John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has become a very famous writer. His texts are translated into more than thirty languages. More than forty millions copies of The Hobbit as well as more than one hundred and fifty millions copies of The Lord of the Rings have been sold, and the book has now been adapted for the cinema. He is recognized as the one who revolutionized Heroic Fantasy by his own style which has then influenced many authors. How did he succeed in making a new world from old mythologies, tales and others writings of the early Middle Ages ?
The first part considers his sources of inspiration grouped around the natural influences from his studies and activities. His love of languages and his work on old writings played an important role in the construction of his fantastic world. This part tries to explain the legitimacy of the influences that come from a writer’s environment.
The second and last part contrasts with the first the new elements he gave to the Fantasy novel in terms of the structure and its cohesion, the characters and their magical power, his vision of good and evil and the transmission of strong moral messages.
I. His sources of inspiration :
Before beginning I would like to explain that I will not try, like many critics, to reduce John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to the status of an “imitator” only making plagiarism. He was naturally influenced by his studies, friends and reading, but he was also a creator. For these reasons I will evoke only the inspirations which he recognized as such.
–The influences from Antiquity and the Middle Ages :
According to him, Homer made him discover the pleasure of reading, and epic style is present in the LOTR (the Lord Of The Rings) if we focus our attention on the quest of the ring (a group carrying out a long walk full of hazards). The Hobbit however is really narrated like an epic with a central hero, Bilbo, who always gets through obstacles by his wisdom, talents.
More important is the impact of three old writings on his work :
– The Poetic Edda : a collection of Icelandic poems (from the VIIth to XIIIth centuries).
– The Kalevala : an old Finnish mythology (more than two thousand years old) communicated by oral poems, traditions and music.
– Beowulf : an Anglo-Saxon poem explaining the exploits of a hero of the VIth century.
A large number of his characters’ names come from the first two writings, like Gandalf, Boromir, Faramir, Gimli (I will say more about languages in the next paragraph). The Silmarillion which is the framework of his world, from creation to the end of the Third Age, is inspired by Norse mythology. There is a godmaster, the only, Eru (close in origin to Eriu, Eri, Eire the Irish mythological god) who created the Ainur (the blessed). These built the Earth, Arda, with music as in the poetic Edda (a part called Völuspà : “Prophecy of Vala1”) where chants control the cosmos, from the beginning to the end. Music is also very important in Kalevala .
Like in all mythology good and evil coexist on Arda and in the higher realms but we will see later on that Tolkien gave to his works a deeper and more complicated symbolism of both and of their duality. However some symbols already existed in the Edda like the ring full of power but also full of danger, in the story of Sigurd and Fàfnir. Tolkien confessed that it inspired him for The Hobbit.
To end with the influence of the Norse mythology we can notice that many creatures who live on Arda are not totally new : Elves, Trolls, Drakes, Dwarfs, etc. But Tolkien brought some strong differences even if magic is always present. Moreover he thought he should not keep the word elves because his elves do not have any similarities with mythological elves who are poor small winged beings. Furthermore he changed the spelling of the plural of dwarf, dwarfs, in dwarves.
The work of Tolkien, especially in the LOTR, is also chivalrous. The human race is composed of many knights, and the medieval traditions, atmosphere and honour code follow the narration all the time and finish at the foreground with the last battle of the Third Age. We must remember that he did research on several medieval writings : Arthurian stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Lear, Beowulf and others. For example the departure of Boromir at the end of the first book of the LOTR is close to a scene of La chanson de Roland2. In the battle of Helm Deep, Gandalf looked like the Celtic druids who leaded their armies into the attack. Even if Beowulf was not consciously present in his mind, the text is one of his most important sources. He worked hard on it, preparing lectures and wrote the LOTR during the same period. We can notice that his study on William Shakespeare had an effect on his narration although he did not really appreciate him3.
All these old writings would never have influenced Tolkien without his special interest in languages.
–The influences of languages :
John Ronald Reuel was a language enthousiast. He learned Latin at five then French, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Gothic and old Scandinavian by himself, Welsh and Finnish at Oxford, Spanish, old French, old Icelandic, Russian and Italian. He worked on philology at the university and his interest in all these tongues helps him enjoy old legends, mythologies and tales.
