The Mythology of Power

A review of The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power.  Over all, about three stars out of ten.

While glancing through the literary criticism shelves at my library recently, I noticed this title, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, by Jane Chance, a PhD. English professor.  I took it down and checked it out, thinking it would be fascinating to read someone else’s ideas on The Lord of the Rings, since I loved it so much.  Now, I am glad that I read it – it has certainly broadened my perception of my favorite work of fiction – but I thought that 25 percent was legitimate, while 75 percent of it was sophistic balderdash.  I guess I had better explain in more detail.

I’ll begin with the lesser of the book’s faults – the errors.  While any spelling or grammar mistakes were evidently caught by the editor, this book was rife with blatant errors regarding the subject matter.  For a silly example, in the first or second chapter, Chance states that Britain was blockaded by German U-boats in 1946 – though the second world war ended in ’45!

A mistake like that, I suppose, could crop up in any book, since it has little to do with the author’s topic.  Several other errors also appeared, however, in Chance’s descriptions of and quotations from The Lord of the Rings itself:

  1. Chance quotes Tom Bombadil as saying, “sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless” (1:201).  While she has quoted Bombadil perfectly, she completely misinterprets the lines, saying that he was describing the barrow-wights.  It is obvious even from reading Chance’s own description of the barrow-wights, that they would certainly NOT be guarding anyone from evil things – Bombadil was speaking of the rangers.
  2. Chance describes the scene at the Fords of Bruinen fairly accurately – except that she attributes all of Glorfindel’s actions to Gandalf.  What happened there?
  3. Chance inserts an explanation into a quote from The Return of the King, which would be quite helpful if it were correct: “the Prince of the Halflings, that folk [Elves] had called him” (3:97).  It was not the Elves, but rather the men of Gondor, who called Pippin “the Prince of Halflings.”

While I admit that these errors are none of them matters of extreme importance, I would expect a writer of literary criticism to be more careful, and at least know her material before publishing.  To be fair, these were really the only mistakes that came to my attention – the majority of the book was error-free.

The other problem with The Mythology of Power is, as I mentioned first, that much of what it has to say is pure sophistry, attributing symbolism and implication to anything and everything, regardless of what is really there.  Though there certainly exists a theme of solidarity in LOTR, exemplified in the forging of the fellowship and the joining of all the free peoples of Middle-earth against Sauron, Jane Chance takes it to an extreme.  She interprets nearly every detail of the first two books as some manifestation of bias (or conquest of bias) against the “other.”  The enmity between Elves and Dwarves and Boromir’s attempt to take the one ring are attributed to some form of racism.  Frodo’s treatment of Sam as an equal is considered a conquest of some prejudice against “lower-class” hobbits.

Chance somehow sees the journey from the Shire to Rivendell as a journey of “artistry,” in which Frodo becomes a “songster.”  What???  Where did that come from?  In all seriousness, I have no idea where the author was coming from with that, OR where she was going.

These ideas seem plausible with Chance’s commentary, and would make sense if Chance were talking about some other book.  The main problem with the book can be found in the foreword to the second edition of LOTR.  Tolkien himself states, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message,’ it has in the intention of the author none.”  He goes on to say that it does not have “any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever.”  This clearly shows that he did not intend it as social commentary on racism (and the artistry thing was just way out in left field).  Tolkien’s chief intention in writing LOTR, he says, was to create “a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or even move them.”  To write good literary criticism of Tolkien’s work, a person must first understand his basic mindset.  Otherwise, it is fairly impossible to write anything meaningful.

That may sound like harsh criticism, and it was meant to be.  I do think, however, that there were aspects of The Mythology of Power that were valid and thought-provoking.  For example, Chance brings up a fascinating feature in The Return of the King, the phenomenon of the king as a healer.  The words of Ioreth, the woman of Gondor, “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer,” are fascinating.  Jane Chance points out that this idea emphasizes the king’s duty of service to the people, and not his power over them, and seems to exemplify the rightful use of power.  She also notes that it serves to contrast Aragorn the good king, who uses his power to heal, with Sauron the tyrant, who uses power to oppress.

This stands out from the rest of Chance’s commentary because she does not insist that Tolkien was using allegory, symbolism, or topical reference.  She merely puts forth a fascinating thought that is applicable to LOTR.

The other section that I found to be valid discussion of The Lord of the Rings is the description of the story’s structure.  Here, at least, Chance does an admirable job.  She demonstrates most memorably that one particular structure crops up repeatedly, in different forms, throughout LOTR:

The structure consists of the hero’s departure, his passage into an “underworld,” and his return into an “overworld.”

  1. Frodo leaves the shire, passes into the “underworld” of the Old Forest and the barrow downs, and returns to the overworld of Bree.
  2. The fellowship leaves Rivendell, passes into the “underworld” of Moria, and returns to the overworld of Lorien.
  3. Frodo, Sam and Smeagol leave the fellowship, enter the “underworld” of the dead marshes, and return to the “overworld” of Ithilien.

These structural similarities struck me as fairly accurate, and they concern facts of the books form, not opinions of its meaning.

I am glad I read The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, in the end, because there were fascinating and thought-provoking ideas within it, that broadened my view of Tolkien’s great work despite the ocean of nonsense encircling them.  I recommend this book only for avid fans of Tolkien who will disregard the baloney and recognize the valid ideas.  I hope this review was helpful (and not too long)!

© Samuel Birrer and Serendipity, 2013.


About SamBirrer

Chemistry student and undergrad researcher at Rutgers University. Minors in math and geology. President of Rutgers Chemistry Society (student chapter of ACS).
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