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Review Questions What are three reasons that the setting of the...

Review Questions

  1. What are three reasons that the setting of the Middle Ages appeals to many fantasy writers?
  2. Under the feudal heroic code, what were the two major motives for doing heroic deeds?
  3. What war doall the three great ancient epics share in common?
  4. What are the five characteristics of an epic hero?
  5. From the lesson above, give an example of a flat character in The Lord of the Rings?

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What elements of the art of warfare in the Middle Ages differ from modern warfare and why does the warfare of the Middle Ages have greater appeal to many fantasy writers and game developers?
  2. What gift did Lord Sauron give to his nine mortal thanes, the kings of Men, as a reward for their service and loyalty? What happened as a result of this gift?
  3. An epic hero embodies the values of his age. What characteristics did the ancient epic heroes possess? If you were to createan epic hero today, what character qualities would he or she need to have in order to embody the values of our age?
  4. How does Tolkien use The Lord of the Rings to deal with the issue of ecology?
  5. How does the idea of a story inspire Frodo?


The Heroic Culture of Feudal Times


The rich history of The Lord of the Rings is largely felt rather than clearly expressed. As we view imaginary worlds such as Middle Earth, we often automatically try to place the culture of that world into our own understanding of world history. With much of fantasy literature, this placement often roughly corresponds to the Middle Ages. The reason for this can be debated, but the Middle Ages offers many factors that appeal to fantasy lovers including pageantry, superstition, a simple lifestyle, and a well-defined social culture.

However, above all, the art of warfare in the Middle Ages has the greatest appeal. This was a time when weapons depended more on the skill and strength of men than on advances of technology; a time when enemies were well defined and victories were clear; a time when heroes were honored and cowards were spurned. It was a time, also, when superstitions sometimes played a role in battle strategy. For these reasons, the setting of the Middle Ages appeals not only to fantasy writers but to fantasy game developers as well.

Therefore, the fact that the warfare of The Lord of the Rings is clearly medieval is not surprising. The weapons of defense and offense are largely rooted in the Middle Ages, with the arguable exception of Saruman's introduction of combustibles at Helm's Deep. The strategies employed are largely medieval as well. But what stands out most is the concept of heroism involved.

In the Middle Ages of Europe, feudalism was the primary social structure of the land. Feudal lords would each rule a small realm, sometimes under the authority of another overlord or king and sometimes on their own. The feudal lord would protect his tenants (peasants) and allow them to live on his land, to build homes, and to farm the soil in return for certain considerations, which may have taken the form of crops, taxes, labor on the lord's estate, or military service.

A representation of a feudal warrior.

The term comitatus refers to the group of warriors who provided military service to their lord. Some of these thanes (feudal warriors who owe allegiance to a lord) were called into service only at times of great need. A more select group of thanes often provided permanent protection for the lord, his family, and his estates. These thanes were rewarded in return for their service to the lord. They were provided housing (often just space on the floor) and food, often in the lord's mead-hall, which was a large room with tables and benches where thanes were fed and sometimes entertained by scops, traveling minstrels who told elaborate stories of heroism and adventure.

In return, the thane would swear allegiance to his lord, promising to serve him in battle, to protect the lord and his family, and to avenge his lord's death if the worst were to happen. This heroic code hinged on total loyalty to the lord. If a thane performed a particularly heroic or noble deed, he was often rewarded with bonuses such as improved weapons (a treasured gift when your life depended on it) or gifts of gold, jewels, or rings. A man was encouraged to become a hero because it would bring him (or his surviving relatives) both treasure and renown. If they were heroic enough, their tale may even become a story told by the scops!

Though slaying the murderer of a lord was one way to avenge his death, another type of vengeance was the wergild (or weregild). A wergild was basically a gift paid to a person's family to avenge their death. The value of the wergild depended on the person's rank in society; thus the death of a lord required a large wergild in repayment. The wergild was sometimes used to stop feuds between lords from escalating.

Lords also could swear oaths of loyalty to one another and were, of course, required to offer allegiance to their own king or overlord, if they had one. The allegiance of one lord to another also encompassed the allegiance of the thanes of that lord. Therefore, thanes were often required to fight not only the battles of their own lord but those of their lord's allies.

The Lord of the Rings

We see evidence of this medieval heroic culture throughout The Lord of the Rings, but it is most clearly expressed in The Two Towers, particularly in the scenes dealing with the culture of Rohan. Theoden's most experienced thanes are the men of Rohan, many of whom he sent off in exile in the days of his madness because he thought them guilty of disloyalty. In addition, Edoras, the home of Theoden, is almost the perfect representation of the medieval mead-hall.

