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The Lord of the Rings
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Archived 2011 Group Reads > Lord of the Rings - Background, Additional Resources, and Themes

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message 1: by Loretta (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) I am creating this topic so that everyone may feel free to post additional information that they feel can add to the understanding of the trilogy.

If your discussion is going to include spoilers, please use a spoiler cut, indicating before the cut what part of the trilogy the spoilers apply to.

For example:

Spoilers for The Two Towers below
(view spoiler)

Otherwise, this is a place for general comments, e.g. the themes of friendship, bravery, etc.

It's also a good place to discuss the author, his style, metaphors you think appear in the books, etc.

Everyone have fun and post away! :)

Melissa Last year, after my family and I listened to an unabridged audio addition of Lord of the Rings, I read some supplemental books - these are the three I've read. I've got one more on my shelves that I would like to read sometime. I will try to share some of what I learned from these books with you.

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
Finding God in the Lord of the Rings
Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings

message 3: by Loretta (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) Thank you, Melissa!

I did have one (general) question, that I'm not sure any of your resources addressed, but I figure it's worth asking:

Have you found anything on why Tolkien's work seems to have a dearth of female characters?

We have finished "Book One" (so, the first half of Fellowship) and the only female character of any importance has been Goldberry (Tom Bombadil's wife). Moreover, I noticed this tendency was even more pronounced in The Hobbit (which, if I'm not mistaken, has no speaking female characters whatsoever).

Has anything you've read suggested why this is true?

Melissa Loretta,

None of the three books listed above discuss the issue. You will find that there are several prominent female characters coming soon.

However, as I've mentioned, my husband is an avid LOTR's fan. I know from various discussions that Tolkien's marriage was not a happy one.

I brought up your question with him today (he is home with the flu) and he pointed out that people forget that Tolkien was a product of his era - a much different one than we live in today. He was also a devout Roman Catholic.

He also said he had at one time read an essay that hypothesized that Tolkien viewed women more in the role as inspiration and helpers than as active role-players, which certainly is seen in Goldberry's relationship with Tom Bombadil.

An essay by Conrad O'Briain opens with this paragraph "Tolkien has been accused of being perfunctory in his treatment of his female characters and excused as being merely a man of his times. Looking closely at the characters in Lord of the Rings, however, it could be argued that Tolkien returned to possibilities for female participation which the epic traditionally afforded, but which were long overlooked in criticism. Tolkien's own relationships with women were obviously largely a product of his time. The early death of his mother, his marriage to a woman who was uncomfortable in Oxford intellectual circles, and the attitude of C. S. Lewis whose misogyny was only overcome by a late marriage, all affected Tolkien. It is wrong, however, that it always affected him for the worse. Tolkien had been a student of Joseph Wright, the philologist who had married a former student. She not only worked alongside her husband, but made Tolkien and many other students comfortably at home. His final scholarly collaborator was a woman, Simone d'Ardenne, a former student who became a professor at Liege. This promising collaboration, thwarted in part by the World War II only ended because of his increasing involvement with his fiction."

I dug through my husband's bookshelves and found a biography of Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter. I scanned through it and found a chapter that talks about the Tolkien's married life. Unfortunately, Tolkien's wife Edith was not highly educated (a fact that didn't bother Tolkien since she didn't need to be as wife and mother). She was insecure, unhappy as a Roman Catholic (she converted to Catholicism to marry Tolkien) and envious of his outside friendships with men (particularly Lewis), which took him away from home.

I am going to quote a lengthy section of the book because I think it provides a great deal of insight (if I remember correctly the love story of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel is alluded to in The Fellowship).

Near Roos they found a small wood with an undergrowth of hemlock, and there they wandered. Ronald recalled of Edith as she was at this time: 'Her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes bright, and she could sing - and dance." She sang and danced for him in the wood and from this came the story that was to be...the tale of the mortal man Beren who loves the immortal eleven-maid Luthien Tinuviel, whom he first sees dancing among hemlock in a wood.

This deeply romantic fairy-story encompasses a wider range of emotions than anything Tolkien had previously written, achieving at times a Wagnerian intensity of passion. It is also Tolkien's first quest-story; and the journey of the two lovers to Morgoth's terrible fortress, where they hope to cut a Silmaril from his Iron Crown, seems as doomed to failure as Frodo's attempt to carry the Ring to its destination.

