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LOTRO and Tolkien


Modes of Storytelling

Modes of sotry telling


This week we’re going to put the concept of remediation to work as we begin to compare the three modes; Novel, Movie and Game. By Mode, we mean simply “the medium of presentation”. Film is a mode, writing is a mode, painting, photography and sculpture are all Modes.

These are my notes from the second week of the Coursera course from Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt University, Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative.  You will remember from last week’s post that I change the texts slightly to make translation easier. I remove all “you know” “sort of”, “I mean” all repetitions and false starts. Any mistakes in the texts are my own. Please let me know if you spot any.

First of all let me remind you who the speakers are.

Firstly, Jay Clayton, Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, our lecturer for the course.

Last week Jay asked the class members to introduce themselves. Here they are :-


DeaneHi, my name is Deanne and I am interested in how adaptations like Lord of the Rings online game influence both literature and the reader’s experience of literature.

Hi mDony name is Don and I’ve been a lifelong gamer. So one of reasons I’m in this class is to gain a critical vocabulary for one of my life long passions.

BlaineHi my name is Blaine and most of my experienced with gaming comes from examining how adolescents learned from them in and outside of school. I’m not a gamer myself. But I’m really looking forward to delving into LOTRO, as a gamer.


Hello my name is Killian and when I was very young, there could be nothing better, than a video game that captured the Lord of the Rings world. I failed in trying to do that myself. But I’m here to figure out what’s gone into doing it.

ChelseaMy name is Chelsea. I’m a relatively new gamer, Minecraft obsessive, and I’m really interested in fandom and sci-fi and fantasy literature.

So: – back to the first video:-

Jay: Obviously, what’s the oldest mode of storytelling that the human species has ever engaged in?

Deanne  Oral storytelling.

Jay : Yes, oral storytelling, people sitting around the fire telling stories of their adventures out slaying the woolly mammoth, no doubt. The Lord of the Rings continually celebrates the old tales, which were, clearly, oral tales. Many of the sources that Tolkien based his work on, right, were originally oral tales like, the Elder Eddas, the Finnish epic Kalevala and many others of these sorts. He was a scholar of medieval literature as we know, and he was very attracted to the great stories and so is one of his characters. One character in particular just loves the stories of dragons, and elves; he’s particularly fascinated with elves, you remember who it is.

Unseen:  Sam.

 Jay: Yes Sam does. In the Two Towers (a novel that we’re not reading for this course, but I hope many of you have read it already, or that you were so intrigued with Tolkien  if you haven’t read it, that you are going to read the Two Towers, that’s the second volume of the Lord of the Rings) Sam delivers a wonderful speech about the power of the great old songs and tales. Here’s a quote from the novel. Sam says.

  I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course, but I mean, put into words you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring”. And they’ll say, “Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories”. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad? Yes, my boy. The famousest of the hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.


Peter Jackson includes this scene in his film of the Two Towers. It’s really amazing scene. Let, let’s look at Peter Jackson’s handling of it.




Green DragonJay: The game, Lord of the Rings Online, has less success remediating our own narrative. It does try. If you look at this slide of the Storyteller in the Green Dragon. If you walk close to that NPC, a little bubble comes over his head and he says have you come to hear a story? It’s a kind of gesture toward the traditional oral narrative.

Or there’s another way that games handle it. There’s a part of the epic quest, you go down the river Anduin with three companions that you’ve been adventuring with and then you pause by the bank of Anduin. One of the instances is that you hear each of them relate their story. Still, it’s really artificial. You have to go to a zone into an instance and then there’s nothing for you to do, except to sit there and listen.Quilip You can see I have my little character, Quilp in this case, seated on the ground as if he’s one of the group listening. They dramatize the story; you see the kind of misty thing sitting behind. That’s another way that the game tries to remediate the scene of telling, of an oral medium. You can actually gain a title as a storyteller. In this case Essiniel, one of my kin-mates has a title, “Chronicler of Twilight” because she did a deed that required her to talk to ten different people and hear their stories. It’s an artificial method for remediating oral story storytelling but you can see the aspiration is there. So Chelsea can you think of other examples of oral storytelling?

Chelsea Well I think that for the kind of oral storytelling that we’re talking about, that adds to the richness of the Lord of the Rings universe. I think that the kind of storytelling that you sometimes get in games in the form of exposition that gives you the character’s back story or why you need to go kill this person is a little bit different. I would say that oral storytelling adds to the culture of the world in a way that exposition adds to the story-line.

Jay : Yes, that’s a good distinction. Another way to phrase it is that the scene of a storyteller is part of the remediation process. LOTRO is really trying to imitate it, there at the campfire by the river, and trying to imitate the setting of an old telling. An exposition doesn’t. It’s a cinematic convention that games have adopted, sometimes with actual cut scenes of cinema as exposition.

sculptureAnother form of remediation is the attempt to include paintings or sculptures in another medium. The film has a number of scenes where the camera lingers over a painting or a sculpture. It’s actually much easier for a visual medium, like film, to remediate sculpture or painting than a verbal medium, like a novel, to do it. Again, as a visual medium, games are able to remediate sculpture and paintings quite naturally. Lord of Rings online is just full of ruined sculptures, sculptural freezes, paintings on walls, they’re everywhere. For poetry, or the novel, it’s a much harder task to remediate a visual object. Poets have always tried to do it, it goes back to Homer and no doubt well before him. The ambition to paint in words the scene of a picture. We actually, we even have a special word for this technique in poetry. We call it Ekphrasis, and Ekphrasis is simply defined as “the verbal description of a visual mode such painting or sculpture. I have here an example of Ekphrasis from The Canto of the Faerie Queene that we’re going to read later in the course. These are just a few lines of poetry in a passage that actually goes on for four stanzas where Spenser describes the tapestries on the wall of Malacaster’s castle. Some of the words are spelled in older spelling forms, but when you hear me read it I think it should become very clear what these words mean.

In which with cunning hand was pourtrahed

The love of Venus and her Paramour,

The fayre Adonis, turned to a flowre,

A work of rare device, and wondrous wit


So can any of you remember instances in Tolkien’s novel of Ekphrasis?

 Killian There’s a nice one from fairly late on in the Fellowship of the Ring about the sword of Elendil. It says,

Reforging the swordThe sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent moon and the rayed sun, and about them was written many runes, for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor.


That’s a great example. Thank you, Killian and it, is a good way to. To close this session, we’ve established the main principle in today’s session that the treatment of one mode and another mode is something that really characterizes all kinds of artworks, and all forms of artworks’ relation to the past.


Gameplay Frodo and the Prancing Pony


Bilbos houseYou’re looking at one of my characters, Tolkienhorn, lead the members of the class up the hill from the old mill in Hobbiton to Bag End where Frodo lives in the hobbit hole Bilbo left to him when Bilbo disappeared, the night of his “eleventy-first” birthday party. Here we are at Frodo’s house. You’ve seen the inside a couple of times before, but in this session, we’re going to compare how the house is depicted in the novel, movie, and game.

Tolkien actually tells us, very little about Frodo’s house in the Fellowship of the Ring. There’s more detail in the Hobbit of course, if you remember that older story. The movie however, is a visual medium and Peter Jackson clearly relishes showing us how his set designer, as imagined Frodo’s overstuffed interior. Notice how the camera lingers lovingly over each quaint item of furniture, in the Hobbit hole.



We can learn several things from this brief clip. You hear Bilbo speaking in the voice over. He’s beginning work on his book. It’s a nice way to remind us of Bilbo’s adventures from years ago, as background to the new adventures that are about to befall our protagonist, Frodo. It also, illustrates something we discussed last week, the way one medium, can remediate another older medium. Here you have a movie, dramatizing an author, in the act of writing a book. The more recent medium, film, gestures toward the antiquity of writing as a medium by having Bilbo employ an ink pot and quill. He has lovely, old-fashioned handwriting, doesn’t he? And his script bears strange archaic, markings over some of the letters.

