How Cultural Barriers are Overcome in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring by Christopher Boa

How Cultural Barriers are Overcome in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring by Christopher Boa

At the onset of the 1920s in England, a freshly graduated English Literature major, J. R. R. Tolkien, had just served four years and a day fighting in the deadliest war of his time, a consequence of the volatile borders and geopolitical alliances of early 20th century Europe. There is little doubt that Tolkien’s passion for philology, his fascination with different cultures, and his experiences witnessing the sheer atrocities spawned by diplomatic conflicts had an impact on the narrative of his eventual literary masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. Through his elaborate construction of the geopolitics, legends, and languages of several mythological peoples in The Fellowship of the Ring, the author demonstrates how xenophobia is embedded within one’s learned culture and how the very differences that divide humanity are also the key to mutual understanding.

Tolkien makes sure to establish the dynamic borders — be they natural or imaginary— that divide the various peoples of Middle-earth early on in his text to illustrate the impact of a given geopolitical environment on a given culture’s perception of another. From the very first pages of the prologue, the estranged relationship between the Hobbits, a miniature, nature-oriented humanoid species, and the other sentient ‘races’ that make up the continent, is attributed to the sequestered placement of their land-locked forest settlement, the Shire. Whereas the boundaries of most lands have been redrawn since the historical Third Age of Tolkien’s paracosm, “the regions in which Hobbits then lived were doubtless the same as those in which they still linger” (Tolkien 3). The preservation of the Shire’s borders amid events that otherwise repartitioned the other countries of Middle-earth attests to their long-standing geopolitical insignificance. This reality undoubtedly discouraged any meaningful exchanges with other peoples. Consequently, the Hobbits “grew afraid […] and distrustful” of the obscure human ‘Rangers’ that guarded their borders, of the innocuous Elven and Dwarfish refugees that traversed the Shire, and of anyone else who “had dealings with them” (9). Likewise, the more influential diplomatic parties of Middle-earth, including the servants of Sauron of Mordor (the main antagonist), had all but ignored their existence, save for a select few humans inhabiting a village at the eastern threshold between the Shire and the rest of Arnor (the declined kingdom of the North). Reminiscent of transitional spaces at the borders of real-world nations, Tolkien mindfully constructs Bree-land, a naturally occurring crossroads where the cultures of its Human and Hobbit inhabitants harmoniously intermingle: “The Men of Bree […] were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants about them than” were those from other parts of the world (195). The humans from the Kingdom of Gondor, for instance, were forced to constantly defend the border that they shared with Mordor. With a narrow outlook of a war right at their doorstep and very little exposure to the struggles faced by other cultures, Gondorians, such as Boromir, readily boast of their militaristic efforts keeping “the terror of [Mordor] … at bay” whenever strategies of war are discussed, reinforcing a self-proclaimed notion that only by their people’s efforts “are peace and freedom maintained in the lands … of the West” (319). The author demonstrates to his readers the extent to which varying geopolitical realities can influ- ence and distort a given culture’s worldview and concepts of another. Liminal spaces like Bree foster much needed intercultural cooperation.

To that end, Tolkien also asserts that such constructed ideas of foreign peoples are further exacerbated by the proliferation—and eventual distortion—of historical legends through the realizations of his characters resulting from their verbal cultural exchanges. The sentiment of Bree-folk toward the ‘Rangers of the North’ is a blatant example of a misconception born purely of ignorance. Since these wandering figures “were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers,” both Hobbits and Humans that inhabited this otherwise open-minded place treated these obscure figures with great suspicion, consequently spreading negative rumours about them to the travelers who passed through (195). To the great surprise of the protagonists, these powerful humans are actually Dúnedain, “(the) sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless” (190). Tolkien purposely illustrates these ‘sons of kings’ as ominous, sketchy figures to better convey just how quickly such erroneous, appearance-based prejudgements form in people’s minds and spread. After all, especially in the absence of oral or written accounts of a given realm’s past, such ancient history is seldom remembered by its inhabitants, leaving headspace for distorted ideas. Save for a few Hobbits such as Bilbo and Frodo, who endorse the art of storytelling, the people of the Shire no longer recall that their very knowledge of “the craft of building, as many other crafts beside[s], was [probably] derived from the Dúnedain … [or] direct[ly] from the Elves” (8). Without any recollection of this meaningful interaction, the people of the Shire have lost any sympathy for their estranged neighbours, leaving room for unfounded fear and suspicion to take over. Perhaps Tolkien is suggesting that traditions and practices tend to outlive the stories that explain their significance, thus severing an otherwise meaningful relationship between cultures as they become estranged. Historical interactions between cultures are not necessarily positive, however; the initially tumultuous dynamic between two protagonists—the Mirkwood Elf, Legolas, and the Lonely Mountain Dwarf, Gimli—was most notably the result of a negative, intergenerational grudge. Due to the geographic proximity between the Elf dwelling of Lothlórien and the Dwarf realm of Khazad-dûm, a great “sorrow” is said to have befallen the Elves “when the Dwarves awakened the evil [demon] in the mountains” due to their greedy mineral exploitation (443). The proliferation of this legend favoured the rise in a sentiment of distrust among the Elves toward all Dwarves, which, in turn, insulted them, thus sparking their mutual distaste. Nevertheless, through time spent accompanying one another along their quest, as well as the extensive exchange of cultural stories between them, Legolas and Gimli put aside their differences and develop an incredibly strong bond. The author reiterates with this example that the very ability to recount and listen to legends is a tool that exposes the cultural practices and beliefs that mold a given culture’s worldview, thus allowing for a better mutual understanding between parties.

