Jacopo della Quercia
(Independent Scholar)
11 December 2013

The “nobile castello” of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth: Inferno 4.106-108

It may come as a surprise that J. R. R. Tolkien occasionally borrowed heavily from Dante given the English writer’s noticeable distaste for the great Tuscan poet. “Dante doesn’t attract me,” he remarked flatly during an interview.[1] “He’s full of spite and malice. I don’t care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.” Although Tolkien walked back these criticisms in a letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, he nevertheless characterized Dante’s “pettiness” as a “sad blemish in places.”[2] With that said, there should be no mistaking that as a scholar and philologist Tolkien was intimately familiar with the Commedia. He was a member of the Oxford Dante Society for ten years and spoke affectionately of the times he and C. S. Lewis “used to read [Dante] to one another.”[3] Even Tolkien’s works have attracted scholarly comparisons to Dante: be it Tolkien’s familiarity with “the Dantesque form of Christian epic”[4] in The Lord of the Rings to his short story Leaf by Niggle, which “follows Dante’s Purgatorio in its general structure and in its smallest detail.”[5] With this in mind, it may ultimately seem less surprising that the spectacular citadel Minas Tirith featured prominently in The Lord of the Rings shares remarkable similarities both in architecture and function to the “nobile castello” Dante depicted in Limbo six centuries prior (Inferno 4.106-108).

As the first noticeable work of architecture Dante encounters after passing through Inferno’s gates, the “nobile castello” in Limbo is one of the Commedia’s many artistic masterpieces. Described as “sette volte cerchiato d’alte mura, / difeso intorno d’un bel fiumicello” (4.107-108), the castle has received extensive scholarly attention, particularly concerning whatever allegories Dante concealed within its seven walls, seven gates, modest moat, and grassy interior.[6] It is also worth mentioning that this castle is the most easily identifiable object in Limbo’s landscape, and thus has been featured frequently in artistic depictions of Inferno 4. As demonstrated in one mid-fourteenth century illustrated copy of the Commedia currently held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, one can even see the “lumera” Dante described in Inferno 4.103 illustrated in two ways: the “nobile castello” is depicted as white, and it is shown with a lit torch.[7]

If we compare Dante’s “nobile castello” in Inferno 4 to the castle-city J. R. R. Tolkien describes in the first chapter of The Return of the King, the similarities between the two are unmistakable. Minas Tirith, the prominent capital of Gondor and the race of Men in Middle-earth, is introduced as a “Guarded City” protected by “seven walls” of white stone,[8] “seven gates,”[9] a “great river”[10] at its perimeter,[11] and housing “a sward of bright green” in its innermost courtyard.[12] Tolkien also mentions “torches and flares glowed dully here and there in the fog,”[13] providing some modest illumination for its inhabitants from the otherwise clouded and uncertain world around them. The city serves as a figurative and literal beacon of light, and offers a radical juxtaposition to the darkened lands of Mordor nearby. Even the inhabitants of Minas Tirith exhibit similarities to the virtuous pagans Dante encounters in Limbo. Minas Tirith is a kingly city, yet functions more as an inhabited gravesite to the great kings of Gondor’s past due to its throne’s prolonged vacancy. The hopelessness of war plunged its population into a state of perpetual gloom not at all dissimilar from the “sospiri” (4.26) Dante heard as he approached Limbo’s somber inhabitants. Whether Tolkien intended it or not, his iconic city Minas Tirith is a near-perfect recreation of Dante’s “nobile castello” from Inferno.

Since Tolkien specifically described Minas Tirith as situated “at about the latitude of Florence,”[14] it is no secret that the English author had Europe in mind as he mapped his Middle-earth. As for how closely Tolkien’s fictional world is indebted to the works of Dante Alighieri, the striking resemblance of Minas Tirith to Limbo’s “nobile castello” may warrant further research, especially since, if further similarities of this magnitude exist, they would provide far greater insight into Dante’s influence on English literature and fantasy than can be found in the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 294 “To Charlotte and Denis Plimmer,” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, eds. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 405.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Patrick Grant, “Tolkien; Archetype and Word,” quoted in Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, eds. Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 164.

[5] Sebastian Knowles, “A Purgatorial Flame: Seven British Writers in the Second World War, and: English Fiction and Drama of the Great War, 1918-39,” quoted in Perry C. Bramlett, I Am in Fact a Hobbit: An Introduction to the Life and Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), 142.

[6] Inferno, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 85-86.

[7] Bodleian Library, MS. Holkham misc. 48, Roll 389.1 frame 7, available online at: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/medieval/mss/holkham/misc/048.a.htm.

[8] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955), 7-8.

[9] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 5.

[10] Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005) 11.

[11] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 7.

[12] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 10.

[13] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 5.

[14] Tolkien, Letter 376, in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (New York: Routledge, 2007) 249.