Of all his legends, the tale of Beren and Luthien was the one most loved by Tolkien, not least because at one level he identified the character of Luthien with his own wife. After Edith's death more than fifty years later he wrote to his son Christopher, explaining why he wished to include the name 'Luthien' on her tombstone: 'She was (and knew she was) my Luthien. I will say no more now. But I should like ere long to have a long talk with you. For if as seems probably I should never write any ordered biography it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things felt in tales and myths someone close to my heart should know something about things that records do not record: the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began-all of which (over and above personal weaknesses might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives _ and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed the memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting."

I am going to point you to an interesting article by Christine O'Donnel about Tolkien's women. it does contain spoilers.

Melissa I am reading J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carter. Here are some interesting bits about Tokien and his relationships with men, women, and the church.

'My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith." (31)

His feelings towards the rural became emotionally charged with personal bereavement. This love for the memory of the countryside of his youth was later to become a central part of his writing, and was intimately bound up with his love for the memory of his mother. (32-33)

He had his first girlfriend when he was sixteen and his gaurdian unwisely and harshly separated them. Ronald himself would write thirty years later:'Probably nothing else would have hardened the will enough to give such an affair (however genuine the case of true love) permanence."(44) This girlfriend Edith Bratt (an ill-educated girl and a non-Catholic) would ultimately become Tolkien's wife.

At school, Tolkien missed Edith and threw himself into "an all-male society...At the age when many young men were discovering the charms of female company he was endeavoring to forget them and to push romance into the back of his mind. All the pleasures and discoveries of the next three years - and they were vital years in his development, as vital as the years with his mother - were to be shared not with Edith but with others of his sex, so that he came to associate male company with much that was good in life." (45)

His preference for male companionship for his relaxation was a source of frustration between him and Edith throughout their marriage.

message 6: by Michelle (last edited Mar 05, 2011 10:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Michelle (michelle8731) Melissa, thank you so much for sharing this! I'm definitely going to have to pick up this biography from Amazon.

I've always been aware of the small amount of women in LotR and how much or how liitle power some of them have. If the biography is going to give more insight into that, I'm all for it!

Melissa Hey Michelle,

I will be interested to hear your thoughts!!

Melissa LOTR as Mythology

Tolkien wanted to write a mythology for England. "Do not laugh! But one upon a time...I had a mind to make a body of more less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy story - the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast back cloths - which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. It should possess in the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our "air"...and while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call should be "high", purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama." (89-91)

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carter.

Melissa LOTR and Tolkien's Faith

Some have puzzled over the relation between Tolkien's stories and his Christianity, and have found it difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with such conviction about a world where God is not worshiped. But there is no mystery. The Silmarillion is the work of a profoundly religious man. It does not contradict Christianity but complements it. There is in the legends no worship of God, yet God is indeed there, more explicitly in The Silmarillion than in the work that grew out of it, the LOTR. Tolkien's universe is ruled over by God, 'The One'. Beneath Him in the hierarchy are 'The Valar', the guardians of the world, who are not gods but angelic powers, themselves holy and subject to God; and at one terrible moment in the story they surrender their power into His hands.

Tolkien cast his mythology in this form because he wanted it to be remote and strange, and yet at the same time not to be a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe; and as a Christian he could not place this view in a cosmos without the God that he worshiped. At the same time, to set his stories 'realistically' in the known world where religious beliefs were explicitly Christian, would deprive them of imaginative colour. So while God is present in Tolkien's universe, He remains unseen."

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carter.

message 10: by Loretta (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) Melissa wrote: "LOTR and Tolkien's Faith

Some have puzzled over the relation between Tolkien's stories and his Christianity, and have found it difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with..."

The first part of that is interesting--I don't see why it's so surprising that a Roman Catholic (the religion in which I was raised) would be able to write a novel that didn't have formalized religion, but infused religious themes throughout the book. Just because you're devout doesn't mean that you can't contemplate different methods of relating to God.

