THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Bibliography & Bibliographical Codes

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) (c) Haywood Magee/Getty Images
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THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Conclusion

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THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Chapter 4 – The Ring

Tolkien, drawing showing the Ring and others (c) 2004 Royal Mail
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THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Chapter 3 – The Sword

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THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Chapter 2 – The Quest

A drawing by Tolkien (c) 2004 Royal Mail

It is often the case with romances that a quest appears to be the organizing pattern of the narrative. One of the best-known medieval examples is the quest for the Sancgreal in the Arthurian Romances. It also seems a common feature that the quest-pattern should be limited to romances. As a matter of
fact heroic literature is preoccupied with more down-to-earth matters. Since the main concern of the hero is to go down to posterity i.e. leave in the minds of the living people an image of courage and unfailing virtue – virtue being in this case proportional to the adherence to the heroic code of honor and not at all the Ten Commandments – the Old English. heroic poetry rather puts the emphasis on war, the duties of the Germanic comitatus, the patching up of blood feuds with impossible marriages, the problems of man in front of his lot (wyrd) and the shame of the warrior unfaithful to his lord. In this sense heroic poetry can be said to be more true-to-life than romances.

It is the lot of the Germanic warrior to concentrate on one word : “overcome”. Overcome fear in order to appear as a courageous soldier, overcome temptation to remain submitted to one’s lord, overcome the enemy to save one’s tribe, overcome evil to gain the right to a high renown after death. Be it physically or intellectually, victory was the stimulating principle of the life of a warrior. The alternative between  victory by physical strength or by wise strategy is best illustrated in Beowulf‘s three progressive assaults. Young Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands. Grendel’s mother, which dwells at the bottom of a lake, must be killed by a magical sword. The third. assault against a fire-breathing dragon necessitates a special shield capable of protecting Beowulf from the flames. Beowulf, helped by Wiglaf, is victorious but dies. I should rather have written “is victorious and dies” since a heroic warrior knows he is doomed to violent death; it is moreover his greatest achievement to die with an “undefeated spirit”. Anyway, as a traditional hero, he must die on the battlefield or as a result of his encounter with the enemy – in this case: the dragons. It is a necessary condition for him to deserve his place in the Valhalla even if the Valhalla has disappeared from christianized Old English poetry. Beowulf ends thus a successful career completed by an unavoidable death.

Another feature of the hero is his “transparency” as a character. One could conclude that the heroic achievement is external : the hero is judged in his status according to “deeds” giving evidence of his courage. Whatever the fear felt or the inner cowardice of the character, what matters is the external appearance of heroic virtue. Such an interpretation, reducing heroism to a “look” in the modern meaning of the word, is based on a corrupt(ed) reading of Old English poetry. Modern writings are indeed full of characters whose appearance inside the tale contrasts with their real feelings or inner life. This was not true in the early medieval literature.

What I mean by “transparency” is precisely that heroes are supposed to have an inner life corresponding to their external appearance. More than that, the medieval poets were not at all concerned with psychological matters. Their characters are meant to be courageous when they act courageously. The inner conflicts between fear and courage are directly conveyed into actions illustrating the choice made by the hero. Moreover a good character is mainly thoroughly good, courageous and strong, whereas the traitor is presented as thoroughly perverse.

Romances on the contrary are not so much concerned with the public image of the hero for its own sake. The innovations in concern brought by the romance-writers are of two kinds. On the one hand, the eschatological struggle between Light and Darkness, God and the Devil in which the hero takes part as a herald of Good is no more set on a war-background involving armies and wide battlefields or dragons embodying all the Evil of the world. The battlefield in romances is symbolically reduced to the protagonist himself, inside of whom the actual struggle takes place. While the heroic hero takes part in a battle,the action in romances is located inside the protagonist which is used as a microcosm reflecting human experience. This conclusion is drawn in accordance with Brewer’s interpretation of the tale as the total mind of the protagonist. He in fact means by this that, since the protagonist and the other characters in the narrative are aspects of the protagonist’s mind, the story itself is the summing up of these aspects of the total mind. The various events are in fact illustrations of the various conflicts occurring in the mind of the maturing protagonist, romances being often, according to Brewer, stories of maturation. The tale is consequently seen as dynamic, the evolution of the protagonist being its organizing and stimulating principle. I mean by dynamic that the parameters determining the construction of the tale at its beginning are altered during its course and different at the end. Let us take for example the Green Knight: he is a terrible father-figure at the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, forcing young Gawain out of childhood, represented by the Court of King Arthur, I already explained that; it appears, however, at the end. that the character that served as a temptator throughout the tale, as a confessor during the rationalization scene and the Green Knight himself are but one and the same person : Bertilak of the High Desert. More than that, this character is himself the victim of Morgan the Fay. It is in this sense that I used the words “altered parameters”, characterization being one of these parameters; So much for the first innovation made by the romance-writers.

The second is actually a corollary of the first. Since man and his experience are at the centre of the preoccupations of the romantic tale, it is logical that romances should be concerned with the humanity of the hero, refusing to reduce him to a courageous warrior in front of his lot. The heroic rules that were at the centre of the heroic “casuistry” are hence questioned. in romances. Benson (quoted by Brian Stone) says that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the “story of the perennial conflict between ideal codes and human limitations”. I shall also try in this chapter to explain how Frodo’s humanity is illustrated in The Lord of the Rings, my general purpose remaining, however, to show why this tale is not a romance.

As has often been said in this study, a quest constitutes the leading-thread of the narrative. Frodo left the Shire in order to destroy the One Ring in the Fires of Orodruin. This ring he inherited from his uncle Bilbo then retired at Rivendell, the dwelling of Master Elrond Half-Elven. It is Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, who proposed the quest to Frodo. Elrond has also chosen eight companions among the Free Peoples…

…to accompany the Ring-Bearer on the Quest of Mount Doom. They were : Gandalf, Aragorn, Dúnadan of the North, and Boromír, Prince of Gondor (for men); Legolas, son of King Thranduíl (for the Elves); Gimlí, son of Glöin (for the Dwarves); and three Hobbíts – Meriadoc, Peregrin, Samwíse.

Together they leave to Orodruin. Gandalf disappears in the Mines of Moria and Aragorn has consequently to reveal his true name – he had so far been known as Strider – and his rank: he is the True Pretender. Arrived to the Rauras Falls, they have a little rest. Time enough for Boromir to succumb to the power of the Ring, try to steal it and die repentant under the blows of Orcs that attacked the fellowship. So far for the handle of the forked quest.

“Forked quest” means here that from that point in the story two different courses of the narrative are to be taken into account. On the one side, the major part of the Fellowship (Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin and Merry), who follows a heroic evolution as I shall try to make clear further, and, on the other, Frodo and Sam, who achieve the romance part of the tale. This chapter is thus an amplification of my conclusion to the chapter devoted to Brewer’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings. I hope to have shown that Brewer’s statement that Tolkien’s book is a romance of maturation applies only to the part of the narrative devoted to Frodo.

In the Arthurian tales centered on the Sancgreal, various members of the same community are on a similar quest: Percival, Galahad, Lancelot and others try to discover the Grail Castle. The similarity between the multiple quest in the Morte d’Arthur and in The Lord of the Rings is not an evidence of the romanticity of Tolkien’s work. As a matter of fact Malory’s “Noble tale of the Sancgreal“ (book XIII) is not one as a narrative, it is rather a series of smaller romances each devoted to a questing character. Hence a possibly misleading paralelism between the two books. In addition to that, Brewer considered The Lord of the Rings as the romance of Frodo exclusively, the other characters being splits of the protagonist or related figures.