For this reason he decided to create two new languages for his creatures (we will focus on that in the second part) : the “Quenya” and the “Sindarin”. The first has similarities with Latin, Greek and Finnish (tongue of the Ainur), the second with Welsh (the first-born elves’ tongue). The language of dwarves is related to the old Scandinavian, including their runes4 (writing derivated from the sindarin’s one : Tengwar). The “Nortmen’s” tongue is close to old Germanic and Gothic, their descendants evolved toward old English. For example the term “eoh” (horse in old English) and “ràd” (which gave riding) formed the word “eored” which defines a troop of riders. This people is thus called the “Eotheod” because of the association with the old Anglo-Saxon word “theod” which means people.
All the names of characters and sites mean something in the language invented by Tolkien or in old Anglo-Saxon (like for names in Hobbiton), Germanic, Gothic, Welsh, etc. John Ronald Reuel perfectly used his knowledge of languages to make his world more real (in terms of evolution) and more accessible for us. Even the languages of Middle Earth have logically evolved as it could be in our world.
–Other influences :
Tolkien was a lover of agricultural England. Hobbiton represents this part of England by its landscape and by its people who are kind, festive (like Merry), fond of food and good living. This was more than an influence because he wished more than anything the inclusion of this culture in his work. Nevertheless Middle Earth is not the European geography of a long time ago as was believed by some critics who wanted to establish a link with anti-communism ; Good from the West fights Evil in the East ; but Tolkien answered that Evil first came from the North. I think it is important to point this out in order to illustrate that it is dangerous to speak about influences and it is necessary to differentiate allegory and application. Allegory for an element which be consciously used by the writer from a source and application for another element that the reader believes legitimate to link with, to apply to something he knows : a coincidence (but not a wish of the writer).
Tolkien was also influenced by his contemporaries, especially by a group of friends at Oxford, a poet club, the “Inklings” : J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S Lewis, C. Williams, O. Barfield mainly. It is impossible to prove that each of them influenced the others. But Lewis and Tolkien were close and shared the interest for Norse legends and myths. Besides Tolkien was satisfied if his work was able to amaze his children and Lewis. He first wrote for them, trying to charm them, so their personalities and tastes necessarily had influenced his work.
All these kind of influences are so natural for any writer or any artist. For each of them we can always make links between elements of his work and some creations or facts already existing. However the ability to make new from old inspirations underlines those who possess a real talent, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is among them. In the next part of the paper I will point out the elements of his work which revealed him as a creator.
II. A new kind of mythology and a new depth given to the fantastic novel :
Even if he was not the first writer of Heroic Fantasy, the celebrity of Tolkien cannot be denied and his fans, captivated by the beauty and dream of his writings, have completely joined his world. They recognize in him a new style of writing, narrating the facts as they had really happened with a special sharpness in the structure. He is said to be the one who invented the rules of Heroic Fantasy.
–A solid structure :
The first element which has motivated Tolkien to write his work on Arda and Middle Earth is the lack of logical links between the legends of old myths. He thought that it would be perfect if a coherence existed among them5. He asserted in a essay that “any writer who creates a secondary world [hopes] to take the material from reality : he hopes that the special quality of this secondary world (if not all its details) are derived from reality or bring it about”, particularly in magical tales, if the aim is to pass on a message, as he explained in Faërie.
Even if this principle of coherence is older than John Ronald Reuel, he was the first to apply it to Heroic Fantasy. It appears in the narration (coherence of time and action), in the geography (maps are given and the evolution in space of the characters can be followed) and also in the links between the several texts (The Hobbit, The Silmarillon, The Lord of the Rings etc).
The secret of the coherence of his work lies in the creation of The Silmarillon. Tolkien started his work during the winter of 1916-1917 writing The book of the lost tales. Then he wrote many lays : the Lay of the children of Hùrin, The flight of the Noldoli, the Lay of Eärendil, the Lay of Leithian etc. But he would be unable to keep the coherence of his creation if he had continued to write several small texts without a reference. For this reason he created a framework for his world, from the beginning to the end, The Silmarillon. It contains all the important facts of the History of Arda which are narrated in a biblical form. It seems to be an old writing full of prophecies and relating the divine stories of an ancient world, all structured as in the Old and the New Testament. Furthermore Tolkien spoke about his world as an historian who had been basing old documents on it : ” I am not sure that Gandalf_ I don’t know if_ I just get a few elements on this part of History ” etc. Some journalists were shocked by his language and thought he was crazy. In fact it was the best way to give reality to his writings. All the texts were supposed to have been written by characters of his universe and he had just found them. Thus a work of logic is always made by the readers to establish the greatest coherence possible between all events (chronology, space, etc). It has created a communication between the writer and the readers helping the first to refine the cohesion of the whole world.
