Talks on Tolkien: Dimitra Fimi on Folklore and “Sellic Spell”


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My weekly “Talks on Tolkien” series continues with a video presentation by Dimitra Fimi. Dr. Fimi was part of the Beowulf Launch Party organized by the Tolkien Society and Middle-earth Network last spring, when Tolkien’s Beowulf and other related texts were first published. Dr. Fimi’s talk is a little different from my previous video selections in that she is not reading a paper to a live audience at a conference. The Launch Party was an online event featuring several commentators throughout the day who were giving their first impressions of the Beowulf publication. If you’re interested, the other recordings from that day are also worth a look.

One reason I chose this talk was to highlight the fact that the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf includes more than just his translation of and commentary on the poem — intriguing as that is to Old English and Tolkien scholars. Dr. Fimi’s presentation focuses on one of the texts included with Tolkien’s Beowulf translation: a folktale called “Sellic Spell” (which can be translated as “wondrous tale”) that Tolkien wrote in both modern English and in Old English. The other text that’s included in the volume is a poem, or two versions of a poem, titled “The Lay of Beowulf” which is written in rhyming stanzaic form, very different from the original Old English alliterative meter.

The publication of these texts has given us not only Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf (an interesting research topic in its own right), but also adaptations of the Beowulf story in different genres — ripe material for analysis! Further, I believe that Tolkien’s rendition of  “Sellic Spell” in Old English warrants study of his ability to think and write in Old English. In the following video, Fimi outlines another approach to the story through the lens of folklore research.

Dimitra Fimi is the author of Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, published in 2008, which won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies and was shortlisted for the Folklore Society’s Katharine Briggs Award. She is a Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Recently, she filmed two short videos for a BBC iWonder guide on Why do the Elves in The Hobbit sound Welsh? You can find out more about her videos and interviews on her website’s Media page, or follow her blog or her Twitter account: @Dr_Dimitra_Fimi.

To read “Sellic Spell” or “The Lay of Beowulf” you’ll have to buy Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. But if you’re interested in the original poem itself, you can listen to a few lines of it on Michael Drout’s Anglo-Saxon Aloud website. The poem exists in a single manuscript called Cotton Vitellius A. XV, held in the British Library. You can find information about the manuscript in the British Library’s Online Gallery, and you can also leaf through the digitised manuscript (go to f.132r to see the beginning of Beowulf).

Adaptations of Beowulf have proliferated since the late nineteenth century in books for children and adults, and more recently as films. Some of you may know the 2005 Beowulf and Grendel movie, or more likely, the 2007 Robert Zemeckis version featuring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother. I especially enjoy the 1998 animated version made for TV featuring Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes, which you can view below. It’s just one among many examples of Beowulf adaptations — and now we have more of Tolkien’s work that can be examined as part of this rich store of material.

If you have any favorite Beowulf adaptations, or if you want to say something about “Sellic Spell,” let us know in the comments!

Talks on Tolkien: John Garth and Tolkien’s Great War


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This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” features the historical, biographical, and literary research of John Garth, who continues to dig into Tolkien’s early years, the beginnings of his mythology, and his experiences in the First World War. Garth’s book, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, published in 2003, won the Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Scholarship and has been translated into five languages so far. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the experiences of Tolkien and his friends in the war and for tracing the early stages of Tolkien’s writings.

Recently, Garth has published more new research in his booklet Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth, which presents a vivid picture of Tolkien’s friendships and activities while a student at Oxford. You can find more of Garth’s research in other publications, but one good place for keeping up with his work is his blog, which features reviews and news of his ongoing research.

Although I don’t have a video recording of a complete talk by John Garth, the following presents some intriguing highlights from his presentation at the Tolkien Society‘s Oxonmoot in September 2014. In this video, Garth talks about Tolkien’s early writings, “The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star” and his “Story of Kullervo.” Some additional details can be found in Garth’s blog post, “Middle-earth turns 100.”

