Lord of the Rings
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The Wizard of Oz
E.E. "Doc" Smith
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When John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a child he heard the other kids in his neighborhood speaking a made-up language called Animalic.1 Tolkien contributed to the neighborhood's next imaginary language, Nevbosh ("new nonsense"). At age twelve Tolkien's mother passed away (his father having died when he was only a baby), and he found solace in the beginnings of what would become his life-long obsession: the construction of an elvish language. This fascination with languages eventually helped Tolkien attain a position as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford, concentrating on philology.2 He spent most of his free time inventing "faerie languages": "Quenya" is reminiscent of Finnish, "Sindarin" of Welsh. As he crafted these languages Tolkien had a singular revelation: For a language to be "real," it has to consistently reflect a cultural perspective; the "story" of a culture. In other words, a real language both implies and demands a myth. For instance, the English word "excruciating" alludes to the story of the crucifixion of Christ.
Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1936 and The Lord of the Rings in 1954. Both were written in service to Tolkien's imaginary languages, and he found it frustrating that most people assumed the reverse. In an article explaining his obsession called A Secret Vice Tolkien wrote, "The making of language and mythology are related functions. Your language construction will breed a mythology."
Tolkien's work was a modestly successful "guilty pleasure" in academic circles for over a decade: professors and students were reluctant to admit how much they loved a story about "silly elf-and-dragon stuff." It wasn't until an American company illegally published a cheap edition in paperback that Tolkien's work finally reached the mainstream. By the mid-sixties The Lord of the Rings was probably the most influential fantasy story in the Western world, occupying the same position Star Wars did in the late seventies and Wagner's Ring Cycle did toward the end of the 19th century.
Lucas has often cited The Lord of the Rings as a major influence on Star Wars. The superficial stuff is the most obvious, but the subtle lesson Lucas learned from Tolkien is how to handle the delicate stuff of myth. Tolkien wrote that myth and fairytale seem to be the best way to communicate morality - hints for choosing between right and wrong - and in fact that may be their primary purpose. Tolkien was devoutly Christian, and wrestled a bit with figuring out how to talk about The Christian Bible. He observed that the New Testament in particular is structured just like a myth, and wanted to be able to explore that without giving anyone the impression that he was belittling what he saw as a genuine divine revelation. Finally he decided that the Bible is a true myth, and stories like The Lord of the Rings are "sub-creations."
Star Wars may be "Flash Gordon on the outside," and the structure is mostly Campbell, but the heart, the myth, may draw most deeply from Tolkien. That doesn't mean Lucas ripped Tolkien off!! Tolkien's primary inspiration for the tricky good vs. evil stuff was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century CE, author unknown), and Tolkien recorded his frustration at being unable to find the sources for that story. He had no doubt that such sources existed, and hoped to learn from them the same way Lucas learned from him. All great stories have deep roots.
Here are a few of the superficial similarities between Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings:
Tolkien's deepest linguistic influence was probably his discovery of The Kalevala (roughly "Song of the Land of Heroes") in the original Finnish, a joy he compared to drunkenness. He used it as the primary model for his own language, Quenya. Tolkien was fascinated with the idea of a magic relic so powerful (and metaphorically flexible) that it could serve as the center of an entire heroic epic. The Kalevala's version of the One Ring, the Tsampo, is described so vaguely that to this day scholars debate about what exactly it is. (A ring? A staff? The Golden Fleece?) This enticing ambiguity probably influenced Tolkien's idea that a great story never gives the reader all the answers. He wrote: "Part of the attraction of the L.R. is, I think due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed." The Kalevalah was collected into a single story in 1849 by Elias Lönnrot.
Another huge influence for LOTR was Beowulf. The earliest surviving epic poem written in English, Beowulf was most likely composed in the seventh or eighth century by an Anglian bard. Beowulf tells the story of a Scandinavian hero and his battles with the beast Grendle, Grendle's mother, and a dragon. Tolkien translated it, taught it, wrote papers about it... it is no exaggeration to say that Beowulf's current position as a "classic" in Western academia is due in no small part to Tolkien's efforts and prestige. Tolkien loved Beowulf because it was the first story he'd ever read by a Christian that portrayed the Pagans not as godless savages, but a sympathetic and noble people. Tolkien saw Beowulf as a magnificent reconciliation between the two cultures. He also loved the great heroes, monsters, swords and orcs, which he borrowed for his own stories. The halls of Beorn and Théoden are very closely modeled on Heorot, the hall of Beowulf's friend Hrothgar, king of the Danes.