In the movie version of The Two Towers, you also see the repeated idea of military alliances between different lords. Theoden complains that Gondor was not there to protect Rohan and is reluctant to answer the call to come to Gondor's aid. The Wildmen, swayed by Saruman's lies about Rohan, swear allegiance to Saruman. Even the Elves answer the call to battle in response to old allegiances.

Of course, in the book, some of these allegiances were a little different. Rohan and Gondor appear in the movie as kingdoms on equal footing, but in reality, in the days when a king ruled Gondor, the King of Gondor was the High King to whom Rohan owed allegiance. Under the stewardship reign in Gondor, which you may remember has lasted roughly 1000 years at this point, these roles seem to have weakened. But this explains much about Theoden's attitude to Aragorn. If Aragorn is, as Gandalf claims, the true king of Gondor, he will be Theoden's overlord in time.

Another difference between the film and the novel is that the Elves never came to fight at Helm's Deep. It was another contingent of Rohan's soldiers who came to their aid in the book. The Elves were too busy fighting Sauron on other fronts in Middle Earth at the time so, though they did not come to Helm's Deep in the book, they still were technically fighting the same enemy. The visual effects of the Elves fighting add to the power of the battle scene, which was extended far beyond the few pages it was afforded in the book.

The idea of rewarding thanes and vassals is also seen in The Lord of the Rings. Just as a feudal lord bestowed rings of gold on favored thanes, so Sauron awarded his rings of gold on the Nine Kings of Men who later became the Nazgul. The idea of the wergild is present in a more subtle form that is more clearly expressed in the book itself. Take, for example, the scene when Isildur cuts the Ring from Sauron's hand. The reason that he claimed the ring as his own was because it represented a wergild to pay for the death of his father who died in the final conflict with Sauron.

The heroic ideal of the Middle Ages featured the idea of heroism for the sake of gain and glory and this idea is carried on in Tolkien's tale. Even the Ents express this ideal when they hope to be remembered for their deeds in the fight against Saruman, even if it becomes the "last march of the Ents." However, another nobler heroic ideal is expressed by Aragorn when he speaks with Eowyn about her role in the crisis of Middle Earth. He speaks of the need for "valor without renown." Sometimes, he says, it may be necessary to show courage and protect those you love even though the deed may never be known. That is true heroism indeed.

The Epic Hero

Though the heroic ideal of the Middle Ages plays a large role in The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy works, an even older individual heroic ideal exists: that of the epic hero. An epic hero is a hero who expresses the values of their age—generally courage, resourcefulness, cunning, and leadership. As the values of an age shift, the creation of a new literary epic hero may change to suit the new dynamics.

A representation of an epic hero.

In order to understand an epic hero, it is first necessary to understand the epic. Traditionally, an epic is a long narrative poem that tells the story of the fate of a hero. The oldest ancient epics were merely oral traditions—stories passed down from one storyteller to another across generations. These folk epics, as they were known, were not written down in their original form but passed on from one scop or minstrel to another until they were eventually recorded for posterity.

A bust of the blind poet Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey

The Greek poet Homer created two of the best known of these folk epics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad recounts the story of the Greek hero Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and his adventures during the Trojan War. The Odyssey focuses on the story of another Greek hero, Odysseus, and his adventures as he struggles to return home from the Trojan War to reclaim his family and kingdom.

Later, the Roman poet Vergil continued the epic tradition with a literary epic called The Aeneid. A literary epic is an epic that is deliberately written in its original form, though it follows the conventions of the folk epic. The story of The Aeneid deals with a different side of the Trojan War and focuses on the fate of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, as he faces his destiny in the aftermath of the Trojan War.

A statue of the poet Vergil, author of The Odyssey.

Each of these three great ancient epics develops the character of the epic hero within the tale. Through these epics and later epics, such as Milton's Paradise Lost, we can develop a profile of a typical epic hero. Generally, the epic hero possesses the qualities listed below.

The epic hero springs from a superhuman origin or is favored by superior beings such as the gods.

In the ancient epics, most of the heroes had a least one parent or grandparent who was a god. Today's "epic heroes," which take the form of superheroes, tend to have either godly parents (Thor), alien parents (Superman), or parents or mentors who are scientific geniuses (Iron Man).

The epic hero has superhuman endurance and strength.

In the course of the story, the epic hero must demonstrate that they are stronger than most, have greater endurance, or excel in their skills over ordinary beings in some other way. In the ancient days, when the value of a person was often measured by their ability to fight, these abilities made them an incredible warrior. The values of our age more often emphasize brain over brawn and so modern superheroes tend to have higher intelligence and scientific or technological knowledge in addition to their other qualities.

The epic hero has proven themself in battle before the story begins.

