Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings left a powerful legacy not only as one of the first modern fantasy novels but also as a work that echoes the heroic stories of ancient cultures. Because The Lord of the Rings also fulfills Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, Tolkien’s epic essentially acts as the foundation of a mythic system.
The first function is mystical. Campbell says a myth should “waken and maintain in the individual a sense of awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe” (Live 214-5). He expresses thoughts similar to this when he writes that mystical symbols “will not be identical in the various parts of the globe; the circumstances of local life, race, and tradition must all be compounded into effective forms” (Hero 389). Tolkien, too, understood this mystical nature and encoded these symbols differently. In interviews and private discussions, some sources claim Tolkien identified Elven waybread as the Eucharist, Galadriel as the Virgin Mary, and Gandalf as an angelic figure (Grotta 96). Whether these are real one-to-one correlations is inconsequential, and Tolkien was known for his dislike of such allegory. However, it does show Tolkien consciously deployed these mythic archetypes and created a fictional world in which readers can catch astounding glimpses of their own world.
At one point in the journey, Sam and Frodo are discussing the old tales and myths they learned, and Sam realizes that they are, in fact, a part of the same old story because they are carrying the ancient ring and a glass of starlight that once belonged to the ancient hero Eärendil. He then asks, “Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales ever end?” to which Frodo replies no, “but the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended” (Towers 407-8). Tolkien invites the reader to see the mystic aspect of life by showing how all things are connected in a single, great story.
A Faustian Age
Campbell’s second function of mythology is to make the symbols in it harmonious with the present. He says the myth must “offer an image of the universe that will be in accord with the knowledge of the time” (Live 215). The problem with the modern world is that it has deconstructed and thrown away its heroes and myths as being pointless lies. The philosopher-historian Will Durant points out this modern dilemma.
Our democratic dogma has leveled not only all voters but all leaders; we delight to show that living geniuses are only mediocrities, and that dead ones were myths. If we may believe historian H. G. Wells, Caesar was a numbskull and Napoleon a fool. Since it is contrary to good manners to exalt ourselves, we achieve the same by slyly indicating how inferior are the great men of the earth. (5)
Tolkien understood this problem as well and was unsettled that the mythic and religious heroes were torn apart by the ideas of Freud, Darwin, and Marx so that “Religion was replaced by nationalism, communism, materialism, and other surrogates. But what was needed were new myths, believable gods, acceptable roots in the past" (Grotta 134). Seeing that the modern condition seemed to produce despair, Tolkien created a new epic myth to stand against it. For example, in reaction to the evils of deforestation and unlimited industrialization Tolkien created the living tree character of Treebeard who shows how terrible nature’s wrath can be if too much in it is altered. Likewise, he shows how wretched the Shire has become with the building of a factory that prompts the Scouring of the Shire to reclaim their home from an industrial Hell (Return 993).
By confronting modern problems, Tolkien’s epic is meant to be harmonious with the present. John Davenport notes, “Tolkien’s masterpiece is similar to classics of Old English poetry, which focus on our immanent world of time, with all its transitoriness [sic], loss, and courage in the face of mortality” (207). Also, by making despair a central theme and major trial in the heroic quest, Tolkien kept his story grounded in the present world he knew. Joe Kraus comments on Tolkien’s reaction to this facet of the modern world.
[T]he modern world promises great power, but it offers no framework within which to exercise it. It holds out the inspiring hope that we can build new things it also offers the evidence that nothing lasts, that nothing is intrinsically good [. . .] whatever success we have is ultimately a prelude to disappointment and despair. (146)
Whatever the setting of The Lord of the Rings, it becomes clear that the world Tolkien knew is what is reflected in the text. Therefore, this epic meets the qualification of being in accord with the time.
Words to Live By
Thirdly, Campbell says a myth must uphold a moral order. He states, “living mythology is to validate, support, and imprint the norms or a given, specific moral order, that, namely, of the society in which the individual is to live” (Live 215). Clearly, Tolkien supports many of the traditional, Western morals and rule by rational, benevolent law.
Aeon Skoble notes the hobbits come from a society “portrayed as remarkably healthy and decent” and devoted to simple pleasures (114). All of those elements help the hobbits to be good and effective ring-bearers whose kindly actions ultimately lead to the One Ring’s undoing, whereas wizards, warriors, and lords of men have greater trouble resisting the temptations of the ring.
While parts of the epic extol ideas of courage, skill in arms, wise leadership, and the like, Tolkien makes it clear throughout Frodo’s portion of the journey that simpler virtues of moderation, friendship, willing sacrifice, hope, and mercy are the best rules by which one should conduct themselves. Kraus observes this of Tolkien:
He saw too many of his contemporaries taking an easy road, abandoning the Western tradition that made possible their own skepticism. He mistrusted the modern mood in most of its manifestations, understanding it as a kind of despair, and he resisted it, in part, by writing a fantasy that showed it as such. (141)
Tolkien was unwilling to turn his back on his traditions and instead reinterpreted them for the modern world but without changing the basic message of those traditional virtues. As such, he continues to support Western moral order and presents his view as an alternative to the modern world’s nebulous ethical ideas.
The Road Goes Ever On
The fourth and final component of mythology is to teach someone how to live a fulfilled life. Campbell calls it “the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances” (Power 39). It need not be a nakedly didactic expression but an example of how to live, and Tolkien offers that in his epic.
As stated before, his emphasis on fellowship and hope alone are excellent guideposts on how to endure hard times with Frodo and his suffering and sacrifice being a role model in the vein of heroes like Odysseus, Jesus, and Everyman, while Aragorn shows how a person of strength and influence should act just as the figures of Moses, Aeneas, and Arthur do.
So it is that the journey in The Lord of the Rings can be understood as an instructional tale on how to behave even when the world seems to be a dark and terrible place. Because the story is set in an entirely fictional world, the lessons it teaches can be extracted and applied to the lives of the readers without having to bring along a lot of cultural baggage.
It is these four aspects of the heroic journey and fulfillment of mythological function that make Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings both popular and valuable. In it, the reader sees a world rewritten into myth, a story of which everyone takes part and in which even the smallest may alter the shape of the world. As such, Tolkien’s epic novel will be not only a story for this age but for ages yet unnamed.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 1949.
—. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Arkana, 1972.
— and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. Anchor Books, 1991.
Davenport, John. “Happy Endings and Religious Hope: The Lord of the Rings as an Epic FairyTale.” The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy. Eds. Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson. Open Court, 2003. 204-218.
Durant, Will. The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time. Ed. John Little. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Grotta, Daniel. J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth. Running Press, 1992.
Kraus, Joe. “Tolkien, Modernism, and the Importance of Tradition.” The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy. Eds. Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson. Open Court, 2003. 137-149.
Skoble, Aeon. “Virtue and Vice in The Lord of the Rings.” The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy. Eds. Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson. Open Court, 2003. 110-119.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, 1965.
—. The Return of the King. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965.
—. The Two Towers. Ballantine Books, 1965.
- J.R.R. Tolkien: The Author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”
John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien was an Oxford professor, poet, and author. He is best known for writing “The Hobbit” and the trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.”
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© 2020 Seth Tomko
Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 01, 2020:
Thank you for reading, Linda. I'm glad you found the article interesting.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 30, 2020:
I've been interested in Joseph Campbell's ideas about mythology for some time. Thank you for sharing an informative and enjoyable article about the topic.