Cosmic Horror and Tolkien
This is one of those topics that has been nagging at the back of my mind for a while. It’s a strange thing to nag too, since at face value the worldviews of H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien could not have been more opposed. One was an atheistic (and racist) believer in man’s inevitable destruction at the hands of an uncaring cosmos, the other a theistic (and anti-racist) believer in the cosmos’ inevitable destruction at the hands of uncaring man. Yes, I’m being cheeky there, but let’s run with it.
Yet, scratching around in the undergrowth of Tolkien’s stories, one finds certain scenes and concepts that evoke Cosmic Horror: the terrifying sense that malign and alien things exist outside our knowledge, things that would drive puny humans mad if we could but comprehend a fraction of that which surrounds us. Cosmic Horror – of which Lovecraft’s stories are the most famous literary exemplar – attacks the notion that scientific advances will grant us control of our universe. Rather, we cannot hope to understand (let alone control) the cosmos; the best humans can hope for is to stay out the way and hope we don’t get stomped on like bugs.
The only evidence that Tolkien read Lovecraft is a 1964 letter to L. Sprague de Camp, where he expresses a broadly negative view of the stories contained in the latter’s Swords & Sorcery anthology (an anthology that included The Doom That Came to Sarnath).
We have no idea if Tolkien read any Lovecraft earlier than that, let alone during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Yet, while Tolkien (probably) did not engage with the other man’s work directly, we do know that he read the likes of Lord Dunsany, who was a major influence on Lovecraft. In a 1967 interview with de Camp, Tolkien also indicated that he “rather liked” Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Howard being one of Lovecraft’s writing circle.
Then there is Tolkien’s deep love for Norse mythology, with its dark and apocalyptic vision; Lovecraft’s famous essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature opines that “the Scandinavian Eddas and Sagas thunder with cosmic horror, and shake with the stark fear of Ymir and his shapeless spawn…” In short, Tolkien and Lovecraft were likely drawing from similar literary wells, even if their respective worldviews meant the end results were destined to be very different.
Turning now to the actual examples of Tolkienian Cosmic Horror, the best and most obvious example is the Balrog of Moria, Durin’s Bane. The Dwarves “dug too deep”, and in doing so awakened an ancient monster that had lain sleeping at the roots of the world – with predictable consequences.
This is classic Cosmic Horror: for all the glory and riches of the great Dwarven Kingdom, they were really just (bearded) rats running around the walls, living on borrowed time so long as the Balrog slept. That their destruction was rooted in greed and hubris is also appropriate – just as Lovecraft implicitly attacks the hubris of twentieth century humanity and its faith in ever-advancing science, so Tolkien’s dwarves are brought low by their own supposed strength, their skill in mining and mastery of the deep places of the world.
Interestingly, when the Balrog shows up to confront the Fellowship, it is implied that the “alarm” (so to speak) is the stone Peregrin Took drops down the well. Curiosity is a big motivator for Pippin, so he drops the stone to see what will happen. Thus the Balrog is again awoken by someone “digging too deep” in Moria – in this case, someone showing interest in something best left alone, which parallels Lovecraft perfectly. Trying to understand the world in a Cosmic Horror story generally leads to death or insanity, and while Pippin survives in this case, it is only because of Gandalf’s sacrifice.
While the Balrog is the “best” example, Moria generally is riddled with Cosmic Horror tropes. Consider the Book of Mazarbul, as read by Gandalf:
They have taken the bridge and the second hall. We have barred the gates, but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes. Drums… drums in the deep. We cannot get out. A shadow lurks in the dark. We cannot get out… They are coming.
Now consider the ending of Lovecraft’s Dagon (1919), which is another first-person account of a doomed narrator:
The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!
Apocalyptic logs (as TV Tropes calls them) were not invented by Lovecraft, but as seen above, he makes common use of them in his stories. Since victory is impossible against entities such as these, we need some way of preserving a record of the final moments… and in both Tolkien and Lovecraft, the details are left to the reader’s imagination. For the purposes of the dwarves, Durin’s Bane is a horror on par with Dagon or Cthulhu.
But surely, you say, Balrogs aren’t true Cosmic Horror? The Eldar fought them in the First Age, and Legolas recognises the creature immediately: they are hardly alien to Arda (we know who and what they are), and they can be killed. True, but they are alien to the experiences of both the dwarves of Moria and to our hobbit protagonists: remember that the Balrog lay buried for a good five millennia, which is a long time even for dwarves.
