The Novelized Epic

Dialogue and Laughter in The Lord of the Rings

The Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin differentiates between the novel and the epic. The novel by its very nature is “ever questing, ever examining itself and subjecting its established forms to review” (39). In contrast, the epic is a static genre; its development is completed, and its setting is distant and unapproachable to both the author and the reader. While The Lord of the Rings is full of Mikhail Bakhtin’s markers for an epic, it also has several elements in common with the novel.   In The Lord of the Rings the combined elements of the epic and the novel do not result in an unapproachable epic. Instead, The Lord of the Rings as a novel liberates the epic genre from “all that serves as a brake on [its] unique development,” creating an amalgamation of the two forms in dialogue with one another, a novelized epic (39).

The epic genre has three characterizing features: “(1) a national epic past . . . serves as the subject for an epic; (2) national tradition serves as the source for the epic; (3) an absolute epic distance separates the epic world . . . from the time in which the singer (the author and his audience) lives” (Bakhtin 13). The epic then is not only distanced from contemporary reality but “inaccessible” to the author whose only attitude towards this world is “the reverent point of view of the descendant” (13). Epics cannot help but be monologic in voice, since “The epic absolute past is the single source and beginning of everything good” (15).

In contrast to the epic, Bakhtin identifies the novel as being characterized by “three dimensionality” and “multi-languaged consciousness” (11). Or as the Bakhtin scholar Michael Holquist defines it, “Novels are overwhelmingly intertextual, constantly referring within themselves, to other works outside them” (88). According to Bakhtin, the epic is an already completed genre sequestered in the unapproachable past, while the novel is, as its name implies, a new genre that “parodies other genres . . . incorporat[ing] others into its own particular structure, reformulating and reaccentuating them” (5), producing a dialogue not only within the text and between works, but also between genres.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien has many characteristics of the epic. The world of Middle Earth is, as Bakhtin describes the epic, “walled off absolutely from all subsequent times” (15). The events of The Lord of the Rings take place in our world, but our world has changed from one of dwarves, elves, and hobbits to a world of machines and technology that is foreign and separated from the world of Middle Earth. In both the prologue and the appendixes to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien refers to his work as a selection and translation from an older book, “The Red Book of Westmarch,” distancing the work into the epic past, far off from both the author and the reader.

Many of the characters in the Lord of the Rings fit the epic mold of being a  valorized “founder” or “ancestor” (Bakhtin 15). Aragorn takes on the role of the hero, destined to reclaim the kingdom of his ancestors and found a new line of kings. Boromir fits the role of the tragic hero, the Achilles who dies before his time; and Gandalf holds the epic role of the supernatural advisor to the hero. Even the plot of the book takes place at a pivotal time in the history of Middle Earth, what Bakhtin refers to as a “peak time” (13), as heroes gather together to topple a tyranny and establish an era of peace.

However, from the very beginning of the novel this valorized distance is eroded away by the presence of hobbits in the story. The world of the Shire provides the point of entry into the epic setting of Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings does not begin with the deeds of mighty heroes slaying dragons, which would solidify the setting in the absolute past, but it begins with the birthday celebration of a humble old hobbit. The Shire shows a world that is analogous to the setting of Tolkien and his readers, if idealized. There are houses with gardens, fond old relatives as well as unpleasant relatives. It is a snapshot of an ideal everyday life. Frodo’s gradual introduction to the epic world of Middle Earth, provides an easy point of entry for the reader into the aggrandized world of the valorized past. For Bakhtin “contemporary reality serves as the subject, and even more important – it is the starting point for understanding, evaluating and formulating” the novel (22). In The Lord of the Rings contemporary reality finds a voice in the hobbits and the Shire as they guide the reader into the epic setting of the Lord of the Rings.

In addition to providing an entrance to the epic world, the hobbits provide another important step in the novelization of the epic. In “Epic and Novel” Bakhtin shows the elements of the novel as they develop during the course of history. He identifies Menippean satire and other serio-comedies as prototypes of the novel as they parodize other genres, contemporizing “the absolute past of gods demigods and heroes” by bringing it low and representing it “on a plane equal with contemporary life” (21). The most important element of these serio-comedies is laughter.

Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist write that “laughter, through the instrument of satire and parody, call the sanctity of the unified language into question” (289). Bakhtin says something similar in a section of “Epic and Novel”:

It is precisely laughter that destroys the epic and in general destroys any hierarchical distancing and valorized distance . . . Everything that makes us laugh is close at hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. . . Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. Laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically. (23)

Laughter tears down the walls of distance and “unified language” which separate the epic from the more dialogic novel, but Bakhtin appears to also be saying that laughter tears down any organized structure that tyrannizes through “unified language” and fear. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings fulfill both functions of laughter, providing the laughter which not only creates a novelized epic, but that also tears down the tyrannies of unified language present in the story.

Hobbits are consistently described in The Lord of the Rings as “laughing”. The new line that is added to the old Ent list of inhabitants of Middle Earth reads “hungry as hunters, the Hobbit children, the laughing-folk, the little people” (572). Even from the prologue the hobbits from Hobbiton are closely associated with laughter. Their mouths are “apt to laughter and to eating and drinking. And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times” (2). The joviality of the hobbits at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings plays a large role in their ability to shorten the distance between the epic world and the reader. They provide “familiarization of the world through laughter and popular speech” that invites the reader into the epic world (Bakhtin 23). But the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings do more than simply familiarize the reader with the world of Middle Earth; they also provide the familiarizing laughter that allows for the unified language or monologic tyrannies of Saruman and Sauron to be doubted, taken apart, exposed, and examined freely.

Merry and Pippin in Fangorn reconnect Treebeard with the world around him, awakening him from his recollections of the completed past. Their questions about the world of Fangorn and about Saruman cause him to see the world for a little while through the eyes of a hasty hobbit. As he speaks about the harm that Saruman and his orcs have done to the forest  he declares, “I will stop it!” A little later he admits his own hastiness in coming to this decision but the decision remains (463). He has awakened to Saruman’s efforts to recast the land in a monologic vision of “metal and wheels” with Saruman at the center. This awakening prompts Treebeard and the rest of the Ents to actions which bring about the destruction of Saruman and his monologic tyranny of the land.

The quest of Frodo and Sam into Mordor is not as obviously filled with laughter as Merry and Pippin’s adventures. The road to Mordor is long and dark, and the very threat of the Ring is the threat of an overwhelming monologic voice which seeks to overwhelm all other voices with its cries. This is the temptation that both Gandalf and Galadriel see in the Ring, lifting themselves up as the ruler of the world, with good intentions, but ultimately the ring would subvert their intentions leaving only rulers who are “terrible” and inspire “despair” in their subjects (356). This is also the fate that befell Smeagol who has two clear personalities – “the “old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time” (699) and the monster, Gollum, created by an obsession with the Ring, who ultimately subsumes Smeagol, shutting out the dialogue in their character and becoming only the monologic voice of the Ring. The threat of the ring is the threat of a voice that subsumes all other voices, becoming the only speaker in a monologic world.

It is this threat of the consuming voice of the ring that Frodo and Sam are set against. And so their role as laughter in The Lord of the Rings is not focused on their ability to familiarize others or even themselves with the dangers of a monologic voice; instead their role in the face of the overwhelming voice of Sauron and the Ring is to retain their ability to laugh. In other words the hobbits must retain their separate voices and their ability to familiarize themselves with the world around them without succumbing to the voice of the Ring as Gollum did.

Frodo and Sam survive their quest in large part due to their continuing dialogue with one another. In their dialogue Sam has the important role of refamiliarizing Frodo with the world as seen through they eyes of someone who has the ability to laugh and see the world the way it is. On the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Sam breaks down his understanding of the old epic stories to show that all the heroes of old were “folk” who seem to have “just landed in [the stories]” (696). By “familiarizing” the old stories, Sam provides hope that just like the “folk” in the stories, they have a chance as long as they continue forward. As they come closer and closer to Mount Doom, Frodo begins to lose his identity apart from the ring, but Sam continues to provide a “laughing voice” reminding him of the joys in life. “‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’”(916). Although Sam’s efforts do not conquer the voice of the ring, they provide another voice, reminding Frodo that there is a world apart from the ring, and providing him with the support to keep moving.

After the defeat of Sauron the hobbits use laughter one more time to end a monologic tyranny. On their return to the Shire, it is no longer the free land that it once was. In perhaps the most obvious example, they use laughter to break apart the tyranny of the single voice. The Shire has been taken over by “The Chief up at Bag End.” The Chief, controlled by Saruman, has instituted laws across the Shire: no admittance at night, no hospitality, no pipeweed, and no beer. Food is rationed and the hobbit inhabitants of the land are marginalized. Their laughing voices are no longer heard. When the four hobbits are told to “come along quiet” they “roar with laughter” flouting the authority of the chief and beginning the process of awakening the Shire to voices outside the seductive voice of Saruman. The laughter spreads much as it did in Fangorn, and soon the hobbits rise up and revolt in the face of the monologic voice, allowing free discourse to reign once again.

