Tolkien’s Triumph (a review)

Tolkien’s Triumph: The Strange History of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, John Lennard, Kindle Direct Publishing, $4.99.


John Lennard published this ebook in October 2013. I discovered it one sleepless night when a random Amazon search brought it into view and, based on its low price, I took a gamble.

What downloaded onto my Kindle was an extended essay by an accomplished literary scholar with a longstanding and genuine love of Tolkien’s writings.

Lennard has some interesting things to say about Tolkien; but it is the form of Tolkien’s Triumph that is truly remarkable.

The paywall, which prevents dissemination of contemporary scholarship among the interested public, predates the internet. Lennard’s first book, But I Digress, was published some two decades ago by Oxford University Press. Supposedly a history of parentheses in English poetry, I am unlikely to ever read it because I have no access to a university library and to buy it would set me back $195.

The paywall is built into the fabric of academic publishing. While many academics complain about this state of affairs, Lennard is the first I know to take matters into his own hands. Turning to self-published ebooks distributed online, he now sets the cost of his books himself. The result is a staggering 97.4% reduction in price.

(As a parenthesis of my own, it’s refreshing to see the internet fulfilling some of its original promise as a force for good).

So what do you get for your 5 bucks? A short answer is four solid chapters, which include much interesting background relating to the astonishing popular success of The Lord of the Rings. A longer answer is an extended meditation around two distinct themes that, in my opinion, do not quite fit together.

On the one hand, Lennard discusses the compulsive hostility of the academic literary establishment toward Tolkien. Explicitly building on the arguments of Tom Shippey, he explains how modern literary criticism places ultimate value on the novel and its realistic study of character. As such, it is simply unable to comprehend what Tolkien is about. For Tolkien did not set out to explore the interior world of his subjects, did not try to write a novel, and in general found archaic forms of narrative adequate for the crafting of his stories.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s Triumph explores the tragic vision at the heart of Tolkien’s myth-making. Everything in Tolkien’s universe contains the seeds of destruction. Be it the creation of the Silmarils, the overreaching of Númenor, or the forging of the elven rings – all new shoots grow into trees that bear poisoned fruit. Tolkien’s stories thus become tales of heroic resistance in the face of inevitable doom. This theme, Lennard points out, reflects both Tolkien’s Old Northern literary models and his religious conviction of the profound significance of the fall.

Lennard explains how The Lord of the Rings is both distinct from yet ultimately a part of this tragic vision. This epic tale of the last war of the ring arose out of the demand for a sequel to The Hobbit, a story composed for children and most certainly not a tragedy. At first sight, The Lord of the Rings can appear a simple tale of victory over evil – and such indeed is the cinematic spectacle forged by Peter Jackson.

But in a compelling analysis of ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings the contents of which is entirely passed over by Jackson, Lennard shows how Tolkien deliberately brought his epic back into line with his underlying vision. ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ shows the shadow still at work even after the defeat of Sauron. In this final part of the tale of Saruman, Lennard argues, Tolkien shows us that there is no final victory over evil and that ultimately wars are always lost. The Lord of the Rings comes into view as at one with the great, cyclic series of tragedies known to us through The Silmarillion, with Jackson’s Hollywood ending a betrayal of Tolkien’s vision.

Lennard tries to take this argument a stage further, arguing that Tolkien himself was guilty of avoiding some of the more painful implications of his own vision. Frodo, for example, a classic war survivor, haunted by his memories and damaged psychically as well as physically, is supposedly given too easy an escape route – a ship that sails west over the ocean to the undying lands. Lennard argues that here, as elsewhere, Tolkien falls back upon “images of mystical healing beyond the bounds of Middle-earth” that “to one who does not share Tolkien’s religious faith” are not so very different “from the hazy dissolve into the sunset of Hollywood cliché.”

This insidious comparison of Tolkien with Jackson opens the door to a genuinely illuminating discussion of fan fiction, which Lennard hails as “at its best a highly creative form of criticism”. He discusses a number of “fics” that are said to tackle issues “that Tolkien left in a less than satisfactory state.”

