Study Guide

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien in Hermeneutics

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

If your only exposure to Tolkien’s mythic world of Orcs and Elves is Peter Jackson’s movies or Lego sets, you probably don’t know that Tolkien didn’t just sit down to write some run-of-the-mill fantasy novel. Tolkien was a hard-core philologist (like a linguist, but more literary) who had invented a whole bunch of languages and a world of peoples to speak them.

Underlying the lush New Zealand setting and the tale of hobbits and kings, then, is a meditation on the relationship between language and reality. While we wouldn’t quite call Tolkien a hermeneutic philosopher, we could say that he was doing hermeneutics by way of myth-making. Each of his languages became, in the world he created, traditions in the Gadamerian sense: distinct places that make interpretation possible and in which interpretation happens.

And if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that the various peoples of Middle-Earth don’t just speak different languages—they use language differently. And how each people uses language tells us a lot about how they see and understand the world around them.

Take a scene from early in the novel, when Frodo and his hobbit friends have just set out on their journey and, while fleeing the dreadful Black Riders, chance to run into some friendly elves. The way they talk about having to face danger so closed to their home in the Shire is like candy for a hermeneutic critic with a sweet tooth.

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