There are many concerns to deal with when considering so-called ‘medievalist fantasy’, especially when it is related to The Lord of the Rings. Anne Melano, in her article on ‘Utopias of Violence: Pierce’s Knights of Tortal and the Contemporary Heroic’ (Crossroads 3.2 (2009) 89-98) suggest that critical objections to such fantasy centre around three issues: that it romanticises an ‘old, repressive order’ (90); that it provides ‘mere consolation or distraction…encouraging passivity’ (90); and that it describes a ‘monomyth…a single dominant heroic ideal’ (91) which cannot be reworked or updated in any meaningful way. Melano suggests that one should rather seek to ‘situate medievalist fantasy in the time and place of its reappearance’ (91) in order to deal with these problems.
We saw last week how William Morris’s medievalism in The House of the Wolfings romanticised not an ‘old, repressive order’, but rather an ideal of social harmony which arose out of Morris’s own interests in Victorian socialism. We also discussed the ways in which Thiodulf is not the same kind of hero as Beowulf; his links to his people are more complex, and the conflicts between personal and communal interest which both he and Wood Sun encounter are not found in Beowulf; Thiodulf in turn, however, does not disturb the norms of leadership and heroic behaviour in the way that Beowulf does. While the story of Thiodulf appears to both report and idealise the past, it in fact creates an illusion of it, rewritten according to the priorities of later Victorian England.
How can we situate The Lord of the Rings in a similar way? Well, we have already begun to trace the network of connections between Tolkien and Morris, and the ways in which their created worlds interact in terms of shared motifs, tropes and narrative twists. We have also to consider Tolkien’s position as an actual scholar of medieval texts and languages and his relationship with other medievalists. The scholarly relationship with the past is not one of passive acceptance, but of active investigation and critique. And certainly it is hard to read simple heroic idealism into the Lord of the Rings if one positions it in relation to the First World War – in which Tolkien fought, and to which he lost many of his closest friends. The text has already been read as anything from anti-war propaganda (popular in the 60s and 70s) to ‘An Early Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire’ (Judy Ann Ford (2005), ‘The White City,’ Tolkien Studies 2.1, 53-73).
This week we will pick apart some of the medievalist aspects of The Lord of the Rings, but also ask if – and if so, how – the text resists the kinds of objections Melano lists. We will think about the relationship of source texts or ‘canon’ to the trilogy; are its myths compliant with the heroic age it apparently seeks to recreate, or are there re-readings and areas of unease or uncertainty built in? Is this medievalism as ‘alternate universe’ making, in which a set of stories plays out differently because of the altered particulars of time and place in which it is situated? As you prepare for the seminar, think about these questions. Start to compare the nature of academic interest in a subject or text to that of fan interest; in what ways do they differ? Most of all, consider the text as multifaceted and responsive to interpretation: what difference does the reader make to the reading?
In the meantime, you might like to consider these various different interpretations of Tolkien’s (highly Anglo-Saxonist) song ‘Where Now the Horse and the Rider’, and how they impose meaning on or emphasise varying aspects of it: try ‘The Crazy Bards, the Lonely Mountain Bard, Palmerlane or Peter Jackson’s film interpretation. Check them all against the original text.