Tolkien: Lord of the Lit
December 19, 2012
Let me start by saying that I've always been a fan of Tolkien. Since I picked up a copy of The Hobbit that my mother had lying around the house, I fell in love with his fantastical world-building, unique characters, and boundless wit. But looking back, I was a superficial fan for a really long time. I devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and even made my way through The Silmarillion, which is the history of the elves in Middle-Earth. I picked up several short stories and lost writings that were recovered by his son Christopher and published posthumously. When the first of Peter Jackson's film adaptations, The Fellowship of the Ring, hit theaters, I sent Aragorn aka Viggo Mortensen fan mail.
It wasn't until I was an English major in college that I really GOT Tolkien though. I can recall two instances of his becoming more in my eyes. The first happened in a fun little summer course called Arthurian Legends. It was just what the name suggests. We delved into much of the lore surrounding King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and Merlin. We were required to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien! I did a bit of research and discovered that Tolkien was actually an English scholar at Oxford. I actually had no idea. The revelation expanded my worldview tremendously and I began to suspect that I had only read his works on a single level; I had simplified something that was meant to be profound.
A semester or two later, I sat in British Literature I, a required course that covered early literature in the British Isles. Part of our coursework involved reading and interpreting sections of Beowulf. I was immediately enchanted with the story-telling, but I was blown away when I read the name of the world in which the epic saga is set: Middle-Earth. And that's when I knew that there was definitely more to Tolkien than had met my very casual eye. He didn't invent most of the concepts in his epic writings. He borrowed and transformed them; he made them accessible to a new audience.
The Hobbit and Beowulf share a number of themes: a terrorizing monster humbling a people that have become too proud, a quest involving a group of warriors. and the presence of a dragon. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Aragorn is reminiscent of King Arthur uniting a divided land. He takes up the sword Narsil, which is reforged so that he can wield it as the true heir to the throne. Like Arthur's Excalibur, Narsil is symbolic of rightful power granted by a higher authority. It is gained only after the true heir proves himself. The mysticism surrounding the Lady Galadriel, as well as her ability to see into the future, also seem reminiscent of the Lady of the Lake.
And the commonalities among Tolkien's lit and the writings he would have been intimately familiar with go on and on. He didn't invent the wheel; he just transformed it. And there's a certain magic in that.
North Independence Branch