's orcs start by felling trees for the furnaces, but they end up felling them for fun, as Treebeard complains (III/4). The ‘applicability’ of this is obvious, with Saruman becoming an image of one of the characteristic vices of modernity, though we still have no name for it—a kind of restless ingenuity, skill without purpose, bulldozing for the sake of change. It is interesting that Saruman's followers call him ‘Sharkey’, Orkish, we are told, for ‘Old Man’. A medievalist might think of the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’ in Sir John Mandeville's Travels, the master of the sect of Assassins. His title in Arabic would be shaikh, ‘old man’, and he ruled by deluding his followers with dreams of Paradise created by hashish. Similarly, one might say, the Sarumans of the real world rule by deluding their followers with images of a technological Paradise in the future, a modernist Utopia; but what one often gets (and this has become only more relevant since Tolkien wrote and since he died) are the blasted landscapes of Eastern Europe, strip-mined, polluted, and even radioactive. One may disagree with Tolkien's diagnosis of the situation, and with his nostalgic or pastoral solution to it, but there can be no doubt that he has at least addressed a serious issue, and tried to give it both a historical and a psychological dimension nearly always missing elsewhere.

In view of the ‘socialist’ suggestions clinging to Saruman, one ought to point out that he has a counterpart who is very clearly an arch-‘conservative’. This is Denethor. Denethor's most evident counterpart is Théoden, as has been said, both old men who have lost their sons, representatives of cultures clearly contrasted to one another. Their fates are also both connected and contrasted. Both men at one time or another succumb to despair, both are encouraged by Gandalf, each gains a hobbit-squire who attempts to cheer him further. At a critical moment, however, they react differently. At the end of ‘The Ride of the Rohirrim’ Merry sees Théoden seemingly quail before the Black Breath, the ‘great weight of horror and doubt’, and fears that he will turn back, ‘slink away to hide in the hills’. Instead he cries out five lines of heroic verse, an extension of the ‘call to arms’ he had given on taking Éomer's sword in ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, blows the horn he takes from his banner-bearer, and charges. At exactly the same moment, carefully synchronized for us by the hornblowing heard in Minas Tirith, Denethor is attempting to commit suicide and to take his son Faramir with him. In yet another example of the close cross-referencing of interlace, we know exactly why, and what mistake Denethor has made. The key reference is some thirty pages before, when, after Faramir has been brought in wounded, Denethor retires to his secret room, and watchers see ‘a pale light’ gleaming and flickering from the windows. Denethor is looking in a palantír, as is confirmed later by Gandalf and Beregond. In it he sees, for one thing, the black sails of the Corsairs coming up the Anduin, but that must be on the day of the battle itself, March 15th, or the day before, March 14th. What did he see on the 13th, the day when Faramir was brought in, the day the ‘pale light’ was seen flickering? The 13th is the day when Frodo is captured and taken to Minas Morgul. The likelihood is that that is what Denethor has seen, in a vision controlled by Sauron. That is why he says to Pippin, speaking of Gandalf, ‘The fool's hope has failed. The Enemy has found it, and now his power waxes’. It is the Ring, but (though the first-time reader does not yet know this) the Enemy has not found it. Indeed, the 15th, the day of the battle and the deaths of both Théoden and Denethor, is also the day when Frodo and Sam escape. Denethor's suicide is then ironically misguided, and in a further example of chains of cause and effect, Denethor kills not only himself but also his counterpart Théoden—for as said on p. 111 above, that is the implication of Gandalf's comment, as he hesitates before following Pippin to rescue Faramir, that ‘if I do [save Faramir], then others will die’. He and Pippin hear the death-cry of the Lord of the Nazgûl as they come back from saving Faramir; while they have been doing so, Théoden has charged, met the Black Rider, been thrown, and is now saying his last words to Éomer and Merry.

Is there any ‘applicability’ in all this? One point surely is the difference between Théoden and Denethor, over all their similarities. Denethor is cleverer than Théoden, knows more, is more civilized and perhaps more intelligent: but he is not wiser. He does not understand about luck. He looks too far into the future, and misinterprets what he sees. Above all, he trusts to his own chains of logic. What he sees in the future is, in the first place, defeat, but even if that were to be avoided, change. He has worked out who Strider is, and sees that victory would mean being supplanted as Steward by ‘the return of the King’. But he is not prepared to accept any change at all. When Gandalf asks him, almost at the last moment, what he wants, he says, ‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me’. And if that is not possible, ‘if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated’. By the time The Lord of the Rings was published, of course, it was for the first time in the history of the world possible for political leaders to say they would have ‘naught’, and make it come true. In this context there is a special ominousness in Denethor's prophecy, ‘It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended. Ash! Ash and smoke blown away on the wind!’ Denethor cannot say ‘nuclear fire’, but the thought fits. His decision to commit suicide and take his son with him rather than be enslaved has a kind of similarity to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, ‘better dead than Red’, which hung over the world from 1947 (the time of the first Russian nuclear explosion). It is significant that Denethor's most repeated statement—he says it three times, once in V/4 and twice in V/7—is ‘The West has failed’. If Saruman suggests one kind of disastrous future familiar from twentieth-century experience, the technological Utopia turned into squalid dictatorship, Denethor represents the major late twentieth-century fear, leaders with a death-wish who have given up on conventional weapons. One sees how fortunate it is that Denethor did not gain control of the Ring.

None of this says, of course, that the Ring = nuclear weapons, the starting move of the would-be allegory which Tolkien mocked so decisively. Nevertheless some at least of the thoughts above, whether about the Maginot Line or council housing, Vichy status or the failure of the West, are bound to have occurred to any adult reader with any memory of recent history. They do not mean that The Lord of the Rings is a veiled rewrite of recent history, which would be an exercise with almost no point. They do mean that the patterns discernible in it, including the ironies of interlace and the moral they point out, can be applied to recent history and indeed to future action. The moral, obviously, is that one should never give up hope (like Denethor), nor on the other hand sit back and wait for things to change (like too many of the inhabitants of the Shire). But as Tolkien says, ‘applicability … resides in the freedom of the reader’, and should only be suggested or provoked by the author.


A second area where one may feel inclined to disagree with Tolkien's overt statements about his own work is that of religious meaning. In a letter of 1953, written to a Jesuit friend, he claimed that:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.

(The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, [Letters] p. 172)

The first thing one is bound to ask here is, what did he mean by ‘fundamentally’? The Lord of the Rings is certainly superficially neither Catholic nor religious, nor Christian. As Tolkien says, there is almost no hint of any religious feeling at all in the characters or in their societies, not even where one would be most likely to expect it. The hobbits, for all their nineteenth-century Englishness, are devoid of any religious sanction for any of their activities. We know they get married, and might suppose that they did so rather like Tolkien's own contemporaries. But they have no churches, and there is no hint as to who marries them. The Mayor, in a ‘civil ceremony’? The Thain? The Head Shirriff? The hobbits furthermore have elaborate genealogies, but apparently no tombstones or burying-grounds, whether in churchyards or out of them. The dwarves have tombstones, for we see that of Balin son of Fundin, but all we are told about them (in Appendix A (III) is that the dwarves have many strange beliefs, apparently in a kind of reincarnation. The Riders again might be expected on general cultural grounds to have some sort of religion comparable to that of the ancient English before the time of their conversion to Christianity, and there are indeed hints of something like that in their past. On the border of Rohan is a mountain called the Halifirien, and this must be Old English halig fyrgen, ‘Holy Mountain’. But we never find out who or what it was once holy to. They are also very scrupulous about burying their dead, both those killed in battle and their kings, all of them ‘laid in mound’, as Théoden is after the Battle of Pelennor. We get a detailed description of this in VI/6, with the Riders burying their king with his weapons and his treasure, raising a mound over him, and riding round his barrow singing a dirge. But what is remarkable here, perhaps, is what is missing. There is a description of a burial in real history very like Théoden's, that of Attila the Hun, and Tolkien refers to the text containing it in a letter to his son Christopher. In that description, though, the barbarian riders gash themselves so that their king can be honourably lamented in the blood of men, not women's tears, and after Attila is entombed the slaves who do the work are sacrificed to accompany him. Those barbarians were Huns, but on the first occasion when the English are mentioned in history, the Roman historian Tacitus comments on their habit of sacrificing victims to their god or goddess Nerthus by drowning; many preserved corpses have been recovered from the peat-bogs of south Jutland to prove that what he said was true. But the Riders do nothing like that. They are not Christians, but they do not seem to be proper pagans either.

As for the Gondorians, they do have much more sense of ceremony than anyone else in the story, with a custom before meals rather like that of saying grace—they turn and face the West, in memory not only of Númenor but ‘beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and ever will be’. Frodo and Sam characteristically do not understand what Faramir is talking about, nor is it explained, but the Gondorians do believe in the Valar, supernatural powers above the human but below the divine. Tolkien might have had some difficulty in explaining to his Jesuit friend quite what the status of these ‘demi-gods’ was, and how they were to be distinguished from pagan deities, and they do lead him into a kind of anachronism, perhaps conscious. When Denethor decides to commit suicide (something of course especially repugnant to Catholics), Gandalf rebukes him:

Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death … And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.


Gandalf here faces the idea of funeral sacrifice, and admits that things like this have taken place in Middle-earth, but he uses the significant and in a way illogical adjective ‘heathen’. ‘Heathen’, paradoxically, is a specifically Christian word, the Old English translation of Latin paganus, one from the pagus or pays, not however a ‘peasant’ in the social sense but a rustic, someone from the back-country, someone ignorant of civilized behaviour, a non-Christian. Does Gandalf calling someone else a heathen imply that he himself is not one, and if so, what is he? The question as usual is not answered.

The deepest sense of religious belief mentioned explicitly in Middle-earth comes in an Appendix, in the ‘Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ told in Appendix A (V). Here we have several death-scenes including that of Aragorn's mother Gilraen, but they are noticeably lacking in what used to be called ‘the comforts of religion’. Gilraen dies declaring that she cannot face the ‘darkness of our time’. Her son tells her that ‘there may be a light beyond the darkness’, but she replies only with the riddling linnod in Quenya, ‘I gave Hope [i.e. Aragorn] to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself’. Is Aragorn's ‘light beyond the darkness’ some hope of salvation, some promise of immortality? Or does he just mean that there is a chance still of winning the war which Gilraen sees coming? His own death-scene looks a little further, for Aragorn, talking to his elvish wife, says:

In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!

This does suggest that there is another world beyond Middle-earth, and that the ‘more than memory’ may include a meeting in something like Heaven. But the veiled promise has no effect on Arwen, who has sacrificed her elvish immortality to marry Aragorn. Perhaps the saddest lines in the work are those of her own death in Lothlórien on Cerin Amroth:

and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.

To revert from emotion to mere grammar, though, the lines are syntactically ambiguous. Do they mean (a) Arwen will lie there until the world is changed; and now she is utterly forgotten? Or (b) Arwen will lie there until the world is changed, and until she is utterly forgotten? If the second alternative is correct, then the changing of the world has already happened, and the sentence means only that Arwen's grave still rests undisturbed. However, the first alternative is also possible, in which case there is a half-suggestion that though Arwen still lies in her grave and is utterly forgotten, nevertheless the world-change has not yet taken place: so there is something the other side of ‘until’, something in our future as well as hers. Tom Bombadil shares the same belief, one might note, for he tells the barrow-wight to go ‘where gates are ever shut, / Till the world is mended’. The world, then, will be mended, will be changed, and then gates will be open, and (perhaps) the dead will rise. The wisest characters in Middle-earth (Gandalf, Aragorn, Bombadil) have some idea of this future resurrection, life after death, but it is never overtly stated, and it is not shared by Arwen or Gilraen, still less by the hobbits. Théoden, like Thorin in The Hobbit, has some sense of ancestor-worship, in which the dead go to their fathers, but this is felt only by the most aristocratic characters: Théoden may mean only that he will be buried alongside his predecessors in the row of barrows by Edoras.

