The Lord of the Rings: Modern Day Epic?
Epic adventures are one of the oldest and most celebrated works of literature. These adventures paint pictures of larger-than-life heroes, terrifying battle scenes, and heroic triumphs. Most epics served the purpose of transmitting culture and history, as well as entertaining readers. Among classical epics are the well-known Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. However, is the epic adventure a dying breed of literature? Is it possible that epic stories have sustained the test of time and evolved over the centuries? The Lord of the Rings trilogy, including The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, is one of the greatest examples of a modern day epic.
What do The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Lord of the Rings all have in common? They all share typical characteristics of epic adventures in some form or another. Though the motives and reasons may differ, the theme of journeying is common to all epic adventures. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, King Gilgamesh sets out on a perilous adventure with his closest friend Enkidu in order to find enduring fame and glory (Sanders 48-77). In The Odyssey, the main character Odysseus embarks on a 10 year-long journey through trials and tests to find his way back home to his wife and son (Fitzgerald 198-209). Epic hero Achilles, of The Iliad, sets out to fight in the legendary Trojan War (Fagles 537-544). Similarly, Frodo Baggins, unassuming hero of The Lord of the Rings, sets out from his home and place of comfort to destroy the evil artifact, The One Ring, and restore peace and freedom to Middle Earth. Each of these stories centers on a “hero”, or main character, and the brave and virtuous deeds they enact (Toohey 2,3). This praise of the hero’s deeds may be the author’s way of reflecting the characteristics they believe to be virtuous (Toohey 7). These heroes are typically characterized as having a close and intimate relationship with the divine realm, such as Gilgamesh and his relationship to his mother (Toohey 2,3). Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man (Sanders 48-77). Throughout his journey Gilgamesh often prays to his mother, goddess Ninsun, who provides him with direction throughout his trials (Sanders 48-77). Beyond the presence of the divine, epic stories often include certain elements such as detailed description of people or places, use of similes and metaphors, epic battle sequences, important artifacts, and grand speeches (Toohey 3). These epic stories, and others like them, were usually passed down orally and especially revered golden ages of the past with a strong sense of nostalgia (Toohey 8-9, 11). These characteristics can not only be found in ancient epics, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, but also in similar modern day stories, such as Lord of the Rings.
[Figure 1 The Leaf of Lorien is an important artifact and image throughout The Lord of the Rings that represents the fellowship of those embarking on the journey to Mordor to destroy The Ring together.]
Every epic contains a main character, or hero. Though heroes vary from story to story, they all share common characteristics. Traditional epic heroes go into battle to fight for their own fame; Gilgamesh sought this distinction on his own epic journey (Sanders 48-77)(Toohey 9). Similarly Achilles fought for the glory of his name in the Trojan War (Fagles 537-544)(Toohey 9). Epic heroes most commonly come from high ranks, such as kings or leaders (Toohey 9). They represent models of perfect masculinity displaying a strong, muscular physique and superior fighting skills (Toohey 9). At a first glance, The Lord of the Rings appears to exemplify these same ideals concerning traditional epic heroes. Though the unassuming hobbit, Frodo Baggins, is the true hero of this story, many might overlook him in favor of a more traditional heroic type. Many praise another character, a man named Aragorn, as being the traditional “hero” of the story (Enright 94). Aragorn, a human, embodies the masculine and powerful characteristics worthy of the title “hero”. In fact, the lack of many important women figures in The Lord of the Rings suggests that J.R. Tolkien shared the same ideals of epic heroes as did the ancient authors of epic stories (Enright 93). The handful of important women characters that are present seem to be pushed into roles typical of women in epics, that is being secondary to men. For example, the beautiful elf woman Arwen is stereotyped “the princess”. The woman Eowyn, with an unusual knowledge of battle, becomes “the amazon”. The wise elf Galadriel is “the enchantress” (Enright 94,95). These roles in no way deviate from the normal role of women in epic stories, who usually take a backseat to their masculine hero counterparts. However, after taking a closer look at the characteristics Tolkien prescribes to his women, it becomes apparent who holds the true strength and power in Middle Earth.
[Figure 2 Statue of Gilgamesh holding a lion signifying his strength and masculinity.]
