An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 17, 2014

Vaccaro, ed.: The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium

Vaccaro, Christopher, ed. The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on Middle-earth Corporeality. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. 200pp.

Reviewed by Leigh Smith (

Tolkien’s view of the body is a delicate issue for a medievalist. We who see him as a colleague are suspicious of readings that appear to evince a too-modern fascination with the material. On the other hand, we must admit that many of the conundrums with which all Tolkienists struggle are related to physicality. Where do little orcs come from? Does Sauron always have a body? Does Frodo actually “fade,” and if so, how? What order of being is Tom Bombadil? No one who has read Tolkien seriously can believe he did not think of these questions. Every year, more of his previously-unpublished notes testify to his obsessive attention to detail. Therefore, if we find his treatment of physicality confusing or paradoxical, we must try to explain it. This is the purpose of The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium, a varied “collection of essays on middle-earth corporeality” (its subtitle), and its editor, Christopher Vaccaro, is well aware of the difficulty. His fine introduction places the major conundrums in their contexts—medieval heroic literature, Catholic theology, World War I—and summarizes the major attempts of critics to use postmodern theory to illuminate Tolkien’s view of the physical. The essays vary in quality, but all will contribute on some level to a reader’s understanding of Tolkien’s work and worldview, and several point to areas where further research is needed.

The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium is divided into four parts: “The Transformation of the Body,” “The Body and the Spirit,” “The Discursive Body,” and “The Body and the Source Material.” Most of the essays focus on The Lord of the Rings, but some concern (primarily or in comparison to LOTR) The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and The History of Middle-Earth. Not surprisingly, two essays focus on Frodo’s body as a site of transformation and struggle. Others focus on female bodies, monstrous bodies, and the physical component of the Ringwraiths and Sauron.

“Part I: The Transformation of the Body” includes the two essays on Frodo’s body. First, Verlyn Flieger argues convincingly that the physical changes in Frodo act as visible signifiers of his “changing relationship to himself, to the ‘real’ world around him, and to the quasi-metaphoric, quasi-psychological world of the Ring” (12). Calling attention to his growing (post-Weathertop) ability to perceive both darkness and light, Flieger addresses an important paradox about the way Frodo changes in the course of his journey: he grows and diminishes. Flieger concludes that he does not become, as Gandalf once hoped, “like a glass filled with clear light,” but that Saruman is right to say he has “grown”: his greatness is made possible by his knowledge of the darkness and weakness within him.

However, Anna Smol comes to a slightly different conclusion. Arguing that “Frodo’s body is the territory on which he battles to maintain his physical and psychological integrity” (39), Smol concludes that Frodo becomes that glass filled with light, though his “faded” condition leaves room for darkness as well. This essay includes an interesting discussion of the “uncanny” and the “abject” as they relate to the horrors of the war zone, and Smol usefully compares Frodo and Gollum in terms of abjection and the transformation it implies. She overstates a little Gollum’s loss of identity: it is not quite true that he “cannot even speak of himself with the first-person pronoun” (48). He does so on several occasions, e.g. “I don’t want to come back. I can’t find it. I am tired” (222). However, the larger point about the dissolving of boundaries and the loss of physical and psychological integrity is well-taken.

Between these two discussions is Yvette Kisor’s excellent essay on another kind of paradox: the “necessity of embodiment created by the Ring exists simultaneously with the Ring’s propensity to rob the wearer of visible bodily form” (20). The Ringwraiths and Sauron seem not to be quite corporeal, and the Ring has the short-term effect of invisibility and the long-term effect of “fading.” Yet, as Kisor reminds us, Sauron and his servants use physical means to kill, torture, and dominate corporeal beings. Furthermore, the Ringwraiths have to ride horses (or other beasts) and can be killed with forged weapons, and Sauron not only inhabits a fortress but can wear a ring. Kisor suggests a logical resolution to this paradox via the “twilight” world where not only dark shadows such as Ringwraiths but also Light Elves and perhaps Gandalf himself walk. Thus, what seems to be incorporeality is actually corporeality “in another dimension where sensory experience and bodily manifestation work differently” (28).

“Part II: The Body and the Spirit” pairs two essays that address Tolkien’s presentation of the body (hröa) and soul (fëa). First, Matthew Dickerson demonstrates the relationship between them as it applies to physical health, environmental responsibility, and warfare. The opening section demonstrating that Tolkien was “a devout Catholic” and “not a materialist” (68) is probably not needed, as this fact is widely recognized. However, the larger section on the balance between hröa and fëa needed for good health of all kinds is illuminating. As Eowyn’s spirit needs to heal along with her body before she can recover from the Battle of Pelennor Fields, the Shire must be cured of Sharkey’s domination before it can become healthy and fertile again. Dickerson sees war as necessary (in Tolkien) for Pauline and Miltonic reasons: free beings must choose a side. Thus, spiritual health, demonstrated by “the choosing of good” (76) will require physical fighting for God against Satan.

Next, Jolanta Komornicka takes on the troubling issue of whether orcs have souls and free will and are therefore redeemable. Komornicka makes use of Tolkien’s notes and letters as well as The Silmarillion and LOTR, revealing that Tolkien was as troubled as we are by the nature of orcs. He changed his mind repeatedly on their origin (tortured elves, degraded men, or both?) and never completely settled on how their bodily reproduction would work. He implies that they would breed like anything else, but we see no orc-women or orc-children. As Komornicka points out, they have blood but no bloodlines, societies but no families (90-91). Ultimately, she makes a provocative but well-reasoned argument that orcs are (at least theoretically) redeemable, as men and elves are corruptible.