In this whole only-slightly-qualified absence of religion the societies of Middle-earth are unlike any human societies we know about; and in this sense Middle-earth could rightly be called a ‘Never-never Land’. More politely, and more Catholically, one could say that Middle-earth is a sort of Limbo, in which the characters, like unbaptized innocents or the pagan philosophers of Dante, are counted as neither heathen nor Christian but something in between. Tolkien was moreover not the only writer to set a story in a similar Limbo, the Beowulf-epic making very similar censorships (Beowulf's barrow-funeral is like Théoden's, not like Attila's), and exactly the same slip in its single anachronistic use of the word hæðen, ‘heathen’, to condemn Danish devil-worshippers (a point Tolkien considered in his 1936 lecture, see Essays, p. 43). The parallel with Beowulf may perhaps indicate Tolkien's underlying problem and underlying intention, and cast some light on this paradox of a ‘fundamentally Catholic’ work which never once mentions God.

Many people have remarked, and even more have felt, that The Lord of the Rings is in some way or other a ‘mythic’ work. The word ‘myth’, however, has several meanings. One which is certainly relevant is the idea that the main function of a myth is to resolve contradictions, to act as a mediation between or explanation of things which seem to be incompatible. Thus, to give a couple of clear examples, Christians like other monotheists believe in the existence of a God who is at once omnipotent and benevolent; at the same time, no one, not even Boethius, could fail to remark the existence in the world of undeserved suffering, unpunished evil, unrewarded virtue. The incompatibility is resolved by the myth of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Humanity, which explains that evil is the result of human disobedience, and is allowed to exist in order to create free will, freedom to resist or to succumb to temptation, without which humans would be God's slaves, not his children. The whole theory is explained not only by thousands of Christian commentators but also by Milton in Paradise Lost, and again by C. S. Lewis in his 1943 rewriting of Paradise Lost in twentieth-century terms as Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus. Meanwhile, if we accept the Norse mythology as retold by Snorri Sturluson, it seems that his pagan ancestors believed in protecting deities like Thor, but also (unlike Christians) that even these deities were not omnipotent, ultimately mortal. The limits of their powers are explained in the myth of the journey of Thor and Loki to the court of the giantking, in which Thor does his utmost, but is nevertheless not able to overcome the giant-powers of, in succession, Utgarð-Loki, the Miðgarð Serpent, and in the end the hag Elli, or ‘Old Age’. Both these stories, the Garden of Eden and the Journey of Thor, look at a contradiction of belief, and tell a story to explain why this is so.

The contrastive nature of myths like these was, however, for Tolkien almost an everyday concern. Virtually every day of his working life as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, or of English Language and Literature, he found himself reading, teaching, or referring to works like Beowulf, the Elder Edda, or Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which were in one way or other ambiguous in their Christian status. They were almost always recorded by Christians, like the Beowulf-poet or (at least two centuries later) the Icelander Snorri. But in some cases they might well have been composed by pagans, like many of the poems of the Elder Edda, or they contained explicitly pagan material, like the Prose Edda, or they were about heroes whom even the Christian author knew lived in pagan times, and so must have been pagan, like Beowulf himself. To take the last case first, how were heroes of the latter category to be regarded? One of the clichés of Beowulf-scholarship is the decision given by the early English churchman Alcuin, who wrote to the abbot of Lindisfarne monastery late in the eighth century, just before that monastery was destroyed by the Vikings, telling him angrily that he must stop his monks listening to stories about pagan heroes—in particular stories about one ‘Ingeldus’, clearly the same person as a peripheral character in Beowulf, Ingeld prince of the Heathobards. He put his opinion rhetorically in the form of question and answer:

For what has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow. It cannot contain them both. The King of Heaven wishes to have no fellowship with lost and pagan so-called kings; for the eternal King reigns in Heaven, the lost pagan laments in Hell.

Is that so? For if that is true, then poems like Beowulf ought to have been (probably most of them were) ejected from proper monastic libraries. But that is a decision which would have all but destroyed Tolkien's profession, and his ruling passion, and which he could not possibly accept. Moreover, it is clear enough that (though he never mentions Christ) the Beowulf-poet was a Christian as devout as his countryman Alcuin: they just had different opinions about the status of pagans, especially of pagans who (unlike the Vikings about to descend on Lindisfarne) had not rejected the Gospel, indeed had never heard of it, or done Christians any harm. The whole poem Beowulf, it could be said, is a mediation between contradictory opinions, with strong similarities to The Lord of the Rings. Both works were written by believing Christians, but neither mentions anything specific to their belief; The Lord of the Rings goes further in all but eliminating references to any form of religion at all. In each case the deaths of heroes remain highly ambiguous. There is a faint sense of hope or consolation for the future at the death of Aragorn, as at the death of Beowulf, but neither work brings this hope into clear focus, and both death-scenes, while dignified, are shadowed by gloom and uncertainty about the future. Beowulf further contains not only obscurely menacing references to ‘shadow’, or ‘the Shadow’, but also hints of something very like the Valar—for though it is God who sends the hero Scyld to rescue the Danes, he is actually launched on his voyage across the seas by creatures known only as ‘those’, who must be doing God's will but who may be superhuman. Both works, finally, resolve the same contradiction by a kind of mediation, alien to ‘hard-liners’ like Alcuin. Must one necessarily believe that all those who lived before the coming of Christ, or between the coming of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel, are irrevocably damned? Neither Tolkien nor the anonymous Old English poet expresses an opinion about this, or indeed ever mentions the question, but both present a heathen or a pre-Christian world with intense sympathy, and with sympathetic bowdlerization (no slavery, no human sacrifices, no pagan gods). The contradiction mediated in both works is that of the ‘virtuous pagan’: to be damned for inherited paganism or to be saved for personal virtue? In Middle-earth (and one sees that there are more than one reasons for the name) this is a question which need not and in fact cannot arise.


The connection between what has just been argued and the central story of The Lord of the Rings lies in the name, and the character, Frodo. There is one very strange thing about his name, and that is that although he ought to have been ‘the famousest of the hobbits’, his name is one which is never discussed or mentioned at all in the explanation of Shire-names in Appendix F.

Tolkien deals with these at considerable length. Most of them, he says, have been translated from Westron into English according to sense, though in both Westron and English the wearing-down processes of language have left many people unaware that place-name elements like ‘bottle’ (or ‘bold’) once meant ‘dwelling’, so that such names often sound stranger than they once were. When it comes to first names, Tolkien says, hobbits had two main kinds. In category (a) were ‘names that had no meaning at all in their daily language’, such as ‘Bilbo, Bungo, Polo’ etc. Some of these were, by accident, the same as modern English names, e.g. ‘Otho, Odo, Drogo’. These names were kept, but they were ‘anglicized … by altering their endings’, since in hobbit-names (as in Old English) -a was masculine, -o and -e were feminine. Bilbo's name, then, was actually Bilba. However, there is also a category (b), since in some families it was the custom to give children ‘high-sounding’ first names drawn from ancient legend. Tolkien says that he has not retained these but translated them, using such faded legendary names as Meriadoc, Peregrin, Fredegar, which do not sound like, but have the same sort of feel as their hobbit originals.

The question is, what sort of name is Frodo—the one name out of all the prominent hobbit characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien does not mention or discuss? Possibly the reason is that Frodo is in a one-member category of his own, category (c). His name looks like one of the meaningless ones, such as Bilbo, in which case it would have been, not Frodo, but Froda. However, Froda is not a meaningless name. Just like Meriadoc or Fredegar, it is a name from the heroic literature of the past, though it is one which, significantly, and appropriately to Frodo's character, has been all but entirely forgotten. Froda was the father of the hero Ingeld whose legend the monks of Lindisfarne were censured for listening to; Beowulf refers to Ingeld, once, as ‘the fortunate son of Froda’, and that is all we ever hear about him in Old English. In Old Norse, though, the exact equivalent of Froda would be Fróði, or Frothi, and this name appears frequently and confusingly, as if later authors were trying to make sense of different and contradictory stories. One thing that is certain, though, is that both Froda and Frothi (by rights they should both have a long vowel, fróda, fróði) mean ‘the wise one’ in Old English and Old Norse; and the most prominent of all the Norse Frothis is indeed famous for his wisdom, above all in turning away from war. According to both Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1200) and Snorri Sturluson (c. 1230), this Frothi was an exact contemporary of Christ. During his reign there were no murders, wars, thefts or robberies, and this Golden Age was known as the Fróða-frið, ‘the peace of Frothi’. It came to an end because the peace really came from the magic mill of Frothi, which he used to grind out peace and prosperity; but in the end he refused to give the giantesses who turned the mill for him any rest, and they rebelled and ground out instead an army to kill Frothi and take his gold. Their magic mill is still grinding at the bottom of the Maelstrom, says Norwegian folk-legend, but now it grinds out salt, and that is why the sea is salty.

Has this story anything, other than the names, to do with either Beowulf or The Lord of the Rings? One point that may have struck Tolkien is the total contrast between Froda and Ingeld, father and son. The former is a man of peace, the latter the defining image, in the Northern heroic world, of the man who would not give up the obligations of vengeance no matter what this cost him. There is something sad, ironic, and true about the fact that Ingjaldr remained a popular Norse name for generations, and even the monks of Lindisfarne wanted to hear about him, while the story of his peaceful father was rapidly turned into a parable of futility. Frothi, furthermore, is not only a contemporary of Christ, but also an analogue (of course a failed analogue), one who tries without ultimate success to put an end to the cycles of war and vengeance and heroism. He fails both personally, in being killed, and ideologically, in that his son and his people return gleefully to the bad old ways of revenge and hatred, and paganism. For after all the ‘peace of Frothi’ could just have been an accident, an unrealized reflection of the Coming of Christ, about which the pagans never learned. This composite Froda/Frothi, then, could have been to Tolkien a defining image of the ‘virtuous pagan’, a glimpse of the sad truth behind heroic illusions, a brief and soon-quenched light shining in the darkness of heathen ages.

All this seems strongly relevant to Tolkien's Frodo. At the start he is, one may say without impoliteness, a ‘good average’ hobbit, no more aggressive than the rest of them—there has never been a murder in the Shire—but capable of self-defence. He strikes at the wight in the barrow, tries to stab the Nazgûl on Weathertop, stabs the troll in the foot in Moria. He thinks it a pity that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance. After Lothlórien, though, Frodo's actions are increasingly ones of restraint. He threatens to stab Gollum at in IV/1, but does not do so, and later on saves him from the archers at ‘The Forbidden Pool’, against Sam's strong inclination to say nothing and let him die. He gives Sting away in VI/2, keeping an orc-blade but saying ‘I do not think it will be my part to strike any blow again’. A few pages later he throws even that weapon away, declaring ‘I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul’. By this time Frodo has become almost a pacifist. In ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ he speaks up defiantly several times—till the moment when Pippin draws his sword to avenge the squint-eyed ruffian's insult. Then, though Merry and Sam also draw and go forward in support, ‘Frodo did not move’. After that he speaks up in defence even of Lotho, reminds the others that ‘there is to be no slaying of hobbits … No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire’, but then in effect withdraws, saying nothing at all in reply to Merry's ‘I knew we should have to fight’. At the Battle of Bywater he does not draw sword, and his main concern is to prevent angry hobbits from killing their prisoners. Even in this there is a touch of passivity. Talking to Merry (who disagrees and tells him he cannot save the Shire just by being ‘shocked and sad’), Frodo is capable of giving an order, ‘Keep your tempers and hold your hands’. But as the Battle of Bywater approaches, and Merry blows his horn and the bystanders cheer, Frodo seems increasingly sidelined:

‘All the same,’ said Frodo to all those who stood near, ‘I wish for no killing; not even of the ruffians, unless it must be done, to prevent them hurting hobbits.’

