Literary Fencing: Tolkien vs. Shakespeare
While reading a book about Tolkien this week, I came across the fact that parts of Lord of the Rings were inspired by Macbeth.* Which I’d already known, and was super-obvious to me, especially in Eowyn’s most famous scene. But what I didn’t realize was how much of Lord of the Rings was a direct “take that!” to Shakespeare. Tolkien “rather enjoyed voicing the ultimate Englishman’s heresy of hating Shakespeare altogether.” Yay, Tolkien, join the club!
Of course, Lord of the Rings is inspired by tons of other myths and legends as well. But in case the ways Tolkien issued a challenge to Shakespeare was not obvious to you, I’ll list a couple for you. Starting with the most obvious:
Eowyn and the Witch-King
The prophecy about who would kill the witch-king parallels the prophecy about who could kill Macbeth – “No living man can kill me,” sneers the witch-king, while Macbeth “cannot be slain by man of woman born.”
But Macbeth dies due to a loophole in his prophecy – apparently a man born by C-section is not born of a woman (No, I don’t get this either). Tolkien thought that was lame, and made his witch-king die at the hands of a woman. This seems like the more obvious loophole to me, maybe because I’m female.
The Witch-King as Macbeth
The prophecy part is the part I already knew. But I didn’t know how the witch-king explicitly paralleled Macbeth in other ways, mostly because I never paid much attention to Macbeth.
The witch-king sold his soul in exchange for earthly power, while Macbeth gives in to evil in exchange for his power. So they’re both supposed to be the archetype of kings with doomed, remorseless souls. Is it just me, or is the Witch-King a bit more menacing? Maybe because I don’t need at least ten minutes to figure out what’s he’s saying?
Tolkien loved this line in Shakespeare: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” He loved the thought of marching trees. However, Shakespeare had other ideas. He just makes an army cut down tree branches so they look like a marching wood.
Tolkien thought this was rubbish and invented Ents. And the march of the Huorns on the orcs at Helm’s Deep. Great scenes – glad Shakespeare spurred him to write those.
So yeah, Shakespeare was a relatively minor element of inspiration for Tolkien, but he did inspire some rather cool scenes! I love how Shakespeare inspired Tolkien to do the exact opposite with his plots, rather than slavishly copy him. That’s what they call “negative inspiration,” folks!
For another book that uses Macbeth to enrich the story, check out Cat Among the Pigeons, by Agatha Christie. Very different from Lord of the Rings, but still good!
*This book is Tolkien’s Ring, by David Day. There’s some good comments in the comment thread below on the quality and reliability of this book.
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13 responses to “Tolkien’s “Take That!” to Shakespeare”
Huh crazy, that’s pretty cool!
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Hi, came across this (couple years late I see) actually looking to see what I could find on the net in support of this material after a debate arose with a friend (the typical “no! I like shakespeare and I like tolkien, so tolkien MUST have liked shakespeare” kind of thing). My books are all annoyingly in plastic bins in the basement, and in no particular order (and there are a lot of them after getting 1 chapter into a failed dissertation) so finding any one book is a bit of a pain, but from what I remember, Day’s book is not in an academic venue, so he did not have to provide sources, which I wish he had, because I agree with JTTR heartily about the Bard. Have you read anything on this anywhere else? Day’s book doesn’t seem to me in any way like he would have a motivation to cook up claims or claims to evidence of this sort, so I don’t doubt he’s solid on it, but I would like to know the sources (whether from JRRT’s letters, or records of lectures, or whatever) as ammo of my own 🙂
I can explain some of my own reasons for agreeing with JTTR and how I suspect they are his own reasons, but I’m trying to find more critical support. For instance, the Witchking of Angmar vs MacBeth things is that the “not by one of woman born” thing in the latter totally guts (and I would say disrespects) childbearing by reducing it to the delivery method. For JTTR, especially as a philologist, its about the fact that WS totally botches the richness of the word. Being “born” is not just about the delivery method, it is etymologically descended (rather immediately) from “borne” – “born” means to be carried by a woman for 9 months.This goes hand in hand with the problem that WS doesn’t have a clue about how the metaphor of literature works. Meptahpors are riddles (in ancient Hebrew the same word is used for both, mashal). There is the riddle (the image) and the answer (its inner meaning – which becomes the inner meaning of the overall thing as well) – the riddle is arrogance (Angmar seeking secret things like sorcery to secure victory in battle) and the answer is humility (defeated by a woman disguised as a warrior, aided by a halfling … both, in a patriarchal society, symbols of lowliness, and thus humility).
