Medieval Motifs in Books 3 and
(The Two Towers)
The author of Beowulf
showed forth the permanent value of that pietas
which treasures the memory of man's struggles in the dark past, man
fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned. It would seem to
have been part of the English temper in its strong sense of tradition
dependent doubtless on dynasties, noble houses, and their code of honour,
and strengthened, it may be, by the more inquisitive and less severe
Celtic learning, that it should, at least in some quarters and despite
grave and Gallic voices, preserve much from the northern past to blend
with southern learning, and new faith.
--"The Monsters and the Critics"
This passage from Tolkien's lecture is suggestive of
attitude he took in The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, it may describe
his own Roman Catholicism looking into the Northern (and pagan) past.
Tolkien's major work can be said to be the "English" mixture of
Gallic and Celtic voices he so prized, a mixture of Christianized
medievalism and the strong flavor of a past still informed by natural
religion and its ethic. Some of the following motifs give
evidence for such a claim:
Redemption in Death
Quite soon we are to meet our promised
we won't remain alive beyond today;
however, I assure you of one thing:
that holy Paradise stands there for you,
and you'll be seated near the Innocents.
--Song of Roland 115
- Does Boromir's death in defense of Merry and
Pippin redeem his earlier actions?
- Is it a "Christian" warrior's death? Is
it partially salvific?
- What is Boromir valued for and how is he regarded
by Aragorn, by Pippin, and by his brother Faramir?
- What does Faramir's last sighting of Boromir
suggest about the warrior's life and death?
The Hunt and The Riddles
I was once a warrior's weapon.
Now a noble young retainer
dresses me in threads of twisted gold
and silver. At time men kiss me,
at times I summon close friends
to do battle; a horse sometimes bears me
over the earth, sea-horses sometimes
sweep me, gleaming, over the ocean;
now and then a maiden, ring-adorned,
replenishes my paunch. I must lie on planks
at times, plundered, hard and headless;
often, gold-garbed, I hang on the wall
above drinking warriors, a splendid sight,
instrument of war. Covered in riches,
I draw in breath from a brave man's lungs
when retainers ride towards battle.
At times I tell proud warriors
that wine is served; at times rally them,
save booty from hostile men, drive off
the enemy. Now ask me my name.
--Exeter Book, Riddle 14 (answer: a horn)
- What is the purpose of the hunt that Aragorn,
Legolas, and Gimli undertake? What does it accomplish?
- How does the motif of the riddle act to unify the
various narrative actions in Book 3?
- What forms of access to the narrative answers
does Tolkien give his readers that the characters themselves do not
- Can the answer to narrative riddles be understood
as a metaphor for providence?
- Another dominant motif in Book 3 is that
of legends that have come alive. What kinds of purposes do encounters
with things formerly thought legendary serve in the text?
- What do these encounters suggest about
the nature of the land of Rohan?
- Would it be appropriate to describe
Aragorn as an Arthurian figure?
The Anglo-Saxon (or Gothic) Rohirrim
"Shake yourself out of this
parochialism of time! Also (not to be too donnish) learn to discriminate
between the bogus and genuine antique--as you would if you hoped not to be
cheated by a dealer!"
--draft of a letter to Hugh Brogan, Sept 1955
Tolkien intentionally gives a number of Anglo-Saxon
(or perhaps quasi-Gothic) attributes to Rohan, including speech patterns, words with Old English
origins, and cultural conventions. He also borrows directly from Beowulf
for several characters and scenes.
- What impression does the overall narrative give
of the Rohirrim as a people?
- Do the Rohirrim serve as a commentary on the
Anglo-Saxon culture? What do they suggest about it?
- Why does Tolkien deliberately echo Beowulf
in the approach to the guard and in Hama, the doorwarden? (631ff/
- How does Tolkien adapt Unferth to Wormtongue?
The Theory of Courage
"Byorthwold spoke; he grasped his
shield; he was an old companion; he shook his ash spear; full boldly he
exhorted the warriors: 'Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
courage the greater, as our might lessens. Here lies our leader all hewn
down, the valiant man in the dust; may he lament for ever who thinks now
to turn from this war-play. I am old in age; I will not hence, but I
purpose to lie by the side of my lord, by the man so dearly loved."
--The Battle of Maldon (trans. R.K. Gordon)
- How do Frodo and Sam exemplify the northern
"theory of courage"? (793/ IV.iii; 915-16, 22/ IV.x; )
- Why would Tolkien give them this role? Is it
- How else is this attitude manifest in LOR?
trouthe: truth, fidelity, faith,
(plighted) word, troth, compact, honesty, equity
the loyalty and love owed by a vassal to his lord; in turn, the love and
protection owed by a lord to his vassal.
- In what ways is the complex medieval
concept of trouthe exemplified in Frodo's treatment of Gollum?
How is it present between Sam and Frodo? Between Frodo and Faramir?
- What makes Gollum's internal struggle so
important in this light?
- Why would Tolkien describe Sam's naming
of Smeagol as a "sneek" as "tragic"? (Smeagol is
taken from the Old English smygel or "burrow;"thus,
with the sense of one who hides and deceives.)
- Is trouthe and/or comitatus
present in the relationship of
(Stewardship), and Power
These three themes exemplify one of the
larger, intertwined patterns of The Lord of the Rings, as well as
the way their mirror-opposites can be expressed in the same conept. The wise are
those who have the ability to guide and understand how to act in an area of life, so
the wise may or may not be also good, i.e. Saruman versus Gandalf. Service
can be demanded or freely offered--it can be the modernistic military
tyranny of Saruman and Sauron's orcs or it can be the justly fulfilling
place of Sam in service to Frodo his master. Power can be used for the
good, manipulated for the evil, or laid down as sacrifice.
- How are these three themes contrasted in
Saruman and Gandalf?
- How are they contrasted in Éomer and
- How are they contrasted in Boromir and
- What do they reveal about Sam's
Structure (Richard C. West)
Richard C. West in his influential article "The
Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings" argues that
medieval interlace seeks to achieve some of the following qualities:
- "[It] mirrors the perception of the flux of
events in the world around us, where everything is happening at
- "Its narrative line is digressive and
cluttered. . . and is often indifferent to cause and effect
- "The paths of characters cross, diverge, and
recross, and the story passes from one to another and then another but
does not follow a single line."
- "Also, the narrator implies that there are
innumerable events that he has not had time to tell us about."
- Yet "no part of the narrative can be removed
without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are
echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones."
- "Moreover, though events are in flux there
is a pattern underlying them."
- "The effect of what might be called
open-endedness, whereby the reader has the impression that the story
has an existence outside the confines of the book and that the author
could have begun earlier or ended later."
Which of these characteristics is present in The
Lord of the Rings, especially in Books 3 and 4? How
does Frodo and Sam's discussion of being in the tale reflect this
phenomena? (886-887/ IV.viii) What about other requests by characters to
"have the tale in full"?
The Presence of Place--Ithilien and Cirith
Like Fangorn, Helm's Deep, or the Dead
Marshes, Ithilien and Cirith Ungol have a particularizing quality about
them, where their natural setting is tied to their inhabitants. Just as
"Treebeard" is Fangorn Forest, so the healing qualities
of Ithilien are tied to the wisdom and discernment of Faramir, and so is
the ghastly corpse-like quality of Cirith Ungol tied to Shelob.
Compare the following passages: 786 (IV. ii);
809-810 (IV.iv); 876 (IV.viii).
What do they suggest about the physical
and moral landscapes?