J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-Earth,
by George Clark, Daniel Timmons

Tolkien the Bard: His Tale Grew in the Telling
C. W. Sullivan III

"There is something about Tolkien's art which eludes the conventional strategies of contemporary criticism, even when these are deployed with sympathy and patience." This view from Brian Rosebury in Tolkien: A Critical Assessment (4) is insightful. The key words are, of course, "conventional" and "contemporary," for what Tolkien was doing, for all his contemporary popularity, was anything but writing a contemporary--or modern--novel. Given that he was not writing a modern novel, it is quite typical that conventional criticism can make little of Hobbit and LR other than reduce them to World War II allegories or mere escapist yearnings for a passing rural England (the sort of criticism continually aimed at The Wind in the Willows, among others). What was Tolkien doing, then? As a student of traditional narrative, I have returned to Tolkien's two most famous books from time to time and have begun an argument that I would like to continue here. 1 I believe that Tolkien committed a traditionally patterned oral narrative to paper, and that we can understand Hobbit and LR better if we look at them not through the lenses of modern critical methods but through lenses developed for the study of earlier works. 2

Clearly, Tolkien drew his inspiration from the older literatures of the north and west of Europe and from other writers, such as (and especially, perhaps) William Morris, who made fiction based on those ancient narratives. Many critics, myself among them, have commented on the traditional Märchen plot that structures both of Tolkien's novels. 3 Other primary evidence for traditionality includes the dwarf names taken from the Elder Edda, a dragon kin to the one described in Beowulf a wizard from the Merlin/Druidic tradition, a dragon slayer with the requisite magic arrow, elves and dwarves and trolls from northern European lore in general, a ring of invisibility, a band of sleeping warriors, a mirror of seeing, a throne of power, a greedy town mayor, a magical healing draught, plant seeds of exceptional fertility, a dragon's missing breastplate, and a host of other familiar motifs--and not all of them fantastic--from myth, legend and folktale. 4

Tolkien did not "borrow" these materials from ancient prose and poetry any more than any traditional artist borrows his or her material, be it a ballad or a quilt pattern. Like traditionally recognized folk performers, Tolkien was using material that he had been conversant with, quite literally, from childhood. He may have learned much of it in more formal circumstances than a ballad singer or a quilter does, but those were the only places--that is, classrooms and books--where that material was available to him. Thus, when he came to write Hobbit and LR, it was after many years' apprenticeship in the halls of academe; and when he wrote about the dwarves, he knew their names and the pattern of their story from a lifetime of experience, just as a ballad singer knows the verses or the quilt maker knows the pattern. He made this traditional story his own by creating the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and by splitting the heroics, almost at the last minute, between two characters: Bilbo, who finds the answers, and Bard, of the Royal Line of Dale, who slays the dragon. The same split, this time between Frodo and Aragorn, occurs much earlier and is developed more fully in LR. And even that split may have been influenced by tradition.

I am not about to assert that Tolkien was a folk performer and that Hobbit and LR are folktale and legend, respectively--although Katharyn Crabbe 1981 J.R.R. Tolkien does analyze them quite profitably as fairy tale and legend (the literary forms of the traditional folktale and legend). What I can provide is some evidence that Tolkien was exposed early to the dragon slayer tale, a tale that figures as a central motif in most of his later fiction, and that he was influenced by other authors, perhaps most especially William Morris, who were also attempting to write fiction patterned after older oral forms. In addition, I can offer some comments about ancient northern European literature in general and the Icelandic family sagas in particular, which will be clearly applicable to Tolkien's writing--much more applicable, in fact, than Aristotelian poetics or the theory of the properly structured novel.

Humphrey Carpenter remarks that Tolkien found that William Morris's view of literature was very like his own, and that in the prose-verse romance The House of the Wolfings "Morris had tried to recreate the excitement he himself had found in the pages of early English and Icelandic narratives" ( 70 ). And that is exactly what Tolkien would later do in his narratives. As T. A. Shippey suggests, "[l]ike Walter Scott or William Morris before him, [ Tolkien] felt the perilous charm of the archaic world of the North, recovered from bits and scraps by generations of inquiry. He wanted to tell a story about it simply, one feels, because there were hardly any complete ones left" ( 54 ). Indeed, Tolkien himself remarked that the "prime motive [for writing LR] was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them" ( FR11).

