Tolkien under the influence : Arthurian Legends in The Lord of the Rings

- Claire Jardillier (Paris IV)

Bulletin des Anglicistes Médiévistes, Bulletin de l'Association des Médiévistes Anglicistes de l'Enseignement Supérieur (AMAES), été 2003, n°63, p. 57-78
(article déjà mis en ligne sur le site "Pourtolkien" ).

Une version remaniée de cet article est à paraître, en français, dans l'ouvrage dirigé par Leo Carruthers, Tolkien et le Moyen Age (titre provisoire, à paraître en 2006)

         Much has already been said about J.R.R. Tolkien’s sources of inspiration for his work, despite the fact that he himself considered such speculations irrelevant. My point here is thus not to draw any clear and probably artificial genealogy, from Arthurian literature down to The Lord of the Rings, but rather to highlight certain similarities, the chief interest of which resides, not in whether Tolkien was aware of them or not, but more in that they may account for the distinct feeling of home-coming readers experience when entering Tolkien’s legends. To a reader of Arthurian literature at least, The Lord of the Rings sounds at moments incredibly familiar, not only because of the obvious characters, but also and more pervasively because of punctual or wider motifs and themes, as well as a distinctly medieval interpretation of settings and of their symbolical evocation.
         Whether in characters, themes or places, it is ultimately this Arthurian feeling, rather than exact parallel, which brings its unique flavour to Tolkien’s masterpiece : the same and yet so different, like two distant relatives. A simile which Tolkien may not have disavowed, since it seems quite consistent with the importance he laid on lineage and blood continuance, one of the elements of the epic in the novel. My point is to show, so to speak, the Arthurian recessive genes in selected samples from The Lord of the Rings.