Thus, all the work of Tolkien is logically structured in time and in space and it increases our interest in each part : we are sure that each book will reveal to us an element of the puzzle. Moreover the decisions of the characters, their feelings are coherent with ours. We can more easily identify ourselves with the heroes and connect the morals of the stories with the world we live in. As we can see on the net, www.theonering.com and other sites, the strong coherence of the work of Tolkien brings some readers to debate about the philosophical themes of the work and it often opens out to the reality of our world.
This importance given to the coherence of the structure makes his work living and is a great way to send messages, being sure they will be received (by the readers). Moreover the readers can give you ” feedback ” to evolve the story, pointing out some details or implicit message the writer did not consciously want to send. I will go into this notion thoroughly close to the end of the paper.
–New elements in his creations and their power :
We have seen that Tolkien used creatures which already existed in old myths. However they all gain some differences, and the magic which surrounds them is less powerful.
The Elves :
They could be called differently because the only similarity with the traditional ones is the shape of their ears (pointed). As it is written in the Silmarillon, they are the first born creatures of Arda, and Eru gave them an incomparable beauty. They cannot die from old age but from injuries or from lassitude of living. Their old relations with the Ainur and their long experience give them a strong knowledge in several topics. Despite their bigger wisdom, their feelings can force them to make mistakes.
They do not possess innate magical powers but some special physical aptitudes and they are more perceptible (better sight, hearing, endurance, agility, etc). Magic can increase their power only through some particular objects such as the silmarils (the rings of power), Elessar (a stone containing strong powers to cure or regeneration), etc.
The dwarves :
In fact they are the first clever creatures who took form on Arda. They were created by Aulë (the Ainur of the element earth) because he was so impatient of the arrival of the first born and of passing on his knowledge and his talents. Eru was informed and asked him to keep the fathers of the dwarves hidden until the appearance of the first born elves.
The dwarves have some great talents and can accomplish some remarkable works. They are the best in the work of stone, iron, steel, copper and in creation of jewels. They are strong and physically tougher than the elves. The dwarf people have a charisma, dignity, a pride that they never had in other myths. They have no relation with magic except the ability to create magical objects : ” the front door of the Moria ” (necessity to spell a word to open it) for example.
His own creatures :
Tolkien also invented many creatures. The hobbits are the most popular. They are absolutely jovial and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. They seem to be powerless but they (especially Frodo) possess the best quality : humility (necessary for Frodo to resist from the dark charm of the ring). I must point out the amazing plant race of the ents (giant in old English) : trees which are able to move slowly, having a great strength, created to protect the forests of Arda.
There are also some evil creatures like the orcs. ” Beings with human shape (derived from men or elves to mock them) deliberately perverted and converted into a more close resemblance to men ” wrote Tolkien in Morgoth’s Ring. They represent the ” dark side of man “, able to be corrupted. They are the perfect mercenaries of evil, only acting to shed blood and terror without any solidarity with their fellow creature. The dark riders (Nazgûl) reveal another form of man corruption : their souls were consumed by their desire for the power of their rings, altering them in spectres controlled by Sauron. Their images belong to another dimension but they can act on the real world with a great power. The living can feel their presence from long distances by the fear that the riders full in their hearts.
Other creatures created by Tolkien look like to ones of Greek Mythology, they are all the common animals which enjoy special powers. There are the very tall eagles in the service of Manwë (kind of spies) which have their usual abilities increased by the god of wind (Manwë), the quickest horses of Rohan (one of whom is Shadowfax), the dark big spider Ungoliant which eat all beings and spill a dark putrid liquid behind her, the terrible demons of fire, the Balrog, which look like the Mynotaurus (mix of bull and human shape) and are ones of the most dangerous forces of Morgoth (god of evil). They acted in the first fights between Morgoth and the elves (The Silmarillon), Gandalf faced a Balrog in the Moria who caused his death even if the magician is the winner (The Lord of the Rings).
Tolkien give to these creatures a complex structure of power and identification. Good and evil often coexist in many of them and the choice to belong to one or the other determine the lot of the world.
–Good and Evil :
Tales and old mythologies are built on very simple codes of identification. Good and evil are well pulled apart, each has its own typical characters. The hearts of the actors are dark or kind and incorruptible : they cannot be charmed by the other side. Fate often resulted from upper interventions, usually divine. It is difficult to identify ourselves with pure-hearted heroes without any weakness. Tolkien succeed in giving a human dimension to his writings : his characters possess typical human features whose the most important is the love of power and richness (any kind of power and richness).
