The encompassing claim of Robert Rorabeck's thesis was that Tolkien operated as a social critic through his fictional writing, and that Tolkien’s developing social criticism has its roots in his critical interpretations of The Battle of Maldon and Sir Gawain and the green Knight.
According to the author 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. Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s scholarly study and creative endeavor in a way which has not yet been fully developed within the literary criticism on Tolkien.
What interests the 2003 thesis, then, is how Tolkien’s 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, the thesis attempts to show: the background for Tolkien’s 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 “overmastering pride,” 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 Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s heroic ideals, such as Sam Gamgee.
In Tolkien’s interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 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, Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s observations on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 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 Tolkien’s interpretation of the term ofermod in The Battle of Maldon, directed the social criticism of Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s social criticism within the thesis is an attempt to give immediate validity to Tolkien’s 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 the thesis follows the development of Tolkien’s social criticism and heroic aesthetic. The study begins by looking at some biographical elements of Tolkien’s life and how those elements shaped the creation of Tolkien’s anti-hero, the Hobbit. Looking at the development of social criticism in Tolkien’s fictional corpus, the study continues by analyzing The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, a short play based on The Battle of Maldon which helps to show Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s own heroic ideals and later shows how Tolkien graduated these in his fictional corpus. The study’s observations on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are necessarily placed later on, for they represent an important stage in Tolkien’s development of social criticism coming after what might be interpreted as Tolkien’s recreation of Anglo-Saxon ofermod in his fictional work. The study concludes with some direct observations of Tolkien’s social criticism at work in The Hobbit and several stories within The Silmarillion.
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