Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”[1] So begins the first novel of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit, set on the fantastical continent of Middle-Earth. This unassuming and simple sentence introduces readers to the expansive and beautiful Tolkien “Legendarium”—the stories of a distant and magical world full of adventure, monsters, spirits and forces that appear alien to the real world. One might not expect Tolkien’s tales to be rooted in history, and yet, every page is rich with inspiration from humanity’s past. Most notably, the forces of magic take considerable influence from mythic traditions of antiquity, many of which Tolkien drew from the Olympians of ancient Greece. These similarities become apparent in his novel titled The Silmarillion, where he explores the lives of spirits called Valar (singular Vala), who act as the gods of his universe. These characters take considerable inspiration from the deities of ancient Greece, specifically in how their roles of governance relative to each other and the creation of the Earth materialize, but also how they relate to literary tradition. By conceptualizing them in the way he does, Tolkien recycles classical themes of governance, for example in his substitute for Zeus, Manwë, and his role in this fantastical universe, as well as some trends in the spirituality associated to such figures. Manwë and Zeus share an astonishing number of characteristics, and perfectly exemplify where Tolkien takes inspiration from the Olympians, their relationships to the world that they govern, and the inhabitants thereof.

To understand the common themes from myth, one must first understand certain basic aspects of the Valar, and how they are presented to readers. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, published between 1937 and 1955, detail the events of a conflict between the people of Middle-Earth and an evil spirit named Sauron. These works accumulated the most renowned of Tolkien’s novels, yet they provide little, if any information regarding the Valar and the tens of thousands of years that precede conflict with Sauron. To find these stories, one must look to later texts, primarily The Silmarillion, published on the Fifteenth of September in 1977, five years after the author died. Tolkien wrote a number of works that remained unfinished at the time of his death, but would be completed by his son, Christopher Tolkien, and published posthumously. This text details the birth of Tolkien’s world, which he named “Arda.”  “Eru Ilúvatar,” a mysterious being who somewhat resembles the Abrahamic god, charges a company of spirits who eventually become the Valar with shaping this world into a paradise. The text describes that “the great among these spirits [sent to Arda by Ilúvatar] the Elves name the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and Men have often called them gods.”[2] As detailed in the early chapters of The Silmarillion, Ilúvatar uses music to foresee the full potential of Arda, and tasks the Valar with shaping it into this anticipated paradise. Tolkien identifies this responsibility in the following excerpt: “the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten.”[3] However, in order to accomplish this work, Ilúvatar leaves the Valar with a hierarchy, lest any disagreements among them impede their work. In this arrangement, he dubs Manwë as their king, creating a figure who in all manner of function and capability resembles Zeus.

Among the gods of Greece, there existed a hierarchy, at the summit of which sat Zeus. , this order of the Greek religion remains constant across each and every poem, tragedy, and history. The same is true for Manwë. Not only does the text remind the reader of Manwë’s kingship almost as frequently as the authors of antiquity do with the “Almighty Cronion,” but the ways in which each figure rises to power also demonstrate similarities. In both mythology and the Legendarium, the king of the gods ascends to sovereignty at the behest of other deities, passing from generation to generation, thereafter to be respected as the sovereign of their worlds. In the case of Zeus, his mother first proposes that he assume kingship over his siblings, as explained in Hesiod’s Theogony, an epic poem composed circa 700 BCE discussing the genealogy of the gods and the order of the universe: “Then at Gaia’s suggestion they pressed broad-browed Zeus, / The Olympian, to be their king and rule the Immortals. / And so, Zeus dealt out their privileges and rights.”[4] Similarly, Manwë comes to power by the appointment of Ilúvatar, who exists in essence as the father of the Valar: “Manwë is dearest to Ilúvatar and understands most clearly his purposes. He was appointed to be, in the fullness of time, the first of all Kings: lord of the realm of Arda and ruler of all that dwell therein.”[5] Not only are they each appointed by other deities, but by the will of a parent-like figure. Thus Tolkien recycles the trope of governance passing from one generation to the next, just as it passes from the Titans to the Olympians. Manwë’s ascension mirrors Zeus, but the parallels do not stop here. Not only does the acquisition of kingship reuse mythical themes, but the nature of their power and how they govern their kin also bears a striking resemblance.