Now, let me be clear. Lennard provides the first scholarly engagement with Tolkien fan fiction that I have encountered, and his is a sympathetic and illuminating discussion. It has even led me to start reading some of the fics – and I’ve been surpirsed at how good they are. But I’ve found their differences from the genuine article illuminating. In particular, I’ve noted an absence of that magical quality that pervades Tolkien’s depictions of Middle-earth. And, surely related, I’ve also been taken aback by the extent to which these literary investigations of the post-war anguish of Frodo and others read rather like the kind of exploration of character identified by Lennard with the modern novel.

And there’s the rub. For all its wonderful qualities, the fan-fiction I have read belongs to a genre of non-magical realism. But Tolkien crafted fairy-stories and myths. Lennard is completely wrong to dismiss Tolkien’s vision of the undying lands beyond the great western ocean as merely a coping mechanism of religious faith. This conception of the relationship of our Middle-earth to faëry stands at the very foundation of Tolkien’s construction of an English mythology. It is the key to the magic of Middle-earth. To abandon it is perilous.

Lennard is quite correct to maintain that Tolkien was not trying to write a novel; but it seems to me that he does not fully grasp what it might mean that he was writing a fairy-story.

But you do not have to take my word for any of this. At $4.99 you can afford to judge for yourself. And I would recommend it.

Acknowledgments: thanks to @CalinLeafshade@oondir, and @MissPritiJadeja for helping me work out the % price reduction between Lennard’s first book and Tolkien’s Triumph.

The Mysterious Ing

I’m still burning the midnight oil, tracing the emergence of Tolkien’s English mythology.

A central thread begins with the traditional story of King Sheave, or – in the form the story is told in Beowulf – Scyld-Scefing: the child who, appearing alone on a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head, is adopted by and becomes a celebrated king of the people of the shore.

Illustration from Fredrik Sander's 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda

Illustration from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda

Now, from his recently published commentary we know that Tolkien believed that the Beowulf poet had added to the traditional story the suggestion that, at the end of his life, the king was placed on a boat and (like Arthur in  a different tradition) returned to the great unknown across the water.

I’m convinced that the belief that the Beowulf poet had added to this traditional story was intimately bound up with the – absolutely fundamental – addition that Tolkien himself early on introduced to this tradition.

Tolkien’s innovation is found in an outline for a story about Ing that he wrote down around 1917. As he had recently learned at Oxford, Ing was the original name of that mysterious king of the North who later became known as Scef or Scyld.

The latter part of Tolkien’s outline reflects the story found in Beowulf: Ing is shipwrecked, rescued alone on a raft, taken as king of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians, who he teaches much magic; but after many years Ing returns over the sea.

The only difference from the Beowulf story so far is that Ing is not a baby when he appears to the Northern tribes. The reason for this revision is that Tolkien has in fact added an introductory chapter to the story – a prequel, as it were, in which Ing meets the half-elven Eärendil, who gives to Ing a drink that makes him immortal.

The young Tolkien’s innovation is fundamental because it suggests that the miraculous elements in the story of Ing (or Sheave or Scyld)  have their roots in the elves

Put another way, the young Tolkien has looked the Beowulf poet full in the face, wholeheartedly assented to his suggestion that Scyld-Scefing returns over the great water, and then added his own insight that beyond the western ocean is found the land of faëry, the undying lands where the elves still dwell.

Ing - or Sheave - or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Ing (or Sheave, or Scyld) Artist: Emil Doepler.

I think that this conception provides a thread that winds all the way through Tolkien’s subsequent vision of Middle-earth.

By the 1930s, as I discussed in my last post, the story of Ing was written up as the tale of ‘King Sheave’. Tolkien here returned to the idea of a baby arriving alone on a boat, but now suggested that the baby was a survivor of the destruction of Númenor. But this is a development rather than a revision of the earlier outline on Ing: for the men of Númenor are elf-friends – it was because of the aid they gave the elves in their wars of the First Age that they were allowed to dwell on an island situated far out in the Western ocean, as near as mortal men may come to the land of faëry.

And then, of course, by The Lord of the Rings Ing has transformed into Aragorn, who is simply the descendant of Elendil, who escapted the destruction of Númenor and became king in Middle-earth.

The successive incarnations of Ing – as King Sheave, as Elendil, and as Aragorn – take him further away from a direct encounter with Eärendil and his elven draught of immortality. But in each incarnation we find an elf-friend, whose lineage is bound up in Eärendil and the elves.

And – again – the thread that weaves through all these stories seems to begin with an insight into the innovation made by the Beowulf poet in the ancient tradition about Ing, and a related innovation on Tolkien’s part.