The epic hero usually has a reputation as a warrior before the story begins, either based on past actions or future prophecies of greatness.

The epic hero usually journeys to the underworld in order to complete their quest.

Oftentimes, the classical epic hero has to take a frightening journey to the underworld to talk to dead people to get advice or enlist aid to fulfill their destiny. The fact that the hero is willing to undertake the journey and survives it adds to their characterization as a supernatural hero.

The epic hero holds the fate of a nation or world in their hands.

The destiny of the epic hero is larger than life as well. They are usually the "chosen one" —the only one who can save their country, race, or world from extinction or ruin.

The Epic Hero in The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is a book packed with heroes. In fact, one of Tolkien's avowed goals in writing the book was to create heroes because he believed they were lacking in the contemporary literature of his day. According to a letter written by Tolkien, he and C.S. Lewis were discussing this literary lack of heroes and high adventure when Lewis commented, "If they won't write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves."

The hobbits, of course, especially Frodo and Sam, emerge as unlikely heroes of the tale, a fact we will discuss in depth in a later unit. However, one clear epic hero does emerge from the story: Aragorn. Reflecting Tolkien's own immersion in the classical epic tales, Aragorn meets every one of the qualifications of the epic hero presented here. The epic hero springs from a super-human origin or is favored by superior beings such as the gods.

Aragorn, as we have discussed earlier, descends from the Elves through the line of Numenor. Eowyn points this out in The Two Towers when she discovers that the hale, hearty Aragorn, at the prime of his life, is in reality 87 years old. Not only is Aragorn of super-human origin, but he is also favored by the Elves who sheltered him in his youth and taught them many of their ways and customs.

The epic hero has super-human endurance and strength.

Not only is Aragorn strong and tireless in battle, but his journey to find Merry and Pippin, running for three days with almost no rest, demonstrates his incredible endurance.

The epic hero has proven themself in battle before the story begins.

Aragorn already has a proven history of battle from his leadership with the Rangers. However, as we go along, we find that he has fought in other battles as well. For instance, Eowyn mentions that Aragorn had ridden to war with Theoden's father. Though it is not mentioned in the movies, the appendices of the book tell us that Aragorn had also fought for Boromir's grandfather in Gondor in his youth as well.

The epic hero usually journeys to the underworld to complete their quest.

Aragorn has not had this experience in the movies as of yet. But look for this qualification to be fulfilled in The Return of the King.

The epic hero holds the fate of a nation or world in their hands.

Though Frodo shares this burden for the fate of Middle Earth, the fate of Gondor and the race of Men in general does lie squarely on Aragorn's shoulders.

Ecology in The Lord of the Rings

As we have said before, the epic hero represents the values of their age. In the classical era, the values that were exalted were skills that made for good warriors and survivors in the harsh world of that day. While The Lord of the Rings does still exalt the qualities of courage, strength, endurance, and resourcefulness, it also gives voice to more modern sensibilities such as mercy, compassion, and protection of natural resources.

The concept of ecology would have been a foreign one in the classical and medieval eras of the western world. However, in Tolkien's day, this issue was very real, as it continues to be today. Tolkien lived at the height of the industrial era, at a time before the need for ecological restraint and industrial regulation was widely recognized. Tolkien, the man who loved plants and trees, saw the green and fertile landscape of his England gradually succumb to the ugliness of industrial progress. To Tolkien, this represented the highest villainy. So it is no surprise that the villain Saruman is also guilty of such ecological trespass. As Treebeard says, "A wizard should know better."

Through the voice of the Ents, Tolkien is able to rebuke such treachery as he speaks of the murder of the trees and the fires of industry that are destroying all that is green and growing. However, Tolkien gets his subtle revenge by having Saruman brought down by the very trees he tried to destroy. Here again, we see the power of the written word. The author manages to preach an entire sermon against the wanton destruction of nature by using the voice of fantasy creatures. Let this serve as a warning to all potential tree molesters among us!

Complex relationships in The Two Towers

In The Fellowship of the Ring, we were introduced to a wide variety of characters, some flat and some round. In literary terms, a flat character is one whose personality is not pictured in depth. This character is present, but acts more as a backdrop or simply a deliverer of dialogue than as a character we begin to know and respond to in a deeply emotional way. Celeborn, the husband of Galadriel, is one such flat character. He actually plays an important role in the political structure of Middle Earth, but we are told little about him and therefore feel little about him as well. He simply functions as a backdrop for the illusion of Lothlorien and as a sort of sidekick for Galadriel, who is clearly more powerful.

Sauron is a flat character as well. He serves the function of the master villain, the bad guy, the antagonist. But we know little in this story about how he got that way, what he is thinking (beyond guesses at strategy), or how he spends his time when he is not plotting the destruction of others.

