The World of Tolkien
A Critical Book Review
by Ewoud Pas aka Menelvagor-(Valar)
translated from Dutch by the author
Written for class: KLS Map, NHL Talen - Engels Cohort
I have chosen a subject which has had a big impact on me: the world of Tolkien. To place my choice of subject in modern society, I chose for two sub-subjects within the world of Tolkien which have some (if not a significant) impact on the world. These are: “What kind of influence has Tolkien exerted on modern Fantasy?” and “How do the main themes in Lord of the Rings relate to daily life?”.
To answer these questions, I dug into my own great knowledge of Tolkien’s works, but also consulted the vast knowledge of the Tolkien Guild I belong to. The most important of the people helping me are Eonwe-Valar and Varda-Valar. (Each member of our guild chooses and bears a unique name taken from Tolkien’s world.)
It is important to know that these questions on more than one point will converge and answer each other. Lord of the Rings is so intricately woven together that almost all subjects within touche another. Tolkien wrote his books in such a way that if one started a discussion from a random subject, one can get off track to many different subjects, come back to the starting one and never even notice. As is the case with most subjects in these literary works of art, there will always be a different point of view, new information and insights to be gathered, no matter how often a subject is taken up for discussion.
What is Tolkien’s influence on modern Fantasy?
First of all, I asked myself what this tale has for impact on modern society. The answer for that is quickly found: it is hard to imagine to have a world without games. A large majority of people would have heard of games like Magic, Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft? In literature also does Tolkien have a major reach. Series like Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, and Dragonlance have roots deep within Lord of the Rings. But chief amongst newcomers is without doubt Harry Potter, holding the world in its grip as Lord of the Rings did half a century ago, and in fact still does. But also on TV fantasy is hardly to be pushed aside. It is not as strongly represented there as it is with the other two media outlets, yet influences can be noticed for the eye that watches out for it. Science Fiction is an example of this. Skeptics would say that Science Fiction is not Fantasy, however, fiction is simply another word for fantasy. The difference between them lies solely with the fact that Science Fiction looks towards the (possible) future and Fantasy looks back on the past (and as such not possible for history says different than Fantasy).
As I explained in the research question, I first checked if the question matched with the meaning of the assignment, with a positive answer.
The research on the question itself did not cost me much time, as I could draw from the immense knowledge of the Valar Guild, the online Tolkien guild of which I may proudly call myself a member. The reason why I did not research outside the Guild is because the wealth of knowledge found there leaves little question of its veracity. Furthermore, as true fans, the Guild could give me a better view on the matter than any literary paper could have brought.
The answer is simple as well as complicated.
The simple answer is: everything. Tolkien is not for no reason named “the Father of Fantasy”.
The complicated answer requires a more insightful look on the question and the implications connected thereto, and will be supported by comparisons to other works.
To start, it is probably wise to note that Tolkien did not have the intention to write “Fantasy”. He thought Britain was lacking in mythologies and decided therefore to create one of his own. Tolkien was very knowledgable in old myths and taught his students regularly in those ancient myths. His personal favorite was Beowulf and he has drawn heavily upon that myth to create Lord of the Rings. With this, unintentionally, Tolkien created the transition from myth to Fantasy. It is for that reason he is called “the Father of Fantasy”.
Where literature in the past is often known for one or at most two main character who did battle with difficulties, Tolkien brought an old but very powerful concept back to life: fellowship. In The Hobbit, Tolkien started right off with a group of Dwarves and a Hobbit going out on an adventure. In the Lord of the Rings, this concept is much more strongly present when a group of different races (Hobbits, Humans, Dwarves and Elves) trek out together to halt the evil in the world (Sauron). The phenomenon called fellowship is to be found everywhere in the world, but is also acknowledged by science itself: “the whole is larger than the the sum of its parts.
What Tolkien started, others picked up fast. “Where danger is greatest, together we can survive”. J.K. Rowling also follows this concept with Harry Potter. It is not only Harry on his own facing the danger set before him, but he does so with the invaluable help of Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Because of their cooperation, they are able to overcome any obstacle that they find barring their path.