Scef or Scyld? (Tolkien’s English Mythology revisited)

‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’

The Two Towers, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’

I really want to talk about hobbits. But before I permit myself to do so I am determined to clarify Tolkien’s vision of the lost mythology of the English. For the last two weeks I’ve been struggling here. I now see that the problem arose because I arrived at an original thesis and then encountered a new primary source that, whilst it corroborated the thesis, also demanded its further refinement and development.

'A Prehistoric Fairytale'. Artist: Andrew Holgate.

‘A Prehistoric Fairytale’. Artist: Andrew Holgate.

The original thesis concerned ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, the very early fairy stories of Middle-earth that Tolkien began to compose in the winter of 1916 as he lay recovering from trench fever in a hospital bed. My argument was that key themes in these ‘lost tales’ were directly related to the reconstruction of the religious traditions of the Continental English tribes set out in a seminal work of Edwardian scholarship: H. M. Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation (1907).

In particular: Tolkien’s distinct stories of Ing, a mysterious king of the English, and Eärendil, a child of human-elf union, were intended  by Tolkien as the ‘original’ stories behind Chadwick’s reconstruction of ancient English traditions concerning a mortal who both marries a goddess and becomes king of the North.

This thesis was developed last winter and written up in an essay entitled ‘The Peace of Frodo’, which is to be published in the 2015 volume of the journal Tolkien Studies.

I encountered the new evidence in Tolkien’s commentary on Beowulf, which was composed in the 1930s but only published in May 2014 (after ‘The Peace of Frodo’ had already been accepted by Tolkien Studies).

TolkienBeowulfIn the first instance, this commentary simply confirms Tolkien’s engagement with Chadwick – and this in a striking way: for Chadwick’s argument that the island of Zealand was the center of the ancient English cult of Nerthus stands at the center of Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf.

But the introduction of Beowulf into the picture demands some careful consideration. And such musing – after much head-scratching and confused false starts – generates a more subtle interpretative framework than that set out in ‘The Peace of Frodo’.

The key is the tale of ‘King Sheave’, written down by Tolkien in both prose and verse forms in the 1930s. This is the story of a baby who appears alone in a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head, becomes the great king of the North, but eventually departs back over the water into the great unknown.

Ing - or Sheave - or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Ing – or Sheave – or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ is intriguing in part because it is at once (a) the retelling of the story of Scyld-Scefing with which the Beowulf poem beings, and (b) a working-up of an outline of a story about Ing that Tolkien had sketched for his ‘Book of Lost Tales’.

Now, Chadwick, in his 1907 book, had argued that the Beowulf story was originally a story of Ing, now told about the Danish king, Scyld. And Tolkien in his commentary affirms this interpretation of Beowulf.

So why did Tolkien at the same time compose a tale about king Scef (which means ‘sheave’) with no reference to Scyld?

The newly published commentary provides an answer. It show that Tolkien believed that the original English mythological traditions concerned Ing and Sheave, but that after the Danish conquest of Zealand (hitherto the center of the English world) the Danes had taken these traditions for their own, and in doing so had ‘Danified’ them – for example, adding the name of their own king, Scyld, to that of Scef.

‘King Sheave’ is thus an attempt to reconstruct the original English tradition that we have received in Danified form through Beowulf. (It is analogous to ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s conjectured telling of the original folk story that he believed to have been worked up by a gifted poet into the epic of Beowulf).

But ‘King Sheave’ is also the tale of a baby who escapes the destruction of Númenor and becomes king in the North. Númenor, of course, is Tolkien’s version of Atlantis, an island in the western ocean ruled by the mortal descendants of Eärendil (Elros, its first king, is the brother of Elrond).

In other words, over the course of the 1930s Tolkien’s study of Beowulf led him to posit the ancient Zealand traditions as a bridge between mythical and historical time. The destruction of Númenor at the end of the Second Age, and the journey of the refugee Scef (or Sheave, or Ing) to the shores of the Atlantic coast, marks the moment of passage from myth into history.

Put another way, in Beowulf we find dim and confused memories of those very early historical events in the North that themselves flowed out of an earlier mythical past.