The last two clauses indicate that Frodo has not gone all the way to pure pacifism (perhaps inconceivable to a man of Tolkien's background), but ‘All the same’ seems to concede that an argument has already been lost; ‘to all those who stood near’ suggests that Frodo is no longer very assertive even in his rejection of force. In the end all he says to Merry is ‘Very good … You make the arrangements’. He forbids anyone to kill Saruman, and tries to rescue even the murderer and cannibal Wormtongue, but the decisions are taken out of his hands first by Wormtongue and then by the hobbit archers.

All this has its effect on the way he is perceived in the Shire. As said above, Sam is ‘pained’ by the way in which Frodo is supplanted by the large and ‘lordly’ hobbits, Pippin and Merry, and by seeing ‘how little honour he had in his own country’. It is prophets who proverbially have no honour in their own country, and Frodo functions increasingly as a seer rather than a hero. Even in other countries the honour he has is of the wrong sort. One remembers Ioreth telling her cousin in Gondor that Frodo ‘went with only his esquire into the Black Country and fought with the Dark Lord all by himself, and set fire to his Tower, if you can believe it. At least that is the tale in the City.’ The tale is wrong, but it is a heroic tale, and that is the kind of tale people prefer to hear, ‘The better fortitude’ (as Milton wrote) ‘Of patience and heroic martyrdom / Unsung’. One wonders what the minstrel said in the lay of ‘Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom’, but whatever it was, it was forgotten. The end of Frodo's quest, in the memory of Middle-earth, is nothing. Bilbo dwindles into ‘mad Baggins’, a figure of folklore, the elves and dwarves percolate through to our world in legends of shape-shifters and sword-makers, even ‘the Dark Tower’ is remembered in a fragment from ‘poor Tom’ in King Lear. But of Frodo there remains not a trace: except (and one sees that Tolkien has made even the fragmentary nature of his sources into a part of his story) faint hints of an unlucky, well-meaning, ill-fated king, his reputation eclipsed on the one hand by the fame of his vengeful and conventionally heroic son, on the other by the Coming of the true hero Christ, who made the Fróða-frið, the ‘peace of Frothi’, literally marginal.

What has Ingeld to do with Christ, asked Alcuin, and the answer is, obviously, ‘nothing’. But Froda has to do with both, father of one, analogue of the other. He is a hinge, a mediation: and so is Tolkien's Frodo, the middle-most character in all of Middle-earth. It would be quite wrong to suggest that he is a Christ-figure, an allegory of Christ, any more than the Ring is one of nuclear power—the differences, as Tolkien pointed out in the latter case and easily could have in the former, are more obvious than the similarities. Yet he represents something related: perhaps, an image of natural humanity trying to do its best in native decency, trying to find its way from inertia (the Shire) past mere furious heroic dauntlessness (Boromir and the rest) to some limited success, and doing it without the resources of the heroes and the longaevi, like Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli. He has to do so furthermore by destroying the Ring, which is merely secular power and ambition, and he does so with no certain faith in rescue (or salvation) from outside, from beyond ‘the circles of the world’. In this he is once again a highly contemporary figure, an image suitable for a society which as Tolkien knew perfectly well had largely lost religious faith and had no developed theory to put in its place. Could ‘native decency’ be enough? As a Christian, Tolkien was bound to say ‘no’, as a scholar of pagan and near-pagan literature he could not help seeing that there had been virtue, and a wish for something more, even among pagans. The myth, or story, that he created expresses both hope and sadness. It is a mark of its success that it has been appreciated by many who share its author's real beliefs, but by even more who do not.


One of the differences between applicability and allegory, between myth and legend, must be that myth and applicability are timeless, allegory and legend time-constrained. The difference of course is not an absolute one, and a story can have elements of both at the same time: Saruman, and the Master of Laketown, are both examples of something which one can recognize as having a timeless quality, likely to reappear among human beings in any Age of the world, and which one can readily apply to modern times in particular. This does not mean that they stop having roles in a single, one-moment-in-time story, and it would be unfortunate if they did, for they would fade away to becoming mere labelled abstractions. Fortunately there are, scattered through The Lord of the Rings, demonstrations of Tolkien's attitude to individual time and to mythic timelessness. They are often related to a subject not yet discussed with relation to either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but of major importance to both, and to Tolkien: Tolkien's poetry.

The poetry of the Shire in particular—plain, simple, straight-forward in theme and expression—seems continuously variable. The first time we hear the poem listed in the The Lord of the Rings Index as ‘Old Walking-Song’ is when Bilbo leaves Gandalf and Bag End in the first chapter, and Bilbo sings it at the door. It is obviously closely related to that particular situation. Bilbo sings:

The Road goes ever on and on
          Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
          And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet …

Bilbo is here singing about something which he is just about to do; and ‘the door where it began’ in line 2 is the door he is standing at, the door on which Gandalf put the secret mark for the dwarves many years before, when indeed Bilbo's adventures began. The next time we encounter the poem, though, it is Frodo who sings it, just before the hobbits' first encounter with a Ringwraith, and there are two significant changes: Frodo does not sing, he speaks, and he does not say ‘eager feet’, he says ‘weary feet’. Whose version is correct? Obviously, either. One could say just that Frodo has adapted Bilbo's song to suit his own less happy and hopeful circumstances, but then it is quite possible that Bilbo did the same thing himself. As soon as Frodo has finished, Pippin says: ‘That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo's rhyming … Or is it one of your imitations? It does not sound altogether encouraging.’ Frodo replies, ‘I don't know … It came to me then, as if I was making it up, but I may have heard it long ago.’ Actually, we know that Frodo is not making most of it up, since we have already heard Bilbo's version. But this does not mean that Bilbo made it up, or not that he made all of it up. Three pages after Frodo's adaptation, the hobbits start to sing another song, listed in the Index as just ‘A Walking-Song’, and this time we are told that ‘Bilbo had made the words’, but set them to ‘a tune as old as the hills’.

It should be noted that the two poems, the ‘Old Walking-Song’ repeated by Bilbo and Frodo, and the longer ‘Walking-Song’ sung by Frodo and his companions collectively, are quite easy to tell apart: the first one is an eight-line stanza and has alternating rhymes ababcdcd, the second is in ten-line stanza, divided into six longer and four shorter lines, and is in couplets all the way through. Just the same, the Index has mixed them up, and one can see why. For the ‘Old Walking-Song’ comes back a third time, to be repeated in Rivendell by Bilbo once more, at the end of VI/6. The context here is one of the many sad scenes in The Lord of the Rings, for it is obvious to everyone that Bilbo is dying. His memory has gone, he keeps on falling asleep, he even asks ‘what's become of my ring, Frodo, that you took away?’, no longer remembering anything of what has happened. As he talks on, with painful irrelevance, he breaks into a third version of the ‘Old Walking-Song’, or ‘Road’ poem, this time radically altered:

The Road goes ever on and on,
          Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
          Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
          But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
          My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

When Bilbo talks about ‘sleep’ and ‘the lighted inn’ he could mean, perhaps does mean, Rivendell and the sleep he falls into as soon as he finishes the poem (just as the ‘door’ in his first version could be the door of Bag End). But in the Rivendell scene everyone realizes immediately that there is a symbolic meaning, in which the sleep is death. Sam says cautiously and tactfully that Bilbo cannot have been doing much writing—‘He won't ever write our story now’—and Bilbo wakes up enough to respond and in a sense appoint Frodo his literary executor. Bilbo, then, has adapted the poem just as Frodo did (taking over Frodo's phrase ‘weary feet’), and left it still immediately relevant to his own personal circumstances, to what is happening in the room at the time. But the more the poem is adapted, the clearer its symbolic sense becomes, in which the Road is life, always followed, eagerly or wearily, but from which everyone in the end must turn aside, leaving it to others to follow.

The counterpart to Bilbo's leave-taking comes in the last chapter, when Frodo, heading for the Grey Havens and the boat which will take him out of Middle-earth altogether, starts to sing ‘the old walking-song, but the words were not the same’. The Index lists this, not unnaturally, under ‘Old Walking-Song’, i.e. the ‘Road’ poem we have had three times before, but in fact it is the other one, the one in couplets—it should be indexed as ‘A Walking-Song’—though it is true that once again ‘the words are not the same’. Both versions have the same lines about there being ‘A new road or a secret gate’, but where the hobbits setting off sang only:

And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run,
Towards the Moon or to the Sun,

Frodo passing out of Middle-earth sings:

And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

Frodo's version is once more, like Bilbo's Rivendell version of the ‘Road’ song, entirely relevant to his immediate situation, when he is just about to take the ‘hidden path’ that leads out of the world, but at the same time the ‘new road’ and the ‘secret gate’ have taken on quite a different significance. The hobbits may just have meant (as is suitable for a walking-song) that another day they could take a different route, but Frodo's ‘new road’ is the ‘Lost Straight Road’ of Tolkien's own mythology, the road to Elvenhome. Shire-poetry, in short, can be new and old at the same time, highly personal and more-than-personal, subject to continuous change while retaining a recognizable frame. It is not surprising that the indexers of The Lord of the Rings got confused between poems and versions. But that, one might say, is mythic timelessness for you in miniature. Myths are what is always available for individuals to make over, and apply to their own circumstances, without ever gaining control or permanent single-meaning possession.


The last clause may account for some of Tolkien's expressed annoyance about his poetic predecessors, especially Shakespeare. In Tolkien's professional lifetime Shakespeare had a status which approached the holy, and it has seemed indefensibly Philistine to many critics that Tolkien should have had the nerve to be dissatisfied with him; but Tolkien usually saw things from a different angle than his literary colleagues, and often expressed only half of his opinion at a time. What Tolkien said, in a letter to W. H. Auden, is that at school he ‘disliked cordially’ Shakespeare's plays (using the same word that he used about allegory), and remembered especially ‘the bitter disappointment and disgust … with the shabby use made in Shakespeare [in Macbeth] of the coming of “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill”’.

On the face of it, this does not seem to be true. If there is one work to which The Lord of the Rings is indebted again and again, it is Shakespeare's Macbeth. Not only do we find the ‘march of the trees’ motif entirely reworked in the march of the Ents on Isengard, and on Helm's Deep. The prophecy on which the Lord of the Nazgûl relies—‘No living man may hinder me!’—is much the same as the one which the witches' apparition gives to Macbeth, ‘Laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’. Both Macbeth and the Nazgûl are deceived in much the same way, for Macduff was not born but ‘from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped’, while the Nazgûl falls not to a ‘living man’, but to the combined attack of Éowyn, a woman, and Merry, a hobbit. The scenes in which Aragorn uses athelas to heal the injured recall the account in Macbeth of King Edward the Confessor touching for the King's Evil, and healing through his sacred power of royalty; and there is a kind of rebuke to Macbeth in the scene in which Denethor discusses the role of stewards and kings. In Macbeth Shakespeare is generally thought to have been flattering James VI of Scotland and I of England, who succeeded Elizabeth on the throne in 1603. He claimed descent from Banquo, and some say that in the scene in which the witches show Macbeth Banquo's long line of descendants, the original production in front of the king had a mirror on stage set so as to have King James appear in it. James was, however, a Stewart, or Steward, like Denethor: except that in Scotland, and England, stewards could aspire to the throne. When Denethor replies to Boromir's dissatisfied question—how many years does it take for a steward to become worthy of a vacant throne—that this happens only ‘in places of less royalty’ (IV/5), the remark applies to Britain. Tolkien could be seen, here as in the march of the Ents, to be correcting or improving on Macbeth. He may have had a low opinion of Shakespeare's dramatic opportunism.