All the tragic situations of his world result from this human failing. The god of evil, Melkor (also called Morgoth by the elves), caused dissension since he wanted to become the Lord of the world, controlling all the evolution without sharing the tasks. Then, his lust for the silmarils drove him to sow the discord among the elves, telling them some lies, persuading them that their brother were treacherous. The desire of power or the fact of resisting from it is the major axe of the quest of the ring, able to lead it to its fall or to its success. For this reason Gandalf purposed to chose a hobbit to carry the only ring. Frodo has the humility necessary to resist from the dark charm of it and to resign himself not to use it whereas the powerful elves, or Gandalf himself, should be unable to destroy it. They know the strength contained in it and can be attracted by the dark intentions it will reveal in them.
Good and evil are mixed in the work of Tolkien making it more complex and closer to our world. Power does not only reside in the physical strength and the capacity to act of the characters but also in their wisdom, in the analysis of the possible consequences of their choices and in their control of their bad feelings. A being, as wonderful he is, can succumb to his dark temptations (Legitimate temptations of the human nature, fruits of the ability to think). Besides, evil can sometimes act for good and vice versa. For example in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum, who wants to take back the ring from Frodo (to save it from its fate), plays an important role in the success of the quest : his desire of the ring looses a quarrel causing the fall of the ring into the Doom Mountain whereas nobody can voluntary do it.
This duality of good and evil, their complex actions and interactions enrich the universe of Tolkien making the morals of the story easier to apply to our world, even if they are more complicated and more hidden than in traditional tales and myths. If we do not stop at the foreground of his work, beauty of imaginary, but penetrate it, analysing the different situations and their outcomes, we can notice that it is full of strong messages.
–A vector of strong messages :
Tolkien thought that the aim of each writer is to give some pleasure to the readers but also to pass on messages to them. He did not agree with those who thought that the high literature was the only literal genre which could lay claim to bring the readers to a philosophical debate and give them morals. Tolkien believed that all literal genres can rightfully pass on strong messages, the kind of story narrated is just a vector : nobody has the same tastes and is perceptible to the same codes and styles. The writer has to choose the best vector of communication for his public. Children clearly do not have the same visions than adults. Thus any literal genre is able to transmit morals to those who are touched by this atmosphere.
This reasoning led Tolkien to give to Heroic Fantasy another dimension, making a new genre, a new mythology, of his work. His writings mixed imaginary of Fantasy (whose beauty charms young souls) and philosophy (stories full of morals, leading us to debate on important topics). We have underlined the great and complex presence of good and evil but Tolkien passed on others messages. Death, its image and its personification, takes a big place in The Lord of the Rings 6 as well as the lesson of friendship which is given by Sam and Frodo (they could not succeed without this link which unify them). I think it is not a coincidence if the first book ends with the fraternity of Sam who objects to leaving Frodo alone front of his fate. Respect of others and mutual aid are evoked as some essential comportments for harmony of life as the terrible division of the elves who went to Valinor (in The Silmarillon), leading them to a fratricide, and their attempt of reconciliation to face Morgoth (the Belgian slogan, union do the strength, is well illustrated). We can find many examples justifying the fact that we must not judge by the appearances. Tolkien teaches us that patience and listening to the others are very important and profitable even if daring and taking risks are sometimes good.
Tolkien has demonstrated that Heroic Fantasy (and also other genres of imaginary) can be different from the simple image given by some literary critics and become a vector of strong messages.
In conclusion, we have just illustrated that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was naturally influenced by his environment and attractions : his passions for old writings, languages and his work on them. However he succeeded in creating his own world (with its languages and characters), structure and style which became a source of inspiration for many other authors. He distinguished himself from his contemporaries by the creation of a unique fantastic world, a solid and remarkable cohesion of his texts, a more complex vision of good and evil and by raising Heroic Fantasy as a new vector of strong messages. He used all his great literary knowledge, extracting the best elements of each, mixing them and adding his own touch in order to create an incomparable atmosphere and genre : a new form of mythology, his own.
Even if he was against a movie adaptation of his writings, the work of Peter Jackson is now a great success making Tolkien known all over the world, and gathering new fans who are discovering the story of Middle-earth.