The roles that Manwë and Zeus embody resemble each other in how each king acts as a facilitator and compromiser between other deities, as shown in the stories of the Vala Yavannah and the goddess Demeter. Yavannah’s story is as follows: out of fear that the elves and humans will abuse and overuse the forests of her creation, once they arrive in Arda, she confronts Manwë. She asks for the permission to create her own race by giving the trees sapience and free will, so that they might protect the forests, before the coming of elves. Yavannah expresses her worry by explaining to Manwë, “‘my heart is anxious, thinking of the days to come. All my works are dear to me…. Shall nothing that I have devised be free from the dominion of others?… Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!’”[6] However, this request opposes Ilúvatar, who has made known his will that there shall be no intelligent beings before the coming of elves and humans (save for the Valar and their servants). He makes this desire clear when Yavannah’s husband, Aulë, creates the race of dwarves (the following excerpt is Ilúvatar’s response to learning of the dwarves’ conception): “‘Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority?’”[7]

But, understanding Yavannah’s power and rights as a Vala, Manwë permits her to summon a race of creatures that will protect the forests, given that they awake after the first coming of elves and humans. Here is his decision on the matter:

‘Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and olvar [the trees], and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their anger shall be feared.’ [8]

By agreeing to this design, Manwë facilitates a compromise between Yavannah and Ilúvatar, in which both parties achieve certain aspects of their desires; Yavannah will get her “Shepherds of the trees,”[9] and Ilúvatar’s decree that the elves and humans shall be the first sentient subjects of Arda remains intact. Thus we see how Manwë resolves conflict between the deities under his jurisdiction, allowing for progress to be possible in the shaping of the world. In this way, Manwë’s duties mirror that of the Cronion.

Like Manwë, Zeus acts as a facilitator between the gods under his dominion, exemplified in the disagreement between Demeter and Hades. As shown in one of the Homeric Hymns (poems which often accompany oral recitations of Homer’s epics), Zeus plays a pivotal role in both Hades’ abduction of Demeter’s daughter, as he allows the lord of the dead to kidnap Persephone, and in the subsequent compromise. It is Zeus’ suggestion and decision for Persephone to spend time with both her husband and her mother over the course of the year. The “Homeric Hymn to Demeter”  describes the events of this myth, and makes clear that it is Zeus who orchestrates the Rape of Persephone, or at the very least permits Hades to take her against the will of both Persephone herself and Demeter: “By the design of Zeus the brother of Zeus led the maiden away against her will, the lord of many, the host of many guests.”[10] While the specific events of the myth differ quite significantly from the tale of The Silmarillion, the role of Zeus as the orchestrator parallels Manwë. Just as Hades takes his wife “by the design of Zeus,” it is Manwë who states that Yavannah will “summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and olvar.” By his plan, Yavannah’s will shall be carried out. Additionally, Manwë is the compromiser, as Zeus is. The Hymn states “He [Zeus] vowed that her daughter for the third part of the revolving year should dwell beneath in the murky gloom, but for the other two parts she would abide with her mother and the other gods.” [11] Zeus creates an arrangement, so that both Hades and Demeter share Persephone, just as Yavannah must wait to summon the “Shepherds of the trees” until after the elves and humans arrive in Arda. In both cases, the kingly figures make concessions to their fellow deities, so that each individual walks away satisfied (albeit, some less than others).

Zeus and Manwë also share the duty of delegating powers to the other gods, dealing out responsibilities in different aspects of the world. This feature becomes the most evident in the separation between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, each given lordship over the skies, the seas and the dead/the realm below the earth, respectively, matching with the roles of the Valar Manwë, Ulmo, and Námo. However, each of their responsibilities still exist under the watchful eye of Manwë, just as Zeus stands in a higher ruling position, so that each of the other gods’ charges are under his ordinance. The chapter of The Silmarillion called “Valaquenta” discusses the roles of each Vala, and concisely summarizes each of their duties. As shown in the following description, Manwë’s realm is the sky, just as with Zeus: “In Arda his delight is in the winds and clouds, and in all the regions of the air, from the heights to the depths, from the uttermost borders of the Veil of Arda to the breezes that blow in the grass.”[12] So, in addition to being the king, Manwë tasks himself with governing and shaping one of the aspects of reality, but gives other charges to other parties. For example, he tasks the Vala Ulmo with the design of the seas, whose entry in the “Valaquenta” begins by stating, “Ulmo is the Lord of Waters. He is alone. He dwells nowhere long, but moves as his will in all the deep waters about the Earth or under the Earth.” [13] As the “Lord of Waters” Ulmo’s responsibilities are somewhat self-explanatory, and while he has significant power over the world, clear borders are drawn around his realm of influence. The same is true of Poseidon, as shown in the Homeric Hymn dedicated to him:

Concerning Poseidon, a great god, I begin to sing, the shaker of the land and of the unharvested sea, god of the deep who holds Helicon and wide Aigai. The gods have given you a double portion of honor, O shaker of the earth, to be tamer of horses and savior of ships.[14]

