Similarities Between the Dissimilar, or What Happens When You Read Homer and Tolkien at the Same Time

Although J.R.R. Tolkien avoided taking inspiration from classical Greek mythology, there is one aspect of his writing which I cannot help but see as being influenced by Homer.  Never yet in all my reading of mythology have I encountered an epic as vast and complete as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Many mythologies, though extensive and complicated, are comprised of numerous small stories.  These stories typically share common characters, but they do not necessarily run in any particular chronological order.  Even longer tales which have come down to us in a more-or-less complete form, like the tale of Cuchulain and the Cattle Raid of Cooley or the saga of Sigurd the Volsung, have little connection to other tales with the same characters.

Not so with Homer.  In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the reader is given an impression of a great and whole world beyond that of the story.  Both teller and characters relay histories, reference happenings and characters of the past, or compare themselves or their current situations to those of heroes in other tales and historical events.  In the Iliad, Glaucus recalls his lineage and the staunch deeds of his ancestors; the tale of the Trojan horse is retold in the hall of the King Alcinous in the Odyssey; and Odysseus sees in the realm of the dead many heroes of the great Greek tales:  Orion, Minos, and Heracles.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are not simply another set of the many episodes in which Achilles or Odysseus star.  They are complete, whole tales which occur at a certain time and in a certain place in mythological history.

Tolkien’s mythology follows suit.  His epic is also set in a specific time and place in Middle-earth’s history.  Tolkien’s characters speak of heroes and situations of the past, as Aragorn does in retelling part of the lay of Beren and Lúthien.  Some characters, like Odysseus in the realm of the dead, even meet the heroes of some of the stories they have heard, as Frodo meets “the Glóin” in The Fellowship of the Ring.1  The Lord of the Rings is not another tale with Gandalf in it (though he comes into many tales), nor is The Hobbit one of the many episodes of Thorin and Company.  Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, they are whole epics that stand in a certain time and place.  They are long, detailed, and complete.

In writing his mythology, Tolkien decided to avoid utilizing the values and social hierarchy so prominent in Greek mythology, but he kept the epic.  Both Homer and Tolkien took care to legitimize their myth, to set it in reality even if it was not reality.  Their myths are not haphazard tales about stock heroes, they are whole, crafted histories written with authority and confidence.  This is a trait in Homer which I have not seen in any mythology yet, but which I see Tolkien accomplish in his writing.


1J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1

4 thoughts on “Similarities Between the Dissimilar, or What Happens When You Read Homer and Tolkien at the Same Time

  1. You have really got me thinking here. That “great and whole world beyond the story” to which C.S Lewis referred in his famous review of The Lord of the Rings is most definitely common to both Tolkien and Homer. It is the lack of such a world in any other literature that I must think about thanks to your piece.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hurrah! I am exultant to hear that you were inspired to stop and think.

      I am not sure I would say that every other mythology is entirely lacking a fuller world, only because I have many mythologies yet to read and many that I have read which I need to explore more deeply. However, I have not yet met one AS COMPLETE and authoritative as those of Homer and Tolkien.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This is very interesting, Nicole! I find it very interesting that Tolkien tried not to put things like Greek mythology or his war experiences into his writings but, possibly because these things are so influential, they still seeped into his books.

    Liked by 1 person

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