Sackville bagginsAs our fellowship runs from room to room exploring Frodo’s house, I want you to notice one thing in particular, the house is largely devoid of narrative interest.(see video)  There is a certain pleasure in seeing how the game designers have attempted to remediate this setting. From the boxes you see stacked in the corners, you realize that you are visiting, after Frodo has left. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, is in the process of moving in, and you can see her standing outside, on the doorstep. Even given the fact that no one is living there at the moment the house is disappointingly static. You want to have something happen in the house. You have dreamed about this iconic spot for years, and when you finally get there you feel a real sense of anti-climax, or at least I do.

That’s even more true of the end of the Prancing Pony. We visited the Prancing Pony in our first week’s class when we met Strider there, to begin book one, of the Epic Quest Line. It’s worth returning today, to demonstrate how, undramatic it is. We find the game events that take place in The Prancing Pony are not really very exciting at all. You pick up a quest or two, and you have the fun of exploring but to have anything occur during your visit, you have to accept a quest from Strider, and zone into an instance located elsewhere. This may be one reason the game designer’s chose to set your adventures in the weeks after Frodo and his companions have left Bree.

The fact that you are not re-enacting the events of Frodo’s story though, does not mean that the game fails to remediate the world Tolkien imaged. That’s a crucial distinction. Remediation draws our attention to the change in media, not to the content of the two works. Let’s look at how the movie handles the events at the end. The film changes things around a bit from the book. We’re not interested in whether the film is faithful to the novel, but in how the film achieves its own dramatic goals. As you watch these clips from the film, observe how the directors control the camera, manages your understanding of the visual space of the setting. A Hobbit height camera angle contributes to the setting of the mood. The men are tall and intimidating from the perspective of Frodo and his friends. Quick shots that depart from the main point of view establish a larger mise-en-scene which, when combined with the confused hubbub of voices, is almost overwhelming to our four, rain soaked hobbits. Barnabas Butterbur, we see, is a bit of a fool, well meaning, but forgetful and his failure to remember Gandalf’s message for the travellers’ causes, great mischief.


It’s darker in this scene than I visualized the Prancing Pony when I read the novel. But I like this vision of the place better than the somewhat, vapid, largely empty room in the game. In the film the room is full of Ruffians, one of whom we guess is Bill Ferny, the man who alerts the black riders to Frodo’s presence in Bree. The setting is one we’ve encountered before in other films. The rough, carousing men, swilling their beers, create a dark Shakespearean ambience. These are hard, fighting men, not at all like the gossipy hobbits we saw drinking at the end back in the Shire. There’s a mysterious figure named Strider over in the corner. The glow of his pipe is an effective cinematic touch, revealing just enough of his face to be threatening, while highlighting the concern in his watchful eyes at the same time. Merry and Pippin grow more at ease as they unwind.  Hobbits are fun loving creatures, fond of their beer and pipe weed and a good song. The scene has one of my favourite moments of comedy, when Pippin says, “it comes in pints?” I can’t tell you how many times someone in my family has repeated that line when having a mug of ale.

The Hobbits’ love of a good story reveals that Frodo Baggins is traveling under the pseudonym of Mr. Underhill. In the book the Hobbits’ love of song and dance causes Frodo to make a much more disastrous error. To distract the listeners from Pippin’s revelation of his real name Frodo stands on a table to sing, but he gets so caught up in his performance, that he falls, tumbling off the table, and the ring slips on to his finger almost as if it had a will of its own. Here’s how the book describes it.

Frodo, capers about on the table, and when he came a second time to, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, he leaped in the air, much too vigorously, for he came down, bang, into a tray full of mugs, and slipped and rolled off the table with a crash, clatter, and bump. The audience all opened their mouths wide for laughter, and stopped short in gaping silence for the singer disappeared; he simply vanished as if he had gone slap through the floor without leaving a hole.

This is not exactly how the episode occurs, in the movie. The movie keeps its focus on Pippin’s foolishness, and does not let its hero, Frodo, get sucked into the merriment. Instead, the film sustains the dark, anxious tone all the way through the night. We get no glimpse, of the hobbits’ dancing, or singing. The fun-loving side of the Hobbits has been moved earlier, to a scene in the Green Dragon Pub back in the Shire. Sustaining this single dark mood shows good judgement on the film’s part, for it works to clarify the role of each Hobbit, and builds momentum toward the night’s climactic attack by the Black Riders. It also simplifies our sense of Frodo’s character.

Frodos agonise look If some viewers tire of Frodo’s ever growing torment under the burden of the ring in the next two films, the process begins here, an agonized look on Frodo’s face as he falls. From here, events move rapidly. The Hobbits are hustled to a private room, and there they learn that Strider is almost certainly their only hope of survival. The final dramatic act of this complex cinematic scene, that of terrifying spectre of the Black Riders plunging their swords down into the beds where they, and you, the audience, think the Hobbit’s are sleeping. What an effective way to remediate Tolkien’s novel.



 Tolkien’s Life and Works  


Credit: Wikimedia

J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the most popular writers of our time and indeed of any time. He’s best known for two works. Firstly ” The Hobbit” (or There and Back Again), a novel he published in 1937. It’s a story about Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, and a company of dwarves who journey to the dwarves’ former city underneath The Lonely Mountain to recover a vast treasure guarded by a dragon named Smaug. In it Bilbo meets Gollum and acquires a ring that will make him invisible whenever he puts it on. They have many adventures on the road, some of which foreshadow adventures that the fellowship will have on its quest in the Lord of the rings. It’s a wonderful book. It’s written more for children and the language is very different from the Lord of the Rings. It has charming asides by the narrator who seems to be talking to you the way a parent might talk to his or her child as they tell them a story before going to bed. It’s reminiscent of children’s books by Beatrice Potter or the poetry of Edward Lear, or the fairy tales by Andrew Lang and George Mc Donald, both of whom were 19th century writers that Tolkien admired very much. It’s written in a story book language that’s charming, and also it is not nearly as mythic as The Lord of the Rings. It’s a novel that’s about a group of dwarves and a hobbit that are going to steal back treasure from a large dragon. It’s not about the end of an era and the founding of a new realm the way the Lord of the Rings turns out to be.

Credit : Wikimedia

His other really famous work is The Lord of the Rings, which was published in three volumes. Tolkien meant it to be seen as a single work, not a trilogy. I refer to it all the time as a trilogy for simplicity, but Tolkien really meant it as a single work and he further divided it into six books, so that there are two books in each of the volumes. We’ll only be reading the first volume, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, but I’ll frequently be referring to things that happen in the other two volumes. I’ll try to make sure that people, who have not read the later volumes, can follow our discussion without having to read them. I encourage everyone to read the entire three volumes.

Credit : Wikimedia

Tolkien also published poems and stories during his lifetime. His son, Christopher Tolkien, edited and published The Silmarillion, a 12 volume history of Middle Earth, posthumously. These books tell, in enormous detail, the story that lies behind the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. They cover the history, the languages, the genealogy, the legends and the myths. Altogether Tolkien created one of the most comprehensive, imaginative worlds ever composed by a single individual. He was not just a writer of fantasy; he was also a prominent scholar of Old English and Medieval Literature at Oxford University. Although he attended Exeter College, Oxford as an undergraduate, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College from 1925 to 45. Then he became the Merton professor of English language and literature at Merton College Oxford from 1945 to 1959. Both of these positions were very prestigious professorships. He was highly respected as a linguist and a scholar and the author of classic essays on Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and on fairy tales.

Tolkien was also a mainstay of a well-known circle of friends, who were brought together through their shared love of literature, and especially fantasy. They formed a club they called the Inklings. They used to meet in a local pub once a week for literary discussions. Many in the group were motivated by their interest in Christianity but there were non-Christians among their numbers too. Some of them are not famous today, but others are renowned people. C.S. Lewis was a member and a close friend of Tolkien’s as well as the well-known novelist Charles Williams and the scholar and lawyer Owen Barfield, amongst several others.

