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1.1 (Winter 2017)

“The Melding of Anglo-Saxon Themes in The Lord of the Rings”

Alex Dewhurst
Fitchburg State University

J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings is the culmination of his profound abilities as a linguist, philologist, historian, and literary scholar. His work effectively quenched the thirst of Britons who strived for a seat at the table of the great European mythos. Combined with his skill as a writer and vast influences of past literature of different cultures and eras, Tolkien managed to create the lore that England needed while also telling a story for the ages. His influences stem from his own life experiences as well as literature of cultures like the Norse, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and much more.

Of these major influences Anglo-Saxon and Christian writings play a particularly important role. Specifically, the contents and themes of the poems found in the Old English elegies can be found strewn throughout The Lord of the Rings. Aspects such as the ruins of past civilizations and the connections that those influences have on the characters and the plot are direct references from this literature. Stemming from Tolkien’s inspiration of the Old English elegies, particularly “The Ruin,” it appears that Tolkien uses ruins as a device to implement wyrd, another Anglo-Saxon theme similar to fate, onto the characters and utilizes it to progress arcs and plot lines throughout the story. While some scholars argue that ruins typically represent a warning to current civilizations or simply act as lamentation or appreciation for the past, Tolkien seems to have found an entirely new use for the often overlooked setting of many important scenes throughout his work. During almost every incident where a ruin is involved, a reader can find wyrd right along with it and the circumstances of the characters change dramatically following these points. Wyrd acts almost as an intelligent being that is thoughtfully pushing and pulling the characters to their final destinations. These settings include Weathertop, Moria, Isengard, and Parth Galen. Wyrd is not a commonly found theme in modern day texts but Tolkien uses it throughout his work. While fate is a thematic element regularly observed in today’s literature, Tolkien takes a very different approach with a similar theme.

Wyrd is a concept that can be found in Anglo-Saxon literature and a word that David Pedersen argues can mean “lot” or “fate” when translated from Old English to Modern English in his article “Wyrd de Warmung… Or God: The Question of Absolute Sovereignty in Solomon and Saturn II” (714). However, in most instances the character who is being subjected to wyrd does not know their outcome and the emphasis is on the journey to their fate and the events that lead them there. An important characteristic of wyrd is the inability of beings who are under its influence to disrupt their chosen course. According to Karma Lochrie’s article “Wyrd and the Limits of Human Understanding: A Thematic Sequence in the ‘Exeter Book’,” this is the most crucial aspect of the concept: “the individual cannot “frustrate” or prevent God’s wyrd under heaven, that in fact wyrd is destined to frustrate the individual’s plan for the future” (326). This leads to the recognition that this is largely a thematic element of Christianity, another heavy influence on Tolkien’s work further proving Tolkien’s possible emphasis on wyrd. Both Lochrie and Pedersen agree that the closest modern term that wyrd may translate into is fate.

As this element of Tolkien’s work becomes more and more visible, the ruins that are found in The Lord of the Rings are also abundant and important and play a vital role to wyrd, where it can be seen, and whom it affects. From Frodo departing the Shire, to the Ring being destroyed in the depths of Mordor, ruins are a frequent setting for many of Tolkien’s chapters. One of the earliest ruins we see is at Weathertop described as “burned and broken […] Yet once it was tall and fair” (185). This is also where the climax of the first book of The Fellowship of the Ring occurs and Frodo is stabbed by the Nazgul. Later in the book the fellowship pays their respects to the past Elvish civilization of Hollin as they pass its ruins after departing from Rivendell. Gimli praises the Dwarves who carved the Mines of Moria that are now lost to the dark and the creatures that dwell in it. Even Osgiliath, the once great capital of Gondor, has slipped into a state of dilapidation and disrepair. While these frequent backdrops of the story serve as a reminders of what once was and as warnings of what may be for the characters in terms of the end of their own civilizations, Tolkien also uses them as settings for wyrd. If the characters are floating on the river of life that represents wyrd, then the ruins that are so often seen represent the rapids that change the courses of the characters and lead them to their final destinations.

The piece of literature that most likely inspired Tolkien to combine the themes of wyrd and ruins is the 8th -century poem “The Ruin.” Found in the Exeter Book “The Ruin” is part of the Old English elegies and the author, time of composition, and even the subject of the poem are all mysteries to scholars. However, its theme of a fallen civilization and the juxtaposition of the past and present warrants a close look for Tolkien fans and students of the elegies. The poem consists of 49 lines, although many of the lines were affected by fire damage and are illegible. The poem is from the perspective of a single person and mostly entails the speaker’s observations of the ruin. The speaker describes various pieces of evidence from the past civilization such as ruined roofs, toppled towers, and weathered walls. While the first half of the poem continues to describe the ruinous-state of this once great kingdom, in the second half the speaker brings life to the ruin. The speaker considers the builders that may have worked on the structures, the noise of the army, and the joy that would have rung out through the halls of this place. One aspect of this poem that is particularly interesting is the idea that this ruin was not caused by war, but rather the natural destruction of humanity, something the speaker considers to be fate or wyrd. Scholars like R.F. Leslie in his book Three Old English Elegies point to sickness or natural disaster as something that may have swept this unknown civilization into obscurity. Because Tolkien’s influences are so diligently studied, it is important to discover the roots of his inspiration, and in this case it is clear that “The Ruin” was likely a source for his melding of wyrd and ruins.