However, the early mention of the conditions of the quest corresponds to the traditional pattern of romances. Gawain leaves Arthur’s Hall to seek the Green Knight, who will return the blow Gawain inflicted him. The bargain between Gawain and the Green Knight is settled in the tale as early’ as line 282 (the whole romance being 2530 lines long):

So I crave in this court a Christmas game,
For is is Yuletide and New Year, and young men abound here.
If any in this household is so hardy in spirit,
Of such mettlesome mind and so madly rash
As to strike a strong blow in return for another,
I shall offer to him this fine axe freely;
This axe, which is heavy enough, to handle as he please.
And I shall bide the first blow, as bare as I sit here.
If some intrepid man is tempted to try what I suggest,
Let him leap towards me and lay hold of this weapon,
Acquiring clear possession of it, no claim from me ensuing.
Then shall I stand up to his stroke, quite still on this floor –
So long as I shall have leave to launch a return blow
Yet he shall have a year
And a day’s reprieve, I direct.
Now hasten and let me hear
Who answers, to what effect.

In Peredur ab Evrawc, Peredur (Percival) is told before leaving his mother the various recommendations that will determine his further behaviour in the tale

Va, dit-elle,tout droit ä la cour d’Arthur, là ou sont les hommes les meilleurs, les plus généreux et les plus vaillants. Ou tu verras une église, récite ton Pater auprès d’elle. Quelque part que tu voies nourriture et boisson, si tu en as besoin et qu’on ait pas assez de courtoisie ni de bonté pour t’en faire part, prends toi-même. Si tu entends des cris, vas de ce côté; il n’y a pas de cri plus caractéristique que celui d’une femme. Si tu vois de beaux joyaux, prends et donne à autrui, et tu acquérras aussi réputation. Si tu vois une belle femme, fais-lui la cour, quand même elle ne voudrait pas de toi, elle t’en estimera meilleur et plus puissant qu’auparavant.

It seems thus that the rules of the game have to be settled before the game opens. In The Lord of the Rings, the opening spell is not an exception

Three Rings for the Elven-Kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-Lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the land of Mordor where Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the land of Mordor where Shadows lie.

It has been evoked in the chapter devoted to the Ring that Frodo’s quest, as opposed to Percival’s or Galahad’s, was in some sense a negative quest, at least an ambivalent one. Frodo indeed does not leave home in order to seek something, he possesses the object. of the quest from the beginning of the tale: the ring inherited from Bilbo. The actual aim of his quest is moreover destruction and not discovery. This reversed quest-motive is due to the nature of the object of the quest itself. On the one hand, the Grail is a Christian symbol of sanctity, it stands on the side of Good and of God:

Le Graal représente à la fois, et substantiellement, le Christ mort pour les hommes, le vase de la Sainte Cène (c’est-à-dire, la Grâce divine accordée par le Christ à ses disciples), et enfin le calice de la messe, contenant le sang réel du Sauveur. La table sur laquelle repose le vase est donc,selon ces trois plans, la pierre du Saint-Sépulcre, la table des Douze Apôtres, et enfin l’autel ou se célèbre le sacrifice quotidien. Ces trois réalités, la Crucifixion, la Gène, l’Eucharistie, sont inséparables et la cérémonie du Graal est leur révélation, donnant dans la Communion la connaissance de la personne  du Christ et la participation à son Sacrifice Salvateur. (Dds, p. 482-483)

Its origin seems however to be rather pagan:

Le Saint Graal de la littérature médiévale européenne est l’héritier sinon le continuateur de deux talismans de la religion celtique pré-chrétienne : le chaudron du Dagda et la coupe de souveraineté. (Dds, p. 482)

In its symbolical function, the Grail could in fact fit with all religions:

Le Graal c’est la lumière spirituelle, qui n’a que faire des dogmes. Mais on ne peut s’en approcher qu’au prix d’une longue recherche et de douloureux efforts de dépassement de soi-même. (BMC, p. 286)

The quest of the Grail is thus purely spiritual. Though it is actualized in adventures and secular peregrinations, it is in fact a spiritual research inside one’s soul: the questing hero tries to achieve the interiority of faith, the mystical relationship between lnimself and God. It is in this context that
Brekilien properly describes it as “n’ayant que faire des dogmes”.  Mysticism requires individuality : the mystic follows his own path refusing the too well-beaconed highway to God that church is. The quest of the Grail is thus a positive interior quest of something – in this case the Grail- which reflects an ideal state-of-soul that one has to achieve.

On the other hand the ring is obviously not standing for any personal achievement. On the contrary, it embodies the forces of Evil threatening the moral integrity of the questing hobbit. As I wrote in another chapter, the Ring, borne out of Evil, represents the lust for power to which any of us might succumb. The hobbits are described by Tolkien in the prologue as

an unobtrusive but very ancient people,… they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-farmed countryside was their favorite haunt… They were a merry folk. They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green;… And laugh they did, and eat, and drank, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them).

The author gives us a picture of a sensible innocence, uncorrupted by the lust for power (“sensible” meaning here that their innocence has nothing to do with that of God’s Lamb: Hobbits enjoy food and drink and sometimes quarrel; their innocence is a rather temperated one). Evil, embodied by the Ring, has thus to come from outside the Shire. The moral integrity is here a
starting point rather than an achievement. Hence the necessary destruction of the Ring as a means to protect innocence from corruption. In the Morte d’Arthur, the case of Lancelot illustrates very well my point here. Lancelot’s quest ends on a meagre satisfaction: he is allowed to see the Grail very briefly, in a dream. The reason for that failure is his corrupted soul, i.e. his love for Guinevere, his lord’s wife. The two quests are thus totally reversed:  whereas finding the Grail means achieving personal sanctity, an interior connection with God, the destruction of the Ring means preventing the original innocence of the protagonist and his fellow-hobbits from being spoiled by corruption.

Another aspect of the quest that could serve as a point of comparison is its ending: is success necessary and what should be the meaning of a failure ? I already alluded to the difference of attitude in front of the quest to be performed between Gawain and Frodo. Gawain left the court as a daring youth (“what should man do but dare ?” SGGK, l.565) whereas Frodo felt “very small, and very uprooted, and well-desperate” (p. 76). The contrast between Gawain’s self-confidence and Frodo’s sense of doom led me to say that Frodo’s fears denoted a rather heroic mood. Any romance reader indeed knows that there must be a happy ending. Though Gawain makes a mistake, he is not beheaded by the Green Knight and he is allowed to go back – repentant – to his lord’s court in order to tell the other knights of the Round Table of his fault. Gawain’s failure is turned into a good moral lesson. The same for Lancelot: lacking virginity, he cannot reach the Grail Castle and only’ sees the object of his quest “half wakynge and slepyng” (MMAE, p.158). As a squire comments :

I dare ryght wel saye
sayed the squyer that he dwelleth in some dedely synne wherof he was never confessid (MMAE, p. 160)

Lancelot, however, does not seem to mind his limited success :

Mais voilà que le visionnaire s’estime satisfait et content de lui. (MMAE, p. 30-31)

Failures of the protagonist are thus minimized in romances in order to provide a happy ending :

& Yf I may not spede
I shall retorne ageyne as he that maye not be ageynst the wil of our
Lord Ihesu Cryste (MMAE, p. 144)

In point of fact they are even more meaningful than success would have been : a failing hero is made human, identification is made easier and the tale the more effective.

Frodo on the contrary illustrates heroic fatalism as if he knew from the very beginning that heroic tales often conclude on the death of the hero – though glorious. His failure is moreover not at all tempered by a posteriori considerations. Although his quest is successful – the Ring is destroyed – Frodo once succumbed to the power of Sauron and, without the providential intervention of Smeagol, he would have turned towards Darkness and Sauron. He says to Sam Gamgee after Gollum’s death:

But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.

In spite of the joy provided by the saving of the Shire, Frodo has changed:

One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away. “What’s the matter, Mr Frodo ?” said Sam. “I am wounded”, he answered, ”wounded; it will never really heal.”

Fatality is thus the feeling that prevails in his mind. This is once more a feature that does not fit with the definition of the traditional romantic hero. As a matter of fact the further we analyse the various characteristics of Tolkien’s book, the less it is possible to classify his references: Frodo is a questing character (thus romantic) having a rather heroic mood.

