8

Is an essential aspect of Tolkien's creation about legends having their own legends?

I ask because for me one of the things that makes Arda so compelling and believable as fantasy is that it is a land with its own stories of varying levels of historical truth. Much as for us on the real 21st-century Earth, stories, legends and myths make up a huge part of our intellectual landscape regardless of how accurate (if at all) they are accounts of what actually happened.

  • 2
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. This is an interesting question, but honestly you might get a better answer if you asked on Literature. – DavidW May 13 at 22:59
  • 1
    @DavidW: Although that is true, I would like to emphasize that questions about broader genre trends and tendencies are quite on-topic here as well. – Kevin May 14 at 2:42
  • 1
    @DavidW: Part of the problem, of course, is that people don't ask us those questions in the first place. ;-) – Kevin May 14 at 3:20
  • 2
    The trouble with legends in Tolkien's world is that the are people around who actually remember the original events. – Daniel Roseman May 14 at 6:15
  • 1
    Thanks for the welcome! Daniel Roseman, yes, I appreciate what you might call "The Galadriel Problem here" but to a large extent LoTR (and more so "The Hobbit") are told from a Hobbit's eye view. – NickM May 14 at 8:21
3

With Silmarillion, Tolkien wanted to create a mythology similar to for example the Norse one, and that's what he considered his most important work. He wanted Silmarillion to be belivable, and so he didn't just produce the stories, but languages, maps, family trees, pantheons, races etc etc.

The stories in The Hobbit and LotR weren't really planned to be integrated with the Silmarillion work initially. It wasn't until the massive success of LotR, when Tolkien needed to explain details of things in the books to the fans, that he fully integrated the LotR world with Silmarillion.

And so for example we get the legend of Gondolin briefly appearing in The Hobbit when they find the swords, mostly as a minor curiosity then - Tolkien was at that point writing a book for children and he didn't really intend it to merge it with the Silmarillion work then, the tale of Gondolin being one of his earliest works.

There are some legends appearing by chance like that, with Tolkien taking inspiration from his own work and not really explaining the legend in detail to the reader. Other such examples is the legend of Eärendil and the legend of Beren and Luthien, both appearing in LotR. To some of the characters (like the hobbits) the stories would be just that - legends. While others like Aragorn and Arwen would also know them as factual history of their own ancestors. But with the events of the First Age happening many thousand years before the LotR story, they would be a mix of history, legend and fairy-tales to the people living in the Third Age.

(Compare it to for example the stories of Ragnar Lodbrok and his sons in our world, where we lack records and aren't really certain what's fiction and what's history.)

Then there are various in-world legends or prophecies that Tolkien placed there on purpose for the plot. Prophecies are spoken by people (or Valar) with the gift of foretelling the future, which is fairly common throughout the books. In other cases such plot-central legends just exist as hearsay and tradition, such as the various legends surrounding the heir of Isildur: legends claiming that the King would return one day. Since these legends were present among the people of Gondor, Aragon's claim wasn't really questioned at all - it was sufficient that he brought the re-forged sword, the army of the dead and produced a sapling of the White Tree to prove that he was the King.

These kind of legends that Tolkien placed there on purpose are essential, I suppose, since they are important to the story. But they hold far less substance and details than the "historical legends" that entered his works more by coincidence. Take the legend/prophecy that said that the Witch King could be killed by no man - we have no idea where this originated from or why we should regard it as trustworthy - the legend is suddenly just there, dropped on top of the reader when the Witch King is introduced in detail for the first time.

  • 1
    We know the Glofindel was responsible for the witch king prophecy, and being one of the heroes of the Noldor makes him fairly credible. The reader has also been introduced to him earlier in the books. The exact text and context of the prophecy is in Appendix A. Also, since most people didn't even know about the Nazgul, it would make sense that Tolkien not tell us about the prophecy until it became relevant, as the point of view characters themselves didn't know about it. – Daishozen May 23 at 19:39
  • @Daishozen That's not the point, it isn't explained in the actual book, probably since such details didn't add to the plot. Tolkien patched up lots of things retroactively. Glorfindel himself being another perfect example of a legend that just popped up by chance as Tolkien drew inspiration from his own earlier works. And then later had to be patched up when LotR was merged with the Silmarillion works. Glorfindel a credible source? According to legend, he died killing a balrog while saving Eärendil, you must have heard it from someone else :) – Amarth May 24 at 16:36
  • It might be more accurate to say that Tolkien used his legendarium as the setting for The Hobbit and LotR. But while he was beginning work on LotR, he came to realize that the Hobbit had to be tweaked to work as the backstory for LotR, and that LotR was a serious, if late, flowering of his legendarium rather than just a piece of fluff. Overall, I think yours is a good answer. – Mark Olson May 24 at 19:29
  • @MarkOlson Indeed, but lots of it "just happened". Tolkien (or at least his publisher) originally intended LotR to be the successor of The Hobbit, another book for children, but then suddenly as he was writing, there were Nazgul dark riders and a more dark, epic fantasy theme. So it the story turned into something more epic, which fitted better with Silmarillion. --> – Amarth May 24 at 20:12
  • At the point where that happened, the legends borrowed from Silmarillion had to be more than just brief curiosities. He had to explain why Glorfindel was alive, he had to explain how Aragon and Arwen were related to Beren and Luthien etc. But as it turned out, this gave more depth to LotR. – Amarth May 24 at 20:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.