‘Lord of the Rings’ as English Mythology

Of all the correspondence published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter 131 is probably the most quoted. Around 1951, as he worked to complete The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his publishing friend Milton Waldman:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own … Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

Commentators have read these words as the confession of an early desire – subsequently abandoned – to create a mythology for England. A frame is thus provided for interpretation of The Silmarillion, or at least the earlier versions of it.

But these lines can also be read as a combination of English self-effacement with admission that the early vision of an entire body of legend was a little too ambitious.

This second reading opens up the possibility that Tolkien had in mind also The Lord of the Rings as a contribution to his English mythology. Bringing together the perspectives of my last two posts on Tolkien – on the Island of Zealand and on the Religion of the North –  helps us to see what such a frame might mean for this great story of the war with Sauron and the end of the Third Age.

Emil Doepler, 'Nerthus', 1905

Emil Doepler, ‘Nerthus’, 1905

Zealand, now the largest island of modern Denmark, was identified by Tolkien in his scholarly writings as the site of a very ancient Northern cult and, as such, “the centre of the Anglo-Frisian world” prior to the English colonization of the south-eastern part of the British Isles. Tolkien connected the Zealand cult with a religion of fertility and corn and the tradition of the great peace of Fróda.

Alongside Fróda, a legendary king, the mythological figures associated with the cult were the Earth goddess Nerthus (mentioned by Tacitus) and the mysterious Ing, who comes from and departs over the sea. In later Norse traditions Nerthus somehow became the male god Njörðr, foremost of the Vanir, while Ing was related to both Frey and to the culture-hero Shef, the great Northern king who is said to have come from over the sea, arriving as a baby in a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head.

Emil Doepler, 'Ing'

Emil Doepler, ‘Ing’

How do these traditions of the Zealand cult relate to that late chapter of a lost English mythology known to us today as The Lord of the Rings? The answer is found by way of Tolkien’s distinctive understanding of the paganism of the North.

Emil Deopler, 'Ragnarök'

Emil Deopler, ‘Ragnarök’

Tolkien envisaged this ancient Baltic cult as wholly different from the bloodthirsty religion of Odin and his ravens. This latter he saw as a Viking Age relapse into violence and barbarism, symbolized in surviving Norse mythology itself by the war of the Æsir and the Vanir gods.

Furthermore, Tolkien understood the gods of the North (in contrast to those of ancient Greece) as closer to heroic men writ large than to actual deities. Ing and Nerthus are in the first instance simply legendary heroes, the stories told of them but memories of great deeds performed in the distant past.

For sure, the ancient Northern tribes who celebrated these heroes of old lapsed on occasion into idolatry and worshiped their heroes as gods. But this was a failure of collective will (analogous to the weakness of the Children of Israel  when they bowed down before idols).

Of course we should not take this too far and proclaim the traditions of the ancient North simply folk tales derived from secular history. As a Catholic, Tolkien saw a place within the world for both mortals taken up to divinity (saints) and elements of the divine who take physical form (angels). Folk tales may record miraculous intrusions into history, which leave real historical effects.

Nevertheless, if saints and angels belie a bleak vision of the universe as absolutely separated from the face of God, they are not for all that deities to be worshipped.

Emil Doepler, 'After Ragnarök', 1905

Emil Doepler, ‘After Ragnarök’, 1905

And now, I think, we can begin to see how The Lord of the Rings might be conceived as the final chapter in a body of legends dedicated to England.

I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world… The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. (Letter 183)

Middle-earth is conceived as a very distant past of our world; a past that was old already when the ancestors of the modern English still lived on the shores of the Baltic. The Zealand cult, in which scholars perceive the very oldest traditions of the English, is thus a bridge between that world of long ago and our own days, between mythical and historical time.

The stories of Zealand are the form in which the last days of mythical time were remembered down the long ages that eventually became recorded history. Not surprisingly, these very ancient stories became somewhat confused in the telling, even at times degenerating into heathenism as the heroes of the past were worshiped by a frightened people.

But once we read the true stories in The Lord of the Rings the meaning of the fragments of tradition preserved on Zealand become immediately apparent.