However, some characters are round characters—characters whose personality becomes more fully developed as the story progresses. Throughout the tale, we begin to understand different aspects of their personality and to respond to them based on their thoughts and actions. Sam is one such character. By now, we have seen him in the role of gardener, friend, warrior, poet, and protector. We know more about his likes and dislikes, his hopes and dreams, and his strengths and weaknesses. We can begin to sense how Sam would likely act in most situations, though he still has the capacity to surprise us.

One of the ways an author fleshes out a character's story is by having the character interact with others. In real life, this is true as well. We learn more about a person when we see how they respond to authority figures, their parents, their siblings, their pets, and those both beneath them and above them on the social ladder. All of these interactions reveal more about the true character underneath.

Gandalf and Saruman

In The Two Towers, several of the characters are fleshed out by their interaction with others. In this way, for instance, we learn more about Gandalf when we see his interactions with Saruman. Instead of being simply the wise companion possessed with a few simple magical abilities, we see him revealed as a lord of vast power who has gained even greater power by defeating a great enemy and enduring great suffering.

When we first met Gandalf after his apparent death, we can tell that he is changed. He barely remembers his past and announces now that he is Gandalf the White. The color change may seem of little importance, other than as an indication of purity and power, but here it means much more. In the past, Saruman was a member of the White Council, an organization of Middle Earth leaders who were dedicated to the protection of Middle Earth and the destruction of evil. Saruman, one of the Valar and the most persuasive speaker, was chosen as its head. The other Valar, such as Gandalf, were members in addition to some of the Elven leaders, including Elrond and Galadriel. As leader of the White Council, Saruman was known as Saruman the White.

However, the book tells us that when Saruman began to play with evil, he rejected the White, and became Saruman of Many Colors. Clearly, he had become bored with the good and pure and felt that he needed to expand his color palette to include evil. After Gandalf fought the Balrog, he "died" in a sense. But remember that he was not an ordinary mortal, but rather a Valar, a higher level of being (rather angelic in nature) who had been originally sent to Middle Earth as a guardian. After his "death" during that incredible battle with the Balrog, he was "sent back" to finish his task. He then became Gandalf the White, Head of the White Council, "Saruman as he should have been."

Boromir and Faramir

Another example of showing a character's relationship with others is the use of flashbacks with Faramir. A flashback occurs when a character vividly remembers a time in their past that is relevant to the present action. In the movie, Faramir's encounter with Frodo causes him to remember various scenes that have played out in the past between Boromir, Faramir, and their father, Denethor. Through these flashbacks, we learn more about the character of Faramir without the lengthy discussion of the issue that takes place in the book.

Faramir is actually one of the most noble and interesting characters in the story, though these features are played down in the movie in order to heighten the sense of conflict and suspense. Faramir and Boromir shared one thing in common: they both thought that Boromir was the greatest warrior in the world. Boromir was clearly more beloved by his father, but Faramir was never at all jealous about that fact. He simply had different interests himself.

In the book, Faramir explains this essential difference to Frodo. Boromir loved warfare as an end unto itself. He loved the excitement it provided and the glory it gained him. Faramir, however, is the perfect philosopher-soldier. He does not love warfare at all but sees it only as an end to protecting all that he does love: the history and glory of Gondor.

Faramir actually spent a lot of time with Gandalf in his youth, learning both history and wisdom from him. His father, however, did not approve of this relationship because he wanted Faramir to be a warrior rather than a wise man. As a result, Faramir knew more about the power of the Ring than his father did and in reality (in the book), was never tempted by the Ring at all. He knew from the beginning that it would only drive his power-hungry father mad. Once he understood Frodo's goal to destroy the Ring, he heartily approved and did all in his power to aid him.

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum

The Two Towers also shows the increasing conflict between Sam and Gollum. Sam, who sees himself as Frodo's protector, cannot fathom why Frodo would want to keep such a dangerous creature as Gollum around. We have never seen Sam as anything but sweet and gentle, except in battle. Yet Gollum brings out the absolute worst in him. Their ongoing relationship reveals new sides of both their characters.

At the same time, Sam continues to act as a literary foil to Frodo. A literary foil is a character who serves as a contrast to another character in order to highlight the differences or changes between them. Sam's essential cheerfulness contracts with Frodo's growing depression and highlights its progression. Sam's sanity contrasts with Frodo's growing madness under the influence of the Ring. In Sam, we see a normal hobbit suffering stress and deprivation. In Frodo, we see a hobbit suffering unbearable physical and mental torment. Sam's presence allows us to gauge the influence the Ring is having on Frodo.

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