There’s no denying that Tolkien’s works have deeply influenced the fantasy genre. With the release of the Rings of Power series, we interviewed Dr. Dimitra Fimi, a Tolkien scholar and author of several books about the Legendarium. Let’s take a look at some of the things we learned from her!
Tolkien’s historical context and inspiration
Tolkien was born in the late 19th century—still in the Victorian era! Even though he was born in South Africa, he moved to the UK when he was very little, and the late Victorian villages in England were a clear influence for the Shire. He also lived through both world wars. He fought on the frontlines of the first one and his children fought in the second one—and this shows in his writing too! War and death are constant themes, and there are even more direct references. For example, the Dead Marshes are very reminiscent of the battle of the Somme, one of the most brutal battles of the war, in which he fought.
Other parts of Arda (the name of the world where Middle Earth is located) are influenced not by personal experience but by historical events and civilizations. For example, Rohan is inspired by the anglosaxons and their language is largely based on Old English, while Gondor is inspired by Constantinople and Egypt (you can see that in their big tombs, for example). Númenor, meanwhile, is based on sea-faring civilizations like the vikings. This is a mix of cultures of civilizations that shouldn’t work together—but somehow Tolkien makes them fit seamlessly into the same world!
Which themes did Tolkien write about?
The themes in Tolkien’s work change through time—and given how he spent his whole life working on Middle Earth and Arda, you can expect too see many major differences between the early and later stages of the Legendarium. However, there are some themes that stay more or less through all of his writings:
- Loss: this was, unfortunately, a theme in Tolkien’s life too, especially after he lost most of his friends to the war. The Scouring of the Shire (which wasn’t portrayed in the adaptations) is a great example of this: there’s a big triumph when the heroes win, but then it turns out the most innocent and idyllic place of the world is being destroyed. But loss is not just about death—there’s also loss of knowledge and old civilizations. This is also a reflection Tolkien’s own struggles as a medievalist, a profession that constantly has to deal with lost texts and traditions.
- Death and immortality: Tolkien was very concerned about how would a character who doesn’t die think, and what dilemmas would they have. Arwen’s dilemma about whether she should renounce her right to go to the Undying Lands or not is an example of that. Death is also referred to as the Gift of Ilúvatar (Ilúvatar being the supreme god of Arda), which is something he gifted to Men.
- War: this goes without saying—given what Tolkien went through, war is always present in his work, and it’s linked to the other themes we’ve talked about too.
How did Tolkien organize his world building?
Tolkien initially started with the intent of building a mythology for England, something that was a bit of a trend at that time, although he later abandoned the idea. His world building was in constant evolution, which is why finding contradictions between different texts is so common—this is what happens when world building is your life’s work! But he didn’t worldbuild in a systematic way, at least not in the way we think of now.
However, having started his world building so many years before even thinking about the Lord of the Rings had its positive impact too. While reading you get a real sense of historical depth that, unlike what other authors do, is not “reverse engineered”. He usually didn’t add details and then thought about a backstory for them—he just added the details that he had already created years ago. This sense of history is also achieved thanks to the Elves, which act as a bridge to the past, as well as the landscapes and ruins the fellowship encounter.
Tolkien had to use notebooks upon notebooks to organize his world building, but you can use World Anvil!
Is Middle Earth and the Lord of the Rings racist?
There have been some allegations about racism in Tolkien’s work lately, especially with the release of the Rings of Power series on Prime Video. It’s a bit of a controversial subject, but as a Tolkien scholar, we thought Dr. Dimitra Fimi would be the best person to ask!
It’s true that there problematic elements in Tolkien’s work—which makes sense, given that he was born in the 19th century and childhood is a big influence on our own views. For example, those on the good side of the story are mostly white, while non-white populations are generally evil. This is an association between physical characteristics and moral or mental abilities, which is definitely a racist view. This worldview, which was ingrained into the world since its very beginnings in the early 20th century, contrasted with the mid-century views on racism.
However, Tolkien was aware of many of these issues and he, as an individual, was definitely not racist (at least not by mid-20th century standards), which is shown in both real life and his fictional work. During Nazi Germany, he was asked to prove his Aryan ancestry in order to publish the Lord of the Rings in Germany—his answer was that he would do no such thing and that he was very sorry not to be Jewish. And in later texts, he starts discussing issues related to class too, like how High Elves look down on Sindar Elves (which could be considered a different ethnicity) and talk with derogatory language.
It’s a very complex issue, but it’s safe to say that Tolkien was aware of it and was working on that in the later stages of his work. At times it seems like he’ll start discussing them, while at other times it seems like these issues are, as Dr. Fimi put it, “slipping through the net”.
Listen to the full interview!
Want to learn more about J. R. R. Tolkien and his work? Check out the full interview on YouTube!
Who is Dimitra Fimi?
Dr. Dimitra Fimi is a Tolkien scholar and Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow, and Co-Director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. She’s published books like The World of J. R. R. Tolkien; Sub-creating Arda; and Tolkien, Race and Cultural History; and co-edited A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages. Check out her books, her website and follow her on Twitter for updates!
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