The Pearl Credit: Wikimedia

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien aspired to write a more adult story than The Hobbit. He aimed to create nothing less than a mythology for England. He did not want to imitate Greek mythology but we will often find ourselves comparing Tolkien’s mythological universe to Greek myth, and above all to Homer’s Odyssey. That’s because I want to bring out the things that fantasy literature has in common with the great myths that structure western culture. Tolkien wanted his story though, to capture the culture, and landscape, the climate, the linguistic attributes, and the atmosphere of Britain and Northern Europe. He wanted to invent a mythology for his own land. To this end he drew on Old English and medieval poetry and he drew on countless other sources that he knew both because of his passion for older languages and because of his profession of teacher of old English. He drew on Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Anglo Saxon Poem, The Pearl. He actually translated both of the latter two poems into modern English. His novels are full of references to the Arthurian legends, and Spencer’s fairy queen is a strong influence on events in the novel.

He was deeply versed in Icelandic sagas, the elder or poetic Edda, the prose Edda, he drew many aspects of his fantasy worlds from those sources as well as the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. He was also deeply influenced by the romance tradition. He was a great admirer of William Morris, the late 19th century social visionary and arts and crafts movement leader. William Morris wrote prose romances novels that really can be counted among the first fantasy novels in English. His two best known are “The Wood Beyond The World” and “The Well at the World’s End”. He also loved the kind of adventure romances of H. Ryder Haggard. You can find very close parallels to Haggard’s novel “She” in the Lord of the Rings. He loved the fairy tales of Andrew Lang, in fact he loved the entire tradition of fairy tales, dating back to older oral narratives. There are many other influences on Tolkien’s writing; I’ve only scratched the surface.

This is not a course about Tolkien himself and, above all, it’s not a course about works that influenced Tolkien. If you’re interested in that, you can find all kinds of information on the Web about who and what influenced Tolkien. You can also find great information on what Tolkien influenced, how his works influenced others that came after him. This is a course on the cultural features that Tolkien shared with the romance tradition, and that became crucial to many fantasy games. With Tolkien’s interest in fairy stories we come to the final point I want to make in this session. Tolkien wrote stories about an imaginary universe. He filled his land with trolls and goblins and other imaginary creatures, dragons, wizards, elves. But he infused his world with a powerful sense of realism. He understood that telling imaginary stories with deep realism would bring him access to a kind of mythic truth that mattered deeply to him. Tolkien once commented, “Myth is invention about truth”. His novel Lord of the Rings, aims to be a deeper truth about life in the imaginary and the real world.

 Tolkien’s Popularity 

Jay: Today, we are going to begin an examination of Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the first volume of this famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. This is one of the most popular works of the 20th century.  In fact, according to some accounts, it’s the second bestselling novel of all time. What do you suppose has made Tolkien so popular?

Chelsea: Well, there’s the sheer pleasure of a compelling storyline and great characters to start with.

Jay: Pretty important, aren’t they?  Blaine what it, what strikes you as a contributing factor?

 Blaine: I think readers can relate to certain aspects but there’s also the ability to escape.

Jay: Yes, escapism, the relation, right? Don?

Don: The profound ethical dilemma that’s presented in the text is something that I think is very compelling for people.

 Jay: That’s right.   So even though it’s a fantasy world, it raises really fundamental ethical questions. Deanne?

 Deanne: Yes, just to tag along with what Blaine was saying. I think that it is something that people can apply and see as being relevant to their own lives. As well as something that builds a really rich world of its own that you can really become immersed in.

Jay: Did you leave anything for Killian to add?

Killian: I agree with all these. Picking up on the richness point; it seems like there’s a feeling of real intellectual satisfaction to be gained from engaging with this that feels so elaborate and finely detailed.

Jay: So hundreds of millions of readers clearly responded to some aspect of this text, and the five of you have given us good reasons to like it. Why do serious critics, look down their noses at Tolkien and the fantasy genre? When I was growing up reading Tolkien, I had to hide it. You couldn’t tell your teachers that you were reading it and even some of my friends would say “why do you like stories about wizards and swords and sorcery?  read something serious”. I do believe that some of the very things that made it popular have, paradoxically, contributed to its low reputation among literary critics. Or at least, formally, it’s had a low reputation. I think today in the 21st century cultural critics have come to terms with why a work like this can be important. That’s one of the things we’re talking about in this session. For much of the 20th century, Tolkien was really sneered at by the literary establishment. What do you think they held against Tolkien?

 Killian: Well how about it’s very popularity? That we’ve been talking about.

Jay:  Oh, really. That would be snob value. The critics only like things that aren’t popular?

Killian: Yes, popular, inaccessible, things that aren’t popular, things that are inaccessible maybe.

Jay:  Difficult?

Killian:  Yeah. Like there’s something not very seriously literary about something so popular.

Deanne: You could view this, what we we’re talking about, is the immersion of the world, the detail of the world as escapism, not dealing with realistic issues.

Jay: Escapism is such an important word in the attack on fantasy science-fiction genres like that. People say that’s ‘mere’ escapism; it doesn’t engage our serious faculties as adult readers. I use the word ‘adult’ and there’s an implicit notion that fantasy is for children, or at least young adults.

Don: That’s what I was going to say, that it’s perceived relationship to children’s literature, but also the perceived triteness of the various inherited tropes, the sword and sorcery sort of motif, the medievalism, these things that come through us through the Pre-Rafaelites and that get transformed this way or that. Perhaps historically critics have looked at, frowned upon.

Lonely mountainJay: That’s right. Critics seem to think it’s really nothing but action. They think it might have a simplistic world view. You mentioned triteness, characters seem stereotyped and, in fact, the characters are stereotyped in a sense and we’re going to discuss, next week, why the genre of romance literature thrives on simple stereotypical character roles. The plot is formulaic. Again and again we’re going to be able to point to other works that have the same kinds of plot elements that are in Tolkien. So you’ve got an action genre with stereotyped characters, formulaic pots, and fairly obvious things. Killian evoked them as profound eternal themes, and yes they are, but they are very profundity and their eternal commonality also makes them pretty obvious themes. That’s probably a summary of the rap against Tolkien. Although maybe some critics in the 20th century thought his style was mannered. That he wrote in a kind of archaic, false medievalism style. Critics said the same thing perhaps still do say the same thing about most popular genres. They say the thing, same things about detective novels, mystery novels. How often have you heard somebody say I read detective fiction for escape? I do serious work, and then when I go to the beach I read romance or westerns (I don’t think many people read westerns anymore but it was a really popular written genre and of course, it had its day in the cinema), science-fiction. All the same criticisms apply to all these. What all these popular genres have in common is that they’re all modes of romance. Now, by romance, I do not mean the kind of steamy romance novels that you buy in Wal-Mart or the airport. Those romance novels of that specific publishing genre are structured by romance conventions in the sense that we’re using the word romance. I do want to make that distinction that when we’re talking about the structure of romance we’re talking about a venerable literary mode that goes back to Dante and Spencer.

In future lessons, we’ll have more to say about why all these popular genres attract the same kind of objections from people who think they aren’t serious literature. But here’s a preview of the answer you’ll be given. The Lord of the Rings is only a recent instalment in a 2,000 year old cycle of tales, the never ending story that makes up the genre that we call romance.      


Some themes in Tolkien 

Mount Doom and Barad-dûr in Mordor; Credit : Wikimedia

 So what is The Lord of the Rings about? On one level it’s a story of Frodo Baggins’ journey to Mordor to destroy a magic ring and the titanic events that surround him, that the other members of the fellowship are engaged in. On other levels, however, it’s about some of the internal themes of all literature. So let me ask you what are some of the deeper themes of The Lord Of The Rings? Deanne do you want to start?

Deane: Sure there’s the battle between good vs evil.

Jay:  Don?

Don: Themes of obsession and the, the imagery of the ring.

Jay: Blaine?

Blaine: Themes of friendship and loyalty.

Jay :Yes. Friendship and loyalty. Say a little more about who?

