Tolkien saw ‘Rings’ as new English mythology, scholar says

For one evening, over 90 members of the College community left a world on the brink of possible war to focus on a different struggle: the battle for Middle Earth in the acclaimed series “Lord of the Rings,” as a part of a lecture presentation made by Edward James, professor of history at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

The subject of the evening, “The Lord of the Rings and the Middle Ages,” focused mainly upon the saga’s creator, J.R.R. Tolkien. Growing up in the Shire-like surroundings of rural England, Tolkien went on to serve in World War I before studying the field of medieval history. By age 32, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford (a rare feat in Britain) and in the process of developing his first story, later entitled “The Hobbit.”

“While I cannot confirm that Tolkien was a racist, as some people have accused him of being, I can confirm he was a terrible lecturer,” James said with a laugh. James added that Tolkien “believed in restructuring a way of life through words and by study of the Welsh, Norse, Celts, etc.”

According to Professor James, “Fantasy, to Tolkien, made it easier to study the important issues of life . part of his task was to create a purely English mythology, since most was borrowed from elsewhere.”

Comparing the “Lord of the Rings” series to his field of expertise, James pointed out some of Tolkien’s truths, including the struggle of the lower class (“little people”) in medieval society, the fear of marauders, and the courage shown by people other than knights. “For it is the courage of the little people, the hobbits, that saves the day in Fellowship,” James said.

One thing Tolkien despised was the idea that his works were meant to be metaphors for other time periods. Many critics have called “Lord of the Rings” a critique of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the power of the atomic bomb and even now, people compare “Rings” to the struggle to rid the world of terrorism.

“We can’t tell if it’s timeless until the 25th century,” James said. “Its popularity goes in cycles. However, there is a strong argument that it is timeless as many of its themes are timeless – recurring. Tolkien was clear in stating, however, that ‘Lord of the Rings’ was never meant to be anything more than a story of good and evil.”

Tolkien is also well known for saving the epic poem “Beowulf” from extinction, and James pointed out many details that inspired “Lord of the Rings.” Some lesser known facts included the earlier names of two of the “Rings” leads – Froda and Ingold, both inspired by Beowulf characters, and later changed to Frodo and Aragorn.

When asked what captures him about the writings of Tolkien and the story of “Lord of the Rings,” James simply replied, “When I read Tolkien today, I see many things I didn’t see 40 years ago.”

“We’re lucky he’s at Rutgers. This was a rare chance to hear an expert talk,” said Celia Chazelle, professor of history.

“This was an opportunity you don’t get often, having a British professor and an expert on such a noteworthy topic to come and speak,” Josh Lindenblad Jr., president of the history club, said.

James, a published author on the topics of early medieval history, is visiting the United States on a two-year fellowship at Rutgers University.