Genuinely romantic and corresponding to Brewer’s theory is however the progression of his quest. Tolkien organized various “rites of passage” on his way to Orodruin: doors, gates, tunnels, bridges, crossing of waters are by nature places that imply a passage. Symbolically they are also meaningful, e.g.

La porte symbolise le lieu de passage entre deux états, entre deux mondes, entre le connu et l’inconnu, la lumière et les ténèbres, le trésor et le dénuement. La porte ouvre sur un mystère. Mais elle a une valeur  dynamique, psychologique; car non seulement elle indique un passage, mais elle invite à la franchir. (DdS, p. 779)

Be it on purpose or unconsciously Tolkien provided the Fellowship with many of these “passages”. Before leaving the Shire, the Hobbits had to cross the Brandywine river on a ferry. Crossing a river is not an image limited to Tolkien: in ancient China, the “just married” pairs had to cross the river in Spring, it meant a real crossing of the seasons, the year, from the Yin to the Yang; is was moreover a rite of purification (DdS, p. 449-450). Acheron, Phlegeton, Cocyte, Styx and Lethe are the names of the rivers of Hell, they were to be crossed by the damned souls (DdS, id.). I shall, however, not go into too far fetched interpretations of Tolkien’s rites of passage. We cannot know anyway whether he meant them as such (i.e. symbolically) or if the various crossings simply meant stages in a travel – I mean that Tolkien could have used these “steps” as devices in order to render the spatial translation necessary to a picaresque narrative (the more you cross rivers and go through gates and tunnels, the further you are from home).

Beside the symbolical use and the technical one, there is another possibility: Tolkien, impregnated with medieval literature, could have noticed the many “passages” that appear in romances and heroic tales, and simply have reproduced the pattern in The Lord of the Rings without exploring its deeper meaning. The last alternative should, however, be a kind of an insult to Tolkien’s cleverness and keen knowledge of the functioning of medieval stories, and, be it the case, I should rather consider that professor Tolkien purposely ignored the analysis proposed by psychoanalysts as Yung and others, probably because he hated excessive interpretation. It. could nevertheless be possible that the identification of Tolkien with medieval poets was nearly complete. These ancient story-tellers obviously did not know about Brewer’s analysis of symbolical tales, and, instinctively, reproduced patterns in their creations, or rather re-creations, not modifying the inner meaning of the story they tried to re-tell. The function of many medieval story-tellers actually consisted in giving to a traditional motive a version “adequate to itself and the audience” (as Brewer explains in his Symbolic Stories). Brewer writes:

While the same given story may have differing verbal realizations, each version must be regarded as adequate to itself… each version has its own validity, its own character, just as different members of the same family, though sharing similar characteristics, each have their own individuality. Each version must be judged in itself, as well as being an emanation of a general entity. (BBS)

The basic story, or let us say the basic pattern, could be compared to an apple pie, the poet being the cook who determines the portion of sugar, flour and butter according to the taste of his guests. There is indeed a basic recipe but one may use brown sugar instead of white sugar, add some cinnamon or whatever. In this sense the various crossings or passages could have appeared to the poet as necessary ingredients for a consistent and relevant tale, without revealing their archetypal meaning (since not objectivized). So much for the possible “innocence of Tolkien as a story-teller.

At the border of the Shire is also a forest. Jung interpreted the forest as the representation of the unconscious, the attitude of the protagonist in front of it determining whether he lived in harmony with his deepest self or on the contrary feared to be faced with his inner tensions. Reactions can thus be varied and the forest can be experienced as unfriendly or protective:

D’autres poètes sont plus sensibles au mystère ambivalent de la forêt, qui est génératrice â la fois d’angoisse et de sérénité, d’oppression et de sympathie, comme toutes les puissantes manifestations de la vie. (DdS, p. 455)

My point is here to mention a series of “passages” in the tale, offering diverse possible interpretations but without deciding on their validity. I am no psychoanalyst and cruelly lack the cleverness of Dr Brewer, so that, as I suggested in the introduction, my work had better be considered as a guide to various doors and windows, all of them being possible approaches to Tolkien’s work, to be opened by others than myself. The reader should feel as Alice in the hall :

There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every doors, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was to get out again.(LCAW, p. 27)

Yet, I shall have the lack of humility to try to direct the reader’s eyes towards the “little three-legged table, all made of solid glass” and the “tiny golden key” (id.). It would be my greatest achievement to give enough clues for the reader to discover the little door behind the low curtain. End of the digression.

It is thus necessary to mention the various forests that appear in The Lord of the Rings, each being differently experienced by Frodo. The Old Forest at the border of the Shire is a dark one, “stories” are told about it. An interesting passage is this :

“Are the stories about it true ?” asked Pippin. “I don’t know what stories you mean”, Merry answered, “If you mean the old bogey stories Fatty’s nurse used to tell him, about Goblins and Wolves and things of that sort, I should say no. At any rate I don’t believe them. But the Forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire… But at night things can be most alarming… I thought all the trees were […]

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THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Chapter 1 – The Lord of the Rings as more than a Romance

Tolkien, drawing showing Rivendell (c) 2004 Royal Mail

The Lord of the Rings as
more than a Romance

The Lord of the Rings is not a romance ! It seems almost scandalous to make such a declaration after having read the captivating pieces of criticism written by Derek S. Brewer in Symbolic Stories and the Lord of the Rings as a Romance (BSSBLRR). It is not less daring to open a chapter with what could be considered as an accusation of critical incapacity. It is in fact not at all the case here and these two opening sentences are written without any vindictiveness – I have not the least chance to compete with Mr Brewer’s deep knowledge of the romantic matter and I therefore only propose a small adjustment of one of his analyses. He was moreover clever enough no to lay his work open to sharp criticism and this thanks to one letter ! The title The Lord of the Rings as a romance involves a mere approach of Tolkien’s tale in comparison with romantic literature and its characteristics whereas a title as The Lord of the Rings is a romance would have implied a firm statement leaving no place for doubts or nuances. Dr Brewer was not that naïve, he was self-disciplined enough -though one is delighted with the enthusiasm underlying his analysis of Symbolic Stories – to dodge the problem. What is less prudent is his comment in the epilogue of Symbolic Stories :

The Lord of the Rings is a romance of adolescence.

He wrote it ! It is the result, he writes, of his “analysis of the fundamental structure” of the book (p. 190). These ten words filled me with ease not because a polemical text is always easier to write than a quiet, common-sensed piece of criticism, but simply because it offered me a starting-point for the difficult discussion of Tolkien’s story. The help provided by Dr Brewer’s writings was naturally not limited to a counterpoint in an intricate controversy. His unorthodox approach to symbolic stories remains in my opinion an innovation which has in it  all the germs of the orthodoxy to come in matters of “non-realistic” stories. I shall try to discuss it further in this chapter.

Before commenting on Brewer’s modern – I insist – on “modern” – approach to romance I have first to write some words on tradition. The definition given by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives some clues to a complete view of what romance is (p. 963) :

A story of love, adventure, strange happenings, etc., often set in a distant time or place, whose events are happier or grander or more exciting than those of real life.

As to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, it says (p. 1242):

1. A narrative depicting heroic or marvelous achievements, colorful events or scenes, chivalrous devotion, unusual or even supernatural experiences, or other matters of a kind to appeal to the imagination.
2. A medieval narrative, originally in verse, in some romance dialect treating of heroic personages or events : the Arthurían Romances.

These definitions are general enough to satisfy everybody. In the Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, George Sampson adds that romances are often anonymous and he explains that there is a difference between  heroic and romantic, a shift in matter which he ascribes to the change of audience. The growing female audience allowed the introduction of courtly love and – one must also consider the systematic christianization of late medieval literature – the Virgin cult (p. 33). From poems on the sanguinary deeds of courageous warriors recited in the hall, the medieval literary taste turned to a more ornamental description of courteous knights fighting in the name of fair ladies. Romances mark thus the beginning of an increasing interest for women in English literature. It is also commonly accepted that romances must have happy endings. The discussion of romances moreover implies the use of the sempiternally quoted lines of Jehan Bodel :

Ne sont que iii matíères à nul home antandant,
De France et de Bretaígne et de Rome la Grant.

