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.
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):
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:
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