Princess Mononoke, an animated film from legendary Japanese writer and director Hayao Miyazaki, is a fantasy tale of the struggle between man and nature that in many ways echoes themes of innocence and evil found in writings and fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Miyazaki sets the tale in sixteenth century Japan, telling the story of young prince Ashitaka and San, a girl from the forest. Together, they get caught up in a battle between protective Forest Spirits and the village of Irontown which destroys forests in order to harvest ironsand with which to produce iron. Princess Mononoke reflects many of the themes of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings including a spiritual (and quite literal) battle to preserve nature and innocence and an overall battle between good and evil.
Both Princess Mononoke and Tolkien’s works made the world of their day sit up and take notice. Princess Mononoke, released by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli in 1999, held the Japanese box office record for four years, inspired James Cameron’s blockbuster 2009 film Avatar, was described by Rotten Tomatoes as “a landmark in the world of animation … with its epic story and breathtaking visuals,” and was declared by Roger Ebert as “one of the best films of the year … you won’t find many Hollywood love stories (animated or otherwise) so philosophical.” It was described as a “powerful compilation of Miyazaki’s world, a cumulative statement of his moral and filmic concerns,” including “the soul of a romantic epic,” “lush tones,” and “elegant score;” it is more complex and concerned with adult themes than his previous films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. Summaries have included both that it “has the effect of making the average Disney film look like just another toy story” but also that it “is as dense as it is colorful and as colorful as it is meaningless and as meaningless as it is long.”
Similarly, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a rollicking romance, fell “like lightning from a clear sky” in the midst of a Literary Modernism which had produced T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism is inadequate,” declared fellow Oxford University Literature Professor C.S. Lewis, continuing:
Nothing quite like it was ever done before, in the history of Romance itself – a history which stretches back to the Odyssey and beyond – it makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory.
Parallels abound between Miyazaki’s and Tolkien’s tales. Princess Mononoke, translated from the Japanese “Mononoke-hime” as Spirit/Monster Princess, refers to San, who first appears riding atop a wolf from a pack of wolves (led by the wolf goddess Moro) attacking an expedition from Irontown. San’s natural and humble origins can be found in Tolkien’s Shire, in which “growing food and eating it occupied most of their time … were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate.” Irontown, founded by Lady Eboshi, represents the threat to Nature and simple living that so motivated Tolkien. Tolkien argued that the element of Escape in fantasy includes the choice “not to mention (indeed not to parade) electric street lamps of mass-produced pattern … a considered disgust for so typical a product of the Robot Age, that combines ingenuity of means with ugliness.” As Tolkien penned in his poem to C.S. Lewis, Mythopoeia:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things nor found within record time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organised delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
Further, just as the Ents lead, however saunteringly slowly, in battle against Saruman and his destruction of the forest to produce Uruk-hai warriors, so do Miyazaki’s boar clan and the Great Forest Spirit fight to preserve a sacred realm against the destructive foraging of Irontown. On the score of good versus evil, the comparison between Miyazaki and Tolkien is mixed. In Tolkien, there is no middle ground: the One Ring of humanity-destroying power (similar in many ways to the ring of Wagner’s Ring Cycle) is sought by armies of Orcs and Cave Trolls, who are simply perverted and fallen Elves and Ents, commanded by Sauron, a restless malice. Such forces of evil seek to accomplish for Middle-earth what they have achieved in Mordor: a realm literally as ugly as sin and a “broken, tumbled … fuming, barren, ash-ridden land.”
By contrast, Miyazaki exhibits the ambiguity of modernity, showing both good and bad sides of characters and issues. Roger Ebert described the film as “not a simplistic tale of good and evil, but the story of how humans, forest animals and nature gods all fight for their share of the emerging order.” This can be seen most clearly in Lady Eboshi, the founder of Irontown, who is not cast as entirely villainous. She short-sightedly compromises her surroundings out of a desire to ensure that her village thrives, thus providing jobs to inhabitants and hospitality to visitors, harboring and employing even lepers and prostitutes; all are treated equally. Neither is San entirely innocent as she lashes out at innocent people in her defense of the forest.
But it is what Miyazaki and Tolkien have to say about, and with, fantasy that makes the comparison so rich. Fantasy comes to life in the pen-wielding hands of Tolkien, however ironically, as the struggle with death was arguably his chief theme. It may be more accurate to state that fantasy as a genre came to life with Tolkien. Not only has The Lord of the Rings sold over 150 million copies since publication in the mid 1950s and taken first place in several polls for the best book of the twentieth century, further it “seems … doubtful” that “fantasy, especially heroic fantasy … now a major commercial genre … would have developed into the genre it has become, without the lead of The Lord of the Rings.” Tom Shippey, who taught at Oxford contemporaneously with Tolkien and often with Tolkien’s own syllabi, claims that in fact “the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic,” likening the role of Tolkien’s fantasy to works by George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm) William Golding (Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle), Ursula LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed), and even the nineteenth century works of H.G. Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds). But the timeless significance of fantasy is perhaps best stated by Bradley Birzer: “To enter fairy – that is, a sacramental and liturgical understanding of creation – is to open oneself to the gradual discovery of beauty, truth and excellence.”
