Lord Of The Rings And Mythology

Lord Of The Rings And Mythology

The Lord of the Rings has been regarded as one of the greatest stories of modern times. It is a story filled with original ideas and creates an entire world unto itself with a history of it’s own along with it’s many races. This creation of a new world and the storytelling involved in it holds many parallels and similarities to ancient and classical myths that people have been telling for thousands of years. The Lord of the Rings has been classified as a modern extension of the family of myths by many critics and has a following to support this claim.

The classification of The Lord of the Rings as a modern myth can be seen in several different ways. There are many characters in The Lord of the Rings, which have parallels with characters in classical mythology such as Tom Bombadil, Gandalf, Gollum and Frodo. Other examples of mythological concepts held in the novel are seen simply in the storyline, the quest in particular and the battle between good and evil.

The status of myth for The Lord of the Rings can also be seen in the deep history that Tolkien gave to Middle Earth and it’s people. There are extensive histories given through thousands of years of Middle Earth and is thoroughly recorded in Tolkien’s works such as The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The History of Middle Earth and The Book of Lost Tales. This element of storytelling is seen throughout almost all stories regarded as mythology, the story is given a deep background involving deities and the beginning of the Earth into the creation of man and in some of them has a deity interacting with the characters in the myth. This is true in Tolkien’s later work in The Silmarillion which is mostly a story somewhat similar to The Lord of the Rings except that The Silmarillion takes place much earlier in Middle Earth’s history and several allusions to it are made in The Lord of the Rings that could not be understood without doing proper historical research into Tolkien’s world which is vast to say the least. This makes the novel’s status as a myth different from other classical myths in that they took place in the known world at that time which included the Mediterranean theater of Greece and the Italian peninsula, Northern Scandinavian countries and Anglo-Saxon dominated areas. In Tolkien’s case he went ahead and made an entirely different world with entirely different geography and entirely different races of people and histories. This of course is used to be conducive to the “fairy story written for adults” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien pg. 232) quality that Tolkien wanted in The Lord of the Rings and his other works.

Some critics have seen Tolkien parallel what some would call “Christian mythology” in his writing with the creation of Arda and Middle Earth. Arda is the entire world of Tolkien, which includes Valinor, the Undying Lands, Numenor, which is Tolkien’s Atlantis and Middle Earth, which is the continent on which The Lord of the Rings takes place. Tolkien’s creation of Arda is not chronicled in The Lord of the Rings although it is mentioned several times throughout the book and in the Appendix. His creation myth was based on Iluvatar or “The One”, who is seen as the creator in Christian tradition although he is not as close to his people, creating the Ainur or “Holy Ones” to carry out His plan for Middle Earth. With the Ainur come a subgroup called the Valar who are the most powerful of the Ainur and each have a special authority over Middle Earth. Although this does not go along with Christian tradition Tolkien explains his hierarchy of spirits in one of his letters.

“It is, I should say, a ‘monotheistic but ‘sub-creational’ mythology.’ There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers. These take the place of the ‘gods’, but are created spirits….”(The Letters pg. 235)

Even though Tolkien clearly explains his “monotheistic but sub-creational mythology” some Christian critics argue that Tolkien’s spiritual hierarchy does indeed parallel the Biblical account. Even Tolkien, in spite of his denials, has compared parts of his myth with corresponding aspects of truth. But the obvious similarities tend to confuse rather than clarify Biblical truth (Kjos). Although this part of the creation of the World seems to somewhat parallel Christian tradition the creation of Elves, Men and Dwarves seem to not follow any real blueprint for their “awakening” (Tolkien 1101).

Tolkien has a basis in ancient mythology by using the myth of Atlantis as one of his major influences to be part of the story of The Lord of the Rings by creating a people in the story that had a fate similar to that of the Atlanteans. In The Lord of the Rings Numenor was the great power beyond Middle Earth that began the Kingdoms of Gondor, Arnor and the Northern Dunedain in Middle Earth after it’s destruction and whose line came down to Aragorn Elessar the rightful King of Gondor who claims the throne in The Lord of the Rings.

“Numenor is my personal alteration of the Atlantis myth and /or tradition, and accommodation of it to my general mythology. Of all the mythical or ‘archetypal’ images this is the one most deeply seated in my imagination, and for many years I had a recurrent Atlantis dream: the stupendous and ineluctable wave advancing from the Sea or over the land, sometimes dark, sometimes green and sunlit.” (The Letters pg. 361)

Although Tolkien’s inspiration may have been originally inspired through a dream it was based in the Greek myth of the lost continent of Atlantis that was destroyed at the height of it’s power and is now, according to myth, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean thus losing a great civilization and also drawing an irrefutable parallel with Tolkien’s Numenor.

