An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (3) Romance & Chivalry 4: Tolkien’s Template
Good Morning, Everyone!
Halloween’s approaching here in the United States, and while the kids “spook-ify” the house, thought it a good time to resume discussion of “romance and chivalry” in medieval literature.
The developments during this stage of history most directly influence today’s epic fantasy genre, with romantic ideas and expressions so prevalent in the form that they often become clichéd tropes. Indeed, as we’ve seen in the last couple of blogs, the most common theme for the writers of courtly romance was a casting back to some remote, almost utopian and idealized past (Alexander the Great &/or Trojans vs. Greeks, the “Matter of Rome” that featured early Britons vs. the Romans, “Arthurian cycles,”etc.). Writers such as Chrétien de Troyes transformed these pasts into a romantic present, with romantic love, chivalric quests, wondrous creatures, magical talismans, and dutiful religious sensibilities as the central themes (e.g., Christian purity, loyalty to one’s lord, etc.).
Romantic literature itself can be traced to the 12th century, but its precedents actually stretch back to poetry in Latin Antiquity (1st century works of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaïs).
If epic fantasists of the 21st century want to make original works, they’d be well-served to make the same effort J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis did and become familiar with some of these sources.
As a medieval philologist, Tolkien described his works variously as aligned with “fairy stories,” “sagas,” or “romance,” and its upon the latter term that I want to focus today. For example, one of the most appealing commonalities shared by the better epic fantasists who followed Tolkien was the keen attention that many of the next generation’s creators paid to the basics of medieval romance.
For instance, just to name a few of my favorites, check out the worlds of mid- to late-20th century fantasists such as Michael Moorcock (Melniboné & the Young Kingdoms), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Novels),Terry Brooks (Shannara Series), Fritz Leiber (Lankhmar), Stephen King (Gilead in The Dark Tower Series), and Katherine Kurtz (The Deryni Novels).
Whatever points-of-departure these writers took, they followed or rejected Tolkien’s framework — consciously, in the expressed cases of Moorcock and King — but all intuitively adopted the elements that both constitute a good story and which also hearken back to a literary form invented 800 years ago in the Middle Ages. Contrarily, think about when you encounter poor or hackneyed fantasy writing —which I won’t cite; you know it when you see it! — in those cases, it’s likely that the author is attempting to imitate some of those elements without knowing how they’re supposed to be woven together.
Tolkien himself unequivocally identified his works with the medieval romance; here’s a quotation from a draft of Letter 329 (from a Letter to Peter Szabé Szentmihályi):
[Begin Tolkien excerpt]: “I have very little interest in serial literary history, and no interest at all in the history or present situation of the English ‘novel.’ My work is not a ‘novel,’ but an ‘heroic romance,’ a much older [and] quite different variety of literature.” [End Tolkien excerpt, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (1980), #329, p. 452.]
In another letter, Tolkien made more explicit he began writing with the dream of bringing medieval romance into modern times; specifically, in how the LotR and The Silmarillion might one day give Great Britain a medieval romance of the kind that could contend with the more renowned French traditions:
[Begin Tolkien quotation, from Letter 144, To Naomi Mitchison]:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English [. . .] Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story [. . .] which I could dedicate simply to England; to my country. [End quotation, from from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (1980), #144, p. 193.]
Tolkien’s Unique Approach: Reversing Expectations
Now, let’s see how Tolkien’s works of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion took certain parts of medieval literature and updated them for the early 20th Century; particularly, let’s look at the three forms I’ve covered from the 9th-12th centuries: Goliardic poetry, chansons de geste, and the chivalric romance.
Goliardic Poetry: You’ll recall that this form of Latin literature accompanied the rise of universities in France & England (c. 1200 A.D.). “Goliardic poetry” was one of the first forms that really got popularized among faculty and students. (The term “Goliardic” comes from the word “Goliath” in the Old Testament, but which also was a word for the Devil/Satan in the Early Middle Ages). This type of poetry included a variety of topics that any fantasist worth his or her weight in salt could include in their stories: drinking songs, love songs, nature songs, songs on the joys of youth, and even “protest literature” against the Church! Here’s an example of the style:
[from Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Ed., p. 319]:
My intention is to die
In a tavern drinking.
Wine will be at hand, for I
Want it when I’m sinking.
