"Bid the Tree Unfix His Earth-Bound Root":  Motifs from Macbeth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings


Janet Brennan Croft

 As presented at Mythcon33, Boulder CO, July 2002




Because of the evidence in his letters and biography, J.R.R. Tolkien is often thought of as being "unswervingly hostile" to William Shakespeare and his works (Shippey, Century 310) . As a schoolboy at King Edward's he had already formed his opinion of the playwright, and did not enjoy studying Shakespeare, whom he "disliked cordially" (Tolkien, Carpenter and Tolkien 213) . The Carpenter biography records that in a debating society speech at age sixteen Tolkien "poured a sudden flood of abuse on Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character" (Carpenter, Tolkien 40) . He blamed Shakespeare for playing an "unforgivable" part in the “debasement” of the English concept of the Elves (Tolkien, Carpenter and Tolkien 185) , and his plans for curriculum reform at the Oxford English School, based on the program he developed at Leeds University, reduced the emphasis on Shakespeare and Milton that he felt privileged modern literature studies at the expense of historical linguistics (Carpenter, Tolkien 137) .  He thought that the Honour School of English Language and Literature course should have a rigorous language component “based on ancient and medieval texts and their language, with at most only a brief excursion into ‘modern’ literature – ‘modern’ being anything after Geoffrey Chaucer” (Carpenter, Inklings 24) .

 But how much did Tolkien really dislike Shakespeare?  In The Inklings, Carpenter speculates that Tolkien “took an impish delight in challenging established values” and in “declaring that Shakespeare had been unjustifiably deified” (Carpenter, Inklings 25) . In his “imaginary meeting” of the Inklings, in which he reconstructs a typical meeting from the published and unpublished writings of the participants, Carpenter has Tolkien saying “Hamlet is a fine enough play…providing you take it just so, and don’t start thinking about it. In fact I’m of the opinion that Old Bill’s plays are all the same – they just haven’t got any coherent ideas behind them” (Carpenter, Inklings 135) .

But while Tolkien may have disliked Shakespeare, he was not so hostile as to totally avoid reading and thinking about his works. He was not always consistent in his opinions, either, particularly when it came to his thoughts on reading Shakespeare versus seeing the plays in performance. In "On Fairy-stories" he states that he feels the witches in Macbeth are intolerable on stage but significant in reading, and in this case Shakespeare ought to have written a story instead of a play (Tolkien, "Fairy-Stories" 50) . Tolkien thought it was impossible to translate fantasy to the stage without violating the “Secondary Belief” of the audience. In this essay Tolkien illustrates his point about the inability of Drama to represent Faerie by describing how depicting the witches through stage trickery detracts from the power of their portrayal in the reader's imagination. Being brought into the Primary World, they cannot help but be exposed as shams. In his opinion, Drama cannot depict Fantasy truly because it prevents total suspension of disbelief by its very nature (Tolkien, "Fairy-Stories" 49-51) . He feels fiction does the job better.

 On the other hand, in a 1944 letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien writes about attending a performance of Hamlet featuring a "young rather fierce" Prince of Denmark, in which Ophelia's mad scene, which he found boring in reading, became "almost intolerably" moving. Here he says Shakespeare should not be read in the study but seen live in performance - "Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific” (Tolkien, Carpenter and Tolkien 88) .  He says nothing of the fantastic elements in Hamlet and whether they worked on stage or not, although the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is fully as fantastical as the witches in Macbeth and as difficult to present convincingly in performance.

 Whatever his attitude towards a writer who was, after all, a fellow coiner of rich and strange new words, possessed of an astoundingly fertile imagination like his own, and raised in Warwickshire as he himself was, Tolkien was not ignorant of Shakespeare's writings. It does take a certain familiarity with the sources to be able to casually write in a letter that Sam "treats Gollum rather like Ariel to Caliban" (Tolkien, Carpenter and Tolkien 77) , or disparage a critic’s “Shylockian” turn of phrase in a scholarly essay (Tolkien, Beowulf 10) .



The play that appears to have had the strongest influence on Tolkien was Macbeth. Some aspects of The Lord of the Rings can almost be read as an answer to the flaws Tolkien perceived in Macbeth – “correcting and improving” the play, as Tom Shippey put it in his most recent book (Shippey, Century 193) , or both paralleling and reproaching it as he said earlier in The Road to Middle Earth (Shippey, Road 137) . There are two very obvious borrowings from Macbeth in The Lord of the Rings, each solving one of the riddling prophecies the witches revealed to Macbeth in an entirely different way from in Shakespeare’s play. Interestingly, in both cases, an earlier reference in the text of the play, taken in conjunction with one of the prophecies, could lead logically to the use Tolkien made of the material.

