Guest Column: The Lord of the Rings — A Source-Critical Analysis

Experts in source-criticism now know that The Lord of the Rings is a redaction of sources ranging from the Red Book of Westmarch (W) to Elvish Chronicles (E) to Gondorian records (G) to orally transmitted tales of the Rohirrim (R). The conflicting ethnic, social, and religious groups that preserved these stories all had their own agendas, as did the “Tolkien” (T) and “Peter Jackson” (PJ) redactors, who are often in conflict with each other as well but whose conflicting accounts of the same events reveal a great deal about the political and religious situations that helped to form our popular notions about Middle Earth and the so-called War of the Ring. Into this mix are also thrown a great deal of folk materials about a supposed magic “ring” and some obscure figures named Frodo and Sam. In all likelihood, these latter figures are totems meant to personify the popularity of Aragorn with the rural classes.

Because The Lord of the Rings is a composite of sources, we may be quite certain that “Tolkien” (if he ever existed) did not “write” this work in the conventional sense, but that it was assembled over a long period of time by someone else of the same name. We know this because a work of the range, depth, and detail of The Lord of the Rings is far beyond the capacity of any modern expert in source-criticism to ever imagine creating themselves.

The tension between source materials and the various redactors is evident in several cases. T is heavily dependent on G records and clearly elevates the claims of the Aragorn monarchy over the House of Denethor. From this it is obvious that the real “War of the Ring” was a dynastic struggle between these two clans for supremacy in Gondor. The G source, which plays such a prominent role in the T-redacted account of Aragorn, is significantly downplayed by the PJ redactor in favor of E versions. In the T account, Aragorn is portrayed as a stainless saint, utterly sure of his claims to the throne and so self-possessed that he never doubts for a moment his right to seize power. Likewise, in the T account, the Rohirrim are conveniently portrayed as willing allies and vassals to the Aragorn monarchy, living in perfect harmony with the Master Race of Numenoreans that rules Gondor.

Yet even the T redactor cannot eliminate from the R source the towering Amazon figure of Eowyn, who is recorded as taking up arms the moment the previous king of Rohan, Theoden, is dead. Clearly we are looking at a heavily reworked coup d’etat attempt by the princess of the Rohirrim against Aragorn’s supremacy. Yet this hard kernel of historical fact is cleverly sublimated under folk materials (apparently legends of the obscure figure of “Meriadoc”). Instead of the historical account of her attempt on Aragorn’s throne as it originally stood in R, she is instead depicted as engaging in battle with a mythical “Lord of the Nazgul” (apparently a figure from W sources) and shown fighting on Aragorn’s side. This attempt to sublimate Eowyn does not convince the trained eye of the source-criticism expert, who astutely notes that Eowyn is wounded in battle at the same moment Denethor dies. Obviously, Eowyn and Denethor were in league against Aragorn but were defeated by the latter’s partisans simultaneously.

This tendency to distort the historical record recurs many times in T. Indeed, many scholars now believe that the so-called Madness of Denethor in T (which depicts Denethor as a suicide) is, in fact, a sanitized version of the murder of Denethor by Aragorn through the administration of poison (possibly distilled from a plant called athelas).

In contrast to T, the PJ redaction of Aragorn is filled with self-doubts and frequently rebuked by PJ-redacted Elrond. Probably this is due to PJ’s own political and religious affiliations, which seek, in particular, to exalt the Elvish claims to supremacy against Numenorean claims.

T suggests some skill on Aragorn’s part in the use of pharmaceutical (and hallucinogenic?) plants, which may account for some of the more “visionary” moments of mysterious beings like “Black Riders” who appear to have been tribal chieftains hostile to the Aragorn dynasty. PJ, however, exalts Elrond’s healing powers over Aragorn’s. This is probably rooted in some incident of psychosomatic healing repeatedly chronicled in different sources. Thus, the G source also has an account of Frodo’s “healing by Aragorn” on the Field of Cormallen, but E places it at Rivendell and attributes the healing to Elrond. Since we know that “Frodo” is likely just a figure representing the rural population and not a historical personage, most scholars therefore conclude that “Frodo’s” healing is T’s symbolic representation of Aragorn’s program of socioeconomic appeasement of the agrarian class, while his healing by Elrond is a nature myth representing the renewal of the annual crops.

Of course, the “Ring” motif appears in countless folk tales and is to be discounted altogether. Equally dubious are the “Gandalf” narratives, which appear to be legends of a shamanistic figure, introduced to the narrative by W out of deference to local Shire cultic practice.

Finally, we can only guess at what the Sauron sources might have revealed, since they must have been destroyed by victors who give a wholly negative view of this doubtlessly complex, warm, human, and many-sided figure. Reasonable scholars now know, of course, that the identification of Sauron with “pure evil” is simply absurd. Indeed, many scholars have undertaken a “Quest for the Historical Sauron” and are searching the records with growing passion and urgency for any lore connected with the making of the One Ring. “It’s all legendary, of course,” says Dr. S. Aruman, “Especially the absurd tale of Frodo the Nine-Fingered. After all, the idea of anyone deliberately giving up Power is simply impossible and would call into question the most precious thesis of postmodern ideology: that everything is a power struggle on the basis of race, class, and gender. Still, I…should… very much like to have a look at it. Just for scholarly purposes, of course.”


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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