Aragorn is remembered first as Ing, then as Shef, a man of the North whose ancestors came out of the West over the sea, the descendant of kings who refounded a royal house and taught his people many new things. 

Arwen, born an immortal Elf maid, becomes the fertility goddess Nerthus – memory of her Elven grace stands at the center of the Zealand cult.

Frodo it turns out was not a king, though he helped crown one; but having helped bring about the Great Peace of the days of the king, he departs on a boat into the West. And if Frodo is something of a pagan saint, Gandalf is an angel of the North, sent out of the West to aid a fallen world in its fight against the monsters.

Tolkien’s understanding of the paganism of the North and the pre-conquest English cult of Zealand were the fruit of profound scholarship. Together, these two arms of his learning imparted shape and form to the creation of his literary genius.

Tolkien & the Religion of the North

EAGEdwardian classicists were struck by similarities between the gods of ancient Greece and those of the old North. In her Religion of Ancient Greece (1905), for example, Jane Harrison tells us that Homer’s Olympian pantheon anticipates “the atmosphere of the Eddas”. The reason behind the parallels, the classicists argued, was that the ancient Aegean had been invaded by a prehistoric Germanic tribe, the Achaeans, who had brought their religion with them. The underlying idea was that classical Greek culture sprung from a North European seed planted in Southern soil.

J.R.R. Tolkien went up to Oxford in 1911 and, for two years, read Classics. In 1913 he switched to what would become a lifetime study of (Old) English. As a scholar of the old North, Tolkien was determined to sunder the connection between North and South proposed by the Edwardian classicists. He wanted the old North understood on its own terms, not judged in relation to some wider vision of European civilization. With regard to the touted religious similarities his strategy was twofold.

Firstly, Tolkien insisted that the classicists had compared Homer’s Olympus to a Norse pantheon that only came into being in the thirteenth century after Christ. The original religion of the North, he argued, was bound up in fertility rituals and corn gods. The violence and bloodshed associated with Odin and his ravens – the hallmark of Norse mythology in the popular mind – arose only in the later, degenerate, Viking Age. Odin himself was actually a latecomer, an imported deity from the South. And the whole family portrait, with Odin at the head, was but a fabrication of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic politician whose Prose Edda, compiled in Christian times, is our major source for the mythology of the old North.

Secondly, Tolkien emphasized the differences, as opposed to the similarities, between the gods of ancient Greece and the gods of the North. He pointed out that the Greek gods are immortal while those of the North are “enmeshed in time”. Baldr is already dead, while others are doomed to die at the great battle of Ragnarök. This great battle will be fought – and lost – by mankind together with the gods, a final defeat at the hands of the monsters. This alliance of gods and men against the monsters is absent in Greek mythology: Poseidon, for example, is angered when Odysseus maims the Cyclops, his kin.

For those interested in Tolkien’s thought this second line of argument is peculiarly interesting, for it leads directly into his distinctive conception of the relationship between the old pagan and the new Christian North.

Beowulf + the gospels = King Arthur

The Greek gods are separated from humanity by a gulf: they are immortal and, taken as a whole, indifferent to our fate. Tolkien suggests that this fosters a contemplative contrast between humanity in time and the eternal world of the divine. This is the route to philosophy and, ultimately, to that intellectualist version of Christianity that understands Christ as the eternal logos made flesh.

But the gods of the North die, and are fated to lose their struggle with the monsters of chaos. So where Tolkien sees the Greek gods as touching upon eternity, he proclaims the gods of the North as “in their very beings but the shadows of great men and warriors cast upon the walls of the world” (Beowulf and the Critics, 65). The pagan North comes into view as rather godless than heathen.


Tolkien hails what he calls ‘the Northern theory of courage’ as the greatest achievement of the pagan North. The Northern vision of the human condition is a fight with fate that every man must sooner or later lose. Hence the great virtue of the pagan North is courage: the will to fight a battle that can only end in defeat. And all that a man may trust in this struggle is himself. Idolatry, the worship of pagan deities, arises when courage fails – it indicates loss of faith in oneself.