The most suggestive contrast with Macbeth, however, lies perhaps in the use of magic to foretell the future. The central irony in Macbeth is that the witches speak true. Everything they and their apparitions say comes about, though increasingly in ways which Macbeth did not expect. He is made Thane of Cawdor; he does become ‘king hereafter’; the advice to ‘beware Macduff’ is sound; ‘none of woman born’ ever does harm him; he is not vanquished till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane; and it is Banquo's descendants who succeed, not his own. The question which the play does not raise is whether these events would have come true if Macbeth had not tried to make them come true. He was made Thane of Cawdor without doing anything. Could he have succeeded by fair means without murdering Duncan? And would Macduff have become his deadly enemy if Macbeth had not tried to forestall the prophecy by murdering him and his family? Shakespeare does not raise these issues, but Tolkien does, in the scene in which Galadriel shows the Fellowship her Mirror. One might note that she does not entirely accept Sam's repeated use of the word ‘magic’, saying that she does not ‘understand clearly’ what the word means, and that the same word is used to describe ‘the deceits of the Enemy’; so the ‘magic of Galadriel’ is not the same as the ‘deceits’ of Macbeth's witches. She also adds that ‘the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them.’ Someone should have told Macbeth that. But the dilemma is the same in both works. If Macbeth had ignored the witches' deceits, and had refused to murder Duncan, would their prophecy have come true anyway? If not, then they have no power. But maybe it would have, in some quite unexpected way. Similarly, if the Nazgûl had not been faced by Éowyn and Merry—if for instance he had been confronted by Gandalf, as might have happened if Gandalf had not been held back by Pippin, see p. 173 above—would the prophecy about his fate have been falsified? Perhaps not, for it could again have come true in some other way: Gandalf is arguably not a man either, for one thing. Both Tolkien and Shakespeare are aware of prophetic ambiguity, but Tolkien is much more concerned with drawing out its philosophical implications. His point, always, is that his characters have free will but no clear guidance, not from the palantír, or from the Mirror of Galadriel. As it happens, all the visions seen in the Mirror by Sam and Frodo seem to be true, though they are a mix of present, past and future; but unlike the witches' visions, they have no effect on anyone's actions.

Tolkien's complex attitude to Shakespeare may now be somewhat clearer. Tolkien, I think, was guardedly respectful of Shakespeare, and may even have felt (if the thought does not seem too sacrilegious to Bardolaters) a sort of fellow-feeling with him. After all, Shakespeare was a close countryman, from Warwickshire, in which county Tolkien spent the happiest years of his childhood, and which in early drafts of his Lost Tales mythology he had tried to identify with Elfland. Shakespeare could write Shire-poetry too. Bilbo's poem in ‘The Ring Goes South’,

When winter first begins to bite
          and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
          'tis evil in the Wild to fare,

is a clear rewrite of Shakespeare's stanzas at the end of Love's Labour's Lost:

When icicles hang by the wall,
          And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
          And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul
Then nightly sings the staring owl …

And just as we cannot be sure that Bilbo's poem is his (it might be another Shire-saying ‘as old as the hills’), so Shakespeare's stanzas have about them an air, and a by no means unattractive air, of folk-tradition. But the trouble with Shakespeare (Tolkien might have said) was that he was too much of a dramatist. He dealt by choice with single events closely related to the fortunes of particular characters, tightly contextualized. His witches' visions apply only to Macbeth; we are offered no alternative within the text to Macduff as fulfiller of the ‘none of woman born’ prophecy; the march of the trees is only a tactical ruse—and if one looks at it this way, it is indeed a ‘bitter disappointment’ that what the Messenger says, ‘anon methought / The wood began to move’, is no more than a mistake. What Shakespeare did not try to reach in such scenes is the simultaneous immediate relevance, and wider symbolic application, so carefully set up by Tolkien, especially through the device of inset poems. Shakespeare could have done it, of course, and (Tolkien might also have said) he showed his abilities in scenes and characters which Tolkien clearly noted, like the enchanted wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream (a model of sorts for Fangorn), or the enchanter Prospero in The Tempest (a model of sorts for Gandalf, at least in his short temper). But Shakespeare left the Mark and went to London to seek and find his fortune. His uses of ‘true tradition’, the traditions of the Shire and the Mark, are accordingly peripheral.

There is a better example of ‘mythic timelessness’, again linked to native poetic tradition, in the account of Lothlórien. Just before they look in the Mirror of Galadriel, Sam has summed up the peculiar feel of Lórien, saying in effect that it is indefinable. The elves seem to be even more at home there than hobbits in the Shire:

Whether they've made the land, or the land's made them, it's hard to say, if you take my meaning … If there's any magic about, it's right down deep, where I can't lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.

Frodo agrees with him, saying in reply to the last remark, ‘You can see and feel it everywhere’. But where does the ‘magic’, if that is the right word for it, come from? Part of the answer is that it comes from another of the great poets of the Mark, one whom Tolkien rated perhaps higher than Shakespeare, though we do not know his name. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien edited together with his colleague E. V. Gordon in 1925, is found in only one manuscript, and that manuscript contains besides Sir Gawain three other poems, almost certainly by the same poet. One of these is called Pearl, and Tolkien remained involved with it all his life. The poem is in an extremely complex stanza-form (like many early poems from the West Midlands), which Tolkien carefully and painstakingly imitated in an early poem called ‘The Nameless Land’, published in 1927. After the edition of Sir Gawain came out, the plan was for Tolkien and Gordon to collaborate on an edition of Pearl. But Gordon died prematurely in 1939, and the project was taken over by his widow Ida Gordon, who eventually published her own edition in 1953. She thanks Tolkien for his assistance in the ‘Preface’, and some of the notes to it probably came originally from him, or from his suggestions. Tolkien however kept working on the poem by himself. His translation of it, in the original stanza-form, was published two years after he died, in 1975. One may wonder what was the source of the continuing interest; and what this has to do with myth, and with Lórien.

Pearl seems to be (the whole narration is veiled and riddling) an elegy for a dead infant daughter, possibly called Margaret, which means ‘pearl’, written by her father. At the start of the poem he goes into an ‘arbour’ to look for the pearl he has lost there, and falls asleep with his head on a mound. The mound is the child's grave, the arbour the graveyard. In his sleep he finds himself in a strange land where his grief disappears, and where he sees his pearl on the other side of a river. They have a conversation in which she explains the nature of salvation to him, and in the end he tries to rush across the river—only to wake and find himself back in the graveyard, still sad, but now enlightened. All readers realize that the river which the dreamer cannot cross is the river of death. But in that case, where is he standing? What is the strange land, the ‘nameless land’, with its brilliant trees and shining gravel? It is not Paradise, for that is the other side of the river; but it is not Middle-earth either, for in it all grief is forgotten. Already one can see the hints of Lórien, affected by the medieval legends (which both Tolkien and the Pearl-poet knew) of the Earthly Paradise.

But the old poem has provided Tolkien with further suggestions. The whole approach to Lórien is an oddly complex one. First the Fellowship, coming down from the Dimrill Dale, meets the source of the Silverlode, which Gimli immediately cautions the others not to drink. Then they meet the Nimrodel, whose ‘falling water’, says Legolas, ‘may bring us sleep and forgetfulness of grief’. As they cross it, Frodo feels that ‘the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs’. This could mean, of course, entirely literally, that Frodo feels the grime of Moria being washed off, but ‘stain’ is a slightly odd word to use in this context. It is also an odd word etymologically, the OED suggesting that it is originally French, but affected by a Norse word which merely sounded similar. As a result it has the early meaning, not only of ‘to colour’ or ‘discolour’, but also almost the opposite, ‘to lose lustre’. It is repeated some pages later, when Frodo reaches Cerin Amroth, in a passage of description which seems designed to elaborate exactly the last meaning given:

[Frodo] saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.

Gandalf uses the word again in his ‘Song of Lórien’ much later, ‘Unmarred, unstained is leaf and land / in Dwimordene, in Lórien’. So, the ‘stain’ of normal life is washed off by crossing the Nimrodel; life on the other side regains its natural lustre.

But then the Fellowship goes on and crosses a second river, the Silverlode (the one which Gimli had warned them not to drink). Nor do they wade it this time, they cross above it on the rope-bridge. The reason given by Haldir, again an entirely literal and sensible one, is that it is both ‘swift and deep, and … very cold’; and Sam, with his fear of heights and vague chatter about ropewalks and his uncle Andy, is there to prevent any immediate hints of allegory, or any more-than-literal meaning. Just the same, there are continuing hints that the rivers which the Fellowship keeps crossing are leading them further and further out of the world. Once they are across the Nimrodel, they are in something like the Earthly Paradise, the place where the Pearl-dreamer forgot even the grief for his dead daughter; the members of the Fellowship seem likewise to forget about Gandalf till Celeborn asks them directly. But where are they once they are across the Silverlode, a stream across which Gollum is unable to follow them? One answer is that they are as if dead: at the end of the chapter ‘Lothlórien’ it says that Aragorn never returned to Cerin Amroth ‘as living man’. He did, then, as a dead one? To visit his wife Arwen's grave? Or are they in England—old England, of course, real England, the ‘mountains green’ of ‘ancient time’ before the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake's poem? Haldir says very carefully that ‘You have entered the Naith of Lórien, or the Gore, as you would say’. We would say neither ‘naith’ nor ‘gore’, but Haldir tries a third word with similar meaning when he says they can walk free till they come nearer the heart of the kingdom, ‘in the Angle between the waters’. The names ‘England’ and ‘English’ come from the word ‘angle’, and the old now-German homeland of the English was the Angle, or corner of land, between the Flensburg Fjord and the River Schlei—just as that of the hobbits was the Angle between the rivers Hoarwell and Loudwater. Frodo feels that he is ‘walking in a world that was no more’, that he has ‘stepped over a bridge of time’. And perhaps, like the dreamer in Pearl, he has.

Tolkien thought that the Pearl-poet came from Lancashire, but would be pleased, I think, to hear later arguments that he came from Staffordshire; for Tolkien said repeatedly that he was ‘a West-midlander by blood’, that he ‘took to early West-midland Middle English as a known tongue as soon as [he] set eyes on it’ (Letters, p. 213), and the heart of the West Midlands is formed by the five counties of Herefordshire and Shropshire, Worcester, Warwick, and Stafford. Like Shakespeare, the Warwickshire man, the Staffordshire Pearl-poet was in touch with true traditions, of English poetry, of otherworld vision, of real-world insight, and unlike Shakespeare he had never been lured away from them. His dreamer's state of liminal uncertainty, in which he is both aware of the physical and literal world, and conscious of some deeper symbolic meaning, is exactly the state of mythic or magic timelessness which I believe Tolkien aimed from time to time to reach. And there is one more poet, or poem, which I think contributed to Tolkien's mix of myth and poetry, and that is the rather unlikely figure of John Milton, the Protestant, the regicide, author of the masque Comus.

One should note, to begin with, that there is an elvish element in Tolkien's poetry. It is considered in its pure form in the article by Patrick Wynne and Carl Hostetter in Tolkien's ‘Legendarium’, but it is present even within the poetry of the Shire, which Tolkien explains within the story as the result of Bilbo's contacts with the elves and antiquarian researches. Thus, almost immediately after the hobbits sing the second ‘walking song’, and then fall silent as they see a Black Rider tracking them, the Nazgûl is driven off by the appearance of a party of elves. They are singing, in Quenya (the older of the two elvish languages used in The Lord of the Rings), and Frodo is the only one who understands any of it, consciously. However, ‘the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in [all of] their thought into words which they only partly understood’. We then have four stanzas of the song as understood by Frodo, an invocation to Elbereth. The song returns as seven lines of Sindarin (the language of the elves who remained in Middle-earth) sung in Rivendell, though this time the lines are not translated: Frodo merely stands and listens while ‘the sweet syllables of the elvish song fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody’. ‘It is a song to Elbereth’, explains Bilbo. Tolkien is here carrying out a rather daring exercise on his readers' patience, first by not translating the Sindarin song and second, by explaining nothing in either case about the subject of the song, Elbereth. His belief seems to be that, for his readers as for Frodo's hobbit companions, the sound of the poetry on its own will convey (some) meaning. In the last chapter of the whole work, just after Frodo has sung the second altered version of the second walking song, the elves reply with four lines of the Sindarin song of Rivendell, this time translated: ‘We still remember, we who dwell / In this far land beneath the trees / The starlight on the Western Seas.’ Meanwhile, as he turns to face Shelob at the start of the last chapter of The Two Towers, Sam remembers both the elvish song he heard in the Shire, and the one he heard in Rivendell, so that ‘his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know’—and he comes out with yet a third invocation to Elbereth, this time in Sindarin, but again not translated. Finally, once one has the translations (Tolkien eventually gave them in 1968 when he contributed the texts to Donald Swann's song-cycle The Road Goes Ever On), one can see that the four Elbereth poems all have a bearing on two further hobbit-poems, the song Frodo sings to try to encourage his fellows in ‘The Old Forest’, and the song which Sam sings to try to locate Frodo in ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’, a song the words of which come ‘unbidden’ to him to fit a ‘simple tune’ he knows already—just like the first hobbit walking song, with its (possibly) new words and tune which is ‘as old as the hills’. Sam indeed has just been murmuring ‘old childish tunes out of the Shire’, as well as ‘snatches of Mr Bilbo's rhymes’, so that one could believe that his ‘Song in the Orctower’, as the index calls it, is like other Shire-poems part his, part Bilbo's, and part traditional.

