Fantasy Literature and Philosophy – Part II


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Part I Part II Part III

Items of Lore: Rings of Power, Elvish Swords, and Dwarvish Armor


For Plato, true forms must be considered when selecting one’s “fundamental character.”  In order for a person to overcome the pull of an immoral life or the injustice proliferated by unbridled power, a person must understand existence in its true form.  Tolkien borrows from these themes most industriously in his lore surrounding the One Ring.  Throughout the journey of the fellowship, Frodo and crew are continuously learning of the power, and consequently of the corrupting nature, of the One Ring.  The power of the ring, then, is not that it represents the corrupting nature of limitless power, it is that nature intrinsically.  The ring functions as more than a symbol, it is an embodiment of sorts.  As such, the One Ring hearkens back to Plato’s use of true forms.  In the Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is the real object casting maleficent shadows of corrupt behavior across the “cave walls” of Middle Earth.[i] 

Tolkien’s use of Platonic Forms does not stop with the One Ring, though.  The reader is invited not only to ponder the realities behind power and corruption but also those behind valor and heroism.  In the Lord of the Rings, history has played host to an era where true forms are present in the world of the common person.  For Tolkien, there are swords and there are true swords, armor and true armor.  These true forms usually find their way into the possession of true beings, heroes.  Tolkien uses lore and christening to distinguish between weapons and armor that represent the Platonic Forms. 

These items of lore are typically the companions (even in the sense that they may actually exist as a type of person in their own right) of the story’s archetypal characters.  Gandalf the Gray wields Glamdring, a rune engraved sword that was thousands of years old by the time Gandalf enters into the affairs of the Shire.  The sword was discovered by Gandalf in the Third Age along with Orcrist and Sting (a sword later wielded by Frodo in the Fellowship of the Ring) in a troll cave.  Andúril is the sword that was forged from the remnants of Narsil (the sword that was broken when Elendil battled Sauron in the Second Age) for Aragorn.  In the book, Andúril shines with the light of the sun and moon just like its predecessor Narsil.  Finally, but certainly not exhaustively, Frodo has a shirt of Mithril gifted to him by his Uncle Bilbo.  Bilbo received the shirt from Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit when they defeated the dragon Smaug.  This shirt of mail felt light as silk, but could turn any blade.  It was nearly indestructible and worth more than the entire Shire.

All of these fantastic items represent the author’s desire to communicate the urgency and importance of the world that exists beyond our perception.  In an age of terror and conflict, when the world was under the threat of devastation, these items of lore in the hands of champions were the hope and the certainty of values and attributes that transcended the dim view with which many perceived the world that surrounded them.


  1. Reed,

    I have used this in a seminar style presentation for my teenage students. I also showed about 2 hours of video from the movie adaptations of the literature discussed. So, the original presentation was a three hour synthesis of philosophy, literature, and cinema. The response from the students was mixed (typical), but nearly all of them seemed to at least appreciate the novelty of interdisciplinary studies. I am hoping to submit this for presentation to an annual educator’s conference held in Albuquerque this fall, and put it in front of those (read school nerds) that will really digest and appreciate it. Thanks for the positive feedback.



  2. Tony,

    From what I have read, Tolkien held a kind of disdain for allegory. So, I would have a hard time thinking that he intended for his story to be analogous to Plato. In fact, he was hoping to create a modern British epic (achieving the kind of culturally self-evident characteristics endemic to epics as a genre), if memory serves. The thing is, I think that fantasy as a genre (as well as myths and fairy tales as predecessors) borrow heavily from philosophy in general and Plato specifically (though, Reed, I could certainly draw some parallels between Aristotle and Rowling, et al). There has to be some kind of legitimacy to an author’s writing in order for the supernatural/fantastic to be believable or have an impact, and it takes metaphysics to achieve that.



  3. Shawn,
    I agree that there has to be some form of connect for fiction to have an impact. Usually, the connection comes from the author’s presuppositions and worldview. The Lord of the Rings was influenced by Tolkein’s distaste for the industrial revolution, his experiences in World War I, his study of languages, his religious background, and his study of mythology. People with similar experiences or a similar worldview have a great connect with Tolkein’s writings.

    I was also thinking that Star Wars would not have been such a big success if it had been written before the Wright Brothers showed us that we could fly. I believe the fact that we had already put a man on the moon made Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogy a much more compelling story. BTW, Lucas stated that The Lord of the Rings influenced his conception of his epic trilogy.


  4. Roger,

    Absolutely, and to follow this line of reasoning to its logical end, it’s always amazing to me how much fiction (especially science fiction, obviously) has informed our technological innovation, to use one example (how much of modern medicine actually originally appeared in the sick bay of Star Trek?). So, there is this fascinating, symbiotic relationship that happens with our best fiction. Our deepest human desires, fears, etc. inform our fiction, our fiction articulates creative solutions to those human states, and then our “real” everyday lives implement the ideas we proved viable in our fiction. It really is too bad that our universities have become so narrowly focused, because this kind of broad, interdisciplinary study is absolutely fascinating to me. You mention Tolkien’s influences, and you could also observe those kinds of things in Lewis and Rowling as well. Lewis was obviously responding to World War II, and Rowling uses the house elf liberation movement to say a lot about civil liberties.



  5. Indeed, imagination has become in academic circles a legitimate way of “knowing” things.

    I might have to do a few posts on Star Trek at some point. I’m a rather loyal “Treckie”


  6. Shawn,

    I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me until now, but as you refine your presentation for the educators conference you need to incorporate Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Stories, if memory serves he has some illunating things to say in that essay which will overlap your theme. The essay in is THE TOLKIEN READER which I think you have the Tolkien Reader on your bookshelf (as in, I don’t think I’ve borrowed it and lost it) so maybe you’ve already read it?


  7. Shawn,
    I wonder what kind of impact the MMORPG games of the last decade will have on our culture.

    Just a few comments to ponder:

    “Games are the most elevated form of investigation.” -Albert Einstein

    “Games may provide new ways for museums to have a profound impact on society if they are designed, as alternate-reality games are, to change people’s real-world behavior.” -Dr. Jane McGonigal


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