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Literary Comparison of LOTR and the Aeneid

Updated on October 17, 2009


Author's note:

This is an excursion into an interpretation of Tolkien's prowess as a literary genius. There are many examples where his attributes as a scholar call upon the Western tradition of literature and this is an attempt at pointing out just one those events. He was a master at recalling, invoking, and creating folklore. Just as Virgil called upon Homer during the creation of the Aeneid, so does Tolkien call upon Aeneas' concluding battle against the Latins to illustrate a kind of fictional history in the romanticized land of Middle Earth.

I understand that there are many individuals far more read than I on the subject. I am welcome to any points I may have missed as well as suggestions in order to clarify my thesis.

Virgil's The Aeneid

Diagram 1

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Diagram 2

The Trojan Camp and “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”

“Soon as Turnus hoisted the banner of war from Laurentum’s heights/ and the piercing trumpets blared/…/ troops blazed for war.”[1] The opening lines of Book 8 in The Aeneid echo the haunting sounds of Mordor’s call on the Pelennor Fields. J. R. R. Tolkien started his college career as a classics student at OxfordCollege. This basis of study provided him with a plethora of examples to incorporate into his work. The Hobbit shares the theme of the Romantic Quest with Sir Gawain and the Green Night.[2] In Chapter VI “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” of The Return of the King, Tolkien draws heavily on his knowledge of The Aeneid. The location of Minas Tirith sits along the AnduinRiver while The Trojan Camp sits along the Tiber. Though geographically these two encampments sit along rivers, they also exist next to the sea. Staging the battle in such a way allows Tolkien to give honor to Virgil and calls upon ancient text to illustrate his perception of prehistory. Imitating past works of literature reflect the knowledge gained as a student and as a scholar. Just as Virgil looked to Homer and Beowulf looked to Viking legends, so does Tolkien look the European tradition to create a beautiful work of art.

“The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” mirrors different passages taken from Books 7 through 10 of The Aeneid. Even the participants in the battle at Minas Tirith epitomize Aeneas’ foes. For Mordor, the chief armies of Morgul, Easterlings, and Variags approach from the North East. This duplicates the action of Turnus’ armies as they head to the gates of the Trojan camp, “Five great cities, / forge new weapons: staunch Atina, lofty Tibur, / Ardea, Crustumerium, Antemnae proud with towers.”[3] North of Rome finds the cities of Crustumerium, Tibur, and Antemnae. Diagram 1[4] shows the three northern most aggressors against Minas Tirith as the Morgul, Easterlings, and Variags. Diagram 2 reflects this same information because troops coming a great distance in the 12th Century B.C.E. tended to stay on the same side of the formation. Since this period represents tribal warfare, the movement of the men proved too difficult to place in scattered positions. This results in the fact that troops coming from the north, occupied the northern position. The city of Andrea lies close to modern Rome, also parallel to the direction of Turnus’ position and occupying the same approach as the Ringwraith. The lone southern city of Atina, found south of the TiberRiver, takes the position of the Haradrim.

In addition, the armies of the Trojans and Minas Tirith share the same similarities as their enemies. King Théoden and Pallas charge to the center of the fray, while Aeneas and Aragorn arrive from the south and by ship.

There exists a slight difference in the unfolding conflict, because Tolkien merely invokes Virgil. The audience must look for where likenesses occur, not as a retelling, but as a resemblance. Pallas arrives with Aeneas by ship, “flank[ing] him closely on his left, asking/ now of the stars that guide them through the night.”[5] As the mêlée unfolds, Pallas and Aeneas fill different positions. The only clue as to Pallas’ location comes from Book 10, “the lay of the rock chocked-land convinced them all.”[6] Along the coast and around the mouth of the Tiber lies marshland. The description offered by Virgil then relates to a more northern position than the one he arrived at with Aeneas.

Alternatively, Aragorn leaves Théoden to go to “the Paths of the Dead,”[7] so he arrives separately from that of the King. This actually creates a more advantageous position for the defenders with the Riders of Rohan driving south and surrounding the enemy when Aragorn appears. “Théoden King of the Mark had reached the road from the Gate to the River, he turned toward the City that was now less than a mile distant.”[8] This provides the audience with a clear view of the battlefield. The position of the King allows Tolkien to create a vivid scene of war. The positioning of troops shows the audience how groups of soldiers move and how they obtain victory. To reinforce the view of the battlefield, the narrator assumes the action through the eyes of the King, “Ahead nearer the walls Elfhelm’s men were among the siege-engines, hewing, slaying, driving their foes into the fire-pits.”[9] With the King charging south, Tolkien forces the reader into the action. This technique permits him to connect the audience with the character and a path that mirrors Pallas in Book 10 of The Aeneid.

