What Made Tolkien’s Work So Iconic
A bit late, but here it is…
Tolkien is the most well-known fantasy writer there ever has been. His books defined the modern fantasy genre, and inspired a huge number of fantasy autors – including outright imitations. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Tolkien had been flattered indeed.
Yet Tolkien never intended to be a published author. His first work was a literary essay about the poem Beowulf. In 1930s, he started writing stories for his children, based in a mythical world of his own creation that would later become Middle Earth. The Hobbit, despite never being intended for publication, became a huge success, and fans asked Tolkien to write a follow-up. Over the next ten years, Tolkien sat writing the book, which was set in already existing Middle Earth world, and what was intended as a simple fairy tale grew to an epic novel.
But why is Tolkien’s work so popular, even today, a century after he first started working on it?
One element is definitely Tolkien’s understanding of his work. Rather than merely an alternate history, Tolkien saw his work as a fairy story. Fairy stories were, in Tolkien’s words, “lies breathed through silver”, and he also related them to the Christian Gospel as a “true fairy story”, that is, a fairy story which occured in reality. Fairy stories may not be true in terms of the events they tell, but the made up events in fairy stories serve to reveal greater truths: human heart and mind, flows of history and thoughts. Despite never having happened, they nevertheless have inner consistency of reality which gives Tolkien’s opus a unique feel.
This understanding is in part the consequence of Tolkien’s own passion for mythology. Having studied Norse, Finnish, Celtic, British and Greek mythology, he knew that these myths are steeped in history much deeper than simply the tale as written.
Tolkien’s understanding of languages and their evolution allowed him to create world where languages, stories and myths were all interconnected. Languages evolve, and stories evolve with them – but stories told in languages also influence their character and durability. And this interconnectedness led him to create what is essentially a history – one tale, but with many stories told within it. And these stories all relate to, and intrude into, each other, with each story being peppered with references to the greater mythos. Tolkien created an entire world, all-encompassing and internally consistent. Many stories are set within it, and many of them contain references to other stories that have happened – or, in some cases, will happen – within the world. Earendil, Luthien and Turin are referenced in Lord of the Rings, yet their tales are told elsewhere. And this is true also for characters within the stories – Aragorn, Denethor and Faramir are incredibly complex characters, and they impact each other long before they meet (or don’t, in the case of Aragorn and Denethor). And all of them demonstrate different aspects of the human condition, making them innately relatable.
Sense of mystery pervades throughout the Tolkien’s work. Not only does each story reference the greater tale being told, as well as the other stories within the tale (such as Aragorn telling Hobbits the story of Arnor while surrounded by the ruins of that very kingdom), but many stories are intentionally left incomplete. Tolkien’s characters never use language lightly, and the good guys (Gandalf especially) functionally never lie. This careful use of language also extends to the greater level. Tolkien provides enough information to keep the story flowing, yet details are scarce. There is enough detail provided for a reader to get a sense of history and majesty, yet enough is left out to leave them hungering for more, to engage their own imagination.
The sequence in the Mines of Moria is a good microcosmos of Tolkien’s approach to storytelling. Reader is given enough details to learn rougly what has happened there – and what might happen to the Fellowship – but much of the story is missing. Physically, thanks to torn and damaged pages of the Book of Mazarbul, which provides insight into tragic fate of the expedition but can never fully reveal their secrets. These pages exemplify Tolkien’s approach to storytelling which is also noticeable in the greater world.
While reading through Lord of the Rings, we learn of the fall of Arnor, of many ruins scattered throughout the North. We visit Gondor and learn of its ancient might and majesty, memory of which is still preserved. But all of this is but a portion of what there was. We get a sense of a disappeared great civilization but never see it directly – much like the myth of Atlantis which so preoccupied the Ancient Greeks, and preoccupies many even today, for the same reason as Tolkien’s work. Gandalf goes to research into archives of Minas Tirith, but we only get slices of what was there – slices directly relating to the One Ring. But what else was there? We never learn.
These ruins are a much more important part of Tolkien’s world than would appear at first. They are a major part of the old English mythology that Tolkien was inspired by: dragon’s lair in Beowulf is a chambered tomb, the Old English poem The Ruin describes a Roman town, and in Tolkien’s own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the green chapel is a barrow mound. Tolkien uses these ruins to give a sense of history to Middle Earth, a place that is not only alive in the present but was so in the past as well.
Presence of the physical archaeology is enhanced by the existence of the “linguisitcal archaeology”. Much like scattered ruins indicate existence of a powerful society now long gone, multitude of old tales and partial recitations suggest the existence of some older, larger body of lore – maybe forgotten today, but whose existence is undeniable. Primeval culture and society was largely oral, and oral tradition remained important well until after invention of writing. This is echoed by Tolkien, whose characters use folklore, proverbs, songs, oral traditions, and also written chronicles, to remember and understand their world.