 Like with Ulmo, the limits to Poseidon’s rulership are clearly outlined, so that no observer can deny the limits of these figures’ territories, solidifying their positions in the divine hierarchy below their respective kings. This is evident again with Námo, as in the description of his responsibilities it states that his influence is subject to the edicts of Manwë: “He is the keeper of the Houses of the Dead, and the summoner of the spirits of the slain…. He is the Doomsman of the Valar; but he pronounces his dooms and his judgements only at the bidding of Manwë.”[15] Tolkien spells out that the individual responsibilities of each Vala is subject to Manwë’s supervision. And, again, the same is true of Zeus, as shown more generally in Hesiod’s Theogony: “And so Zeus dealt out their privileges and rights.” Each of the gods owes the acquisition of their power to Zeus, and is therefore subject to his instruction, a trait of his rule that presents itself in the works of numerous poets. Cleanthes (writing in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.) spells this out with even more clarity in his “Hymn to Zeus”: “This whole universe spinning about the earth / obeys you, wherever you lead it, and meekly accepts your mastery…. Nothing happens apart from you, God, / on earth or in the divine vault of heaven or the sea.”[16] In this excerpt not only does it show Zeus’ delegation to the gods, but that every being “on earth or in the divine vault of heaven or the sea” accepts his law and rank, just as Námo “pronounces his dooms and his judgements only at the bidding of Manwë.”

The last parallel departs from the themes surrounding governance and addresses how each deity acquires their power and influence; for both Zeus and Manwë, they draw strength from their relationships to poetry and song. With Zeus, this appears in a more abstract and metafictional manner, as his literal strength exists independently of any outside influence, yet his practical and real-world influence over Greece materializes inn part due to the way in which the poets honor him. This is most easily shown in the invocations to the muses that often precede classical poems, such as Hesiod’s Works and Days:

Muses of the sacred spring Pieria / Who give glory in song, / Come sing Zeus’ praises, hymn your great father / Through whom mortals are either / Renowned or unknown, famous or unfamed / as goes the will of great Zeus.[17]

 By invoking Zeus and the muses, poets intertwine his power with the transmission of poetry, song, and art. The god’s significance and impact in the physical world is therefore tied to these mediums. Tolkien takes this idea and presents it literally by designing the power of the Valar, Manwë’s in particular, to be drawn from song.

In Tolkien’s universe, the world of Arda comes into being by the realization of “the Song,” i.e. the music of the Valar and their kin, and the design of the Song inspires the Valar to shape the world. For instance, when making his decision to allow for Yavannah’s “shepherds of the forest,” Manwë refers back to this song as a reference. The Silmarillion describes this moment by narrating “that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he heard them he had not heeded before.”[18] All of Manwë’s power in Tolkien’s fantastical world comes from music, just as Zeus’ power in the real world does from poetry and literature. Thus, not only do Zeus and Manwë resemble each other in each of their mythical universes, but they match each other in literary tradition.

The figures of Zeus and Manwë share countless themes, both within the universes they inhabit, and in the world of reality. Tolkien recycles themes of the ancient traditions in government and mythic transmission. He recreates the nature of divine power by giving his Valar properties that apply to the deities of Ancient Greece, and emphasizes what gave them power in reality by attributing the strength of the Valar to song. As the pioneer of the high-fantasy genre, Tolkien sets a framework for the authors who follow him. By drawing from history and mythology in his own work, he inspired his successors to do the same, laying the foundations for what would become one of the most popular genres that we read today. He draws significant inspiration from the works of antiquity, made evident by all of the undoubtable parallels between the ancient Olympian king and his own sovereign god, and repackages the themes in a new and unique format, disguising them and proving that they are still relevant in modernity.


[1] Tolkien, JRR. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company (2012). 3.

[2] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2nd ed. Random House Publishing Group (2002). 15.

[3] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 10.

[4] Hesiod. “Theogony.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stehpen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 129-160. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (2016). Lines 888-90.

[5] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 16.

[6] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 40-41.

[7] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 37.

[8] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 41.

[9] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 41.

[10] “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stephen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 169-178. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (2016). 170.

[11] “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” 177.

[12] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 16.

[13] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 17.

[14] “Homeric Hymn to Poseidon.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stehpen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 207. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (2016). 207.

[15] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 19.

[16] Cleanthes. “Hymn to Zeus.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stehpen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 84-85. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (2016). 84.

[17]Hesiod. “Works and Days.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stehpen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 161-167. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company (2016). Lines 1-6.

[18] Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion. 41.

Works Cited

  • Cleanthes. “Hymn to Zeus.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stephen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 84-85. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.
  • Hesiod. “Theogony.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stephen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 129-160. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016. 
  • Hesiod. “Works and Days.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stephen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 161-167. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.
  • “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stephen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 169-178. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016. 
  • “Homeric Hymn to Poseidon.” In Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, edited and Translated by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, Stephen Brunet, and R. Scott Smith, 2nd ed., 207. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2016. 
  • Tolkien, JRR. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.
  • Tolkien, JRR. The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2nd ed. Random House Publishing Group, 2002.

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