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Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings

Martin Ball

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this paper has been divided
into parts I & II


Literacy and Orality  

Much has been written about the historicising framework of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and how The Shire in particular is presented as a pre-industrial, agricultural society. Indeed it can almost be termed a pre-modern society, in that Tolkien took some trouble to eradicate anachronistic references to New World vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes, and especially tobacco--which in the hobbit lexicon becomes pipeweed. This historicising topos has been interpreted mostly as a nostalgic gesture, a longing for a pre-industrial past where the fields are free of noise and pollution. Hence the contrast between the pastoral innocence of the Shire, and the slag and smoke of the work pits of Isengard and the factories of Barad-Dur.

Tolkien's valorising of the pastoral can be linked to his childhood growing up in semi-rural Sarehole, outside Birmingham, and his dismay at the industrial development of Oxford. These things are obvious, and display an ideological commonality with a range of English writers, from Clare to Housman – Raymond Williams has written persuasively on this trend in The Country and the City. But there is more than pastoral sentimentality and nostalgia in Tolkien's vision. Aside from the pre-industrial tropes, a more significant historicising marker in Middle Earth is the absence of printing. As H.J. Chaytor noted, this locates the action not just as pre-industrial, but as truly medieval.33

Middle Earth is a manuscript culture. It is a world where scrolls, books and documents are both precious and precarious. Consider the crucial role of manuscripts in Tolkien's works: the map of Erebor in The Hobbit; Denethor's "hoarded scrolls and books" at Minas Tirith; the Book of Annals in the Chamber of Mazarbul in Moria; and lastly, the Red Book of Westmarch itself, Bilbo and Frodo's written account of their adventures. It is this so-called Red Book that Tolkien purports to translate, and which thus forms the literary conceit that establishes the connections between the fiction of Middle Earth and the contemporary reality of the reader's world.

The Red Book is mentioned in the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings as containing Bilbo's and Frodo's accounts of the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Prologue to 'The Fellowship of the Ring' further tells how this manuscript was not preserved. It was however copied many times, with emendations, accretions and deletions, in the generations that followed Bilbo and Frodo's departure to the Grey Havens. Numerous copies resulted, with varying content and competing authority. It is easy to see that Tolkien is constructing a manuscript genealogy in the manner of the real medieval texts that were his daily academic bread and butter. Tolkien spent much of his professional life working on the two great poems of medieval English poetry, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, each of which survives in a single extant manuscript. The Beowulf manuscript is of particular relevance here. It was written by multiple scribes some hundreds of years after its original composition--just like the Red Book of Westmarch. Further, it was crucially damaged in a fire in 1731, rendering parts of the text illegible, and the manuscript itself physically unstable. The similarities to the Book of Mazarbul are more than coincidental here--"partly burned ... written by many different hands ... the leaves [of the book] crackled and broke" (The Lord of the Rings, I: 335).

In highlighting the importance of manuscripts Tolkien introduces the theme of textual corruption in literary artefacts. This can be contrasted with the many examples of robust longevity in oral transmission--the lays and sagas, and verse lore. Yet oral traditions too are fragile, as can be seen in confusion over the inscription at the Hollin Gate to Moria. The message on the doors reads "Say 'friend', and enter", but the simple verbal understanding has been lost because the custom has passed into abeyance. Gandalf is forced to rely on the written word, and hence initially mistranslates, and misinterprets the command.

The practising of oral culture and ritual poetry is most evident in the depiction of the language and culture of Rohan. The Rohirrim sing songs when going to battle, they sing to lament the dead; and they sing these elegies in alliterative metre. It has long been recognised that Tolkien used Old English as the basis of the language of Rohan. It has taken a scholar like Tom Shippey to point out that Tolkien transcribes passages from the Old English poems Beowulf and The Wanderer into his Rohan narrative, and even distinguishes Mercian and West Saxon forms in the names of the Rohirrim.  In this Tolkien is indulging his sentimental belief that his family (on his mother's side) were "indigenous" to the West Midlands ;35 he is also bemoaning the homogeneity of modern English and the loss of regional identity.