Tolkien understood that a living language needs a living culture. And culture itself is intimately tied with the place – air, soil and clime, as he wrote. Tolkien’s plot itself is map-driven, and Middle Earth has a highly historicized geography. He literally started with the map, and then made the story fit. And the geography and terrain are as much of a major character in Tolkien’s stories as any of his human characters. They are everpresent, shaping the story while at the same time providing a glimpse of the events long past. Characters react to and interact with both material surroundings but also history of the places they see.
Tolkien’s fictional places are inspired by the archeological record, but are not its exact duplicates. Tolkien would borrow from the source and then reworked it, or else borrowed from multiple sources, and then reworked and combined different aspects of different sources. Tolkien spoke of a “leaf-mould” of submerged memories (Letters 409) that might surface in unique fictional form. This, combined with Tolkien’s familiarity with archeological sites, has resulted in fictionalized versions that add substantial depth to Middle-Earth’s cultural landscape. Lake-town is inspired by the lake dwellings discovered at Zurich in 1853. – 1854., which subsequently captured popular imagination for years if not decades.
Same goes for other elements of the mythos, which are inspired by mythology and history, but again not their duplicates.
All these places evoke a sense of a past glory, now long gone. Lake Town is but a shadow of glory of old Dale, Gondor too has declined, while Erebor and Moria are gone alltogether. Then there is also Numenor, long lost by the time of the books but whose shadow permeates the story and the setting of the Lord of the Rings. This echoes Tolkien’s view of the past, which was greater and more glorious than the present; there is a permanent sense of mourning and loss.
Much like in real world, legends are woven around historical sites – in many cases, of haunting and of dread. Moria was regarded with an unknown dread, as was the Cirith Ungol. Lake Town permanently lived in the shadow of the dragon. And once Lake Town and Minas Morgul were destroyed, they were never resettled – instead, new dwellings were built futher apart, while old ruins remained as permanent testaments to the past and a warning for future generations. Those that ignored the warnings – such as the Master of the Lake Town, a merchant and a practical man who lived exclusively in the present – invariably invited the catastrophe by ignoring lessons of the past. Master lost his city because he ignored history of the Dale, and Balin led his company to their deaths because he ignored history of Moria. Smaug and Durin’s Bane were still present, but their threat had went ignored because they had not been seen for so long. In the end, both Lake Town and Balin’s company were destroyed by the very history they had been intent on ignoring. And both destroyers were killed by people who were well aware of history. Balrog was defeated by Gandalf, a Maiar who spent countless years studying history and was himself older than the world. Smaug was defeated by Bard the Bowman, who alone in the Lake Town put stock in the old stories, and whose deed was made possible by two gifts he inherited from his ancestors: the ability to understand speech of birds, and the Black Arrow, a family heirloom and a relic of the ages past. (Transformance of the Black Arrow into a high-tech ballista in the Hobbit movies clearly shows complete lack of understanding of Tolkien’s worldview and themes he wrote into the books, by changing a holy heirloom of the past into a high-tech product of worldly science).
Tolkien also repeatedly tells of the future, where places that are being lived in during time of the stories will become archeological sites and ruins. This projection into future is highly emotional, because it brings to attention the fact that people and places reader has come to know through the books will not last forever.
First historical place reader comes across in Lord of the Rings are Barrow-downs. These are not mere archeological curiosity: they have a very sinister reputation in Hobbit legends, one which the company learns first-hand is well deserved. But this reputation, and the danger of the Barrows, draw origin from ancient past. This is a past from well before Hobbit history, and thus the Barrows serve not just as a geographical but also as a temporal boundary, an entrance to the complete unknown. Hobbits end up captive and spell-bound, and laid out in one of the barrows in the imitation of ancient burials, apparently the custom of the original inhabitants of the Downs.
Fact that the Barrows are surrounded with rumour and folklore again invokes real life: almost everything in reality has a legend or another attached to it. Barrows also capture imagination, though much more literally than any real world archeological site: hobbits are trapped in a sleep within the Barrow. And Barrows, as well as the treasures within, are relics of a long history. This history is literally contained within the Barrow, and by experiencing events in the Barrow as well as taking treasure out of it, hobbits bring history to light – literally. Between this and the story Tom Bombadil tells them, the hobbits have become intimately aware that they are a part of the historical continuum.
After joining with Strider (Aragorn), hobbits have gained a travelling companion who is highly familiar with many facts, including historical knowledge. He shows this early on, by telling Hobbits the history of Weathertop, another remnant of Arnor, thus allowing the hobbits to place themselves within the history of Middle Earth. Thanks to this, they realize that they are part of the wider world, abandoning the provincial mindset so prevalent in the Shire. For Aragorn however, these ruins and the history they tell are an intimate part of his own identity, reminding him of his heritage and his duty.