I.                  Characters: rather less than more distant relatives.

            The first similarity which has been frequently pointed out between Arthurian lore and The Lord of the Rings is the parallel between the two pairs, Arthur / Merlin and Aragorn / Gandalf. They are both built on the model of the Celtic bi-leadership principle of warrior and priest. Interestingly enough, Aragorn, like Arthur, was raised away from his parents by a nobleman who acted as his foster-father and educator: Elrond the elf, master of Rivendell, who takes up the role of Sir Ector in welcoming the future king into his household as a child. Through this particular upbringing, Aragorn becomes foster-brother to the elves, as Arthur considers Kay as his brother. Evidently however, Arthur does not fall in love with his foster-father’s daughter, as Aragorn does. However, Guinevere is daughter to Leodegan, who according to some traditions is the original owner of the round table which he gives Arthur as a wedding present. In a way, he is the one who makes Arthur really king, by giving him not only a symbol – crown or magic sword – but the actual means to establish his court of knights. In that sense, as a mentor, he appears as a fatherly figure nonetheless. Besides, one must not forget the fairy origins of the character of Guinevere, which relate her even more closely to the elf-maiden Arwen and the magical abilities she shares with all her people.
         Each of these Tolkienian characters bears resemblance to his / her Arthurian ancestor, even when considered outside the warrior-priest relationship. Thus Aragorn’s kingship is asserted through the possession of a sword, Narsil, just like Arthur’s drawing of the sword in the stone makes him rightful king. Later, his sword (though another one) is also given a name by the texts, the most common form being Excalibur. Aragorn’s sword, for its part, is renamed once it has been reforged, so that, in a way, he, too, has two different swords : one which serves as a token of sovereignty and one he takes into combat. All these weapons have in common that they are magical objects, either given by the Lady of the Lake or by the elves of Rivendell. And in both cases, a broken sword plays an important role: Narsil was shattered when Elendil, Aragorn’s ancestor, fell under the blows of Sauron; Arthur’s first sword broke during his duel with Pellinore. Though later these two swords were either repaired or replaced, these moments appear as times of great doubt and danger for king and country. Arthur learns an important lesson of leadership and knighthood through the loss of his sword, and is only given a new one once he has understood his error; while Elendil’s heirs, especially his son Isildur, tempted by the Ring, are bound to fall into darkness until they are redeemed by Aragorn and his reforged sword.
         As for Gandalf, his resemblance to Merlin is even more striking, especially since it draws on characteristics that have become commonplace fairytale stuff : Gandalf is the wizard – he even has a pointed hat in case we might miss his belonging to the trade, and a sort of magic wand in the form of a light-producing staff. Of course, these traits do not arise directly from the medieval texts – few physical descriptions are to be found in them – but they have imposed themselves throughout the centuries to become archetypes. Whether they be Merlin or Gandalf, or a wizard by another name, most contemporary authors will portray them in the same manner : old men with bright eyes, clothed in robes and carrying staffs or other powerful talismans ; they even have stock behaviours, such as an exasperating sense of humour, understandable only to them – probably an heir to Merlin’s riddle-talk.
         But Gandalf also has more literary ties to Merlin. His unnatural age and his obscure origins echo the unnatural birth of Merlin, a demon’s son, whose magic powers are of mitigated origins. What probably makes Merlin the most compelling character of the Arthurian myth is this twisting of goals, this coup de théâtre at the beginning of his life : originally a spawn of hell, Merlin is granted the gift to use his powers, with the addition of more divine ones, to do good, although this good is not always obvious. What about the cruelty of taking a newborn child, even if a future king, from his mother ? But his foresight allows him to plan events in an often inhuman way which sets him apart from other people. Gandalf often works in a similar pattern. As an extraordinarily ancient being, like Merlin who grew old faster than other men because of the ancient knowledge he possessed, his relationship to the passing of time is peculiar. He works slowly, arranging characters and places bit by bit, much as if he himself were the author of the story. Only in the second part of The Lord of the Rings does he begin to feel time escaping him. In an Arthurian novel, this could correspond to the time in Arthur’s reign when Merlin disappears, no longer there to advise his pupil and king. And indeed, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Gandalf’s pupil, if not king, is completely cut off from his mentor, whom he even thinks dead.
         For Frodo is another figure in which Arthur may be reflected. As Ring-Bearer, he is the character around whom all else revolves. All other characters embark on the Quest and on diverse adventures because of him. This is mainly what happens for Arthur: most Arthurian tales deal with the deeds of his knights, and as for their greatest adventure, the Quest for the Holy Grail, he never takes part in it. His role is to lament the departure of his knights and to foretell that “[his] trew felyshyp shall never mete here more agayne” [2] . Indeed, when Arthur does embark on an adventure, it often verges on disaster, as was mentioned in the case of his dual with Pellinore. One might also recall his visit to the Chapel of Saint Augustine in Perlesvaus. Besides, before going in search of this Chapel, the Arthur depicted in the novel is about as adventurous as a hobbit. “Adventures happened no longer in his court” [3] , no more than they did in the Shire before the Ring was found again.
         True, Frodo does take part in the Quest, unlike Arthur. But his role is a solitary one, and often very passive. He is dragged along by his Hobbit-like stubbornness and the help of Sam and Gollum-Sméagol, while the other characters fight, fall in love, die, and make the real stuff of the epic. In fact, Frodo is the cause of the disruption of the Fellowship at the end of book I, when he decides to leave them and takes the boat to cross the river at the foot of Amon Hen. Arthur also leaves his fellowship and takes a boat to Avallon, there to be healed, while all his other companions (except faithful, Sam-like Bedivere) lie dead on the plain. Without him, there can be no fellowship. Besides, the seeds of destruction were sown in the fellowship from the beginning: discordant ideals and family dissensions in Arthur’s court, temptation and individualism in Frodo’s Company. As foreseen by Galadriel, Boromir’s intent to use the Ring to his own ends causes the separation of the Fellowship, as it triggers Frodo’s final decision to leave them. In a way, he takes the decision to destroy the Company in place of Frodo, much like Gawain’s ill-advised and sustained hatred of Lancelot pushes his king to fatal decisions in the Morte Darthur.
         Another, much more Arthurian character has just been mentioned in the person of Galadriel. Almost twin-sister to the Lady of the Lake, so much alike have they been portrayed: tall, slim, blond, dressed in white (samite?), Galadriel is first of all the archetype of any Arthurian knight’s dream-woman. She embodies all the qualities of a medieval lady: poised and beautiful, she is the kind of woman a knight would gladly fight for – which Gimli will. Her relationship to water makes her a water-fairy, a nymph like the Lady of the Lake, also known as Viviane, Niniane or Nimue. Her ring, Nenya, is the Water-Ring. The fountain from which she fills the silver basin used for her visions is also reminiscent of the wonders of the fountain of Barenton in Yvain. But Galadriel also embodies sovereignty, in a very Celtic way: the contrast between her prominence in elvish society and her husband Celeborn’s almost pathetic second rank is striking. She is the authority, which she proves by being the gift-giver, not Celeborn the king. And like the Lady of the Lake, she has family ties with the warrior-hero, in the person of Aragorn / Lancelot this time. Lancelot was raised by the Lady who thus became his foster-mother. Galadriel is also a motherly figure in Aragorn’s life, since she is Arwen’s grandmother (on her mother’s side). Age having but little impact on the lives of elves, and especially on their physical appearance, and Arwen’s mother being dead, Galadriel is all the more likely to appear as her mother in the novel, and thus as a “mother-in-law” to Aragorn, or even simply a mother. It is she who gives him clothes that make him look as regal as an elf-lord on one of his returns to Rivendell, thus taking a hand in Arwen’s decision to follow her heart, since it is at the sight of him that day that “her choice was made and her doom appointed. [4]
         This is not the only point at which Lancelot and Aragorn are related. Their overall heroic qualities as fighters and kings’ sons deprived of their kingdoms, their love for a beautiful, regal lady for whom they must accomplish great deeds in a distinctly courtly pattern, obviously marks them as members of a same family. But they also meet similar episodes in their adventures. Thus Aragorn’s taking the Paths of the Dead is reminiscent of Lancelot’s adventures in the Kingdom of Gorre [5] , a land of the dead, an other-world which only a hero can face. Similarly, not only is Aragorn not afraid to go into the dangers of the Paths of the Dead, but he is also one of the rare characters to face the Nazgûl and fight them, on Amon Sûl for example. Lancelot and Aragorn both appear as types of “supermen”, so powerful they can even fight death, and survive.
         But Lancelot is not only a fighter. He is also a lover, as any good knight should be. And here again, Aragorn takes after his Arthurian forefather. Not only is his love-story reminiscent of Lancelot’s with Guinevere, he also has the same ability to attract undesired love – though not in such proportions as Lancelot, at one time pursued by no less than four queens at once. Even the daughter of Baudemagus, King of Gorre, is sufficiently under his spell to let him escape her father’s jail so he can go and save another woman. But Eowyn’s case is close to that of the Lady of Shalott, who died because Lancelot would not return her love. Fortunately Eowyn has more sense and gets over her impossible love with the help of another, more available noble knight in the person of Faramir who, although not the king of Gondor himself, is nevertheless the king’s steward, the closest thing to a king Gondor has known for centuries.
         As much as Arthurian heroes are fighters and lovers, they are also friends, and here again Lancelot and Aragorn attract other worthy characters: it is especially the case with Gareth, and Eomer. Both instinctively recognise Lancelot and Aragorn respectively as men of valour, men worthy of being imitated in order to gain their friendship. It is a token of valour in Arthurian literature when a knight gains followers, and it is particularly telling in the case of Lancelot since Gareth has plenty of other possible knights who could gain his admiration: he is the last of King Lot’s sons, whose eldest is none other than Gawain. But Gareth turns from his own blood to choose a soul-brother, to the point of siding with Lancelot when Gawain wages war on him. In the case of Eomer, no such heart-tearing decision has to be made, though one might notice that Eomer is not very supportive of his sister’s feelings; but what matters is that the two men feel connected, and indeed are connected from their first meeting throughout the rest of the novel. And it works the same with any other male and uncorrupted character Aragorn encounters – uncorrupted by opposition to Denethor, for example.
         Eomer’s relatives also draw an Arthurian pattern around him. His sister, who remains with their people in Dunharrow while he fights, reminds us of the way responsibilities are divided between Percivale and his sister in Perlesvaus: she is the lady of the castle while he is the knight adventurous. Both are also nephew and niece to King Theoden, which makes them his heirs, like Gawain is heir to Arthur, and Perlesvaus to the Fisher King [6] , in full respect of the Celtic tradition. It is made all the more evident since Theoden’s only son is dead before the reader is even taken into Rohan. As for Theoden himself, his kingdom and his person are first pictured as being in decay, like the Fisher King’s land, or Arthur’s court at the beginning of Perlesvaus. He is under the spell of an evil advisor, like Arthur, poisoned by the rumours reported to him by Agravaine and Mordred in the Morte Darthur. It is his own downfall that takes his kingdom with him. Tolkien saves both kingdom and man by having Gandalf “heal” the king; but no such hope remains towards the end of Arthur’s reign: there is no longer a Merlin to save him, and the poison is too deeply rooted in the kingdom. The Rohirrim’s ride into battle at Helm’s Deep or at the Pelennor Fields is glorious, while at the end of Arthur’s last charge, there is only death for all. Although Theoden dies, his heirs are alive, and so is his kingdom; though badly wounded, it is not in any worse shape than the rest of Middle-Earth. Arthur leaves nothing behind him.
         Of course this selection of characters is not meant to reduce The Lord of the Rings to a copy of Arthurian classics. As may have become obvious through this enumeration, it is not so much that the characters are built on the same model as that they are sometimes reminiscent of one another, whether in broad lines or tiny details. Thus it is truly not a parallel but a kinship between Arthurian lore and Tolkien’s fiction that arises from a comparison between different sets of characters. And the kinship, though only remote when taken detail by detail, grows stronger when they are added to each other. And all the more so since it is not reduced to characters, but is also to be found in more general themes which mark out the development of the story.