Aragorn says of the Rohirrim that they are "wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs" (The Lord of the Rings, II: 33). He might well be describing the pre-literate Christian Anglian culture out of which Beowulf grew. It is important here to distinguish degrees of literacy. In her book Literacy and Orality, Ruth Finnegan notes that cultures with strong oral traditions are best described not as 'illiterate', but 'non-literate'. Taking Phillpotts' example of an Icelandic shepherd who is completely literate in the oral traditions of his national culture, Finnegan argues that in some respects, individuals in many non-literate societies are liable to grow up more acquainted with literature than those in modern western societies.36 Aragorn's comment clearly places the Rohirrim in this rich, non-literate category. Nevertheless, as Shippey notes, the fragility of record in such societies makes memory all the more precious, and poetry all the more valuable.

A further example of living oral culture is the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, where the Elves sing their songs, and Bilbo chants verses about Eärendil. What the Hall signifies more than anything else is the centrality in an oral culture of singing songs, of telling stories.37  This may seem self-evident, but it is critical as a starting point for a hermeneutic of Tolkien's work, in which story telling and singing songs --and preserving such traditions--is of supreme importance. I would therefore suggest that perhaps the most basic meaning of The Lord of the Rings is to celebrate the socio-functional role of narrative itself. But with the excision in the film of nearly all the poetry of the book, this vital expression of cultural values is missing. What we are left with is only the quest myth, a quasi-Jungian journey of the hero, dehistoricised, and stripped of cultural meaning.

Tolkien himself was deeply aware of the historical conditions which witnessed the diminishing of Old English poetic forms, hence his valorising of oral modes, and ambivalence about written records. Michael Clanchy has charted this in terms of medieval English history, acknowledging how the development of literacy in Norman England forced a shift in ways of thinking and acting: "The growth of literacy did not occur in a cultural vacuum. It replaced non-literate ways." Oral traditions must be practised to survive. They must be cherished and nourished, else they perish. As Lord says in The Singer of Tales, "once the oral technique is lost, it is never regained".38  Tolkien certainly laments the passing of pre-industrial, agricultural England, but this is simplistic and obvious. More dearly, he is composing a threnody to the lost culture of oral traditions.

Cultural Values and Cultural Studies

For American and Australian readerships, Tolkien's focus on oral texts and the maintenance of cultural traditions has peculiar relevance. The indigenous cultures of these continents have been devastated in the wake of colonialism. It is impossible to comprehend how much First Nation cultural tradition has been destroyed, even in the last few generations. The interaction of races and cultures can be an enriching experience for both sides, but just as easily it can produce cultural genocide. We can see parallels to the suppression and consequent mutation of Anglo-Saxon culture under dominance of the Norman colonisers – though the magnitude is not to be compared.

Tolkien's views on culture and race are complex. It is largely the cultural depth of Middle Earth which elevates Tolkien's fiction beyond so much other fantasy writing. Each culture has its language, often supported by a complete philological apparatus of etymology, morphology and syntax (Jackson's film goes some way to representing this, with a variety of spoken languages apparent, including subtitles for Sindarin). Each race of people (or beings) has a rich history too, with annals, genealogies, and struggles for independence and self-determination.

It is well to remember that The Lord of the Rings is not the starting point of Tolkien's work, but rather the end. Indeed, it is almost a mere footnote to his larger project of national mythography, which began with The Book of Lost Tales, and found belated expression in The Silmarillion. The whole project was driven by an early desire of Tolkien's to create a native English mythology. Tolkien wanted to generate a narrative model that could provide a frame for producing the sort of mythological stories of national origins that he so admired in other cultures.39