If you want to hear a complete talk by John Garth, and you are lucky enough to be within reach, he will be speaking at the Hudson Library and Historical Society in Hudson, Ohio on March 3 and at Sam Houston State University in Texas on March 25.

In the video clip above, John Garth sets Tolkien’s early writings against a backdrop of war. You can also hear him speaking more about this subject in the following documentary, “Tolkien’s Great War,” (Elliander Pictures), which provides an excellent account of Tolkien’s early life, his friendships at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the way in which he and his friends faced the Great War, as well as some observations about how Tolkien’s war experiences influenced his writing. This beautifully filmed documentary provides a glimpse into the kind of research that informs John Garth’s various publications.

Tolkien’s Great War by Elliander Pictures <> on Vimeo.

You can find John Garth on Facebook:; on Twitter: @JohnGarthWriter; or, as I mentioned above, on his website: or blog:

Talks on Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft talks about Tolkien’s views on war


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This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” video comes from Oklahoma State University, where Janet Brennan Croft gave a presentation last November about Tolkien’s life and how his war experiences are reflected in his fiction. Croft is the author of War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was published in 2004 and won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies in 2005. She is one of a number of critics, such as Tom Shippey and John Garth, who discuss ways in which Tolkien can be seen as a war writer.

Croft, who is a librarian at Rutgers University, is also the editor of the peer-reviewed journal Mythlore. You can find out more about her many books and articles by going to her page.

Croft’s talk covers aspects of Tolkien’s life including his experiences as a soldier in the First World War and as a parent with sons in the Second World War.

I thought it might be interesting to compare George R.R. Martin’s views on war and on Tolkien. The following is an excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview by Mikal Gilmore, published on April 23, 2014. You can read the full interview here.

In the interview, Martin talks about how his objection to the Vietnam War influenced his writing of characters. If Tolkien had been writing The Lord of the Rings throughout the Vietnam War, do you think his characters might have turned out differently? The peace movement was very visible in the 1960s, and Tolkien’s work was widely read by many who participated in the anti-war protests.  Were you one of them? Any observations to make about that time and how Tolkien’s work was received?  (Please keep in mind that all comments should be respectful towards different political views).


From: George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview

We talked earlier about your unwillingness to fight in Vietnam. The Ice and Fire books are shot through with the horrors of war. As Ygritte says to Jon Snow, “We’re just soldiers in their armies, and there’s plenty more to carry on if we go down.”
It’s true in virtually all wars through history. Shakespeare refers to it, in those great scenes in Henry V, where King Hal is walking among the men, before the Battle of Agincourt, and he hears the men complaining. “Well, I hope his cause is just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France.” One of the central questions in the book is Varys’ riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn’t the swordsman have the power? He’s the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he’s just the average grunt. If he doesn’t do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history. Going back to Vietnam, for me the cognitive dissonance came in when I realized that Ho Chi Minh actually wasn’t Sauron. Do you remember the poster during that time? WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME? That’s one of the fundamental questions here. Why did anybody go to Vietnam? Were the people who went more patriotic? Were they braver? Were they stupider? Why does anybody go? What’s all this based on? It’s all based on an illusion: You go because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t go, even if you don’t believe in it. But where do these systems of obedience come from? Why do we recognize power instead of individual autonomy? These questions are fascinating to me. It’s all this strange illusion, isn’t it?

You’re a congenial man, yet these books are incredibly violent. Does that ever feel at odds with these views about power and war?
The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, “What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?”

There’s only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you’re Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It’s sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don’t necessarily think there are heroes. That’s something that’s very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We’re all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices. Look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. He was despicable on racial issues. He was a Southern segregationist of the worst stripe, praising D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. He effectively was a Ku Klux Klan supporter. But in terms of foreign affairs, and the League of Nations, he had one of the great dreams of our time. The war to end all wars – we make fun of it now, but God, it was an idealistic dream. If he’d been able to achieve it, we’d be building statues of him a hundred feet high, and saying, “This was the greatest man in human history: This was the man who ended war.” He was a racist who tried to end war. Now, does one cancel out the other? Well, they don’t cancel out the other. You can’t make him a hero or a villain. He was both. And we’re all both.