To the matters of France (a.o. Carolingian romances), of Britain (mainly the Arthurian cycle) and of Romes (a.o.Lydgate‘s Troy Book and Chaucer’s tale of Palamon and Arcite told by the knight), must be added the so-called matter of England (King Horn, Havelock the Dane) and Oriental tales (Floris and Blancheflour, Barlaam and Josaphat).

Concerning the remoteness of the romantic world Sampson gives an interesting comment :

They describe a utopian society in which everything appears to be anybody’s and in which there is no consciousness of patriotism or nationalism, but only a sense of Universal Christendom at war with the powers of darkness.

I fully agree with Sampson’s “no consciousness of patriotism or nationalism” since it constitutes the central difference between heroic and romantic literature. Heroic tales are, if not national, at least tribal. Beowulf faces Grendel alone but he represents his nation. He dies as a hero but also as a king, his lot being thus associated with the future of his people. This is made clear in the poem in line 2742 and seq. :

Now comes peril of war when this news is rumoured abroad,
The fall of our king known afar among Frisians and Franks !
For a fierce feud rose the Franks when Hygelac’s warlike host
Invaded the Frisian fields, and the Hetware vanquished the Geats,
Overcame with the weight of their hordes, and Hygelac fell in the fray… (OAEL)

Gawain’s failure on the contrary has no implication on the destiny of a nation the name of which we do not even know. My point is thus that the  career of a central character in a romance is individual – Mr Brewer cannot but agree with this – as opposed to earlier texts in which the hero’s deeds matter for the community rather tan for the central protagonist himself. The last thing I have to write about the traditional attitude towards romantic tales is my sincere astonishment in front of opinions such as Mr Sampson’s (SCHL, p. 39) – opinions which, sadly enough are widespread in the scholarly world – :

There is no need to catalogue the shortcomings of the old stories. People in all ages are easily amused. It is not for the consumer of crime-novels, thriller-films or television serials to cast stones at the medieval romances.

The parallelism drawn between romances and what Sampson obviously considers as degenerated kinds of cultural manifestations is at least pejorative and moreover symptomatic of the deep contempt in which unrealistic tales were and are still held.

The existence of such a segregation is explained by Brewer. It is the result, he says, of an evolution that took its roots in the Renaissance and the humanist thinking, went on in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century up to our industrial civilisation. The increasing materialism in occidental thought led to a progressive rejection of what was not true-to-life in literature. The epitome of this attitude is illustrated in the late nineteenth century naturalism. Brewer opposes the novel to the romances. Novels present the relationship between man and society in a plausible way which allows psychological analysis. Romances on the contrary take no consideration of social reality and moreover are written in an hyperbolic style and variable tone that used to cause heart-attacks to all naturalists. What could be then the value of those tales that do no observe a strict “mimesis” of surface events ? It is precisely Brewer’s point to explain that there are two levels in a story. The surface (or objective) course { of the tale can either be true-to-life as in a novel or “apparently not reflecting reality” as in romances (BSS). These surface events are anyway determined by “inner” events or “deeper” events or meanings :

All stories are, further, in some way symbolic, in that they are examples or illustrations, at a level “below” the surface, of something of what we feel about human experience. (BSS).

The difference he establishes between surface meaning and fundamental meaning is therefore important. Whereas the plot and the characterization of a novel depends on objective reality, the so-called “unrealistic” tales reflect deeper realities, in some way archetypal ones. Their apparent inconsistency is in fact the expression of the fundamental meaning according to which they are built.

Fantasy-thinking seems to be irrational, but it is concerned with the reality of feelings and their conflicts, and with the reality of our need to both celebrate our feelings and resolve our conflicts.

This is quoted from Anne Wilson‘s Traditional. Romance and Tale : How stories mean (WTRT, p. 52) (9). She treats the unrealistic tales in the same manner as Brewer but at another level : while Brewer tries to establish the meaning of various symbolic stories, Wilson concentrates on “how they mean” i.e. the treatment that the primeval meaning of a story has to undergo in order to become a consistent tale, ready for the immortal life that traditional stories seem to have.

Neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare ever invented a plot, and even if Boccacio  occasionally did so, he put it together out of entirely familiar elements. (BSS, p. 3)

Any romance reader who wants to discover the meaning of a tale has thus to face two things :

In the traditional tale we must therefore distinguish between the verbal realization of the story and its pre- or non-verbal existence as “shape”, “pattern”, “structure” (all such expressions being inevitably metaphorical).
(BSS, p. 3)

These two aspects of the tale are thus its text-form, i.e. what we read, and its fundamental meaning. A comparison that could help to make things clearer is the dream. It is now commonly accepted that dreams are meaningful in the sense that their latent content expresses unconscious tensions. Those contents are treated by the dreamer so as to become “acceptable” by his consciousness; the result of this treatment is called the manifest content. One of the processes used by the mind of the dreamer is rationalization i.e. the a posteriori objective explanation of facts primarily exclusively meaningful on a subjective level. If we equate the fundamental meaning of a tale with the latent content of a dream and the surface meaning of the one with the manifest content of the other, we also realize that rationalization has the same importance in both story and dream (parenthesis mine) :

(fantasy-thinking) is also concerned with the reality of our need to defend ourselves against a conscious realization of what we are feeling and doing as we create stories. (WHSM, p. 52)

A good example of rationalization is the sudden identification of a character which has been a mere “function” throughout the tale. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Green Knight who served as temptator-confessor is named at the very end :

”Truly”, the other told him, “I shall tell you my title.
Bertilak of the High Desert I’am called here in this land.
Through the might of Morgan the Fay who remains in my house,
… She sent me forth in this form to your famous hall,
To put to the proof the great pride of the house,
The reputation for high renown of the Round Table (SGGK)

As a result of Brewer’s and Wilson’s comments on the matter, one may conclude that rationalization can be useful to the story-teller in two ways. On the one hand as an adaptation of the tale to the audience and on the other hand to render in understandable terms latent pulsions which give the tale its fundamental meaning. In addition to that, it can be useful to the critic who faces divergences in various tales at the bottom of which he guesses a unique “pattern”.

A further step in his study is the realization of the identity between narrator, reader and protagonist. Anne Wilson, for example, introduces her essay as follow :

This book suggests that if the story-telling experience is one of creation and recreation on the part of the story-teller and his audience, and if the identification with the protagonist of the story does take place, then the story-teller, the audience and the protagonist should be seen as united. The approach argues that each story should be viewed as its protagonist’s creation. (WTRT)

Brewer goes even further once he has established the meaningfulness of these symbolic stories :

No character, with the possible partial exception of the protagonist, has an autonomous inner life, a self-motivated independent existence of his or her own. This is an exceedingly important point, the corollary of the fundamental principle that the whole story is told from the point-of-view of the protagonist. (BSS)

The protagonist’s experience dealt with in the tale in thus common to the narrator and the reader as human beings. The next step in Brewer’s approach is that, since growing-up is the most frequent an unavoidable experience in human life, many symbolic stories and, in particular, many romances are tales of maturation rather of maturity. Philippe Sellier (SMH) explains in his Mythe du Héros what he considers as the typical heroic career : an alternation of symbolical births and deaths up to the final heroic status. A hero must be of noble descent, undergo a phase of “occultation” (e.g. Romulus and Remus and their mother-wolf), then be confronted with various “épreuves” or “rites de passage” (often against gigantic or multiple beings : hydras, giants or armies) in order to be “recognized” and restored in a due status. What Sellier announces as the basic career of a hero is reduced in Brewer’s study, to a more analyzable pattern : growing-up with the family drama as background. Many romances give the symbolic account, according to Brewer, of the Various “rites of passage” faced by the protagonist. From untried youth to adulthood, it depicts the emerging of the hero from the rule of the parents to the establishment of his self in relation with his beloved or “peer” and society. The various characters of such a story can therefore be reduced to a set of basic functions :

  • parent-figures at first protective an then restrictive, to be escaped;
  • peer-figures, the beloved to be conquered;
  • sibling-figures, i.e. brothers and sisters mainly helpful;
  • splits of the central protagonist, a.o. the negative split, the dark equivalent of the hero which appears to illustrate the possibility of failure.