Main plot elements

The first is the transformation of the Birnam Wood prophecy and its fulfillment into the Ents. Tolkien uses aspects of this motif in two other places; the hidden path the troops of Rohan take through Stonewain Valley in Druadan Forest is a straightforward interpretation of Malcolm's tactic of concealing his army's numbers and movements by the means of "leavy screens" (Shakespeare V:vi) , and the malice-filled but stationary trees of the Old Forest hint at the eventual fulfillment of the idea of living, walking trees in the Ents and Huorns.

But of course the main place Tolkien used the Birnam Wood motif was in his unique Ents. As Tolkien said in a 1967 interview, he knew that at some point in The Lord of the Rings there would be "trouble with treelike creatures" (Norman 6) . A long letter to W.H. Auden in 1955 includes a footnote explaining the origin of the Ents:

Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schoolboy days with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of 'Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill': I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. (Tolkien, Carpenter and Tolkien 212) .

In Macbeth, after the feast disrupted by the ghost of Banquo, Macbeth says "Stones have been known to move and trees to speak" (Shakespeare III:iv) . It is several scenes later that the witches call up the apparition that tells Macbeth he "shall never vanquish'd be until/ Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/ shall come against him". In the original Holinshed Chronicles, from which Shakespeare drew many elements of this play, a witch tells Macbeth that “he should neuer be … vanquished till the wood of Bernane came to the castell of Dunsinane” (Boswell-Stone 36) . Combining this earlier statement with the prophecy, the imaginative audience might expect to see real trees marching on Dunsinane. In contrast to his earlier fearful reaction to Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth's reply to the apparition is arrogant and pragmatic: "That will never be;/ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earth-bound root?" (Shakespeare IV:i) .  It would only be poetic justice to have the trees themselves turn against him.

The freedom of story-telling allows Tolkien to do just that, a feat which would be difficult and unconvincing if not ludicrous given the limitations of the stage. As with the stage production of “Puss-in-Boots” Tolkien comments on in “On Fairy-stories”, the audience’s disbelief would have to be “not so much suspended … as hanged, drawn, and quartered” (Tolkien, "Fairy-Stories" 50) for a marching forest of sentient trees to come off as believable on stage. Of course in Shakespeare's play the march of the trees turns out to be a trick, a poke in the ribs of the audience -- "see how blinded Macbeth is by his ambition, unable to imagine this interpretation of the prophecy - were you gullible, too?" The audience almost feels cheated. Tolkien certainly did.

But in Tolkien's hands the wonders promised are delivered - twice - the Huorns march on the orcs at Helm's Deep, and the Ents on the traitor Saruman's stronghold of Orthanc. Like a "howling gale" (Tolkien, LotR 2:173) , they tear down the walls and turn the Wizard's Vale into a steaming lake. Saruman's arrogance is like Macbeth's - "leaving the Ents out of his calculations" (Tolkien, LotR 2:172) is as foolish as saying "That will never be" to the personifications of Fate. Here Tolkien can preserve the wonder and terror of the prophecy because walking trees can happen in Faerie and in the reader’s mind; in Macbeth, in spite of the presence of Hecate and the witches, we are in the real and historical world where human action matters more than the supernatural, and where a pragmatic and down-to-earth fulfillment of the prophecy is engineered by Macbeth’s entirely human enemies.  As Harold Bloom pointed out, “[t]he witchcraft in Macbeth, though pervasive, cannot alter material events, yet hallucination can and does” (Bloom 516) ; it is always Macbeth’s actions in response to the visions he sees that drive the plot, not any direct action by the witches.

The other element taken most directly from Macbeth is the foretelling that "none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth" (Shakespeare IV:i) . In the original Holinshed Chronicles, the more specific prophecy was that Macbeth “should neuer be slaine with man born of anie woman” (emphasis added) (Boswell-Stone 36) . In Macbeth's case the fulfillment of this prophecy rests on a technicality - Macduff tells Macbeth he was "from his mother's womb/ Untimely ripp'd" (Shakespeare V:viii) ; or as he says in Holinshed, “was neuer borne of my mother, but ripped out of her wombe” (Boswell-Stone 43) . Although in Shakespeare’s time Caesarian sections were being performed on living patients with the expectation that at least some might survive, at the time of the historical Macbeth, a child was only cut out of the womb if the mother was dead so that the infant might be baptized. If the mother died, “the newborn was [considered] the child not of a living woman but of a corpse” (Blumenfeld-Kosinski 1) . The audience is cheated yet again - there is no way to tell by looking at Macduff that he was born by Caesarian section, or whether he is even telling the truth about his birth. 