Next week, I hope to have more about Tolkien’s early writings, with a focus on his experiences in the Great War.

Talks on Tolkien: Reflecting on Ruins with Michael Drout


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In this week’s “Talk on Tolkien” listen to Michael Drout as he constructs a lecture on “How to Read J.R.R. Tolkien” out of personal reminiscences, a discussion of the features of oral tradition, and images of stone and textual ruins.

Professor Drout is best known to Tolkien scholars as one of the founding editors of the journal Tolkien Studies, and the editor of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment and of Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics. You can find out more about his publications and projects on his website, on his blog Wormtalk and Slugspeak, or by following him on twitter: @MikeDrout.

The following lecture was delivered in October 2013 at Carnegie Mellon University. Michael Drout was an undergraduate there, and in his talk he pays tribute to his former medieval literature professor, Peggy Knapp, while recalling some of his experiences as a student. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these are simply personal digressions from the subject of Tolkien; Drout masterfully interlaces the different strands of his talk to build to his concluding reflections on textual ruins and nostalgia in Tolkien’s work.

After listening to this talk, you might end up reflecting on the pastness of the past and the ways in which it is overlaid by the present. This “joyous and heartbreaking” feeling of longing is not only found in Tolkien’s work but also in many Old English poems. I thought it would be interesting to extend Professor Drout’s meditation on ruins by looking at a video adaptation of the Old English poem known as “The Ruin” which layers past and present in unexpected ways:

(You might note that the director, translator, and speaker in this film is Stuart Lee, a professor at Oxford University who is a medievalist and a Tolkien scholar.)

If you are interested in delving further into Professor Drout’s discussion of the features of oral tradition, such as “communicative economy” and “traditional referents,” I would recommend John Miles Foley’s book How to Read an Oral Poem as a great starting point.

As always, any comments are welcome. Does Michael Drout’s view of how to read Tolkien strike a chord with you? Do you see the same qualities in the text as he does? Other thoughts?

Tolkien conference season 2015


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It’s time to start organizing my travel to various conferences this spring and summer. I wish I could attend all of these meetings, but I’ll be fortunate enough to go to a couple of them at least. My list focuses on North American conferences because I know those best, but please let me know in the comments if there are others. I hope my list will demonstrate the healthy state of academic Tolkien Studies and maybe entice you to go to one of these events — if you’re not already booking your tickets. And while there will be plenty of professional scholars at these conferences,  most of these events draw a lively mix of academics, independent scholars, writers, artists, fans of all kinds.

The first meeting will be held in a few weeks – not exactly springtime where I live, but still it does kick off the conference season:

There and Back Again: Tolkien in 2015 OSU Tolkien 2015: There and Back Again Conference, Feb 20-21, 2015
The Ohio State University.
February 20-21, 2015

This is the second annual Popular Culture and the Deep Past event sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State U.  According to the event website: “this will be a full-fledged conference, itself nested in a broader ‘carnival’ of popular and traditional cultural events and activities.”  Sounds like there will be something for everyone.

Popular Culture/American Culture Association National Conference
Popular Culture Association logo
New Orleans Marriott
April 1-4, 2015

This is a massive conference that draws scholars from a huge variety of fields. The newly established Tolkien Studies area, organized by Robin Reid, is sponsoring eight sessions plus a business meeting for a second year in a row.  The final program should be posted soon on the website.

12th annual Tolkien in Vermont conference
Tolkien in Vermont conference
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT

April 10-11, 2015

This year’s theme is medieval narrative verse, with Michael Drout as the keynote speaker. According to the conference organizer, Chris Vaccaro, a program will be posted soon on the website. This is usually a small and friendly conference attended by faculty, students, and the general public, with an open mic night on Friday followed by a day of presentations on Saturday.

