There And Back Again: Edwardian Children’s Literature and J.R.R. “Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”

“A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how…”
–William Wordsworth, The Prelude

In his final stanza of The Prelude, William Wordsworth unveils his own “lasting inspiration,” one rooted in the transmission of beloved ideas from one person, and generation, to another.  He glorifies the human mind as “beauty exalted” and implores his readers to recognize this sanctity and bequeath it to others.  Though, in context, Wordsworth concerns himself with the evolution of his poetic purpose, his composition provides a more universal glimpse into the diffusion of words, concepts, and stories, one that applies to a myriad of literary circumstances, genres, periods, and people.

Maria Tatar[1], in her Introduction to Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood (2009), employs this excerpt from Wordsworth as a lens through which to view children’s literature.  Tatar explores how words and ideas in children’s tales inspire intellectual curiosity, as well as empathy, for the lives and stories of others.  Mirroring Wordsworth’s conferral in The Prelude, she writes that, “The classic stories of childhood endure in part because we feel moved to pass on what touched us when we were young” (11).  Tatar sheds light upon the importance of children’s literature to scholarship and ultimately reveals why, “childhood stories get under our skin – and how they stay there, long after the books containing them have been put aside” (201).

Motivated by Tatar’s claim that the stories of our childhood inspire us even as we reach adulthood, my senior thesis used the works of children’s literature from England’s Edwardian period (1900-1914) in order to better understand one of the twentieth century’s most esteemed authors and academics: J.R.R. Tolkien.  While relying upon connections already made between Tolkien’s Edwardian childhood and his trilogy, I sought to illuminate the relationship by focusing upon a specific literary archetype: the sidekick figure.  This character category finds its definition in Vladimir Propp’s, Morphology of the Folk Tale, a critical text that organizes fairy tale characters in eight universal types.  The helper figures, which comprise one of these groups, often aid the hero and assist him in completing his quest.  Extending Propp’s analysis to Edwardian children’s literature and Tolkien, I demonstrated how the helpers, or, “sidekicks,” in these texts figure into an older literary trope and also establish a newer tradition.

In Edwardian children’s stories such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, as well as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the sidekicks are linked directly with nature, an association that embodies the ethos of Edwardianism.  Historian Samuel Hynes writes in The Edwardian Turn of Mind of “a present, dominated by King and Queen, symbols of the established order – rich, punctilious, and unoccupied – and behind them the past, a corridor of peace, sunlit and pastoral” (3).  He reveals how the Edwardian period, particularly through its literature, emphasized the rustic in the midst of industrialization as Edwardian authors sought to recapture a forsaken, idyllic countryside.  The sidekicks in Edwardian literature undoubtedly reflect this pastoralism, a personification that Samwise Gamgee, Tolkien’s helper figure, also manifests.  The sidekicks’ pastoral ties, I argued, award them great narrative clout, an importance that also channels their authors’ nostalgia for a formerly rural life and, in so doing, reveals much about the historical and cultural trends of 20th century England.  More specifically, I noted that the Edwardian and Tolkienian sidekicks reinforce the necessity of a countryside home to their protagonists and, in so doing, function more broadly as a medium through which the authors championed their ideal England.  Ultimately, I assessed how these earthy sidekicks highlight a correlation between Edwardian texts and Tolkien’s trilogy, as well as how they can be used as a lens through which to view and better comprehend The Lord of the Rings.

At the conclusion of his chapter entitled, “Pan in the Garden,” an excerpt from his critical work, A History of Children’s Literature: From Aesop to Harry Potter, Seth Lerer eloquently unveils his overarching argument regarding Edwardian children’s literature, stating:

“But more than simply looking for allusions or trying to locate Edwardian identities in later tales, we might see, in the end, that the Edwardian embodies something about childhood itself.  All children live on such a cusp: between the memories of their comfortable youth and the fears of the future; between machines that work as playful toys and those that morph into weapons…” (273).

And, like Lerer, more than simply locating the Edwardian identities in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I suggested that perhaps we might also see these allusions, with their pastoral reminiscence, as extending beyond childhood to embody the adventures of adulthood.  If Edwardianism mirrors youth, then the re-appropriation of Edwardianism after the First World War destroyed England’s “sunlit and pastoral corridor” alludes to the Edwardian children who, unlike Peter Pan, were pushed “over the cusp” of childhood and forced to face a future of fears, weapons, and machines.  In a sense, Samwise Gamgee undergoes this same process: situated between memories of his Shire and the looming presence of Mordor, he has no choice but to step away from his cozy country cottage, confront the terrors of his future, and grow up.  The presence of the Edwardian pastoral in a tale of battle, hardship, and industrialization epitomizes the essence of a bildungsroman – the clash between home and adventure, stasis and change, childhood and adulthood – one that Sam experiences in the trilogy.  And, to this symbol of maturation, the recycled Edwardian pastoral is paramount.  Sam, like nature and its seasons, matures and renews, returning to the Shire as an adult who can better till and revive the earth of his homeland.  He even names his daughter, Elanor, after an everlasting Elven flower, ensuring that, literally and figuratively, the fertility of the Shire is maintained for generations to come.  As Sam documents his own story, keeping alive the “memory of the age that is gone, so that people will… love their beloved land all the more,” we ultimately glimpse through him the adult Tolkien, who, clinging relentlessly to his Edwardian pastoral childhood, shares his own lasting inspiration in the hopes that others will love it, too, if he only manages to teach them how (Tolkien 1006).


[1] Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, as well as the Chair of the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University.


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