Deep magic from the dawn of humanity: the real appeal of Tolkien

In the past few posts I’ve been explaining why Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings struck such chords with the western world, despite breaking all the rules of the twentieth century novel.

We’ve seen how, on one level, it ‘broke through’ a decade after being published, on the back of the way the counter-culture identified with the pastoral aspects of hobbit life. But there was something more going on – something that Tolkien very deliberately wrote into his whole imaginarium, which struck to the heart of the human condition, and to western cultural tradition – and this is what made his work so epic.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.
Gandalf: 85 percent Odin, 15 percent Merlin. This is Weta Workshop’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Tolkien – a philologist, expert linguist and academic par excellence – didn’t just want to write a fantasy story. He had in mind something bigger, one around which his imaginarium was organised. A mythology. England didn’t have one in the same way the Norse had, or the Germans – so he went out to write it, drawing on those traditions to create something new.

When it came to the novel based on that imaginarium – well, this had to be part of the tradition of epic literature, like Beowulf. It was this that gave LOTR – and the whole Middle Earth mythos – such fundamental power, and allowed Tolkien’s creation to capture the imagination of a very wide range of people in western culture, across generations.

Heroic literature demands a very different organising principle than what is required for an everyday novel. And The Lord Of The Rings is built around it, with its plot-points involving temptation, heroism, sacrifice – and a relentless testing of the characters by the dark forces swirling around them. In this sense, characters such as Aragorn – who, by twentieth century novel values was a cliché – were, in fact, spot on. Necessary.

The Lord Of The Rings, in short, was the literary equivalent of a Wagnerian opera: huge, suffused with vast themes of good versus evil, reaching directly to the heart of the human condition and displaying it on a mighty canvas that revealed just how vast an imagination Tolkien had. And, like Wagner, Tolkien made sure those themes gained credibility through depth – pushing a vast cultural tapestry and back-story into his work, knowing it interrupted the plot in twentieth century terms – but also knowing that it gave the mythic theme vastly more power.

The comparison is direct: Wagner’s stories drew from Norse/Germanic mythic tradition to produce stories of epic quests for rings, filled with jealousies over the power they gave, temptation, and greed. Tolkien drew from that same mythic tradition to build his own imaginarium. The difference was that whereas Wagner steeped his tales in blatant Germanic nationalism, Tolkien imbued his with a quiet, subtle and quintessential Englishness – something that shone through at every level, but particularly with his hobbits.

It is here, I think, that the second aspect of Tolkien’s genius shone through. The hobbits were everyman; they were ordinary, familiar, likeable characters that everybody could identify with. By making Hobbits the centre of the narrative, Tolkien gave LOTR the means to connect with the twentieth century reader – at first, as we saw in a previous post, the ‘hippie’ generation; then a much wider swathe of western readers. Blend that with the deep mythology he was producing and the result was irresistible – once it had been discovered.

As we saw in previous posts, LOTR didn’t sell well in its first decade. That changed as soon as it was discovered by an eager market. And that issue – discovery – is still with us today. But that is entirely another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “Deep magic from the dawn of humanity: the real appeal of Tolkien

  1. Excellent analysis! Almost think there’s an English prof on the edge of her/his seat waiting for you to hand this in lol. I really like your line, “with a quiet, subtle and quintessential Englishness.” – something that teases the subconscious with a soft, familiar little feather. It’s not at all surprising that authors like Koontz still use the everyman to connect with the reader… because I guess we all secretly dream of becoming heroes within the brief page count spread of our lives.

  2. Thanks! I kind of slip into essay mode sometimes… I actually had an English prof who taught me a good deal. From the University of Montana of all places. He’d come out to NZ on a Fulbright scholarship. That ‘everyman’ aspect is definitely where readers click. Without hobbits, LOTR would have been a much lesser story.

  3. I’ve very much enjoyed reading your series on Tolkien! I definitely agree that it’s the mythology of LOTR that captured me as a reader in the same way that my imagination was captured by the original Star Wars trilogy in my childhood. It’s strange how some stories can resonate so strongly, it leaves you with a desire to touch and experience that fantasy world in some way in real life. That’s why the movies were so exciting for me, why I watched them over and over and compared them to the books, and why I decided to fly halfway around the world to visit your amazingly beautiful country, New Zealand – all to be a bit closer to that mythology! Can’t say I’ve ever done something like that for any other story.🙂

    1. Thank you! Yes, it’s been fantastic that those books were made into movies here – I actually live in Wellington, where a lot of the scenes were shot (I’ve been to most of the places…inevitably…) – and even today, north of the city, there’s a road sign leading to Rivendell, not that there’s anything there today other than some groves of trees. When I was first reading Tolkien, years ago, I’d never have imagined in a million years that it would have ever been filmed here!

      1. So cool! Sadly, I was only able to explore the South Island when I visited, which is why I hope to return to check out the North Island someday. I was a complete nerd and carried around my “LOTR Location Guidebook”, visiting as many locations from filming as I could. But honestly, your country is so fantastically gorgeous and the landscapes so unique and diverse, I would have fallen in love with it even if the movies had not been filmed there. I definitely understand why Peter Jackson chose NZ to be his Middle Earth!

        1. Part of the reason why NZ is that way is because we have every geographical type jammed into a very small space. That aside, I think there’d have been a riot if Jackson hadn’t filmed LOTR here – he’s very much a Kiwi! For instance, his ‘Brain Dead’ of 1990 was set in 1950s Wellington, which he reconstructed in close detail. Not obvious to international audiences, but very clear to us…

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