Modern and Medieval aspects of Tolkien’s literature
I had the pleasure of attending the Tolkien Lecture at the University of South Carolina on Thursday evening. It was a very interesting, and delightful, experience to listen to the U.S.A.’s leading authority on Tolkien discuss the Modern and Medieval aspects of Tolkein’s literature.
After introductions were given, Dr. Micheal Drout walked into the lecture hall reciting the first twenty lines of “Beowulf” in old Anglo-Saxon, just the same way that Tolkien began all of his lectures. Five minutes into the lecture gave all the impression that he was an amiable, and likable man. And he spoke to all as though he was not above them, more on their level (even though we all knew that this man was a genius!).
I took notes on all he said about Tolkien’s literature and Medievel literature so here is an overview of the presentation.
– All of the names of people and places of Tolkien’s world were initially derived from the old Anglo-Saxon tongue, but as Tolkien revised, only the Rohirrim kept the names. For example, all the kings of Rohan’s names mean “King” in Anglo-Saxon (Fengel, Thengel, Theoden, Eomer, etc.). But as you journey farther back to the first King of the Mark, their names begin to be derived from Gothic. This symbolized the fact that, although it has never been proven, Tolkien believed that the Angles and the Saxons were originally derived from the Goths. There were many more instances like this in the book, because Tolkien’s historical ideas were so controversial that he was afraid to publish them in any academic document.
(More Anglo-Saxon words he used were Ent – giant, Eored – troop, and although nobody still knows what it means, Tolkien used the Arkenstone, from Beowulf, in the Hobbit).
– The complexity in Beowulf is in its people, not the situations, but in LotR, it is quite the opposite. None of the LotR characters are exactly what literary critics would call “well-rounded.”
– The one and only thing that Tolkien truly invented was the Hobbits, created so that normal people could relate to the book. Like Dr. Drout said, “I mean, how many people do you really know are like Aragorn. Seriously, who’s as superhuman as he is, whacking orc’s heads off and becoming king and everything while the hobbits stand by and are like, ‘Okay!'” The hobbits are meant to be the median for us. These creatures are not “slaughter happy”, and totally different from other creatures in medieval literature. Medieval writers would have looked at this and thought Tolkien was an idiot, and that is where his modernist attitude comes in: the hobbits are a simple people that have no desire to kill unless it becomes a requirement. Even in LotR, Frodo and Sam kill no- one.
– Three people (Denethor, Eomer, and the Witch-king) stem from Shakespeare’s King Lear. They all made choices that led them in different paths and thus creating whole new characters.
– The whole idea of good and evil is presented through the theme of sacrifice (embodied fully by Frodo and Sam). Here we depart from modernism, because, heroism is mainly left out of 20th century literature.
– As Dr. Drout tied up his lecture, he concluded with the statement that “Tolkien presents ways of looking at problems, but never actually gives the answers except through the actions of the characters in the books.”
Question and Answer session:
“Obviously, C.S. Lewis wrote all of his stories and books as complete allegories, and many people make the mistake in believing that the LotR an allegory. But why is it not considered one?”
Dr. Drout answered by saying that even though LotR was not created to be allegorical, the Christ image does come through. But in an allegory there can only be one Christ figure, whereas LotR has Christ’s attributes allotted into at least three different characters. Many people also make the mistake of saying things about how Bill Clinton or George Bush represents Sauron, but there is no truth to that. Tolkien just made the books so general so we could relate to them in our own way, not that they really represented any one thing.
Another comment was brought up about Tolkien’s distance towards women in the books, but Dr. Drout disagreed that women were distant. Although women were not brought up to the forefront of the story for most of the time, they were constantly the driving force for the book.
For instance, Arwen could only marry Aragorn if he succeeded in his journey to become King. She was the one that kept Aragorn on his path, as if ever he got the idea to turn around (not like he did), he would remember their love for each other and keep going.
Also, Tolkien’s personal experiences in WWI gave him a number of firm images of women. Elves stood for the perfect angels that the men thought of in the trenches, Eowyn resembled the brave nurses and other women who risked their lives to help, and Rosie Cotton can even be seen as a man’s simple, but wonderful, wife waiting back home for him.
The only bad woman in all of Tolkien’s writings is Shelob, but by doing this, Tolkien almost makes women look too good, because he gives all the evil attributes to an insect/spider, making it seem as though the attributes aren’t even womanlike.
Many people there were also interested in the movies as well. Dr. Drout actually, instead of criticizing the movies, said he liked them. He said “it is the best that Hollywood could do for The Lord of The Rings at this point in time.” But on a side note he said, “Sure, I am not someone who would watch the DVD at home about 9-10 times…But I would watch it about eight times!” So even he, a really scholarly kind of man, enjoyed the movies.
One last thing Dr. Drout said was that Tolkien had revised, revised, and revised. He wrote the first chapter of LotR almost 36 times! Also, the character of Aragorn began a hobbit named “Trotter” and had wooden feet because he lost them in past encounters with Sauron. I believe revision is a good thing!
If anyone ever hears that Michael Drout is giving another lecture on Tolkien, I highly advise them to see and hear what he has to say (although many were disappointed that he only spoke for an hour- I never knew I could learn so much in one hour!) The experience was very delightful and I would definitely do it again!