II.               Themes: a community of interests.

We have already mentioned the importance of Arthur’s and Aragorn’s swords. More generally speaking, the importance of specific weapons is a motif to be found in both Arthurian legends and The Lord of the Rings. In the Welsh legends, Arthur is given not only a sword but also a dagger, a lance, a shield, and even a magic coat, and all are named and minutely described [7] . His white mare Llamrei is also given a place in the story, like several horses in The Lord of the Rings, such as the also white Shadowfax. Most of Arthur’s companions are also attributed specific arms, such as Osla Gyllellvawr and his knife, which is said to stretch so as to form a bridge when laid across a river. The weapons not only serve to identify their bearers, they have a story of their own and are almost characters in the full sense. Aragorn has Narsil / Anduril, Frodo has Sting, which was given him by Bilbo; it is an heirloom in many ways as important as Narsil. Moreover, it was originally crafted by the elves and has magical virtues: the fact that it shines blue when Orcs are near [8] makes it an almost sentient being, a trusty companion to the hero. This personification may account for the attachment the characters feel for their arms: Aragorn is very reluctant to leave his sword on entering Theoden’s hall, and specifically because it is this sword and no other:

“I would do as the master of the house bade me, were this only a woodman’s cot, if I bore now any sword but Anduril.” (p.533)

This care for the fate of a beloved weapon, whether because it is an heirloom or because it is a friend often proved useful in battle, shows in Arthur’s insistence on his last remaining companion’s throwing Excalibur into the nearest lake. Only when the blade has safely returned to the Lady of the Lake does Arthur relax and truly accept death.