International Congress on Medieval Studies 
Kalamazoo campus swan pond
University of Western Michigan
Kalamazoo, MI
May  14-17, 2015

This annual conference draws thousands of medievalists every year, but it also includes anyone interested in the scholarly study of Tolkien (not always the same as a medievalist).  The Tolkien at Kalamazoo group sponsors as many sessions as are allowed by the Congress organizers, and other sponsoring groups have sessions on Tolkien or on medievalisms as well.  You can search through the conference program  for what interests you.

New York City Tolkien Conference
New York City Tolkien ConferenceBaruch College
New York
June 13, 2015

The call for papers is on the site, with a deadline for proposals of April 7, 2015.  The keynote speaker will be Janet Brennan Croft and musical guest of honour, John DiBartolo.

Mythopoeic Society Conference / Mythcon 46
Mythopoeic Society
Hotel Elegante
Colorado Springs, Colorado
July 31-August 3, 2015

The special theme is the Arthurian Mythos.  I expect that more details about the program will appear on the website soon. This conference is usually a nice combination of serious academic papers and fun social events, readings, and more.

International Medieval Congress 
IMC 2015 poster
University of Leeds
July 6-9, 2015

This is the largest conference on medieval studies in Europe. A search through the program found three sessions on Tolkien.

Update February 12: Dr. Dimitra Fimi, who has organized some of these sessions, has more details about sessions on Tolkien, medievalism, fantasy, Arthurian tradition and more on her blog.

And looking ahead towards the end of the summer,  there is always
The Tolkien Society’s Oxonmoot
Tolkien Society
September 10-13, 2015.
St. Anthony’s  College, Oxford

And here are a couple of other conferences that focus on medievalism and that could very well end up sponsoring sessions on Tolkien:

The Middle Ages in the Modern World (MAMO)
June 29 – July 2, 2015
University of Lincoln, Lincoln UK

Update Feb. 12:  The provisional programme is now available. One session on Tolkien and lots of other good panels on various medievalism topics.

International Conference on Medievalism
This conference usually takes place in the fall.  I don’t see any information on the website yet about the next meeting.

I realize on looking over this list that it is heavily skewed towards Tolkien as a medievalist. If there are any other conferences you feel people should know about, please feel free to add them in the comments. It would also be interesting to know about other Tolkien conferences beyond North America and the UK.

Update Feb. 12:  Thanks to Marcel Aubron Bülles  here is another conference program:

German Tolkien Society
University of Aachen
May 1-3, 2015

Talks on Tolkien: Tom Shippey & the love of trees


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Tolkien in the Botanic Garden, Oxford

Tolkien in the Botanic Garden, Oxford

Was Tolkien a “tree-hugger”? That’s a loaded term, but Tolkien readers know that he was concerned about our natural environment and that, yes, he loved trees. The above picture shows Tolkien in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in 1973 with one of his favorite trees, a black pine (Pinus nigra). Sadly, that tree suffered damage last summer and had to be cut down a few months ago for safety reasons. You can watch a video by Jill Walker, “Tolkien’s Tree,” to see how spectacular the tree was at its best and how it was taken down. Plans are being made to commemorate the tree and its significance for Tolkien and for the many visitors who came to see it; you can follow the Tolkien Society for updates on this matter.

In this week’s “Talk on Tolkien,” I’ve turned to Tom Shippey, who offers some thoughts on Tolkien’s views of this “tree-tangled Middle-earth.” This video records Shippey’s presentation, “Trees, Chainsaws, and the Visions of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien,” at Arizona State University in 2002. Shippey starts off with some reflections on Tolkien as a “tree-hugger,” and then goes on to show us some ambiguities in that love of trees and to suggest its mythic significance.

Shippey is well known as a Tolkien scholar and medievalist through his many publications, particularly The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. As usual, his talk is lively, opinionated, informed, and interesting. As with last week’s talk by Verlyn Flieger, Shippey offers an approach to thinking about Tolkien’s fiction in general.