Blaine: Oh, well, Sam and Frodo. That’s just, constant throughout, and it’s really. It adds a nice texture to the novel, their friendship.

Jay Isn’t it, isn’t it charming and moving, Sam’s loyalty, that bond that grows between them? Killian?

Killian: I’m also thinking about the theme of life as a journey or how does one make one’s life meaningful? What’s the end or goal of one’s existence?

Chelsea:  And related to obsession we’ve got temptation and resisting it.

Jay: Yes, or not.   All of these are crucial elements, not just to the Lord of the Rings, but of lots of romance literature. There are elements of that never ending story. Temptation, we’re going to see amazing scenes of temptation in the novel and in the movie. Other themes?

Don:  Adventure.

Jay: Adventure, Yes.

Don: The variegated landscapes and the contours of this interesting and magical realm, that people get to vicariously inhabit.

Jay: Oh, that’s so true. It’s a lot of pleasure, that is, to vicariously inhabit these landscapes. In fact that brings us to another powerfully symbolic feature in the novel, which is the land itself; the realm of Middle Earth becomes a symbolic landscape. The landscape is structured as an opposition between the Shire and Mordor. What kind of values do you think are playing when you think of the Shire?

Blaine: I think of simple pleasures, and just being closer to the land, and enjoying food and wine, and walking around barefoot.

Jay :That’s right. Hobbits never wear shoes. That’s right, or rarely wear shoes.

Deane: Yes, the innocence of that community goes along with the simplicity of it. But that it’s not a place that violence has really tainted. The most major conflicts are between the Sackville Baggins’ and Bilbo so it’s lower stakes conflict.

Chelsea: And then you’ve got natural aspect of it you got this place that’s really rich with life. I mean, what do most of the hobbits do? They farm and they grow big, giant, marrows.

Jay: It’s thick, and, it’s just brimming over with life. Isn’t it?

Killian:  It seems like part of that is natural cycles, like the seasons. Life in the Shire is so tied up with the seasons and what each season brings. In some ways that doesn’t seem to be present in the same kind of way in these, let’s say, fecund areas that our travellers navigate.

Jay: Well, you, you’ve moved us on to Mordor or toward Mordor, and you’re so right. It’s the absolute opposite of fertile, i’s a barren wasteland and Sauron’s dark cloud is spreading over vast reaches of Middle Earth and blighting everything it comes in contact with. What is the symbolic landscape of Mordor, you’ve really started suggesting it, but let’s flesh it out.

Chelsea: Well, in direct opposition to the Shire, it is desolate in a way that the Shire is fecund. What they’re saying is that Mordor manages to be just as full of monsters as the Shire are of hobbits and yet seems completely desolated.

Jay: Yes, where are they getting the food for all those orcs?

Chelsea: They’re eating each other.




Jay: Well, clearly, and they do the goblins. They are just robbing other areas and pillaging others for sustenance. They’re not growing anything in there.

Deane: Another thing I was thinking about in conjunction with the simplicity is the Shire is symbolic of contentment, right? All of us love a party, right? They’re happy with the simple lives they have, as opposed to Mordor, which is bred by ambition, and love of power, right? Not that kind of contentment with.

Jay:  And, so power, rapaciousness, greediness. He wants he wants to possess everything, he wants dominion. I just want to be sure to underline violence as one of the features of Mordor. It’s an ugly, violent place.

Killian:   I was just thinking, it seems like one of the things we are talking about is that Mordor is represented as alien or otherworldly, and it makes me think about the way in which the Shire draws peacefulness and all its contentment is also characterized by intense suspicious of foreignness or of the outside worlds, right? Even if people, who may live, excuse me, Hobbits that may live just across the river or whatever the case may be. So that seems to be the cost of this kind of contentment.

Jay:  That’s right. So there are downsides. There’s nosiness, for example, wanting to be in everyone’s business, and distrust of strangers, provincialism. In the game, Lord of the Rings, one of the earliest quests (if you start off in the Shire) is that you have to take some letters from one place to another, inside the Shire, and avoid ‘nosy hobbits’. If a nosy hobbit sees you with your letter you fail the quest. So, we have stark opposition of the symbolic landscape that opposes the Shire to Mordor. But we also have a group of people that take a journey away from the Shire and towards Mordor, and then, back again. You can relate that journey, perhaps, to a journey away from innocence, towards experience.

Credit : Wikimedia

I’m reminded of Blake’s two volumes of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. In Blake, as in Tolkien, both states have their drawbacks. Experience is the world of adult responsibility and adult knowledge, adult sexuality and adult occupations. It’s also, fallen it’s really just a fallen state in Blake. In Blake’s Songs of innocence, innocence has all the virtues of the Shire, but it’s too protected. I think Killian was gesturing towards that. The Shire is overly protective; they don’t pay any attention to the world outside them, they’re isolated, provincial, and Tolkien makes us aware of that too.

So, that journey of the fellowship is a journey into experience and Frodo grows on the journey. He doesn’t stay in that prelapsarian state of innocence for his entire life. He’s changed by his experience, in fact. In this course, we are not going to read all three volumes of the novel, nor are we going to see all three, of Peter Jackson’s movies. But, if, you have read them, the three volumes, or if you have seen the three movies, you will discover, that Frodo is so changed by his experiences, that he can’t go back home again. He can’t return to the Shire. He does return physically, but he can’t stay he’s going beyond the Shire and he’s had such searing emotional experiences that he can’t live the same life that he was living before and he has to leave the Shire forever.

The basic opposition is between Shire and Mordor. Middle earth is symbolic in its historical dimension as well. At the time of the Fellowship of the Ring it is already the 3rd age of Middle Earth. In fact the 3rd age is waning when the story begins, we’re coming into the end of the 3rd age. Tolkien has an enormous back story, in fact his 12 volumes of the history of Middle Earth that have now been published from his notes, of the back story to the first age, and the second age of middle earth, and even the early events in the third age of middle earth. But, I want to draw your attention to the fact that the motif of three ages is a really common feature of mythological landscapes, mythological cosmologies really. If you think of the Greek myths you have a first stage that are made up of the Titans. Who are some of the Titans? Cronus was the, the father Titan. Who else, others, do you remember your Greek mythology? No? You know, it hasn’t been long. You remember any? Saturn. What about Atlas. You should certainly remember Prometheus, for heaven’s sake. Prometheus brought fire down to the human species, and got punished. How was punished?

Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre)

Killian:   He was chained.

Jay:   Chained to the top of a rock with an eagle pecking out his liver every day. The liver regenerated magically and it was pecked out again. So the Titans lived in the first age of Greek mythology, and the Olympians come along and they are in the second age. I hope you’ll do better on the Olympian gods.

Deane:  Zeus and Hera.

Jay:  Zeus. Yes, yes. Others?

Chelsea: Apollo.

Deane: Ares.

 Killian: Hermes.

Jay: A somewhat underling god, yes…. Aphrodite. So, the Olympians were the second, clearly the second age of Greece and the third age would be the age of heroes and, like in Middle Earth, heroes and gods are kind of mixed and mingled.

Chelsea: Like Hercules.

Jay:  Or Hercules, the, Homeric heroes that fought in the battle of Troy, Achilles, Agamemnon. They interact with some of those second age Gods and Goddesses. So you do have that same kind of mythological cosmological, let’s call it cosmological structure, behind Greek mythology and Tolkien has created his own cosmology. Not merely in terms geographic landscape, but in terms of the great history of middle earth. And a large part of the pathos of the final volume of his trilogy is the end of the third age. The film captures it very well when it shows Frodo and the elves departing parting Middle Earth for good to sail across the Western Seas to the new lands and depart. So let’s end by answering the question of what will be the fourth age of Middle Earth?

Chelsea: Well, you’ve got men on the rise.

 Jay: Men on the rise. We are the Fourth Age, of Middle earth. 




Jay: I love it when Pippin says  “this sort of mission… quest.. thing”  and then of course when he says, “where are we going?”  He has volunteered, he’s going to make the quest but he seems a little confused about what the quest is. So, let’s help him out, let’s just define, ourselves, the difference between a quest and an ordinary journey or travel. What is a quest? Blaine how would you describe it, a quest?

