Tolkien and Chivalry


Essay by
Scott Farrell


December 2002

Tolkien and Chivalry Today

Many people think of chivalry as a concept which comes from tales of swords, knights and wizardry of the Middle Ages. Ironically, however, one of the best-known tales of swords and wizardry comes not from the Middle Ages at all, but from the 20th Century. The Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R. Tolkien, appeared in the 1950s, and since its publication it has been responsible for introducing a whole new generation (or, more realistically, several new generations) to an ideal of heroism and chivalry that would have been very familiar to people of medieval Europe.

Chivalry Today (original logo) Today, as readers discover and rediscover the wonderful story of The Lord of the Rings, let's take a few moments to consider the lessons of chivalry which are found in this book. Critics of the work frequently claim that The Lord of the Rings is simplistic and long-winded; many have said that it is nothing more than an elaborate bedtime story. This, however, is an unfortunate attempt to invest The Lord of the Rings with an aura of modern sophistication and contemporary nuance which would, in truth, be grossly out of place in such a work. Tolkien's story is both sophisticated and full of nuance, but they are qualities which go back to another age.

Tolkien's tale of the battle for Middle Earth is clearly an effort to introduce today's readers to the wonderful literary tradition of the medieval epic sagas. Aragorn's army facing the hordes of Mordor at the Black Gate brings to mind the image of Roland making his last stand at Roncevaux; Elrond's council at Rivendell bears a striking resemblance to a gathering of the Knights of the Round Table; and Frodo's battle with Shelob contains elements of Beowulf's defeat of the monstrous mother of Grendel.

But the comparison should not be confined to the details of the story's plot — there is also a rich sense of chivalry and knightly virtue in The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn, the last heir to the throne of Gondor, feels the weight of his duty as keenly as King Arthur ever did, and he sets aside his own personal desires in order to serve the people who need him. Sam is the very picture of loyalty, and he is as true to the man he follows as Count Oliver was to Roland. Galadriel, with grace and generosity, provides inspiration to the ring-bearer just as surely as Guenever did to the knights questing for the Holy Grail. And Eowyn's courage and strength, which equal that of stalwart Brunhild, should be powerful enough to banish any myth that the Code of Chivalry doesn't apply to women.

In fact, The Lord of the Rings is everything a bedtime story should be — it is an inspiring lesson in chivalry and honor that will reaffirm the necessity of the Knightly Virtues in the heart of anyone who reads it, be they young or old. Tolkien clearly had great respect for the tradition of chivalry both in literature and in society, and his books can be a fabulous introduction to the world of heroism and knights in shining armor.

The Ring and the Knightly Virtues

Time Magazine recently published an article commenting on the sudden explosion of popularity of The Lord of the Rings in the new millennium. Although Tolkien's books have always had a strong following, Time theorized that the increased popularity of fantasy in the media is due to our longing for a simpler time, when everything was black and white, and "good guys" could be easily distinguished from "bad guys." In the end, the Time article was mildly critical of anyone who was lulled into believing that life could be as simple as it was in Middle Earth.

Although the story of The Lord of the Rings may seem simple on its surface, there is, in fact, a great deal of complexity. The Ring of Power, which is at the heart of the story's conflict, has an effect on every character who comes into contact with it. Each of them is tempted by the great magic which the Ring represents, although whether that temptation comes from the Ring or from within the characters themselves is never made clear.

The implication, however, is that even the most virtuous person is vulnerable to temptation. The Ring brings out all that is the opposite of chivalry — cowardice, greed and vanity.

Perhaps Tolkien was making a statement about human nature. If so, it was a statement that would have been quite familiar to the knights of the Middle Ages who were struggling to uphold the Code of Chivalry: None of us should take virtue for granted. We must be ever vigilant against the enemies of chivalry, and the greatest of those enemies lives within our own hearts.

It is interesting to note that, throughout the ages, critics have also claimed that the Code of Chivalry is simplistic and idealistic. But the "simple" virtues of the knightly code, like the "simple" story of The Lord of the Rings, conceal a deeper complexity which gives both chivalry and Tolkien a newfound relevance in the world of the 21st Century.

Frodo and Courage

Although The Lord of the Rings has many similarities to the epic sagas of the Middle Ages, the book does depart from its medieval counterparts in one aspect: The chivalric romances of old always featured a mighty knight or warrior as their protagonist. In The Lord of the Rings, however, the hero is a hobbit — a humble, even timid character who has no love of glory, and who would rather enjoy a bountiful breakfast than go on an epic quest.

Unlike Galahad, Roland or Beowulf, Frodo Baggins represents the universal "everyman". Although he may daydream of far-off wonders and grand adventures, his life is filled with the details of tending his garden and dealing with neighbors and relatives. Does this mean he cannot be a hero?

Similarly, each of us may fantasize about saving the world, or battling evil, or ruling a mythical kingdom, but we probably have far more in common with Frodo than we do with Gandalf or Aragorn; every day we tend our business, deal with our neighbors and friends, and wonder what's for breakfast tomorrow morning. But does this mean we cannot be heroes?

In asking this question, we find that The Lord of the Rings has crossed into the realm of Chivalry Today. There are unpleasant, difficult and frightening jobs which need to be done every day, and we, like Frodo, must be willing to undertake the tasks which fall to us, not because they will bring us glory or riches or titles, but simply because they need doing. That is what courage and chivalry are all about. That is what makes someone into a knight in shining armor.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.

Just one of the many statements penned by J.R.R. Tolkien which reminds us why The Lord of the Rings is a true classic, and a great reminder of the need for Chivalry Today.


© 2002 Scott Farrell

More about the Seven Knightly Virtues at
Chivalry Today:
Reimagining the Code of Chivalry

W. H. Stoddard's
Horatius at Khazad-dum

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