Monday, June 28, 2010

Tolkien's Macbeth

Teaching Macbeth this last semester, I saw a couple of things that I had never read being reference to Tolkien before. That doesn't mean that they haven't been, I am just unaware of anyone who has so made the connection.

It is well known, however, that the scene of Elsinore Wood coming to Macbeth was a scene that Tolkien didn't like, and so rewrote into his Ents' attacking Isengard. He speaks about this in the Letters and many others have repeated and mentioned it.

But there are two other places where I see at least a Tolkienian analogue. In Act 4.1 MacBeth has gone to the Weird sisters and asked them to tell him the future. Among the prophecies he receives is that "none of woman born Shall harm MacBeth." Macbeth then says, "Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man for none of woman shall harm Macbeth."

One can easily see the analogue. The Witch-King in Book V of Lord of the Rings is bloody, bold, and resolute placing faith in the prophecy "no living man may hinder me" (given in another form elsewhere as "not by the hand of man shall he fall."). The Witch King, hereafter Alf, is very confident because of this prophecy as MacBeth is. And as with most prophecies of this sort (like the Delphi Oracle) both Tolkien's and Shakespeare's prophecies turn on the interpretation of a single word that the prophecy receiver understands in a normal way but is meant in a slightly different fashion. Both are surprised to learn of their error while facing an armed opponent set to slay them, and both are so slain. So the similarities go beyond just the fact that both have similar prophecies: the narrative structure is much the same as well. I haven't checked a Folklore encyclopedia or anything so for the moment all I can say is analogue; but it is tempting to say source or inspiration. But I'll hold off.

A bit later in Act 4.4 Malcolm the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland and MacDuff have a chat. In this chat it is mentioned about the glorious king Edward of England. The image is practically Arthurian in nature: the perfect kingdomm that contrasts so sharply to what Scotland has become under the usurper MacBeth's rule. In this discussion Malcolm talks about "a most miraculous work in the good king". Apparently the good kind, calling on God of course, heals "strangely-visited people". He also has prophecy and "sundry blessings hang about his throne." Sound familiar Tolkienistas? Yes, it does sound rather like Aragorn, son of Arathorn: who has some gift of prophecy and foresight, who heals "strangely-visited people" with this touch apparently, and when he comes to his throne there are certainly sundry blessings.

Now some of this is typical: the whole image owes a lot to very old, traditional images of good kings. But before MacBeth and coming to know his sources (this play was written for King Jimmy I of Merry Olde...who claimed to be able to heal subjects with his touch) I had not encountered the idea of the healing by the king before. So another element to check out.

But as much as Tolkien is said not to have liked Shakespeare, (and Tolkien later clarifies this mentioning specifically the elves and faeries in Midsummer's Night Dream), it is interesting to see the number of analogues between Macbeth and LoTR.


Troels Forchhammer said...

I was sure I had seen the analogue of Glorfindel's prophecy about the Witch-king to the prophecy about 'none of woman born' mentioned elsewhere, and a bit of searching has turned out a number of references.

In The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull mentions it in their commentary to the meeting of the Witch-king and Éowyn on the Fields of the Pelennor (841 (III: 116)), explaining that 'in both cases the wording is deceptive.' They also mention this parallel in their Reader's Guide under the heading of 'Drama'.

Shippey also discusses the Shakespearean parallels in Author of the Century ('The Lord of the Rings (3): The Mythic Dimension'), but his approach and his goal is a little different, and so he is rather pointing out the differences how Shakespeare and Tolkien handle this theme.

Also Janet Brennan Croft in her article on 'Shakespeare' in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia also touches on the analogue between the prophecies about Macbeth and the Witch-king, as does Jason Fisher in his article on 'Riddles'.

I am sure that this also appears elsewhere.

Wayne and Christina also mentions the 'most miraculous work in this good king' in the Reader's Companion in commentary to Ioreth's words that 'the hands of the king are the hands of a healer' (860 (III: 136)) citing David Cofield in an article named 'The Hands of a King' from Beyond Bree September 1986.

With all this work -- and much more -- done already, it is quite disappointing to read the reviews of Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language edited by Janet Brennan Croft in e.g. Mythprint #47 where Merlin DeTardo concludes by saying 'But the main problem with Tolkien and Shakespeare is that most of its essays are neither thorough enough to convincingly show that Shakespeare is Tolkien’s source, nor expansive enough to demonstrate why comparison between their works was needed.'

One would think that it was not a big problem to show that such a comparison is indeed needed.

Anonymous said...

I think the first of these is fairly convincing, but the royal touch is a much much bigger thing than just Shakespeare. Marc Bloch's book on it seems to have inspired a generation of (strangely) early modern historians, and I can believe that Tolkien was well aware of his material. There's an H-Net retrospective of it here that may give you an idea whether this is worth following up.

Derek the Ænglican said...

I'd agree that the second is a wider topos connected with the Good King. I've always wanted to do a course on the Good/Messianic King that would compare narratives about King David (biblical and medieval), King Arthur (medieval and modern), and Aragorn (the modern medieval)...

theswain said...

Thanks to all three of you for your comments! Troels, wow, that's quite a list of works at your finger tips!

Troels Forchhammer said...

Most of the works I do have within reach, but Google Books is also a great help. The two references to the Tolkien Encyclopedia is with the help of Google Books. Though the page in Jason's article on Riddles isn't viewable (to me, at least) the surrounding pages are, revealing what article it comes from.
Google Books Search

In general I find that Google Books is a great help to find also references in books that I have on the shelf ;-)