While the hobbits play a major role as laughter that awakens and reawakens characters to the presence of dialogue in the face of a monologic world, there are several characters in The Lord of the Rings who do ignore the dialogue present in the world and suffer as a result. Michael Holquist commenting on Bakhtin points out that “Dialogism figures a close relation between bodies and novels because they both militate against monadism, the illusion of closed-off bodies” (90).  Gollum has already been discussed briefly as someone who has lost his sense of the dialogue present in the world. He hears only the all-consuming voice of the Ring. Denethor ignores the discussions of Gondor’s defenses and hopes, and listens only to his inner monologue of despair. Saruman is also blind to the importance of dialogue and falls into the trap of thinking that he can, within himself, find all the necessary elements for dialogue. “For I am Saruman the Wise . . . Saruman of Many Colours!” (252). Saruman replaces the other members of the council with himself, subsuming their colors and their voices until only his voice remains.

But monadism is unsustainable and Saruman, as well as Denethor and Gollum, are unable to sustain dialogue with only themselves. Gollum loses the ability to hear any voice, even his own beside the Ring. Denethor is unable to believe any words that conflict with the voice of despair, and kills himself to escape what he believes to be certain death. And Saruman by taking over all elements of the dialogue among wizards loses all of his power as a wizard and even his identity as Saruman, becoming only Sharkey – a sad fragment of the great being that he once was. Every attempt by a character in The Lord of the Rings to establish himself as a monologic voice results in the loss of even the identity wherein he found his voice.

In contrast to those characters who lose their identity by withdrawing from dialogue, stand characters like Aragorn who participates in dialogue with other characters and has several aspects to his nature, as shown by his multiple names. Aragorn is called Strider, Aragorn, Isildur’s heir, Elessar, and Dúnadan. Each of these names captures a different aspect of his identity and his role in society. Dúnadan means man of the west (226), but he is called Strider in Bree where he is viewed with distrust by the very people he protects. The many names of Aragorn provide a dialogue within his own nature, but unlike Saruman’s attempts to envelop all voices of the council in his own identity, the many names of Aragorn emerge as a result of his participation in a dialogue with his ancestors, language, the people of Bree, as well as the hobbits, who through their interactions with Aragorn, add a layer of affection to the term Strider.

Dialogue is also present in one of the core concepts of the book, fellowship. The Fellowship of the Ring extends throughout the story and it throws together characters from diverse backgrounds and cultures serving as a form of carnival in the story. Michael Holquist says that Carnival, “like the novel, draws attention to the variety” of relations present in the world. Carnival comes from the renaissance practice of holding festivals that threw together people from all backgrounds and occupations for as long as the carnival lasted. Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist tie carnival to laughter, saying that “carnival keeps alive a sense of variety and change” (301), in a sense reminding the participants that there is a dialogue present around them, not just the single voice of authority that exists in their day to day life.

Carnival not only reminds participants of the presence of dialogue in the world, as Sam reminds Frodo that voices exist outside of the voice of the ring, but like laughter it can also free “the folk . . . from the oppression of such gloomy categories as ‘eternal,’ ‘immovable,’ ‘absolute,’ ‘unchangeable,’ and instead” expose them “to the gay and free laughing aspect of the world, with its unfinished and open character, with the joy of change and renewal.” (Bakhtin qtd in Clark 301). The fellowship as a type of carnival reminds the participants of the dialogue present in the world, but also serves as an active participant, both in the fight against the monologic tyrannies of Saruman, and Sauron and the novel’s fight against the “eternal” and “absolute” nature of the epic’s monologic voice.

In The Lord of the Rings elements of the monologic epic setting exist alongside the dialogue of the novel. Dialogue is promoted throughout the story by laughter and carnival, serving as an effective way of resisting the monologic threats of Sauron, Saruman, and the Ring. Despite its epic setting, dialogic qualities abound in The Lord of the Rings, which break down the monologic qualities of the text. The conversation between the epic setting and the dialogue within the novel produces a new genre with the setting and other attributes of the epic, but given new life and meaning when combined with the dialogic qualities of the novel.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. “Epic and Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Print.

Clark, Katerina and Michael Holquist. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.

Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.