In this Tolkien seems to be quixotically disengaged from any sort of historical reality. He is happy to look backwards, but not to look beside himself. Yet as Chris Chism argues, Tolkien's textual mythologies were not produced in a vacuum; they engage intimately with the cultural mythologies of his surroundings.40 His ideas on race and nation were developed during the apogee of nation forming either side of the Great War, and with regard to The Lord of the Rings, in conscious opposition to ideas being promulgated by the German descendants of the northern culture he so loved.41 Shippey likewise argues that, contra Tolkien's explicit denials, it is possible to read the "Scouring of the Shire" as a comment on the historical situation in immediate post-war Britain.42 And so, through writing and reading, The Lord of the Rings becomes inscribed with the cultural and political issues of the moment. For a contemporary Australian readership, where there is a national pathology about origins and identity, the book thus offers a platform to consider the legacy of post-colonialism, with its competition of cultural codes and forms, and the displacement of oral culture with a hegemonic literacy. This nexus becomes clearer with the observation that Tolkien is writing The Lord of the Rings at precisely the same time as Ted Strehlow is researching his Songs of Central Australia, an attempt to preserve an oral culture before it disappeared under the assimilationist policies of western literate culture. As Barry Hill says of Strehlow's fieldwork: "What was happening was momentous to anyone with a mind to the differences between cultures. An oral culture was being converted into a written one."43

As I observed at the beginning of this essay, one of the paradoxes of Tolkien's work is that while he spent almost his entire professional life in universities, the academy has been slow to embrace his fictional writing. There have been isolated courses dedicated to his books and writings, but these and others are notable more for their rarity than being a trend.44 Nevertheless, with the rise of Cultural Studies at an institutional level, it is possible Tolkien's work might come onto the radar. This likelihood is only increased now that The Lord of the Rings has become a film, for the curriculum of cultural studies is typically focussed on cinema. As Rushdie acknowledged, albeit parodically, Tolkien is now a mass cultural phenomenon, with currency, if not value. It is ironic though, that cultural studies has created its own space within the academy at the very time that Tolkien's own discipline of philology has almost disappeared. This irony is doubled when we consider that a cultural studies analysis of The Lord of the Rings might conceivably privilege that film over the book as a site for interpretation--and yet, as I have argued, the film elides most of the specifically cultural material of the text. I wonder which epistemological regime Tolkien would have prepared; the one that valued his philology, or the one that values his fiction. It seems difficult to have both.

Return to part I of "Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings".

Martin Ball holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tasmania, with a thesis on Anzac mythology and nationhood. He is the music and drama critic for the Australiannewspaper in Melbourne, and was formerly Managing Editor of the literary/arts journal Siglo.

References (part II)
33 H.J. Chaytor, From Script to Print. Cambridge: Heffner, 1945.
34 Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the century. London: HarperCollins, 2000; 90–97.
35 "I am in English terms a West-midlander at home only in the counties upon the Welsh Marches; and it is, I believe, as much due to descent as to opportunity that Anglo-Saxon and Western Middle English and alliterative verse have been both a childhood attraction and my main professional sphere." Letters#165, p.218.
36 Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality: studies in the technology of communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988; 60–8. Finnegan quotes B. Phillpotts, Edda and Saga. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1931; 162.
37 The Fire Hall at Rivendell has an prior exemplar in Tolkien's earliest writings, as the 'Cottage of Lost Play', in The Book of Lost Tales, vol. I.
38 Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307. London: Edward Arnold, 1979; 27. A.B. Lord, The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum, 1968 (1960); 129. A less fatalistic view is put forward by Ruth Finnegan, who challenges the idea that one mode of communication completely replaces its predecessor, arguing that modern culture happily accommodates four successive modes: oral, script, print, and Information Technology. Literacy and Orality: studies in the technology of communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988; 142.
39 See his letter to Milton Waldman [no date, probably 1951]. Letters, #131, p.144–5. See also, Jane Nitzsche Chance, Tolkien's Art: a mythology for England. London: Macmillan, 1979.
40 Chris Chism, "Middle Earth, the Middle Ages, and the Aryan Nation. Myth and history in World War II." In Jane Chance (ed) Tolkien the medievalist. New York: Routledge, forthcoming. Read in manuscript.
41 Tolkien's ideas on race can be rather deterministic. His casting of Sauron's human allies as "swarthy" and "slant-eyed" would probably raise more questions now than it did in the 1950s. Figures like orcs and trolls also betray a deep anxiety about miscegenation, in that they are created as debased breeds of elves and ents.
42 Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the century. London: HarperCollins, 2000; 166–8.
Barry Hill, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. Sydney: Knopf, 2002; 167.

For example, at University of Queensland in the 1970s, and currently at Rice and Maryland Universities in America.

Return to part I of "Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings".



This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also