Tolkien also had a beef with drama as such. As near as I can put the thinking together: for JTTR drama, in the modern sense, heavily influenced by WS, objectifies psychological realities in an unnatural and unhealthy way. The psychology used to happen between the stage and the audience (along the lines of Aristotle’ s concept of catharsis ). Drama puts it all on the stage to be examined under a microscope. Harold Bloom (mr shakespeare himself; always strikes me as a blowhard) once said “Shakespeare invented the human person”; I think Tolkien’s reply would have been something like “no, he just imprisoned the human person in a cage of quotation marks” (GOOD thing … inventing the “human person” submitted it to an unhealthy level of objectification … for objectification as a prison of horrors, see the prison of the giant “Spirit of the Age” in Pilgrim’s Regress., by CS Lewis, longtime friend of JRRT, although he had similar concerns about some of Lewis’s works, or at least Screwtape Letters)
On Day’s book. I’m sure you have thoroughly digested it long ago and seen that its not really about LotR (he actually botches a few of those details), but rather using the popularity resurgence accompanying the movies to publish some of his own research in a certain field (ring lore in various mythologies and ancient bodies of literature)… which, to me, having been in academia for a bit, is fine … just wasn’t what I was looking for when I first got the book … but it was a good read anyway.
Excellent thought processes on JRR Tolkien and Shakespeare! You’re right, I don’t recall Day’s book being especially academic from my vague remembrance of it. Looking back at this post I don’t recall doing any in-depth research on further sources other than Day’s book, which at the time I was probably reading at the time only for entertainment value anyway. Your ideas as to why Tolkien would’ve thought this way strike me as very plausible, especially the relation to the meaning of the word ‘born’ and the place of riddles in stories. I also think Tolkien would’ve cared very much about those!
I should try to track down further evidence behind this story. My blog has been terribly neglected of late due to unforeseen life circumstances, but maybe in the far future I can do a follow-up post on this. And I would be highly interested if you find out anything more as well!
I quite like your ideas on Shakespeare and drama too. There’s aspects of Shakespeare I do admire, but I don’t find myself loving him quite as much as some seem to do.
As much as I love that scene of Eowyn killing the Wtich-King, I as a linguistically informed Feminist have always been bothered by that treatment of the word “Man”. Because I know full well that Man was originally a completely Gender Neutral word. Woman means a Man with a Womb, meaning all Women are Men but not all Men are women. That is why The Bible uses it of Adam and Enosh, completely gender neutral terms in Hebrew, ye the modern perspective that “Man” is gender specific caused KJV onlier to exclude women from verses never meant to exclude them.
But I get around that issue by remembering LOTR is supposed to be hypothetically a Translation from whatever language the Baggins wrote the Red Book in. So I just imagine that whatever word was originally used in the Prophecy was more like the French Masculin, or the Hebrew Zakar.
I had heard before of the Trees marching on Helms Deep being partial inspired by Macbeth. But I also thought I’d heard once about a little known Bible verse referring to marching Trees as well. But I can’t recall what it was.
Interesting! Thanks. If the Ents are partially inspired by a bible verse, I’d be interested in knowing which verse as well!
I did some searching, and it seems the passage in Question was 2 Samuel 18:6-8. The Wood of Ephraim.
“The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.” Wow, that’s really cool! Thanks for finding that for me!
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I was never impressed enough with David Day’s book to buy it. The books on Tolkien I do recommend (highly) are the following two by Tom Shippey: “The Road to Middle Earth” (revised edition) and “JRR Tolkien Author of the Century”; and two by Verlyn Flieger: “Splintered Light” (2nd Ed.) and “Interrupted Music”.
Neil van der Gugten
After reading the above comments, and yours, I am quite glad I did not buy it either. If I get a chance to read those books you recommend, perhaps I should write a follow-up post to this one someday:D