The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion:
a brief overview of parallels, with spoilers for both
Some of the comparisons are overt and obvious: the situation where Aragorn, like his long-ago ancestor Beren, wishes to marry the daughter of an unwilling Elf-lord, for example; as both in part were drawn from the Tolkiens’ real-life experiences. But just as there are subtle differences between the earlier incident and the later, Middle-earth’s history not simply repeating itself without hope of escape but both informed by the past and memory of the past, and by new and exterior forces, so too are there other instances of such parallels, many of them much more subtle and fluid, to be found.
It is critical to realize that in LOTR, no one person exactly mirrors the character or deeds of an earlier archetype, and that roles may be shared between several characters. None of the events follow any simple or set pattern which might be deduced and manipulated by astute students of history. Rather, it is a dynamic set of correspondences, which both illuminate and point up the particular patterns and differences in the two chronologies.
From here on in, there are major spoilers for the stories in the Silmarillion as well as for ROTK, but I don’t think that the rather technical discussion which follows will necessarily detract from the joy of discovery for readers who haven’t read Silm. yet and are wondering if or why they ought to.
First of all, the primary story of the First Age which is the archetype of the Quest of the Ring is (of course) the story which Aragorn tells the four hobbits early on in the journey – the Geste of Beren and Lúthien, the major version of which is called The Lay of Leithian, and what parts of it are written are to be found in the volume of HOME entitled The Lays of Beleriand. Strider tells a very abridged version of it, for reasons which become obvious upon reading the Silmarillion – a story in which the heroes are caught and tortured and mostly killed by Sauron before they make it to their destination is not a good camp-fire story when you are being chased by minions of that same Dark Lord.
As remarked in the opening paragraph, the first and most obvious parallel is the mortal/immortal love story. But there are other, possibly even closer parallels to the main characters of the Geste, and to the events, which I mean to draw out of LOTR and set forth separately for consideration.
To begin with, there is Gandalf the Grey, who is a messenger of the Valar, an Immortal who has taken an earthly form in order to do battle with the forces of Darkness without wreaking the havoc that is typically wrought on earth when gods and demons have it out. In both The Hobbit and LOTR he is the facilitator of the Quest – he advises, inspires, gets it going, provides necessary logistical support, and – has other things to go off and do meanwhile, thus appearing mysteriously and disappearing equally mysteriously. He also – though both a fierce warrior and a healer – does not do the work for everyone else. And he summons the Eagles, at critical junctures, who answer to him both because he is an agent of the forces of Good, and particularly, as is told in Unfinished Tales, a servant of the highest Vala, Manwë, to whom the Eagles report as well.
All of these are, additionally, functions of the giant Hound of Valinor, Huan Lord of Dogs, who helps and rescues and provides transport and healing, but does not perform the Quest itself, being unable to enter the Enemy’s stronghold without being recognized, when Beren and Luthien go to take the Silmaril; who can only be defeated by the most powerful demon-nemesis on earth …and who is also – grey.
The two main characters of the Geste are in fact not imitated most closely in the Third Age by either Men or Elves, but by – hobbits. It is Frodo who is the closest to the legendary warrior Beren, not merely for being mutilated in the line of duty, but for his courage and the decisions which he must keep making all throughout his quest. And – it is Samwise Gamgee, the Gardener of Bag End, who is most like in his deeds to the Elven-princess of divine ancestry, Lúthien Tinúviel.
Not everything goes as badly as it does for Beren et al in the Quest for the Silmaril: for example, only one of Frodo’s companions is killed – but Frodo is nevertheless separated from them and forced to go on mostly alone. And I don’t think it’s stretching to say that the part of Finrod Felagund, Galadriel’s oldest brother, is played by both Strider and Boromir: aside from the obvious fact that the former is actually wearing his ring, one is a king without a kingdom, the other guardian of a city called Minas Tirith, and both of them have a heritage tainted by a Kinslaying, even though not themselves guilty of it.
Like Beren, Frodo has leadership and destiny thrust upon him, not by any glory-hunting choice of his own: the ancient War comes to him whether he wants it or not, from the world outside and the deeds of his House both. He inherits Ring and duty of protection, and both in the end are outside his power to keep. In the end, even when the Quest is successfully accomplished, there is still fighting and disaster and ruin, and also like Beren, he can never fully return to the ordinary world (though at least the Shire is not totally destroyed like Beren’s homeland).
And despite Frodo’s trying to leave Sam behind for his own good on two separate occasions, Samwise refuses to be left behind, come hell or high water, or both. He may not be qualified to take on the dangers, but he’s got a devotion and an empathy that together with his dauntless courage, allows him as well to become the person for the job. He follows, and does his best, and thinks it a dark joke that their enemies fear him in the belief that he must be a great Elven-warrior, to dare what he’s attempting in Cirith Ungol.
He is also associated with trees, and he is the one who sings and composes verse, which makes him reflective of both Beren and Lúthien, but Sam possesses the powers of growing and healing, as a gardener, even before receiving Galadriel’s gift, and he defends Frodo before powerful strangers in Bree and Ithilien much as Lúthien speaks up for Beren at her father’s court.
One of the most obvious parallels in the two stories is the scene where Sam finds and rescues the tortured prisoner in the tower, (where Frodo has also lost a legendary coat of mail and sword), after believing him dead and falling into despair. Another is the long passage into Mordor, disguised as minions of the Enemy, which parallels the journey into Angband of Beren and Lúthien, down to both pairs of heroes hiding beside a highway while armies march off to besiege the royal Citadel in the West…
And of course it is Sam who, like Lúthien, does his best throughout to comfort and heal the driven Frodo, who like Beren is in the grip of a kind of possession-madness (“fey” is the word used of Beren in the lay) which has compelled him to keep on with the Quest when a short-term selfishness would stop and give it up at the points when an earlier opportunity presented itself.