The sex of the protagonist is also determinative to the ingredients of the plot: be it a young man, he has to leave home and go on a quest, facing terrible father-figures (ogres, giants, bears…) and friendly mother-figures, the rule being that characters on the same sex are mainly unfriendly. A young girl will be ill-treated at home by a negative mother-figure (cfr. Cinderella, Snow-White), driven out and finally “recognized” by her peer whom she will marry. The psychoanalytic Oedipus triangle is consequently at the centre of the story save the appearance of the peer which constitutes the necessary happy conclusion:

To put the matter with crude brevity: what the male protagonist has to do is kill his father, dodge his mother and win his girl. The female protagonist has to dodge her father and if not kill at any rate pretty severely neutralize her mother and make it possible to her man to get her. Achievement of the peer signals success – the breaking out of the family triangle, in which the protagonist is always inferior, into the freedom of adult responsibility and equal stable relationship with another person. Usually reconciliation with parent-figures is also achieved. (BBS, p. 9).

What is of importance in Brewer’s analysis is that

While the protagonist is the central leading figure, to whom all other figures must be related, these other figures are aspects of the protagonist, so that the totality of all the characters and actions adds up to as it were a total protagonist, the whole mind of the tale, just as, in a dream, everyone in it is part of the whole mind of the dreamer even if they represent real persons in waking life. (BSS, p. 24)

The obvious corollary to this which Brewer also explains is that nothing can happen outside the mind of the total protagonist, meaning by this that any action in which the central protagonist does not actually or virtually take part has to be at least in direct connection if not with him, with his maturation career. Any element of a tale, once established as being external to the central maturation process, should then constitute an evidence of the “non-romanticism” of the story (since we concentrate on romances as defined by Brewer).

I shall now try to sum up the various characteristics of romances that have been exposed so far. Romances are at face value unrealistic and unconnected with objective reality. The “plot” of a romance is centered on an individual evolution, often the growing-up of the central protagonist. Hence the possible identification between the protagonist, the author (creator or re-creator of archetypal motives) and the reader. In addition to the fact that romances are not national, their elements can on the contrary be reduced to various “functions” corresponding to the components of the family drama. Any element being external to that central pattern should be thus considered as non-romantic.

My purpose in this chapter was to demonstrate that Dr Brewer had gone a little too far when he affirmed that The Lord of the Rings was a romance of maturity. I shall naturally no pledge my word that he was completely mistaken. I shall rather try to examine what led him to that conclusion and what determined me to take if not the opposite view, at least a more nuanced one.

No one could deny that a quest is at the centre of The Lord of the Rings: the destruction of the One Ring. A quest-stucture implies very often a journey through various “countries” and makes easier the introduction in the tale of encounters and perils to be experienced by the protagonist(s). This aspect constitutes naturally the recommended structure for a romance (the interpretation of various rites of passage will be approached in the chapter devoted to the quest). Quests, as Brewer explains, can be of two kinds : they are either determined before the coming to awareness of the protagonist (cfr. Sir Degarre and King Horn) or, later, when the hero decides to go on a quest in full consciousness of the consequences (cfr. SGGK). It is the second option which has been chosen by Tolkien : Gandalf “proposes” the quest to Frodo who is already in his fifties:

There is only one way: to find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-Mountain, and cast the ring in there, if you really wish to destroy it, to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy for ever. (p. 74)

After having hesitated the “young” hobbit decides to leave:

Of course, I have sometimes thought of going away, but I imagined that as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo’s or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me and I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire. (p. 76)

One realizes easily that this “reversed“ quest – he has to destroy the Ring, not to discover it – has nothing appealing in it. Frodo’s decision seems moreover to be more the acceptance of one’s destiny as Gandalf tells Frodo:

But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have. (p. 75)

There we are ! This last sentence is typically father-like. Gandalf, in Brewer’s eyes, is thus the father-figure that forces the adolescent out of his childish world (the Shire) to a world where nowhere is safe. Brewer is right : the Shire with its round doors and windows, quiet summer evenings, its almost fœtal comfort, can be interpreted as the re-creation of the warm environment of our first age. Hobbits are besides halflings, child-sized. Frodo and his environment are thus a perfect starting-point for a maturation process. It is all the more evident when one thinks of Bilbo, Frodo’s uncle (nepotism !), who also left the Shire on a quest and also achieved individual existence in front of society by killing Smaug (a dragon) and left the Shire to live in Rivendell, a symbolically adult area of Middle-Earth. If Frodo’s motivation for leaving is not exactly the same as Gawain’s:

We should also not neglect the fact that his departure may be no more – and no less – than the last kick of male restlessness before being tied down to domesticity and what Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms calls the “biological trap”. (BSS, p. 70)

it could be at least

a mysterious latent feeling of “work” so far not done, of destiny to be achieved, of identity to be fixed, before the protagonist can settle with a wife. (BSS, p. 70)

Ay, there is the rub” says Hamlet, Frodo does not settle with any peer ! Once more Brewer has a do-it-yourself explanation to that : the achievement of the peer is in this story reserved to a split of protagonist. It is indeed true that Tolkien provided Frodo with splits as it is common in romance-writing. Sam Gamgee who leaves the Shire with Frodo and accompanies him to the Cracks of Doom, Settles in Bag-End at the end of the story and marries Rosie, his “peer”. The other two hobbits, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, obviously to be considered as splits and “siblings“, also achieve minor individualizations. Their becoming adult is moreover materialized in the fact that they get physically taller after having drunk magical water among the Ents. Another split is Gollum or Smeagol, a negative split, it illustrates, as I have mentioned before, the possibility of failure of Frodo’s quest and his end gives evidence of Tolkien’s opinion on the self-destructive power of Evil. Professor Tolkien also introduced fairies in his tales. Brewer interprets them as reflecting upon the various pulsions present in the protagonist (it would take another hundred pages to explore the function of each fairy, so that I prefer to take this for granted).

One could easily draw a parallelism between Frodo and Sir Gawain, a typical romance hero. Both protagoniste fail : Gawain hides the green girdle from the Green Knight and Frodo is overcome by the power of the Ring at the very moment when he has the possibility to destroy it :

“I have come”, he said, “But I do not choose now to do what l came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine ! (p. 981)

But, since “all’s well that ends well” in romances, both tales have happy endings (I shall nuance this further as for The Lord of the Rings): Gawain is given the occasion of repenting and Frodo is thwarted in his decision by the providential self-destruction of Smeagol. Another characteristic shared by both heroes in their loneliness. Gawain is left with “no man but God to talk
to” and Frodo, though Sam’s assistance never fails, is morally alone:

Self-sacrifice is most poignant when it is entirely solitary; when apparently no one can ever know of the lonely painful deed that has been ungladly volunteered, and that has apparently been of no avail. This solitary heroism is Frodo’s, and the more convincing is that Tolkien does not totally isolate him physically since Sam remains with him for various purposes of the narrative. (BLRR, p. 257)

Their chastity is also to be compared :

First, chastity is for him (Gawain) a supreme virtue, and was generally taken as such in the culture of the time, even for men. The great examples of the importance of male chastity in Arthurian Literature are the romances about Galahad and Percival. Lancelot failed to achieve the Grail because of his unchastity with Guinevere. (BSS, p. 76)

A possible reason for giving such importance to virginity could be that:

The Virgin Mother makes, in this poem, no such outrageous demand. By demanding chastity she begins to break the carnal natural bond exerted by the other aspects of the mother-image, making it possible to use energy in other ways. (BSS, p. 86)

The chastity observed by Frodo is however not tested as that of Gawain. While his story is a “story of innocence tested and virtue successful” in which Gawain achieves the “highest form of mature self-realization for a man” (i.e. not succumbing to a possible peer), chastity is not the central theme in The Lord of the Rings; Frodo is not tempted by sex but by power.