Melissa Loretta wrote: "Melissa wrote: "Just because you're devout doesn't mean that you can't contemplate different methods of relating to God. ..."

Exactly, I don't know (I was raised Calvinist) if the idea of general revelation is one taught in the Catholic church but when I read Tolkien and his thoughts on the relationship between God and what he defined as "sub-creation" I often think that Tolkien's ideas fit into the idea of general revelation.

Some quotes about general revelation

"1. Knowledge of general revelation should be common to all people: ‘It is not something they must seek to discover. It is not hidden truth such as the mysteries of special revelation revealed to the Apostles. It is information that is common knowledge to all … and impossible for mankind to avoid.’

2. Modern science is not general revelation, since most scientific knowledge is of recent origin, and only comprehensible to those with advanced training in the various scientific disciplines.

3. The subject of general revelation is God Himself (cf. Psalm 19:1; Rom 1:19–21; Acts 14:15–17; Acts 17:24–28; Rom 2:14–15, etc.), not the physical world.24

4. Humanity’s invariable response to general revelation is negative (cf. Rom 1:18–21). As Thomas notes: ‘For human discoveries to be categorized under the heading of general revelation, those discoveries must be objects of rejection by the non-Christian world, not revelations of truth … to suggest that discoveries of the secular Western mind are direct results of positive responses to general revelation is to contradict what Scripture says about unregenerate mankind’s response to that revelation.’

Therefore, the notion that general revelation includes scientific data, reasoning and conclusions cannot be maintained."


The classical definition of ‘general revelation’ is given by Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis:

‘[T]he disclosure of God in nature, in providential history, and in the moral law within the heart, whereby all persons at all times and places gain a rudimentary understanding of the Creator and his moral demands.’11

Elsewhere, Demarest adds:

‘General revelation, mediated through nature, conscience, and the providential ordering of history, traditionally has been understood as a universal witness to God’s existence and character.’12

Systematic theologian Millard Erickson offers a similar definition but, as Robert Thomas points out, he slips in an additional connotation for the meaning of ‘general’.13 Erickson understands general revelation as ‘general’ not only in the sense that it is universally available to everyone, but also in the sense that its content is general.14"

These quotes are from this website:

I am not a theologian and I realize that the discussion of general (or also known as natural revelation) is a reflection of the scriptural idea that nature reveals God if man will only pay attention "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." Psalm 19:1-4

However, I think that Tolkien's understanding of sub-creation and his insistence that his mythology [be]in this form because he wanted it to be remote and strange, and yet at the same time not to be a lie. " reveals a desire to share general revelation in a new way.

His 'imagination' insisted on freeing the story up from the conventions of his world (and I think his catholicity) so that the natural revelation implicit in them could have "imaginative colour" or in my words the revelation would be new and exciting again.

I am sorry Loretta, am I tedious?

message 12: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 885 comments Loretta wrote: "did have one (general) question, that I'm not sure any of your resources addressed, but I figure it's worth asking:

Have you found anything on why Tolkien's work seems to have a dearth of female characters? "

It's been a while since I've read Tolkein, but I would suggest that perhaps one reason might be that as far as I've read them, the legends, texts, etc. that he was drawing on had very few major female characters. If he had gone back to the Greek times he would have had plenty of examples of female goddesses and heroines, but the Norse and Germanic traditions I think aren't so liberated.

Just a casual thought, and may well be wrong.

message 13: by Loretta (last edited Mar 12, 2011 11:24AM) (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) @ Everyman: That's an interesting thought, especially considering Tolkien's scholarly background.

I once had someone propose to me that the reason was because Tolkien was in fact a closeted homosexual, which sounded to me like an especially specious argument. (And, considering the person who suggested this, it also seemed like a bit of wishful thinking.)

