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  • Tolkien's Classical Beowulf and England's Heroic Age
  • Jane Chance (bio)

J.R.R. Tolkien's writing is not generally regarded today as having been greatly influenced by the classics. However, in the mid-eighties, Robert E. Morse noted that just as the modern poet "[T. S.] Eliot sees Vergil, not a Nordic myth, at the center of European civilization," rather surprisingly, "if we look, we may find he is at the heart of Middle Earth" (Evocation of Virgil 55). Believing that Tolkien was trying to understand how Virgil had "revitalized" the epic form—which he sought to do as well in The Lord of the Rings—Morse singled out their common denominator as the two authors' shared reliance on history (Evocation of Virgil 53). Further, Morse added, "The languages, geography, and political ties described in The Lord of the Rings are reminiscent of Rome, the Latin League, and Rome's empire" (Evocation of Virgil 45).

This observation may come as no surprise: Tolkien had studied both Latin and Greek from the age of eleven at King Edward's School and received a Classical Exhibition Prize at Exeter, where he originally intended to study "Classical Moderations." In his first year Tolkien studied Latin and Greek, but switched in his second to the modern languages of Old Norse, Gothic, Old and Middle English. His knowledge of and familiarity with the works of Virgil, Homer, and Plato, according to Humphrey Carpenter, certainly influenced his works of fantasy as fully as Gothic, Old and Middle English, and Old Norse have (Bio 33–71).

In this regard, the major classical roots of and analogues to Tolkien's fantasy narratives have been previously identified: Morse traces the Virgilian influence of the exile and flight of Aeneas on the exile and wandering of Bilbo and Frodo and the fighting of Aragorn; further, just as Dido serves as a model for Denethor, both stewards of the city succumb to passion (Morse, "From Snake to Caterpillar," np). Other scholars have similarly adduced parallels between the heroes and gods of Virgil and Tolkien's own characters and creations in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, and earlier or variant versions of both found in The History of Middle-earth.

In addition, David Greenman has identified the source for the patterns of escape and return in "The Fall of Gondolin" and The Return [End Page 59] of the King as both Virgilian and Homeric ("Aeneidic and Odyssean Patterns," 4–9). Aeneas's need to flee from the old Troy to create a new empire in Rome and that of Tolkien's Tuor to escape match Odysseus's need to return to Penelope in Ithaka and that of the four Hobbits to return to the Shire. Kenneth J. Reckford also notes similarities between Odysseus and Bilbo in The Hobbit, as well as between the Trolls and the Cyclops (particularly Polyphemus), and Gandalf and Pallas Athena ("'There and Back Again'" 5–9). In studying the Homeric parallels in The Lord of the Rings Mac Fenwick recognizes a "Homeric catalogue" (as Tolkien described it in a draft of "Minas Tirith" (WR 229), in the Gondorian nobles who usher in their men for the last defense (Fenwick 17–23, 50). Fenwick also notes that Tolkien frequently calls the Riders of Rohan "heroic 'Homeric' horsemen.

More importantly, Fenwick cites Tolkien as pointing to the necessity for a writer of a "tale of this sort" as needing to "consult your roots," because "a man of the North-west of the Old World will set his heart and the action of his tale in an imaginary world of that air, and that situation" (Letters 212).1 Equally interesting for understanding Tolkien's classicism is Fenwick's perception that the women of Homer—helpful Circe and Calypso and their antitypes, the female monsters, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis—either aid or challenge the journey of Odysseus, in a manner similar to the roles of the females Galadriel and her antithesis Shelob, as mediated by Frodo and Sam. Fenwick's point is that Tolkien borrows from the Homeric epic in building the maturation of his heroes: "In both, the hero's success depends not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1547-3163
Print ISSN
1547-3155
Pages
pp. 59-91
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-27
Open Access
No
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