Blaine: What differentiates it for me is the burden that’s involved. It’s not really a journey just to gain experience or glory. But it’s something that you’re kind of baited to do, and so there is this burden involved.

Jay: So Don what about the game of Lord Of The Rings.Is the game a quest in the same way the novel is?

Don: I think it’s different and it points back to some of what Diane was saying about the idea of it having a teleology or an end point, each quest. In the game you get a sense of many scaffolding quests, one on top of the other, one leading to the other, one a prerequisite for the next, rather than this more macroscopic sense of a quest.

Jay: Yeah, that’s a crucial difference. It’s kind of confusing to gamers, because that’s one of the basic structural principles of gaming, at least of online massively multiplayer games is that you’re given lots and lots and lots of quests. And a lot of times they’re really trivial quests the goal is not to save the world, though actually the frame narrative of almost all these games is that you’re saving the world. But the quests you’re given are to go kill ten foxes or to, you know defend a farmer from invading wolves.

Chelsea: Or help townspeople gossip.

Jay: Exactly.

Don:  Collect turtle shells.

Jay: Yes, collect shells. So it’s confusing that the gamers have this word quest which is often, local, sometimes tiresome tasks. So, when we’re using the word quest, particularly in this session, we’re really trying to define the large, meaningful quest that structures romance, poetry and also Tolkien’s, novels. What else, Killian, what else is essential to a quest in that larger, sense?

Killian: Well I think what’s really important is this moral calculus that we’ve been talking about. Bringing this back to the game, I’m wondering if you lose the structure of the greater quest, what sort of structure do you have? And it seems like this is more intensely individuated. Obviously there’s idea of experience points, I’m achieving self-betterment in this instantaneous way. I’m becoming stronger, faster, more advanced, right? And that does seem to be present in the bigger quest as well. But it’s got more to do with morality, with fulfilling, (getting back to Blaine’s point) fulfilling a kind of moral imperative, and so on.

Jay: You know, in the game Lord of the Rings Online, there is a quest line that is supposed to be the large governing quest, they call it the epic quest line, but it’s entirely optional. You can stop, do side quests. In fact, lots of people don’t do the epic quests at all and that’s where the entire story of LOTRO is concentrated. The whole back story that structures your experience of the bigger meaning of the game is in the epic quests and they are optional. You can do part of it and then go for months crafting and going to your house and rearranging your furniture in your house in the shire (that’s where my house is), Then when someone wants to do an epic quest with me. I’ll join their fellowship and do another part. You lose that sense of ‘fated-ness’, don’t you? There’s no doom or burdening that’s compelling you to drive through. So, that’s a real difference between the experience of gaming and the romance quest. Chelsea?

Chelsea: Well, what it makes me think of, is, actually going back to the clip that we just watched. I mean, there’s a real way in which the gamer logging on for the first time is like, of course I’m up for a quest. Where are we going?   .

And yet, at the same time, you get, you know, at least this far in the story, you’re having the same relationship to the. To the like true purpose of the quest that Pippin and Mary are having, where they’re just kind of auxiliary, and then they go off on side quests.

Jay: So every, every one of them, the online games has a back story that you are participating in. LOTRO, can be frustrating to some readers in that the experience of the gamer is so disconnected from the back story, and I think that’s a problem. Levelling up is meant to substitute for that deep narrative engagement. Killian has already suggested the way that levelling up provides a different kind of satisfaction, not the same kind of satisfaction, you make a character better, it’s self-directed. Lots of people like to quest, they do solo things and get themselves up. People are eager to get their special items and make their armour really strong. Let’s get back to that word goal. What is a goal of a player in an online game?

Chelsea: To have fun.

Jay:  Well, that’s true. Yes, you’re absolutely right, to have fun. But I meant, what’s the object of the game?

Chelsea:  Well, I say that and it sounds trivial, but I guess what I’m saying is that if you have a game where there are all these different ways that you can play, I mean, that does not suggest that that one way is more valid than another, necessarily.

Jay:  You are so right, and that goes back to the topics we discussed last week about the purpose of gaming, which is one of the central purposes is to have fun. But what’s the goal of levelling up? It’s to reach the top level. You’re just racing a lot of people do approach games entirely as how fast can I level up. I want to get to the top. And they get there and this is a real problem for the gamers and for the game makers. What do you do then? What do you do then? The end game, is toughest, part for game designers to wrestle with, because every player wants to reach the maximum level as fast as they can, and then now what do I do. And so of course games have very interesting strategies for keeping you engaged. It’s not like the goal of a romance quest where you reach Mount Doom you throw your ring into the flames, and you save the world. And you have a satisfaction of meaning and value that is deep and abiding, that’s a different kind of experience. So, yes Don.

Don: This lack of ‘fated-ness’ that we’re talking about, I think it may be more apparent in some console based games, like the Final Fantasy Franchise where there is a clear narrative arc, a beginning, middle and end. And that sense of…..

Jay:  Yeah.

 Don: I don’t think it’s…….

 Jay: That’s such an important point. It speaks to a trade-off the game designer are intensely aware of, which is that the more freedom you grant to players, the more autonomy they have to move their characters, and to do things independently, the less compelling the relation to the story-line is. So console games that have a single story-line, that you complete tend to have a more compelling sense of narrative. Increasingly, of course, all games are playable on all platforms. Chelsea?

Chelsea: Well, on the other end of the spectrum, and this is talking about specifically PC games, you have something like Minecraft, which is almost devoid of narrative. It’s just all sandbox.

Jay: That’s right and as we’ve talked about last week, that sandbox kind of game is devoid of narrative except the narrative that you create for yourself. It’s not the ultimate autonomy but it gives the player the most autonomy of any games currently, widely available on the market. Sandbox games are those like Sim City or Minecraft where the player just has fun and creates his or her own fantasy world, builds it and narrates it, often. You know there are a number of videos on the web of people just talking you through these little imaginative worlds. One of my favourite makers of those videos lives right here in Nashville, Joe Hills. He is a great Minecraft narrator and so those do have a story, the story that Joe Hills tells you as he builds his world. So that’s ultimate autonomy and good interconnection between the story he’s making up, but also it’s a passive viewing experience. You’re just viewing and listening.



Questing Continued 

Jay: Let’s go back to the romance quest. What are some other constituents of the romance quest? What are other elements that tend to show up in, in quests?

Don: There’s a sense of expensiveness and …

Jay: There’s a grand narrative.

Don: Yes.

Jay: ….and side narratives in a romance quest. It’s really true that romance poetry, we’ll see it when we get to Spencer. Romance poetry tends to have one larger narrative and a multitude of side stories. It’s a very digressive form, it’s episodic, it’s digressive, all other characters are coming in and giving you little back stories about their lives that completely distract from the main narrative. So that’s true, and there’s maybe a resemblance between gaming and romance, but you know, what about companions? I’m interested in those kinds of features of romance, just smaller ones.

Blaine: That’s where I see the biggest disconnect between playing the game and watching a movie or reading. I don’t feel the effective connections, the friendships or fellowship when I’m playing the game. Surprisingly like when I’m falling I can feel that as if I was falling off a diving board, so I feel those sort of effective things but I don’t have the emotional connection.

Jay: Sometimes when you get into fellowships with guild members or kinsmen, mates, you will I think, have similar ones. But you are right they are ad hoc, you get into a fellowship and you go and do something together, and then it comes to a close, and you move on the next one. People that are in raiding guilds get that regularly, and so they can build quite a powerful community. But it, but again it’s a community that has its own narrative outside the game, it’s a social community. The band, the fellowship in Tolkien is part of the narrative. So, if you’re in a social community that has a lot of gratifications that augment the narrative but are not integral to it. It’s a different relationship to fellowship so thank you for that comment. Let’s go back to Blaine’s first comment about the quest. There’s a burden to it, and that burden is something that the hero assumes; says, yes, I’ll take that burden on myself. That ties into the kind of ‘fated-ness’ of it, the destiny that, this is your destiny. You have to do it. And you’re the only one that can do it. But, often the doom is literal. Many ‘questers’ don’t make it, you know? There’s the chosen one generally succeeds. But usually the chosen hero is only one of a number of strivers who fail. This goes all the way back to Arthurian  stories, the knights that go out seeking the holy grail.