         But beyond such anecdotal similarities, there are wider themes which link Arthur’s and Tolkien’s worlds. Essays have been written at length on the Quest in The Lord of the Rings and Arthurian legends: both as spiritual as they are physical, if not more; both undertaken for the salvation of one’s soul as well as for the salvation of all people. With the notable particularity that Tolkien’s Quest is reversed: the object is already found, and must be destroyed. Thus it is not the inner sins of the heroes, their inner temptations which hinder the fulfilment of the Quest, it is the object of the Quest itself that is the ultimate temptation. However this allows for little difference in the end since the Ring tempts each one according to his weaknesses, playing on different feelings according to the needs of the moment. So that anyway, it is a matter of inner flaws which decides either failure or success. Boromir for example, fails because he is obsessed with “la chevalerie terrestre”, so to speak: he sees only the military danger of Gondor, not the universal danger of Middle-Earth. He would be one of the good knights, like Lancelot, if he allowed for higher matters in his fights. Only failure in The Lord of the Rings is no humbling and positive experience, it leads to death, not some bow-headed, pride-curbed return to home and friends, or lover as in the case of Lancelot.

         In a way, Frodo, although clearly not a born fighter, has much of the perfect Galahad-like candidate for Quest-fulfilling. The episode of the Beatitudes in the Gospel draws a portrait that could well apply to our hobbit, meek, resilient, aspiring to what’s right:

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. [9]

            Aren’t Hobbits the “poor in spirit” of Middle-Earth, in all the biblical, laudatory meaning of the expression? And however poor in spirit, they understand the aim of the Quest, and know evil from good; unlike a Lancelot, siding with the black knights against the white ones for glory-seeking reasons instead of moral ones. For the Quest is essentially a lesson in mercy, which Frodo learns thanks to Gollum, so that in the end he is spared as Gollum was by himself and by his uncle before him; mercy runs in the family as holiness does in Percevale’s lineage.
         Besides this overlying motif of quest, which really is the frame of the story, other points draw Arthur’s world and Middle-Earth close together. Both worlds indeed are slowly but surely drawing to an end: Arthur’s “golden age” is but a breath away from annihilation, whether legendarily speaking by self-destruction or historically by Saxon invasions. As for Middle-Earth, its Third Age is passing away: the elves are leaving, just as the old Celtic gods and their fairies disappear from the Arthurian scene as the Christian faith takes over – a theme much exploited by contemporary writers of heroic fantasy, most of them strongly influenced by both Tolkien and the Arthurian myth. Interestingly enough, the elves, like Merlin, cannot die: they cross the sea and disappear, they “diminish” as Galadriel puts it and fade into the land, just like Merlin becomes part of Britain: imprisoned in a cave, a tree, or the Valley of No Return. He becomes a kind of sleeping male Dryad, just as the elves are strongly connected to their forests. This specific manner of leaving without dying is also reminiscent of Arthur’s end: he, too, makes the “voyage into the West”, when he departs for Avallon. Frodo, the Ring-Bearer, and Arthur, the Ring-Uniter as the hub of the Round Table and its knights, have nothing left to do once their respective rings are destroyed. Galadriel and the other elves who leave Middle-Earth take with them the wounded Frodo, who cannot heal in this world, like Morgan and the other queens-enchantresses bear away Arthur. In both cases, it is a non-end as well as a non-death: the ultimate fate of Arthur, as of Frodo, remains hidden.
         But is it through battles and love that The Lord of the Rings is most clearly connected to Arthurian legends. Feats of prowess and courtly love are inseparable in Arthurian legends, and though love may not appear as Tolkien’s first concern for the matter of his epic, it would be a caricature to say there is no love, especially no courtly love in The Lord of the Rings, although battles do seem to take precedence. The most common feature between battles undertaken by the inhabitants of Logres and those of Middle-Earth is the defiant bravery which consists in going to battle even when, and precisely because all seems lost. The battle of the Pelennor Fields and that of Salisbury are emblematic of this feeling of the ending of an era spoken of earlier. In Malory everything points to an unavoidable fate; no matter what last attempts at peace or negociation, the ultimate destruction of the Round Table has already been long in the process. As for the Rohirrim and the Men of Gondor, they go to face death at the hands of Sauron’s army in full knowledge that they have no chance to escape. Indeed, the real battle’s outcome is not in their hands but in Frodo’s, so that the best they can do is buy some time. In a way, though there is no Frodo in the Arthurian myth, the situation is quite similar: the fate of Arthur’s knights is already decided by the needs of the pre-existing myth, so that all the author can do is lend them a little more grandeur before they fall.