“Fantasy is a natural human activity,” Tolkien argued in his 1939 lecture “On Fairy Stories,” and “does not destroy or even insult Reason … nor scientific verity,” but instead “the keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make.” In fact, “If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth … Fantasy would languish until they were cured,” or else “Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.” The reason for this lies in Tolkien’s theory of the elements of fantasy: Recovery, Escape and Consolation. Recovery is a means for “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them,” wiping away the sense of the familiar to find the original meaning, to find the enchantment behind everyday reality. Escape is not simply desertion from “Real Life” but driven by the fact that “fairy-stories … have many more permanent and fundamental things to talk about” than the latest technology which will soon be eclipsed anyway. “’Escapisms’ have always appeared in fairy-tale and legend,” Tolkien shares, “there are things more grim and terrible to fly from than the noise, stench … of the internal-combustion engine. There are hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.” But “lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” Consolation accomplishes Escape: just as a tragedy is marked dyscatastrophe, sorrow, and failure, in a fairy story we have the “Consolation of the Happy Ending,” an event of cataclysmic good, a eu-catastrophe (eu is the Greek root for ‘good’). This consolation “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure denies universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Thus, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien includes such moving passages of eucatastrophic consolation as when the minstrel sings to Sam, Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship, in:
a clear voice … like silver and gold … until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.
Princess Mononoke treads in the footsteps of melancholic fantasy pioneered by Tolkien though it is best known for its commentary on humanity, feminism, nature, and spirituality. Human dignity, with the capacity to fail, is at the heart of the tales of both Tolkien and Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s complex characters, such as the harsh yet compassionate Lady Eboshi and the overzealous San, as well as Ashitaka who declares his desire “to see with eyes unclouded by hate,” (which meets with wizened laughter by Lady Eboshi) demonstrate Tolkien’s assessment of man.
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
San and Lady Eboshi further show how differently the modern Miyazaki and the medieval Tolkien treat women. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has no female leads while The Lord of the Rings has scarcely more even though the few women who appear are significant characters. King Theoden’s shield-maiden Eowyn, the Elven Arwen who weds Aragorn, and Galadriel the Lady of the Woods of Lothorien all offer strong, virtuous images. Most of Miyazaki’s leading characters, by contrast, are women. Lady Eboshi is not just the founder and mayor of Irontown, but she exhibits care and compassion in employing leper women and former prostitutes. San voices the conflict between humanity and nature’s innocence and spirituality, and even Morro the boar commander lends a feminine voice. A retort levelled at a guard is playfully illustrative: “Even if you were a woman, you would still be an idiot.” Miyazaki has often relied on heroines to propel his stories as he claims they project more feeling than a typical action hero and that doing so better reflects the nuances of modern times.
However, Tolkien is not so easily dismissed regarding the strengths of the fairer sex. Galadriel, the Lady of Lorien who dwells in the Calas Galdadon with Lord Celeborn, exhibits both grace and wisdom when she speaks from the “wells of deep memory” in a voice “clear and musical, but deeper than a woman’s wont” and offers advice such as “hope remains while all the Company stays true” and “do not let your hearts be troubled … sleep in peace.” Eowyn shows the courage of a warrior when slaying the Nazgul, responding to his “Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man shall hinder me,” with “But no living man am I. You look upon a woman … You stand between me and my lord and kin,”and then, “slender but as a steel blade, fair but terrible,” finishes off the dark warrior by driving her sword into him. Finally, Arwen, the Elven princess who marries the mortal but regal Aragorn, sacrifices her life in “the land of my people and the long home of all my kin” to wed a mortal and endure the “Doom of Men,” for the sake of a people she deemed “wicked fools scorned them, but I pity them at last.” Arwen thus lived out the selfless virtues of Aragorn’s own mother, Gilraen the Fair, who herself declared at the end of her life, “Onen i-Estel Edain, u’-chebin estel anim,” or, “I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept none for myself.”
Miyazaki and Tolkien did indeed both endow their female characters with nobility and strength.
