AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

Classical Epic in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien

by Hannah Parry

Institution: Victoria University of Wellington
Year: 2012
Keywords: Tolkien; Epic; Lord of the Rings
Record ID: 1309137
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10063/2388


The Lord of the Rings has often been described as an 'epic', and although Tolkien drew most famously on Northern mythology in his creation of Middle-earth much of his work also bears similarities to classical epic, both with regard to particular characters and archetypes and to more general themes and motifs. This thesis examines the connections between The Lord of the Rings and the epics of Homer and Virgil, investigating the manner in which these allusions function in Tolkien and how they contribute to our understanding of Middleearth as at least partially an epic world with epic ideals of heroism. At the same time, however, it identifies the ways in which Tolkien changes or subverts such classical ideals and archetypes as they combine with other cultural influences. Following the model established in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings begins with the folk-tale heroes and setting of the Shire before gradually moving into an epic world. Not only heroes such as Aragorn, but less obviously epic heroes such as Gandalf, Frodo and Sam, draw frequently on the iconography and motifs associated with specific and general classical figures, while women such as Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel can similarly be read as part of classical tradition. Moreover, despite the purely fictional nature of Middle-earth in contrast to the historical (if mythologised) cultures of classical epic, The Lord of the Rings contains many examples of epic type-scenes that in classical epic illustrate the correct manner in which a hero should behave both in peace and in battle. The Lord of the Rings' relationship to epic is complex, however, not only employing these heroic and epic conventions but also subverting or superseding them as Tolkien engages with the problems of classical motifs within a very different universe. The heroes and heroines of The Lord of the Rings must navigate codes of behaviour both classical and non-classical, and willingly relinquish those out of place in the new age being born around them. This tension between old and new codes of behaviour is made more explicit during the book's twin 'returns', that of Aragorn to Minas Tirith and the hobbits to the Shire. Although these continue to draw extensively on classical predecessors, most notably Aeneas' prophesised arrival in Latium and Odysseus' famous homecoming, these predecessors are also superseded as Middle-earth moves into the Fourth Age. While The Hobbit moves from folk tale to epic and back again, The Lord of the Rings moves from folk-tale to epic to somewhere “beyond the epic” (Flieger 145), and as the book draws to its elegiac conclusion pure classical values become increasingly supplanted by the book’s own heroic code, influenced by many heroic traditions and overwhelmingly by Tolkien's Catholic beliefs. In the end, The Lord of the Rings can perhaps be read as an epic about the passing of epic, and thus an epic for the modern world.