“Trees, Chainsaws, and the Visions of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien” by Tom Shippey from ASU English on Vimeo. 11/2/2002

In this talk, Shippey refers to two Middle English texts. Tolkien’s translation of the poem Pearl is included in the posthumous publication Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. If you’re interested in the Middle English text of the poem, you can read an edition of Pearl by Sarah Stanbury on the TEAMS: Middle English Texts Series website. You can also find out more about The Book of John Mandeville and read the Middle English text on that site in an edition by Tamara Kohanski and C. David Benson.

Shippey also talks about various poems in The Lord of the Rings, including the Elves’ hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel. As mentioned in the video, Tolkien translated most of this poem for Donald Swann, who set some of Tolkien’s poems to music in The Road Goes Ever On (you can still buy the book and CD). One of my favourite musical versions of the hymn to Elbereth is by the Tolkien Ensemble. You can listen to one of their renditions of the Elven Hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel. (And if you like it, buy their CDs!). I especially love the Tolkien Ensemble’s version of Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar — in my view, the perfect evocation of not only the love of this “tree-tangled Middle-earth” but also, as Tom Shippey points out, the longing for an earthly paradise.

As always, comments are welcome.

On a trip to Oxford Botanic Garden

On a visit to Oxford, around 10 years ago

New winter series: Talks on Tolkien


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In my corner of the world, cold winds are lashing up rainstorms and snowfalls for the start of the new year: good days to stay cozy at home, to read, think, and write. To accompany any reading or re-reading of Tolkien in this winter season, I thought that it would be fun to highlight every weekend a podcast or video featuring a different Tolkien scholar: a “Talks on Tolkien” series. Some of the videos and podcasts will be recent; others buried a little further in the files of the web, but all, I hope, thought-provoking and informative.

Because I’m posting the first selection late in this weekend, I’ll keep it short, a twenty-minute video by a foremost Tolkien scholar, Verlyn Flieger, who is one of my favorite critics. In this talk, “Imaginary Creatures — Real Experience,” Professor Flieger, I believe, gets to the core of The Lord of the Rings and argues that it is not the simplistic good vs. evil story many people think it is.

Recently, an opposing opinion has been expressed by the writer Michael Moorcock in an interview on Dr. Karl Siegfried’s Norse Mythology Blog. In Part Two of that interview, Moorcock says that “it’s the simplification, rejection of the world’s complexity, that discomforts me with Tolkien.” Take a look at Moorcock’s argument; listen to Flieger’s in the video. Let me know what you think!

(In case you can’t see the video on your device, try this link:

Coming up in the next few weeks: talks by Tom Shippey, Michael Drout, Dimitra Fimi, John Garth, Janet Brennan Croft, Corey Olsen, Elizabeth Solopova, Stuart Lee, and more. Check back every Friday or Saturday for the next installment of “Talks on Tolkien.”  And please note: my intention is to curate a series of already-available resources online; I’m not planning on producing any new talks on Tolkien, though I do hope I can suggest some interesting contexts for my selections.

You can find out more about Verlyn Flieger’s work on her website,

Comments / discussions are welcome!


Tolkien in Vermont 2015


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Tolkien in Vermont conferenceTolkien in Vermont is a conference that is now heading into its twelfth year. A call for papers has been posted recently by the organizer, Chris Vaccaro, who promises that details about the conference will appear soon on the Tolkien in Vermont website. The CFP is copied below, or you can find it here.

I’ve always found this conference to be a small and friendly gathering where you can meet and mingle with all of the participants — students, fans, independent scholars, faculty alike. This year’s keynote speaker, in keeping with the conference theme of medieval verse narratives, is Michael Drout.


Call for papers:

April 10-11
Tolkien in Vermont conference
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT

The theme for this year is Medieval Verse Narratives. Papers on every subject will be considered; however, the following subjects will be prioritized: Beowulf, The Fall of Arthur, Sigurd and Gudrun, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

Please submit an abstract or (preferably) a complete paper by Sunday, February 1st. Decisions will follow swiftly thereafter. Papers should be ten pages in length.

We are very excited to announce that Michael Drout (Professor, Wheaton College) will be this year’s keynote speaker!

contact email:

Jackson’s Lost Opportunity: The Death of Sister-Sons


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Thorin Fili Kili banner

Thorin, Fili, Kili banner.