Edward Burns JonesThere’s a great painting by Edward Burn Jones, the late nineteen century British artist, which captures well the mirror inevitability of failure that haunts quest romance. Let me, let’s look at that painting. This painting, is part of a series that Edward Burne-Jones painted in the late 19th century. The series was called The Briar Rose. This one is The Briar Wood, and you see here, the quester, nearing, his goal, but, as he nears it, he sees, one knight after another collapsed in sleep. They’ve been there sleeping, sort of like the Sleeping Beauty story, for so long that briar roses have grown up all around them and encircled them. You can tell their armour is hanging, in the, in the trees on the side. Each of them is doomed. We’re clearly meant to understand that none of them will ever awaken until perhaps the hero reaches his goal and frees them. Though the narrative in the painting is not clear that he’ll reach it or whether he’s yet another doomed quester.

We also see it in Robert Browning’s great poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, which he published in 1855. We’ll discuss that poem in detail next session. The poem is full of foreboding and resignation. It’s the meditation of a quester who feels he has little chance of success but is going to go on, anyway. Many readers have interpreted it as a poem full of bravery, of courage, of determination in the face of almost impossible odds. Others have felt that it’s a despairing poem and that he is resigned to his, inevitable failure, but that he refuses to, turn back anyway. Here are some lines from Browning’s poem.


Thus I had so long suffer’d in this quest.

Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ

So many times among “The Band”- to wit,

The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d

Their steps – that just to fail as they, seem’d best.

And all the doubt was now – should I be fit?


These lines are full of melancholy resonance. Shall I be fit? Will I be worthy? Can I live up to my predecessors deaths even if I fail. That possibility of the fail quest is what haunts all true quest in the man’s. You tend to know the, because of the conventions of novels, that Frodo is ultimately going to make it. But Frodo himself, feels the possibility of failure at every moment. That’s part of what makes his journey so emotionally resonant. But you see from a painting like the Briar Wood or from the poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Tolkien, was immersed in a long tradition of questing that had come to a rich culmination in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century when he was growing up. It’s a tradition that he studied in the medieval literature that he wrote about, and taught for his entire life. That’s what lies behind the deep, emotional involvement that we feel in Frodo’s trip to Mordor, and that, I’m afraid we can’t yet feel in Lord of the Rings Online.


Introduction to Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” 

 Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is a remarkable poem, tour de force of dark emotions, phantasmagorical landscapes, and allusions to the long history of knight’s errant, and the quest romance. It’s also a poem that presents difficulties of interpretation, especially on first reading. Some of these difficulties are, are surface difficulties, archaic words, poetic word ordering, allusions that you might not understand or know. We’ll clear up some of these surface difficulties as we go along, but the poem’s really too long for us to cover every possible word and phrase in it that might be obscure. So, I encourage readers to look up things on the internet or in books. I also encourage them very strongly to listen to the audio file that I’ve posted. Because it’s a great reading of the poem and lots of things I find become clearer when you listen to someone read a poem, or you hear it through another person’s voice and you get that syntax of the poetry in a way that reading it on the page silently doesn’t always give you.

You might also want to look up background information about Robert Browning. He’s one of the finest English poets of the Victorian Era. He’s well-known of course as being the real master of the dramatic monologue. He was married to another famous English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and their romance was one of the great stories of the 19th century.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is not exactly a dramatic monologue, but it has some of the same strengths. To get started with our reading of this poem, let’s tentatively divide the poem into three sections.


  1. Stanzas one through eight, in which the questing knight encounters a doubtful guide on the road, Blaine, I’m going to ask you to summarize what happens in those stanzas, for the class.


  1. Then stanzas nine through 29, which are the very striking journey through the landscape, Don, why don’t you summarize that middle section for us.


  1. Deanne, we’ll give you the final stanzas, 30 through 34 when he gets to his goal.


 Jay: And, so Blaine, start us off.

Hoary cripple

Hoary cripple

Blaine: Sure. So the poem begins with Roland encountering a strange old man on a path, who he calls a hoary cripple. And he points him down an ominous path, towards a dark tower. He suspects that the old man is lying, but still resolves to go on this journey and take this quest. He believes that the quest will inevitably result in his failure and death but decides to go along with it to join the band of other knights who have also died and failed in the same quest.

Don: The segment scene, indicates that the quester in the first stanza, stanza nine has reached a point of no return. And throughout this entire segment, the words nothing, no, none, There’s a lot of negativity throughout the entire sequence which reinforces the sense of desolation, despair, negation and it reminds one, I think, who’s read Lord of the Rings, of Mordor, the terrain and the qualities of the landscape. There’s a few other noteworthy elements. The skeletal horse that appears in one of the stanzas, which, at first glance might be something that one would think, oh, this is a good sign, this is a, a horse that I can get on and this can help me with my journey. In fact, the horse is blind, has it’s bones sticking out of it and, in fact the protagonist comes to despise the horse. In the next segment, the, quester decides I’ve had enough of this horrible landscape. I’m going to turn inward and think about my inner memories, my he actually refers to his heart, and to look on my heart to see if I can find a way to escape the pain, and brutality of this world, and as he’s thinking back on his friends, he realizes that that’s not actually going to help him out. In fact his memories are more painful than the surrounding landscape.

Jay: So Don, you couldn’t resist interpreting. I feel like that was much more interpreting than plot summary. Which actually reveals something important about that middle section, very little happens and lots of psychological things occur. All he does is clop, clop, clop along across a barren waste. You can say one sentence, or you can say two sentences. He clumps along across a barren waste, reaches a creek, fords it, has some nightmares. That would be, the action of that and yet it’s so psychologically dense that, you just couldn’t restrain yourself. So Deanne, will you finish up the poem for us?

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce (1806–1864)

Dean: Sure. So in the brief final section, which is notoriously ambiguous, as an ending, there’s still the psychological element. That’s the stanza before in 29, where he very suddenly says “God knows when, in a bad dream, perhaps”. He ends the, the journey, and realizes, it clicks for him that he is actually, in, before the dark tower, right? So, so he’s come to the end of his journey, in the moment of his trial, and he imagines the hills, like hunting giants, and he hears the names, in the stories of all of the lost adventurers, who have gone before him, which he recognizes, and yet despite knowing that they have been strong. The adventurers have been strong and brave, and they have still failed. He decides to blow his slug-horn, which is an instrument that a very few people knew of,  Browning was one of a couple, a sort of mythical instrument. And on his slughorn, he plays Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came which is an old Medieval romance ballad referenced in King Lear, Shakespeare’s play, by a character who is trying to pretend that he is insane. Tom O’Bedlam, in that moment


 “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” 

 Jay: So, let’s go back to the opening lines of the poem. Chelsea, what do you make of Roland’s meeting with this man?

Chelsea : Well, one of the most striking things about it is that the whole time he is listening to this man talk, he’s very suspicious of everything he says. He, in fact, as he’s contemplating it, he accuses him of having lied or mislead him at every turn and yet, at the same time, he has still followed his direction and is going down the road to the dark tower.

Jay: Why did he do it? It’s

Chelsea : It’s puzzling.

Jay:  Which sums up a lot in this poem, doesn’t it?

Chelsea : Yes, yes.

Jay: It’s the first mystery. What a striking line. “My first thought was, he lied in every word.”  You’re really breaking into the middle  of something.

Chelsea :  Right.

Jay:  You know, we don’t know who this he is. Notice how unusual it is to have a pronoun, without prior reference for the pronoun?

Chelsea : Exactly.

