Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2015

Document Type

Thesis

Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors

Department

English

First Advisor

Tiffany Beechy

Second Advisor

Benjamin Robertson

Third Advisor

David Paradis

Abstract

It is unquestionable that the modern fantasy genre builds heavily upon medieval literature. Many works in the genre are medieval quest adventures, where the central hero battles evil with the fate of their world at stake. This is largely due to the influence of medieval scholar and novelist JRR Tolkien, whose work is regarded as the beginning of the modern fantasy genre. In order to explore the fantasy genre, this study will look at the construction of the warrior identity in medieval literature and analyze how Tolkien has reconstructed and evolved the warrior identity. Through two medieval texts, the Old English epic Beowulf and the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs, this study analyzes two medieval warrior identities, the warrior-king and the shield-maiden, to compare Tolkien’s medieval sources with his epic, The Lord of the Rings. The warrior-king Beowulf is compared with Tolkien’s character Aragorn in order to examine the prototypic male warrior. Beowulf is the ultimate warrior-king, yet his story ends with his death in battle and his entire dynasty crumbling. Aragorn is modeled on Beowulf, but is also evolved in a way that makes him more of a leader and thereby stabilizes the identity. The shield-maiden role is portrayed in medieval literature through Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Brynhild in The Saga of the Volsungs; it is reconstructed and evolved in Tolkien through the noblewoman and shield-maiden Eowyn. The shield-maiden identity is one of malleability and often serves as an exception to the order of the fantasy world, therein creating a space for dual identities. Ultimately, this study aims to describe how the warrior is constructed in medieval literature and then evolved in Tolkien’s fiction, thereby showing how fantasy creates a malleable space for the reconstruction and exploration of identities.

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