Lord of the Rings
Published 09 Dec 2016
How the Beowulf Influenced the “Lord of the Rings” by Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is one of the most famous epic stories in the world literature. It’s global popularity is determined not only by author’s superb writing ability and exciting story, but also by the fact, that Tolkien has to a great extent based his book on the legends and fables of Northern Europe, especially those, which came to being in the Dark Ages. It is possible to say, that Tolkien created his own version of that, what was before modern Europe. Serving as university professor for philology and language history, he concentrated on the epic myths of German, Baltic and Finish tribes, as well as classical epos, such as the Odyssey.
His sources were the Eddas, Scandinavian and German sagas, Finish epos “The Calevala”, etc. In this paper I will try to investigate how the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Beowulf” influenced Tolkien in writing “Lord of the Rings”. Among other, I will investigate the influences in language, style and the story itself to find out how much Tolkien transferred from the “Beowulf” to the “Lord of the Rings”. The main subject for investigation shall be parallels in the plots of both stories.
Tolkien aimed to gather myths of Germanic peoples and create a special modernist English epos. After his first book “The Hobbit, or Here and Back Again” he did not aim to continue the story. Despite of that he wrote “The Silmarillion”, creating background and history of the Middle Earth. When he started writing the second part of “The Hobbit”, he had no intention to compose that, what later became “The Lord of the Rings”, however, soon he realized, that Bilbo Baggins, by the reason of his character and nature, can not be a hero, so he decided to form a story around an inanimate subject – a Ring, carried by Frodo Baggins – nephew.
The idea of a Ring itself originated from German myths, including “The Beowulf” and “Eddas”. peoples of Northern Europe in the Dark Ages used rings as precious gifts, money or symbols of power. The Ring in Tolkien’s book has been made by a Dark Ruler in the Flame of a mountain. A clear analogy can be found in the following passage of “The Beowulf”:
“Heorot he named it whose message had might in many a land. Not reckless of promise, the rings he dealt, treasure at banquet: there towered the hall, high, gabled wide, the hot surge waiting of furious flame”
It should be also mentioned, that Tolkien’s Ring was decorated by serpentinous pattern – a usual decoration of arms in Medieval Europe. The ring comes to Bilbo, and than to Frodo Baggins through theft. In the Beowulf, a ring has been stolen from a dragon.
The Beowulf goes to confront the dragon together with a group of desperate warriors, each of them being a hero himself. Tolkien used the same intrigue in his book, as a company of men, calling themselves Brotherhood of the Ring, goes to Mordor to combat Sauron. The analogy becomes even more obvious as the story continues. Beowulf dies at the end of the story, same as Frodo sacrifices his life to destroy the Ring. perhaps Tolkien had an intention to finish the story happily, so lets Frodo be saved by Gandalf. However, Frodo still leaves the Middle Earth and sails away together with the others, who once possessed the Rings. Traveling by sea was similar to death for ancient Germans, and they used to burn their dead in boats, so, Frodo and others still symbolically die at the end.
Death is the price, both Beowulf and Frodo have to pay for gaining the secret treasure. However, Tolkien changed the motives of the characters. Beowulf died because he wanted to gain. And for Frodo the Ring is not a treasure, but a plague, and he dies not to gain, but to save. As Issacs observed: “What justifies Frodo’s being the hero? Her one comes to a paradox. Frodo has the usual rabbit-like and child-like nature of a country hobbit. But as he journeys toward Mordor, he loses some of this vitality. He becomes conscious of his sacrificial duty. He becomes humble as he learns more about the world outside the Shire and as he perceives the pathos of mortality through the passing of the fair and beautiful.”
Tolkien, same as the author of the Beowulf, were Christian writers, writing about pagan times, so they could not escape analogy with Christ. Beowulf and Tolkien’s Boromir can be seen as failed Christ, who chose glory and profit. Boromir is lead by his own audacity and strength alone, but fails not only to save his people, but also to save merely Merry and pippin. Like Beowulf, he succeeds in battle but fails in his ultimate task. In contrast to him, Aragorn consciously leads his men in a suicide task to attack Mordor in order to win some time for Frodo, and such desperate action leads the whole people of the Middle Earth to victory.
The underlying topic of the Lord of the Rings is strive for life against deadly power of Sauron and death is personified in the Nazguls, so negative characters can be seen as symbolizing fear of death. Sauron, in turn, is a symbol of self-destruction of the Middle Earth. And in the Beowulf Grendel and his mother can be seen as the objectification (in part) of the flaws of the king Hrothgar and of the faults of his court. Tolkien has just added a psychological element, combining reflections of the Beowulf and the First World War.
Both stories are united by the similar feeling of the ending era. Magic disappears from the Middle Earth as the Rings, which contained this magic, are lost. Tolkien feels “that only in this way can he attain what the author of Beowulf (also an antiquary) attained: a sense of man’s Verganglichkeit, his impermanence, his perishability.” And this imaginary world has relevance to the real one. At the end of the story Tokien seems to build a bridge between magic world and ours. Although, magic creatures do not exist longer, hobbits, witnesses of the Middle Earth age, continue to live even in modern England.
1. Carpenter Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. New York: Ballantine, 1977
2. Drout, Michael D. C.: J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York City: Routledge, 2006
3. Neil D. Issacs, On the possibility of Writing Tolkien Criticism, (Last viewed: April 26, 2007)