         True, in Tolkien, most of the foes are Orcs, which sets them clearly apart from the Men who fight Sauron. But the Dark Lord also has Men among his allies, Southrons and Easterlings, so that the war sets kin against kin, as in Arthur’s tragedy. This is the unmistakable sadness in both epics, that which results from the absolute need for brothers to kill each other: knights against knights, Men against Men, all because of a Ring about to be destroyed, whether it be the Round Table or the One Ring. In both cases, the battle is truly ended only when this Ring has disappeared. It is utter disaster in the case of Arthur, but strangely enough, whereas one might expect the end to be lighter in The Lord of the Rings since the destroyed Ring was evil, the sadness endures to the final pages of the novel. Though the good have won, their victory does not hinder the progression of the Third Age towards its end. It actually hurries it by taking away the power of the remaining Rings, those of the elves who were already departing from Middle-Earth. What little magic and grace was left in their world is definitely disappearing, as is the case for Arthur’s world of ideals.

         Among those ideals, that of love in the purest sense is also doomed to disappear in both worlds. The story of Arwen and Aragorn is quite telling in this respect. For if The Lord of the Rings leaves them married and happy (if not for Arwen’s separation from father and kin), Appendix A tells of the sadness of their story:

Arwen became as a mortal woman, and yet it was not her lot to die until all that she had gained was lost. (Appendix A, p.1099)

            The nostalgia in the telling of this story, whose end coincides with that of the glorious days of Numenor, would probably have found an echo in Malory’s sensibility, who wrote “for love that tyme was nat as love ys nowadayes.” [10] For Arthur’s knights as for Aragorn, the days of the sublime are numbered, and their conception of love will not survive the doom of their kingdom. It is a love so out of a normal human’s reach that the lady is not even human: Arwen is an elf, as many ladies in Arthurian romances are, or at least were originally, fairies, creatures from another world. When the world they chose comes to its end, and with it all its heroes, the love it had conceived disappears as well.
            But the tragic end is not what makes Aragorn and Arwen’s story an example of courtly love. It has already been said that their separation and the many trials and battles that Aragorn must undertake before he can marry her and make her his queen are consistent with the classical pattern of courtly love to be found in medieval romances. All the more so because, in so doing, Aragorn corresponds to the stereotype of the Fair Unknown. Indeed, his real name is not even revealed at first, and he is known only by the nickname of Strider in reference to his appearance, much as happens to La Cotte Male Taillée or Beaumains: young knights who arrive at Arthur’s court to become worthy of their name – and of a lady – which they reveal only once their deeds have made them so – and they can marry her. Likewise, Aragorn’s adventures are a slow and arduous progress towards his rightful throne in Gondor and the hand of his beloved, who even has a token sent to him, so that he goes to battle bearing the colours of his lady, as any true knight should.
            One might point out that the love story of the elf-maiden and the returning king is not central to the novel, that it is in fact a very anecdotal side-effect. We could argue that its melancholy air and out-of-this-world purity suffice to make it a fit element of the epic in The Lord of the Rings. But moreover, courtly love need not be central to Arthurian legends. Many medieval novels deliberately prefer the more heroic aspects and overlook the romance. It is very clear in the case of Tristan, a lover in the poems, and a fighter in the prose versions. Moreover, this preference for military matters is especially true for the English Arthurian texts. As Tolkien wished to create a mythology for his country, and was perfectly aware of the particularities of his country’s literary heritage, there is little doubt that his choice to tell most of the details of Arwen and Aragorn’s story in an appendix was deliberate. It is not his matter, but neither does he shy away from love stories – much like Malory in fact – especially if they draw on medieval origins, as I have also shown for Eowyn and her unhappy role model, the Lady of Shalott.
            In fact, Eowyn’s attraction for Aragorn is perfectly canonical from a courtly point of view. She is a fair damsel of high lineage, a king’s daughter fit to marry a king, and his prowess is worthy of much admiration. It is only reasonable – for courtly love is often greatly subject to logic – that she should fall in love with him. The unreasonable and uncourtly thing is to reject a worthy knight, as Ettard does in the case of Pelleas. Eowyn’s only mistake, like the Lady of Shalott’s, is to fall in love before the knight shows any sign of love, or rather to mistake merely courteous behaviour for a courtly one. Thus her love becomes impossible, and only denial of the fact may be hazardous. For others accommodate an unrequited love and draw on it for greater strength in battle, like Palomides, Tristan’s unhappy rival, or Gimli the dwarf.
            What more impossible story could there be than one between a dwarf and an elf-queen? Yet Tolkien clearly points that way in The Lord of the Rings, in a very discreet and delicate manner. Here again, Arthurian elements pave the way to a typical courtly love pattern. The lady in question is akin to the other-worldly ladies of Celtic myths, being an elf. She ensnares the warrior who becomes hers, body and soul, to the point of rejecting all his former beliefs and becoming her humble knight-servant, like Pelleas once he has been cured of his misplaced love by the Lady of the Lake. On many occasions afterwards, Gimli is ready to cut the throats of many bigger and more numerous than him, because they have had the audacity to speak with less than absolute respect of the Lady Galadriel – although at the same time, his behaviour seems to prove right those who speak of her as a sorceress. And these dangers he braves without the least concern for any reward from the said Lady. Actually, he has already been rewarded, by the gift of three of her golden hairs, the beauty of which is clearly stressed like that of Isolde’s. This boon, asked by Gimli himself, is well in keeping with his spell-bound admiration for the elf-queen; it is a gift he intends to “treasure”, thus betraying the strong link between love and contemplation, much as in religion in fact. Percivale does no different when he becomes enthralled by the sight of three (again) drops of blood, whose contrast with the surrounding snow reminds him of his love Blanchefleur’s complexion. Lancelot also adores his queen in Le chevalier de la charrette when he kneels in front of her window as in front of the altar.