I enjoy many things about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films – the material realization of various Middle-earth cultures, the creation of the best movie dragon I’ve ever seen, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, to name only a few – but of course Jackson is not making the films specifically for me, a medievalist with a love of Tolkien’s work. As such, I had hoped that Jackson would have given us a resonant scene focusing on an uncle and his nephews — Thorin, Fili, and Kili — making their heroic last stand in battle together. There is a long tradition of the special relationship between “sister-sons” and their uncles in medieval literature that Tolkien refers to in The Hobbit. Working out that relationship to its traditional end would have inserted Jackson’s scene more firmly in a body of stories about these deeply embedded emotional relationships that are a part of western Europe’s cultural history.[1]

Now wait a minute, you might be saying to yourself. Jackson [2] clearly indicates a strong relationship between Thorin and his nephews, and their death scenes in The Battle of the Five Armies are somewhat connected and set apart from others. Yes, but not exactly in the traditional way I’m talking about.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien simply reports, “Of the twelve companions of Thorin, ten remained. Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.” (“The Return Journey,” The Hobbit 268).[3] Yes, they defend each other because they’re family, but more specifically because Fili and Kili are Thorin’s “sister-sons” (sweostor sunu in Old English).

Fili, Kili

Fili, Kili. Lisa’s Video Frame Capture Library. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Image 235

Uncle-nephew relationships, and sometimes even more precisely maternal uncle-nephew relationships (therefore, “sister-sons”), are frequently represented as a special bond in medieval literature. In Beowulf, the poet alludes to the story of Sigemund, êam (maternal uncle) to Fitela (line 881), and how they fought together in times of need. In line 115 of the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” Wulfmær, one of the fallen warriors, is identified as the lord’s swuster sunu. Tolkien recognizes the appropriateness of Wulfmær’s place near his uncle in the verse drama “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” which is based on “The Battle of Maldon.”  In this play, two men are searching after the battle for the body of their lord when one of them finds Wulfmær:

This head we know!
Wulfmær it is. I’ll wager aught
not far did he fall from friend and master.

His companion answers:

His sister-son! The songs tell us,
ever near shall be at need nephew to uncle.  (“Homecoming” 127)

Other uncle-nephew relationships can be found in Charlemagne and Roland, Hrothgar and Hrothulf, Arthur and Gawain. The relationship isn’t always positive; in some stories, Mordred is Arthur’s sister-son, which makes his treachery even worse. Théoden and Éomer or Turgon and Maeglin provide some other examples in Tolkien’s work. Verlyn Flieger explains how we can even see the Bilbo-Frodo relationship in this light. [4]

So what does Jackson do with the uncle-nephew bond? In The Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin welcomes Fili and Kili to the kingdom of Erebor, addressing them as his “sister’s sons.” In Jackson’s movies the young dwarves Fili and Kili refer to Thorin as their uncle, and in The Desolation of Smaug Thorin tells Fili that one day he will be king.[5] In The Battle of the Five Armies, when Thorin finally bursts out of the mountain gate to join the battle, the two warriors running closest to him on either side are Fili and Kili. In their last fight, Thorin calls Dwalin, Fili, and Kili to go with him in an attempt to take down Azog. Gandalf comments that Thorin is taking his best fighters with him. In Old English they would be called his heorð-geneatas, his “hearth-companions,” a small group of noble, well-trained fighters who are closest to their lord, and it is reasonable to think that the young and courageous nephews would be among them. Fili and Kili, then, are appropriately represented as sister-sons in most of Jackson’s Hobbit.

But the uncle-nephew bond dissipates in their final scenes. While Tolkien recognizes in “The Homecoming” that “ever near shall be at need nephew to uncle,” in The Battle of the Five Armies the nephews end up nowhere near their uncle in a time of need. Instead, Thorin sends Fili and Kili away to hunt for Azog, and then the two nephews split up in separate searches as well. Fili is killed in the sight of both of his kinsmen (we don’t see him fighting heroically to the end; he’s just skewered and then thrown over a cliff) but both Thorin and Kili are too far away to do anything about that attack. Uncle and nephew cannot stand and defend each other. The killing of Fili enrages Kili, who runs off in a passionate Orc-killing spree, but his end is complicated by the arrival of Tauriel.