Humanity’s view and treatment of nature, however, is the predominant theme of Princess Mononoke. It is not just the various animals and spirits which express gentleness and grace while yet defending the woods, but small ghost-like creatures of the woods enchant the forest. Besides the lumbering valor of the Ents, the living trees of Middle-earth which rebel against Saruman’s sylvan seditions, Tolkien also argued for a certain sacred sense to trees. Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia opens by first by reducing trees and stars to mere scientific phenomena:
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are `trees’, and growing is `to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
However, he soon continues by infusing them with significance, as created things:
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
They show a glory and meaning beyond themselves:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
Miyazaki gives the forest, or nature in general, its own sacred life as Princess Mononoke draws to its climax. The Forest Spirit (in its deer form) is decapitated by the cadre of Jigo, an opportunistic Buddhist priest, who hopes to trade it to the Emperor for protection since the head is said to grant immortality. But once beheaded, the Forest Spirit transforms back into the giant night walker and oozes a deadly poison over the land as it searches for its head. Ashitaka and San, however, steal back the head and return it to the Forest Spirit which then dies as the sun rises. However, its body melts over the land, bringing life back to the forest. A new spirit then emerges, as Ashitaka reminds San that, “He’s not dead. He’s life itself. He’s here right now, trying to tell us something, that it’s time for both of us to live.”
The balance between man and nature is achieved, Ashitaka vows to rebuild Irontown and visit San in the forest, and Lady Eboshi vows to build a yet better town.
Miyazaki’s balance thus heals and renews the life of the forest, the town, and humanity itself. The Spirit of the Forest and of the people reach a harmony for life to proceed, albeit through many battles and some casualties.
Tolkien described just such a battle himself, but the battle took on a greater significance than simply a war over environmental balance; it was a battle against Death itself – the Great Escape and the Great Consolation. Tolkien made his academic name in some sense by identifying just such a battle in the interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. Rather than taking Beowulf as a rambling tale of derring-do and battles between heroes and monsters, Tolkien identified a coherent rationale to the work which won him worldwide recognition as a talented academic. The rationale he discovered partly explains his preference for Norse gods to those of Greek mythology. Greek gods were often aloof and inhumane – playing dice with heroes and monsters below but never at risk in such affairs, they were “timeless and do not fear death.” Norse gods, by contrast, “are within Time, and doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness.” For instance, “when Baldr is slain and goes to Hel he cannot escape thence any more than mortal man,” Tolkien explains. The power of such mythological tales is immense:
It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times.
It is this struggle, of man for his very soul, against Death itself and not just for some environmental balance, that inspires Tolkien’s mythology. Poetically, he describes such a battle for an enduring hope with these lines:
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
But, it is not just an isle or a land that such valorous souls seek:
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
These souls seek a kingdom made whole by the rule of its righteous King:
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen…
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
Miyazaki echoes many of Tolkien’s themes but often with the ambiguity seen in Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki addresses issues of war and death in such films as Porco Rosso and Grave of the Fireflies, but in Tolkien’s works the theme is central, as the race of men battles against extermination. Miyazaki admits that his works do not aim for a final solution to a, or even the, fundamental problem of humanity, as does Tolkien. In an interview, Miyazaki explained:
I gave up on making a happy ending in the true sense, a long time ago. I can go no further than gets over one issue for the time being. Many things will happen after this, but this character will probably manage … I think that’s as far as I can go. From the standpoint of a movie maker, it would be easier if I could make a movie in which everybody became happy because they defeated the evil villain.
By contrast, Tolkien faces the central problem of humanity, Death, head on and ultimately finds a solution of the “Consolation of the Happy Ending” and “Joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief.” Similarly, Miyazaki and Tolkien both address the corruption of nature and find solutions of healing and harmony. Miyazaki finds harmony between man and nature while Tolkien seeks healing from the ultimate threat of Death. Miyazaki’s lands are healed and live, in beauty, for another day, but the contrast with Tolkien is at this point seen most clearly: Tolkien’s lands are healed and ultimately left in “the hands of a King are hands of healing,” as Gandalf reminds us.
Ultimately, Tolkien’s solution relies upon a land being ruled by a Lord and a kingdom ruled by a King. Miyazaki poignantly depicts the struggle and beautifully depicts such a land; Tolkien addresses ultimate issues in a way that ensures we can achieve such a paradise.
Seth Myers, “Tolkien and Miyazaki: Princess Mononoke and The Lord of the Rings in Conversation,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 145-168.
Stephen Hunter, “The Bland Violence of Mononoke,” Washington Post, November 5, 1999, accessed January 20, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/entertainment/movies/reviews/princessmononokehunter.htm Retrieved January 20, 2020.
J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia” in Tree and Leaf; Mythopoeia; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (London: HarperCollins, 2001). The poem was composed after an evening’s discussion in September, 1931 with C.S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson, was composed to the non-Christian (at the time) Lewis, and can be found online at http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm.
“Why Heroines in Miyazaki Works: A Collection of Short Excerpts,” The Hayao Miyazai Web, accessed February 5, 2020, www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/heroines.html#s2.