What Christianity brings to the North is a message of hope: a teaching that mankind has a friend in the fight against the monsters and that ultimate victory is assured, albeit not in this world. From the Christian perspective, Northern paganism (as Tolkien presents it) is a correct analysis of the world without the teaching of Christ: a world without hope in which men can have faith only in themselves.

When the gospel of Christ is brought to the North paganism transforms into medievalism. The Arthurian knight is simply the old pagan warrior who has always given battle with the monsters but who now fights, not only for himself, but also for God.

This post is dedicated to Yaakov Zweig, who asks questions, and to Gavin Fearnley, who reads.

Theatre of the mind

A recent post entitled Governing Philosophy identified a now forgotten theoretical framework of late-Victorian and Edwardian social thought. In this post I attempt to illustrate what it might mean that diverse studies shared the same underlying model


Let me begin with Alfred Marshall’s two-level model of the mind, which he set down in a manuscript entitled ‘Ye Machine‘, dated to around 1868. The lower level consists of circuits that allow automatic responses to certain stimuli (e.g. sight of red light –> foot on brake). This lower level is the domain of instinct, habit and custom. Marshall assumes that primitive humans operate entirely on this mental level.

At some point in history a second level of the mind evolves. This second level allows the likely outcome of different possible actions to be, as it were, played out in the mind. Such deliberation constructs mental pictures of the expected results of different scenarios, thereby allowing the agent to choose one particular course of action. This higher level is the domain of imagination, deliberation, and foresight.

After Marshall switched his research from psychology to economics he came to envisage economic science as a collection of intellectual machinery (e.g. supply and demand curves) that embodied in external form sophisticated instances of such higher level mental machinery.


Now let us switch our attention to William Ridgeway, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge and some eleven years Marshall’s junior. Specifically, let us look at Ridgeway’s account of the origin of Athenian Tragedy.

In what follows, two points should be born in mind. Firstly, Ridgeway is operating with the same basic model of the mind as set out by Marshall. Secondly, Ridgeway sees Athenian drama as something that arises in the wake of the transformation of the primitive inhabitants of the Aegean into the founders of civilization known to us as the classical Greeks.

Theban wine cup (Scythos); illustration from Ridgeway’s Origin of Tragedy

Theban wine cup (Scythos); illustration from Ridgeway’s Origin of Tragedy (1910)

Ridgeway interprets the above illustration as depicting a primitive dance around the grave of some dead hero. The dances are accompanied by hymns, and both commemorate key events in the life of the hero. Such ritual dances for the dead, he announces, lie at the origin of Athenian tragedy.

In the middle of the grave of the hero is an altar, upon which offerings are made to the dead spirit. The illustration above, he claims, shows one of the dancers standing upon this central altar. In time, this elevated dancer begins to engage with the ‘chorus’ who dance around him. This is said to be the origin of both the director and the actor.


The photograph above shows a modern reconstruction that Ridgeway would have regarded as depicting a very early stage in the evolution of Athenian theatre. As yet no stage has come into being: the dancers, who are coming to be known as the ‘chorus’, occupy the ‘orchestra’. The chorus circle the altar and engage with the single actor who stands upon it.

From Jane Harrison’s Ancient Art & Ritual (1913)

From Jane Harrison’s Ancient Art & Ritual (1913)

In the fully developed Greek theatre the chorus continue to dance and sing in the orchestra, but a stage has now arisen behind the orchestra. Upon the stage three actors now perform a drama. The chorus and the actors are both telling the same story, which concerns some momentous event or set of events in the life of some legendary hero. But where the chorus tell this story by way of ritualized dance and song the actors explore these events through dramatic representation.


Ridgeway has presented the birth of tragedy as an externalization of the mental development of the Athenian mind. Primitives, capable of only lower level mental behaviour, perform ritual dances. But as these Aegean primitives develop a higher mental level, allowing them to imagine different possible futures, so their public performances evolve a raised stage upon which dramatic reenactments are performed.

