One Does Not Simply…Write About Anthropology

My Time as a Graduate Student

Thesis update

on April 9, 2013

I haven’t posted in awhile about my thesis. So here is an update on my research and methods.

Background and Research Methods

            The Lord of the Rings series is a fantasy fiction written by J.R.R. Tolkien between the years of 1937 and 1949, consisting of three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. This canon is the sequel to Tolkien’s earlier work The Hobbit that was published in 1937 and was originally a children’s fantasy novel, and later was developed into a larger work. These works had an everlasting impression upon popular culture that Tolkien probably never thought would happen. I will assume that the reader has either read the books or have seen the movies and a greater detail of plot summary of each of these titles will not be necessary. If not, spoiler alert and you have been warned.

My research will focus on a theoretical structural analysis of Tolkien’s work The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with the The Silmarillion and the Histories of Middle Earth as references. I will be looking at major themes and patterns that are present and have been carried throughout the series such as: magic, dual sovereignty (power and authority), and language. Although there have been literary articles on these similar themes, my aim is to not do another literary article but demonstrate how anthropological theory can be applied to a fictional setting and demonstrate how fictional literatures are reflections of culture itself. Fictions are cultural products that reflect an author’s interpretation of his or her own culture. If culture cannot be reinterpreted or reproduced, what is the point of culture in the first place? It can be argued that every fiction is a cultural experiment. If a reader buys it, then we have reproduced culture.  Maybe not quite the way people thought it was but it’s intelligible, which means it reproduces culture.  If they don’t, then we don’t understand our culture.   In this regard modern fiction writing is just like myth-making, because the teller of tales in a non-literate, non-capitalist society either has the audience with her/him or she/he doesn’t. If he or she does not, she or he doesn’t have a clue how to talk about her or his culture.

With that aside, I will shift to research and theoretical methods that will be implored to collect data within the series. As mentioned above, structuralism will be the major theoretical method for analysis of this series. Why structural analysis? It encompasses everything from the major themes to being able to define the relationships between the major themes and culture itself. I feel the following quote from the introduction of Margaret Williamson’s Powhatan Lords of Life and Death, justly defines the reasons for a structural analysis of this work:

“A common objection to this sort of analysis [i.e., structuralist] is that it represents nothing more than the imaginative acrobatics of the (western-trained) analyst, which while they may be impressive do not get us much further in understanding why a group of people act as they do. It may be objected also that the really die-hard structuralist is so handy with an answer to any possible objection to a proposed structure, or to the method of structuralism, that disproving the validity of either is impossible. Indeed, the matter of proof raises a serious question. How is anyone to know whether what is proposed is “true” or not, particularly when, as in this case, we cannot even ask informants their opinion of any hypothetical structure? The answer is that we cannot know. But we can make a case that all the available evidence supports one interpretation more strongly than it does the alternatives (Darnton 1984:257-259). This is no more than an application of the law of parsimony: the most economical explanation of the phenomena we are trying to understand. Thus I assume that my analysis of the Powhatan is probably correct because it provides an explanation for everything that we know that they did, and moreover it establishes logical kinds of relationships among all those things” (Williamson 2003).

As mentioned before, the major themes that are present throughout the series are: magic, dual sovereignty, and language. Although there are other patterns and themes like life and death, male and female, gender roles, etc.; these themes are intertwined with the major themes I wish to explore.

Magic occurs throughout the series beginning with The Hobbit and is heavily present in the Fellowship and the beginning of the Two Towers, but the use of magic begins to dwindle as the story line progresses through the second book and into the third. The use of magic is almost non-existent in the third book and by the end of the series magic is leaving Middle Earth with the departing of Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel. The degree to which magic is used and by whom varies throughout the series with those who are able to produce, wield, and who are magical beings themselves. There is also an occurrence to the degree of where magic is used the most, geographically. As the characters journey across Middle Earth, the journey begins in the North and travels South, we see that magic is more frequent and stronger in the Northern region than in the South. This also occurs in other fictional literatures, but it would be interesting to see if it correlates with other mythos of witchcraft.

There are several power and authority struggles that occur throughout the series from the obvious control of Middle Earth between Men and the armies of Sauron to the possession of the One Ring. There are many power and authority struggles that occur between the races and within, many obvious and some that are not. Many of these struggles are correlated with the gravitas and celeritas, the concept of order and chaos, of the world.

As we know, Tolkien created the languages that are spoken in the movies and by the diehard fans of the series. These languages define each culture within Middle Earth with an identity that has shaped the behavior and cultural meanings of each race. Much like the languages of Europe where there are several languages spoken that define a country with English being the languages that connect them as a whole group, languages of Middle Earth follows suit. There are several languages: Dwarfish, Elvish, Orcish, Ancient languages of each, and Common Speech. Common Speech is the language of Men and is known by almost all the other races. I am interested to explore the uses of the languages, by whom, and how it has shaped the culture. It will be also interesting to see how Tolkien uses the languages and when he switches languages within the storyline and between whom.

I would be measuring the number of occurrences these themes and patterns take place throughout the series to determine if they could be defined as universals and potentially be applied to other fictional literatures in the future research. I would also explore if these patterns were also parallel to cultural lore and mythos of Europe, the area in which they were written.


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