(Classical) Narratives of Decline in Tolkien: Renewal, Accommodation, Focalisation

Keywords: Narrative of decline, Hesiod, reception, focalization, accommodation


The paper investigates Tolkien’s narratives of decline through the lens of their classical ancestry. Narratives of decline are widespread in ancient culture, in both philosophical and literary discourses. They normally posit a gradual degradation (moral and ontological) from an idealized Golden Age, which went hand-in-hand with increasing detachment of gods from mortal affairs. Narratives of decline are also at the core of Tolkien’s mythology, constituting yet another underresearched aspect of classical influence on Tolkien. Such Classical narratives reverberate e.g. in Tolkien’s division of Arda’s history into ages, from an idealized First Age filled with Joy and Light to a Third Age, described as “Twilight Age (…) the first of the broken and changed world” (Letters 131). More generally, these narratives are related to Tolkien’s notorious perception of history as a “long defeat” (Letters 195) and to that “heart-racking sense of the vanished past” which pervades Tolkien’s works – the emotion which, in his words, moved him “supremely” and which he found “small difficulty in evoking” (Letters 91). The paper analyses the reception of narratives of decline in Tolkien’s legendarium, pointing out similarities but also contrasts and differences, with the aim to discuss some key patterns of (classical) reception in Tolkien’s theory and practice (‘renewal’, ‘accommodation’, ‘focalization’).