LOTR and Paradise Lost

I’ve finished “Paradise Lost,” and I thought it would be fun to list all the passages that made me think of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

Many things in “Paradise Lost” made me think of Middle-Earth, some because of their resemblance to Tolkien’s creations, others because there was only a superficial similarity and strong differences.

a singèd bottom all involved
With stench and smoke

Milton’s description of the floor of Hell, and one of many possible influences bouncing inside Tolkien’s mind when he created Mordor.

Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heav’n, for ev’n in Heav’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav’n’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific

Gandalf relates the following about Gollum’s past:

“The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Sméagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.”

Mammon is always looking downward even while in Heaven, so of course he ends up in the lowest place possible. Smeagol looks downward for different reasons. The Ring that ensnares him is made of gold but even so, it’s not riches he’s interested in. (For that we have the Dwarves.) He’s unusually inquisitive and curious, especially about the origin of things (think of the riddles he learned). In all this, just sticking to Milton’s universe, he resembles Adam best of all. And he has his own Fall, but the cause is different. Desire for knowledge is not even a factor; Smeagol’s fall, as has been widely observed, closely echoes the life and fate of Adam’s firstborn son.

Every time I look at Gollum I realize what a complex and rich character he is.

for what can force or guile
With him, or who deceive his mind, whose eye
Views all things at one view?

These words are spoken by one of Satan’s lieutenants, Belial. They made me think of Saruman’s words to Gandalf about Sauron’s all-seeing lidless Eye, although I was thinking here of the Peter Jackson movie and not any single passage in LOTR that I can identify.

Wherefore do I assume
These royalties, and not refuse to reign,

Satan speaks these words when offering to lead his comrades toward freedom, but already he’s talking transparently like a politician. He says he will make sacrifices and incur risks for his friends, but he is obviously cut more from Denethor’s cloth than Frodo’s; this is not a position he ever intends to give up. Frodo, to state the obvious, is an entirely different kind of servant; when he agrees to take the Ring for his friends, all he adds is the helpless confession, “though I do not know the way.”

The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful dart; what seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

That is Milton’s description of a goblin guarding the gates of Hell. I hear echoes here of two creatures in Tolkien.

The Balrog of Moria:

“Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater.”

The Witch King of Angmar:

“The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set….a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgûl.”

Through them I mean to pass,

Satan declares that he will pass both the goblin and another demon standing at hell’s gate. Makes you wonder whether the Balrog silently answered Gandalf: “I shall pass!”

Retire, or taste thy folly, and learn by proof,
Hell-born, not to contend with Spirits of Heav’n.

This is one of the most delicious passages in “Paradise Lost,” because Satan hurls these words at the gate-defending demons as if he were some righteous angel. You can virtually hear him inventing the phrase, “Demons begone!” He’s been exiled to Hell but thinks he has nothing in common with creatures who, as he assumes, were born there.

There is something comical in this, because Satan is essentially having trouble adapting to his new residence and his neighbors. But in this confrontation he learns that he is personally related to both of the demons standing at the gate.

One of the demons, Satan’s son, is named Death. This goblin will later relish the opportunity to go to Earth, expecting to consume everything there.

Now recall Eowyn’s words to the Witch-King of Angmar:

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace.”

Back to thy punishment,
False fugitive,

That is Death’s retort to Satan.

At the blasted gates of Minas Tirith, Gandalf commands the Lord of the Nazgul: “Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master.”

I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleased, on me let Death wreck all his rage;

The Son’s words to the Father.

There is nothing like this in LOTR, because no one in Middle-Earth can take on death itself; and no one has the Son’s omniscience. Nevertheless the Son’s offer here makes me think of Frodo, who takes on not just a perilous journey but also a ring that threatens death and worse to himself.

That is what distinguishes Frodo’s mission from many others that feature only external perils. Many fantasy and sci-fi epics feature Doomsday weapons that may be described as representing “Death” to the universe. It’s one thing to destroy such a weapon, but another to take on the weapon itself, put it around your neck, and accept the violence that it will do to you.

Satan with vast and haughty strides advanced,
Came tow’ring, armed in adamant and gold;

Echoes here of Sauron, Goliath, etc.

So hills amid the air encountered hills
Hurled to and fro with jaculation dire,

The Stone Giants hurling boulders in “The Hobbit”?

So spake the Son, and into terrour changed
His countenance too severe to be beheld,
And full of wrath bent on his enemies.
At once the Four spread out their starry wings
With dreadful shade contiguous, and the orbs
Of his fierce chariot rolled, as with the sound
Of torrent floods, or of a numerous host.
He on his impious foes right onward drove,
Gloomy as night; under his burning wheels
The stedfast empyrean shook throughout,
All but the throne itself of God. Full soon
Among them he arrived; in his right hand
Grasping ten thousand thunders, which he sent
Before him, such as in their souls infixed
Plagues: They, astonished, all resistance lost,
All courage; down their idle weapons dropt:
O’er shields, and helms, and helmed heads he rode
Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim prostrate,
That wished the mountains now might be again
Thrown on them, as a shelter from his ire.
Nor less on either side tempestuous fell
His arrows, from the fourfold-visaged Four
Distinct with eyes, and from the living wheels
Distinct alike with multitude of eyes;
One Spirit in them ruled; and every eye
Glared lightning, and shot forth pernicious fire
Among the accursed, that withered all their strength,
And of their wonted vigour left them drained,
Exhausted, spiritless, afflicted, fallen.
Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked
His thunder in mid volley; for he meant
Not to destroy, but root them out of Heaven:
The overthrown he raised, and as a herd
Of goats or timorous flock together thronged
Drove them before him thunder-struck, pursued
With terrours, and with furies, to the bounds
And crystal wall of Heaven; which, opening wide,
Rolled inward, and a spacious gap disclosed
Into the wasteful deep: The monstrous sight
Struck them with horror backward, but far worse
Urged them behind: Headlong themselves they threw
Down from the verge of Heaven; eternal wrath
Burnt after them to the bottomless pit.

Satan’s entire army is driven by one transfigured terror into the pit of Hell.

Gandalf recounts what Glorfindel did to drive the Nine Black Riders into the flooding Bruinen:

The moment the flood appeared, he rushed out, followed by Aragorn and the others with flaming brands. Caught between fire and water, and seeing an Elf-lord revealed in his wrath, they were dismayed, and their horses were stricken with madness. Three were carried away by the first assault of the flood; the others were now hurled into the water by their horses and overwhelmed.
by Alystraea, at Deviant Art

Similarly the Orc army at Helm’s Deep was driven by the White Rider and his forces into the waiting trees, rushing into a darkness that swallowed them forever:

The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees.... There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun. ..... The hosts of Isengard roared, swaying this way and that, turning from fear to fear. ..... Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king's company. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down leaped Shadowfax, like a deer that runs surefooted in the mountains. The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.

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