Scholars may not agree on the setting for “The Ruin,” but they can agree that it was a likely source of inspiration for Tolkien. Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova’s book The Keys of Middle-Earth examines many possible influences on Tolkien including “The Ruin.” The authors conclude that the ruins likely represent lamentation and a collision of the past and present due to both concepts being found in the poem and in Tolkien’s work. They even discuss the usage of the word “ent” as an Old English word in the poem and the possibility that it was the source for the Ents found in The Lord of the Rings (213). These authors point to ruins such as Amon Hen and the ruins of Ithilien as possible points of connection between Tolkien’s ruins and the poem.

However, upon further examination it seems likely that the ruins found in the text had an even stronger connection to the poem and a different representation than other scholars have discovered. This concept can be noticed very early on in the books and throughout The Fellowship of the Ring. As Strider, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin leave the fleeting comfort of the Shire and start on the long road to Rivendell, they take refuge in an abandoned stronghold of Men. Not only is Weathertop one of the first ruins Tolkien installs in the story, but he also reminds the readers of the wyrd that is soon to begin taking hold of the characters Tolkien writes, “[Frodo] wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire” (188). Tolkien’s decision to use the word “fortune” elicits the idea that fate, luck, destiny, or wyrd is soon to come into play. The narrator seems to have an understanding throughout the book that the characters do in fact have some degree of destiny or fortune but is uncontrollable by the characters. Unbeknownst to Frodo, his fortune in the setting of the ruins of Weathertop will soon change the course of his destiny.

Frodo’s, as well as the wyrd of those with him at Weathertop, change as they are surrounded by ruin. As the company rests in the dilapidated crevasses of the stronghold, the Ring Wraiths approach and Frodo is stabbed by the wraith, and “he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder” (196). This event quickly changes the fate of Frodo and his allies. Not only did this quicken the pace of the company and cause them to get to Rivendell faster than intended, but it allows the characters to grow in the midst of disaster. Sam again proves his loyalty and pride that he holds for Frodo, something that will be seen even more emphatically as the duo traverse the unforgiving landscape of Mordor. As Strider stands over Frodo and examines his wound, Sam pulls out his sword for fear that he may be an enemy. Sam has doubts about Strider’s allegiance even though he saved them from the Black Riders in previous scenes and is attempting to heal Frodo. This shows Sam’s loyalty as well as his lack of trust of Strider. However, after this point Sam no longer distrusts Strider and is easier to put his faith in new comers.

Perhaps the character that grows the most from this instance is Strider himself. Strider, or Aragorn, shows his character when he attempts to heal Frodo of his wound from the Nazgul. Not only do his powers as a healer come into play here, but he also shows his leadership abilities. While he was always the leader of these Hobbits, he now truly takes charge and realizes the severity of Frodo’s wound and remarks, “it is chiefly because of his wound that I am so anxious to press on” (203). This experience may have also saved the lives of Faramir, Eowyn, and Pippin in The Return of the King. After those characters are each wounded by the Nazgul during the battle of Pelennor, Aragron is called upon to heal their wounds. Upon seeing the wounded he says, “Here I must put forth all such power and skill as has given to me”(863). Perhaps some of these skills were garnered during his attempt at healing Frodo. With the help of athelas and the will of a king, Aragorn saves these characters while also proving his right as king of Gondor. It could be theorized that had Frodo not been stabbed by the wraith earlier in the journey then Aragorn would not have had the knowledge or experience to save Faramir, Eowyn and Pippin. While Aragorn did not have to use athelas during his healing of Frodo, it could be said that this experience gave him to confidence in himself as a healer. If Aragorn had not endured this experience it if possible that he would not have had the skills or confidence necessary for him to eventually claim the throne of Gondor. This is the first example of a major character developing event happening within the confines of a ruin. This occurs again when the company, now completed with the other members, is forced to travel through the mines of Moria.