What these six poems have in common (the four elvish Elbereth songs, Frodo's song in the Old Forest and Sam's in the Tower) is the reflection of a myth. It is a myth in two senses, first, an old story about semi-divine creatures (Elbereth), though to the long-lived elves this is a matter of memory and nostalgia rather than mere tradition and belief; and second, with more reference both to the hobbits and the readers, a set of images presenting a world-view. The images oppose stars and trees: the stars give a promise, or for the elves a memory, of a world elsewhere; the trees represent both this world and a barrier to starlight, something through the branches of which mortals look up to try to catch a glimpse of the vision which would otherwise be clear. So the elves address Elbereth as, ‘O Light to us that wander here / Amid the world of woven trees’, and sing that ‘We still remember, we who dwell / In this far land beneath the trees, / Thy starlight on the Western Seas’. The Sindarin song of Rivendell again addresses Elbereth as kindler of the stars, and presents the singer as gazing at the stars o galadhremmin ennorath, ‘from tree-tangled Middle-earth’. (There is a further confusion here. In The Road Goes Ever On, Tolkien gives word-for-word translations between the lines first of the Sindarin song of Rivendell, and then of Sam's cry in Shelob's lair. At the foot of the page he gives connected translations of both. Through some error, though, o galadhremmin ennorath is omitted from the latter. I have substituted ‘Middle-earth’ for the literal ‘middle-lands’.)

Sam meanwhile calls to Elbereth dinguruthos, ‘beneath the horror of death’—and of course this is very relevant to the immediate context, facing Shelob. However, Middle-earth is the world of mortality. The tangle of trees is also a horror. Indeed (to revert to Comus for a moment), that is exactly what Milton calls it, ‘beneath the horror of this shady wood’.

The horror of the trees is also a matter of immediate context in Frodo's cut-off song in the Old Forest, which begins, ‘O! Wanderers in the shadowed land’, and goes on to claim that all will emerge in the end from the dark woods and see the sun, ‘For east or west all woods must fail …’ The song is cut off when a branch drops near them, and Merry remarks that the woods ‘do not like all that about ending and failing’: better to get into the open before asserting the truth of myth. However despite the immediate context, what Frodo also means is something, as usual in Shire-poetry, more general and more symbolic: that the world is like a wood, in which one can easily wander lost and confused, like Aragorn and his companions in the enchanted wood of Fangorn; but that in the end (and in this context that perhaps means after life in Middle-earth is over) all will become clear, as one escapes from both ‘the horror of this shady wood’ (Milton) and nguruthos, ‘death-horror’ (Sam). Sam gives the obverse of the thought in his Cirith Ungol song, which seems to be sung by a prisoner, like Frodo, ‘in darkness buried deep’, who nevertheless remembers, like the elves and the hobbits in the forest, that ‘above all shadows rides the Sun, / and stars for ever dwell’. Sam's song ends, ‘I will not say the Day is done, / nor bid the Stars farewell’. One can say several things about these last two lines. They have of course a point in immediate context, which is to encourage Frodo in his prison not to lose hope. They also repeat the elvish myth of the stars. They further repeat, but strongly contradict, a famous Shakespeare passage from Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra says to her handmaiden, ‘Our bright day is done, / And we are for the dark’. But was the phrase ‘day is done’ Shakespeare's? Certainly not, it must be ‘as old as the hills’, like the alliterative opposition of ‘day’ and ‘dark’ (Old English dæg, deorc), free for any true poet writing English to use in any age.

In a similar way Tolkien's whole myth of the stars and the wood is present in embryo in Milton's Comus, which tells the story of a maiden lost in a dark wood, and caught by a wicked enchanter who places her in a magic chair, but can do no more because of the preserving powers of her chastity. She is rescued by her brothers, who break in with the aid of a river-nymph (like Bombadil's wife Goldberry) and a protecting plant. But before they meet their supernatural assistant, the two brothers show signs of losing heart. The elder brother prays for moonlight, or for any kind of light that may pierce the ‘double night of darkness, and of shades’ in which they are wandering. Or if they cannot have light, adds the younger brother, it would be a consolation to hear something from outside the depths of the wood, to remind them there is a world outside:

'Twould be some solace yet, some little cheering
In this close dungeon of innumerous boughs.

‘This close dungeon of innumerous boughs’ unites at once the images of the elves' galadhremmin ennorath, ‘tree-tangled Middle-earth’, of the hobbits lost in the Old Forest, of Frodo imprisoned in the Orc-tower. As said above, I do not expect that Tolkien had much love for Milton, with his determinedly Protestant epic Paradise Lost and his revolutionary political views, but he accepted him like Shakespeare as a poet capable of true poetry; and while Milton was no West Midlander, Comus was written for a patron who came from Ludlow in Shropshire, another of the West Midlands core counties, and first performed there: maybe some of the ambience had rubbed off.

Just to round out the connections, there is a mysterious line in Pearl where the dreamer says the jewels in the stream of the strange country are bright ‘As stremande sterneȝ quen stroþemen slepe’, ‘as streaming stars when stroth-men sleep’. But what in the world (or out of it) are ‘stroth-men’? The note in Ida Gordon's edition (and I believe that some of these came originally from Tolkien's suggestions) explains Old English *stroð as ‘marshy land (overgrown with brushwood)’, but explains further that ‘stroth-men’ must mean, generally, ‘men of this world’, unaware of any higher one, but also carries pictorially ‘a suggestion of the dark, low earth on to which the stars look down’.

The Pearl-poet, then, from Staffordshire, saw the inhabitants of Middle-earth as men sleeping in the wood, ignoring the stars above their heads; Milton, writing for Shropshire, produced what is close to an allegory of life as a march through the trees to rescue the imperilled soul; Shakespeare, from Warwickshire, produced his enchanted wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and knew more of true tradition than he admitted. Tolkien, who saw his family roots as being in Worcestershire, must have felt that he was only voicing, or disentangling, a myth long latent in the poetry of the Mark, and putting it into both the simple poetry of the Shire and the more complex elvish poetry that underlies it, as the lost tradition of poems like Pearl underlies unnoticed much of the English poetry that has succeeded it. The essence of this myth, however, is that it always has an immediate point within the context of what is happening at that moment in The Lord of the Rings, but carries strong suggestion of far more general, indeed universal, applicability outside that context. Tolkien's myth of stars and trees presents life as a confusion in which we all too easily lose our bearings and forget that there is a world outside our immediate surroundings. This is not incompatible with Christian belief, but perhaps rings more true for those who have no access to Revelation, like the inhabitants of Middle-earth, or who have for the most part forgotten it, like the inhabitants of contemporary England, in Tolkien's lifetime and still more in my own.

One might add finally that it contains a further element of ambiguity. The trees and the forest in this myth are symbols of error, or horror, or death, or confusion. But there are few people who have loved trees more than Tolkien did. The hobbits' second walking song envisages leaving the world for the ‘hidden paths that run / Towards the Moon or to the Sun’, but the price of this is bidding farewell to the trees, the little and friendly trees of English orchards and hedgerows, ‘Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe, / Let them go! Let them go!’ Frodo is taken away in the end to Elvenhome to be cured. But he also loses any hope of revisiting Lothlórien, the Earthly Paradise. And as Haldir says as they walk into Lothlórien and he considers the possibility of leaving Middle-earth, there may be a refuge for the elves elsewhere, ‘But if there are mallorn-trees beyond the great Sea, none have reported it’. Unlike the Christian myth, Tolkien's myth contains a deep love for and attachment to the beauty of Middle-earth itself, expressed also by Fangorn's sad song of Ent and Ent-wife, and Bregalad's lament for the rowan-trees. The forest, and Middle-earth, can turn into Mirkwood, ‘where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither’, or into Lórien, so beautiful that in it no grief has power. The image of our world as it is now is perhaps Ithilien, once ‘the garden of Gondor’ but now part desolate, yet still retaining ‘a dishevelled dryad loveliness’; though protesters who write ‘Another piece of Mordor’ on yet one more example of ruinous chain-saw development have taken one of Tolkien's points. Middle-earth is intrinsically beautiful, and that makes it hard to leave, even for a believer like Tolkien.


There is however one moment in The Lord of the Rings where the Christian myth comes close to the surface and is explicitly alluded to; though it may confirm rather than deny the argument of this chapter that it is a moment which almost no one notices, and which looks designed not to be noticed. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ reprinted in Essays, Tolkien introduced the notion of (his own coinage) ‘eucatastrophe’, which he defines as ‘the good catastrophe, the sudden and joyous turn’—not an ending, for ‘there is no true end to any fairy-tale’, but the moment when, in Andrew Lang's late, literary and unsatisfactory tale ‘Prince Prigio’, the dead knights come back to life, or when, in the Scottish tale of ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, the heroine's final appeal to her enchanted lover, ‘And wilt thou not wauken and turn to me’, is answered, ‘He heard and turned to her’. In moments like these, Tolkien wrote, we get a glimpse of joy ‘that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through’: a gleam of revelation from outside the narrative.

In The Lord of the Rings this eucatastrophic moment comes in the chapter ‘The Field of Cormallen’. In the preceding chapter Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) destroyed the Ring, and at the start of the ‘Cormallen’ chapter the army of the West feels the realm of Sauron crumble, and sees the Sauron-shape stretching out ‘a vast threatening hand’ towards them, ‘terrible but impotent’, for as with Saruman's wraith later on, ‘a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed’. Gandalf calls the eagles to take him to Mount Doom, but meanwhile we are returned to Frodo and Sam, who know nothing of what is happening outside. They have little or no hope of getting away (Sam has little, Frodo has none), and in the end they fall unconscious, ‘worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death’. In their sleep they are picked up and carried away by Gandalf and the eagles. And when they recover consciousness, two weeks later, Sam naturally has no idea what has happened. He seems to be back in Ithilien. But the first person he sees is Gandalf, whom he last saw being dragged into the chasm of Moria by the Balrog, and whom he has long assumed to be dead. Is Gandalf dead? Is Sam dead? Perhaps he has died and gone to heaven (if one could use such a term in Middle-earth). Or has heaven turned Middle-earth into the Earthly Paradise? Sam is like the dreamer-father at the start of the vision in Pearl: he does not know where he is. And it is significant that we are given this moment from the viewpoint of Sam, not Frodo (who had woken up before), because Sam's bewilderment is the greater and the more innocent. What he says is: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?’

Sam is not dead, nor is everything sad ‘going to come untrue’. What Gandalf replies is that ‘A great Shadow has departed’—but it is not the great Shadow. Gandalf however goes on very carefully to tell Sam what day it is:

The fourteenth of the New Year … or if you like the eighth day of April in the Shire reckoning. But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King.