Jay: So you have two characters identified right in the first line. My first thought, well, we don’t know who you are. I guess we assume, maybe, you’re Childe Roland, but we don’t know that for sure yet. He and lying, of course, is a great problem in a chivalric code you wouldn’t want to like so we know he’s not thinking about another knight and then we get “That hoary cripple with malicious eye askance to watch the working of his lie”. Now it’s, not merely a thought that he lies, but a certainty that he lies. Killian, I’m thinking about this narrator, when you encounter him do you see him as a reliable narrator?

Killian : Do I see him as reliable?  This may seem evasive, but I’m going to say yes and no. Don already brought up, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner,  another moment in this poem that reminds me of Coleridge‘s poem is the old cripple himself with his eye, just like the mariner at the beginning of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, who we’re never sure if he can be relied upon to tell us the truth about what’s happened. On the one hand, yes, I think that the narrator is reliable if we want to interpret this poem as a testimony to extreme psychological duress. There’s a sense of incredible immediacy and authenticity. The line you’ve already brought up, “my first thought was….”, the poem is willing to signal the fact that this is subjective, this is one person’s perspective. So in that way, yes, I find it completely credible.

Now, on the other hand, as an account of things that have happened in the world that we can point to and say (we already talked about this a bit), this happened first, this happened next. We move from point a to point b. I don’t think we can take it as particularly reliable in that way, we have doubt, we have despair, and an over winning sense of extreme uncertainty and arguably psychological trauma perhaps.

Jay: It’s very interesting to bring that modern perspective about trauma to bear on a poem like this. I think it is tempting, from a modern perspective to think of how scarred a knight who has been questing, we get the impression for a long time, through wilderness and having adventures and knowing about his predecessors deaths that he might be a traumatized narrator.

Blaine:  I think that also connects with his propensity throughout the poem to look back and distrust, and really have a negative remembering of things. Even the horse, his friends, it’s everything. When he looks backs it just has such a negative tone to it.

Jay: Either the world has treated him and his friends really harshly, or he does have a pessimistic attitude. He pauses, in the stanzas you’re referring to from the middle of the poem, he pauses, thinks well I’ve got to gather my courage and energy by remembering my good friends. One has been hung; the other has had his good name completely destroyed.

Let’s move on to the second section of the poem. This is about his journey. This is really a quest. Even though this poem is a lyric poem, not a full blown quest romance. It’s a lyric that is invoking the quest romance tradition, and includes some traveling. Here it is – these middle stanzas here. Don has already said that he suddenly finds there’s no way back. The second he steps out on the plain, it’s like – boom! can’t go back now, you’ve done it. It’s a desolate plain, it is really striking. You mention Mordor, that is very striking to me, to be like the brown lands and the grey marches at the gates of Mordor. In The Two Towers, (a novel that we’re not assigning but some people may have read it, or seen the movie) Frodo and Sam travel across that kind of desolation really. The passages are full of alliteration and vivid imagery. You emphasized the blind horse extensively. I want to look at the emotion in it. If you look at stanza 14 where he’s responding to that blind horse, the second to last line in that stanza. “I never saw a brute I hated so. “

Killian: No empathy.

Jay: What, what else do you think is charging that kind of emotion.

Chelsea: Actually, I think that this is more indication that the horse is not real. And I say that because I think that what’s being indicated here is Childe Roland is creating in his mind an object of his dread and contempt for the horror of what he’s doing and it comes to form.

Jay: Yeah. Great word for that would be projection.

Chelsea: Yeah, there we go.

Jay: That he’s just projecting that, yes that’s quite possible. Any of this poem can, (at some point he does wake as if from a dream) any part of this poem could be still inside a dream. Certainly the psychological mechanisms of projecting out and hallucinating are plausible ways to read anything in here. Let think about his. If he’s projecting, and he’s projecting hatred, let’s think about his psychological state. He’s a knight, he went on this quest voluntarily. He undertook this burden, he chose it. He’s going forward with it. Why is he so angry? Why is he so full of despair and hatred?

Don: He seems fated to do this quest rather than wilfully engaged in it.  That’s the sensation that I have at least. And so, in that sense, he very much seems to begrudge the task before him.

Jay : So, then, that would really put him in parallel with Frodo, and his relationship to the quest.

Don: Yes, I would say so.

Jay : Particularly if you get into the second and third volumes it becomes hard reading to see how painful it is to Frodo to keep going forward. As a reader I find those passages sometimes hard going because I feel pain along with him. This “fatedness”, we talked about that a little last session, the fated-ness is something that both the poem and Lord of the Rings, the novel and the movie, all three of them are able to achieve, and make you as a reader or a viewer feel.

Killian: Yes, it seems like just to follow up on Don’s point. It seems as if the poem doesn’t satisfy the expectations I bring to a heroic quest then it mustn’t satisfy the quester’s expectations either. For example in stanza nine, it’s repetition of plain plain, plain. There’s a sense of formlessness, of monotony. This is not the kind of landscape, or the kind of experience that I feel I can make sense of, or that I can write down and make into my own story, or any of that. It just seems like a non-starter at every turn.

 Jay : Yes, right great. So let’s move on to the passage in the middle of the poem where he fords the little river. Would you read that passage to us, Blaine? Why don’t you start off with stanza nineteen and we’ll get Killian to read twenty and Diane to read stanza twenty one.

Blaine : “A sudden little river crossed my path.

As unexpected as a serpent comes.

No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;

This, as it frothed by, might have been a bath

For the fiend’s glowing hoof – to see the wrath

Of its black eddy bespate with flakes, and spumes.

Jay:  Where did the serpent come from?

Chelsea : Unexpectedly.

Jay: Unexpected. Yes. Perhaps it’s just projected, but the path it crossed came before him so unexpectedly, it was like a serpent.

Deane: Sin. It’s temptation.

 Jay :  You’re such an allegorizer!  Where was that, when we were talking about allegory the other day? You know, “it frothed by as if it had been a bath for the fiend’s glowing hoof”. Why? Well, because it splashes up little flakes and spumes. I don’t always think of flakes and spumes as “a bath for a fiend”. It’s not a natural image there. Killian, go on, read us 20.

Killian : So petty, yet so spiteful!. All along

Low scrubby alders kneeled down over it;

Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit

Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:

The river which had done them all the wrong,

Whate’er that was, rolled by, deterred no whit.


Jay : So, Killian, what’s the least optimistic image in that stanza.

Killian: Hmm, let me think about that for a minute. Where to begin?

Jay:  That was your answer? Where to begin?

Killian: Well it is. The stanza is saturated with pessimism and the suicidal throng is certainly one of them. Part of me is tempted to go right along with Deanne’s ideas and it’s very difficult for me not to allegorize each of the stanzas.  Biblical allegory, we’ve already got ideas about the waste in that Biblical sense, not the untouched wild, but something that has fallen into decay and needs to be purified.

 Jay: Romance is often very close to allegory. It’s dream logic that structures it. It’s magical, events and items. They are either real or they stand for something else and are usually both. Stanza 21 Deanne?


Which, while I forded,- good saints, how I feared

To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,

Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek

For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!

– It may have been a water-rat I speared,

But ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.


Jay : How are we going to allegorize that?

Deane:  I’m at a loss with this one.

 Jay: So we certainly went from “a fiend’s bath” to a watery graveyard. Anybody see anything from Tolkien in that? Stanza, that reminded anything?

Chelsea:  Well, there’s that pool of water with all the dead bodies in it.

Jay: In volume two. Admittedly it’s unfair for those listening who have not read volume two or seen the movie, but in volume two, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, cross the dead marshes, and they are being careful not to step on underwater bodies. In fact it’s like the bodies here they are the remains, perhaps the fantasized or hallucinated remains, of a great battle where they had just killed thousands of knights in a previous century. The parallel is so striking that I’d like to show a clip for Peter Jackson that captures it as vividly as, as Browning does.



 “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” continued 

 Jay : There are a couple of fairly obscure illusions in these Stanzas. Like in Stanza 24, he speaks of “Tophet’s tool”. Anyone know what Tophet is?

