Type of Document Thesis Author Rorabeck, Robert URN etd-09182003-170138 Title Tolkien's Heroic Criticism: A Developing Application Of Anglo- Saxon Ofermod To The Monsters Of Modernity Degree Master of Arts Department English, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title David Johnson Committee Chair Christopher Shinn Committee Member Eugene Crook Committee Member Keywords
Date of Defense 2003-08-02 Availability unrestricted AbstractThe encompassing claim of this study is that Tolkien operated as a social critic through his fictional writing, and that Tolkienís developing social criticism has its roots in his critical interpretations of The Battle of Maldon and SGGK. Tolkien was primarily concerned with the elevation of man-made social systems over a divine and moral law, and he worked to deconstruct such systems as dangerous and flawed ideology that would inevitably lead to the downfall of man. Tolkienís specific interpretations on the corpus of his study reflect directly back upon the heroics and social mechanics he creates for his fictional realm of Middle-earth. This claim is intended to underline the important relationship between Tolkienís scholarly study and creative endeavor in a way which has not yet been fully developed within the literary criticism on Tolkien. What interests this
study, then, is how Tolkienís work graduated from fairy-tale based upon Anglo-Saxon poetry, high art in itself, to a more socially relevant medium which helped shaped the attitude of readers since its popular outbreak in the 1960s, yet maintained the Anglo-Saxon social criticism which Tolkien saw in the usage of the term ofermod, as well as a
transmuted ofermod to a critique of the threatening power structure Tolkien observed in
societies of his day. Within this premise of Tolkien as a developing social critic, this
study attempts to show: the background for Tolkienís own heroic aesthetic, the components of his heroic aesthetic, and how that heroic aesthetic is developed and personalized within his writing.
Within The Battle of Maldon Tolkien interprets the Old English word ofermod as ďovermastering pride,Ē and a negative reflection of the heroic leader, Beorhtnoth, whose actions within the poem lead to the destruction of the troops under him and a victory for the Viking forces at Maldon. Tolkien understood the term of ofermod as criticism of Anglo-Saxon leaders such as Beorhtnoth, and a reflection upon a larger social
dilemma plaguing Anglo-Saxon society: that of a heroic code which placed leaders in the
centrality of battle, a precarious position which unnecessarily endangered the welfare of
the entire society. Consequently, overmastering pride of brash leaders is seen repeatedly
in Tolkienís LOTR and The Silmarillion, but where Tolkien begins to come into his own is when he moves beyond mere repetition of his interpretation of ofermod within The Battle of Maldon and relates ofermod to the desire for absolute power observed within the 20th century while giving answer to such power in the form of a reluctant anti-hero embodying Tolkienís heroic ideals, such as Sam Gamgee.
In Tolkienís interpretation of SGGK, he saw a distinction of social aesthetic from higher moral ordering by Gawain. Such observation worked to deconstruct the chivalric code of the high Middle-Ages as failed social ideology and placed a divine providence above a social structure. Although the poem is from a later era of English literary history, Tolkienís focus remains specifically on the social implications of the poem and the fallibility of a social leader who accepts flawed social ordering above a higher moral truth. Even more important concerning Tolkienís observations on SGGK is the fact that
he focuses upon what he sees as the centrality of the servant figure within the poem, the
knight Gawain, and on the fact that Gawain by the conclusion of the poem is able to discern the ordering of a moral truth above the flawed social structuring of a chivalric code. This important observation as well as Tolkienís interpretation of the term ofermod in The Battle of Maldon, directed the social criticism of Tolkienís creative works.
Specifically, Tolkien used his observations of earlier and later Anglo-Saxon social dilemmas to develop his criticism of dilemmas he saw with modern society and modern social aesthetics.
The focus upon Tolkienís social criticism within this study is an attempt to give immediate validity to Tolkienís sub-created world as both high art and relevant social commentary. Too often the realm of faerie is ignored or discarded by scholars as escapism not relevant to the primary world of literary study. What Tolkien shows, and what is the specific focus of his essay On Fairy-Stories, is that the realm of faerie or fantasy does have immediate relevance to the primary world. Tolkien, endeavoring in two
fields of writing, the scholarly and the fictional, provides such a connection: his
scholarly work is directly applicable to his sub-created world of Middle-earth.
The structure of this study follows the development of Tolkienís social criticism and heroic aesthetic. The study begins by looking at some biographical elements of Tolkienís life and how those elements shaped the creation of Tolkienís anti-hero, the Hobbit. Looking at the development of social criticism in Tolkienís fictional corpus, the study continues by analyzing The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelmís Son, a short play based on The Battle of Maldon which helps to show Tolkienís interpretation of the Old English term ofermod since within the short play Tolkien is basically reiterating his interpretation of ofermod within the Old English poem. The study continues by defining the origins of Tolkienís own heroic ideals and later shows how Tolkien graduated these
in his fictional corpus. The studyís observations on SGGK are necessarily placed later on, for they represent an important stage in Tolkienís development of social criticism coming after what might be interpreted as Tolkienís recreation of Anglo-Saxon ofermod in his fictional work. The study concludes with some direct observations of Tolkienís social criticism at work in The Hobbit and several stories within The Silmarillion.
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