In the game Dungeons and Dragons a number of players team up to face upcoming struggles together. Every player has his own character with its own special qualities. Where one character is weak, another can fill in. A fighter is for hitting fast and hard, but also to take a lot of blows, a priest to heal the party’s wounds, but is lacking in armor, and versatility. A ranger with great knowledge of the wild can easily track the party’s prey, and is strong at long distances, but lacks in close combat power. A thief can easily hide away when he does not want to be seen and can scout or sneak up on enemies unseen, strong in close combat, but cannot take a lot of hits. There are numerous other possible characters, each with the potential to step up where others are lacking and each and everyone together contributes to victory.
Tolkien created a completely new world, including new inhabitants like the cunning Balrogs, murderous Orcs, beautiful Elves, dull-witted Trolls and not to forget the majestic but fearsome Dragons.
In many games and books these can be found again. Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic, Warcraft, and Dragonlance are but a few of many examples.
But not only are these races present in many books, many authors were also inspired to create their own races, like the Trollocs and Myrddraal from Wheel of Time, or the Romulans and Klingons from Star Trek, not even to mention the multitude of different races in Star Wars.
Tolkien described all his characters into the smallest possible detail. Even the characters without big parts in the story were outlined in such a way that they were given faces and so became a part of the story, and not just cannonfodder but because there was need.
In games such as World of Warcraft, this detail in character can also be found. Here the NPCs (Non Player Characters) all get their own histories, dreams and fears. Of course, games in which the centerpoint is the player himself cannot by far touch the depth Tolkien managed. However, despite this fact, game developers try to get as much depth into their games as possible.
In literature and television, this is also noticable in works like Wheel of Time, Star Wars and once again, Harry Potter. In these works there is also great detail in “sideline” characters. They are given as much depth as the intended audience can possibly allow. A prime example of this is Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter. He is a minor character in the books, yet his character is as detailed as a main character.
As I have said many times before, Tolkien could write a page and a half about a daisy in a meadow without becoming boring. The eye for detail Tolkien had is retracable in all his works. The detail in the world around his characters made them become much more realistic. No longer was it the case that the story followed a road with a couple of trees alongside it or a single street within a village, where you saw only the street where the character(s) were, with sparse extras for environment. The environment got broader, there was more to the horizon than the eye let on. A house was no longer a house, but had its own style, color, wear, etc. A sunset became one with golden rays, playing with shadows across the many things that dotted the landscape. I can continue for hours with such examples, but in the end it will get boring, so I won’t *grin*.
Undoubtedly, this also had its influence on films of all genres. Films do not center themselves around a single person or group, but give a larger image of the setting and general story, thereby making the entirety more attractive. In the Charmed series, for example, the locations change continuously (with exception of their home), at which they constantly do battle with demons from the underworld. Of course, on set, these locations are largely the same, but they have been adapted in such a way that they seem to be entirely different.
The will of the reader these days dictates a good measure of detail has to be present in stories. A story in which a clear image cannot be formed is quickly brushed aside. Books grow larger by the year and to the great surprise of many (not to Tolkien fans of course, they know what large means) people enjoy reading them. Where only a few years ago, a great number of children abhorred large books, this was obliterated with the coming of Harry Potter. These books can count up to eight-hundred pages a book, and people no longer mind to be camped with their noses in a book for hours.
The combination of both detailed and gripping writing has become of such major importance that even children have started to enjoy it. The sole reason Tolkien did not succeed in interesting all children, and even many adults for that matter, is that his writing style is quite hard. Despite that, he managed to amass a great number of fans from all layers of society. In that respect, Rowling has learned from this and made her style more accessable for everyone and made it readable for people with short and long breath, without losing touch of Tolkien’s eye for detail.
Tolkien’s love for languages pushed him into expanding his world with complete, new languages for the different races that inhabited this world.
In Star Wars, this can be recognized in the languages of, for example, Wookiees, Jawas Twi-Leks and many, many more. In Star Trek, this is even more evident, where even a complete Klingon dictionary was published, including curses: P’Tagh! (I am not going to translate this, because this is reckoned to be the worse Klingon curse J).
This can be found in games as well. Dungeon Siege 2 makes use of the already existing Sindarin (Elvish) and in Warcraft the also existing language of the Orcs, but adds to it and enhances it: Zug Zug! Dabu! Cleetok!
