made this traditional story his own by creating the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and by splitting the heroics, almost at the last minute, between two characters: Bilbo, who finds the answers, and Bard, of the Royal Line of Dale, who slays the dragon. The same split, this time between Frodo and Aragorn, occurs much earlier and is developed more fully in LR. And even that split may have been influenced by tradition. (12)Aragorn most definitely fits the characteristics of the archetypal hero as defined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell outlined the hero quest as having three steps:
The Call to AdventureThe hero's quest is summarized by Moorman:
The Initiation (including both Spiritual and Physical Deeds)
how the hero living in a quiet and happy, albeit static, land is darkly challenged by a strange messenger, how he crosses with difficulty the threshold of a country full of trials and dangers, how he wins a token of power of piece of valuable information, and finally how he returns to his people bringing with him the saving knowledge or token he has gained beyond the boundaries of his own land. (202)
but Wagner is even more useful as a source for Tolkien to work against. Robert A. Hall, Jr., persuasively treats Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a rejection of Wagner’s Ring cycle (“Tolkien’s Hobbit Tetralogy”). Tolkien attempts to wrest back from Hitler’s Bayreuth the medieval matter of the Nibelungs and Volsungs, revealing the intensity of his dedication to these medieval sagas. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he actually recast them into his own rendition in an unfortunately unpublished poem he called “The New Volsung-Lay” (letter 295, n. 3, in Letters, 452; Shippey, Road, 277). And more generally throughout Tolkien’s war and postwar writings, shadowy repudiations of Wagner’s Ring lend a contentious vigor to his narratives. Aragorn, who explicitly rejects the chance to kill for the Ring, unwrites Siegfried, who doesn’t hesitate; Wotan, the meddlesome All-Father who enslaves any creature he directly touches, is countered by the distant Ilúvatar of The Silmarillion, who enfranchises his creatures and leaves them, sometimes disastrously, to their own devices. In one other crucial area - the choice of pity over ruthlessness, compassion over vengeance - Tolkien makes his difference from Wagner a defining moment of his mythos. (76)
Andersson's study The Icelandic Family Saga contains a great deal that might illuminate Tolkien's art. The structure of the plots of Tolkien's novels corresponds quite nicely to the structural pattern Andersson articulates for the Icelandic family saga, with the obvious exception of the revenge element; however, the second section of his book, "The Rhetoric of the Saga," is particularly interesting. In that section, Andersson argues that the "arrangement of the material and the progress of the narrative are governed by certain principles and techniques, which may almost be formulated as saga laws and which combine to give the saga its peculiar complexion" ( 32 - 33 ). The rhetorical structure that Andersson advances for the saga applies to Tolkien's novels as well. The first principal Andersson advances is one of unity: "The saga has a brand of unity not unlike the classical injunction against the proliferation of plot in drama. . . . The story is seen only in terms of the climax. Everything that precedes the climax is conceived as preparation for it and everything that follows is conceived as a logical consequence" ( 33 ). Quite clearly the unilinear plot of Hobbit can be described this way, but so also can the multilinear plot of LR. Even after the Nine Walkers become sundered and various hobbits, men, dwarves, and elves follow several plotlines to the climax, all are headed inexorably in that direction, each following his own path. "What is unique," Andersson says of the saga, "is the deliberate and single-minded way in which the story is related to the high point and the peak of the pyramid is achieved" ( 35 ). Andersson describes the progress of individual and sequential narrative events as scaffolding: "The episodes leading to the climax necessarily all tend in that direction, but they can be unrelated to each other" ( 35 ), and each episode "is an independent drama" (38 ). This is less true of Hobbit, as its plot is basically sequential, but it is certainly descriptive of the several plots in LR after the breakup of the Fellowship. The three main plots--Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli--are not dependent upon one another; each set of characters succeeds on its own, and the only thing the three sets of characters have in common is that they are all headed toward the same end, the narrative's climax. "Although . . . these episodes are related," Andersson concludes, "each is an independent action" ( 38 ).Within the scaffolding structure, Andersson delineates several techniques by which the saga author "guides the action toward a conclusion." One such is escalation, "the technique of staggering the episodes. . . . in order of jeopardy; each succeeding adventure is more provocative or perilous than its predecessor" ( 38 ). This is certainly the case in both of Tolkien's novels. In Hobbit, the confrontations escalate from the almost-Cockney trolls to that most fearsome of beasts, the dragon; along the way, Bilbo develops to match the increasingly formidable challenges. In LR, even the secondary characters take on increasingly difficult challenges as Frodo moves from a vague fear of the Black Riders to the final confrontation with Sauron. Andersson suggests that escalation can be achieved by "an increase of danger, a multiplying of portents, a deterioration of behavior, [or] a quickening of the pace" ( 40 ).
Balancing the escalation of episodes in the saga, Andersson sees something he calls retardation, "a meaningful slackening of the pace" ( 40 ). This retardation "arrests the pace and leads to the anticipated climax obliquely and slowly" ( 42 ). Such breaks in the action occur in both novels. There are two major respites in Hobbit: the stay at the Last Homely House, a pause before heading off into the "real" wilderness, and the refuge with Beorn, a pause before beginning the last stage of the journey. There are more such respites in LR, but the major ones are the passage through Bombadil's enchanted wood, a stop at the Last Homely House, where the Fellowship is assembled, and the stay in Lothlórien--all three incidents in which the pace of the story is dramatically slowed and the characters are able to rest. This retardation, Andersson comments, functions "to delay the climax and concentrate interest" ( 42 ). And in Tolkien, it often serves, as does the stay in Lothlórien, to concentrate interest on the climax by showing what may be lost if Sauron triumphs.
The balance between escalation and retardation is one indication of what Andersson calls the symmetry of the saga. Further, he notes that the "saga authors have a fondness for the use of pairs and series in their plot structures" ( 43 ). This element of structuring is very common in traditional narratives of all kinds; for example, the number three--three sisters, three wishes, and so on--appears in a variety of legends and folktales. Tolkien's narratives are full of pairs: Bilbo and Frodo, for example, the latter enacting a plot similar to the former's adventures. The Frodo/Sam duality is set off by the Frodo/Gollum and the Gollum/Sméagol dualities, forming a triangle of dualities or series of pairs. Strider becomes Aragorn, Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White, Saruman is a small Sauron, the smaller spiders in Hobbit prefigure Shelob in LR, and so on. Even the humorous series that Andersson finds characteristic of saga symmetry ( 48 - 49 ) is reflected in Tolkien's books, most obviously in the arrival of the dwarves at Bilbo's hobbit-hole and later in its parallel at Beorn's home. (Sullivan 14)
last updated 3/28/07