Eventually both men share the same fate. Each character’s path takes them to the center of the action and demise. King Théoden’s death comes at the hands of the Lord of the Nazgùl and Pallas by the hand of Turnus. Hopelessly outmatched, each man faithfully challenges his enemy and dies in the center of the action. Failure to kill this foe due to supernatural forces beyond control results in the final connection each man shares. Pallas throws his spear with all his might, but only dents the armor of Turnus because Jove turns his head, allowing the spear to glance off the armor. Fate determined that Turnus must die by the hand of Aeneas. Invincible to men, the Lord of the Nazgùl causes King Théoden to suffer Fates cruelty as well. At the center of the conflict, both men endure in the same doom.

Aeneas and Aragorn also imitate one another. Both heroes of the battle, they arrive on ships from the south. Aragorn, through necessity, left the Riders of Rohan to gain reinforcements. As Éomer rallies his troops, Aragorn’s ships arrive at the docks on the south side of the field. “Thus came Aragorn son of Arathorn…borne upon a wind from the Sea to the Kingdom of Gondor.”[10] This advantageous position gives the reader a clear representation of troop location. Finding himself at the rear of the enemy, Aragorn rushes north toward the battle. Aragorn’s actions directly relate to that of Aeneas. Turnus and the Latins look behind and see the arrival of Aeneas. Virgil states, “they see an armada heading/ toward the shore and the whole sea rolling down/ on them now in a tide of ships.”[11] Aeneas sprints from his ship and immediately challenges the enemy, showing much success. As with Aeneas, Aragorn arrives at the critical moment of battle.

The reasons for departure parallel the men as well. Aeneas leaves his group to find reinforcements like Aragorn. Both return with a large number of soldiers to help turn the tide of the battle causing the allies to rejoice and initiate a counter attack and ending in victory.

Beyond the characters, sit the action itself. The approaching enemy armies from Mordor and Latium share a similar description. In The Aeneid:

a force like the Ganges rising, fed by seven quiet streams

or the life-giving Nile ebbing back from the plains

to settle down at last in its own banks.

Suddenly, far off, a massive dust-cloud rises

black as night, darkness sweeping across the plain.[12]

This sits in unison with the gathering of armies at the gates of Minas Tirith. The description of a coming river-like horror awakens the Trojans to the coming danger, a danger they anticipated. The Return of the King states, “Then from many points little rivers of red flame came hurrying on, winding through the gloom, converging towards the line of the broad road that led from the City-gate to Osgiliath.”[13] Both authors chose a river metaphor to paint the vivid reality of the situation, leaving the audience in tense dismay.

The uncanny resemblance of “The Battle of Pelennor Fields” to the encounters at the Trojan encampment only profits the story. The similarities addressed prove the wealth of knowledge Tolkien applied to his work as it only scratches the surface. Calling upon great works and integrating their strengths enrich the literary tradition. Tolkien did not merely create a world of pure fantasy. Instead, he reached beyond recorded history, using prosperity of classical expertise in order to give the reader a better understanding of the world around.

[1] Vigil, The Aeneid, Book 8, lines 1-2, 5.

[2] Lecture notes, Dr. Bowers PhD UNLV, 1 October 2008.

[3] Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 7, lines 732-734.

[4] Diagram 1 taken from

[5] Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 10, lines 196-197.

[6] Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 10, lines 431.

[7] J. R. R. Tolkien, LOTR, The Return of the King, pg. 41.

[8] J. R. R. Tolkien, LOTR, The Return of the King, pg. 112.

[9] J. R. R. Tolkien, LOTR, The Return of the King, pg. 112.

[10] J. R. R. Tolkien, LOTR, The Return of the King, pg. 122.

[11] Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 10, lines 322-324.

[12] Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 9, lines 34-38.

[13] J. R. R. Tolkien, LOTR, The Return of the King, pg. 88.

Lord of the Rings-curticy of Total Wallpaper

By the End

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    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 8 years ago from The Land of Tractors

      twalker74, this article makes me want to delve into the classics. I wish I could say "again", but alas! I think you are spot on about Tolkien's classical influences.

      I've always been fascinated by Tolkien's friendship with C.S. Lewis. Both men created credible fantasy worlds but Tolkien's world is so believable and complex, with so many influences.

    • twalker74 profile image

      Tyson Walker 8 years ago from Las Vegas Nevada

      Thanks Shalini. I appreciate the compliment. I know the Aeneid far better than LOTR. It is nice to know I am on the right track.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

      Very, very interesting - I think you've drawn those comparisons very well and very clearly. Great read, thank you!