The stage on which the drama is played is envisaged by Ridgeway as the externalization of the higher level of the mind. Both are spaces – the one private the other public - in which different possible human interactions are imagined.

But the Athenian stage does not correspond exactly to the higher level of the mind as described by Marshall.

Marshall’s mental machinery – as also his scientific machinery of economic analysis – generates a series of pictures of the outcome of different actions.

On the Athenian stage a single drama unfolds, the end result of which is in fact known in advance by all spectators.

Simply put, Marshall’s psychological machinery performs analysis that may aid moral choice; the machinery of the Athenian stage aids reflection upon moral choice.

Put another way, we here encounter a distinction, operative in Cambridge around 1900, between social science and literature. Both reflect upon human actions, and naturally employ similar machinery in order to do so. But their ultimate ends are different.

The island at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination

Zealand (Danish: Sjælland) is the largest island of modern Denmark. Back in 1907 the Anglo-Saxon scholar H.M. Chadwick identified Zealand as the center of the ancient fertility cult of Nerthus, a goddess worshipped by a confederacy of Northern tribes that included the Angles (that is, the English). With the recent publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf, Zealand has come into view as the island at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination.


In his commentary we find Tolkien situating Beowulf in relation to the ancient history of the North. The immediate background of the poem is said to be recent Danish military expansion (which had pushed the Angles into their westerly migration to Britain). The Danes conquer Zealand, hitherto “the centre of the Anglo-Frisian world” and the site of the fertility cult mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus and discussed by Chadwick. To celebrate victory the Danish king Hrothgar builds a great mead hall, Heorot, on the site of the ancient pagan cult.

But a shadow lies upon Heorot: for twelve years the monster Grendel haunts the golden hall. As the poem tells, Grendel is finally killed by Beowulf; yet shortly afterwards Heorot is burned to the ground in a great battle with the Heathobards.

Writing of the struggle for control of the site of the ancient pagan cult on Zealand, Tolkien declares:

We touch in this conflict, and in the legends about it, on something very old and central to the nearly forgotten history of the Germanic North in heathen times. All but the final stages are already dim and remote in early Old English traditions.

Tolkien’s ambition was to craft the lost mythology of the English nation – a people who now lived amid the ruins of a quite different civilization, cut off from their old lands. His fairy stories – from the first stories of Elves written in the wake of the Battle of the Somme through to The Lord of the Rings – are conjectural accounts of the earliest stages of the “nearly forgotten history” of the North. Such at any rate is the argument of an essay (composed before the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf) forthcoming in the journal Tolkien Studies.

In this essay I argue that Tolkien’s starting-point was Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation (1907), which he first encountered as an undergraduate at Oxford before the Great War. As already noted, Chadwick argued that the Angles belonged to a confederacy of Northern tribes who worshipped a fertility goddess named Nerthus, whose cult was situated on Zealand. Chadwick further explained that originally Nerthus had a human consort, named Ing, but that over time Ing became in his own right the archetypal ‘culture-hero’. The myth of the culture-hero tells of a semi-divine figure that comes from over the sea, founds a royal house, gives great gifts to his people, and finally departs over the sea.

Tolkien in fact concluded that three distinct traditions were associated with the Zealand cult: stories of immortal maids who marry mortal men; stories of culture heroes who come from and depart over the sea; and memories of a time of peace and prosperity associated with the name of Fróda. He set out to provide the ‘original’ stories out of which these traditions might have emerged: the three marriages of human and elf maid (Tuor and Idril, Beren and Lúthien, Aragorn and Arwen); tales of those heroes who either came out of and/or sailed back into the West (Elendil, Gandalf, Frodo); and a story that led up to the great ‘peace of Frodo’ that followed the defeat of Sauron and the return of the king. The Lord of the Rings and, ultimately, also The Silmarillion provide those ancient stories the (dim and somewhat confused) memory of which informs the early English mythologies bound up with the Zealand cult.