 However, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's completion of the prophecy plays fair with the reader. Gandalf mentions the prophecy to Denethor shortly before the charge of Rohan: “ [I]f words spoken of old be true, not by the hand of man shall he fall, and hidden from the Wise is the doom that awaits him” (Tolkien, LotR 3:92) When confronted by Éowyn, the Witch-King thunders, “Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!” (Tolkien, LotR 3:116) . The original prophecy is given in Appendix A: after the last king of Gondor defeats the Witch-king, who flees the battlefield, the elf Glorfindel says “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall” (Tolkien, LotR 3:332) . The foretelling is widely known, and not, as in Macbeth, known only to the doomed king.

While Éowyn is disguised as a male warrior, there is no doubt that she fulfils the prophecy by being female, as she admits freely and instantly to the Nazgûl: “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman” (Tolkien, LotR 3:116) . Tolkien dropped enough clues that the astute reader will already have guessed that Dernhelm is Éowyn in disguise, and will have a good idea where this sequence is heading even if unfamiliar with the parallel sequence in Macbeth. Macbeth himself has a moment of “sudden doubt” at this instant of confronting his doom, just as the Nazgûl does; he says Macduff’s revelation “hath cow’d my better part of man” (Shakespeare V:viii) .  And technically, it is the overlooked Hobbit, Merry, who strikes the initial blow that hamstrings the Witch-King and breaks “the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will” (Tolkien, LotR 3:120) .

Again in this case an earlier phrase in Macbeth provides a clue that could lead logically to Tolkien's answer to this riddle. Lady Macbeth's unforgettable cry “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" (Shakespeare I:v) , combined with the prophecy "none of woman born," could subtly point to a woman as the solution to this prophecy – although it is not one Shakespeare could use, since Macbeth was based on historical events.

Minor plot elements

There are two more direct borrowings of scenes and motifs from Macbeth, less notable but still interesting. The hobbits and Macbeth both see a vision of a ghostly line of men, the last one significantly different from the others. In Macbeth’s case, the witches summon a show of apparitions: eight figures dressed like Kings, the last carrying a mirror reflecting more kings, and followed by Banquo’s ghost (Shakespeare IV:i) – these are Banquo’s descendants, who will be the kings of England and Scotland for generations to come in spite of Macbeth’s usurpation of the throne.  Banquo is the maddening conclusion to all of Macbeth’s ambitions, and his line stretches on forever - “to the crack of doom,” as a matter of fact - to torment Macbeth (Shakespeare IV:i) . “For Banquo’s issue have I filed [defiled] my mind;/ For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d … To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!” (Shakespeare III:i) .

 In contrast, the vision seen by Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, after their rescue from the Barrow-wight by Tom Bombadil, is not sent to torment them but to prepare them to meet Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, that night at the inn in Bree.  And what they see also differs in that it is a vision of the past and present only– tall grim men with bright swords, “forgotten kings walking in loneliness”, and the last one “with a star on his brow” (Tolkien, LotR 1:157) representing Aragorn, the hopeful conclusion to their years of watchfulness.  The source of the vision is not clear, although it seems to come from Tom; the similar visions they see in his house under the influence of his storytelling, and their dreams the first night they stay with him, all reach back into the past.

 Comparing these visions shows how Tolkien’s concept of magic and prophecy differed from Shakespeare’s. Galadriel’s mirror “shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them” (Tolkien, LotR 1 378) .  Or to make them come true; as Shippey observed, “Someone should have told Macbeth that” (Shippey, Century 194) . Would the prophecies have been fulfilled in the same tragic way if Macbeth had not interfered by murdering Duncan and Macduff’s family?  Only Banquo questions the motives of the witches: “[o]ftentimes, to win us to our harm,/ The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/ Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/ In deepest consequence” (Shakespeare I:iii) . As with the steward Denethor and the visions shown in the Palantír by Sauron, Macbeth saw “only those things which that Power permitted him to see,” which “fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind” (Tolkien, LotR 3 132) . The part-truths they believed to be whole led to their downfalls.  The witches in Macbeth always spoke true, because one way or another their prophecies were fulfilled. Galadriel’s prophecies, however, are more nebulous and show what a science fiction reader might call parallel worlds, where history has diverged because of a character’s as yet unmade choice; her visions may never come to pass.