Now, I have to make clear that I do not object in principle to the creation of new characters like Tauriel. But her involvement in Kili’s last fight obscures the uncle-nephew bond that defines Thorin and his sister-sons. Instead of Thorin, Fili, and Kili fighting side-by-side until they are cut down, we get a different trio: Kili-Tauriel-Legolas defending each other. Kili’s last look is not to his uncle but to Tauriel; his uncle is too far away to be part of the scene. The special bond of an uncle with his nephews who “had fallen defending him with shield and body,” is nowhere to be seen.

Peter Jackson knows how to film emotional battle scenes, as he demonstrated in The Return of the King: sweeping music, slow motion, the melee of battle, the depiction of personal anguish.

Return of the King battle scenes

from Lisa’s Video Frame Capture Library. Return of the King. Aragorn, Image 1808; Eowyn with Theoden, Image 1811; Eomer with Eowyn, Image 1846

Had Jackson completed the Hobbit story with a heroic last stand of uncle and nephews fighting side-by-side on the battlefield, their tale would have participated in a long tradition of sister-son stories and allowed us to feel the emotional impact of that relationship in a visceral way.

Thorin, Kili

Thorin, Kili. Lisa’s Video Frame Capture Library. The Hobbit: trailers. Image 326.

Too bad the opportunity was lost so close to the end of the movie.


[1] These uncle-nephew relationships are important in other cultures beyond the European, but I am only familiar with the northern European literary uncle-nephew motif. It is likely that the practice of fostering high-born children – having a son educated in his uncle’s home, for example – contributed to the motif in medieval literature.

[2] I use “Jackson” throughout as shorthand. Although he was the director of the Hobbit movies, he was not the only writer. The full writing team consists of Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo del Toro, who gets a writing credit for his involvement with the project in its earlier stages.

[3] Tolkien inserted this line about Fili and Kili dying in defense of their uncle late in the process of composition. According to John Rateliff: “The idea that the two most likeable of all Bilbo’s companions should also die in the battle…first appears in the continuation of the typescript that eventually (autumn 1936) replaced the Third Phase manuscript” (684, n. 11). Rateliff also points out that Thorin was originally Fili and Kili’s great-uncle, but Tolkien later moved him one generation closer. (See, for example, Rateliff  444 – 445, note 11). In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, in the section on “Durin’s Folk,” Thorin appears in the genealogy as Fili and Kili’s uncle (1418).

[4] Verlyn Flieger discusses the Bilbo-Frodo kinship in the light of the uncle-nephew motif in her essay, “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero.” The essay has been reprinted in a couple of places, including Flieger’s collected essays in Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien. Kent State University Press, 2012 and in the 2004 volume, Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, edited by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs, published by Houghton Mifflin and partly available as a Google e-book.

[5] Rateliff comments on the line of succession in Tolkien’s conception of the Dwarves’ patriarchal line of kings which excludes the maternal nephews (704). In the early Middle Ages, young relatives in the maternal line might succeed a ruler; it is interesting that in this detail Jackson is closer to early medieval practice than the book.

Works Cited

Flieger, Verlyn. “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero.” Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien. Kent State University Press, 2012. 141-58. Print. Also available in Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. Ed. Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. 122-45. Print and Google e-book.

Jackson, Peter, dir. The Battle of the Five Armies. New Line Cinema, 2014. Film.

____. The Desolation of Smaug.  New Line Cinema, 2013. Film.

Klaeber’s Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. 4th ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009. Print.