Notes and Appendixes
1 : we can notice the similitude with the name given to the Ainur by the elves, ” Valar “.
2 : a wonderful and valorous knight, ready to confront numerous enemies alone, powerfully sounds horn before the fight.
3 : the prince of Dol Amroth verified the apparent death of Eowyn putting the forearm of his armour under her lips (The Lord of the Rings) _ the death of Cordelia whose father wanted a mirror to check breathing.
4 : Tolkien thought that cohesion was lacking in the texts of Narnia by his friend Lewis.
5 : cf the second part of ” Tolkien : sur les rivages de la terre du milieu ” by Vincent Ferré.
Principal biographical dates
1892 : January the 3rd, birth of John Ronald Reuel in Bloemfontein (Orange State, South Africa).
1895 : he arrives in England with his mother and his brother.
1896 : death of his father.
1904 : death of his mother.
1908 : meets Edith Bratt.
1911-1915 : studies in classics at Oxford. He writes some poems. He obtains a First Class degree.
1916 : he marries Edith Bratt and joins the army. He fights in France (La Somme) and comes back ill.
1917 : beginning of ” The Book of the Lost Tales “, abadonned in 1920. Birth of his first son, John.
1918 : he enters Oxford after the war and participates in the writing of the “Oxford English Dictionary”.
1920-1924 : he is Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. He writes many lays.
1920 : birth of Michael.
1922 : he publishes ” A Middle English Vocabulary “.
1924 : birth of Christopher. He is appointed professor at Leeds.
1925 : appointed professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He publishes “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” with E.V.Gordon.
1926 : meets C.S.Lewis.
1929 : birth of Priscilla.
1930-1937 : ” Quenta Noldorinwa “, ” Annals of Beleriand “, ” Annals of Valinor “, ” Ambarkanta “, “Ainulindalë”, ” Lhammas “, ” Quenta Silmarillon “, ” Etymologies ” which will become “The Silmarillon”. He writes ” The Hobbit “.
1936 : conference on ” Beowulf “, published under the title ” The Monsters and the Critics “.
1937 : publication of ” The Hobbit “. Unwin asks him to make a sequel, so he starts to write “The Lord of the Rings”.
1939 : conference on Fairy Tales.
1945 : appointed professor of English literature and tongue at Merton College (Oxford).
1949 : completes the writing of ” The Lord of the Rings ” but has to revise the text.
1949-1952 : he revises the ” Ainulindalë “, the ” Anals of Beleriand “, the ” Anals of Valinor ” and the ” Quenta Silmarillon “.
1954 : publication of the two first volumes of ” The Lord of the Rings “.
1955 : publication of the third and last volume.
1959-1965 : writing of several novels and revising of the foundations of ” The Silmarillon “.
1965 : US edition of ” The Lord of the Rings ” : a great success.
1971 : death of Edith.
1972 : he becomes Commander of the British Empire.
1973 : he dies at Bournemouth on September, the 2nd.
1973-to today : publication of his hidden work : ” The Silmarillon ” and others.
“Tolkien : sur les rivages de la terre du milieu” of Vincent Ferré, Christian Bourgeois editor 2001, AGORA collection.
“Le Seigneur des Anneaux” by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christian Bourgeois editor 1995, complete edition illustrated by Alan Lee.
“Le Silmarillon” by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christian Bourgeois editor 2001.
“Contes et légendes inachevés : Le Premier Age” by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christian Bourgeois editor 2000, POCKET collection.
“Contes et légendes inachevés : Le Deuxième Age” by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christian Bourgeois editor 2000, POCKET collection.
“Contes et légendes inachevés : Le Troisième Age” by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christian Bourgeois editor 2000, POCKET collection.
Other interesting writings
“Le Maître des Anneaux” by Lin Carter, Le Pré au Clercs edition 2003 (original title : “Tolkien, A Look Behind The Lord of The Rings”).
“Créatures de Tolkien” by David Day, OCTOPUS collection 2003.
“Encyclopédie de la Terre du Milieu” by Edouard Kloczko, ARDA edition :
Tome I “Dictionnaire des langues elfiques, vol I”.
Tome II “Dictionnaire des langues elfiques, vol II”.
Tome III “Dictionnaire des langues elfiques, vol III”.
Tome IV “Dictionnaires des langues, des Hobbits, des Nains, des Orcs”.
Tome V “Guide de la Terre du Milieu, de Nùmenor, d’Aman et des Terres inconnues du Soleil”.