The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's Epic

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Author: Jane Chance
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 16,906 words

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[(essay date 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;...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420051984