The dwarves mines of Moria are perhaps the most expansive and most lamented ruins in all of Tolkien’s work. Before the company even descends into the depths of the exhaustive mines, Gandalf describes them as “the ruins of the Dwarves” and the reputation of death precedes the mines to which the fellowship are forced to enter after failing to travel through the mountains (297). It even seems by chance that Gandalf is able to solve the riddle and enter the mines. In order to put emphasis on this point, an unknown creature forces the company into the mines as well as traps them behind fallen rocks forcing their journey through the dark. While the darkness conceals most of the surrounding remnants of the mines, they eventually come to the tomb of Balin, which is described using words like “broken and plundered” and “shattered” (321). This leads to Gandalf discovering the notes of the Dwarves of Moria and the fate that befell them. However, the notes eventually become unable to be read due to the destruction that has over taken them. This could possibly be Tolkien making a direct reference to the deteriorated state of “The Ruin” because it is similarly illegible due to the erosion of fate and time like these notes. Tolkien uses this Dwarven testament to remind the readers of the fragility of ruins while also instilling the value of them. Both “The Ruin” and the scrolls give present day readers, Gandalf in this case, knowledge of past civilizations; something vastly important in Tolkien’s world.

It is during this scene where another stroke of wyrd drives the characters to unexpected places that will forever change their fate. After the company finds Balin’s tomb in the ruins of Moria, wyrd again emphatically takes over. The company struggles to escape the orcs, goblins, and trolls that begin to flood into the tomb forcing them out. As they proceed with their escape, Gandalf is forced to face the Balrog and prevent it from crossing the bridge of Khazad-Dum in order to protect the rest of the fellowship. While Gandalf succeeds in allowing the others to escape, he is caught by a whip of the Balrog and is “dragged to the brink” (331). Gandalf’s apparent death sends each character onto a new path that will eventually lead to their destiny. Most notably, Aragorn is now forced to take over as leader of the fellowship. This allows him to grow into the role of king of Gondor by proving his prowess as a leader. This event also allows Gandalf to transform from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White. This new title comes with new strength and wisdom, and it is easy to question whether or not Gandalf would have been as instrumental in the defeat of Sauron had it not been for his battle with the Balrog. This again proves that in the midst of ruins, wyrd presents itself to the characters and allows them to transform, quite literally in this case, into the characters that they must be in order to help save Middle-earth.

In one of the most subtle, yet important scenes involving ruins, Parth Galen is the setting for one of the most obvious shifts of the book. As Frodo travels into the woods he is described as walking on “the dwindling ruins of a road of long ago. In steep places stairs of stone had been hewn, but were now cracked and worn, and split by the roots of trees” (398). Peter Jackson’s film adaptation also conveys the message of ruins in this scene. The backgrounds of many shots include fallen statues and the remnants of foundations of some past civilization long forgotten. These ruins are similar to the ones described in “The Ruin” due to the fact that they were not caused by war or any human-made conflict, rather they seem to have fallen to nature through the natural progression of life.

Amongst these ruins is where Boromir attempts to take the Ring from Frodo, causing wyrd to again come into play. This scene creates the most distinct and fateful schism throughout the entire book. Not only does Boromir’s attempt at taking the Ring cause Frodo and Sam to flee from the rest of the company, but some could say that Boromir is also responsible for the capture of Merry and Pippin. If Boromir did not follow Frodo it is possible that he could have come back to the company with a decision regarding where they should go next and the Hobbits would never be taken by the Orcs. However, Boromir decides, whether on his own accord or that of something darker, to attempt to take the Ring within the confines of ruins, causes each character to eventually meet their fate. Merry and Pippin are led by the Orcs and eventually escape to Fangorn Forest where they meet Treebeard and help him and the other Ents to take over Isengard and help to defeat Saruman. This also forces Aragorn to follow the captured Hobbits and eventually leads him back to Gondor where he will claim the throne.

This act of Boromir also has both positive and negative repercussions for Frodo and Sam. If Boromir never attempted to take the Ring, it is possible that Frodo would have stayed with the others and never had the guidance of Gollum on the road to Mordor. It is likely that without this guidance the company would never had made it to Mordor. It can also be said that Frodo could have succumb to the Ring’s power and even if he had reached Mt. Doom without Gollum, it may have never been dropped in the bowels of the mountain. It is easy to see how Boromir causes the fate of everyone in the remaining fellowship to change course in a drastic way. While what he did was not honorable or valiant, in the end it seems like he can still be considered indirectly responsible for the defeat of Saruman and Sauron and the claiming of the throne of Gondor by Aragorn by forcing his hand in enter the kingdom of men. Boromir even calls Aragorn the king of Gondor during his final conversation with him. It is likely not a coincidence that this rift was also in the setting of ruins, similar to the wyrd that is exhibited at the freshly made ruins of Isengard.