Shippey and Tolkien both use the word "story," and this term is yet another stumbling block to which critics have yet to pay enough attention. 5 C. S. Lewis warned us about that problem some time ago:

Those'hose forms of literature in which Story exists merely as a means to something else--for example, the novel of manners where the story is there for the sake of the characters, or the criticism of social conditions--have had full justice done to them; but those forms in which everything else is there for the sake of the story have been given little serious attention. ( 3 )

Lewis points in a direction in which mythology-in-literature scholar John Vickery continues when Vickery argues that most mythology-in-literature critics would agree that "myth forms the matrix out of which literature emerges both historically and psychologically" (ix). That is, the Story came first, even though all of the uses to which it has been put and all of the critical means by which it has been interpreted have overshadowed story of late ( Sullivan 18 ).

Furthermore, understanding the nature of traditional narrative, of story, can also put us on the road to understanding rather more complex issues in contemporary fiction: issues of story that have been overlooked in the critical rush to deconstruct the modern forest into its component postmodern trees; issues of story that have been lost in the critical study of the novel (an essentially reality-based narrative, ultimately Aristotelian in its structure and well-made according to its nineteenth-century aesthetic); issues of story that have been ignored as literature was separated into elite and popular (primarily by the New York establishment and university English departments); issues of story that have become confused as realism was championed over fantasy and then the designation "magic realism" was coined so that no one would have to admit that Borges is writing a kind of fantasy and Theroux is stealing ideas, and old ones at that, from science fiction; issues of story that have been pushed aside as literary criticism has privileged novel over narrative, privileged writer over teller, and (most recently) privileged criticism over fiction.

The inadequacy of contemporary criticism to deal with Tolkien's novels was reinforced, as I researched for this essay, by Icelandic scholar Theodore M. Andersson, who commented on the same critical situation in regard to the Icelandic family sagas.

[T]he sagas stand outside of the ironic or intellectual tradition to which the reader of prose narrative has been accustomed since the advent of modern fiction. The saga is plane [sic] narrative with no vertical dimensions; the sagateller does not manipulate the complicated set of mirrors used by the modern author to catch and bind together himself, his subject, and his reader. ( 1967, 31 - 32 )

Andersson concludes that section of his book with a very telling comment: "In short, the saga comes very close to pure narrative" ( 32 ). In other words, what the saga is about is the story.

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Andersson study The Icelandic Family Saga contains a great deal that might illuminate Tolkien's art. The structure of the plots of Tolkien's novels corresponds quite nicely to the structural pattern Andersson articulates for the Icelandic family saga, with the obvious exception of the revenge element; however, the second section of his book, "The Rhetoric of the Saga," is particularly interesting. In that section, Andersson argues that the "arrangement of the material and the progress of the narrative are governed by certain principles and techniques, which may almost be formulated as saga laws and which combine to give the saga its peculiar complexion" ( 32 - 33 ). The rhetorical structure that Andersson advances for the saga applies to Tolkien's novels as well. 6

The first principal Andersson advances is one of unity: "The saga has a brand of unity not unlike the classical injunction against the proliferation of plot in drama. . . . The story is seen only in terms of the climax. Everything that precedes the climax is conceived as preparation for it and everything that follows is conceived as a logical consequence" ( 33 ). Quite clearly the unilinear plot of Hobbit can be described this way, but so also can the multilinear plot of LR. Even after the Nine Walkers become sundered and various hobbits, men, dwarves, and elves follow several plotlines to the climax, all are headed inexorably in that direction, each following his own path. "What is unique," Andersson says of the saga, "is the deliberate and single-minded way in which the story is related to the high point and the peak of the pyramid is achieved" ( 35 ).