TolkienBeowulfWhat the new Beowulf commentary adds to this picture is a startling insight into how Tolkien saw his own fairy stories in relation to this great Old English poem. To be clear, it has long been recognized that Tolkien identified profoundly with the Beowulf poet and saw himself grappling with similar concerns and themes (in particular, the goodness of pagan ancestors and the theological significance of battle with monsters). But what now comes into view is an image of The Silmarillion as a prelude to Beowulf; or, perhaps better, of Beowulf as a postscript to The Lord of the Rings.

Long years of prehistoric English cultural life centered upon Zealand stand between the respective fairy-tales of Middle-earth and of Heorot; long ages between the wars of the orcs and the coming of the new monster, Grendel. On pre-Danish Zealand are remembered the great heroes of the war against Sauron and stories are told of battles fought and great deeds performed even in the ages before the War of the Ring. This English mythology is lost when the Danes conquer Zealand and the English migrate to new homes on a more westerly island. But though they forget the reason why, the English nevertheless retain a profound sense of the importance of Zealand. Hence they tell stories of the golden mead hall that the Danes built upon their old sanctuary; and they tell of how it burned to the ground. And with uncanny intuition (stirred perhaps by dim ancestral memories) the Beowulf poet places at the center of his version of the story, not the burning of Heorot, but the haunting of this golden hall by the monster Grendel.

 His poem is like a play in a room through the windows of which a distant view can be seen over a large part of the English traditions about the world of their original home.

Tolkien on the Beowulf poet

England are out!

It is that kind of summer again…

This profound insight into the state of English football is from Atilla the Stockbroker, back in 1983. The sound quality is dated but the comment timeless. Still, anyone who remembers the spirit of the age recalled by the bands and political party of the clip below has at least as many grey hairs as me!


Governing Philosophy

Back in the 1970s the New Left used to ask why England had never produced a Durkheim, a Marx, or a Weber. The point of the question was to draw attention to the presumed poverty of theory in the English intellectual tradition (thereby bolstering the importation of those Continental theorists who now form the postmodern canon of undergraduate life). But the presumption was wrong and the question wrong-headed.

It is true that late-nineteenth-century England did not produce any one great social thinker; but it did produce a governing philosophy; albeit a philosophy all but forgotten today.

I stumbled upon this realisation only in the last few days, and very much by accident.  A while back I agreed to attend a conference on the obscure Victorian philosopher John Grote (1813-1866). I was asked because I’m one of the few people who have studied Grote’s writings, having identified his thought as key to Alfred Marshall’s reformation of political economy. Thinking again about Grote, I recalled recently encountering the mark of his thought in the writings of the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway (1853-1926). Over the last few days I’ve been juxtaposing Grote’s philosophy, Marshall’s political economy, and Ridgeway’s theory of the origin of ancient Greek tragedy. By now I am convinced that when all three are (as it were) placed together and held up to the light what appears is something like England’s governing philosophy. 

I suspect that this is a theme I’ll have to return to several times; but let me attempt here to sketch the very basic ideas at hand.

In mid-Victorian Cambridge, Grote’s challenge was to allow a scientific study of humanity without undermining traditional religious belief. His solution was a dualistic philosophy of the human mind that distinguished between (on the one hand) ordinary mental life, which was to be studied by science, and (on the other hand) self-conscious reflection, the study of philosophy and (he argued) the path to knowledge of God.

Marshall and Ridgeway adopt Grote’s dualism in a very particular way. In a nutshell, they develop historical accounts (i.e. of the behaviour of some human system in time) that turn upon an internally inexplicable evolutionary leap. On close inspection, that leap is revealed to be the product of intervention by a ‘higher mind’.

Let me briefly sketch three such evolutionary leaps; only then will I appraise the nature of the external intervention that supposedly caused them.

Ridgeway on the birth of tragedy: the primitive inhabitants of the Aegean worshiped the ghosts of dead chiefs and heroes, performing hymns and dances at their tombs. Naturally, such primitive beliefs about ghosts would evolve into beliefs about gods (who are no longer tied to one location). Tragedy is the product of a non-natural development of these death rituals, with the dancers and songs transforming into a drama and chorus.

Marshall on the birth of imagination: in the late 1860s Marshall developed a two-level mechanical model of the mind. The first level is composed of automatic responses or mental habits (e.g. see red light, foot presses on brake). There is little more to the minds of all animals and primitive humans than this first level.

