The hobbit Frodo Baggins starts a long journey through the Middle-earth realms in order to throw a magic ring with incredibly strong and controversial powers into Mount Doom.
He is accompanied by two men, a king, a wizard, a dwarf, an elf and other three hobbits, his friends Pippin, Sam and Merry. All together they are the Fellowship of the Ring.
Who are these characters and what are we talking about?
Let’s start with… the Middle Ages.
The most fascinating 1000 years of history
We live in comfortable homes, are accustomed to a varying amount of conveniences, and are in contact with the world through mobile phones and social media twenty-four hours a day. Yet the literary genre that most captures readers’ attention is related to the Middle Ages, one of the most ‘uncomfortable’, warlike and difficult historical ages in human history. No other era has been explained, fictionalised and proposed in thousands of works like this one. Almost every year, the cinema presents a new film set in the Middle Ages. Music genres, video games, board games, dedicated clothing shops, historical re-enactment festivals, fairs and battle anniversaries keep this period alive as if it never ended. Its charm is beyond question. It is true that ‘the Middle Ages’ means around 1000 years of history, starting with the fall of the Roman Empire and ending with the discovery of a new continent. In between, there are so many changes, institutional, cultural and social evolutions that the expression “dark ages” has long been contested, and rightly so, with regard to the Middle Ages because the richness of this period, despite long centuries of increasingly in-depth and refined studies, has not yet really managed to emerge completely (and probably never will).
The Middle Ages is the age of heroes, who fight unequal battles against dragons and diabolical creatures, as in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which tells of the hero’s exploits against enemies of titanic strength, whom he defeats once and succumbs to a second time, but remaining forever in the hearts of his people, as the poem says.
The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf,
stacked and decked it until it stood foursquare,
hung with helmets, heavy war-shields
and shining armour, just as he had ordered.
Then his warriors laid him in the middle of it,
mourning a lord far-famed and beloved.
The Fellowship of the Ring faces numerous forces of evil, from the might of Sauron unleashing all his minions to stop Frodo and prevent the ring of power from being destroyed forever. Orcs, fearsome monsters, the scaring Nazguls, a man turned monster because of his lust for the ring, Gollum, and many others threaten the Fellowship and try to kill them through the forests, along the paths, in the villages and castles where the Fellowship passes. The stakes are high, so the holders of the arts of magic, the forces of Good and Evil, fight fiercely.
ACTIVITY – What image comes to mind when you think of the Middle Ages? And what feeling does it evoke in you? Tweet a friend and tell him or her.
Castles and courts
The Middle Ages is also the era of life in castles, stone giants, mostly defensive, icy, heated only by the fire in the fireplace, without many comforts. Castles where born out of the crisis of a continent that had lost all political and social points of reference. It was also the time of invasions by nomadic peoples who terrorized the local populations and Europe did not yet have a certain political and institutional structure, since this was slowly forming. Yet in the movies, castles acquire much more charm than any contemporary palace, and in today’s reality they are visited enthusiastically every day by hundreds of thousands of tourists, who look in fascination not only at the best preserved structures, but also at those of which only a few ruins remain, and this happens because the collective imagination is very lively and is able to “see” even what requires a great effort of abstraction.
Moreover, the numerous medieval miniatures contained in manuscripts miraculously preserved over the centuries show us on the one hand knights and warrior nobility in full battle dress, but also give us a glimpse of life in the courts, enlivened by music, poetry, adventurous, sentimental or epic tales transmitted by troubadours, messengers of oral and then written culture.
ACTIVITY – Browse the net and look for an image of a castle that strikes you. Then look for the date of construction and its original function and write its story in three or four sentences. Then read it in class.
An age of travel
Castles are evidence of the fragmentation of medieval social and political life and its uncertainties. So are the chronicles of the journeys that pilgrims, knights, merchants and clergymen made from one place to another, from a castle to a village, from a university to a fair. The journeys were adventurous and dangerous, and those who undertook a journey tried to do so in groups, to feel safer from the miscreants or packs of wild animals in the forests that threatened the roads, which were few and often difficult to travel.