I have explored so far why The Lord of the Rings could have been considered a romance. It is now time to turn to the other possibility : why the book is not a romance. Although, as I wrote it, many things are comparable between Gawain’s and Frodo’s careers, differences are also to be mentioned. A capital one is the type of fear inspired by their possible end:

Said Gawain, gay of cheer,
‘Wether fate be foul or faire,
Why falter I or fear ?
What should man do but dare ? (SGGK, l. 562-565)

It seems that Gawain begins to actually experience some tremors of fear only after the second temptation, exerted on him by his guide to the Green Chapel. He nevertheless keeps a noble attitude in front of the danger to come :

“By God”, said Gawain, “I swear
I will not weep or groan:
Being given to God’s good care,
My trust in him shall be shown”. (SGGK, l. 2156-2159)

Frodo on the contrary seems to be marked from the very beginning of his quest by a strong sense of the “Wyrd“, the inexorable lot he is doomed to:

“But I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well-desperate. The enemy is so strong and terrible.” (p. 76)

Though this attitude (confessing one’s weakness) is strictly modern – a heroic warrior would have dishonoured his name by doing so – the sense of Doom can be said to be more heroic than romantic. In the structure of the tale itself, the Saruman-postlude (he has modernized and industrialized the Shire during Frodo’s absence, establishing a totalitarian regime) is not evidently romantic. The traditional romantic happy ending is in fact temperated by the mitigated conclusion invented by Tolkien. I concentrated on Gandalf as a father-figure, but other characters could be considered as father-like : Bilbo, Saruman (a negative Gandalf), Elrond, Treebeard, the King of the Golden Hall, Celeborn and, why not Aragorn. In spite of the profusion of fathers, positive and negative ones, the mother-figures are rare. The almost complete absence of women in Tolkien’s tales is striking and there might be a clear explanation to that. Young Tolkien probably did not entertain feminine conversations in the trenches and moreover – war being only part of his experience, though prominent:

At the age when young men were discovering the charms of female company he was endeavouring to forget them… All the pleasures and discoveries of the next three years… were to be shared not with Edith but with others of his sex, so that he came to associate male company with much that was good in life. (HCTB, p. 45)

The two faint mother-figures in the tale are totally positive: Goldberry is a “water-sprite of the Old Forest, the bride of Tom Bombadil and daughter of the ‘River Woman of Withywindle’ (TTQ, p. 25). She welcomes the Company in Bombadil’s house, offering a good supper. Galadriel, the Bearer of Nenya, one of the Three Elven-Rings, shows Frodo the Eye in a fountain (insight into his quest ?). The two beneficent women in the tale could as well reflect the two women that Tolkien loved in his life : his mother and his wife, Edith Bratt. Since we are dealing with sentimental roots it is natural to say a word on the Hobbit’s attachment to the Shire. I have quoted Sampson in the beginning of this chapter. He said that there was “no consciousness of patriotism or nationalism, but only a deep sense of universal christendom at war with the powers of darkness” (SCHL, p. 39). Gawain accepts to have his head cut off as an individual. Brewer insists repeatedly that romances should be viewed as a progressive achievement of the protagonist as individual. Though Gawain belongs to the Knights of the Round Table, he leaves on his own for a personal quest in which he will be tempted personally. Although the Round Table appears at the beginning of the romance as a childish world i.e. from which Gawain has to depart (being in that similar to the Shire), the next time it is mentioned is only at the end during the rationalizing explanation of Bertilak. In the Morte d’Arthur, no mention is made either of a country to protect, of a flag to be kept flying. It is on the contrary necessary for the symbolical purpose of a romance to be, as Sampson explains, remote in place and time. As opposed to that, each
character in The Lord of the Rings belongs to a nation, be it the Shire, Lothlorien, Rohan, Gondor or any other place of Middle-Earth. Frodo decides to go and destroy the “Peril of the World” in order to “save the Shire”. He and Sam very often remember their valley on the way to Orodruin. Legolas “Green Leaf”, an elf, fights in the name of Mirkwood (or forest of Taur e-Ndaedelos), and Gimli “is enrolled in the fellowship of the Ring, to represent his kinfolk in the entreprise” (TTC, p. 245). The more evident nationalistic aspect of the book is naturally embodied by Aragorn:

To re-establish the ancient kingship of both Gondor and Armor was Aragorn’s sworn duty, and his one great hope. (TTC, p. 28)

Each member of the company’ belongs to somewhere. Tyler writes:

This fellowshíp was to represent each of the Free Peoples – Hobbíts, Men, Dwarves and Elves. (TTQ, p. 331)

Each character is thus individualized in the tale through his “nationality”. Since Tolkien wanted us to adhere completely to his story (the so-called “unwilling suspension of disbelief” which I shall explain in a further chapter), we cannot consider the tale as “remote”, without “place” or “time” reference. The nationalist or patriotic connotations are irreconcilable with the given definition of the romance and The Lord of the Rings is therefore not to be considered as a romance, at least an orthodox one. These “nations” represented in the fellowship are closer to the Heroic conceptions. Each character in Beowulf is referred to as belonging to a country or a tribe (Beowulf, lord of the Geats, etc.). The nationalist tendency
is epitomized in the late heroic poetry (The Battle of Maldon, The Battle of Brunanburgh). The patriotic coloration derives probably from the fact that heroic poetry was at the time para-historical, that is was rooted in historical material. What a mastery of story-telling-Tolkien has developed since the only roots of the complete mythology and history he created are to be sought in his imagination. Moreover the “Free People” rings a bell: during WWI Tolkien must have experienced the comradship which inspired him the Fellowship and the “Free People” could as well resound as the “Allies” of both wars.

This is thus one point that prevented me from completely adhering to Brewer’s view on The Lord of the Rings. The second one and not the least, is Brewer’s insistance on the singleness on the protagonist, which is however logical in his interpretation of romance as TALE = PROTAGONIST = AUTHOR = READER. I have already alluded to the fact that other characters than Frodo are individualized through their nationality, I shall now devote the end of this chapter to the multiplicity of questing characters (the double quest-aspect will be dealt with in the next chapter). Brewer writes about Gawain:

Because of our identification with him, we see the other characters entirely in their relation to him, and never to each other. He is present in every scene, and all the scenes have effectively only two characters, Gawain and another. (BSS, p. 83)

I already quoted him when he affirmed that

no other character, …, has an autonomous inner life, a self-motivated independant existence of his or her own. (BSS, p. 23)

There is precisely the problem. If we concentrate on Frodo, the romance-pattern described by Brewer is observed but there are in the book other characters questing and – since these could have been considered as splits of Frodo as is the case with the other hobbits and Smeagol – these other characters achieve their own quest. The most striking example beside Gandalf the Grey (who after a first death reappears as Gandalf the White – death as rite of purification ?), is Aragorn.

It will be explained in details in the chapter devoted to the characterization how Strider is a typically heroic character, it is sufficient here to mention that, though of high lineage, he has undergone a period of occultation after which he has been restored in his heroic status (cfr. the “Sword Reforged”) to finally settle with his peer, Arwen Undómiel, as king of both Arnor and Gondor. Aragorn achieves thus the complete heroic career and this independently from Frodo. The structure of the double quest itself (the heroic one, Aragorn and the major part of the Fellowship, on the one side and the romantic one, Frodo and Sam, on the other) prevents the unicity advocated by Brewer. A good third of the book contains events happening outside the reach of Frodo and moreover unconnected with his personal quest.