 The other minor theme repeated in The Lord of the Rings is the role of the king as a divine healer. In this case Tolkien does not seem to be answering Shakespeare so much as taking his theme a dramatic step further, by going back to the deepest sources of this belief; Verlyn Flieger traces this theme back to early Celtic mythology and shows the parallels between the Maimed King and the Healing King of the Grail stories (Flieger 50) .  In Macbeth there are two mentions of “the most pious Edward … the holy king” (Shakespeare III:vi) , who cures “the king’s evil”, or scrofula, with his touch and a prayer. This talent is apparently inherited by his successors: “To the succeeding royalty he leaves/ The healing benediction” (Shakespeare IV:iii) .  In this depiction Shakespeare flatters King James I, as he did with the vision of the kings. Macbeth of course does not have this talent; in contrast, his crime against the natural, hierarchical order of things results in owls bringing down falcons and the king’s horses attacking each other; the country bleeds under his tyranny.

Tolkien augments this motif by making the healing touch a sign that reveals the hidden king.  The old lore says that “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer,” as Ioreth reminds Gandalf, “[a]nd so the rightful king could ever be known” (Tolkien, LotR 3:136) .  Aragorn is the only one who can cure Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry in the Houses of Healing. When Faramir calls him King, the healer-woman Ioreth spreads the rumor: “the king was indeed come among them, and after war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City” (Tolkien, LotR 3:142) .

 Other parallels

It is also intriguing to examine a few minor echoes of words and phrases from Macbeth in The Lord of the Rings.  For example, the witches chant “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” in the opening scene of the play (Shakespeare I:i)) .  In the chapter introducing Aragorn, Frodo says that spies of the Enemy would “seem fairer and feel fouler” than Strider, and Aragorn responds “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?” (Tolkien, LotR 1: 183-4) . The incantations of the witches have the same rhythm and feel as the Barrow-wight’s chant over the captured hobbits; compare “Cold be hand and heart and bone,/ and cold be sleep under stone” (Tolkien, LotR 1: 152) with “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” (Shakespeare IV:i) . There is a very faint echo of “To throw away the dearest thing he owed/ As ‘twere a careless trifle” (Shakespeare I:iv) in Aragorn’s adage “one who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters” (Tolkien, LotR 2:169) . 

 Shippey also points out the use of “alliterative assonance” by both authors.  Macbeth is the only play in which Shakespeare used this Old and Middle English poetic device, in word pairs like life/leaf, fear/fair, and blade/blood, where the vowel changes very slightly to link together alliteration at the beginning and end of words.  It is a device Tolkien used frequently in pairs like fail/fall or mock/make (Shippey, Road 137-38) . For example, Tom Bombadil pairs “candle” and “kindle”, “song” and “sing;” the swords the goblins fear most in The Hobbit are Biter and Beater; there are paired names among the Dwarves, life Bifur and Bofur; and Treebeard juxtaposes “bear” and “boar” in his list of living creatures.


 One of the deeper themes treated in both these works is the proper role of a Steward; this in particular is where Shippey sees The Lord of the Rings as a rebuke to Macbeth (Shippey, Road 137) .  In The Lord of the Rings, the honor of a Steward of Gondor resides entirely in how well he keeps the kingdom for his king – there would be no honor in usurping the throne. As Gandalf reminds Denethor, “it is your task to keep some kingdom still against [the return of the king], which few now look to see” (Tolkien, LotR 3:30) . Charles W. Nelson points out that Denethor calls himself “Lord” of Gondor (Tolkien, LotR 3: 29) , betraying his possessive pride in his authority; but “as Gandalf reminds him on more than one occasion, he is the Steward of Gondor and therefore answerable to a superior . …as Steward, it was [Denethor’s] prime responsibility to return the throne to its rightful heir” (Nelson 87) . Macbeth’s ambition rebels against this natural order; killing his king, his guest, and a man who has honored Macbeth with promotion and has ruled the land well, is a terrible crime. 