            As may be seen, Tolkien’s “tribute” to his Arthurian sources is more than character deep. Any writer might entertain himself and the reader with allusions to formerly existing and well-known characters. It takes more skill to weave a slight remembrance of Arthurian pattern inside a bigger and completely original one. Though the themes we have just seen do “taste” Arthurian, the savour is light, and only their being equally spread throughout the book and among different characters makes them unmistakably deliberate. The intent persists from beginning to end, and also precisely in a field of fiction Tolkien particularly appreciated and mastered, that of the creation of places and settings.

III.           Places: Arthurian, Tolkienian, and Christian symbolism.

The most strikingly Arthurian place Tolkien created is the kingdom of Rohan. There are other kingdoms, and not all send the same signal. Actually, the two kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor could be likened to the two kingdoms of medieval fiction: Arthur’s and Charlemagne’s, so obvious is the kinship between Roland and Boromir– and not just because they both sound a horn before dying.
            We have already shown some common traits between Theoden and Arthur, their nephews, their evil counsellers. But more than that, they are both horsemen, and leaders of horsemen. The importance of horses in Arthurian legends is probably rooted in historical reality: considering the weight of a man in full armour, there was no leaping back gracefully in the saddle if one fell. Hence the absolute need to become one with one’s mount, as the Rohirrim do. Besides, if we trust the historical evidence collected so far as to the actual existence of an Arthur Dux Bellorum somewhere during the fifth century AD, this man may have been the first to use mounted patrols and specifically horse-trained men, maybe in order to cover in one day from coast to coast the area between the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s (one among the possible locations for an authentic Arthur). It is thus but little wonder that horses should have their place in the Arthurian myth as in any folklore spread by a civilization of horsemen.
            Many horses are fondly remembered in Arthurian tales, such as the king’s own white mare Llamrei, already mentioned, or Gawain’s Gringalet, both as honorable and likely ancestors as Sleipnir or Grani to the extraordinary Shadowfax, or to Arod and Hasufel, the two horses lent by Eomer to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. The fact that these “characters”, however incidental, are given a name shows how dear they can be, not only to their owner, but to the writer’s imagination. Gawain is very upset when his mount is stolen from him, as Theoden resents Shadowfax’s near-abduction by Gandalf, although it is not even the king’s mount. As for Theoden’s horse, who falls at the battle of the Pelennor Fields, we learn not only its name, but also the name of one of its parents, through the inscription on its tombstone:

Faithful servant yet master’s bane,
Lightfoot’s foal, swift Snowmane. (p. 878)

Such mounts are obviously much beloved, to be mourned, buried, and remembered in verse, even when they cause their rider’s death.

         The thing is, a knight without a horse is hardly a knight at all; it is the same with the Rohirrim, hardly ever seen on foot, except maybe in Theoden’s hall. Among others, Lamorak, Malory’s third best knight in the Morte Darthur, clearly states this fundamental truth, scolding his own brothers who have had the ill luck of being struck off their mounts (note that Lamorak refers to the incident as a “fall”):

“Bretherne, ye ought to be ashamed to falle so of your horsis! What is a knyght but when he is on horsebacke?” [11]