In any case, there are more alien creatures than the Balrog out there. Recall Gandalf the White’s comment about the roots of the world:
“Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.“
Lovecraft would be proud. Whatever these Nameless Things are, neither Gandalf nor Sauron (immortal angelic beings predating the existence of the universe) know them. They clearly predate the coming of the Ainur to Arda, the only interpretation in which “older than Sauron” makes sense. They are, in a way, the original inhabitants of the planet, and seemingly stand in stark contradiction to the Melkor’s Rebellion/War in Heaven narrative.
These aren’t servants of Sauron or Melkor; they lie outside all rules and conventions, are neither good nor evil; they simply are. In this case, I would (purely speculatively) cite the Gylfaginning from Snorri Sturluson’s thirteenth century Prose Edda:
Three roots of the tree uphold it and stand exceeding broad: one is among the Æsir; another among the Rime-Giants, in that place where aforetime was the Yawning Void; the third stands over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nídhöggr gnaws the root from below.
Tolkien knew this text very well. Here we have a monstrous dragon (Nídhöggr) gnawing away at the literal roots of the world – a dragon whose origin is never explained, and who apparently survives Ragnarök, judging by the final stanza of Völuspá:
Þar kemr inn dimmi dreki fljúgandi,
naðr fránn, neðan frá Niðafjöllum;
berr sér í fjöðrum, – flýgr völl yfir, –
Niðhöggr nái. Nú mun hon sökkvask.
From below the dragon | dark comes forth,
Nithhogg flying | from Nithafjoll;
The bodies of men on | his wings he bears,
The serpent bright: | but now must I sink.
Surviving Ragnarök essentially means that this dragon will survive both the destruction of the world and the Doom of the Gods. Like Tolkien’s Nameless Things, Nídhöggr is a sort of cosmic entity outside the standard framework. Moreover, the Prose Edda has one root of Yggdrasil (the Cosmic Ash Tree) ending up with the gods, one with the giants, and one with Nídhöggr – one “good”, one “bad”, and one “other”. Tolkien is arguably setting up a similar trichotomy, between the Valar (good), Melkor and Sauron (bad), and the Nameless Things (other).
Nor are the Nameless Things the only such example in Tolkien. There is the Watcher in the Water, for example; the strange, many-tentacled thing outside Moria’s Western Gate – Lovecraft was famous for his tentacled monstrosities. Caradhras also has more than a hint of the eldritch going on:
‘We cannot go further tonight,’ said Boromir. `Let those call it the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones are aimed at us.’
‘I do call it the wind,’ said Aragorn. ‘But that does not make what you say untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some have been in this world longer than he.’
‘Caradhras was called the Cruel, and had an ill name, said Gimli, `long years ago, when rumour of Sauron had not been heard in these lands.’
Note Aragorn’s comment about things “not in league with Sauron” that have been in the world “longer than he” – an echo of Gandalf’s description of the Nameless Things.
Ungoliant does temporarily throw her lot in with the more conventional bad guys, but a shadow (appropriately enough) hangs over her origins. She can be defined as a Maia if we apply the term as a catch-all for spirits before the world, and it is likely that Tolkien was moving in just such a direction, but even in the later work, the text expresses doubt in a way that it never does for Sauron and the Balrogs. In Tolkien’s earlier work she is indeed “something else” – a Gnomish/Noldorin word-list has her as literally “the Primeval Night” personified.
A less intimidating analogy is Tom Bombadil:
“Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
The Dark Lord Tom refers to isn’t Sauron – it’s Melkor. Tom, like the Nameless Things, predates the Ainur in Arda. He’s a cosmically alien creature who manages to escape standard definitions. He can even wear the Ring without effect, in a setting where the Ring’s lure is otherwise treated as universal.
Curiously, even The Hobbit has an odd tinge of Cosmic Horror:
“Some of these caves, too, go back in their beginnings to ages before the goblins, who only widened them and joined them up with passages, and the original owners are still there in odd corners, slinking and nosing about.”
Admittedly, this quote is used in the context of Gollum, before he acquired his more elaborate backstory – Gollum is more something out of Poe and Shakespeare than Lovecraft. But taking the quote more generally, as with the Nameless Things, there is a sense that there are any number of odd little creatures and cosmological exceptions floating around, dating back before the reckoning of Elves and Men (and hobbits). While the goblins/orcs never have their “dug too deep” moment (they fear the Balrog, but we never see it attacking them), this quote does evoke the sense that they too are mere “rats in the walls” – the true owners of those caves are altogether darker and more mysterious.
