J R R Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle Earth, populated by Hobbits, Dragons, Dwalves and Elves has been rightfully considered to have been inspired by Old English, Germanic and Norse myths. However, it cannot be ignored that the master storyteller had a traditional classical education, one that informed both his reaction against that world and which facilitated the inclusion of many elements from the Greek world into his legendarium.
Undoubtedly, despite his linguistic interest in the Germanic languages, Tolkien regarded his early introduction to ancient Greek works as intrinsic to the formation of his literary aesthetics. In a 1953 letter, he wrote: “I was brought up in the Classics and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” An average student of ancient Greek, Tolkien’s world was created primarily in order to provide him with a background history for the languages he enjoyed creating. While Welsh, Norse and old English elements appear in the languages he devised for the Men of Middle Earth, Greek played a significant role in the construction of the High Elven language, Quenya, with Tolkien admitting that the language was constructed: “on a Latin basis with two other ingredients that happen to give me ‘phonasthetic’ pleasure: Finnish and Greek.”
Commenting further about the attraction of Greek as constituent inspiration for semi-divine language, Tolkien observed: “the fluidity of Greek, punctuated by hardness, and with its surface glitter, captivated me, even when I met it first only in Greek names, of history or mythology… but part of the attraction was antiquity and alien remoteness…”
The impact of Homer in particular, suffuses the work, both in its epic quality and the contents. In the opening chapter of The Return of the King, the Hobbit Pippin, witnesses a procession of clans arriving in the capital city of the realm of Gondor in order to defend it. In his notes on a draft of that chapter, Tolkien has written: “Homeric catalogue,” referencing the numbers and leaders of the various Greek clans listen in the ‘Catalogue of Ships’ in the second book of the Iliad.
The Lord of the Rings being a saga about a small anarchic group of people fighting and ultimately defeating the homogenising forces of evil, Tolkien reveals in another letter that his premise was inspired by the Greeks in the Persian Wars, marvelling at how the: “quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes,” whereas in the modern world, too much power would have been placed in “Xerxes’ hands.”
In the backstory to the Lord of the Rings, contained in the creation epic “The Silmarilion,” there are closer parallels with the ancient Greek world. In particular, Tolkien’s reference to a star shaped island raised from the sea by the gods named Numenor but also Atalantë, invited direct comparison with the Atlantis story as contained in Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. Both Atlantis and Numenor are described as having a high mountain at their centre, on the summit of which there is a temple, covered in silver. The first kings of both islands, Atlas and Elros, are said to have divine ancestry. Most significantly, both islands are said to have been ruled in an exemplary way, their inhabitants developing a high level of civilisation which they generously shared with those beyond their borders. Plato in Critias and Τοlkien in the Silmarillion both go on to recount the moral decay and lapse into greed and violence that caused the inhabitants of both islands to lapse into predatory and violent behaviour towards others, even as they grew richer and more powerful. Thus Plato relates: “but those unable to see the life that truly leads to happiness, they were regarded as being most splendid and blessed, though they were activated by unjust greed for possessions and power,” having declared war against Athens, whereas Tolkien tells us that the Numenoreans “came no longer as bringers of gifts, not even s rulers, but as fierce men of war. And they hunted the men… and took their goods and enslaved them…”
While parallels have also been made between Numenor and the Athenian Empire, especially given that both seem to have been established after victory in a fight against oppression, (in Numenor’s case, after a war with the satanic figure of Morgoth and in the case of Athens, that of the Persians), with Athens expanding its civilisation throughout the Aegean and displaying ever more despotic behaviour towards its allies, who it slowly subjugates, and also with the Minoan Empire which is destroyed by similar natural phenomena, in his “Notion Club Papers,’ Tolkien wryly reveals the connection between the two myths, suggesting that Plato did not invent the story of Atlantis but rather was inspired by the demise of Numenor. In another letter, Tolkien wrote that Numenor was his “personal alteration of the Atlantis myth and/or tradition and accommodation of it to [his] general mythology.”
