Tolkien’s Heroic Criticism: A Developing Application of Anglo-Saxon Ofermod to the Monsters of Modernity
Robert Rorabeck, (Florida State University)
Masters of English Literature, Florida State University, Paper 1764, (2003)
The encompassing claim of this study is 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. 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 this study, 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, this study 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.