These two major counter-arguments – I do not develop here the war-ending which is also typically heroic – allow me to conclude in favour of the non-romantic aspect of The Lord of the Rings or rather : it is not only a romance. The part of the narration devoted to Frodo fits with the analysis of Dr Brewer but the author of The Lord of the Rings as a romance has lost sight of the rest of the narrative in which the romance-likeness is not at all verified ! I once more want to insist on my profound admiration and indebtness to Mr Brewers approach to symbolic stories. My purpose was only to suggest that he probably recognized a pattern in Tolkien’s work which was in his eyes typical of romances i.e. the maturation theme and that he enthusiastically concluded in favour of what I hope I have demonstrated as excessive. It is not because an ape wears a bowl-hat that he is an Englishman.


Plus de Tolkien…

THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Introduction

Tolkien, Map showing Middle-Earth (c) 2004 Royal Mail


[Underlined letter codes after quotes refer to entries in the Bibliography]

Game n°1: which one doesn’t belong

gifena in dys ginnan gr(un)de Heo d*aer d*a gearwe fu(n)de
mundbyr(d) aet d*am maeran theodne, tha heo ahte maeste thearfe
hyldo thaes hehstan Deman, thaet he hie wid* thaes hehstan brogan gefridode, frymda waldend. (JUDI)

Ich was in one sumere dale;
In one suthe dizele hale
Iherde ich holde grete tale
An hule and one niztingale. (OWNI)

Lo, we have listened to many a lay
Of the Spear-Danes fame, their splendor of old
Their mighty princes and martial deeds! (OAEL)

One summer season, when the sun was warm, I rigged myself out in shaggy woollen clothes, as if I were a shepherd, and in the garb of an easy-living hermit I set out to roam far and wide through the world, hoping to hear of marvels. (WLPP)

The siege and the assault being ceased at Troy,
The battlements broken down and burnt to brand and ashes,
The treacherous trickster whose treasons there flourished
Was famed for his falsehood, the foulest on earth. (SGGK)

… was broken
He bade a warrior Abandon his horse
And hurry forward, to join the fighters,
Take thought to his hands and a stout heart. (OAEL)

No sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
metodes meahte and his modge thanc,
weorc wuldorfaeder, swa he wundra gehwaes,
ece drihten, or onstealde. (OAEL)

Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (TBH)

Game n°2: which one doesn’t belong

The mice have returned, he said.
The elder said nothing, Watt wondered if he had heard.
Nine dampers remain, said the younger, and an equal number of hammers. (OAEL)

Jimmy : Why do I do this every Sunday ? Even the book reviews
seem to be the same as last week’s. Different books – same
reviews. Have you finished that one yet ? (OLBA)

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with Spring rain. (ELWL)

I have walked by stalls in the market-place where books,
dog-eared and faded from their purple, have burst with a white
hosanna. (WGFF)

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve to shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back
to Howth Castle and Environs. (JJFW)

Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (TBH)

Illustration by Tolkien : ” Once in a hole…” (c) 2004 Royal Mail

The answers are in both game I and game 2 the last extract : the first sentence of The Hobbit (TBH, first published in 1937) that J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote on a blank leaf, as the legend recalls (HCTB, p. 177). In game I, I have chosen a series of medieval extracts mixing heroic and romantic literature. Being a twentieth century writer, Tolkien was naturally to be considered as an intruder among the Beowulf-poet, Caedmon and Nicholas of Guildford [author of The Owl and the Nightingale ?]; the subject of this study being, however, precisely to compare Tolkien’s works with medieval
literature, as one will read further. In game 2, contemporary extracts were neighboring the innocent sentence of the Oxford professor. It will appear to any reader of Tolkien that the author of The Lord of the Rings is not an “angry young man” (be it only because of his age, he was 58 in 1950) as Osborne nor an experimental poet as Eliot. Tolkien could not be compared either with modernists as intellectual Joyce or post-modernists as moral Golding. Finally, the absurd is not exploited by him and his treatment of language is no doubt completely different from Beckett‘s. Where is then outsider Tolkien to be classified – since classification seems to be the first preoccupation of many critics in front of originality ?

Avant de quitter le roman historique, il est deux écrivains dont nous voulons dire quelques mots : Mervyn Peake et J.R.R. Tolkien. Les ouvrages sur le roman moderne n’en parlent guère. Ils représentent pourtant une catégorie d’auteurs qui n’est pas nouvelle dans la tradition littéraire anglaise, une forme particulière de fantastique ou plutôt de fantasy, terme dont le français n’offre aucun équivalent satisfaisant. (RRGB)

I shall not make comments on the association proposed by Jean Ruer in Le Roman en Grande-Bretagne depuis 1945 between Tolkien’s complete mythology and the gothic world of Mervyn Peake‘s novels : a Tolkien fan must prudently avoid any possible offence to a virtual Peake lover. It is nevertheless true that the label “fantasy-writer” is vague enough for a critic to group the two writers under it.

In our century the means of narration have become diversified : a story-teller has the possibility of practicing his vocation in the cinema, literature, TV-serials, theater, cartoons, comics or elsewhere. Inside literature itself, there is a great profusion of modes of writing (one has to compare Beckett’s experimental plays or novels with the more traditional ones of Isherwood or Waugh). If we further focus on fiction, we realize that the general diversification also caused a multiplication of subject-matters : from the psychological novel to space-opera writings, English (and American) literature offers a whole range of possibilities. There remains, however, a strong (academic) selection as to what is to be considered as “literature”, and fantasy-writing is not always given its due status. There are indeed many “low brow“ books depicting the adventures of glamorous astronauts encountering sexy venusian queens, precisely the kind of tales (not novels) that gave fantasy its bad reputation; although there are some writers who succeeded in giving some “works of literature” to the genre (Abraham Meritt and A.E. Van Vogt being two of these).

Since many fantasy-writers enjoy creating bizarre civilisations on remote planets or even post- or pre-civilisations on earth (be it in an invented past or “after the bomb”) Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth could as well be put on the same book shelf as Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. But there is more to Tolkien than mere remoteness of setting. There must be more to Tolkien since over ten millions of The Lord of the Rings had been sold when the author died, since the work was translated in at least twenty different languages, since a kind of hectic ‘Tolkien-craze spread over the USA and crossed the ocean to settle in Great Britain : calendars, maps of Middle-Earth, postcards, pictures of the various characters of the tale, have been sold all over the world. In the United Kingdom as in the States, there are “Tolkien Societies”, the members of which eat mushrooms sitting on dead trunks and telling stories of the Three
Ages. Tolkien, however, was not so pleased with that frenzy, as he commented on the “campus cult” in a letter to a reader of his :

Being a cult figure in one’s lifetime I’m afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do not find that it tends to puff one up; in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense. (HCTB)

Ruer also mentions that (RRGB)

Consécration suprême : dès 1969 paraissait aux Etats-Unis une première parodie : Bored of the Rings.

Why were (and are) Tolkien’s “molly-coddled Hobbits” so attractive ? Why did the very hobbit-like professor become almost deified by the Hyppy culture ? Could it be for the mere sake of escapism ? It is indeed true that the Shire offers a tempting quietness and that the tribal world the author presents appears under similar forms in the work of other writers of his century. There seems to be a tendency to go back to social genesis in modern fiction from Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) to Golding : the latter for instance demystifies “le bon sauvage” in The Lord of the Flies and examines the social (dis)integration of a group of English young men left alone on an island; in The Inheritors he goes back to prehistory in order to explain his opinion on man. Similarly, utopias and anti-utopias also try to recreate “remote” worlds, where “remote” civilizations cruelly emphasize the shortcomings of our present society, by contrast or by caricature. But Tolkien is not a utopist and refuses any allegorical interpretation of his work. What is then the spell that Tolkien cast over the Anglo-Saxon world (cartesian France e.g. was far less enthusiastic about The Lord of the Rings) ?