“Part III: The Discursive Body” contains two essays that consider Tolkien’s uses of physical description to represent abstractions. In the first, Robin Anne Reid presents a stylistic analysis of Tolkien’s descriptions of Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, Eowyn, and Shelob. She details “how often the female character was the subject of the clauses in sections focusing on her” (102), as well as how often this subject was represented by name (or pronoun), clothes, or body parts. She reports how often the nouns, adjectives, and processes associated with each connect to light or dark. Then she reports how often the verbs are “relational,” “mental,” “behavioral,” “material,” “existential,” and even “meteorological.” Concluding with a “queer reading of Eowyn” (100), essentially a reader-response analysis, Reid argues that the “grammar of the text” (107), mostly the action verbs associated with Eowyn, explain her appeal to female readers. Quantifiable data are rare in the study of literature, and Reid has performed an important service by showing how such data may be acquired. However, before scholars can judge what the data mean, more will need to be collected regarding a broader range of characters, including males. I look forward to the results.

Next, Gergely Nagy considers how Sauron is represented in language. This essay invites comparison with Kisor’s essay, and the two disagree on a key point: Nagy sees Sauron in LOTR as “disembodied” (121). However, Nagy is interested in Sauron’s embodiment/disembodiment in connection with his place in the larger mythology. Nagy’s best point is that Sauron wants to control minds and meanings but finds that he can control only bodies (122). Ultimately, Nagy concludes that Sauron’s physical dimension is inseparable from his function in the text. Other characters may represent abstractions, but they also presumably have a physical presence beyond their symbolic value. Sauron, however, is physically represented only in terms of his Ring, his fortress, and his shadow (130). The disembodiment is not necessarily a safe assumption (as Kisor shows), but the larger point about the connection between the physical reality and the symbolic one advances the discussion helpfully.

“Part IV: The Body and the Source Material” is appropriately placed at the end, as it considers the effect of Tolkien’s medieval sources on the issues raised by the earlier sections. The first, by James Williamson, concerns Tolkien’s descriptions of women and therefore invites comparison with Reid, with whom Williamson substantially agrees. In fact, it would be interesting to see whether Reid’s statistical findings support Williamson’s argument, which is that “the female body in The Lord of the Rings is emblematic rather than biological” (134). Using Lúthien as a point of comparison, Williamson examines the physical descriptions of the four major female characters in LOTR (Goldberry, Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn). Finding Lúthien emblematic of nature, he finds each LOTR woman to symbolize some aspect of nature: time, fertility, growth, rebirth, etc. Again, to know what this finding reveals, we would have to see it applied to a broader range of characters. Williamson further argues that women in many of Tolkien’s sources are described in emblematic ways. His claim that female characters in Beowulf are “virtually non-existent” (148) is puzzling given the importance of Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother, but his larger point may well be borne out by future analysis.

Jennifer Culver’s essay deals extensively with Tolkien’s medieval sources, specifically with the motif of gift-giving in Anglo-Saxon culture. Culver argues that people in Tolkien’s legendarium can serve as gifts and that the giving of gifts extends the lord’s influence or “reach” (158). This argument is most persuasive as regards Sauron, whose ring-giving has clearly had the effect Culver describes. It also works well with Galadriel, gift-giver extraordinaire. However, some applications seem a bit forced. For example, while Gollum does hope to receive the Ring when he gives Shelob the “gift” of Frodo and Sam (166), he does not exactly envision a formal exchange. He knows that Shelob does not care about anything beyond her appetite and will throw away his precious with the rest of the inedible parts. Furthermore, self-sacrifices, such as the one Aragorn is willing to make, are standard fare in Anglo-Saxon literature and are often obligations incurred by acceptance of a gift. Whether that makes a body a gift in Tolkien or his source material is a question that would require extensive argument on its own, and Culver does not have room here to do more than assert it. This, then, is another project that could be taken up later.

Concluding this section is Vacarro’s argument about Tolkien’s use of descriptive detail in The Hobbit. This essay may offer the most sensible explanation for Tolkien’s use of abstract, symbolic language: it contributes to a “‘high’ and epic style” (170), whereas physical detail creates a low, naturalistic style and may produce farce as well as realism. While the question of whether Tolkien describes men and women differently is still open (an essay about The Hobbit would not be the place to address it), Vacarro observes that “the physicality of Elrond is withdrawn behind a veil of heroic similes” including “kind as summer” (175), suggesting that genre may be a better predictor than gender. As to source material, Vacarro departs from the usual suspects to consider Tolkien’s creation of his own sources. As he asserted that “the shadow” of The Silmarillion “was deep on the later parts of The Hobbit” (qtd. 162), it seems reasonable to suppose that its higher style as well as characters and motifs found their way into The Hobbit.

Overall, The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium is a valuable volume, providing illuminating analysis and pointing the way to areas deserving further research. The broad topic of corporeality, as well the related issues of gender and diction, merits attention, and this book contributes much to filling in the gaps.

Leigh Smith
East Stroudsburg University