The basic plot for The Hobbit is probably borrowed from this offhand line in Beowulf (translation by Seamus Heaney): "...a dragon on the prowl from the sleep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage, unknown to men, but someone managed to enter by it and interfere with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing, though with a thief's wiles he had outwitted the sleeping dragon; that drove him into rage, as the people of that country would soon discover." The other major source for The Hobbit is probably Tolkien's favorite childhood story, The Story of Sigurd, as published in The Red Fairy Book (1890) by Andrew Lang (1844-1912). Hobbit also includes a few ideas from H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), in particular from King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1886).
Tolkien even borrows his title from Beowulf: line 2345 reads, "Oferhogaode ða hringa fengel," usually translated "Yet the prince of the rings was too proud..." This suggests Beowulf's trait of sharing gold rings and other spoils of war with his men, thus earning their loyalty. I strongly suspect that Tolkien translated this title of Beowulf's as "Lord of the Rings."4
The Lord of the Rings was also influenced by Le Morte D'Arthur, the "definitive" story of King Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1485. Tolkien considered it a shame that the English thought of King Arthur as their central myth, since he felt it was "essentially French." One of his goals in writing LOTR was to give England a myth which was truly English. Tolkien's favorite King Arthur story was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th c., anonymous). The title of the third volume in LOTR, The Return of the King is probably inspired by the common British legend that King Arthur, like Christ, will one day return to reward good and punish evil (a title probably echoed by Return of the Jedi).
The King Arthur myth was originally created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regnum Britannie (History of the Kings of Britain), first published around 11385. Geoffrey pilfered a few Welsh myths and the dubious history of a real chieftain who lived in Wales in the sixth century, but basically invented this entire story out of his head, then passed it off as a true history of Britain! For hundreds of years Europeans believed this self-aggrandizing fib, which elevated Britons to the same high pedigree as the Romans or the Greeks. Even today British monarchs are held to standards invented by this imaginative cultural engineer. The Church was so pleased they appointed Geoffrey Bishop of St. Asaph in 1152. Geoffrey invented Avalon (Latin for "place with apples"), the sword Caliburn (from the Welsh Caladfwlch, which means "hard lightning"), Morgan LeFay (French for "The Faerie"), Merlin and Guenevere (from the Welsh Gwenhwyfar, meaning "unfaithful"). He also converted the Welsh hero Medraut into the evil villain Mordred.
Successive versions of the Arthur Myth followed Geoffrey's lead in retelling the story to advance political agendas. In 1155 Wace the Anglo-Norman wrote Roman de Brut, which introduced the Round Table, popularized the idea of courtly love, and renamed Caliburn "Excalibur." From 1170-1185 Chretien de Troyes wrote Arthur poems which introduced the idea of the quest for the Holy Grail, the first mention of Sir Lancelot du Lac (the greatest of Arthur's knights and, unsurprisingly, a Frenchman like de Troyes) and the adultery between Guinevere and Lancelot (she had originally cheated with Mordred). From 1225-1237 a group of Cistercian monks in France wrote the Vulgate Cycle. They replaced Perceval with Galahad as the Grail-finder, made Arthur's knights the counterparts of Christ's Apostles and implied that King Arthur might be the second coming of Christ. Their most significant contribution, however, was to rewrite the Morgan LeFay character. The Cistercian monks believed that all flesh was evil, and included all women in their definition of flesh. Some even wrote essays arguing that there was no such thing as a female soul, that women were merely animals who were deluded into thinking that they were human beings. This all-male society was so uncomfortable with the idea of a woman with magical powers that they changed Morgan Le Fay from a happy, benevolent healer to a miserable, adulterous dark sorceress who knowingly slept with her own brother.
The Kalevala, Beowulf and Le Morte D'Arthur all belong to a literary form some scholars call the "Primary Epic": that is, they tie together all the oral myths and traditions of a culture into a single heroic story. The oldest surviving Primary Epic is Gilgamesh, written around 2,000 BCE in Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh is uneven and survives only in fragments, so most studies of the heroic epic begin with The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written around 900-750 BCE by the Greek poet Homer. Other famous Primary Epics include India's The Ramayana (c. 300 BCE) and The Mahabharata (c. 200 BCE), Japan's Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike, c. 1180 CE), and France's Chanson de Roland (c. 1080 CE).
