‘Great Fangorn wood to high Isengard hill’: ‘The Scottish Play’ and Middle Earth, Part 1


Bath-time for Isengard…

I was inspired to write this piece by a post on the Shakespeare Globe blog saying how the 1605 Gunpowder Plot influenced Macbeth. It reminded me of how  Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ influenced others.

Tolkien has a reputation for not having much time for Shakespeare. At King Edward’s School in Birmingham study of English Literature was mainly confined to Shakespeare’s plays, which he ‘disliked cordially’ (Humphrey Carpenter, 2002, JRR Tolkien: A Biography, London, Harper Collins,,  p.46; Letter to WH Auden, 7 June 1956, in Humphrey Carpenter, ed., 1995, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, London, Harper Collins, p.213). Tolkien was particularly aggrieved at Shakespeare’s use of ‘Elves’, In a letter to Hugh Brogan, dated 18 September 1954 discussing The Lord of the Rings :

‘…I now deeply regret having used Elves, though this is a word in ancestry and original meaning suitable enough. But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgivable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome.’ (Letters, op cit, p.185) 

Tolkien also mentioned this in a 1951 letter  to Milton Waldman, giving an overview of Middle Earth’s history when it seemed Collins, not Allen and Unwin would be publishing both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings:

‘…to those creatures which In English I misleadingly call Elves* are assigned two related languages…’  ‘*Intending the word to be understood in its ancient meaning, which continued as late as [Edmund] Spenser- a murrain on Will Shakespeare and his damned cobwebs.’ (ibid, p.143)


Tolkien would probably cite Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’ performance as an example of Shakespeare’s bad influence…

However, Tolkien’s relationship to Shakespeare’s works is rather more complicated that simple condemnation. In July 1944 he saw a performance of Hamlet at Oxford Playhouse and commented in a letter to his son Christopher:

‘…it emphasised more strongly than anything that I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare  (and annotating him the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted. It was a very good performance, with a young fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play. Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific….to my surprise the part that came out as the most moving, almost intolerably so, was the one that in reading I always found a bore: the scene of mad Ophelia singing her snatches.’ (ibid, p.88)

It therefore appears Tolkien thought Shakespeare is better watched than read, which to me is a pretty valid point. (Mind you, in recent years I’ve only seen good-through-to-excellent performances at Shakespeare’s Globe and Bard on the Beach, so I might be a bit biased!)

Furthermore, Tom Shippey notes that:

‘If there is one work to which The Lord of the Rings is indebted again and again, it is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.’ (Tom Shippey, 2000, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, London, Harper Collins, p.191)

This is in spite of  Shakespeare using, via the Three Witches, language in Macbeth which makes Elves sound like ‘Little People’:

‘And now about the cauldron sing/Like elves and fairies in a ring.’ (Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1)

So where is the evidence that ‘The Scottish Play’ influences The Lord of the Rings?

To begin with, Tolkien told WH Auden that the Ents appearing in The Lord of the Rings:

‘…is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of “Great Birnham wood to high Dunsinane hill”; I longed to devise a setting in which the trees really march to war.’ (Letters, op cit, p.212)


‘As I did stand my watch upon the hill/I looked toward Birnham, and anon methought/ The wood began to move.’ (Messenger, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5.)

The Witches said ‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him’ (ibid, Act 4, Scene 1), which he believed made him invulnerable. He also was assured by another prophecy they made:

‘Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.’ (ibid, Act 4, Scene 1)
In The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel the Elf made the prophecy at the Battle of Fornost in 1974 of the Third Age (a mere 1,045 years before The War of the Ring) that the fleeing Witch-king of Angmar:
‘…will not return to this land [the ruined Kingdom of Arnor]. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.‘ JRR Tolkien, 1995, The Lord of the Rings,  London: Harper Collins, Appendix A, p.1027).
Trouble with a capital T
In time it is revealed that the Witch-king is in fact, the Lord of the Nazgul, the leader of Sauron’s Ringwraiths, and he remembers the prophecy about his fate, declaring  at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that ‘No living man can hinder me!’ (ibid, Book 5, Chapter VI p.823)
You should always read the small-print when it comes to prophecies…
However, just as Macbeth is killed by Macduff , who ‘was from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped’ (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 10), The Lord of the Nazgul is killed by a woman (Eowyn) and a Hobbit (Merry).
Apart from two of the Witches’ prophecies being adapted by Tolkien, other elements of Macbeth make an appearance in The Lord of the Rings. In Act 4, Scene 3, of Macbeth King Edward of England heals the sick:
A most miraculous work in this good king/,Which often since my here-remain in England/ I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,/ Himself best knows, but strangely visited people,/All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,/The mere despair of surgery, he cures,/Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,/Put on with holy prayers. And, ’tis spoken,/To the succeeding royalty he leaves/The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,/He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,/And sundry blessings hang about his throne,/That speak him full of grace.


..and match-maker?

In The Lord of the Rings a common saying in Gondor is ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.’ (Lord of the Rings, Book 5, Chapter VIII, p.842). Aragorn saves Faramir, Eowyn and Merry in Minas Tirith’s  Houses of Healing.  ‘And word went through the City: The King has come again indeed.’ (ibid, p.853)

To Be Continued…Part 2 will appear pretty soonish- I hope the gap is not as big as between  Parts 1 and 2 of Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon version of Lord of the Rings…