In the stories better known to us today, of course, the time of myth has been extended. The end of the Second Age gives rise, not to historical time, but to the Third Age. And the tale of the infant Scef is transformed into the story of how Elendil and a few faithful companions escaped the destruction of Númenor and returned to Middle-earth, where they founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. And the immediate source for the historical traditions concerning the original king of the North has become the heir of Elendil, Aragorn (whose marriage to Arwen provides the source also for the later tradition of the goddess Nerthus and her mortal consort).

The reformulated thesis, therefore, does not negate any elements of my original argument, but it does demand that these themes be placed within a temporal framework. Specifically, we can set out the following four steps that take us from Aragorn, in The Lord of the Rings, to Scyld-Scefing in Beowulf.

1. Tolkien’s fairy-stories of the First, Second and – especially – Third Ages of Middle-earth

—- provide the conjectured source of:

2. Those ancient traditions of the English, prior to their settlement of parts of the British Isles;

—- traditions which are, subsequently:

3. Taken up and to some degree confused by the conquering Danes,

—- in which ‘Danified’ form these traditions are:

4. Presented to us in the Old English poem Beowulf.



I’ve been struggling of late to move beyond the blog post.

My school of writing has been the academic article. One of the first articles I submitted to a scholarly journal, around 2000, came back with a reviewer expressing shock that “such a poorly written article could be submitted to such a prestigious journal”. Needless to say, my submission was rejected.

OctoberA breakthrough came when I taught a course on a single movie – Dziga Vertov’s 1929 ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. I taught this course three years in a row, each year to three classes of about 12 students meeting two or three times a week. On the drive home I would turn over the day’s discussions in my head. By the end of the second semester I could speak out loud exactly what I wanted to say about the movie. In one sitting I simply took these words in my head and set them down on paper. The result is published in October, and can be read here.

EJHETAnother  watershed arose with my Blanqui lecture of 2012. I was invited to give this lecture at the  annual conference of the European Society of the History of Economic Thought, to be held in St. Petersburg. The prospect of public performance filled me with dread. On several occasions I awoke in a cold sweat from a dream in which I was giving the lecture. Terror induced multiple drafts, leading eventually to the reduction of the lecture to a series of concise sentences, each numbered. To my surprise, simply removing the numbers later on generated an essay out of these discrete sentences. The result can be read here.

The Blanqui lecture has provided the template for my scholarly blog posts. Minimalism is the ideal, and multiple edits the practice. Any phrase using three words where two words will do is altered accordingly. Any sentences that do no work are deleted. No fluff, just short, concise sentences following in their logical order.

But I’m now struggling with taking this blogging style back into a longer essay. My present goal is to draft an essay of around 20,000 words that sets out the take on Tolkien that I’ve been developing in recent posts. This kind of word length translates into an introduction plus two substantial chapters.

After a lot of headache I’ve had to accept that the reason I’ve been struggling is that I’d forgotten how much real work stands behind clear prose. I’ve spent the last week writing a 7000 word chapter on ‘English mythology’ – in many ways an elaboration of the blog post below. In many ways, but not in all ways; for in writing I’ve made new connections and developed new insights. And here is the rub, and the great lesson: writing serves two distinct purposes, which must not be conflated.

One purpose of writing is that already elaborated as an ideal: the clear communication of clear thought.

But another purpose of writing – no less valuable – is to arrive at that clear thought in the first place. This is a complex, dialectical, and messy process, in which tangled sentences point to unclear thought. I’ve learned over the years to trust deeply any sense of disquiet about my prose. If something does not feel quite right then this means – without a shadow of doubt – that my thoughts are not yet worked out. To gloss over the shaky prose means not facing up to the tangle in my mind.

What this means is that good writing is extremely time consuming. Because in order to get to the clear prose you have to work through those numerous drafts that help clarify thought.

More, if you simply stop at the point where thought is clear you are still left with a text that is confusing to another mind. There must be a final stage in which the drafts are put aside and the whole crafted from the top, only this time with a crystal clear vision of the whole before you from the very beginning.

As a postscript, I’ll add that this analysis of the craft of writing (and thinking) illuminates some of the shortcomings of current academic writing in the humanities. For the ‘publish or perish’ ethos puts the emphasis upon quantity over quality, ensuring that very few professional academics are motivated to take the time to render any piece of writing readily intelligible to a lay audience. The result creates barriers between specialist academics and the general public – barriers that are commonly taken to reflect specialist knowledge and training, but which more often than not merely reflect the hasty writing practices fostered within the university.


‘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