            Of course, considering the historical fact mentioned earlier that an unhorsed knight in armour was probably as harmless as a turtle on its back, Lamorak’s scolding may also be interpreted as sheer anxiety for his brothers’ fate. But the general tone of such remarks, and the fact that continuing a fight on foot is also decried sometimes as unknightly, tends rather to express that it does not beseem a knight to be separated from his horse. The horse is the emblem of one’s knighthood, and an object of pride in the Rohirrim: it is no wonder that Theoden should miss the best of his horses, and that he forbids Grima to leave Meduseld on horseback. It would be an insult, not only to the Rohirrim, but to their mounts. And Lancelot’s shame in the Knight of the Cart episode begins, not when he gets into the cart, but when he finds himself on foot: a knight ought to ride to the rescue of his lady, not hitch-hike like a Grima.
         Theoden’s kingdom, then, may be likened to Logres as a whole. But some specific places in Logres can be related to other places in Middle-Earth outside the Riddermark. Rivendell would make a fit alter ego to the Valley of No Return: it is a valley, out of time and harm’s way, presided over by a magical being: Elrond, or Morgan. Their powers over nature enable them to forbid trespassers from following them to their dwelling: Elrond commands the fury of the waters of Bruinen against the Nazgûl while Morgan is able to change herself and her knights into rocks, so as to lose her pursuers. Of course, Elrond is supposedly a good character, while Morgan is supposedly a bad one. Or are they? Elves are always painted under an ambiguous light in The Lord of the Rings, and Elrond is no exception. After all, he deliberately sends his daughter’s chosen love into uncountable perils, just because “she shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor.” [12] As for Morgan, she may be “a great destroyer of good knights” in Malory’s words, and Arthur’s worst enemy, but she also cries on his wounded body and bears him away to heal him. As elf or fairy, they are probably simply misunderstood from a merely human point of view [13] .

         The places belonging to other-worldly creatures are indeed often ambiguous in Arthurian legends as in The Lord of the Rings. Lothlorien, realm of Galadriel, appears as a place of Celtic mythology, as opposed to Moria, rather more under the Norse influence of the Dwarves. It is crossed by a river, the Celebrant, and its heart, Caras Galadhon, is an island in the medieval sense: it is a group of trees, taller than the rest, which sets them apart from the rest of the landscape. Thus the elves live in an other-world inside Middle Earth, in an Avalon which they do not only reach when they go over the sea into the West, but which they already inhabit in their homeland. The elves’ eternal youth, their magical bread which may feed a man unnaturally long, their ethereal music, all hark back to themes common to both Celtic legends of golden apples and Arthurian legends of Holy Vessels. Theirs is the Land of the Young of Irish folklore, the Isle of the Blessed, also known as the Isle of the Women. From this point of view, Galadriel its queen is not only akin to Viviane, but also to Morgan – as was already hinted at – whom tradition precisely has a tendency to confuse, especially as regards the responsibility of Merlin’s imprisonment. Both characters are many-faceted, like all enchantresses, and like Galadriel, whose reputation as a sorceress is well-known beyond her borders.
            Like the Old Forest, Mirkwood or Fangorn Forest, Lothlorien is a place of mystery, often frightening: the trees are alive, strange creatures wander through them like Tom Bombadil or Treebeard, who can be helpers though they also have fearful powers. These are beings of a different kind altogether, like the monsters and fairies which people the forests of Arthur’s knights, who are sure to go into a forest any time they wander in search of adventure. And adventure inevitably falls on them, as surely as elves fall upon any trespasser in their kingdom. The forest is an untamed place, and the elves are the expression of this inhuman wildness. Their kingdom is the opposite of the hobbits’ home, with their gardens and fields, their fondness for neat, hobbit-designed flower-beds and vegetable patches. Such opposition between the enclosed, civilised garden and the wild, dangerous forest is common in medieval imagery.
            The dwelling place tells much of the dweller, as much in Tolkien as in medieval literature, and it is no wonder that forests should be home to elves, or at the most to Woses, Wild Men, who interestingly enough are no strangers to Arthurian legends. Wild Men can either be madmen who have fled from civilization, such as in the case of Lancelot, Yvain or Tristan when they become mad, or hermits, purposefully retired from the society of men and its sins. In both cases, the symbolic quality of the forest is clear: it is not only an alien place, it can also be a chosen refuge from the world outside; it is even more the case for Tristan and Isolde, who make their home in the forest for a while once they have cast themselves out from Mark’s court. Lothlorien offers such shelter in the path of the Fellowship after they have suffered much in Moria. They come to Galadriel for comfort and advice, like many knights errant when they come across holy men and women. Lothlorien is a sanctuary, ruled over by a seer who appears as kin to the hermits of Arthurian legends and their ability to interpret dreams and visions, especially if these happen during a quest.
            At the opposite extreme of the forest’s intimidating, but on the whole comforting and safe atmosphere, the Emyn Muil and the land of Mordor are a place of desolation. They are the Waste Land, the perfect image of the God-forsaken place of Arthurian texts. The evil of Mordor, infused in the Ring, makes the land unfit for life, as the original sin of the Fisher King, or of one of his kinsmen, makes his. From a symbolical point of view, it is a place of trial and of temptation; it is no wonder that it is when the Ring weighs heaviest on Frodo and that his temper begins to show signs of submission to its evil power that he finds himself in such a place.
            But trial is a God-sent gift, and it often leads to redemption, as is the case for Gollum. Percivale during his Quest finds himself “in a wylde mounteyne” [14] , and is comforted only by the presence of a lion, sent to him to give him courage. Likewise, Frodo on his quest is comforted by the presence of Sam, a lion at heart, as he sometimes reveals when his master is in danger. Lancelot also meets his son Galahad in such a place; Galahad, the embodiment of both his triumph, being his own flesh and blood, and his failure, since the son is everything the father could never be. Frodo for his part is at all times torn while progressing in Mordor, between what he must do and what the shortcomings of his nature forbid him to. He is as a Lancelot who refuses God’s dictum and grabs the Grail anyway. When Lancelot does this, he is struck dumb and can’t move for a long time. Frodo too will pass through the terrible experience of paralysis, when he is stung by Shelob.