Although in literature English is mostly the standard language, this is to be found as well. The reason why not always new languages are invented, or existing languages added to, is that this demands a great knowledge in grammar, but also a huge amount of time. Tolkien himself spent many years to create Quenya and Sindarin.
With Lord of the Rings, Tolkien “re-invented” the term seriousity. With serious conversations Tolkien brought a sense of having a goal to his story. People felt compassion for the fellowship and read on to “participate” in the story, to bring it to a good end.
In Star Wars: Return of the Sith, where action and humor are rotated in such a high pace, this element is not being fulfilled to its fullest capabilities and gives a sense of entertainment more than a sense of having a goal. However, there are many films, games and books where this element has a big priority. In Armageddon (film) for example, there is a large amount of time dedicated to bring about a connection to reality. People are perched on the edges of their seats hoping the heroes can avert the impending danger.
Serious conversations are needed to complete an objective. People should be able to stand still for a moment, to contemplate on the logical continuation of their course to succeed. Of course, sometimes the right action can be one of emotion and instinct rather than logical reasoning (Vulcans in Star Trek), but most decisions are made rationally.
That this has such a big role in modern day “entertainment” can be accounted to the fact that people need a link with reality to unify themselves to a story. This will enhance the enjoyment people derive from following such a story.
What is the connection between the themes in LotR in modern society?
The obvious reason for this subject is the connection to Real Life. The other reason, perhaps not so obvious, but just as important, is that these themes are timeless. Lord of the Rings was first published in 1953, over half a century ago, and still it manages to relate to Real Life.
As with the previous subject, I sought the council of my friends at the Valar Guild. I see no reason to repeat the same I said before.
The simple answer is found in the definition of themes.
Themes come out of life and relate to it.
The difficult answer will pick out a few of the major themes in Lord of the Rings and explains the connection to reality, completed with examples from Lord of the Rings and Real Life.
Hope is defined by many different things. Hope to succeed a difficult test, hope to get the new job one applied for, hope that life goes well, but also hope for others, in all aforementioned aspects.
In LotR, hope is one of the main themes. In the words of Gandalf: “A fool’s hope is better than no hope at all, for one without hope is already defeated”.
Aragorn is one of the chief figureheads of hope. He is named Estel by Elrond when he comes to his house, which means hope. He is the hope of Gondor, for the future and the present, as their rightful king. He himself hopes he is up to the task of taking the kingship of Gondor. He also hopes that the Fellowship fares well and succeeds in its task of destroying the One Ring.
Frodo is another example. As the Ringbearer, all hope is concentrated on him. The hope of all the free peoples of Middle-earth rest on his shoulders, for should he fail, the world would be shrouded in a second darkness, of which there might not be an end. Frodo hopes, for both himself and Sam, that they both can return home safely and be in stories he can tell his grandchildren.
Eowyn hopes she can save Rohan, and that Rohan can be saved.
Gandalf hopes he can one day return to the land of his home (Valinor, land of the Valar). His hope is also to be able to aid the Free Peoples of Middle-earth to finally bring about the downfall of Sauron.
Boromir hopes he can transcend his heirship of Steward of Gondor and become King himself, but later on, he hopes Aragorn will be able to ascend the throne and bring victory to Gondor.
There are many more examples to be read, as this may even be the most important theme of all.
To move back to reality, hope can be a powerful tool, but also a necessity for survival. As one of my friends pointed out, hope can be a subconscious thing. Hope for mankind as a whole for example. Someone going out of their way to help out a stranded guy, someone who picks up stray garbage and puts it in the bin at the park, those are things we all kind of hope for, it lets us know that not the entirety of mankind is a fallen race.
Another example is hope as a drive. One hopes to help innocent people from going to jail, so goes to study law. Another person sees a terrible thing happening in society and is determined to change it, and therefore tries to run for Parliament, in the hope of being able to change it.