No one any longer celebrates the twenty-fifth of March, and Tolkien's point is accordingly missed, as I think he intended. He inserted it only as a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety. However, as he knew perfectly well, in old English tradition, 25th March is the date of the Crucifixion, of the first Good Friday. As Good Friday is celebrated on a different day each year, Easter being a mobile date defined by the phases of the moon, the connection has been lost, except for one thing. In Gondor the New Year will always begin on 25th March, and the same is true of England, in a sadly altered and declined fashion. When the Julian calendar gave way to the Gregorian in 1752, there was an eleven-day discrepancy between them, so that the 25th March jumped to being the 6th of April. And in England the year still does start on the 6th of April. But only the tax year, which no one sees as a moment of eucatastrophe.

25th March remains a date deeply embedded in the Christian calendar. In old tradition, again, it is the date of the Annunciation and the conception of Christ—naturally, nine months exactly before Christmas, 25th December. It is also the date of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the felix culpa whose disastrous effects the Annunciation and the Crucifixion were to annual or repair. One might note that in the Calendar of dates which Tolkien so carefully wrote out in Appendix B, December 25th is the day on which the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell. The main action of The Lord of the Rings takes place, then, in the mythic space between Christmas, Christ's birth, and the crucifixion, Christ's death. Is this telling us something about Frodo? Are we meant to see him as a ‘type’ of Christ? I do not think so. If Frodo is a ‘type’, he is so only in a technical sense which has been almost entirely forgotten, and in which the differences are more important than any similarities. Frodo offers no promise of soul-salvation (though he has saved Middle-earth from a great danger), he releases no prisoners from Hell (though he does from Sauron's dungeons), he does not rise from the dead (though Sam for a moment, and entirely understandably, thinks something like that might have happened). Frodo in other words has no supernatural dimension at all. But he and Sam do have a ‘eucatastrophic’ one.

Tolkien continued the eucatastrophe with the description of the feast of Cormallen, and gave another view of it in the next chapter, when Éowyn and Faramir, left behind in Minas Tirith, also feel the crash of the fall of the Dark Tower. They naturally do not know what it means, and feel it as ‘the stroke of doom’. To Faramir it brings thoughts of the Fall of Númenor, ‘the great dark wave climbing over the green lands … darkness unescapable’, but he rejects the thought. And then the eagle comes and announces what has happened in a strange verse which is composed, uniquely for Middle-earth, in exactly the language of the Psalms in the Authorized of King James version of the Bible, instantly recognizable to anyone of Tolkien's generation:

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
          and he is victorious.

This is in one way rather like the poetry of the Shire. It has immediate contextual meaning. The ‘people of the Tower of Guard’ are the garrison of Minas Tirith; ‘the Black Gate’ is the Morannon, the northern entry to Mordor; ‘your King’ is Aragorn. At the same time there are strong hints of universal meaning. The image of people guarding a city is commonly applied, in familiar hymns like Martin Luther's Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, ‘A safe stronghold our God is still’, to Christians guarding the city of salvation; Christians are often urged in parable to ‘watch’, to stay awake, never knowing when the Second Coming will take place; ‘the Black Gate is broken’ could be applied to the Harrowing of Hell, which took place between Good Friday and Easter Monday, between death and resurrection, when Christ led the souls of the patriarchs and prophets out of infernal bondage. Of course, and again, the eagle does not say that, and what he does say is adequately explained (just like Frodo singing about escape from the forest in the Old Forest) by what is going on in the immediate story. But both with the eagle and with Frodo, the hints of something greater do not go away: they promote the sense of mythic timelessness.

The Lord of the Rings, then, contains within it hints of the Christian message, but refuses just to repeat it. The myths of Middle-earth furthermore determinedly reject any sense of ultimate salvation. The ‘myth of stars and trees’ is highly ambiguous about ever escaping from the ‘tree-tangle’, in part because the inhabitants of Middle-earth do not want to, they want to live on in the woods of the Shire or the forests of Fangorn or Lórien or in the valley of the Withywindle. This hope is clearly not going to be fulfilled. The Lord of the Rings indeed seems to be full of ‘alternative endings’. There is one in Frodo and Sam's experience. Though they are rescued by eucatastrophe and the eagles, there is a strongly-realized moment when they think they are dead. ‘Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee’, says Frodo, twice repeating the phrase ‘the end of all things’. Sam tries to tell him there is hope yet, but Frodo replies—and what he says retains a kind of conviction, even after eucatastrophe, ‘it's like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes.’ This remains generally true, even if the story this one time falsifies it. As Tolkien said of eucatastrophe in ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ surely in 1947 glossing his own fable (his words, but my emphases added):

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

(Essays, p. 153)

It should be added that most of the characters in The Lord of the Rings are staring ‘universal final defeat’ in the face. The Ents are doomed to extinction, and oblivion—their fate is proved by the fact that even the Anglo-Saxons did not know what Ents were, though they remembered the word. According to The Hobbit, hobbits still exist, but there is certainly no Shire any more. What happens to the elves? Galadriel is sure that they will ‘dwindle’, and she may mean that they will physically shrink in size, to become the tiny creatures of A Midsummer Night's Dream and popular imagination. Or they may dwindle in number. Or something else may happen to them. Tolkien knew the Rollright Stones, the stone circle on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, and mentions them allusively in Farmer Giles of Ham. There is a legend attached to them, which is this. Once upon a time there was an old king, who was challenged by a witch to take seven strides over the hill and look down into the valley beyond. He did, but found his view blocked by a barrow and the witch's curse activated:

Rise up, stick, and stand still, stone,
For king of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,
And I myself an eldern-tree.

This is proper Shire-poetry on several levels. But maybe that is what happens to the elves. The last we see of Galadriel and her company (other than the final scene en route to the Grey Havens) is her and Celeborn and Elrond and Gandalf talking after the hobbits are asleep. But do we see them, and are they talking?

If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen and heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind.

The next day the people of Lórien leave, ‘Quickly fading into the stones and the shadows’. Fading, or turning? A possible conclusion for the elves is that they do not all leave Middle-earth. Instead, like the old king of Rollright, they are absorbed into the landscape, becoming the ‘grey figures, carved in stone’, which dot English and Scottish folk-tradition (the Old Man of Coniston, the Grey Man of the Merrick). It would not be an unsuitable, or an entirely sad ending. But it is the marker of an ultimate loss and defeat.


The closer the myths of Middle-earth approach to the Christian one, it seems, the sadder (because the more finally inadequate) they become. Tolkien's pre-Christian Limbo contains no real heathens, but it has no scope either for a Divina Commedia, a divinely-inspired happy ending. Some of its characters, and not only the failing ones like Denethor but also the victorious ones like Frodo or Fangorn, seem to be on the edge of a situation of existential despair. Yet this is not the impression the work makes as a whole. One of the reasons for its success has certainly been its good humour, its ability to balance loss and defeat with acceptance, optimism, even defiance. I conclude this section by looking at four moments (out of a large possible selection) in which one can see The Lord of the Rings carrying out its function as a mediator between, on the one hand, Christian belief and the literature of the pre-Christian heroic world to which Tolkien was so much attached; and on the other, between Christian belief and the post-Christian world in which Tolkien thought himself increasingly to be living.

The first of these is the scene at the gate of Minas Tirith at the end of the chapter, ‘The Siege of Gondor’. At this moment several strands of the story are about to come together. Gandalf is waiting at the gate to confront the chief of the Nazgûl, who has just directed against it the battering-ram, Grond. Pippin is running up to get him to come and rescue Faramir. Outside, Merry and the Riders under Théoden are about to arrive, unknown to Gandalf and the defenders. The Lord of the Nazgûl rides in, and is confronted by Gandalf, who tells him to go back, to ‘fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master’. But the Black Rider takes his challenge and throws back his head, to reveal that ‘nothingness’ has already come: ‘behold! he had a kingly crown, and yet upon no head visible was it set.’ He laughs and tells Gandalf, ‘Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it?’ (As said above, pp. 129-30, he is at this moment very like Milton's description of Death in Paradise Lost Book II.) Gandalf does not reply:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's side they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

At this moment the Lord of the Nazgûl represents both the Boethian and the Manichaean views of evil, as I have called them, at the same time. Evil does not exist, it is an absence, as Gandalf says, and as the Nazgûl confirms by throwing back his hood. But the absence can have power, can be a force itself, working physically as well as psychologically: this is the essence of the Nazgûl's challenge, to which Gandalf makes (can make?) no answer.

The answer is made instead by the cockcrow, and by the horns. What does the cockcrow stand for? In the Christian story, of course, it is associated with Peter's denial of Christ. Frightened after the arrest of Jesus, Peter denies three times that he knew him, and remembers Christ's prophecy—‘before the cock crows thou shalt deny me thrice’—only after the third denial, when he hears the cock crow and realizes too late what he has done. In that story the crowing of the cock acts above all as a rebuke of Peter's natural fear of death. What it means, perhaps, in that context, is that from now on the fear of death will be conquered, and not only by Peter: for beyond death there will be a resurrection. The Younger Brother in Comus imagines cockcrow as something similar. In the dark wood where he and his brother are wandering, he says, it would be a reassurance to hear a cock crow from outside, from beyond the wood:

'Twould be some solace yet, some little cheering
In this close dungeon of innumerous boughs.

Tolkien might well have remembered yet another scene from Northern pagan myth. Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of how King Hadding is guided by a witch to the boundary of the Ódáinsakr, ‘the Field of the Undying’, but he cannot gain entrance. As he turns away the witch beheads a cock and throws it over the boundary. A moment later he hears it crow, alive again. In all the stories the sound means new day, new life, escape from fear and the horror of death.

And in reply, or ‘as if’ in reply, come the horns blowing. Warhorns are the instrument par excellence of the heroic Northern world. In Beowulf the nearest thing the poem has to a ‘eucatastrophic’ moment is the one when the demoralized survivors of Beowulf's nation, the Geats, trapped in Ravens' Wood by Ongentheow, the terrible old king of the Swedes, who has passed the night by shouting threats of what he will do to them in the morning, hear samond ærdæge, ‘with the dawn’, the horns and trumpets of the army of Beowulf's uncle Hygelac coming to their rescue. In later history the men of the Alpine cantons of Switzerland kept horns with special names (like the Nazgûl's battering-ram Grond), the ‘Bull’ of Schwyz and the ‘Cow’ of Unterwalden: chronicles tell of them blowing defiantly through the night as the Swiss rallied after disaster at the Battle of Marignano. Roland's horn Olifant is famous, though he is too proud to blow it and call for help. The later chivalric world turned away from them, preferring what Sir Gawain calls the ‘nwe nakryn noise’, the noise of the newly-invented (and Turkish-derived) kettledrums. But in The Lord of the Rings Boromir's horn still has the old meaning. Boromir blows his mighty aurochs-horn when he sets out from Rivendell, and Elrond rebukes him for it, to get the defiant answer, ‘though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night’. He blows it again in challenge as the Balrog comes up to the Bridge of Khazaddûm, and even the ‘fiery shadow’ checks at it. If the cockcrow means new day, resurrection, and hope, horns mean defiance, recklessness, going on even when there is no hope: two answers to the existential dilemma posed by the Nazgûl, and it may be that the pagan or pre-Christian one is the stronger. It checks the Nazgûl, as it checks the Balrog.

How much of this does the reader need to know? Much of it, like Boromir's horn, and the horn of Gúthlaf in chapter 5, is already in the story and unmistakable. Other images, like the one of dawn coming, are too familiar to need an explanation. The scene can be taken as just a string of coincidences, with the cock crowing because it does, not aware of anything that is going on, and the horns blowing only ‘as if’ in reply, not connected with the Nazgûl or the problem of ‘nothingness’ made visible at all. But it is a dull reader here who sees only immediate context.

