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Was Tolkien’s depiction of heroism in The Lord of the Rings greatly influenced by the Classical ‘epic’ /part I

October 3, 2020

This is a multi-part essay series, examining Tolkien’s depiction of heroism within The Lord of the Rings, and whether it is possible to say that he was influenced by the Aeneid, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Respectively, each section looks at the definition of the epic genre, the traditional “epic heroes”, Tolkien’s seemingly unique brand of “unlikely hero”, and his own experiences with warfare and cultural mythologies. We touch upon themes such as homecoming, philosophy, metamorphosis and the ongoing story. Here, the product of extensive research and battles with formatting citations is brought before your eyes. 

[I’d love to hear your opinions of this piece — feel free to contact me with any feedback at @abookandadream]


“I was brought up on the classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer” 

J. R. R. Tolkien, letter 142

This essay looks at the influences of the Classical “epic” upon J. R. R. Tolkien’s depiction of heroism within the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was particularly fond of Norse and Finnish mythology (1), and the influence of northern epic upon his work has been greatly studied. His relationship with the epic genre is viewed primarily through non-classical works like the Norse Edda (2). 

Study into the Classical influences upon Tolkien is limited. Shippey describes Tolkien as “determinedly hostile to the Classical tradition (3)”. This seems to be the viewpoint maintained by most scholars in their work. This essay argues that Tolkien was not only influenced by Classical epic heroes, but greatly drew from the classical epic. 

This essay focuses upon the Aeneid, the Iliad and the Odyssey. References to “the epics” will refer solely to these three works. It looks at two models of epic heroism: the “epic hero” and the “unlikely hero”. Within The Lord of the Rings the “epic hero” is embodied most clearly by Aragorn. He seems backed by divine presence, as the Classical gods support favoured heroes. 

The Lord of the Rings creates a type of hero seemingly unfamiliar within the epic genre: the “unlikely hero”. Tolkien’s hobbits are visually the opposite of the heroic ideal: they are short in stature, and lead insulated lifestyles (4). They nevertheless

appear to embody aspects of the Classical epic hero. Characteristic of the Romance genre, Odysseus and Frodo are able to restore people and places once thought lost. Frodo completes a version of an apotheosis: he leaves behind his life on Middle Earth and journeys to the realm of the elves. The hobbits, rather than heroes like Aragorn, embody the ponderous and eloquent side to the epic hero. Sam ruminates upon the nature of stories, as heroes like Aeneas (5) acknowledge the mythological significance of their journeys. 

“Influence” or “Inspiration”?

The Oxford dictionary defines “influence” as “the power or ability to have an effect on someone’s beliefs or actions (6).” “Inspiration” is defined as “the process of being filled with a feeling or with the urge to do something (7).” This essay employs the term “influenced” as it focuses on the effect of the Aeneid, the Iliad and the Odyssey upon Tolkien’s writingIt argues that Tolkien’s reading of Classical texts directly impacted his writing, rather than that they stimulated him to write in the first place, as the term “inspired” could suggest. 

Defining “epic”

The definition of epic literature is much debated. Aristotle (8) defines an epic as a poem written in heroic hexameter, with plot, character, thought and diction as constituent parts. Theophrastus (9) defines “epic” as a genre attributed to divine, heroic and human affairs. Theophrastus allows for an epic to be composed in prose; he did not see the formal poetic metres of the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Odyssey as a requirement of epic. As a novel detailing the struggles of men and higher beings against a dark power, The Lord of the Rings can be considered epic 


Tolkien himself referred to his work as an “epic” (10)  when writing to his publisher. 

Tolkien thought that mythology was essential within epic (11). As Lin Carter expresses in his book A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings (12) (Carter, 1969)Tolkien further theorised that the process of constructing language in itself generated mythology. Like previous epic traditions,The Lord of the Rings was considered by Tolkien to be “an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real (13).”


  1. Carpenter, H. (1977). ‘Chapter VI: Reunion’. J. R. R. Tolkien, A Biography. London: Allen & Unwin.
  2. McClusky, J. (1978). J. R. R. Tolkien: A Short Biography. In: A. Becker, ed. A Tolkien Treasury. 4th edn. New York: Running Press. pp. 9-43.
  3.  Shippey, T. (2000), J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. New York: HarperCollins
  4. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937) The Hobbit. London: Allen & Unwin. 
  5.  Virgil, (c. 19BC). The AeneidPerseus Digital Library. [online]. Available from:
  6. Soanes, C. and Hawker, S. (2000), ‘influence’, Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. Soanes, C. and Hawker, S. (2000), ‘inspiration’, Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Anon. (2013) Aristotle’s Definition of Epic in Poetics and his Consideration of Tragedy as Superior to an Epic. 
    Available at: 
    (Accessed 29 November 2019).
  9. Fortenbaugh, W. (2005). Theophrastus of Eresus Commentary Volume 8: Sources on Rhetoric and Poetics. Leiden: Brill.
  10. Tolkien, J.R.R. (1942). Letter to Stanley Unwin. 7 December.
  11. Newman, J. K. (2005). ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”: A Classical Perspective’. Illinois Classical Studies [online]30(1), pp. 229-247. [Viewed 12 September 2019]. Available from: Stable URL:
  12. Carter, L. (1969). Tolkien: A Look Behind “The Lord of the Rings”. New York: Ballantine Books
  13. Tolkien, J.R.R. 1964. Letter to Allen & Unwin. 11 September.

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