Angels who look on will cry,
Their eyes with tears a-blinking:
“Save this drunkard, God on high
— he’s absolutely stinking!”
[End Backman excerpt]
As far as Tolkien is concerned, I see the songs and poems that occur throughout his works influenced just as much by this type of literature as by the more “elevated” poetry forms seen in Beowulf, Pearl, or Sir Orfeo. A good way to remember this association with the medieval Goliardic tradition would be the following scenes: and
(1) the “Chip the glasses and crack the plates” song that the dwarves sing in The Hobbit‘s chapter of “An Unexpected Party”:
Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates —
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you’re finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So, carefully, carefully with the plates!
[End excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937), pp. 20-21]
(2) “The Man in the Moon” song that Frodo sings while in a tavern in The Fellowship of the Ring‘s “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”
There is an inn, a merry old inn,
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill…
The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
Now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle.
The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there’s good cheer among the guests,
He cocks an ear at all the jests,
and laughs until he chokes.
They also keep a hornèd cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale,
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green.
And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons!
For Sunday there’s a special pair,
And these they polish up with care
on Saturday afternoons.
The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
and the cat began to wail;
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced,
and the little dog chased his tail…
[End excerpt: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), pp. 170-171]
The Chanson de Gestes & Lyric Poetry of the Troubadours: These literary forms were prevalent in southern France of the 12th/13th century (Provence, Toulouse, and Aquitaine), and, in the case of many traveling minstrels, they sang either “heroic epics” — the “songs of [great] deeds — or tales paid for by a patronizing nobility (William IX of Aquitaine, his granddaughter, Eleanor, et al), all of whom wanted to hear stories about the following themes: idealization of women, male gallantry & courtesy, undying devotion, agonized & unrequited love, etc.
Here’s an example from Duke William IX, whose patronage helped foster and sustain the new genre:
I’ll write a verse now just for fun,
One not about me or anyone,
One not about a youth in love.
Or anything along that course.
I’m writing it out in the sun
While riding on my horse.
I cannot say when I was born,
I am not happy but I’m not forlorn,
Still I’m ill at ease and unsure of
What I’m going to do next.
Bewitched by an enchantress, I’m feeling torn;
In fact I’m rather perplexed.
I can’t tell real life from a dream
And must be told when they would seem
To have begun. My heart’s a-scream
With bitterness and confusion;
I care so little I might blaspheme —
Just a stab at resolution…
[End excerpt, from Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, p. 321]
Thankfully, the romance genre also offers some of the first true female troubadour lyrics of the Middle Ages, as seen in the work of the “Countess of Dia,” whose four poems remain to us from c. 1140:
[Begin, Countess of Dia poem]:
I have been of late in fretful mood
Over a knight who once was mine.
I want it always understood
That I loved him with a love sublime.
But now I see I’ve been betrayed
Because I wouldn’t make love with him.
In my naked nights and in day, full arrayed,
I dwell on this mistake so grim.
[End excerpt, from Backman, Worlds, p. 322]
Such poems represent the first inroads into what moderns call the “psychology” of a protagonist, where we see attention shift from simply recounting actions to a narrative’s conveyance of feelings and emotions from the main character’s point of view, or, what we’ve come to know as the “romance” form of the High Middle Ages.
In Tolkien’s works, his stories might be seen as blending both the “narrative” aspects of the chansons (singular characters, spectacular battles, end-0f-world stakes, etc.) and the themes of lyric poetry with the kind of “elegiac laments” seen in the early medieval poems of “The Seafarer” or “The Wanderer.” It’s in the moments of loss and regret in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (the Dwarves eviction from the Lonely Mountain, the Elves’ yearning for the West, the End of the Third Age, the dislocation and grief that await Bilbo and Frodo at journey’s end, etc.) that we see the “heroic” & “world lost” elements of Tolkien’s favorite medieval poem, Beowulf, mixed with elements of the part of the medieval literary tradition that’s most important for an epic fantasist, the medieval romance.
The Chivalric Romance: The troubadour tradition that informed the Goliardic poets, wandering chanson de geste minstrels, and scholastic lyric poets began to have effects outside of France, & we see a rise in northern Fr., Germany, and England of “courtly manners.” Attention began to be paid to urbane speech, chivalric behavior, and those romantic ideals start to appear in other literatures (in England, the expansion of the King Arthur legend under Geoffrey of Monmouth; in France, the work of Chrétien de Troyes in Tristan & Iseult, and Lancelot and Guinivere; in German, the works of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal).
