Academic journal article Mythlore

The Name of the Ring: Or, There and Back Again

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Name of the Ring: Or, There and Back Again

Article excerpt

"THE WHOLE OF 'MIDDLE-EARTH' WAS MORGOTH'S RING" (Morgoth's Ring [MR] 400). What did Tolkien mean by this somewhat cryptic statement, which appears in an unpublished essay titled "Notes on motives in The Silmarttlion" and nowhere else, and from which the tenth volume of The History of Middle-earth takes its title? Tolkien goes on to explain that Morgoth's power was "disseminated" throughout Middle-earth; that it was "nowhere absent" though "nowhere absolute," and was a prerequisite for using any sort of matter towards an evil magical end. If Arda is Morgoth's Ring, with his power infusing the whole world, and Sauron's "relatively smaller" power is, in comparison, "concentrated" in the Ring of his own making (MR 400), what might this imply if we follow this thread to the tangled knot at its end?

In Middle-earth, it seems that evil suffers a steady decline from the cosmic to the petty over the course of "the long defeat" of Arda, in the same way that Verlyn Flieger demonstrates that Light in the legendarium appears in "progressively lessening intensities [, e]ach light [...] dimmer than the one before it, splintered by Tolkien's sub-creators" (Splintered Light, 60). Taking a cue from B.S.W. Barootes's essay on the decline of the power of language through the ages of Arda, this paper will use terms describing phases of language from Northrop Frye's The Great Code--metaphoric, metonymic, demotic, and ricorso--to examine the path of the Ring/evil/power/naming complex through its extended diminution as the Ring moves from mythic-level metaphor, through magic, to degradation and destruction--from Morgoth's Ring of all Arda, through Sauron's Ruling Ring, to Saruman's pale imitation of Sauron, and finally to Gollum's sad struggle for mere subsistence. The hobbit Ringbearers--Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam--form a coda to the Ring's diminishment, deflecting the attempted ricorso or return to the start of the ring-shaped cycle, and bringing about the Ring's destruction.

Words and language are at the very heart of Tolkien's legendarium, and as Tolkien's fellow Inkling Owen Barfield puts it in History in English Words, language "reveals the evolution of consciousness" (14). Flieger explains in Splintered Light that Barfield's "theory of the ancient semantic unity" (39) of literal and metaphoric uses of words, of the "interdependence of myth and language" (xxi), was an immense influence on Tolkien's thoughts about the evolution of language and underpin the development of both language and racial history in his legendarium. Names are a particularly powerful class of words, and naming is, in Middle-earth, a correspondingly powerful linguistic act. To give ourselves a basic framework to examine the relation of evil and naming as a specific use of language in Arda, let's first explore Frye's linguistic model.


Northrop Frye's classification of story types in Anatomy of Criticism [AC] has frequently been used in Tolkien scholarship. (1) Frye organizes literary forms in a cycle: myth, romance, high memetic, low mimetic, and ironic, returning to myth again, based primarily on the types of characters in the story, their relation to us as readers, and their "power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same" (33).

In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature [GC], Frye borrows a schema from Giambattista Vico that closely parallels this cycle of literary forms, and applies it to how language evolves (5). This sequence neatly echoes what Barfield called the "vast, age-long metamorphosis from the kind of outlook which we loosely describe as 'mythological' to the kind we may describe equally loosely as 'intellectual thought'" (84). The terms Frye uses for the phases of language development are metaphoric, metonymic, and demotic; a fourth term, ricorso, marks a return to the beginning. In brief, metaphoric language is mythic and poetic; metonymic is allegorical and analogical; demotic is descriptive and scientific (5); we will examine these terms in more detail below, and then apply them to Tolkien's legendarium. …

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