I mentioned earlier that while it is unlikely that Tolkien had encountered Lovecraft at the time he wrote The Lord of the Rings, he and Lovecraft likely shared some overlap in their reading material. One potential candidate for a joint literary ancestor is William Hope Hodgson, author of The House on the Borderland and The Night Land.
We certainly know Lovecraft read him (as per the Supernatural Horror in Literature essay). It is possible that Tolkien encountered his works at some point too, since both geography (Hodgson published his books in Britain, rather than in American pulp magazines) and chronology fit better than with other Cosmic Horror authors. Hodgson’s two cited works appeared in 1908 and 1912, which gives Tolkien a good three decade reading window.
Taking The Night Land, we encounter a far-future Earth doomed to darkness after the Sun has perished. Surviving humanity lives in a giant pyramid (the Great Redoubt), surrounded by eldritch inter-dimensional horrors. One day, our surviving humans hear a message from outside, asking for aid…
All well and good, but what does this have to do with Tolkien? Simple: there are a couple of elements in Hodgson that strongly resemble elements in The Lord of the Rings. For example, there are the Watchers: strange entities that encircle the Great Redoubt, never moving (save a bit closer over the millennia) but always watchful and always waiting. Our protagonist must sneak past them to investigate the mysterious aid message. There is, in short, at least a passing resemblance to the Silent Watchers of the Tower of Cirith Ungol, which Sam must creep past to rescue Frodo.
An even better example is Hodgson’s House of Silence, a mysterious and (literally) soul-destroying edifice that is simply evil unto itself. It exerts a strange psychic lure on its prospective victims:
… Aschoff of the Nine-Hundredth-City began again to run towards the House of Silence; and all they that were with him, did follow faithfully, and ceased not to run.
And they came presently to the low Hill whereon was that horrid House; and they went up swiftly–and they were two hundred and fifty, and wholesome of heart, and innocent; save for a natural waywardness of spirit.
And they came to the great open doorway that “hath been open since the Beginning,” and through which the cold steadfast light and the inscrutable silence of Evil “hath made for ever a silence that may be felt in all the Land.” And the great, uncased windows gave out the silence and the light–aye, the utter silence of an unholy desolation.
And Aschoff ran in through the great doorway of silence, and they that followed. And they nevermore came out or were seen by any human.
Suffice to say that our protagonist has to creep past this place, not once but twice:
And in the eleventh hour, we did go creeping from bush unto bush, and did be as shadows that went in the mixt greyness and odd shinings of that Land. And the grim and dreadful House did be now unto our right, and did loom huge and utter silent above us in the night.
And the lights of the House did shine steadfast and deathless with a noiseless shining, as that they shone out of the quiet of some drear and unnatural Eternity. And there did a seeming of Unholiness to brood in the air, and a sense of all and deathly Knowledge; so that, surely, our hiding did seem but a futile thing unto our spirits; for it was to us as that we did be watched quiet and alway by a Power, as we slipt gentle from bush unto bush.
There are obvious similarities to Frodo, Sam, and Gollum creeping past Minas Morgul. Just as Hodgson’s House of Silence shines with an unnatural light, and evokes a unique and unholy supernatural dread, so does Tolkien’s Tower of Dark Sorcery.
All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.
Both places represent a distortion in the natural order of life and death. The House of Silence seemingly destroys one’s very soul, whereas Minas Morgul is the Dead City – the home of madness and wraiths. In the case of the latter, our protagonists must also get past it, evading the fearsome, watchful gaze of whatever lurks within – and just like Hodgson’s Naani, so Frodo is particularly vulnerable to its power. In fact, Frodo (under the Ring’s influence) running up to the gleaming bridge is also very reminiscent of Aschoff in the above quoted section, though the former is lucky enough to have someone there to stop him.
Perhaps I am stretching things. Perhaps Tolkien never read or heard of Hodgson. After all, he is far less prominent an author than Lord Dunsany, or even Arthur Machen. Even so, that leaves us with Tolkien independently constructing story elements that are also present in a seminal work of Cosmic Horror. Which in turn ties into this essay’s general point that, notwithstanding Tolkien’s fundamental belief in a benign cosmos, there are elements of overlap – if not with Lovecraft himself then at least with those who influenced Lovecraft. However subtle and camouflaged by the generalised sense of supernatural fading, Cosmic Horror is still a “thing” in Middle-earth in a way it never is in Narnia.