Andersson describes the progress of individual and sequential narrative events as scaffolding: "The episodes leading to the climax necessarily all tend in that direction, but they can be unrelated to each other" ( 35 ), and each episode "is an independent drama" ( 38 ). This is less true of Hobbit, as its plot is basically sequential, but it is certainly descriptive of the several plots in LR after the breakup of the Fellowship. The three main plots--Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli--are not dependent upon one another; each set of characters succeeds on its own, and the only thing the three sets of characters have in common is that they are all headed toward the same end, the narrative's climax. "Although . . . these episodes are related," Andersson concludes, "each is an independent action" ( 38 ).

Within the scaffolding structure, Andersson delineates several techniques by which the saga author "guides the action toward a conclusion." One such is escalation, "the technique of staggering the episodes. . . . in order of jeopardy; each succeeding adventure is more provocative or perilous than its predecessor" ( 38 ). This is certainly the case in both of Tolkien's novels. In Hobbit, the confrontations escalate from the almost-Cockney trolls to that most fearsome of beasts, the dragon; along the way, Bilbo develops to match the increasingly formidable challenges. In LR, even the secondary characters take on increasingly difficult challenges as Frodo moves from a vague fear of the Black Riders to the final confrontation with Sauron. Andersson suggests that escalation can be achieved by "an increase of danger, a multiplying of portents, a deterioration of behavior, [or] a quickening of the pace" ( 40 ).

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Balancing the escalation of episodes in the saga, Andersson sees something he calls retardation, "a meaningful slackening of the pace" ( 40 ). This retardation "arrests the pace and leads to the anticipated climax obliquely and slowly" ( 42 ). Such breaks in the action occur in both novels. There are two major respites in Hobbit: the stay at the Last Homely House, a pause before heading off into the "real" wilderness, and the refuge with Beorn, a pause before beginning the last stage of the journey. There are more such respites in LR, but the major ones are the passage through Bombadil's enchanted wood, a stop at the Last Homely House, where the Fellowship is assembled, and the stay in Lothlórien--all three incidents in which the pace of the story is dramatically slowed and the characters are able to rest. This retardation, Andersson comments, functions "to delay the climax and concentrate interest" ( 42 ). And in Tolkien, it often serves, as does the stay in Lothlórien, to concentrate interest on the climax by showing what may be lost if Sauron triumphs.

The balance between escalation and retardation is one indication of what Andersson calls the symmetry of the saga. Further, he notes that the "saga authors have a fondness for the use of pairs and series in their plot structures" ( 43 ). This element of structuring is very common in traditional narratives of all kinds; for example, the number three--three sisters, three wishes, and so on--appears in a variety of legends and folktales. Tolkien's narratives are full of pairs: Bilbo and Frodo, for example, the latter enacting a plot similar to the former's adventures. The Frodo/Sam duality is set off by the Frodo/Gollum and the Gollum/Sméagol dualities, forming a triangle of dualities or series of pairs. Strider becomes Aragorn, Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White, Saruman is a small Sauron, the smaller spiders in Hobbit prefigure Shelob in LR, and so on. Even the humorous series that Andersson finds characteristic of saga symmetry ( 48 - 49 ) is reflected in Tolkien's books, most obviously in the arrival of the dwarves at Bilbo's hobbit-hole and later in its parallel at Beorn's home.

Andersson suggests that the "most obvious and ubiquitous rhetorical device in the sagas is foreshadowing" ( 49 ; my italics). Foreshadowing is certainly prevalent in both of Tolkien's novels; early in each, Gandalf sits with the main character, and, in Hobbit, some others, and outlines the general course of the action to follow and the challenge to be confronted. This initial foreshadowing is followed, in each work, by a more complete explication of the problem and a more detailed discussion of each quest at the Last Homely House. In addition, there are various signs, portents, maps, prophecies, and other elements that indicate, in Andersson's words, "the goal of the story" ( 49 ). By setting out the story, and prefiguring the climax, foreshadowing helps distribute "interest over the whole text and prevents the otherwise heavily stressed climax from eclipsing the rest of the story" ( 49 ).