Posted by: Ken Brown | October 10, 2009

The Sources of The Lord of the Rings

If you enjoyed David Clines’ Winnie the Pooh parody of redaction criticism, you’ll want to check out our friend Mark Shea’s similar treatment of The Lord of the Rings, which Karyn Traphagen dug up somewhere or other:

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 which 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 reveals a great deal about the political and religious situations which 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.

Be sure to read the whole thing, but I did want to take issue a comment left on Karyn’s post. Tim criticizes Mark for failing to provide any evidence of “unevenness in the text” such as we find in Genesis. I’m happy to oblige. Mark observes:

[E]ven 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

In fact, The Eowyn Problem extends even more deeply than this. T admits that Eowyn married Denethor’s son, Faramir, a detail conveniently repressed by PJ (though hints remain in the deutero-canonical “Director’s Cut”). Both redactors attempt to obscure this with a dubious account of Eowyn’s love for Aragorn, but this can hardly be reconciled with G’s portrayal of Faramir as a loyal steward.  These accounts must derive from distinct strands of the pro-monarchic tradition, and the story of Eowyn and Faramir falling in love in “the houses of healing” is obviously a late attempt at harmonization.

Even more dubious is the account of Eowyn and Faramir willingly leaving Minas Tirith to live in Ithilien. This is an obvious attempt to whitewash their forced exile, unless of course “across the Great River” is simply a euphemism for death.


  1. Nicely played!

  2. *grin*

  3. omgosh, i nearly spewed my wine all over my laptop reading this. well done, my friend.

  4. […] Brown presents The Sources of The Lord of the Rings posted at C. Orthodoxy, saying, “A tongue-in-cheek analysis of the mythical sources behind […]

  5. […] This week’s Christian Carnival is hosted at The Bible Archive and include my tongue-in-cheek source critical analysis of The Lord of the Rings. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Christian Carnival […]

  6. There’s a much better unevenness in the text. Book I reads a lot like The Hobbit. It develops eventually into something more like an epic but then returns to something more like the style of The Hobbit by the end.

    (The real explanation for this is that Tolkien began by starting to write a sequel to The Hobbit and only later decided to incorporate the whole world he’d created in the Silmarillion, which gave it a much more epic character.)

    • Better, sure, but as much fun? 😉

  7. I think that Mr Pierce’s point is that this “better unevenness in the text” is even stronger “evidence” that the “T redactor” had been attempting, and not wholly convincingly, to weave together multiple source materials.

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