The Silmarillion functions primarily as Tolkien’s cosmogony in which the chief divinity brings the world into being through music and creates it via the songs of subordinate deities whose melodies harmonies with its own. This concept of universal harmony music of the spheres has direct corollaries to ancient Greek thought, and in particular that of Pythagoras. Tolkien has his chief divinity Eru Iluvatar sing his subordinate deities into being and then teaches them music so they can partake of his creative vision. The Neoplatonist Proclus, by comparison, refers to divine planetary souls called Sirens who utter but on note, forming “a choir around a singly coryphaeus (choir leader).”
Other elements also betray a link to Greek myth. The One Ring which forms the basis for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings grants invisibility to its wearer but ends up corrupting its owner. There is a direct equivalency in this motif, to the Ring of Gyges, mentioned by Plato in “The Republic,” to illustrate his discussion as to whether a rational, intelligent person who has no need to fear negative consequences for committing an injustice would nevertheless act justly. Similarly, in the Hobbit, upon finding the Ring, Bilbo Baggins is given the choice of using his new found powers of invisibility in order to kill the Ring’s previous owner, while in the Lord of the Rings, the ring-bearer Frodo is constantly having to guard against being consumed by lust for possessing the Ring. In both the ancient Greek and Tolkien’s myth, the finding of the ring takes place after a katabasis, a descent into the earth, in Gyges’ case via a chasm opened up in a mountainside and in Bilbo Baggins’ case, by a tunnel inadvertently stumbled across, also on a mountainside.
The tragedy of the “Children of Hurin” is another epic within the broader legendarium of Tolkien that closely resembles ancient Greek works. Indeed, it seems to be inspired by Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus Rex,” in that both Oedipus and Tolkien’s tragic hero Turin Turanbar suffer a similar fate, based on ignorance. Just as Oedipus did not know that the man he killed was his father and the woman he married, his mother, so too did Turin not know that he had married his sister.
Gondor, the realm instrumental in resistance to the dark forces of the malevolent Sauron, also invites comparison with the Greek world. Within its borders for example, lie colossal statues hewn on rocks known as the Argonath, reminiscent of the Argonauts and the Clashing Rocks. Gondor is the southern survivor of two Numenorian-derived kingdom, with the northern kingdom, Arnor, having been taken. The collapse of Arnor can be seen as analogous to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, while Tolkien himself refers to Gondor as: “a kind of proud, venerable but increasingly impotent Byzantium,” in a 1951. Allied to Gondor are the Rohirrim, who although portrayed as having a Viking-like mead-hall culture, are described by Tolkien in another one of his letters as “heroic Homeric horsemen.”
The Eye of Sauron, a source of pure evil that facilitates the fascination and domination of his minions can also be said to have ancient Greek precedents. Plutarch, in seeking to describe the phenomenon of the evil eye, speculated that the eyes were the chief source of the deadly rays that were supposed to spring up like poisoned darts from the inner recesses of a person possessing the evil eye.
Other instances of inspiration from the Greek world include the tale of Beren and Luthien, where a grieving partner seeks to ransom the soul of their deceased loved on from the god of the Dead, similar to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the seven gates of Minas Tirith, reminiscent of the Seven Gates of Thebes but also the concentric walls of Atlantis, while Tolkien himself suggested that the Gondorian port of Pelargir was “about the latitude of ancient Troy.” The epic scene of the Black Ships, where the steward of Gondor, viewed via magical means and taken out of context by the steward of Gondor Denethor to signify total defeat and loss, causing him to seek suicide is of course reminiscent of the myth of Theseus, where the ancient hero forgot to remove the black sail from his own ship, causing his father to also commit suicide, in despair.
While references to the Greek world abound in Tolkien’s legendarium, sometimes blatant, other times muted and hidden, these are embedded within and co-exist with an inordinately rich cosmos replete with a myriad of other influences, fashioned via the author’s imagination and sensitivity into a perennially relevant and thoroughly moving tale. In his essay “On Fairy Stories” Although Tolkien specifically warns us against the dangers of excessive deconstruction, stating: “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled…” By “the soup” I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by “the bones” its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup,” we can all be justifiably proud of the Greek contribution to that fulsome stew.