The same is true of a scene which seems to go the other way, leaning towards despair as the gate-scene does towards defiance: Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes. The hobbits are picking their way through these, guided by Gollum, when they start to see the will o' the wisp, the ‘misty flames’ of marsh-gas. Gollum calls the phenomenon corpse-candles. Sam notices that Frodo seems mesmerized by them, and tells him not to look. Then he too trips and falls with his face in the water, to jump up in horror. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water’. Frodo, still speaking ‘in a dreamlike voice’, agrees:

I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them … I know not who they are.

Gollum has a simple explanation, ‘There was a great battle long ago’, the Battle of Dagorlad indeed, and these are the casualties lying in their graves. But Sam does not believe him, ‘The Dead can't be really there’, and he seems to be right, for Gollum has put his theory to the test and tried to dig down to the graves, without success: ‘you cannot reach them. Only shapes to see, perhaps, not to touch’.

What do these faces mean? The ominous thing about them is that they are all, now, the same. They seem to represent the casualties of both sides, the servants of Sauron, ‘grim faces and evil’, the Elves and Men who opposed and defeated him, ‘noble faces and sad’. But it has all come to the same thing in the end. The whole sequence has reminded many people of First World War battlefields (Tolkien was on the Somme for three months), where the static warfare left the dead unburied for years, with both sides inextricably confused. This might account for the fact, the unsurprising fact, that the bodies of both sides corrupt in the same way, they all end up ‘rotting’ and ‘dead’. But in Frodo's vision even the ‘noble faces’ are ‘sad’, and they are all not just ‘rotting’ but ‘foul’; they all have a ‘fell light’ in them. There are several unvoiced implications. That the whole thing has been for nothing (a thought never too far away from the living characters' sense of ‘ultimate defeat’); that Sauron, though defeated in battle, has somehow managed to take his revenge on the dead, and now holds them in his grip; perhaps worst of all, that all the dead are hostile to the living, that they have learned something in death that they did not know alive. As said before, there are hints in the barrow-wight chapter that the wight still controls the dead buried in his barrow, may even himself be one of the dead, one of those who fought the Witch-king of Angmar, now turned to evil by some sort of psychic decomposition. A fear like this is powerfully expressed by the Un-man in Lewis's Perelandra, the Un-man who is Weston the scientist taken over by diabolic possession: but the awful thing there is that Weston's own psyche seems to be still alive underneath the possession, and screaming for help, terrified that he is going to sink down to what he sees as the inevitable fate of all who die. The conception is a Classical and a heathen one, going back to Homer, and Lewis and Tolkien and all the Inklings no doubt vehemently rejected it. But they did not forget it. Could it be true? Sam in fact suggests that this is ‘some devilry hatched in the Dark Land’, an illusion, a sending intended to do just what it does, to cause fear and demoralization, and that is the comforting answer. The right thing to do is what the hobbits do, press on regardless. But the stain of the vision remains. The defiance of the horns is one image in The Lord of the Rings, but the Dead Marshes provide a memory of all that has to be defied. They are two sides of the same existential situation, in a world which does not yet know salvation, and each is the stronger for the other.

There is an analogue to the dilemma just proposed in a highly understated and underplayed scene in Book V/9, ‘The Last Debate’. Legolas and Gimli are walking through Minas Tirith sightseeing. Gimli is critical of the stonework, ‘some good … and some that is less good’. Legolas is rather more appreciative, and remarks that if Gondor can still produce men like Imrahil, in its decline, then it must have been great indeed in its prime. The good stonework is probably the older, says Gimli, half-agreeing, but then going on to generalize:

‘It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.’

‘Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,’ said Legolas. ‘And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.’

‘And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens,’ said the Dwarf.

‘To that the Elves know not the answer,’ said Legolas.

By this time they are no longer discussing stonework. There is a strong sense that they are foreseeing also the end of the Third Age, and the future domination of Man. But could it also be that these two proverbially soulless creatures, elf and dwarf, are actually discussing (without, of course, being in the slightest aware of it), the Incarnation, the Coming of The Son of Man? There is a strong parable element in Legolas's image of the seed, and what he says about the ‘deeds of Men’ outlasting his and Gimli's species has come true, in our world. Nevertheless Gimli's pessimistic reply might be seen as true also. It would be entirely true without qualification, in the Christian view, if fallen humanity had not been rescued by a Power from outside, a Power beyond humanity which nevertheless became human. But as Legolas says, the elves know nothing about that. Or as Tolkien put it in his Fairy-Stories essay, ‘elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered’. Legolas and Gimli go on to tell the hobbits their story about following the Paths of the Dead; and Gandalf, in the ‘last debate’ itself, reminds everyone that ‘it is not our part to master all the tides of the world’. After the momentary glimpse from ‘outside the frame’, the characters return to the business, the inevitably limited business, of Middle-earth.

The place where Middle-earth comes closest to twentieth-century life, however, is certainly the Shire, and the instinct which led commentators to see ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ as in some way a comment on Tolkien's own time and country was not entirely false. Rather than seeing it just as an allegory of England in the aftermath of war, however, one might apply what is said there to a more general situation: of a society suffering not only from political misrule, but from a strange and generalized crisis of confidence. A similar diagnosis was made about England in entirely realistic terms by Tolkien's great contemporary writer of fable, George Orwell, though he did it not in Nineteen Eighty-Four but in his relatively neglected between-war novel, Coming Up for Air (1938). In this the odd, the inexplicable thing, is that although the lead character George Bowling knows perfectly well what he wants to do with his life (go fishing), he never gets the chance till too late, and when he does, the idyllic world of childhood he remembers has completely vanished under suburban ‘development’, pools, fish, town, social life, community, all together. But why did he tamely acquiesce in the frittering away of his life and his hopes? Why, to return to Middle-earth, do the hobbits of the Shire tamely allow themselves to be taken over, when they quite clearly have the strength to resist, and face very little opposition when they do resist? They have no leadership; they are bewildered; they (or some of them) are like the Riders, confused by the Voice of Saruman, the insistent persuasion of modern political jargon. To this the answer, inside The Lord of the Rings, is the horn of Eorl the Young, made by the dwarves, taken from the hoard of Scatha the Worm, given to Merry by Éowyn. ‘He that blows it at need,’ she says, ‘shall set fear in the hearts of his enemies and joy in the hearts of his friends, and they shall hear him and come to him.’ In the Shire the rebellion starts as soon as Merry blows it, saying, ‘I am going to blow the horn of Rohan, and give them all some music they have never heard before.’ Immediately the paralysis dissipates. Everyone seems to wake up. Not only do they know what they want (they always did, like Orwell's George Bowling), they have no hesitation in getting it, and rejecting the casual, pointless destruction (pouring filth into the streams, felling all the trees along the Bywater road, cutting down the Party Tree) that comes with Saruman and all he stands for.

Inside The Lord of the Rings, the horn of Rohan stands for a rejection of the despair which is Sauron's chief weapon, and which hangs persistently on the edges of the story, in the barrow, in the Dead Marshes, in Fangorn Forest, in Mordor, and even in the Shire. Outside The Lord of the Rings, it stands maybe for The Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien were to choose a symbol for his story and its message, it would be, I think, the horn of Eorl. He would have liked to blow it in his own country, and disperse the cloud of post-war and post-faith disillusionment, depression, acquiescence, which so strangely (and twice in his lifetime) followed on victory. And perhaps he did.


One final short comment should be made about the genre of The Lord of the Rings. In one obvious way it has created its own genre. The heroic fantasy trilogy—a genre, or sub-genre, totally unknown till Tolkien wrote one—has now become a publishing staple, obviously in imitation and emulation of The Lord of the Rings. Is it, however, still also a novel? Or a romance? Or even an epic? The difficulty of deciding tells us something about it.

The most comprehensive description we have of literary modes is that of Northrop Frye, in his book An Anatomy of Criticism, which came out only just after The Lord of the Rings, in 1957. Frye never mentions Tolkien's work in the Anatomy. However, the framework he gives both allows us to place The Lord of the Rings, and to see why it is an anomaly. In Frye's view, there are five very general literary modes, defined only by the nature of their characters. At the top is myth: if the characters in a work are ‘superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men’, Frye declares, then ‘the hero is a divine being and the story about him will be a myth’. One level down is romance: here the characters are superior only in ‘degree’ (not ‘kind’) to other men, and again to their environment. The next level down is high mimesis, the level characteristic of tragedy or epic, where the heroes and heroines are ‘superior in degree to other men but not to [their] natural environment’. Next to bottom is low mimesis, the level of the classical novel of Jane Austen or Henry James, where the characters are very much on a level with ourselves in abilities, though maybe not in social class. Below it comes irony, where we see ourselves looking down on people weaker or more ignorant than ourselves, where heroes turn into anti-heroes and are often treated comically.

Where does The Lord of the Rings fit on this schema? The obvious answer is, at all five levels. The hobbits, for a start, are very clearly low mimetic, at least most of the time. As discussed in chapter I, their constant engagement with characters on higher levels may pull them up towards heroic speech, and dress, and action, but this is often seen by themselves as odd: Gaffer Gamgee looks at his son's armour and says, unimpressed, ‘What's come of his weskit? I don't hold with wearing ironmongery’. Sam in particular (even more than Gollum/Sméagol) tends to sink towards the ironic, indeed his relationship with Frodo contains a hint of the most famous ironic/romantic pairing in literature, that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. With his proverbs, his common-sense (his name is Samwise, Old English sám-wís, ‘half-wise’), his stubborn unthinking practicality, he tends always to drop the stylistic level of scenes he is in, even scenes tending towards the mythic like the rope-crossing into Lórien.

Nearly all the human characters occupy a higher level. Éomer, for instance, or Boromir, are characteristic figures of high mimesis, leaders, kings, stronger and bolder than everyday life, but still mortal, without supernatural powers. Aragorn, however, though staying on their level much of the time, with an element of deliberate disguise, is different: he can summon the dead, he can compel the palantír to his will, he lives in full vigour for 210 years, and is able to control his death. He, his non-human companions like Legolas, Gimli, and Arwen, and all the non-human species of Middle-earth, are figures of romance. Finally, characters like Gandalf, Bombadil, and Sauron, are very close to the level of myth. They are not exactly ‘divine beings’, but they are not human either, something intermediate (in fact Gandalf and Sauron are both Maiar, a class of being invented by Tolkien). The whole story furthermore aspires in places to mythic meaning, as discussed above. The aspiration is limited only by Tolkien's refusal to reach out to, to do any more than hint at, a sixth level above and outside Frye's categorizations, which one could call ‘true myth’, or gospel, or revelation, or (Tolkien's word) evangelium. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ he argued that fairy-tales could have a glimpse or gleam of this, through ‘eucatastrophe’, but should not allow it in, as rending ‘the very web of story’.

In brief, then The Lord of the Rings is a romance, but one which is in continuous negotiation with, and which follows many of the conventions of, the traditional bourgeois novel. All the levels however interact continually and challengingly. Gandalf, Aragorn, Théoden, Merry and Pippin, can all be found together in scenes like the arrival at Isengard, representing as it were all five of Frye's levels at once, and they move easily from amiable hobbitic prattle about pipeweed to ‘the speech of the oldest of all living things’, and intensely suggestive remarks about the nature of ‘chance’ and ‘luck’. Théoden himself is hard to put on the Frye scale. On the face of it he is the same as his nephew Éomer, but he also becomes ‘Théoden Ednew’, reinvigorated like Gandalf, capable as he dies of looking beyond death. Shire-poetry can be at once low mimetic and mythic, depending on whether one thinks of real forests, or forests as an image of life in the world. The flexibility with which Tolkien moves between the modes is a major cause for the success of The Lord of the Rings. It is at once ambitious (much more so than novels are allowed to be) and insidious (getting under the guard of the modern reader, trained to reject, or to ironize, the assumptions of tragedy or epic). This is how Tolkien in the end solved the problem first set up in The Hobbit, of bringing together the modern world of the Shire and the Bagginses, and the heroic world of were-bears and dragons and Thorin Oakenshield.