But your answer does actually make a lot of sense.

message 14: by Melissa (last edited Mar 21, 2011 08:17PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Melissa Lewis and Tolkien

Anyone who wants to know something of what Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other's lives should read Lewis's essay on Friendship in his book "The Four Loves." Here it all is, the account of how two companions become friends when they discover a shared insight, how their friendship is not jealous but seeks out the company of others, how such friendships are almost of necessity between men, how the greatest pleasure of all is for a group of friends to come to an inn after a hard days walking...It was partly the spirit of the times-you may find something of the same sense of male companionship in the writings of Chesterton; and it was a feeling shared, though with less self-awareness by many men of the day. It has its precedents in ancient civilisations, and closer at hand it was in part a result of the First World War, in which so many close friends had been killed that the survivors felt the need to stay close together. Friendship of this kind was remarkable, and at the same time entirely natural and inevitable. It was not homosexual (Lewis dismisses that suggestion with deserved ridicule), yet it excluded women. (144)

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carter.

message 15: by Melissa (last edited Mar 21, 2011 08:17PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Melissa Tolkien and Myth

We have come from God...and inevitably the myths woven by us, thought they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming 'sub-creator' and inventing stories can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown fo the power of evil.

In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography by Humphrey Carter.

Melissa Tolkien and Word Choice, Style, and Language

Tolkien argues that 'high style' is the only way to write when dealing with heroic matters.

Tolkien declared, in justification of high style: 'We are being at once wisely aware of our own frivolity if we avoid 'hitting' and 'whacking' and prefer 'striking' and 'smiting'; 'talk' and 'chat' and prefer 'speech' and 'discourse'; 'well-bred, brilliant or polite noblemen...and prefer the 'worthy, brave, and courteous' men of long ago. From this time onwards he put these stylistic precepts more into practice in "The Lord of The Rings." This was almost inevitable, for as the story grew grander in scale and purpose it adopted the style of The Silmarillion; yet Tolkien did not make any stylistic revision of the first chapters, which had been written in a much lighter vein; and he himself noted when reading the book twenty-five years later: The first volume is really very different from the rest.

message 17: by Loretta (last edited Apr 18, 2011 05:39PM) (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) Melissa wrote: "Tolkien and Word Choice, Style, and Language

Tolkien argues that 'high style' is the only way to write when dealing with heroic matters.

Tolkien declared, in justification of high style: 'We are..."

Very, very interesting stylistic information. Thanks for posting!

But I don't agree that the entire first Volume is written different from the rest. I'd say Book One is clearly the lightest, but the style and language use had already shifted by Book Two, halfway through the tale (once the Fellowship began to gather).

I think this works, though, because it mirrors the reader's own journey, from the innocent playfulness of the Shire, to the beginning of the dark times ahead.

Tracey (stewartry) Melissa wrote: "I know from various discussions that Tolkien's marriage was not a happy one. "

I'm a little shocked to see this; I haven't read extensively on Tolkien's life, but from what I do know it was an excellent marriage. He called Edith his Luthien, which is ... pretty powerful. What evidence is there that they weren't happy?

To my mind, Tolkien was simply emulating traditional story-telling: the men go out and do the adventuring, and the women are beautiful and beloved. Women were different creatures to men of his era.

Loretta wrote: "I once had someone propose to me that the reason was because Tolkien was in fact a closeted homose..."

*eyeroll* The list of writers - and fictional characters - and historical figures, for that matter - about whose sexual preference someone somewhere hasn't speculated about is pretty short.

message 19: by Loretta (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) @ Tracey: Yes, in my post above I indicated that I was quite skeptical of his line of reasoning re: Tolkien's sexuality.

While I would expect that there are several famous authors who were in fact closeted gay men or lesbians, it's almost entirely impossible to tell from the content of their work if that was the case, and LOTR never made me speculate on this question. (As opposed to, for example, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which has some lesbian undertones that has caused many folks to speculate, if not on du Maurier's own sexuality, at least on whether the undertones were placed there intentionally or not.)

Tracey (stewartry) Loretta wrote: "@ Tracey: Yes, in my post above I indicated that I was quite skeptical of his line of reasoning re: Tolkien's sexuality."

Well, I was basically agreeing with you. Sorry if you took it otherwise.

message 21: by Loretta (new)

Loretta (lorettalucia) Sorry if I misunderstood. The LOTR element re: Tolkien's sexuality always seemed especially ridiculous because it seems to imply that strong male friendships are automatically a sign of including a sexual element, as if men cannot care for their friends without an attraction being part of it.

Lindsay (itwasatrickpie) Thanks for some very interesting background and insightful speculation into one of my favourite books/series - some of this I had no inkling of!

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