Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lord of the Rings essay: the History and Historicism of Middle Earth

Dear friends,

Prof. Robert Koons
After auditing the class offered by Prof. Koons last Spring on Fantasy Literature, I have completed a long-essay(70 pages) on the history and historicism of Middle-Earth. Prof. Koons has graciously accepted to read and comment on the essay. Linked below is a read-only digital copy of the essay for everyone who may find it of interest. If you have the opportunity, please read and write comments(under the review tab of MsWord) as freely as you like. I would like you to principally comment upon the style, structure, and the argument which is developed throughout the essay. The essay may be too long in its present form, so please suggest any sections which ought to be removed. There are eight chapters which may be selected(control+click) from the Table of Contents, as well as many subheadings. Please e-mail me the commented document when you are finished, so that I may take your comments into consideration when I work to revise the essay for submission to one of the many Tolkien and literary journals. I have included below the introduction to the essay. Thank you all for your assistance and patience.


Ryan Haecker

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Abstract: The History of Middle-Earth is the central literary device in J.r.r. Tolkien's mythopoeia. The History of Middle Earth is presented as a repeated historicist cycle of decline and restoration. The historicism of Middle-Earth is determined by the elaborate cosmology and mythical theodicy of the cosmos of Eä. The History of Middle-Earth is an allegory of Western History. The decline of Men in Middle-Earth is principally caused by the same forces of industry and science which have effected Western Civilization. The historicism of Middle-Earth presents a modernist allegory of history which is intended to illustrate the perils and potentials of Western Civilization in our time.

1. Introduction

Literature may be considered epic when it enchants not merely its own but every generation with allusions to universal themes which surpass the particularity of its setting. Though the Bronze Age is long since passed, the poems of Homer continue to enchant readers both with scenes of harrowing carnage upon the Scamander plain before the walls of Troy, and with excited expectation upon Odysseus’s long-expected homecoming to rocky Ithaca. Unlike the strict didacticism of Aristotle, Plato’s myths aim not merely to instruct but to inspire the reader's imagination to take flight. Tolkien’s mythopoeia shares in this Platonic purpose, and presents itself as both fiction and philosophy. As “the Lord of the Rings” develops from the initial intrigues of Hobbiton to a global strategic conflict for the future of Middle Earth, the reader finds the limited ordeals of the Fellowship to be merely a microcosm of the grander historical drama of Middle Earth. The obliquely referenced historicization of the setting incomprehensibly elevates the dramatic tension by situating the limited story of “the Lord of the Rings” within an infinitely broader historical narrative. Although the drama of the Fellowship is limited in time and space, Tolkien’s continual allusions to the immense history of Middle Earth leads the reader to likewise reflect upon the sublimity of Middle-Earth’s incomprehensibly extensive past. Tolkien’s use of myth recalls C.s. Lewis description of faerie stories as “lies breathed through silver”. And as with Plato’s “Republic”, Tolkien’s mythopoeia possesses the cathartic potential to initiate the reader into an esoteric awareness of the Good.

The historical context of Middle Earth is the central literary device which establishes the setting and the thematic importance of the Fellowship within it. Although the historicization of a mythical cosmos, or mythopoesis, has since become a commonplace characteristic of the fantasy genre, the great subtlety and erudition with which Tolkien created his literary history and cosmology distinguishes Middle earth from his often less coherent imitators. In contrast to vulgar fantasy, which often presents a familiar retinue of magic and creatures, J.r.r. Tolkien’s “the Lord of the Rings” presents readers with a setting which, while retaining many staples of the fantasy genre (elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards etc.), nonetheless wholly re-conceptualizes their qualities and relations so as to integrate them within the broader fictional history and cosmology of Middle-Earth. Consequently Tolkien’s history is inseparable from the essential themes of his myth-making, or mythopoeia. The theme of history, like a deep baritone, is often disguised by oblique recollections in songs and references in languages, places, and character names. Yet through this historicization the otherwise disjointed locations, characters and cultures are integrated into the broader historical-drama of Middle Earth.