These roles are not set in steel: Sam is the one who longs for things Elvish and mysterious, Frodo who to a degree already possesses them in his knowledge of languages and lore. Frodo displays the compassion of Lúthien towards Carcharoth, the giant Wolf-demon who bars the way, when Sam wants nothing to do Gollum, (though he also demonstrates the fierceness of Lúthien towards Sauron when challenging Smeagol about swearing on the Precious.) And Sam, like Beren in Nan Dungortheb, gets a giant arachnid battle (which experience, also like the hero of the Lay of Leithian, he would far rather have foregone.) Though only one instead of many, his adversary is the most terrible living Spider, and a demi-demon left over from the First Age; Shelob is also a Gate-Guard of the Enemy’s stronghold, like Carcharoth, which brings us back to…
Gollum: pathetic, tortured, and completely loathsome, he is alternately Guide and Gate-guard. As Smeagol he has the choice of being Huan (recall how he is described as being dog-like in the physical manifestations of his devotion to Frodo) who leads, lends his strength to the Quest and helps manage the secret way into the Enemy’s stronghold, or of becoming Carcharoth, consumed by hunger which is not really his fault (and like whom, in despite of previous compassion, he maims the hero – and by doing so, mysteriously beyond all expectation allows the Quest to end well.)
There are, in fact, three Gate-guards to face, because there are also the Watchers on either side that do not sleep – and Sam’s stunning of them with the Phial containing Silmaril light is parallel to Lúthien’s stunning of Carcaroth with mystical power as well.
And then there are the Eagles, rescuing them from seeming inevitable disaster before a smoking mountain in the Enemy’s territory. And after that, in the midst of apparent victory, another separation. And, eventually, a reunion beyond this Shore, before eventual death and eternity beyond the Circles of the World…
This is all made explicit, in a way, when Sam talks with Frodo about how they two are also part of the story of Beren and Lúthien, (which following Weathertop and Bruinen they heard in full in the safety of Rivendell, a much better setting for it) and it is all actually the same story, continuing through the ages, and he wonders what roles history will remember them for.
But there are others as well, elsewhere in the Ring War’s battles, who mirror parts of this and other episodes chronicled in the Silmarillion. Éowyn, as I have illustrated in my vignette “Lord of Carrion,” is not merely the archetype of Victory like Nike or Athena, or the valiant warrior defeating both monster and Dark Knight of medieval romance. In Middle-earth history she can be seen as the last, and most successful, of a line of Heroes taking on the Champions of the Shadow.
Before her, almost a thousand years earlier, the last king of Gondor rode out to the challenge of the triumphant Witch-king – and vanished, never to be seen again, leaving the City in the hands of the Stewards. Before him, in the First Age, an Elven-king on a field of defeat rode alone to challenge the then-Dark Lord, fallen Vala Morgoth, in a battle of sword against the war-hammer Grond, and was crushed and killed despite wounding his enemy in the heel.
But Fingolfin, and his challenge, are explicitly compared and contrasted to the subsequent challenge – and temporary defeat – of Morgoth by Lúthien Tinúviel, in the Lay of Leithian, and just as Lúthien is aided and abetted by the loyal and supernatural Hound who comes to help her unexpectedly in her adventures, so too Éowyn is assisted without having any expectation of it by the loyalty of Merry Brandybuck, the two of them together managing a task that a warrior-king of Minas Tirith could not accomplish.
This is further reinforced by the fact that – seemingly coincidentally – Éowyn is dressed in garments corresponding to those which Lúthien is described as wearing in the Lay of Leithian: a white gown, and a blue mantle ornamented with stars, at the moment of their victory.
Mystical archetypes aside, Éowyn is also peculiarly fitted to be the enactor of Fingolfin’s Challenge in the Third Age, for as an Éorling she is one of the descendents of the people of Marach, who chose to remain and recolonize what remained of Middle-earth instead of going to Númenor after the War of Wrath. The House of Hador, whose fertile lands were the prized horse-country of the High Elves in the First Age, and whose ruling house produced both the tragic dragonslayer Turin and the mystic Tuor, Elrond’s grandfather, is thus represented as well and in the most appropriate way possible, for they were the Edain most closely associated with King Fingolfin as well as with the ancestors of the Mearas.
Pippin, too, has his ancient and legendary prefiguring: he comes, and is brought, to the City-stronghold, despite challenges by guards and a country at war all around, by Gandalf, the messenger and agent of the Valar in Middle-earth, and there the two of them bring warnings of both danger and hope – which are disregarded by the City’s lord, but, significantly, his heir. Pippin, learning the ways of this ancient civilization a little during his stay there comes to value it, yet is intensely aware of how precarious the besieged realm’s state remains, and seems to have no material help to contribute now that his news is brought, even though he is made part of the defense and befriends the defenders.
But when the critical hour comes, when the outer defenses are broken and the ruler of the City yields to madness and the influence of the Enemy, this young stranger is the one who comes to the rescue, by his diligent efforts succeeding in saving the Steward’s heir from the flames, even if he cannot prevent Denethor from falling to them in the mausoleum that collapses like Turgon’s tower beset by dragons in besieged Gondolin. And like Tuor in the First Age, he is brave enough to obey his conscience in this regard, and to disregard the law, and lead others in this righteous disobedience as well.
I am sure that there are many more nuances and parallels waiting to be discovered in Tolkien’s works, and I hope that these will serve to add to the delight of those who are reading or rereading either history of Middle-earth, and perhaps encourage those who have not yet taken up the Silmarillion to explore its treasures and make new discoveries.
(17 January 2003)