Tolkien also suggests that the nuances behind the inherent mentality and biases of a given culture are embedded within its language, and that such concepts can only truly be communicated inter-culturally via multilingualism. As a philologist, the author masterfully intertwines the parallel evolution of his constructed languages with the very history of Middle-earth itself. Of the languages encountered in The Fellowship of the Ring, Humans and Hobbits speak dialects from the same phyloge- netic family. Sauron and his Ringwraiths speak Black Speech, and the Dwarves natively speak Khuzdul, a language isolate, and so on (Dain). While the mother tongue of most modern Elves throughout the Third Age of Middle-earth is Sindarin, they are still taught to read and write in the language’s ancient predecessor, Quenya; that way, they are able to decipher ancient records with ease and could continue recording history with the same, stagnant language (Fauskanger, “Quenya”). Among other modern and ancient languages, Tolkien studied Old English, or the Anglophone world’s equivalent to Quenya, to better understand the texts and legends of his culture’s past. By bestowing this same form of literary and vernacular diglossia among the Elves, he embraces the profound cultural enrichment of learning one’s heritage language. This idea is further reinforced when a band of migratory Elves is pleasantly surprised that Frodo, a Hobbit, employs his limited knowledge of Quenya with them, prompting them to deem him a worldly “Elf-friend” (Tolkien 106). Here, Tolkien conveys how certain semantic nuances can only ever be transmitted by way of a culture’s native language, and how multilingualism allows for a much more meaningful cultural exchange between Frodo and some Elves with whom he was unfamiliar. That said, the only tongue used for communication between members of Frodo’s company is “Westron,” otherwise known as the “Common Speech” that was spoken “though[out] all the lands of the Kings from Arnor to Gondor” (5). When the original Dúnedain arrived from the Great Sea and settled along the coast of Middle-earth, this simplified, creolized lingua franca emerged from their mother tongue’s contact with the rich vocabulary of the Elven-Tongue and, to a lesser extent, that of a few other bygone coastal idioms (Fauskanger, “Westron”). Tolkien likely modeled this patchwork language genesis to be analogous to that which yielded Early Modern English as a result of the Norse simplification of Anglo-Saxon grammar and the dilution of its native vocabulary by the Franco-Norman nobility. Further, Westron’s status as a post-colonial lingua franca voided its affiliation to any one culture, a phenomenon which likely discouraged multilingualism among its native speakers. Boromir, a monolingual Man of Gondor, is shown to have the greatest difficulty appreciating the cultural diversity of the Fellowship; he is the only one who is sceptical of the Elvish Lady of Lothlórien (466), and – in a fit of anger – he admonishes Frodo for “ruining [his] cause,” for if “any mortals have claim to the Ring, it is the men, […] not Halflings” (520). Perhaps Tolkien depicts Boromir as a caricature of an overly zealous, closed-minded, monolingual colonizer with no respect whatsoever for the land or its culture. He warns readers of the apathy that accompanies unaddressed cognitive biases and ethnocentrism; further, he encourages them to use the language(s) at their disposal to inquire, share, and learn about others’ realities before drawing any hasty conclusions.

By way of the intricate world building, storytelling, and conlanging that he incorporated into The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien transmits the deeply rooted nature of a given culture’s prejudice toward another, all while illustrating the constructive relationships between peoples that could be established in spite of their differences. To avoid another all-out conflict in today’s world, he reminds us to be more mindful of our respective geopolitical realities, of the stories we tell about the people around us, and of the languages we speak.

Works Cited

Dain, Jerek. “Tolkien Information: Languages, Elves, the Ainur, and the Valar.”JerekDain,2004. 7 Oct. 2022.

Fauskanger, Helge Kåre. “Quenya – the Ancient Tongue.” Ardalambion, 1997. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.

Fauskanger, Helge Kåre. “Westron – the Common Speech.” Ardalambion, 1997. Accessed 7 Oct. 2022.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. 1954. 50th anniversary ed., HarperCollins, 2007.

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