Deanne : I believe it’s a field where children were sacrificed and it’s referenced in the Hebrew Bible?


By Mboesch (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Jay: Yes absolutely. He compares some of the instruments there to machinery of torture and a harrow fit to reel men’s bodies out like silk. A harrow is a tilling machine. So you can just imagine a kind of the devil’s tilling machine reeling out over men’s bodies. He comes on a stubbled ground, a plain where trees have been cut down. Then he goes on and in the heart of this middle section, a great black bird sweeps down on him, that’s, stanza 27.

A great black bird,  Apollyon’s bosom-friend

Sailed past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penned

That brushed my cap……..

Perhaps, perchance, it was the guide I sought.


That’s a very unexpected turn. This great big black bird swoops down, almost hits him with its dragon-feathered wings, and he goes, wait, maybe that’ll show me the way. Does that bird remind you of anything in Lord of the Rings?

Chelsea: Weren’t there some eagles or something?

Jay: Well, there were a lot of eagles, yes, but that bird was not. The eagles were good birds in Lord of the Rings.  Any evil flying things?

Killian : Yes, it reminds me of, the kind of creature that Legolas shoots down towards the end of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Jay: The Nazgûl. In the Dead Marsh, in the very next scene from the one I’ve shown you. A Nazgul sweeps down over Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, scaring them. Let’s take a look at that.



Jay: Nice comparison. Well, do you thing that’s there? I’m not projecting.

Chelsea: No, I think that’s definitely there. What, I haven’t seen the two towers in a while, what happens directly after that? Do they, do they follow it?

Jay : Well, funny you should ask. They don’t exactly follow it but it has come right out of Mordor and does return to Mordor. They don’t need to follow it because Gollum knows the way. But it could well have been a guide.

Chelsea: Doesn’t it open up interpretation of Gollum as a dark,  animal beast like guide that comes  necessary but unwanted, all the same.

Jay Well, Gollum is such a complex character I think that your insight to him there is certainly part of who Gollum is, but, we’ll have to devote more time to thinking through Gollum, because he’s an amazing character.

Par H. C. Selous and M. Paolo Priolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Apollyon; we haven’t identified Apollyon. Apollyon is often thought of as Hell, or a creature from Hell. Apollyon is pictured as a winged evil being. We talked about Pilgrim’s Progress as an example of romance before, and I’d love to show you an illustration from Pilgrim’s Progress that has Christian, the knight fighting off Apollyon. So what strikes you about this image, Don?

Don:  The way in which  Apollyon, is anthropomorphized makes me think about the parallels between the way Apollyon is represented in the poem, where clearly it’s described as a great black bird. In this illustration Apollyon appears, seemingly, half human.


Jay: That’s right. In Lord of the Rings online, we find many such anthropomorphized, winged, evil beings chiefly the Morrval but it seems like a common visual motif that, that the game makers have picked up on. The final Stanza of this middle section, Stanza 29, suggests that he was perhaps in a bad dream.

Yet half I seemed to recognize some trick

Of mischief happened to me, God knows when –

In a bad dream perhaps……

That Browning himself invokes the possibility that some of these things that we’ve been speculating are phantasms of the imagination were.

In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,

Progress this way. When, in the very nick

That’s a very resonant line, if you’re thinking of a quest romance. You see this again, and again in The Lord of The Rings, that they find their way blocked, and they have to turn back. The mountains of Caradhras would be a good example. But again and again they come up against barriers to the progression of the quest. We talked about that being an essential element in quest romance, the barrier to completion,

Progress this way. When, in the very nick

Of giving up, one time more, came a click

As when a trap shuts –  you’re inside the den.

Jay: We’ve seen that in countless movies.    You step in.

Chelsea: And the door closes behind you.

Jay : And the door closes behind you. So, the last movement, the last Stanza; Stanza 30,

Burningly it came on me all at once,

This was the place!

Jay: What, what do you make of that, Deanne?

Deanne: I think his awakening, to go back to that dream in the dream to his purpose there. This is a place he was meant to arrive at, that is here at the tower, it’s a place that many other adventurers before him were fated to find.

Jay : So that, that really, puts a positive spin on awakening.

Deanne:  I may be making that sound overly positive, because this is not sunshine and rainbows by any stretch of the imagination. I’m using the term ‘fated’ in a sense that’s a tragic sense,  something that is tragic can also be really enlightening.

Jay:  It’s a moment of recognition. And moments of recognition in literature are extremely important. They’re usually the climax, where you recognize, something that you’ve been striving for all along. It does give you that sense of, of completion.

Killian : One small thing that I would point out from the stanza and, that I think is interesting is, “burningly, it came at me all at once” It doesn’t say, “burningly, I figured it out”. So the active potential, the agency here, is not with the poetic narrator, it’s with something outside.

Jay: Yes. Very Interesting. Just as so much of the psychology has been projected outside so the agency of this occurs from the outside. When we turn to discussing romance characters, that kind of sense of being possessed by other agents, or acting under the command of forces beyond your control, that’s something we’re going to want to come back to.

This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
While to the left, a tall scalped mountain . . . Dunce,
After a life spent training for the sight!


This is a place without a counterpoint part in the whole world. Not see? he asked, in Stanza 32. And then he rationalizes it. How did I not see it? Maybe because it was night, but no that seems flimsy. Not hear? He’s come to his senses in a kind of literal way. He hadn’t seen previously, he hadn’t heard previously. Does that make you think he’s been there all along? That one of the reasons that the middle section feels so static, that Don had to fill in with interpretation when he tried to summarize it, because he’s always been there. Chelsea?

Chelsea : Well I think, in a very basic way, this passage gets to something that I think, all or most of us have experienced, where we are dreading something or even in a positive way, anticipating something that’s going to happen to us in the future. We go through all these things in our mind about how it’s going to turn out, and then, all of a sudden, to our horror, here we are, we’re about to sit down and take an exam, we’re about to ask that person out to prom. You know, we’re there.

Jay :  Yes, yes. That’s a great comment! The, being there all along, is something you’ll see in romance. Romance often stretches out into a journey but is actually a return to your setting out point. I think that’s fairly appropriate for a lyric reinterpretation of the quest romance, because lyric, is not  an intrinsically narrative genre. Lyrics are not all about plot; they’re about states of mind, states of emotion, insights into the self . This journey may never have moved a step beyond its setting out, only he is now ready to understand what he needs to understand to complete his lifelong quest. The final image is really striking. It’s an amazing image. He imagines or actually sees all the band of predecessors ranged to watch his engagement with the dark tower. Ranged to watch his failure or his success? Who wants to take a vote because there is not a right answer? Who wants to step forward. Blaine?

Blaine:  This might be very simplistic but perhaps there was success in his failure and then his death.

Jay: I think I sound a bit simplistic. I think that’s really one of the most powerful readings that the poem has provoked. So can you say more about it?

Blaine:  The journey, the quest was to endure this and go through the lands. And finally blow the slughorn. That was the end in sight was for him to die. That was what he was fated to do. And he did it, so he succeeded.

Jay : Yes. And that goes back to your comment about being ready for death. Don did you have a response to that?

Don: Yes. Building on what Blaine was saying. I think of it also as a set of perverse successes in a sense that he’s fated not only to death, but to return to this brotherhood, this band of people who came before him.

 Jay : There’s no question. The sense of triumph, whether success or, whether death or victory there’s a sense of triumph. He’s made it, he’s joined this band of predecessors. He’s proved himself worthy to be there and I think we can end on this comment because it helps us understand why we’re reading a poem like Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, in relation to Tolkien, and to online gaming. This poem joins with thousands of years of predecessors. It’s a late lyric and vocation of a tradition that stretches way back and continues beyond it. This was written in the middle of the 19th century and we can see by the vitality of romance in the 20th and 21st century that this never ending story is one that still resonates with readers and viewers.


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1 Comment

  1. Jay Clayton says:

    Reblogged this on Syllabus – Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative and commented:
    Many thanks to Claire-Louise Taylor for her great work transcribing the whole week of lectures!

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