 Boromir, eldest son of the Steward of Gondor, is the closest character to Macbeth in The Lord of the Rings, in terms of his political position at the beginning of the work and his ambitious nature. Like Macbeth, Boromir hungers to be more than a mere vassal to a king. He is bitter because his father is still a Steward rather than King of Gondor after so many centuries, and earns a sharp rebuke from him, as his brother Faramir reports. "How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?" asked Boromir, and Denethor replied, "Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty … In Gondor, ten thousand years would not suffice" (Tolkien, LotR 2:278) . At least Boromir was satisfied by Aragorn’s claim, as Frodo reports to Faramir (Tolkien, LotR 2:272) . Denethor’s perverse pride might have led him instead to challenge Aragorn; his desire is for Gondor to continue as he has known it all the years of his life – the queen of nations, with an honorable Steward at her head and not some upstart claiming the higher title of King, "last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity" (Tolkien, LotR 3:130) .

 The vision sent to Boromir and his brother, a voice out of the western sky reciting an enigmatic verse about a broken sword (Tolkien, LotR 1:259) , prompts him to make the journey to the hidden valley of Rivendell to puzzle out its meaning. Again his ambition is demonstrated by the fact that he takes this journey on himself, even though Faramir saw the vision first and most often. He learns in Rivendell that Aragorn is the true king, destined to reclaim the throne. He does have sufficient grace and honor, as Macbeth likely would not, to accept the ruin of his hope of kingship, but there remains some sense of tenseness and rivalry between the two. And as the Fellowship travels on its quest, Boromir is more and more maddened by the Ring and the possibilities it presents. He needs no Lady Macbeth to urge him on; the Ring itself serves this purpose for him, undoubtedly preying on his desire for glory the way it played on Sam’s dreams of heroism on the edge of Mordor. 

It is Galadriel, Lady of Lothlórien, who functions in the role of the witches for Boromir, tempting him “and offering what she pretended to have the power to give;” he claims to have refused to listen, but would not reveal what she had offered (Tolkien, LotR 2 :373) . In the original Holinshed Chronicles, the weird sisters were “the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries” (Boswell-Stone 24) , not "secret, black, and midnight hags" (Shakespeare IV:i) . What does she reveal to Boromir? When his brother Faramir learns he visited The Lady of the Golden Wood, he wonders "What woke in your heart then?" (Tolkien, LotR 2:275) . Quite likely a vision of himself in command, similar to the one he reveals to Frodo when he tries to take the Ring: "How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!" (Tolkien, LotR 1:414) . He saw himself becoming "a mighty king, benevolent and wise", through the power of the Ring. 

As Shippey points out, "[b]oth Tolkien and Shakespeare are aware of prophetic ambiguity, but Tolkien is much more concerned with drawing out its philosophical implications. His point, always, is that his characters have free will but no clear guidance" (Shippey, Century 194) . Whatever Galadriel may or may not have revealed to Boromir, she does know his mind and the peril he brought with him to Rivendell. On the trip down the Anduin after the fellowship’s visit to Rivendell, Boromir begins to act strangely, culminating with his tragic surrender to the temptation of the Ring at Parth Galen. Perhaps because of Tolkien’s faith, however, Boromir is granted a eucatastrophic ending, and turns out not to be past remorse and redemption -- unlike Macbeth, defiant to the last and ignominiously beheaded in battle. 

Politically this concern with stewardship and kingship reflects Tolkien’s interest in ancient Anglo-Saxon England. Shippey points out that James I’s dynasty, the Stewarts, were so named because his ancestors had been High Stewards of Scotland; one had married Robert the Bruce’s daughter and their son had initially been named the king’s successor. When the king’s son David was born, Robert lost this position and was made David’s heir apparent instead. Robert served as David’s regent while he was in exile, and rebelled against him on his return, then finally succeeded to the throne as Robert II when David died ("Robert II (Scotland)") . According to Shippey, though, the Anglo-Saxon line of kings boasted an unbroken patrilineal descent from the "legendary" past to 1065 (Shippey, Road 137) , and Denethor’s remark about stewards becoming kings “in other places of less royalty” is a pointed reference to Scotland and Britain. Shakespeare glosses over the irony of James’ ancestry in his flatteries to his patron the King, but a recurring theme in his works is that "there is a divine right of kings, and that to usurp the throne is a nefarious crime against all of humanity" (Mabillard 1) . 