Literary mode is matched, of course, by style, and Tolkien's stylistic levels go up and down in exactly the same way as his generic ones. At the top we have the eagle's ‘psalm’ announcing the fall of Sauron; at the bottom, perhaps, the orcs, or Gollum/Sméagol talking to himself. Most of Tolkien's variations from the middle level of the bourgeois novel have annoyed commentators, unused as they often are to earlier literature, or to contemporary popular literature. Tolkien has been criticized for writing a ‘Boy's Own’ style, by Edwin Muir once again, and oddly enough, long ago, by Terry Pratchett, in the Bath and West Evening Chronicle for 7th December, 1974. It is true that hobbitic banter does sometimes sound like old-fashioned British school stories, now revived of course by the unexpected success of J. K. Rowling's ‘Harry Potter’ series. Tolkien has also been condemned for writing archaically (as he does, obviously deliberately, in scenes operating at the level of high mimesis or romance). There is a kind of presumption, however, in literary critics, usually utterly ignorant of the history of their own language, telling Tolkien what to think about English. Tolkien could at any time, and without trying, have rewritten any of his supposedly archaic passages either in really archaic language, in Middle English or Old English, or in completely normal demotic contemporary slang. In a letter composed for (but not sent to) a friend (Hugh Brogan) who made a complaint of this kind Tolkien in fact carried out just that exercise, rewriting Théoden's short speech beginning ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ in ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, first with a kind of advanced archaism including the old prefixed negative and second-person ‘thou’ [so ‘You know not’ becomes ‘Thou n[e] wost’), and then in modern:

Not at all my dear Gandalf. You don't know your own skill as a doctor. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties …

‘And then what?’ Tolkien asked. How would a modern person, talking like that, express Théoden's heroic sentiment, ‘Thus shall I sleep better’? As Tolkien replied:

people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’—if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms … Like some non-Christian making a reference to some Christian belief which did not in fact move him at all.

(Letters, pp. 225-6)

Tolkien could bring a modern style into Middle-earth: Smaug talks it, for one, and so does Saruman. But he knew the implications of style, and of language, better and more professionally than almost anyone in the world. The flexibility of his many styles and languages; the resonance of the highest levels of these; the ability to reach out towards universal and mythic meaning, while remaining embedded in story: these are three powerful and largely unsuspected reasons for the continuing appeal of The Lord of the Rings.

C. N. Sue Abromaitis (essay date January-February 2002)

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SOURCE: Abromaitis, C. N. Sue. “The Distant Mirror of Middle-Earth: The Sacramental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien.” Touchstone 15, no. 1 (January-February 2002): 33-9.

[In the following essay, Abromaitis discusses Tolkien's spiritual optimism in his writings.]

Most notable about J. R. R. Tolkien's books is the imagination that created their world. Tolkien himself reflects upon the use of the creative imagination, believing that man, made in God's image and likeness, shares in the work of God's creation. At the same time Tolkien is quite aware of his being in a fallen world, one in which he is working against the zeitgeist.

This spirit of the age permeates the artistic depiction of man as the inevitably alienated stranger. The presumption of the age is, in a certain sense, a mixture of two apparently opposed concepts of the real: materialism, reducing all of reality to that which is sense perceptible, and gnosticism, positing a spiritualistic reality available only to the illuminati.

Both mainstream and avant-garde artists and critics adhere to a vision of the world that is materialistic and/or gnostic. Their work essentially denies meaning and harmony, assumes that nothing can be known with certitude, and apotheosizes the self-consciously absurd, nihilistic, hedonistic, anti-heroic, deterministic, and downright ugly.

Ranged against this horror is the sacramental vision that imbues Tolkien's work, sacramental because Tolkien still sees reflected in the fallen world and its creatures the manifestation of God's love for man. He believes that all who will open themselves to the epiphanies that surround them can experience this goodness.


Tolkien's literary theory and practice affirm the glorious reality of the world created by God and sees in the beauty of creation proof of the hallowed nature of man. But fallen man needs imagination to perceive this hallowed nature. Tolkien creates his literature to aid that perception. He admits that “one object” of his literary creation is

the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home’.1

In one of Tolkien's major theoretical works, the 1947 essay “On Fairy-stories,” he describes the four marks of the fairy story in which “unfamiliar embodiments” can help “bring home” such truth and good morals.

The first mark is fantasy. He uses the word to mean “both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the image.”2 “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” Tolkien concludes.

It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. … For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.

(Tree and Leaf [Tree] 54-55)

Even as Tolkien defends fantasy as a good thing, he does not ignore the evil uses to which it may be put or its ability to delude the writer or the reader. In another context he comments that

Great harm can be done, of course, by this potent mode of “myth”—especially wilfully. The right to “freedom” of the sub-creator is no guarantee among fallen men that it will not be used as wickedly as is Free Will. I am comforted by the fact that some, more pious and learned than I, have found nothing harmful in this Tale or its feigning as a “myth”. …3

His fantasy is neither ill nor evil nor delusive because he sees his art as an expression of man's sacramental nature. He is using his God-given faculties by imitating God in making. He asserts that this secondary creation is a good act “because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker” (Tree 55). Thus, his aesthetic is informed with the universal moral law even as he praises the goodness of him who created nature.


Similarly, in his explanation of recovery, the second mark of fairy stories, Tolkien's belief in objective reality that means itself and at the same time is a sign of something else is apparent.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves.

(Tree 57)

These same premises are apparent in his discussion of the third quality, escape. Tolkien defends it against the critics who disapprove of escape in literature by contending that he is speaking not of “the Flight of the Deserter” but of “the Escape of the Prisoner” (Tree 60). And the prison that he would have his readers escape is “the Robot Age, that combines elaboration and ingenuity of means with ugliness, and (often) with inferiority of result” (Tree 61).

Tolkien comments that there is an attempt to escape from this ugly world in the stories of “Scientificition”; however, what these “prophets” create are worlds of “improved means to deteriorated ends” (Tree 64). Without an authentic teleology, theirs is an escape without a destination.

Moreover, although modern man recognizes that “the ugliness of our works, and of their evil” is something to flee, this too often results in a serious misconception about beauty. We believe that evil and ugliness are “indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty” (Tree 65).

Tolkien points out that the healthy perception that beauty can lead man to hell has been lost in the modern world. The dreadful result of that loss is apparent in the deformed morality that pervades the modern age: If something seems beautiful and, therefore, arouses my desire, it must be good for me to have it.


Tolkien's analysis of the meaning and nature of the particular aesthetic embodiment of imagination in the fairy story is informed by a consistent rejection of the vulgarity of solipsism and relativism. These reflexes cause modern man to reject his sacramental nature. This rejection, in turn, accounts for the barrenness and joylessness so evident in modern art.

In contrast, as his discussion of the final mark of the fairy story makes clear, Tolkien emphasizes transcendent joy. He asserts that “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”—what he called eucatastrophe—“is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (Tree 68). He then explains:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” … one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive” … [I]t is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.

(Tree 68)

This “sudden joyous ‘turn,’” he continues, “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.” Instead, “it denies (in the face of much evidence …) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

In the Epilogue to the essay, Tolkien explicitly connects the Gospels with fairy stories. “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories,” he writes.

They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: … among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.

(Tree 71-72)

Just as Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio4 insists that reason can only find its fulfillment in Revelation,5 so Tolkien insists that art can only find its fulfillment in Revelation: The gospel “is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified” (Tree 72). Just as it is an inherent principle of creation that finite man use his reason, so also does man's telling stories flow from the nature of creation:

But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body. … So great is the bounty with which he has been treated, that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.

(Tree 73)

Such enrichment of the primary world is a great achievement. In reading Tolkien's works, particularly The Lord of the Rings, one senses that his artistry and faith have succeeded in kindling and rekindling, resulting in his writing a story that enriches primary creation.


One of the ways in which Tolkien achieves this effoliation of reality is by situating the events of the book within a secondary world that is true to its mythic self even as it conforms in all important ways with the primary creation that provides the trilogy with its rock and stone, water and air, earth and tree, men and other reasoning beings.

He begins the book with a prologue that explains the background for the story in The Red Book of Westmarch and, in so doing, adds to the consistency of the work by setting it within a history.6 Allusion to records and histories is not unique in this passage.7 His work is filled with poems that tell of events in a variety of pasts upon which characters reflect.

In one of the most moving passages in the book, Frodo, the hero, and his loyal companion, Sam, are sitting exhausted, outside the tunnel through which they must travel to continue their journey to the Crack of Doom, the only place in which the Ring may be destroyed. Their conversation reveals just what a tale means to them. Frodo says that the place seems accursed, then adds, “But so our path is laid.” Sam agrees and says:

And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for. … But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way. … But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had … they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end.

(The Two Towers [TT] IV:8, 320-321)

These comments occur, of course, in this imagined narrative; at the same time, they have significance that transcends the imagined world. These mythic characters are dealing with the most essential things that all men must confront: fate and free will, victory and defeat, virtue and vice. Moreover, their conversation reinforces a fundamental theme in Tolkien's work: What is occurring is part of a story, and the story goes on after that part has ended.

After the destruction of the Ring, as Frodo and Sam await what seems to be sure death, Sam speaks:

What a tale we have been in. … I wish I could hear it told! Do you think they'll say: Now comes the story of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom? And then everyone will hush, like we did, when in Rivendell they told us the tale of Beren One-hand and the Great Jewel. I wish I could hear it! And I wonder how it will go on after our part.

(The Return of the King [RK] VI:4, 228-229)

Borne out here is Tolkien's conviction that “there is no true end to any fairy-tale” (Tree 68).


The stories in these passages are presented as if they were history, a record of human action, important because the actions of rational beings made in the image and likeness of God have eternal significance. This same sense of the high dignity of the person is behind Tolkien's careful attention to psychological verisimilitude.

The devising of seeming truth is necessary because in a fantasy the writer must convince the reader that the secondary world with its characters is real. Tolkien adapts most of his characters from traditional lore, and he stays true to the mythic ethos that each has. Moreover, he creates his own mythic rational being: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”8

In this description of Bilbo's home, Tolkien makes sure that the reader recognizes the uniqueness of this being, this Halfling (The Hobbit 10). All who meet Hobbits, whether Wizards, Elves, Ents, Dwarves, Orcs, Men, Barrow-wights, Nazgul, even Sauron, are surprised by their valor. Gandalf says, “Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch” (The Fellowship of the Ring [FR] I:2, 72).

That many underestimate them because of their love of comfort gives rise to one of the many themes of the novel: “It is shown that looks may belie the man—or the halfling” (RK V:1, 28).

The themes that arise from the events of the novel are recognizably human. For example, Tolkien depicts the allure of evil even for those who would be virtuous. When Gandalf the Wizard asks Bilbo if he intends to keep his promise to leave the Ring, the central symbol of evil, to Frodo, Bilbo answers in an uncharacteristic manner:

“Now it comes to it, I don't like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don't really see why I should. Why do you want me to?” he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance. “You are always badgering me about my ring. …”

Bilbo flushed, and there was an angry look in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard. … “It is my own, I found it. It came to me.” “Yes, yes,” said Gandalf. “But there is no need to get angry.”

“If I am it is your fault,” said Bilbo. “It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

(FR I:1, 42-43)

After further struggle with Gandalf, an externalization of his psychomachia, Bilbo surrenders the Ring: “A spasm of anger passed swiftly over the hobbit's face again. Suddenly it gave way to a look of relief and a laugh” (43). Here Tolkien gives a foreshadowing of what occurs in the climax of the book when Frodo stands at the Crack of Doom: “‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’” (RK VI:3, 223). And just as Bilbo, when he surrenders the Ring, is restored to himself, so too Frodo, once the Ring is lost, is restored: “In his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away” (224).

In a letter written in 1963, Tolkien comments on the significance of Frodo's failure, saying that “it became quite clear that Frodo, after all that had happened, would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the Ring.”9 Tolkien says that “Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero,” but insists that this was not “a moral failure” because “Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved.”10 Frodo had begun this negativ