The many possible approaches to Tolkien’s work (giving evidence of its artistic value) led me to make a choice : I had to study Tolkien and his work from a particular point-of-view and try to demonstrate why The Lord of the Rings is not a common fantasy-book.

The first impression of the reader when he enters pre-industrial Middle-Earth is that is “looks like” being medieval. There are indeed features in the tale which are medieval, and it is precisely my point in this study to compare genuinely medieval texts with Tolkien’s work in order to establish whether this “medieval look” is a mere varnish or is deeply rooted in the pre-renaissance tradition.

Moreover there is not one Middle Age, there are Middle Ages : Old English poetry and Middle English romances will serve as a base for my comparison; these two kinds of medieval literature are distinct in time, in form and in matter : I shall therefore try to conclude on which Middle Age inspired Tolkien for his creation. It is a piece of criticism that determined me to contrast these two literatures : Derek S. Brewer wrote The Lord of the Rings as a romance in which he tries to demonstrate why it shares enough common features with genuine romances for us to take the book shelf mentioned above and put it beside Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Degarre, King Horn, Havelock the Dane and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. I shall try to explain why I do not agree with Dr Brewer in the first chapter, the other chapters being devoted each to a theme of comparison that could illustrate my point : in what sense I consider that Brewer has been a little excessive when he concluded in favour of the romance-likeness of The Lord of the Rings.

I have been so far giving professor Tolkien intentions which he may never have had : did Tolkien write medieval tales on purpose ? Did he systematically apply Old- and Middle English patterns in order to create his stories ? Is The Lord of the Rings creation or re-creation ? Could we parallel the professor’s work with that of Chaucer, the anthologist of the Canterbury Tales ?

The fundamental question is in fact : If The Lord of the Rings is a “compilation” of medieval motives, was the distinguished Oxford medievalist aware of being a compiler or was he simply a “fictitious compiler” ?

One has to know that the mythology of Middle-Earth, according to the author himself, was created as a background to the professor’s own-created languages. Hence two possibilities : if professor Tolkien purposedly reproduced. medieval patterns, his books are technical achievements – this is, however, not my point here – or if the lecturer of the revolutionary Beowulf : the Monsters and the Critics sincerely created a story with elements he had in his mind (in this case medieval ones), his tale then should appear rather as a mere “digest” of medieval literature than as a romance or a heroic poem. In both cases, the success they encountered bears witness to the relevance of these medieval motives : medieval man was as human as we are and not yet divorced from the fundamental values in life. It is therefore normal that his problems should be similar to ours, and that his reactions as presented in his literature should be as useful to our modern selves as any modern writing concerned with human problematics.

Shame on the Renaissance and its inheritors for having confined medieval literature to the then pejorative status of child-literature. The Dark Ages were simply human.


Plus de Tolkien…

THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984)

TOLKIEN J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings (Londres, Allen & Unwin, 1969) [ISBN 0048230871]

THONART P., Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) est un mémoire de fin d’études présenté en Philologie germanique à l’Université de Liège, Faculté de Philosophie & Lettres, en 1984. L’exemplaire conservé par les bibliothèques universitaires n’étant plus consultable (détruit lors d’inondations), on trouvera dans l’intégralité du texte. On notera que le Professeur John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Oxford) était Docteur Honoris Causa de l’Université de Liège (1954) et qu’il collabora pendant plusieurs années avec Simonne D’Ardenne qui y était professeur, pour l’édition et la traduction de textes médiévaux.

D’autres informations sur la biographie de l’auteur du Seigneur des Anneaux (porté au cinéma par Peter Jackson), du Hobbit et d’une multitude d’autres histoires de la Terre du Milieu sont disponibles dans la très complète biographie rédigée par Humphrey Carpenter (Paris, Christian Bourgois, 2002).

On trouvera ci-dessous les remerciements ainsi qu’une table des matières du texte intégral (en anglais), qui permet de naviguer dans tout l’ouvrage.

Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler

But all fields of study and enquiry, all great Schools, demand human sacrifice. For their primary object is not culture, and their academic uses are not limited to education. Their roots are in the desire for knowledge, and their life is maintained by those who pursue some love of curiosity for its own sake, without reference even to personal improvement. If this individual love and curiosity fails, their tradition becomes sclerotic.

There is no need, therefore, to despise, no need even to feel pity for months or years of life sacrificed in some minimal inquiry: say, the study of some uninspired medieval text and its fumbling dialect; or some miserable “modern” poetaster and his life (nasty, dreary, and fortunately short) – NOT IF the sacrifice is voluntary, and IF it is inspired by a genuine curiosity, spontaneous or personally felt.
But that being granted, one must feel grave disquiet, when the legitimate inspiration is not there; when the subject or topic of “research” is imposed, or is “found” for a candidate out of some one else’s bag of curiosities, or is thought by a committee to be a sufficient exercise for a degree. Whatever may have been found useful in other spheres, there is a distinction between accepting the willing labour of many humble persons in building an English house and the erection of a pyramid with the sweat of degree-slaves.

TOLKIEN J.R.R., Valedictory Adress
to the University of Oxford

The latter has not proved true in this case and I am therefore grateful to Prof. P. Mertens-Fonck for the wise advice she gave in my small contribution to the English pyramid. I know now that patient Merlin was perhaps a woman.

Patrick Thonart

Contents [contenus en cours de digitalisation]

Plus de Tolkien…

John Howe : Tolkien a su faire basculer les mythes antiques dans le monde moderne

(c) John HOWE

“Directeur artistique culte de la trilogie du “Seigneur des anneaux”, le Canadien expose actuellement ses dessins à Paris. Rencontre avec le dessinateur passionné d’heroic fantasy. C’est vrai qu’il ressemble un peu à Saroumane, John Howe. Regard pénétrant, visage émacié, barbe poivre et sel, le dessinateur canadien de 59 ans est de passage à Paris pour y présenter sa nouvelle exposition. Installé en Suisse depuis des lustres, Howe se passionne depuis l’adolescence pour l’heroic fantasy. Mondes perdus, dragons et créatures légendaires, sagas épiques, hommes en armure, combats homériques… depuis plus de quarante ans, l’homme explore sans relâche les grands classiques du genre et, au delà, les textes fondateurs qui les ont inspirés.

Formé à l’Ecole des Arts décoratifs de Strasbourg (où il a passé des centaines d’heures à contempler et arpenter l’extraordinaire cathédrale), Howe est devenu au fil du temps et de sa passion, l’un des deux grands spécialistes mondiaux de l’œuvre JRR Tolkien. L’autre étant son ami, Alan Lee. Repérés et recrutés comme « concept artists » par Peter Jackson, tous deux ont participé — au plus près — à l’aventure du Seigneur des Anneaux, puis de Bilbo, le Hobbit, en imaginant aussi bien les décors et l’architecture des cités que l’aspect des personnages. Sans retirer quoi que ce soit au talent du réalisateur et de son équipe, on peut affirmer que le tandem de dessinateurs n’est pas pour rien dans le succès remporté par les films.

Explorateur de l’imaginaire, sans cesse à la recherche d’archétypes, Howe consacre son exposition parisienne à de nouveaux rivages où d’impressionnants hommes corbeaux côtoient d’énigmatiques divinités égyptiennes. Disert, lettré et pince sans rire, le natif de Vancouver s’exprime dans un français châtié. Attention , un rêve peut en cacher un autre…”

Lire la suite de l’article de Stéphane JARNO sur TELERAMA.FR (13 mai 2017)

Plus de cinéma…

The TOLKIEN Society

The Tolkien Society is an educational charity, literary society, and international fan club, devoted to promoting the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Registering in England (charity no. 273809), the Society was founded in 1969 and received the blessing of Tolkien himself when he agreed to become the Society’s president; he remains the Society’s president to this day whilst his daughter, Priscilla, serves as our Vice-President. Although based in the U. K., the Society has hundreds of members in dozens of countries around the world who hold local events in their areas and who all receive the Society’s journals Amon Hen and Mallorn. What binds all members together is a shared passion for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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