With Pictures

The One Ring

We are nearly at the end of this survey of a few of the more prominent of Tolkien's sources and methods. Having identified some of his sources, we have been able to see how Tolkien drew inspiration from them. More significantly, we have seen something of how he used them to form the rich subcreated world in which The Lord of the Rings is situated, to give the sense of a depth of time past which even in itself is so aesthetically powerful. Language and story were both co-opted from texts such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Völuspá, but so too were some of the more unusual, and most successful, aspects of the literary form of The Lord of the Rings: the understanding of the power of names, and the layers of their history; the expression of the beauty of the natural world; and the deployment of a world of stories (and histories) only alluded to, to give a sense of time past. Perhaps most of all, we have seen some of Tolkien's precedents for using tales of magic to lead us to an understanding of man.

But what most captures the imagination in The Lord of the Rings are those deeper themes of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the hopelessness of the human struggle against darkness, in which hope must nevertheless be retained; and ultimately, the need to maintain humanity in the face of monstrosity. For the people of Middle-earth, the battle with Sauron is at base a battle to keep from falling to his methods. The favourite characters of The Lord of the Rings have always been the hobbits: everyday people who find themselves a part of events far greater than themselves. They find that they must play their parts nonetheless, and rise to the challenge. But the novel does not stop at this level: it is about the success of the small against the big, but more importantly it is about the success, and necessity, of innocence. These tensions are deeply embedded in the structure of the novel in the contrastive pairings of characters such as Boromir and Faramir, Gandalf and Saruman, and Frodo and Gollum (Book I, Chapter 2):

'What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!'
'Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.'

And herein lies the last theme of medieval Germanic literatures which I wish to talk about, which underlies all the texts discussed so far: the idea that heroes cannot defeat their enemies without taking something from them to themselves. This is arguably an important aspect of Beowulf, while it is, in ways, the core of Gawain. But it is handled nowhere better than in the Old Norse saga Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar ('The saga of Grettir, Ásmundr's son'). Grettis saga dates, like Gawain, from the fourteenth century, three to four hundred years after Iceland's conversion. Grettir, born before the conversion to Christianity, makes his reputation, first in Norway and then in Iceland, as a fighter of monsters. Sometimes these monsters were themselves once human (and some are among the inspriations for the Barrow-Wights), but in the pagan world which Grettis saga portrays, the dead do not always rest easy, and there are few people who can oppose them. But Grettir's strength is almost preternatural, and he, like no-one else, can face the monsters on their own terms--as he must, as there are in this pagan world no other terms on which to face them. However, Grettir's temper and ill-fortune lead him to be outlawed, more than once, and forced progressively further from human society. Still he continues his struggles against the monsters, but increasingly he must struggle with people too. Christianity comes to Iceland in Grettir's lifetime, and he is fated, it seems, never to adapt to the new world which it creates. Grettir himself cannot convert; moreover, with the conversion of Iceland comes a retreat of monsters from the landscape--emphasising the superiority of Christianity as a means of defending against, and controlling, the fallen world in which humans must live--and Grettir's protective role in society is no longer required. In the end, friendless and purposeless, he becomes as much a threat to his neighbours as the monsters which he once fought, until he is killed on these very terms. The saga has an irresistable momentum and a tragedy which is masterfully handled.

It is the same tragedy which, ultimately, pervades The Lord of the Rings: it is the tragedy of which the Ring is a symbol, and towards which it continually draws the novel's protagonists. It is astonishing how strong Frodo proves in the face of it, but this strength in itself begins to grow terrible, as is apparent in Book IV, Chapter 8:

This way and that turned the dark head helmed and crowned with fear, sweeping the shadows with its unseen eyes. Frodo waited, like a bird at the approach of a snake, unable to move. And as he waited, he felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he should put on the Ring. But great as the pressure was, he felt no inclination now to yield to it. He knew that the Ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the Morgul-king--not yet.
Although Frodo is subsequently forced into involuntary motion, the last words of the passage, the not yet, strike a disturbing note which is never quite lost from his character. The monster-fighter cannot help becoming the monster. And herein is the last little philological joke of The Lord of the Rings. As Tolkien said in Appendix Fii, Samwise, the name of Frodo's closest companion, is from Old English samwís, meaning 'half-wise' (the sam is a distant relative of Modern English semi-, as in semicircular, but semi- has been borrowed into English from Latin). Sam has the wit and character to learn and grow from his experiences in The Lord of the Rings. He settles down happily, and becomes the mayor of the Shire; 'You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be', Frodo tells him in Book VI Chapter 9. Frodo's name, however, means 'wise', specifically 'wise from experience'. We have seen it already, in its Norse form, in stanza 30 of Hávamál, 'margr þá fróðr þicciz' ('many (a man) seems fróðr then'). And fróðr, of course, is what Frodo becomes. And, as Óðinn comments a little later in Hávamál, in stanza 55,

Meðalsnotr . . skyli manna hverr,
Middling-wise . . must each of men [be],
. . æva til snotr séi;
. . never too wise should be;
þvíat snotrs mannz hjarta . . verðr sjaldan glatt
because a wise man’s heart . . seldom grows glad
. . ef sá er alsnotr, er á.
. . if he is all-wise, who owns [it].

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