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R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings forms a significant part of the substantial canon of works written by the English author and academic J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) set in his invented world of Middle Earth. It consists of three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). For many readers it forms, with its predecessor The Hobbit (1951), the most accessible and rewarding part of Tolkien's non-academic oeuvre. Certainly The Lord of the Rings is one of the most successful literary works of the twentieth century. The recent film versions of the trilogy have increased its profile in contemporary culture, but long before this most recent large-scale adaptation this epic work had achieved enormous popularity. It is a creation of unique scale and ambition, seemingly the product of the author's determination to become the creative equivalent of an entire people, and to produce both history and mythology on behalf not of a completely imagined world, but of our world, removed to an alternative history.
This paper is concerned with examining the sources of The Lord of the Rings, and particularly with the influence of the turbulent times during which it was written. Tolkien himself explains in his preface to The Fellowship of the Ring that 'the composition of The Lord of the Rings went on at intervals during the years 1936 to 1949' (FR, 9), a period which spans the troubled years of the Spanish Civil War, the increasing aggressiveness of totalitarian fascism in Europe, the crisis of appeasement, the Second World War, and the early stages of East-West tension and the beginnings of the Cold War. Tolkien was an extremely erudite and knowledgeable scholar of northern European literatures and mythologies, and his knowledge of these phenomena was the well-spring of the creativity that fed into his literary creations. The question of how these intellectual sources and influences interacted with the influence of the times in which he lived in shaping The Lord of the Rings is a fascinating and revealing one. A recent critic has described Tolkien as 'a product of one of the most difficult, contradictory times in modern history, his childhood spent in the Edwardian farewell to the nineteenth century and his adulthood coinciding with the two most devastating wars of the twentieth century' (Flieger, 11). It is hard to imagine that there was a complete separation between the imagined world Tolkien created and the real world in which he lived. The Lord of the Rings may be fantasy, but it is not mere escapism.
II. A NEW MYTHOLOGY
Unlike some other writers of fantasy, Tolkien was not backward in discussing the origins and nature of the world he had created. He made many comments, in letters, in published commentaries on The Lord of the Rings, and in observations to many of his friends, family and colleagues. Among these statements is the clear declaration that his ambition was to provide, through his stories of Middle Earth, nothing less than a new mythology for England (Carpenter, 89).
Tolkien was steeped in the legends and ancient stories of England: Anglo-Saxon riddles and epics, Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Chaucer; but he saw England as part of a wider community of northern European culture and folklore, and wanted to develop an epic that would be an expression of the 'genius' of that community. The story of Middle Earth, he commented, should 'be redolent of our "air," by which he meant 'the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe' (Carpenter, 90). Tolkien saw England as part of a 'Nordic' community consisting of the British Isles and Scandinavia, including Iceland, and it was to the myths, legends and folklore of this region that he chiefly looked in composing The Lord of the Rings and the other stories of Middle Earth: 'Particularly important to Tolkien's writings, in fact, are products of Nordic imagination: the Old Icelandic sagas, medieval Old Norse, Elias Lnnrot's Finnish national epic Kalevala, and the Finnish language' (DuBois and Mellor, 35). For Tolkien this northern character within his invented (or perhaps more accurately, his synthesized and re-imagined) mythology was vital, and he explicitly positioned this 'northern' culture of myth and legend, which he saw as both vibrant and neglected, against the 'southern' culture of Greece and Rome, which he believed to be both overrated and intellectually sterile.
The process through which Tolkien created the mythology of The Lord of the Rings from these raw materials was complex and multi-faceted: 'Behind every setting and every character in J.R.R. Tolkien's writings on Middle-earth,' observes a recent scholar, 'lies a history of literary, mythological, and linguistic complexity':
We know that Tolkien drew heavily from other mythologies, from the Celtic and Norse in particular, but the ways in which he did this are not always clear. In The Lord of the Rings, mythological borrowings are often more implied than manifest. The reader catches hints of their influence in setting, characterization, and repeated images; but overall patterns (as well as Tolkien's purposes) are likely to remain obscure. (Flieger and Hofstetter, 219).
There are specific instances of the borrowing of names and attributes from particular mythological sources; the names of the dwarfs in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for example - and Gandalf's name - come from the thirteenth-century Icelandic epic The Poetic Edda; and many of the attributes of both Gandalf and Saruman are derived from those of the Norse god Odin (Flieger and Hofstetter, 220-222). The image of a cursed ring reflects the influence of The Saga of the Volsungs (DuBois and Mellor, 36), while the creation epic that underlies the action of The Lord of the Rings (and which is more fully developed in The Silmarillion) echoes the primordial mythology of the Finnish Kalevala (DuBois and Mellor, 37), and elements of the Celtic myths of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany that tell of drowned lands and faerie peoples echo with particular potency through Tolkien's Elvish mythology (Flieger, 154).
Then there are the languages, which formed the starting-point for the creation of Middle Earth. Tolkien regarded himself as a student of languages, a philologist, and into The Lord of the Rings and his other Middle Earth writings he poured his enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of languages from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse to Welsh and Finnish. For Tolkien, language was profoundly significant as a shaper of human culture and consciousness, and in Middle Earth he gave full expression to his belief of the vital role played by language in shaping identity, religion, worldview, ideology, community:
Language was for him the expression of the most profound and ancient beliefs of the human consciousness, both collective and individual. Language was for Tolkien the repository and conveyance of myth through time. He had an almost mystical belief in the relationship of language to human consciousness. (Flieger, 3)
The languages and names of Middle Earth are both a way into the cultures of Tolkien's creation and a key - albeit a highly involved, multi-layered and elusive one - to the complex currents that went into its creation. Their culture is firmly north-west European: Celtic, Norse, Finnish, Anglo-Saxon. The map of Middle Earth resembles a recast European continent in which Great Britain is physically incorporated into the 'Nordic' world of which Tolkien passionately believed it to be culturally a part; the landscape, modes of life, names and languages of this region amount to the 'homeland' upon which the story centers. To the west is the sea, to the north the ice; east and south are lands where men and women live, but they are wild, uncivilized, strange places, where the inhabitants speak strange, harsh-sounding tongues. They are the 'other'. The civilized heartlands of Middle Earth are defined by language, and Tolkien's linguistic inventions were vital in defining the world of which they are part.
III. PASTORAL CONSERVATISM
Middle Earth is a profoundly rural society. The Shire, the home of the Hobbits, is clearly Tolkien's ideal. In seeking to connect Europe, and specifically England, with a legendary 'Nordic' heritage Tolkien was in a sense undoing the Industrial Revolution and all that had flowed from it: machinery, great cities, mass culture, democracy. The Shire, with its division into Farthings, its homely, English-sounding names - Buckland, Bywater, Deephollow, Longbottom - is the antithesis of all that Tolkien disliked about the modern world; and if the influences that shaped Middle Earth are to be understood, it has to be in terms of what they are standing against as well as what they are standing for. The Shire is in many ways a self-contained world; Sam Gamgee, Frodo's faithful companion, we are told early in the first book, 'knew the land well within twenty miles of Hobbiton, but that was the limit of his geography' (FR, 105). The Shire offers a small-scale landscape, contrasting with the vast and often threatening plains and mountains of the lands to the south and…[continue]
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