History is no less important in Rohan. Much like the Rangers of the North, Rohirrim keep their history alive through song and tale. And much like with the Rangers, burial mounds of the Rohirrim are a connection to their soul – heritage, homeland and identity. Unlike Rangers however, Rohirrim are still a thriving people, so burial mounds have an immediate relevance. They are inspired by either Anglo-Saxon or Viking (Nordic) mounds – Bronze Age burial mounds in Denmark were set out in long rows beside the old travelling routes. When passing the burial site, Aragorn sings out a Rohirrim song – thus showing respect for Rohirrim history.
After the battle at Helm’s Deep, there are several scenes of archeological monuments in the making. Rohirrim make two burial mounds for their own dead, . And at the same time, the Riders are witnesses of their own legends coming alive before their eyes: ents from Fangorn, forest which Rohirrim call Entwood but which had been forgotten about. Theoden laments that the Rohirrim had forgotten the truth contained in their own legends. Upon coming across the burial mound at Fords of Isen, Eomer says: “Here let them rest! […] [a]nd when their spears have rotted and rusted, long still may their mound stand and guard the Fords of Isen!”. Much like the Lake-town, this too is an example of history in the making, where narrator projects the story forward when the events being written about will be a history, if not legend.
Similar example will be seen also later, after the Battle of Pelennor. Snowmane, Theoden’s horse, is buried on the Pelennor fields (but contrary to Anglo-Saxon custom, he is not buried alongside his master – Theoden is buried in Edoras). It is stated that in the future the mound will be covered in green grass, while the place where the Fell Beast was burnt will be left forever bare. Theoden’s own burial is not projected into the future in such a manner, but his “house of stone” evokes images of a passage grave or a chamber tomb (though unlikely to be of Mycanean dimensions). It is likely something akin to Neolithic Maeshowe cairn, and so it invokes archaeological and memorial significance despite not yet being archaeological at that point.
Dunharrow road has similar historical significance to burial mounds, but with a wholly different tone: it is regarded with fear. Reader soon learns why as well: the road is entrance to the Paths of the Dead, from which no living man had ever returned. But unlike with the Burial Mounds, about Dunharrow not even a legend remains: nothing is known about its builders or purpose. In this it is unlike the Hornburg. That fortress is also a remnant of the ancient past and way beyond the Rohirrim’s own ability to construct. As a result, it is regarded with superstition but no fear: people of Gondor are said to have built the fort with the help of the giants. Dunharrow is far from being architecturally inexplicable, but it has a much deeper sense of mystery surrounding it. Also unlike Hornburg, the location itself is mysterious on its own. The mountain is – literally – inhabited by the ghosts. This again draws from Anglo-Saxon and Norse folklore, where ghosts of the dead continued to inhabit their burial mounds, and the burial places kept their innate dread long after the reason for said dread had been forgotten. Theoden, Eomer and Eowyn all react with dread to Aragorn’s decision to brave the Paths. Even Aragorn and the Dunedain feel dread when traversing the Paths.
Dunharrow also contains Pukel-men, statues of ancient people who had lived there. These are so ancient that faces have eroded, leaving only eyes intact – which is reminiscent of Tolkien’s general approach of revealing only bits and pieces of his world. Yet the Riders treat them dismissevly, neither knowing nor caring where they come from. Later however, Rohirrim meet the surviving members of the Wild Men, who ask only to be left alone. Theoden and later Aragorn respect this request, in keeping with the Tolkien’s principle of subsidiarity and self-determination – all groups are allowed to live on their own, with no interference and according to their own culture and traditions.
Overall, history and archeology are not only present, they are part of the very soul of Tolkien’s work. Even when not outright interacted with, history is always there in the background – dikes, embankments, roads, ports, remnants of fortifications… even fortifications have history or at least implication of history beyond obvious. And almost every encounter springs a mnemonic trigger which brings to a character’s mind connection to the past, helping construct inner consistency of reality. Tolkien’s characters construct a past that is meaningful to the present. The landscape itself is read and interpreted.
With history so important, it is no surprise that the Enemy makes an effort at defiling it. Monument to Ar-Pharazon’s landing is thrown off after Mordor had captured Umbar, and Orc mockery of a head had been placed in place of the original head (ironically reminiscent of modern Left’s campaign against old monuments). The original head however is restored when armies of Gondor and Rohan march for the Black Gate. Thus Tolkien makes a powerful statement on importance of respect for the history – even if this history is less than savory, as was the case with evil dictator Ar-Pharazon who nevertheless received a monument in Umbar for his achievments.
And because Tolkien never intended to publish his books, he was free to write his whole soul into them.