Along with the setting of Tolkien’s Middle Earth came the characters he had in The Lord of the Rings, many of which had counterparts in classical mythology. Stories can be broken down as basically as possible by essentially having protagonists and antagonists but in many myths the characters go beyond that, as do Tolkien’s characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Some of Tolkien’s characters have been believed to have Christ-like qualities in their actions and the way that they are placed within the story. Some examples of Christ-like qualities can be seen in Frodo’s decision to being the Ringbearer in the Fellowship and how it is such a difficult burden to carry but he decides to take it anyway. Another example of Christ-like qualities would be Gandalf’s resurrection from the dead after his battle with Durin’s Bane. Although Tolkien claims that he despises all forms of allegory (Tolkien, Foreword to Lord of the Rings) it is still thought that he had chose to give his protagonists Christ-like qualities.

Characters on the other end of the spectrum such as Gollum have their counterpart in mythology with the Norse god Loki who was the god of mischief and trouble making. In almost every classical myth there is a figure in it that has the specified job of causing trouble. Gollum is seen throughout The Lord of the Rings causing trouble for Frodo and Sam throughout their journey in Mordor. Loki can be seen as a parallel to this because he is seen throughout Norse myth through the killing of the beloved Norse god Balder.

Other parallels between mythological characters can be seen between Gandalf and the hero of the Kalevala, Vainamoinen. Vainamoinen is the main character of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, and is an epic hero who uses his wise judgment and in some cases magic to defeat his enemy. Vainamoinen uses his power to exert order over chaos and through this establishes the land of Kaleva, which is current day Finland. Vainamoinen uses magic on many occasions to save his people from such threats as disease and uses his great knowledge to recover the moon and sun after they have been carried off and hidden in a mountain. This character can be seen as Gandalf’s counterpart because of their use of knowledge and magic and their eventual quest to save their people and land from an evil power. Although it is not quite a quest as The Lord of the Rings is the Kalevala holds many things in common with Tolkien’s mythology.

The most interesting character in Tolkien’s story that could possibly have many mythological counterparts is Tom Bombadil. With reading The Lord of the Rings the question of “Who or What is Tom Bombadil?” comes up and it has been a question that eludes many Tolkien scholars and there can never really be an exact answer to that question which was Tolkien’s original intention.

“And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)” – The Letters of JRR Tolkien, No. 144

There are many ideas of what Tom was, perhaps he was an elf, or one of the Valar or Iluvatar himself but all of these have their hypothesis refuted either by Tolkien’s letters or in his far spread mythology. We are not quote sure what Tom exactly is but some critics have created comparisons between the Greek god Bacchus and the Arthurian Kay who are jolly, meddlesome characters, which seem to reflect Tom’s sensibilities throughout his short time in the novel (Anonymous, The Riddle of Tom Bombadil). Is Tom Bombadil a “mischievous outsider”? He is certainly mischievous (or joyfully unconcerned with the world at large), and we’ve seen that he is definitely an “outsider”, in that he doesn’t fit easily with the rest of Tolkien’s mythology. A possible suggestion here is that these elements help to add an inherent sense of “myth” to the book, which would otherwise be far less evident.

Other mythological elements that can be seen as an influence to Tolkien’s work was the language of the Kalevala which was the catalyst for him to create his own language, Elvish. This quality alone puts Tolkien in a whole other world beyond regular mythology. By creating his own languages in the book Tolkien brings about a whole new world and gives the feeling of being in another world with a different race speaking an unknown language. This alone puts Tolkien in a whole new area of mythology and creates a world that is in no way tangible for the reader thus creating the element of fantasy.

Tolkien created The Lord of the Rings as a modern mythology and creating a whole new world that never existed but that he almost makes it seem like it has in some antique time that there are no records of. Ultimately, Tolkien was in the business of creating his own mythology to avoid comparison with other mythologies is to miss a rich seam of material in his work and to miss the point of the storytelling that he has brought to the reader. He makes a world come alive through his words and creates a world so rich in culture and history the reader almost wants to believe that Middle Earth exists and that hobbits still flourished in The Shire. He creates a myth that is beyond our world and intangible but with that creates a world so beautiful and ugly, so light and dark that it has become one of the great stories of modern times and gives the world a modern myth that it can be proud of.


Works Cited

1)Anonymous “The Riddle of Tom Bombadil” 11/14/98 http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/default.htm?http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/alphab.html 5/7/02

2)Hunt, JM “The Gods” N/A, http://www.desy.de/gna/interpedia/greek_myth/greek_myth.html 5/10/02

3)N/A “The Kalevala’s Contents” 10/16/99 http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/kaleva.html 5/2/02

4)Kjos, Berit “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Truth, Myth or Both?” N/A http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/rings.htm 5/21/02

5)Hamilton, Edith Mythology Warner Books, 1942

6)Tolkien, JRR The Lord of the Rings Houghton Mifflin, 1954