Academic journal article Mythlore

Tolkien's Devices: The Heraldry of Middle-Earth

Academic journal article Mythlore

Tolkien's Devices: The Heraldry of Middle-Earth

Article excerpt

ONE OF MANY COLORFUL SURFACE DETAILS in The Lord of the Rings, its pattern of heraldic banners and emblems deployed in the manner of national flags (most visibly, but not exclusively, by armies in the field) might easily be taken as mere decoration but for their associations with several resonant and significant symbols used in the novel. In cases such as the Evil Eye or the White Tree, these associations are obvious to any attentive reader, whereas others, most notably perhaps the Hand of Isengard, seem to require more careful scrutiny. Whether obvious or not, however, the pattern suggested by considering these various symbols in relation to one another, with the resulting correspondences and contrasts that emerge, is one that resonates with, underscores, and clarifies some of the novel's central themes. This essay therefore seeks to demonstrate, through close examination of several examples, how, far from being merely decorative, these heraldic devices serve to amplify the text itself.

Critical discussions of heraldry in Tolkien's text are rare, outweighed by interest in designs included in his collected pictures or commemorative calendars, and these are dominated by Elvish devices dating back to the period of The Silmarillion rather than those (primarily Mannish and Orcish) recorded in the Third Age. A good example is Margaret Purdy's article "Symbols of Immortality," which recognizes that "the various banners and emblems present in The Lord of the Rings--the white horse of the House of Eorl, for instance, or the swan-ship of Dol Amroth--are indeed similar to the conventional coats of arms of European heraldry" (19), but passes over these to focus on the "strikingly different" devices favored by the Eldar (and some of the Houses of the Edain who fell under their influence). Purdy does, however, offer some useful introductory remarks on the "European heraldry of the Primary World", for example that its terminology is "as esoteric and specialized, in its way, as that of physics, chemistry or biology" (19). Since Tolkien's own approach to the subject appears to be artistic rather than scientific, one is hardly required to be an expert to comment on it, and in what follows I shall avoid all reference to escutcheons, fesses, lozenges, grand quartering, marks of cadency, and the like.

The role played in The Lord of the Rings by heraldic color in particular is treated in an earlier article, Miriam Miller's "The Green Sun," where it is in fact given a broader application than is possible here (where the focus is heraldic emblems as such). Miller's assertion is that there is a heraldic quality to Tolkien's treatment of color throughout the text; for example, "color in The Lord of the Rings can be used as a marker of identity, literally and figuratively heraldic" (8). It is used for "establishing atmosphere and delineating theme, as a means of expressing the highest emotions, and as an external sign of inner moral and spiritual condition" (9). Detailed examples are offered and used to illustrate two striking primary observations:

1. that Tolkien used a strangely limited palette--red, green, blue, black, gray, brown, yellow, and white (the last two are also referred to as gold and silver)--with very, very few exceptions.

2. that these color words are used without modification; i.e., we see, again with very, very few exceptions, green, not pale green, or emerald green, or chartreuse. (3)

Miller implies that the simplicity and boldness of Tolkien's color scheme produces a kind of heraldic effect throughout, notably where such patterns are used (as they often are) symbolically. This is a view I am inclined to support; it certainly does apply to the treatment of banners and emblems, where both the colors and devices chosen have an immediate applicability to those who bear them (or on whose behalf they are borne). In this instance it is undoubtedly true that "more than a convenient mark of identification or a way to tell the 'good guys' from the bad ones [. …

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