Many people think of chivalry as a concept which comes from tales of swords, knights and wizardry of the Middle Ages. Ironically, however, one of the best-known tales of swords and wizardry comes not from the Middle Ages at all, but from the 20th century. “The Lord of the Rings,” written by J.R.R. Tolkien, appeared in the 1950s, and since its publication it has been responsible for introducing a whole new generation (or, more realistically, several new generations) to an ideal of heroism and chivalry that would have been very familiar to people of medieval Europe.
Today, as readers discover and rediscover the wonderful story of “The Lord of the Rings” let’s take a few moments to consider the lessons of chivalry which are found in this book. Critics of the work frequently claim that “The Lord of the Rings” is simplistic and long-winded; many have said that it is nothing more than an elaborate bedtime story. This, however, is an unfortunate attempt to invest “The Lord of the Rings” with an aura of modern sophistication and contemporary nuance which would, in truth, be grossly out of place in such a work. Tolkien’s story is both sophisticated and full of nuance, but they are qualities which go back to another age.
Tolkien’s tale of the battle for Middle Earth is clearly an effort to introduce today’s readers to the wonderful literary tradition of the medieval epic sagas. Aragorn’s army facing the hordes of Mordor at the Black Gate brings to mind the image of Roland making his last stand at Roncevaux; Elrond’s council at Rivendell bears a striking resemblance to a gathering of the Knights of the Round Table; and Frodo’s battle with Shelob contains elements of Beowulf’s defeat of the monstrous mother of Grendel.
But the comparison should not be confined to the details of the story’s plot — there is also a rich sense of chivalry and knightly virtue in “The Lord of the Rings.” Aragorn, the last heir to the throne of Gondor, feels the weight of his duty as keenly as King Arthur ever did, and he sets aside his own personal desires in order to serve the people who need him. Sam is the very picture of loyalty, and he is as true to the man he follows as Count Oliver was to Roland. Galadriel, with grace and generosity, provides inspiration to the ring-bearer just as surely as Guenever did to the knights questing for the Holy Grail. And Eowyn’s courage and strength, which equal that of stalwart Brunhild, should be powerful enough to banish any myth that the Code of Chivalry doesn’t apply to women.
In fact, “The Lord of the Rings” is everything a bedtime story should be — it is an inspiring lesson in chivalry and honor that will reaffirm the necessity of the Knightly Virtues in the heart of anyone who reads it, be they young or old. Tolkien clearly had great respect for the tradition of chivalry both in literature and in society, and his books can be a fabulous introduction to the world of heroism and knights in shining armor.