While traditional epics, such as the The Iliad and The Odyssey, portray the strength and masculinity of their heroes as celebrated characteristics, J.R. Tolkien sees these as flaws (Enright pg 93). The power of brute strength in men is seen as a weakness (Enright 93). The perfect example is that of the man Boromir. Boromir is portrayed with all the military prowess and strength of any epic warrior; in the end, however, his love of power brings about his downfall (Enright 93). In his desire to hold the “Ring” of power, Boromir breaks fellowship with his friends to try and take this object for his own benefit (Enright 93). In contrast, the unlikely hero Frodo is a simple hobbit whose portrayal of innocence keeps him protected from the greed and power associated with the Ring (Chance 128). Throughout the story, the race of Elves is venerated for their strength of bravery, not purely brute strength (Enright 94). The elf woman, Arwen exemplifies the strength and power of her race through her embodiment of beauty, intelligence, bravery, and regalia (Enright 96). The true heroes depicted in The Lord of the Rings however, are ultimately the women who challenge the stereotypical depiction of the masculine nature of epic heroes. Tolkien depicts the women of the story as having a higher power or strength within themselves that men do not possess (Enright 93). This heroic nature of women is summed up in one word: love (Enright 93). The love that women possess is so strong that it conquers all; it is even compared to the saving love of Christ (Enright 93). This virtue accomplishes the one thing that brute strength alone cannot; women possess the ability to chose love over one’s own pride (Enright 95). This is arguably the highest theme running throughout Lord of the Rings. Without love, humility, and inner strength, the Ring of evil cannot be destroyed, allowing terrible vices such as greed, control, and pride to remain in power over Middle Earth. So important is this life-saving love that it is called the “greatest power of all” (Enright 93). These themes of heroes and virtues, while it deviates from the traditional masculine realm of heroism, continues the theme of classical, epic heroes in a modern way.
[Figure 3 Eowyn’s knowledge of battle is unusual for women in epic stories and thus earns her the title of “Amazon” or, aggressive woman.]
While the theme of great heroism remains central to epic stories, another theme is essential to the nature of such adventures. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Lord of the Rings, one central motif remains constant; the theme of departure and return (Chance 128). Every epic hero experiences journeying through this cycle, or some variation of it. The specific stages include: departure or separation from community; descent into underworld or journeying through trials; ascent into the over world or success of the trials; and return of the hero to reintegrate back into society (Chance 128). The great hero Gilgamesh travels through this cycle. In the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh departs from his kingdom with his trusted friend Enkidu to find fame and merit (Sanders 48-77). Throughout this journey Gilgamesh encounters difficult trials such as battling the creature Humbaba and losing Enkidu to an untimely death (Sanders 48-77). In the end, Gilgamesh finds the gods at the edge of the world and learns the lesson of his journey before returning home to go down in history as one of Mesopotamia’s greatest kings (Sanders 48-77). This example is typical of the specific stages of the departure and return motif. The Odyssey’s epic hero Odysseus experiences a variation of this cycle. In the beginning of this saga, Odysseus departs from his wife Penelope and son Telemachus to take part in the Trojan War (Fitzgerald 198-209). After ten years of battle Odysseus intends to return home, but ends up departing on yet another journey (Fitzgerald 198-209). During this ten year-long journey for home, Odysseus encounters many more trials that result in the loss of lives of his companions (Fitzgerald 198-209). Finally, After clearing these obstacles, Odysseus comes home to find his house overrun with unruly suitors, all vying for his loving wife’s affections (Fitzgerald 198-209). His last and ultimate trial is to rid his home of these intruders (Fitzgerald 198-209). After taking back his home Odysseus is finally able to enjoy his ascent to the over-world, or the success of his trials. Once and for all Odysseus completes his final return home to his wife and son (Fitzgerald 198-209). Similarly, in typical epic adventure-fashion, Froddo Baggins completes this same cycle of departure and return. The carefree lifestyle of Frodo the hobbit is broken by his sudden departure from his home, the Shire, to destroy the Ring. During his figurative descent to the underworld Frodo encounters many trials in foreign lands that risk his life and the lives of others. Representing his figurative ascent to the over-world Frodo finally overcomes his enemies, the army of Lord Sauron, and destroys the Ring in the volcano of Mount Doom. Middle Earth rejoices as the dark powers that once enslaved it fall to the greater power of good. Weary from journeying, Frodo returns to the Shire to see his home once more, before retreating to a quiet land called the Grey Havens to live out the rest of his days in peace. Though the journey appears to be over, it is commonly held that the cycle of departure and return continue throughout a hero’s life as he or she searches for lasting, inner peace (Chance 128). This continuous cycling through departure and return can be as endless as the cycle of reincarnation.
[Figure 4 The character Boromir whose exemplary display of traditional heroic attributes, such as masculinity, strength, and superior fighting skills, eventually led to his downfall.]