Eventually writers began to create stories in the style of the epic based mostly on their own imaginations, rather than an oral history - a form called the Secondary Epic. Famous secondary epics include Virgil's Aeneid (50 BCE), Dante Alleghri's Divine Comedy (1265-1321 CE) and Milton's Paradise Lost (1655 CE).
While Tolkien borrowed the form of the epic and several great ideas from The Kalevala, Beowulf and Le Morte D'Arthur, his greatest influence was probably Norse mythology. The Lord of the Rings reinvigorates ideas from every major work of the Norse cannon: The Elder (Poetic) Edda (composed between 800-1200 CE, authors unknown), The Younger (Prose) Edda (Snorri Sturluson, 1222 CE), The Volsunga Saga (13th c, author unknown), Das Nibelungenlied (13th c, author unknown), Thidreks Saga (c. 1200 CE, author unknown), and Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway (Snorri Sturluson, c.1225 CE).
Tolkien also borrowed a bit from non-epic sources, like the idea of Ents from Shakespeare's Macbeth. In a letter to poet W.H. Auden Tolkien wrote of his Ents: "Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schoolboy days with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of 'Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill': I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war." Tolkien wrote that his original inspiration for the hobbits was the snergs, from E. A. Wyke Smith's The Marvelous Land of the Snergs (1927).
The Modern Fantasy Tradition
One look through the Fantasy section of the local bookstore might give you the impression that Tolkien invented modern fantasy; almost everyone works within the model he developed. But Tolkien consciously worked within conventions which had been established before he was born. Modern Fantasy began a new literary genre based on epics, fairy tales and myths while distinguishing itself from all three:
Macdonald was influenced primary by German romance stories, particularly Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), by Novalis (pen name of Frederick von Hardenburg, 1772-1843). Macdonald's favorite fairy tale was Undine (1811) by Baron Fouque Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte (1777-1843).
The most notable authors of the Classic Modern Fantasy tradition and their most famous fantasies include:
In 1933 C.S. Lewis brought together a group of like-minded writers who called themselves "The Inklings." For sixteen years they met once a week to read each other their Christianity-themed essays and heroic fantasy. Most of their stories followed the basic model created by Macdonald, Morris, Cabell, Eddison and Dunsuny. Tolkien stood out from the group in two ways: he was the most resistant to criticism (ignoring it entirely), and he believed that allegory (even Christian allegory) made for weak fantasy.
Gandalf is one of the most appealing, memorable characters in Tolkien's stories. He borrowed the name Gandalf from Gandálfr, a character from Völuspa ("The Prophecy of the Wise Old Woman"), part of Norse mythology's Elder Edda (1056 CE). Gandalf literally means "elf with a magic stick" in Icelandic: álfr means elf and gand is a variation on the Icelandic vondr, meaning "magic stick" (from which we get the modern word wand). The names of all the dwarves from The Hobbit are taken from Völuspa: Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Thorin, Thrain, Thror, Durin and Dain (source: Shippey). Gandalf reappeared in Hálfdanar Saga svarta (The Saga of Halfdan the Black), which is part of Heimskringla, or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, written by Snorri Sturlson (c. 1179-1241 CE). The story of Halfdan the Black also includes a description of the priest Ari Frode ("the learned"), probably the inspiration for the name Frodo (crossed with King Froda, as briefly mentioned in Beowulf).
One strong influence on Gandalf from Tokien's personal life was probably his favorite aunt, Emily Jane Suffield (1872-1963, also known as Jane Neave through her marriage to an insurance agent named Edwin Neave, 1872-1909). "Aunt Jane" was his mother's younger sister, and she contributed to his parents' marriage, passing love letters between them during their secret and forbidden engagement. She lived in Warwickshire county, the same place Tolkien grew up and the inspiration for The Shire. The locals called her farm "Bag End." Tolkien adored his aunt; In 1961 he wrote, "I always like shrewd sound-hearted maiden aunts. Blessed are those who have them or meet them... I was fortunate in having an early example: one of the first women to take a science degree." Tolkien stayed with her in 1904 when his mother became ill. Then in 1911, when Tolkien was 19 years old and his aunt 39, they made a backpacking tour through Switzerland "with a mixed party of about the same size as the company in The Hobbit." This expedition gave Tolkien the basic model for the main quest of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with Gandalf and his magic staff playing the role of Aunt Jane and her walking-stick. In 1961 Tolkien's 89-year-old aunt wrote to ask him "if you wouldn't get out a small book with Tom Bombadil at the heart of it." The Adventures of Tom Bombadil was published a year later, just a few months before her passing.