While Isengard may not be the prototype of a Tolkien ruin, it still fits the description of an Anglo-Saxon ruin. Described using the same words as ruins previously seen in the text. After Merry, Pippin, and the Ents, led by Treebeard, flood Isengard using the waters of the Isen, the stronghold of Saruman quickly falls into ruin and disrepair. As Aragorn, Gandalf, Theoden, and others enter Isengard, Aragorn exclaims, “We will sit on the edge of ruin and talk” (563). The ruin Aragorn speaks of is the ruin in the making of Isengard made by the Ents. The chapter where the fall of Isengard is told is also called “Flotsam and Jetsam.” These are terms typically saved for scenes that involve destruction and debris caused by water damage and capture the essence of the ruin that Isengard has become. Smoke rises into the sky, once useful items, items of warfare float atop the waters and the heroes must wade their way through wreckage just to make it to the Tower of Orthanc where Saruman continues to dwell. This is where the wyrd that continues to walk with ruins can be seen.

As Gandalf prepares himself for a war of words with Saruman, he reminds the readers of the fate, or wyrd, that is present throughout the book when he says, “Fate has not been kinder to [Saruman] than he deserves” (574). This elicits the idea that fate is like a being that controls the outcomes of the characters and strives for balance in these characters. This is also something that is closely attached to wyrd. In Richard Marsden’s translation of “The Ruin” found in The Cambridge Old English Reader he interprets wyrd in a similar tone to that of Gandalf. The Old English words, “wyrd seo swiþe” translate to “fate of the mighty” according to Marsden (373). This again brings about the idea that fate is intellectual and capable of controlling others in the context some of Anglo-Saxon texts. Given the fact that Tolkien is highly influenced by Anglo-Saxon traditions and culture, it is likely that he inserted this theme into his own work. It is also poignant that Gandalf should be the one to contain this knowledge considering his vast wisdom and knowledge of Middle-earth. The wyrd that Saruman will eventually follow because of this “fate of the mighty” will help to develop the Hobbits who caused the destruction and ruin of his home.

After the Ring has been destroyed and the four Hobbits are making their way back to the Shire, they notice that the simple lives of the Hobbits are not the way they had left them. The shadow of evil has touched even the innocence of the Hobbits and it appears that Gandalf’s mercy on Saruman has played a part. After twice allowing Saruman to live and go free, Gandalf seems to know that he will be responsible for the evil that takes hold of the Shire. However, it may be that he has done this so the Hobbits can prove their worth and new experiences were not in vain. Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo use their new found strength, confidence, leadership, and knowledge of warfare to defeat Saruman and his “ruffians” and expel them from The Shire. This proves their worth to the Hobbits and allows each of them to be viewed as the true heroes they are in the eyes of the other Hobbits. If Gandalf had not let Saruman live at the ruins of Isengard, and then later in the book on the road back home, the Hobbits may not have been viewed as honorably upon their return back to the Shire.

Tolkien has an ability to create vivid scenes surrounded by nature and the vast landscapes of Middle-Earth. However, he also proves that manmade structures, past and present, play a vital role in his world. The many ruins of past civilizations, Weathertop, Moria, or Parth Galen, prove to be more than just interesting settings, reminders of the past, or warnings for the present civilizations. They seem to offer the readers a signal of when the fate of the characters is going to shift. However, this does not seem to be random but rather a path that these characters must continue on and accept in order to achieve their final destination without resignation. The characters, whether they understand it or not, cannot truly alter their wyrd and therefore must reach it with honor and grace. Gandalf reminds us of this idea from the beginning of the book when he says to Frodo, “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker” (56). From the start of Tolkien’s tale he acknowledges that the universe he has created, and the creatures that dwell in it, are fated by unseen forces. These forces seem to view ruins as an ideal setting to enact their powers over Men, Elves and Hobbits because of the overlap of past and present contained in these ruins. Tolkien surely recognized this theme from “The Ruin” and found it an intriguing concept that he wanted in his own work. Therefore, the melding of ruins and wyrd was born into The Lord of the Rings inspired from the Anglo-Saxon traditions that Tolkien himself studied and cherished.

Lee, Stuart D., and Elizabeth Solopova. The Keys of Middle-Earth Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Leslie, R. F. Three Old English Elegies. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961. Print.

Liuzza, R. M. “The Tower of Babel: “The Wanderer” and the Ruins of History.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 36.1 (2003): 1-35. Studies in the Literary Imagination. Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print.

Lochrie, Karma. “Wyrd and the Limits of Human Understanding: A Thematic Sequence in the ‘Exeter Book’.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85.3 (n.d.): 323-31. JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, and Orlando Bloom. Entertainment in Video, 2002. DVD.

Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print.

Pedersen, David. “Wyrd de Warmung… Or God: The Question of Absolute Sovereignty in Solomon and Saturn II.” Studies in Philology 113.4 (2016): 713-738. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.

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“The Melding of Anglo-Saxon Themes in The Lord of the Rings” by Kisha G. Tracy, Editor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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