This theme does not stop with the story’s main character Frodo. Each and every character has their own personal story of departure and return. Frodo’s hobbit friends, Merry and Pippin, are abducted and forcefully taken from their friends before finally returning to their companions later in the adventure (Chance 131). More friends and companions of Frodo’s, Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli, are separated from their friends at the beginning of the journey, and are finally reunited as the war for Middle Earth reaches its climax (Chance 131). Gandalf, the wise wizard, dies fighting for Frodo and his friends in the Mines of Moria, only to return glorified or transfigured during the late hours of battle to save his friends once again. This theme of departure and return permeates through epic adventures.
[Figure 5 Odysseus returns home to slay his wife’s suitors completing the cycle of departure and return.]
Similarly, the theme of traveling from the “natural” world to the “unnatural” world runs throughout the cycle of departure and return (Chance 128). Adventures begin at the departure from home, because the home is what is considered familiar or “natural” to the adventurer (Chance 128). As these characters begin to travel through foreign lands, they experience people, places, and events that are unfamiliar or “unnatural” to them (Chance 128). As Gilgamesh leaves his home and place of familiarity, he comes in contact with “unnatural” people and places he has never seen before, such as the forest monster Humbaba (Sanders 48-77). Likewise, as Frodo leaves his natural world of the Shire, he travels through the wider world of Middle Earth experiencing “unnatural” and new things he has never known before. As heroes return home, they return to their “natural” or familiar world, having grown as a person through their experience of the “unnatural”.
[Figure 6 Frodo and his friend Sam begin the cycle of departure and return as they leave their home, the Shire].
One of the most essential traditions to epic stories is the history of oral transmission. Many classical epics were originally passed down orally, and held a special reverence for past eras (Toohey 8-9, 11). The oral passing on of information served the purpose to preserve the culture and history of the people to which the story belonged as well as to teach a moral or lesson from the story’s outcome (Toohey 3). For example, The Iliad may have been written to preserve the history of the Trojan War and to explain spiritual beliefs in relation to the gods (Fagles 537-544). Even within the fictional realm of Middle Earth, author J.R. Tolkien expresses the important role that oral tradition plays in epic adventures. While The Lord of the Rings was not orally passed down itself, Tolkien realized the importance of oral tradition, and incorporated this seemingly ancient practice into the pages of his modern-day epic. Though this story itself could not be part of an oral tradition, Tolkien created oral traditions within his story. For example, the Kingdom of Gondor in Middle Earth is comparable to Homeric Greece in that they held the same cultural tradition of passing down myths and legends orally throughout generations (Prozesky). Throughout Middle Earth Tolkien talks of “matriarchs”, or elder women, who are “learned in the lore of [their] people; or skilled in the art of passing down their people’s traditions (Prozesky). The people of Middle Earth make use of “minstrel’s songs” and “gnomic verses”which were similar to mnemonic verses. Both mnemonic verses and gnomic verses were short sayings that taught a moral or lesson. Throughout the journey of Lord of the Rings, sojourners recounted ancient stories, songs, and old wives tales to aid them in their adventures (Prozesky). Though modern-day technology has made the transcription of stories easier, epic adventures have not lost touch with the importance of oral tradition.
[Figure 7 Hobbit children listening intently as Frodo’s elder relative, Bilbo Baggins, recounts the stories and adventures of his youth.]
When many people think of traditional epic stories, visions of ancient Greece, of Mesopotamia come to mind. Stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, and The Odyssey have been venerated for ages and will remain some of the greatest epic stories of all time. However, the epic adventure is not an extinct breed of literature. Though characters, motives, plots, and storylines change, the essential elements of epic stories remain the same. Classical epic archetypes such as the epic hero, departure and return, and oral tradition have been passed down through time and remain in modern-day epics. The Lord of the Rings trilogy takes on, embraces, and even changes these themes to fit the epic story of a simple hobbit named Frodo Baggins who leaves home to save the earth.
 Fictional trilogy by J.R. Tokien chronicling the adventures of Frodo Baggins and the fight to free Middle Earth of the evil Lord Sauron
 An evil ring forged by a dark lord named Sauron, which contains the evil, greed, and power that overtakes and enslaves all the people of Middle Earth.
 The fictional world of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo’s epic journey takes place.
 A famous wizard in Middle Earth that gives his life to save his friends and further their journey.
 Underground city in Middle Earth where Gandalf dies protecting Frodo and his companions from the balrog, or fire monster.
 One of Tolkien’s fictional kingdoms of the race of men created by brothers Isildur and Anarion.