Visually Gandalf was based on a postcard called Der Berggeist ("the mountain spirit"), painted by J. Madlener. Tolkien saved the postcard in an envelope on which he wrote "Origin of Gandalf."
Tolkien's biggest influence for the character of Gandalf was of course Merlin Ambrosius, the mentor of King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth invented Merlin in 1138, by combining two fictional characters: the boy Ambrosius and the Welsh bard Myrddin. Ambrosius Aurelianus was a boy with a demon father who prophesied the defeat of the British by the Saxons, from Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), written by Nennius in the 8th century. Myrddin was "The Wild Man of the Woods," a bard and prophet from Welsh legend dating back to the 6th century CE. Some argue that Myrddin was a real person, but it's more likely he was the imaginary founder of Caer Myrddin, modern day Carmarthen. It was probably Geoffrey who invented the idea that Merlin created Stonehenge (by magically relocating the stones from elsewhere). He gave his character the name Merlinus rather than Merdinus (the typical Latinization of Myrddin) because his readers spoke French, and Merdinus sounds too much like the French "merde," which means "poop."
The Machine as Adversary
I think it's fair to say that Tolkien believed the point of myth is to portray a hero figuring out the difference between right and wrong, which prepares the reader to make the same heroic journey in their own life. The earliest recorded myths embodied divinity as a pantheon of gods, and evil as disobeying the will of the gods. Often the embodiment of disobedience was the father-god's ugly, handicapped or otherwise disadvantaged younger son, who rebelled out of jealousy of the older, handsomer, more capable son who would one day rule the gods. As the Western world gradually shifted to a monotheistic (single-god) idea of divinity, all the evil gods gradually compressed into a single personae, Satan (probably from ha'shaitan, a Hebrew term meaning "the adversary").
The idea of Satan was widely accepted until the 16th century, when scientists such as Copernicus (and later Galileo) began to publish data which proved that some of the statements in the Bible weren't literally true. During the 16th century the Church had been claiming that the Bible was literally true, and Europeans experienced a massive spiritual crisis. Most still believed in God, but they were no longer sure what to think of the church or the scriptures. This crisis was brought to climax by the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His 1859 book Origin of Species popularized the idea of evolution, which suggested that the Earth has been around for at least several million years, rather than having been created in 4,004 BCE, as the Vatican claimed in those days (based on a margin note new to the King James Bible, first published in 1611 CE). People all over the Western world thought that science was disproving the existence of God, and the culture kind of "flipped out" in a way which we still haven't completely recovered from.
H.G. Wells believed that people have to think myth might be true for it to work properly. So telling children the story of The Tailor and The Devil was effective in the 12th century because children believed Satan might actually come get them if they were bad. Most modern Westerners probably believe in some form of divinity, but relatively few still believe that Satan might really appear physically and punish them for being bad. This "it might really happen" effect is part of what allows myth to get through to people on the deepest level. A myth deprived of this power becomes a "fairy tale," a fanciful story for children.
Sometime during the 19th century a new metaphor for evil appeared which seems to be gradually replacing the idea of a literal Satan: The Machine (also called The System). This idea may have been introduced by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), the most famous poet of the Victorian era, in his Idylls of the King (a potent retelling of the King Arthur myth, published in bits from 1859-1888). Tennyson used the Industrial Revolution, machines in particular, as the symbol of evil. In a sense science had "killed God" by seemingly disproving some of the literal claims in the Bible, and machines were seen as the physical embodiment of science, so spiritually-hungry Victorians embraced this idea.