Tolkien’s complete immersion in the early medieval period and his mastery of Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages inspired him to recreate a facsimile of the Christianity and mythologies that informed the 8th through 12th Century northern European & Scandinavian worlds. You’ll not find explicit references to Christianity (nor pagan beliefs) in his works, but you will find the former’s attention to “universality” and an elevation of the “common human being” that confound what we know about the medieval literature of the period.
That’s a crucial point, and, in my opinion, one of the key components that make the mythologies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so enjoyable and long-lasting. If Tolkien had remained true to the framework of the medieval chivalric romance, the first-person in The LotR should have been Aragorn, with an attendant love story involving Arwen. Instead, the protagonists are hobbits, the most “common” folk of all the peoples of Middle Earth! Yes, present throughout all of Tolkien’s works are the elements of medieval romance (the Quest, knights & warriors, magical adventures, wondrous creatures, etc), but, Aragorn, the one Arthur-like figure in LotR, is not the main character in the books.
Indeed, even when the action “splits” in The Two Towers, the “noble characters” — the broken fellowship’s Aragorn (King), Gimli (Prince), Legolas (Prince), and Gandalf (Merlin-like Court Wizard) — have “quests” that are entirely in the service of the Commoners’/hobbits’s greater Quests; all strive to give Frodo and Sam a chance to destroy the Ring at Mount Doom, while the other hobbits, Merry and Pippin, become crucial in resolving huge plot points by story’s end (i.e., the recruitment of Treebeard to lead army of Ents to overthrow Saruman and “elimination” of Denethor in Minas Tirith to pave way for the “return of the King”).
In these approaches that elevated the hobbits to heroic stature, one could argue that Tolkien flipped the 12th-13th medieval romantic tradition on its head by introducing the kind of attention to common folk not seen until the 14th century works of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) and William Langland (Piers the Plowman).
All elements of a faux-medieval society are present in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but in ways that transform our expectations of the medieval romance. That’s the achievement of Tolkien in his creation of what we know as today’s Epic Fantasy genre.
For those who’d seek to write epic fantasy, you might take elements from Tolkien and replicate/evolve them in your own works, but his works won’t (and shouldn’t) be repeated because Tolkien’s creations were informed by a unique set of specialized interests he held as a medieval philologist and fantasist (languages, Beowulf, fairy stories, Norse & Scandinavian myths, etc).
And I say, who’d want to repeat them? I don’t. I deeply enjoy the trips I make to Middle Earth when I read Tolkien’s books, and want his worlds left well enough alone when I move on to other books in the epic fantasy genre. Unfortunately, except for the Moorcocks, Le Guins, Kurtzes, Kings, and Leibers, not many authors have bothered to do their own takes on the medieval romance and make that part of the fantasy tradition uniquely their own. I’m trying to do so in my own Artifacts of Destiny series, but the pushback from publishers is often daunting; many want only the “next” Hobbit or LotR without realizing the kinds of traditions from which Tolkien himself drew inspiration.
Hopefully, in these kinds of examinations on how Tolkien’s work was but “one take” on the vast corpus of the medieval romantic tradition, those publishers and readers will realize that there is a vast, unexplored terrain in the offing, but whose expression also might have a different “feel” to its brand of fantasy than anything Tolkien wrote. Of course, I think that my own book, The Codex Lacrimae, is one example of this type of new fantasy, but there are some others on the market that are also beginning to make a difference. (See links below.)
Thanks for visiting!
A.J. Carlisle’s Recommended Fantasy Reading:
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms Series
Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara Series
Stephen R. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Guy Gabriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan,The Sarantine Mosaic, The Last Night of the Sun
N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Katherine Kurtz, The Chronicles of the Deryni
Stephen R. Lawhead, The Pendragon Cycle
Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser Books
Michael Moorcock, The Elric Books, or Chronicles of Last Emperor of Melniboné
Michael Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance (Literary Criticism of Epic Fantasy Genre)
Mary Stewart, The Merlin Trilogy and The Wicked Day
Next Time: Medieval Literature (4) The Visionaries