Sunday, March 20, 2011

Powerful characters

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, several characters of great power show up to help in times of great need. In addition to Gandalf as one of these characters, Beorn in The Hobbit and Tom Bombadil in The Fellowship of the Ring are other examples. As powerful as they are, such characters stoutly refuse to help beyond what is needed. What purpose do these characters serve on a greater scale in the plot of Middle-earth? Why does Tolkien limit these seemingly extremely powerful characters to such small roles in his fiction? Are they portraying something more important or do they simply serve as a deus ex machina to rescue bumbling Hobbits from certain doom?

4 comments:

Belladonna Took said...

As additions to examples: the Eagles seem to serve as deus ex machina because they are constantly rescuing everyone. In the Hobbit, they rescue the company from wolves and fire, and turn the tides in the Battle of Five Armies. They save Gandalf from Saruman and rescue Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom in LOTR. Even Aragorn’s rally of the dead to suddenly turn the tides can be considered deus ex machina.
Although these sudden tide changers seem to be deus ex machina to help the good guys out of grim situations, I think this also builds on the mythology Tolkien tries to convey. There is always something divine about these interventions, suggesting higher powers at work. Because these powerful characters only show up when they are needed most, I think that this also adds to his mythology. As in many mythologies, higher powers do not intervene unless the circumstances are extremely dire (not just everyday hardships). This would explain why Tolkien limits these powerful characters roles to just extreme circumstances. I do not think Tolkien uses these powerful characters just for irony and as an easy way out of a hopeless situation; rather, he uses them as a way to incorporate divinity and mythology into his works. I do not think Tolkien's intent was deus ex machina; his plot just happens to fit this category.

Radagast said...

I think this ties in with the theme of little people can do big things or finding strength where we least expect it. Maybe Tolkien wanted this to stand out more to everyone and sort of empower every-day people. The really powerful characters do take a step back and just point or nudge in the right direction. I think that if Tolkien had written it so that they had come in and saved the day, it would totally change one of the major messages in the story: that even ordinary people can do big things. Not to mention, it would have made it seem too easy to complete the task if these characters had taken a more major role (like the eagles just flying the ring over Mount Doom). I think that the normal every-day people needed to work out the problems moreso on their own with some help from these "higher powers".

Elladan said...

Many of my friends are not well versed in Tolkien's works, and draw a majority of their knowledge from the movies alone. Thus, I am forced to deal with constant questions of, "Why didn't the Eagles just fly over Mount Doom and drop the Ring in??" I then very crossly answer that the Eagles do not concern themselves with the problems of the rest of Middle-earth unless they specifically decide to. I am of the opinion that Tolkien did not use the powers of these characters because that would negatively affect the plot and Tolkien's reliance upon "lesser" characters to play the most important roles.

Elendil said...

I think it's mostly thematic, really. One very prominent theme of his works is that no matter how small or ordinary you are, you can still do great things. If the more powerful characters did more than deus ex machina every so once in a while, it would cheapen that theme.