Friendship, no more, no less. Friendship is one of the things that make this world go round. “A man without friends is no man.” As with hope, friends can inspire you to great deeds, not only because of the faith they have in you, but also because of them cheering you on, but more importantly, because you know you are not alone in your venture, your friends are there to back you up. You can only perk yourself up so far. Friends push you beyond the boundaries of what you can do unaided, you simply do not want to let them down, you want to protect them against harm. As explained in “What is Tolkien’s influence on modern Fantasy: Fellowship”, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
In LotR, comraderie is an ever-developing theme. At the end of LotR, Legolas’ desire is to sail over the seas to Valinor, but his friendship to Aragorn makes him stay. Also, Legolas and Gimli have quite a bit of trouble at the start, due to the differences between their races. With some outside influence by Galadriel, Gimli is able to see through those differences and a friendship blooms before long. The friendship between Gimli and Legolas grows to such an extent that it lasts beyond death.
The friendship that exists between Frodo and Sam is so great that they are able to push on where neither alone would have been able to.
When Frodo needs to leave the Shire, in order to bring the Ring to Rivendell, his friends are there to watch over him, and when he displays odd characteristics that reveal his intentions to leave the Shire, they conspire to help him however they could in his quest. When Frodo takes it upon himself to take the Ring to Mount Doom to be destroyed, they refuse to go home, and instead go into untold danger with him. Had they not been friends, they would likely have not gone to such extent, but rather gone home and continued with their lives. However, because of their friendship, they felt they ought to accompany him, to protect him in any way they could.
In reality, making friends is not always an easy process. Two people opposite from each other at the start may find each other close friends over time. Having a certain amount of equal reference is quite important, because that enables them to look past their differences and find points to respect in each other. But time and reference can also lead to division. With friends, the ability to even respect those things they do not agree with is one of the utmost important aspects. The ability to do this with friends also is a good incentive to see past racial and cultural prejudices.
Unfortunately, there are still many people blind to such notions, and they mistake their blind zeal, which is outdated and quite untrue, for friendship. But truth is, that if anyone of those people would have a change of heart, they would rather kill that person than acknowledge and respect it.
Fortunately, there are still many people around who see the value of friendship and respect each other’s differences.
There are many types of love. In these days, love is usually associated with physical or romantic love. But there is also family love, love between friends that does not transcend beyond the spiritual, love of things or nature, or the love for something someone believes in with all his soul. Love is not merely a matter of physical attraction, but more so of spiritual attraction, as there are many forms of love, the greater part is made up of spiritual. Even physical and romantic love cannot come to pass without spiritual love.
In LotR, Tolkien emphasizes mostly on spiritual love, as can be seen by Sam’s love for Frodo, come about by their long-lasting friendship. Sam’s love for Frodo is well beyond mere friendship, so much that he is willing to give his life for Frodo, as can be seen when Sam and Frodo climb Mount Doom. Frodo is at the end of his strength, yet Sam cannot carry the Ring for Frodo at the end of their journey. Therefore, instead, he carries Frodo up the steep slope. “I may not be able to carry the Ring, Mister Frodo, but I can carry you, and so I will! – Sam, Return of the King”.
Aside from Sam’s love for Frodo, there is another reason why Sam means Frodo’s quest to be completed. He loves nature above everything (except for Frodo, of course) and he knows that if they fail, the world would be nothing but smoldering ruins.
Boromir as well, acts out of the love he bears for Gondor. He sees his country near defeat and imminent destruction, so he journeys to find help to avert impending doom. His sometimes misguided actions stem from his desire to save Gondor. This can be seen at Rauros when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo. But as he sees Frodo slip away, he sees the error of his way and because of his love of life and the love he bears for Aragorn, his king, he tries to make amends for that terrible mistake. This in turn gives him strength far beyond that of mortal men, for even riddled with arrows, he stays upright and swings his sword to defend Merry and Pippin, to his last breath.
But there are also signs of physical and romantic love within Lord of the Rings. Rosie Cotton and Sam, Arwen and Aragorn, and Faramir and Eowyn. The love these people share are maybe the greatest incentive that inspire them to rise above themselves and do what is necessary to defend their lands.
I, personally, would say that love is the greatest power that exists in this world. Steadfast love can conquer prejudice and hate. In truth, love is just a step beyond friendship. Love cannot exist without friendship. People can fall in love without becoming friends first, but when they do not become friends, their love is bound to wither and die.