Tolkien had his own reasons for disliking machines. He spent his early childhood in the hamlet of Sarehole, where people still rode on horses or in carriages. He was later sent to school in nearby Birmingham, where he first encountered automobiles and smokestacks. Tolkien conceived an immediate and lifelong hatred of mechanical things. He often said that the One Ring represents "The Machine." He wrote that art manifests desire in the imagination, but machines are an attempt to manifest desire in reality, by taking power over nature and/or other human beings. Tolkien considered this will to power the root of evil. He pointed out how much of the natural world needs to be destroyed to provide resources for a single machine (remember the orcs tearing down the forest around Isengard). In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien alluded to Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), which warns of the possible consequences if people become too dependant on machines. Tolkien wrote, "...So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom! This terrible truth, glimpsed long ago by Sam Butler, sticks out so plainly and is so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse menace for the future, that it seems almost a world wide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it. Even if people have ever heard the legends (which is getting rarer) they have no inkling of their portent."
Joseph Campbell, George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers all use The Machine as a metaphor for evil. An important word of caution: although myth-makers often represent The Machine using mechanical devices, this is only a symbol. The path away from divinity is not the devices themselves, but the mechanization of human beings. Myth dramatizes the idea that people lose our "souls" when we surrender responsibility for our own lives in exchange for the advantages of the System - any system. The Deathstar symbolizes The Machine, but R2-D2 and green-bladed lightsabers symbolize machines used for good. The tool itself is neither good nor evil.
Similarities With Wagner's Ring Cycle
For a long time I assumed that LOTR was inspired by Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (also called The Ring Cycle), a series of four six-hour-long operas first produced in 1876. In Tolkien's day Wagner's Operas were widely considered the greatest works of art mankind had yet produced. But Tom Shippey wrote that Tolkien regarded Wagner not with reverence but contempt: He felt Wagner had done Norse mythology an injustice by using it as source material without really understanding or studying it in depth. Tolkien famously dismissed critics who compared his work with Wagner's by saying "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases!"6
Most of the similarities between Wagner and Tolkien exist because they generally drew on the same sources from Norse mythology: The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsunga Saga, Das Nibelungenlied, and Thidreks Saga.7 Despite Tolkien's public claims to the contrary, it seems likely he drew some inspiration from Wagner, if only an itching to get it right!
1 Tolkien's Not-So-Secret Vice, by Helge Kåre Fauskanger, from his fantastic website Ardalambion; Of the Tongues of Arda, the invented world of J.R.R. Tolkien.
2 Philology is the father of modern linguistics. Most of the great philologists were German, so the term "philology" fell from political favor during the World Wars.
3 Lucas has acknowledged these influences in interviews
4I'm particularly proud of having stumbled across this little nugget of intel, as none of the gazillions of books and websites about Tolkien I've read have made the same observation. If you mention this in your work, please do the upright thing and give credit to this website. At the risk of drifting off-topic, sometimes I'll add a single completely-fabricated lie to a nonfiction article, so when my research shows up uncredited in a magazine article, book or website I know beyond a doubt where the "author" stole it. Don't be that guy. Anyway, I might be completely wrong: there's also a chance that Tolkien borrowed his title from a line of Wagner's: "des Ringes Herr als des Ringes Knecht" ("The lord of the ring is the slave of the ring").
5 Satisfying though apparently meaningless coincidence: The Star Wars of the early second millennium was the story of King Arthur, first written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1138. George Lucas' first studio film was THX-1138 (a remake of a film he made as a student as USC, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB). 1138 became a "signature" for Lucas: In American Grafitti the license plate number on Milner's deuce coupe was THX-138. Princess Leia is held in cell block 1138. In The Empire Strikes Back, General Rieekan says, "Send Rogues ten and eleven to station three-eight." The battledroid Jar-Jar pushes over in The Phantom Menace has the number 1138 on its back. A Clone Trooper from Attack of the Clones has the digits 1138 written in tiny red lights in that dark spot at the back of his head (and when Padme falls out of the helicopter-thing the marks she leaves in the sand might arguably spell out 1138). In Raiders of the Lost Ark the number THX-1138 appears on the wing of the plane the Nazis load the Ark on (source: mostly Kimberly Lugar's THX 1138 page and the George Lucas Easter Eggs Page). So is Lucas purposely referring to King Arthur? Apparently not, it's widely rumored that when George Lucas was younger his phone number was 849-1138 (THX-1138).
6 The Road to Middle Earth; How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, by Tom Shippey (1982).
7 Jane Ennis' sources for Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.