As we progress beyond the year 1000 and European civilisation evolves, the characters in the legends and the tales told in the long ballads help us to understand how daily life worked, the relationships between people, the differences between social classes, the privileges of kings and even economic life. If we read the story of the legendary Robin Hood, it does not matter if we are getting involved with a character who probably never existed. What is important is that his adventures and his secret refuge in Sherwood Forest help us to understand, beyond the admittedly fanciful aspects, what the difficulties of everyday life were like, how the powerful had a power over people that today seems incomprehensible to say the least, and how bands of marauders (in reality certainly less fascinating than in legend) roamed everywhere. The political aspects of the medieval period, such as the Crusades, the numerous conflicts between sovereigns, nobility and religious authorities have been narrated, and of course reinterpreted, in many novels.
The result of so many political and social events and developments is an endless well of stories to tell.
The journey to the Mount Doom becomes increasingly complicated, adventurous and dangerous. Frodo and his friends walk through forests of huge talking trees that observe them. Each traveller has to confront Evil, and does not always succeed in doing so and therefore succumbs. So the journey is also a constant inner test of one’s own resilience, especially for Frodo, who has to face his greatest test: getting rid of the ring, while he is courted by the strong forces of Evil who try to make him their servant.
ACTIVITY – Imagine organising a backpacking trip with your friends. Choose on a map or Google Maps a place you would like to go (at least 50 km away from your starting point) and set out the stages. You have only unbreakable rule: you can only walk! After the journey as a group work write a diary of your experience.
Fantasy and the Middle Ages without dates
As writing and literature also evolve without stopping, the Middle Ages and much of its symbolic power at some point began to inspire a new literary genre, fantasy, which was not specifically linked to a specific period of the real Middle Ages, but crystallised some of its characteristics in a kind of timeless world. Fantasy literature is very rich and also draws its inspiration from very ancient historical events, such as the period of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, recalled in some similarities by the successful series Game of Thrones. The themes of research, magic and travel are always present in fantasy literature, and are intertwined with more contemporary elements that take their cue from fantasy literature, making it a constantly evolving genre.
Frodo comes to the end of his journey and carries out the task he was given.
And we have come to reveal… the world of Middle-earth and the name of its creator.
One of the most complex and successful novels that created a parallel Middle Ages rich in elements is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. This novel contains and interprets in a profoundly original, symbolic and also philosophical way many visions of the Middle Ages, those contained in the most ancient narratives, or in the bestiaries that showed monstrous and frightening creatures, or even in the chronicles of more or less realistic events. Tolkien’s characters are real and unreal, some speak their own language (Tolkien, in his immense imagination, had ‘invented’ a real fairy language at a young age), some are recognisable human beings and some have their own characteristics and converse with humans, such as the Hobbits. There are frightening creatures that show only an inhuman side and are destined to destroy or be destroyed, such as the ferocious Nazgul, who exterminate everything in their path and are the servants of the forces of Evil.
Tolkien interpreted the profound emotions linked to the concept of Good and Evil. He was able to show the characters’ inner struggle not to give in to flattery and compromise with the forces of evil. He used the journey, a great medieval theme, to show it from many points of view: physical, to go and destroy a ring; inner, because during the journey innumerable events happen and each character undergoes an important evolution facing himself and measuring his own strength and courage in the face of dramatic events. Tolkien drew inspiration from a “real” era to construct a novel that gave life to characters who, although enveloped in the magic of literary narration, could be even more real than the real thing, because in each of them one can recognise and find the fears of a medieval individual but also those of an individual of today. This is because Tolkien shows how the world of Middle-earth, which might remind us of the European continent, is made up of hopes, threats and events that have no expiry date, seeming to be closed in their own bygone era, but in reality belong to the history of peoples, to social, political and institutional evolution, because they contain the key words of human existence: communication, solidarity, good, evil, struggle for power, religious faith.
In a word: the profound nature of man.
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”