Tolkien himself does not describe the acts of physical love, most likely because he felt such is a private thing. People can show to the world they love each other through acts of affection, but the true extent of physical love is something shared only between lovers. The same goes for reality. If only just for the sake of decency.
Maybe perspective is not a theme in itself, but it is a very important item amongst any other theme. What defines good and evil? How are differences created? What is the cause of every single war in the world? Indeed, a different way of looking on things, thus perspective.
Perspective is the way we see things, from our own experiences and beliefs as we feel they should be seen. In that respect, it makes us who we are, both individuals and part of a greater whole. Human instinct says we must band together in order to survive, yet our reason tells us we are not simply a link in the chain, but we have to define ourselves so we can set ourselves apart from everyone else. As noble as this purpose is, it is also something that people have to be careful about. If people get too stuck in their own beliefs and refuse to see the merits of someone else’s perspective, or at least respect the difference in them, it is bound to create strife. Others may be drawn into the strife, even if the person at which the animosity was first aimed is of himself a peaceful person. It is a human defense mechanism not to let someone march over their beliefs. Some people would simply ignore such animosity, while others have to fight in order to retain their individuality. It is commendable to those who simply can let such things slide, the good right of people who defend themselves and outright stupidity for those who take it too far.
In LotR, perspective, as it is part of everything, also plays a major role.
Frodo, for example, does not want to take anyone with him into danger, for he has grown too fond of them. However, when Sam, without regard to his own life jumps after Frodo at Rauros, Frodo has a change of mind (derived from an alternative perspective) and sees that two is better than one, and Sam would be the best companion he could wish for.
As also explained in “Comraderie”, Gimli finds a new perspective on Elves after meeting Galadriel. At first, he thought Elves were foolish, stuck-up, secretive and quick to anger. But in seeing Galadriel, he sees a different part of the Elves, one of nobility, beauty, grace and generosity. It struck him in such a way that his way of looking at the Elves was forever changed, also making him almost revere Galadriel like a goddess. It was, among many things, that started the close friendship between Gimli and Legolas.
Boromir (also in “Love”) displays a different part of perspective, one of self-perspective. He views himself as the future king of Gondor and he thinks with the help of the One Ring, that he can become so, at the same time defeating Sauron and securing Gondor from evil forever. However, when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, Frodo looks upon him with such horror that he realizes that he has become a beast. He knows that is not what he is, thus he changes his actions thereafter. He finally recognizes Aragorn as his true King, where before he thought little more of him than a Ranger from the North.
The Ents, with Treebeard as their “chief”, mostly have a view of neutrality. They know their forests are being cut down by Saruman, yet they do not think it is their place to mingle in the wars of Men. However, when Merry and Pippin come to Treebeard, they talk to him concerning that whether or not they stay out of the war, the war will eventually come to the Ents, and if they stand alone, they will perish. Treebeard takes this advice to heart and calls for the Entmoot (council of Ents). Perhaps the last nudge the Ents and Treebeard were given came from among themselves: Quickbeam had quickly made up his mind (in opposition to the slow thinking that is Entishness) and favored bringing Saruman to a halt. Thus Treebeard’s perspective of the world was altered by the opinions of others and their strong belief in those.
The examples provided in this map from Lord of the Rings are solely based on the books, not the movies. As a true fan, I’ve seen the movies, and mostly enjoyed them after noticing all the changes made, but my true heart lies with the books, where Tolkien’s visions are strongest.
I believe that Tolkien not only made a difference in literature, games and movies, but also in daily life. His beliefs are so strongly present in the books, and have such a natural feel to them that I simply can’t ignore them and at least partly have to incorporate them into my own system of values. That is why I have chosen Tolkien as role-model for both my subjects.
I am not entirely certain how much time I actually spent on making this map, but an estimate would be around twelve to fourteen hours. Approximately four hours were spent on gathering the enormous amount of information (of course, the numerous times I have read Tolkien’s books, reading of other books, playing of games and watching TV, of which I have used examples, is not included in this estimate, or I would likely be ending up with an estimate of about a year non-stop) and eight to ten hours of compiling all information into this map. Another two hours I spent on translating the first subject, after mistakenly having written it in Dutch.
I hope this has been an educational and pleasant read.
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