The historical drama of Middle-Earth is, in the Third Age, the apparent final resolution of a cosmic battle among the gods - a theogany which began before the creation of Middle-Earth and the world of Arda. This cosmic contest between the rebellious servants of Dark Lord and the faithful Children of Ilúvatar continues intermittently and repeats itself cyclically throughout the history of Middle Earth. As new disorders are introduced the faithful Elves and Men continue to work to perpetuate the divine harmony of Arda which had once existed, yet has since been corrupted. The historical perspective of “the Lord of the Rings” in the Third Age of Middle-Earth situates the Fellowship and the reader in a late historical era with an expansive prior history of literature, songs, and myths. The conflicts which occur in the Third Age of Middle-Earth parallel many previous world-historical conflicts, such as the Last Alliance of the Second Age (which is introduced in the second chapter of "the Fellowship of the Ring"). The late historical perspective of Middle-Earth in the Third Age invites the reader to reflect upon the repeated yet ever-diminishing scale of Middle Earth’s prior historical conflicts, as well as the apparent conclusiveness of the War of the Ring. For the first time in the Third Age, there noticeably appear many distinctly modern themes of industrialism, urbanism, eugenics and scientific rationalism, which allude to the distinctive characteristics of the modern world and our own unique historical perspective. These allusions to a late historical perspective within the limited drama of the novel prompts the reader to similarly reflect upon the magnitude of own history, as a parallel inter-generational contest to preserve justice, harmony, and a memory of the past.

Beginning with the writings of Herder, Blake, Goethe, Wordsworth and Novalis, Romanticism has been characterized as a literary and philosophic response to the reductionist pretentions of scientific rationalism. Inspired by romanticism, C.s. Lewis argued that a fictional setting must be morally meaningful and conceptually coherent to suitably interest an audience in the plight of the characters. For Lewis, this required fantasy literature to be intellectually and spiritually compelling. The Thomistic theologian Jacques Maritain described inspired creativity with a similar emphasis upon introspective spiritualism:

"Reason does not only consist of its logical tools and manifestations, nor does the will consist only of its deliberate conscious determinations. Far beneath the sunlit surface thronged with explicit concepts and judgments, words and expressed resolutions or movements of the will, are the sources of knowledge and creativity, of love and suprasensuous desires, hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul." (Maritain, La Philosophie Bergsonienne 1914/48, p.103)

Tolkien’s fantasy exhibits an intimate romantic consideration for the importance of fantasy, which reflects the concerns of these Christian writers. The coherency and complexity of Tolkien’s mythopoeia illustrates his methodological view that believable and compelling fantasy requires an internally consistent and historical setting. In contrast to the mediocrity of vulgar fantasy, Tolkien aspired to create a believable and immersive mythology whose sublimity might re-enchant the present with a richer awareness of integral and humane living.

If the First Age recalls an antediluvian or Homeric era of springtime Elves and heroic first Men, and the Second Age bespeaks of a classical age of expansive empires, then the Third Age more resembles one of pygmies than heroes and social decline rather than imperial grandeur. Yet in spite of the mediocrity of the Third Age, relics and recollections of a more impressive antique world continually intrude into the story as the Quest of the Ring nears its resolution. The completion of the Quest of the Ring, the defeat of Sauron, and the Return of the King too nearly resemble the global victory of the Anglo-American alliance in the modern era and the resulting hegemony of capitalism and liberal-democracy. With the finality of its resolution, the History of Middle-Earth in the Third Age recalls the apparent finality of human history in our own time. In consideration of this historical perspective, “the Lord of the Rings” can be read as a distinctly modern fantasy-epic, whose splendid achievement was to have replied to the mundane modern anxieties of social fragmentation, anonymity and disenchantment with a sublime vision of an alternative modernity.

"Tolkien, it is true, did not embrace the twentieth century. But neither did he run from it. Rather, he forced his readers to confront their world from a different perspective, a perspective informed by the power of myth, symbol, and examples of true heroism. The modern and industrialized world seem to have little use, he knew, for the older way of seeing and knowing represented by his mythology. Nor did it have much use for the decentralized mode of social and political organization in which he believed. Rather, tyranny characterized Tolkien's century, and Tolkien passionately hated tyranny, whether it came from Left or Right of the political spectrum. And as to the "escapist" charge? As Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, 'those who most hate escapism are the jailers.'" (Sanctifying Myth, p.109-110)

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