Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings
by Lin Carter
This book was written only a few years after Lord of the Rings was published. It is like a little historic peak into what people thought of Lord of the Rings in the beginning, before it was established as the colossal modern classic we know it as today. Before the modern genre of fantasy was really defined, the Lord of the Rings was difficult to classify. It was like the epic stories of the Greeks and Romans, and some people called it “super science fiction” or a “giant-sized fairy tale”.
The author begins with a few chapters about Tolkien himself, his writings, his education, and his family. At the time, Tolkien was still alive and “hearty” at the age of 76, and retired in a “modest house” near Oxford.
Then come several chapters which offer a lengthy summary of the entire plot of The Hobbit and LotR with massive spoilers. The author assumes that some of his readers have not read LotR and will need some information about the plot to continue. This seems really weird to me. What reader would pick up a book about LotR if they had not read it? Why would anyone be interested in reading a book about a book that they haven’t read? Why wouldn’t you go read the actual book first, then read the book about the book?
I was grieved to see that the author gets a couple of things wrong in his summary of the LotR. He states that Eowyn is King Theoden’s daughter, when she is in fact his niece. Little mistakes like this made me wonder what other facts the author might have written incorrectly elsewhere in the book.
Another chapter discusses why LotR is definitely not an allegory or satire, since Tolkien despised both. But any story can be “applicable” if the reader so chooses. We also explore Tolkien’s philosophy of “subcreation” and his belief that all mythology contains a grain of truth.
The author then proceeds to give a history lesson in the origin of the fantasy story, going back to the Greek and Roman epics with heroes, wars, quests, gods, and monsters. The next chapter shows how the Anglo-Saxons imitated the Greeks in developing their ideas of epic heroes such as Beowulf. Then medieval poets imitated their predecessors in the popular “Romance” adventure tales of their day, but adding more magic, wizards, ghosts, and sorcerers.
(I found out an interesting tidbit of history; the “Romance” genre used to mean simply an epic adventure, and “Romances” were so called because they were written in the Romance languages.)
Then we dive into Renaissance through Victorian literature where a few great fantasy adventure writers stand out from the crowd as redefining the genre. And finally we arrive at the modern idea of the fantasy genre where a handful of fantasy writers attempt epic stories, the immediate precursors to Tolkien.
There are several chapters detailing old Norse mythology where Tolkien got many of his ideas and some names. The names of most of the dwarves from the Hobbit are found in an old Scandanavian poem, Voluspo, part of the Elder Edda. Gandalf’s name is found in the same poem, and is also the name of a King in the Anglo-Saxon tale of Halfdan the Black.
Earendal is the Saxon name given to a star, which means “splendor” in Old English. The name “orcs” can be found in Beowulf, “…monsters of all sorts were born: etins and elves and orcs, worst of all, giant folk also…” Theoden means “chief or ruler of a tribe, prince, king” in Old Anglo-Saxon.
There are a few things in the last chapters that I thought were interesting insights into the characters of LotR. The author says that while a classic hero like Aragorn is obviously destined for greatness, Frodo is a humble character who “has greatest thrust upon them.” The reader identifies more with Frodo because he is ordinary in the beginning and grows through his suffering.
My favorite insight is about Sam’s character. The author says that Sam is not really a comedic character. He is not a clown, but the juxtaposition of his common sense and plain-speaking manner contrasted against the more formal speech of highly educated people who surround him creates a humorous element. I love that Sam is taken seriously, but we can also acknowledge that, without meaning to, he does bring humor to the story. It’s the contrast between who Sam is and the extraordinary circumstances around him that makes him as funny as a fish flopping about out of water. Poor Sam! And yet, all the characters around him respect him, admire his good qualities, and value the common sense approach that he brings to the group.
This book was published before The Silmarillion, so the author has to guess about many things that were revealed in Silmarillion. For instance, the author guesses that perhaps Gandalf is actually one of the gods of Valinor and not a mere mortal. As we now know, that was a good guess!
Overall, this is an interesting book about LotR and gives some great history of the fantasy genre and the myths that Tolkien drew from to create Middle Earth.