At some point in human history a second level of the mechanical mind has emerged, which allows the picturing of different possible outcomes of an action: imagination, deliberation, and foresight are born.

Marshall on classical political economy and neoclassical economic science:  by the 1870s Marshall is seeing British society as composed of an elite, who possess imaginative minds, and the working masses, whose productive activity demands only lower level automatic responses. Classical political economy, with its emphasis upon deterministic laws of production, is appropriate for such a society.

But Marshall now proposes a new economic theory founded upon the novel assumption that the masses have been taught to think. In his neoclassical economics the primary economic activity is decision-making in the market, and all economic agents are assumed to deliberate by imagining different possible futures.

In each of these three cases the lower level system is transformed by way of external intervention.

For Ridgeway the key to the birth of Greek civilization was, first of all, an invasion of Greece by a spiritually superior race from the North, and, subsequently, political legislation in Athens that injected this Northern culture into the still primitive Athenian social system.

For Marshall the initial emergence of the second level of the human mind was the product precisely of the intervention of Grote’s self-consciousness or ‘higher mind’. But the transformation of society that would validate the transformation of economic theory was to be achieved by way of a massive state provision of universal higher education.

Overview: what is emerging into view is a scientific approach to the human world that embodies a hierarchy of values and a faith in elite intervention for the benefit of ‘primitives’. The key scientific assumption (which I do not think is found in Grote) is that progress is not necessarily natural, that primitive humans are unlikely to progress without external intervention. Such intervention may take the form of conquest and colonial rule abroad or the establishment of a welfare state at home.

Looking further, one can begin to understand the peculiar reverence that, for the last century, has attached itself to the Cambridge supervision system, whereby one don engages directly with one or two undergraduates: here is the internal reproduction of the ‘higher mind’, the cultivation of a new elite. Or on a different note, the General Theory (1936) of John Maynard Keynes, which introduced the idea that the capitalist system might get stuck in a permanent depression the only way out of which being state intervention, comes into view as but a late instance of this Cambridge governing philosophy.

Beowulf and UKIP

Two events of the last couple of days have arrested my attention: the much hyped launch of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and the astonishing electoral success of the anti-EU British political party, UKIP.

What do these two events have in common? From the more or less (mainly less) interesting media pundits I’ve been reading, nothing at all. But a better awareness regarding the first might have helped stem the tide of the second.

UKIPLet’s agree that some (certainly not all) of the UKIP electoral success arises from a smoldering English nationalism. Well, Tolkien was a great English nationalist; one of the greatest. His fantasy writing was bound up with his desire to rediscover (read: create) a lost English mythology. But a moment’s reflection upon the content of Tolkien’s English nationalism reveals it as inextricably bound up with Continental myths, legends, and history. Middle-earth is not ancient England, it is ancient Europe; the Shire is not even separated from the Continent by a salt-water channel.


Beowulf illustrates this perfectly. This English epic, the most splendid poem composed in Old English, concerns a monster named Grendel who terrorizes the King of Denmark. The hero Beowulf is a Geat, who sails to the aid of the Danes from his home in what is now southern Sweden.

Tolkien’s own stories weave together distinct parts of an English mythology that, he wanted to believe, were once told by the ancient ancestors of the English nation who inhabited the shores around the North Sea and the Baltic. Tolkien’s English mythology is a Continental mythology.

Today, very few study these Old English stories from Tolkien’s perspective. In most scholarly circles English nationalism is a dead letter; and few self-respecting scholars of English literature are going to give it a sympathetic treatment.

But English nationalism is alive and kicking in the wider world of good old England; as the recent electoral results make only too clear.

If today’s young Tolkien experts were a little less concerned with what is politically correct and a little more concerned with the wider world beyond their (very) narrow specialisms, discussion of Tolkien’s Beowulf might have spoken to the public at large. In place of wide-eyed media hype we might have heard how pride in an English identity can embrace – rather than fear and loathe – the idea of belonging to Continental Europe.