Ethics and the encounter with the other in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth narratives

Rios Maldonado, Mariana (2024) Ethics and the encounter with the other in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth narratives. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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My thesis is a study of the ethics formed by the encounter between the self and the Other in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LotR). Through the prism of Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical philosophy, my thesis explores the construction of ethical relationships, perspectives, and responses by the characters of these texts when they are placed face-to-face with different embodiments of Otherness.
I contend that, historically, the analysis of ethics in Tolkien's Middle-earth narratives has failed to occupy a central position within Tolkien scholarship, being overlooked or subordinated to research concerns such as the biographical or religious content of the author’s work, interpretations of his authorial intent, as well as the influence of Tolkien’s academic and philological interests on his literary production. More recently, endeavours to understand the ethical dimension of Tolkien’s narratives include studies by Jane Chance, Deidre Dawson, Robert Eaglestone, and Joseph Tadie, who detect an affinity with ethical considerations advanced by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. My thesis is the next step in the Tolkien-Levinas approximation, for it is a meeting point between Levinas’ philosophical reflections on ethics as arising from the encounter with the Other, and the characters who inhabit The Hobbit and LotR. Crucial to my argument are the different configurations of Otherness in Tolkien’s texts – as racialised, feminine, queer, and evil – and how encountering the Other is interlaced with themes essential to Tolkien’s literary production, such as heroism, the phenomenology of evil, death, and the intertwinement between fate and free will. I argue that the encounter with the Other in Tolkien’s Middle-earth narratives is responsible for the surfacing of ethical questions that catalyse the narratives’ actions and transformative processes within the characters.
My thesis is divided into two parts. Part One serves as an introduction to the positioning of this thesis within Tolkien scholarship and the method it follows. Chapter One reviews the history and current state of Tolkien studies in relation to the study of ethics in Tolkien’s Middle-earth narratives. Chapter Two details the methodological approach of this thesis, which I name “companionship”. This chapter expands on the notion of ethics underlining my thesis and describes the influence of philosophical ethics in literary studies prior to examining different portrayals of alterity in Tolkien’s worldbuilding project, namely the feminine, the swarthy, and the orc. Chapter Two closes with an appraisal of the potential connections between Tolkien’s fiction and Levinas’ philosophical discourse as well as the establishment of the core tenets of Levinas’ philosophy that accompany my study of primary sources.
The analysis of The Hobbit and LotR is the main focus of Part Two of my thesis. These chapters combine a close reading of primary sources, informed by relevant Tolkien scholarship, with a range of theoretical lenses and concepts, such as estrangement, the uncanny, and the abject. Underpinning my interpretation of Tolkien’s narratives is Levinas’ reflections on ethics, self, and Other. Chapter Three is dedicated to Bilbo Baggins’ narrative journey and the ethical perspectives he encounters during his experiences outside of the Shire, which transform his sense of self, his sense of service to and his ethical relationship with the Other. Chapter Four inaugurates this thesis’ study of LotR. This chapter focuses on hobbits as the queer Other, the constitution of Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Gollum, and the ethical relationships that ensue amongst them. Finishing this section is the study of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins’ narrative arc as a development in the approach to the Other. Chapter Five elaborates on the phenomenology of evil in LotR as the negation of the self to engage in an ethical relationship with the Other, which then may lead to its impossibility. Evil as essence or choice, the effects of the Ring(s) of Power, and the Other as an embodiment of evil – wraiths, orcs, and Shelob – are addressed in this section. The final chapter of my thesis explores the linkages between ideas of heroism and serving the Other in LotR. I begin with a comparison of Frodo and Aragorn in order to illustrate how their narrative trajectories, in their similarities and differences, exemplify heroism as a form of service to the Other. Next, I analyse the constellation formed by Merry, Pippin, Éowyn, and Faramir to argue that their path of serving the Other is through a disobedience marked by the need to acknowledge their distinct selfhoods. Closing my thesis is a coda that explores the idea of surrendering to and renouncing desire as possession, and its implications for the relationship between the self and the Other as experienced Saruman, Sauron, Galadriel, and Frodo. These reflections gesture towards the interpretative affordances of Tolkien’s Middleearth narratives and the applicability of the encounter with the Other for Tolkien scholarship.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Supported by Mexico’s National Council for Humanities, Sciences, and Technologies (CONAHCYT) and its National Institute for Fine Arts and Literature (FINBA)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Modern Languages and Cultures > Comparative Literature
Funder's Name: Consejo Nacional de Humanidades, Ciencias y Tecnologías (CONAHCYT), Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL)
Supervisor's Name: Martin, Dr. Laura and Sangster, Professor Matthew
Date of Award: 2024
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2024-84320
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 14 May 2024 12:43
Last Modified: 14 May 2024 14:43
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.84320

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