When Faramir awakens in the Houses of Healing, his first words acknowledge Aragorn as King, before he even knows he has succeeded to the Stewardship. And when Aragorn returns from the last battle to claim the throne, Faramir hands over the symbols of kingship with all proper ceremony, and is rewarded with the added title of Prince of Ithilien.  Unlike his father, he accepts Aragorn’s claim to the throne without question, and unlike his brother, he had no ambitions to rule himself. Macbeth is well aware his actions are not the proper duties of a steward and host: the king is “here in double trust:/ First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,/ Strong both against the deed; then as his host,/ Who should against his murderer bar the door,/ Not bear the knife myself” (Shakespeare I:vii) . Yet he still yields to his ambition. 

If Faramir epitomizes the good steward, Aragorn is the image of the perfect king as described by Shakespeare. In a conversation between young Malcolm and Macduff, the son of the murdered king recites a list of “the king-becoming graces/ … justice, verity, temperance, stableness,/ Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,/ Devotion, patience, courage, [and] fortitude” (Shakespeare IV:iii) .  Malcolm further describes himself: “I am yet/ Unknown to woman, never was forsworn,/ Scarcely have coveted what was mine own,/ At no time broke my faith, would not betray/ The devil to his fellow, and delight/ No less in truth than life” (Shakespeare IV:iii) . While Aragorn may indeed covet what is “his own”, desiring the throne of Gondor, the other “king-becoming graces” are quite strong in him. His courage and fortitude are proven in battle; his devotion, perseverance, and patience by his long wait for the hand of Arwen. He dispenses justice tempered with mercy during his first official acts as king.  His lowliness or humility was demonstrated while he served as a Ranger, living no better than his men. He is never seen to be less than truthful, generous, or temperate in behavior, and is as stable and dependable a companion on the road as one could desire. 


 In spite of his stated dislike of the playwright, Tolkien could not totally escape Shakespeare’s influence. (What English writer could?) Tom Shippey comes to the conclusion that Tolkien was “guardedly respectful” of Shakespeare, admiring some aspects of his work but perhaps finding that he had strayed too far from his Warwickshire roots (Shippey, Century 194-5) . If Tolkien indeed felt that Shakespeare lacked “coherent ideas” or a consistent underlying philosophy, he tried to remedy this in his own work through “simultaneous immediate relevance, and wider symbolic application” (Shippey, Century 196) . His themes and motifs reverberate through the levels of his created world in a way difficult to achieve in drama (but not impossible for as brilliant a dramatist as Shakespeare, in spite of Tolkien’s misgivings).

 The Lord of the Rings is in some ways a response to Macbeth, motivated by Tolkien’s desire to correct what he saw as Shakespeare’s failings, as in the case of the Ents. Tolkien freely used themes and motifs from Macbeth without compromising the “secondary belief” of his audience by tying them in seamlessly to the internal consistency of his written world. Consciously or not, by referring to and quoting from Macbeth, Tolkien keeps the play uppermost in the mind of readers who share his familiarity with it.  The rehabilitation of the Birnam Wood motif was very conscious, as shown in his letters. The use of the “no man of woman born” prophecy was also very likely conscious, because it is such an obvious borrowing, although there is nothing in the published letters or in the supplementary material published by Christopher Tolkien to confirm this (Tolkien and Tolkien 326, 34-5, 63-9) . It is difficult to tell if the use of other themes, motifs, and quotes was conscious or not.

 But what is more important is that both Tolkien and Shakespeare were concerned, in part, in these works with two significant themes. First, defining the attributes of a true king and the duties of a faithful steward - Shakespeare by the tragic example of the false steward Macbeth, and Tolkien by the embodiment of kingly virtue in Aragorn and true stewardship in Faramir – both exploring the possibilities of conflict and harmony between the two roles. Secondly, both examine the ambiguous nature of prophecy and the dangers of acting on it, as shown in the contrasting prophetic styles of Galadriel and the three witches. Macbeth succumbs to the temptation to interfere in the workings of prophecy and ends in disaster; Sam and Frodo listen to Galadriel’s advice about the images in her Mirror and go on to the successful conclusion of their quest in spite of their fears.


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---. The Fellowship of the Ring : Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965.

---. "On Fairy-Stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. 3-84.

---. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965.

---. The Two Towers; Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien : A Selection. 1st Houghton Mifflin pbk. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The War of the Ring : The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Three. The History of Middle-Earth V.8. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.