Rateliff, John D.  The History of the Hobbit. 2 Vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

The Battle of Maldon: Hypertext Edition.” Old English Literature: A Hypertext Course Pack. English Faculty, Oxford. 2009. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Lisa’s Video Frame Capture Library. 2 Oct. 2014. Screenshots. 14 Jan. 2015.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Hobbit: Trailers.” Lisa’s Video Frame Capture Library. Jul – Nov 2014. Screenshots. 14 Jan. 2015.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Lisa’s Video Frame Capture Library. n.d. Screenshots. 14 Jan. 2015.

Thorin, Fili and Kili Banner in Super High-Resolution.” 22 Nov. 2014. JPEG. 14 Jan. 2015.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Durin’s Folk.” Appendix A.iii. Return of the King, being the third part of The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins, 2007. 1406-19. Print.

_____. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. London: HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

_____.  “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Tree and Leaf, including the poem Mythopoeia. London: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

MLA citation of this post:  Smol, Anna. “Jackson’s Lost Opportunity: The Death of Sister-Sons.” A Single Leaf.  16 Jan 2015. Web.  [insert date of access here without brackets].


What did you think of these final scenes in the film? Any other examples of sister-sons that you want to discuss or add?  Please feel free to comment!

An imagined dystopian LotR film


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Today I have a post that combines my interests in both Tolkien and pedagogy.

In one of my English courses, Studies in Medievalism: Tolkien and Myth-making, I ask students to read the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and some of the medieval literature that influenced him. We also consider later adaptations of Tolkien’s fiction in various media. As part of this cultural study of contemporary fandom and myth-making, students have the option of producing their own adaptation of Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories, accompanied by a researched analysis that relates their project to critical discussions of adaptation, fandom, medievalism, and Tolkien’s fiction.

In the January 2014 semester, my student Shelby MacGregor produced a series of photographs illustrating scenes from an imagined dystopian Lord of the Rings movie, set sometime in the near future. The analysis that she wrote to accompany these pictures discussed Tolkien’s representation of nature and technology compared to Peter Jackson’s film versions and considered some of the problems of adaptation.

Below, you will find some of Shelby’s photographs along with her descriptions. (All photos copyright Shelby MacGregor).


Photos and Descriptions by Shelby MacGregor

This project aimed to present scenes in a post-modern adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It was heavily inspired by Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the trilogy, and also by the science fiction films of Ridley Scott.

Frodo, who must install a virus in the Super Computer

Frodo, who must install a virus in the Super Computer

View larger version of Frodo (2 Mb)

Moving the story to somewhere in our future instead of somewhere in our past would require different weapons and technologies from the original. The Ring became a computer chip, and instead of throwing the Ring into a volcano, it became a virus that would be installed into the Super Computer that was controlling industry and therefore destroying the world.

Mordor. By Shelby MacGregor


View larger version of Mordor (3 Mb)

Frodo and Sam play a large role in this imagined film, as they are charged with installing the virus in the Super Computer. They are dressed in more natural clothes to connect to the natural lifestyles of the people in the Shire and to contrast the natural world with industry in a visual and striking way. Mordor appears as a power plant, with Frodo daunted by the size and destruction found in the modern world.

The Black Gate is closed

The Black Gate is closed.

View larger version of The Black Gate (5 Mb)

Each character is styled differently to reflect the regions of Tolkien’s Middle-earth that they come from. Lady Eowyn is the closest to Jackson’s representation of her. It is assumed that the people of Rohan accept less technology than the rest of Middle-earth, preferring to tend to their horses.

Eowyn by Shelby MacGregor


View larger version of Eowyn (4 Mb)

Boromir and Aragorn are in modern dress but use medieval weaponry, not because they resist technology but because it has become a symbol of the enemy.

Boromir's Death by Shelby MacGregor

Boromir’s Death

View larger version of Boromir’s Death (4 Mb)

This project allowed me to work with adaptation theory, photography, editing, and costume design, as I made or styled every item that the characters are wearing. I was aiming to make film scenes come to life that are instantly recognizable as The Lord of the Rings, while also staying away from simply remaking Jackson’s film scenes. It was an interesting and challenging project, and I am glad that I got the opportunity to try something creative.

– Shelby MacGregor


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