Tolkien: The Great and the Epic

Although I quite enjoyed this blogger’s reading of Tolkien, I was somewhat unhappy with his assumption that an epic character is necessarily a good character. He calls them great, and great Aragorn most certainly is – but not in the real, true nature of it. Aragorn is brave and wise, but he doesn’t act like humans do. He is great, but unattainable – an embodiment of distant idealism upon whom courage and honour are royally lavished. However, when painted like this we see that his flaws are defined by this very perfection: he reminds us that a character cannot be both epic and complex.  The Lord of Rings is a fairytale; it’s a story about how good defeats evil. But it’s no exploration of how circumstances transform people, how very normal antiheroes stumble through events before whom they are barely passive witnesses.

This much is obvious, and which we have to blame for that irritating strain of literary snobbishness that follows Tolkien like a gang of children, lobbing their petty jibes with a little too much self-satisfaction:

Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford who drew inspiration for his works from medieval literature, was nominated in 1961 by his close friend CS Lewis, another medieval expert who dabbled in fantasy literature. But according to Nobel Prize documents released after 50 years, one of the jury members, Anders Osterling, said that the work “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”.

Our Beowulf academic would never have deserved the Nobel Prize, because his easy dismissal of political or cultural allegory removed urgency from his writing. Middle-Earth became a modern classic before it was able to have any serious impact on Tolkien’s contemporaries; the close attention to language – English and Elvish – and tidy parallels to Beowulf give it a somewhat timeless air. But so was Shakespeare, and even Dickens or Lessing; their importance was for both literature and meanings, exploring situations through characters and defining them alongside one another.

But complexity evades simplicity, and with it our simple thoughts and emotions. After all, Tolkien’s impact was, I dare say, binary. On the one hand, he did give profound thought to the science of writing, to linguistics and subsequent questions on the role of academia in wider literary circles. However, his fans were less receptive of this; most read in him a sort of romantic idealism, something that taps into our nostalgia and emotions and lifts us a little higher. We see in his books polar wars between barbarism and civilisation; although he counted volumes of detail in his lore – take The Silmarillion – they never leave this basic premise. This, I think, is what makes Tolkien’s characters epic rather than great.

Take our bloggers’ tips. He talks about characters driven by their past, their loves; characters willing to sacrifice; characters whose mystery obscures our understanding of them and their purpose for the story’s “meaning”. These would all apply to Aragorn: his love for Arwen, his bold temper and self-abandon, his altogether alien appearance to post-industrial Britain. But I’m not convinced, as our blogger seems to be, that he does have a meaning. Tolkien’s Catholicism is not hidden especially well from his narratives; and it fits in nicely with his Beowulf writings. Both are marked by their  indulgence of iconography and great men, you might think easy substitutes for an epic tale of good triumphant before dark monsters.

I’ll finish with some of that post-revisionist bathos that I hate so much: Tolkien was an important writer because he describes, if nothing else, a perfect replica of that world we all wish we knew. It would one with a dearth of complexities rather than conspiracy or hardship; Middle-Earth is loved because there is optimism, that child-like love for the defeat of evil that we never grow out of. He might never count for the same insights into our own world as some of the other timeless classics like Hamlet, or indeed timely-entrenched classics like Orwell, but the blazing horns of the Rohirrim remind us of emotions that we never want to forget.

Don’t believe me? My favourite chapter from The Lord of the Rings:

Then suddenly Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change. Wind was in his face! Light was glimmering. Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.

But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City. For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle: and then as the darkness closed again there came rolling over the fields a great boom.

At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect. Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!

Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!

spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.

Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. eomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first eored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Theoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new tire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

(From The Return of the King, Chapter Five: The Ride of the Rohirrim)


5 Comments on “Tolkien: The Great and the Epic”

  1. This Tolkiendil likes this… Elenn sila lúmenn’omentielmo!…. or smthg as that 😀

  2. CalebAnderson says:

    That passage from The Return of the King is one of my favorites in any of Tolkien’s writings, along with the short three word sentence in The Silmarillion, just before the battle between Morgoth and FIngolfin: “And Morgoth came.”
    Moving on, I agree, characters can not be both epic and complex, but people attack Tolkien constantly for his characters not being complex enough, not having enough flaws, enough internal struggles. The fantasy author G.R.R. Martin’s books have been reviewed as The Lord of the Rings for an adult audience, this is nonsense. The reason that this is said is because they are extremely cynical and pessimistic, while The Lord of the Rings is not.


    • Mark says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment – I certainly agree with that. Epic characters are less popular these days because novelists are too afraid to include them, when in reason they can be great contributions. Some of the best stories are simple ones!

  3. […] PS: I would like to acknowledge the influence of the post Tolkien: The Great and the Epic. Here’s a link: […]

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