            In The Lord of the Rings as in Arthurian legends and in Christian texts more generally, the more the Quest becomes spiritual, the more the landscapes become unnatural and symbolic. Thus Frodo and Sam’s slow winding through the inhospitable rocks of the Emyn Muil is like a progression through a labyrinth, whereas their friends continue to fight on more terrestrial ground:

They had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before. Yet on the whole they had worked steadily eastward, keeping as near as they could to the outer edge of this strange, twisted knot of hills. (p.627)

            Not only does this setting evoke an intricate maze, it unavoidably brings to mind the image of those stone or carved labyrinths to be found on the pavement of medieval cathedrals such as Chartres, Reims or Amiens, and which the catechumens would follow on their knees as a symbol of their progress towards baptism and redemption, or of the pilgrimage towards Jerusalem, either that of the crusades or that of the Kingdom to Come. Frodo and Sam have even “worked steadily east”, though in Tolkien, through the reversion of the Quest motif, it is no Holy Land that beckons to them but a figuration of Hell. In the end, as on the sculptured tympanum of cathedrals, the redeemed go away from the gaping mouth of Hell, while the relapsed, Gollum, falls into the fiery pit. Except that, once more, as Tolkien makes an original work and no pale copy of the sources nor lesson in the Scriptures, in his novel the question remains open whether Gollum’s fall is not after all the sign of his atonement.

         It is not only that Tolkien resorts to the same symbolical landscapes as Arthurian legends that binds them together. But rather, it is the fact that he uses symbolical, and especially Christian symbols as a means of story-telling that makes him akin to the writers of the Middle Ages. So that not only the precise occurrences of similar places and settings, but also the general approach to them and to their relationship to plot and characters, once more has an Arthurian flavour, and at any rate a deliberately medieval air, according to the stated goals of the author himself.

         Tolkien did not compile Arthurian sources to make them into The Lord of the Rings. Nor is his work a compilation of other sources in addition to the Arthurian ones. But traces cannot help but be recognized – patterns, resemblances, and echoes, and this time especially in the case of Arthurian sources. The great subtlety of it is that they are sustained throughout the whole book and are present under many guises, while also scant enough not to be too readily equated with mere rewriting. It is hard to pinpoint one sufficiently telling Arthurian clue in the novel; it is more about taking in all of them and condensing them through the reading of the whole novel. And it is precisely because the likeness is so diffuse that the Arthurian myth and that of Middle Earth can be said to be related, in the family sense. Experiencing the Arthurian atmosphere of the novel is like looking at two people and trying to decipher what specific features makes them look akin: one feature taken separately doesn’t make a family resemblance. Only taken as a whole does one face really recall another. And sometimes, the long dead great-grand-uncle looks as familiar as a brother. This must be because the specific genetic heritage of Arturian myth is particularly enduring.


TOLKIEN, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings, London: Allen and Unwin, 1954-55.
MALORY, Thomas, Complete Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954, 2nd ed. 1971.
CHRETIEN DE TROYES, Yvain ou le chevalier au lion  and Lancelot ou le chevalier de la charrette, in Œuvres Complètes, Daniel Poirion, Paris: Gallimard, 1994.
Perceval le Gallois and Perlesvaus, Le haut livre duGraal, in La légende arthurienne, Le graal et la table ronde, ed. Danielle Régnier-Bohler, Paris: Robert Laffont, 1989
Culhwch and Olwen, in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, ed. Richard Barber, Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 1999.
KARR, Phyllis Ann, The Idylls of the Queen, New York: Berkley Books, 1982, 2nd ed. 1985.



[2] Le Morte Darthur, XIII, 8 (p.522).

[3] Perlesvaus, p.125 ; my translation.

[4] The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, p.1098.

[5] in Chrétien’s Le Chevalier de la charrette or the equivalent episode by Malory.

[6] And Frodo to Bilbo.

[7] Culhwch and Olwen

[8] Like Gandalf’s Glamdring

[9] English Standard Version,

[10] XX, 3 (p.676)

[11] Le Morte Darthur, X, 48 (p.408).

[12] Appendix A, p.1098.

[13] It is the way authors such as Phyllis Ann Karr (The Idylls of the Queen) usually rehabilitate Morgan in their rehandlings of the Arthurian matter.

[14] Le Morte Darthur XIV, 6 (p.545).