Tolkien’s unfinished Arthur poem was composed in the early 1930s and published in 2013. It tells the story of Arthur as the early English settlers might have told it, having heard the tale of their mighty enemy from the Britons. The result is a poem in alliterative verse – the metre of Beowulf – that presents a Germanic-style hero in conjunction with the first whispers of a Celtic fairy-story, initially told of his queen.
Arthur was (more or less) a contemporary of the Danish princess Freawaru. The stories told about both cast the spell of a now vanished age of the world – respectively, Roman Britain and the ancient northern world of the English. As Tolkien writes of Arthur:
his heart foreboded that his house was doomed
the ancient world to its end falling,
and the tides of time turned against him
But where Freawaru is the face of disenchantment, Arthur became the fairy-story by which Roman Britain was remembered after the departure of the legions, the advent of the warrior kings, and the coming of the English.
The Fall of Arthur is thus a translation into modern English of an imagined early moment in a history of English storytelling in Britain. Tolkien believes as a matter of historical fact that Arthur lived: the last of the Romans, a private citizen who organized a body of heavy cavalry in the Roman way, and defeated the newcomers in a series of battles. Tolkien’s story is the largely historical story as told but a generation or two after Arthur’s death. But a first hint of enchantment has been added to explain the internal dissenssion by which Arthur’s court in the end collapsed.
Condider Tolkien’s observation about the storytelling tradition on Arthur advanced a decade later in his essay On Fairy-stories:
It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps not of such great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faërie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred’s defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faërie. (OFS 46)
What Tolkien was doing in the early 1930s was identifying an early serving of story in which a firt hint of enchantment has been added. This first hint of enchantment – which is to explain the fall of Arthur – is a woman: Guinevere – the queen. Guinevere’s enchantment is sexual. Arthur’s court falls because of Mordred’s unquenched sexual passion.
to Guinever the golden with gleaming limbs,
as fair and fell as fay-woman
in the world walking for the woe of men
Compare Mordred and Saruman: “‘Why not? The Ruling Ring?… As he said this a lust which he could not conceal shone suddenly in his eyes.” When the enchantment of Guinevere is read as a prototype of the enchantment of The Lord of the Rings we discover Mordred a character study of Saruman and the One Ring itself to be filled with an almost irresistable female sexuality.
Some readers of Tolkien seem to feel uncomfortable with this “fairy element” of female sexual power. A more helpful emotion would be that of recognition: woman is (and is obviously when you think on it) the most central idea behind Tolkien’s idea of Faërie. It is not as if Tolkien feels women to be only potential Guineveres – sexual witches tempting men, soliciting another fall. There is also Galadriel.
Indeed, it is possible to read Tolkien’s Guinevere as carefully imagined as a corruption of Sulis, the prototype of Galadriel. At this point, however, it is necessary to step back and establish on just what grounds Tolkien believed he knew the historical kernel of the Arthur story.
The Fall of Arthur is an attempt to add the minimal fairy elements to set the Cauldron boiling, having first put into the Pot the historical story discovered by R.G. Collingwood. Collingwood and Tolkien were both fellows of Pembroke between 1926 and 1935, and the arhcaeologist and historian drew his colleague into applying his considerable philological talents to the matter of Celtic Britain.
Helpfully, the broad brush strokes of Collingwood’s reconstruction of the historical kernel of the story of the King of Faërie was utilized in the 2004 movie of King Arthur (directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley). The movie departs from Collingwood’s Arthur by making him still a Roman soldier (Collingwood’s Arthur steps into the vacuum created when the Roman legions leave Britain). The movie also resists Tolkien’s themes of enchantment, either in the form of Merlin (in the movie rather a Celtic diplomat than a wizard) or the queen (whose own temptation is removed by the glorious death of Lancelot before her wedding to Arthur).
In his 1936 volume on Roman Britain for the Oxford history of Britain series, Collingwood (1937, p. 320-4) reads the earliest written sources (used by Bede) to infer that Artorius was an intelligent and forceful Romanized Britain who initiated a long British tradition of amateur DIY by privately organizing the ‘Roman’ military aid that fifty years earlier Rome herself had proved unable to supply – a mounted band of heavy cavalry that could fight the Saxon whenever and wherever over the length of the island. At the end, says Collingwood, Arthur’s innovative court fell apart due to internal discord and the tide of English history resumed.
Tolkien has tried to sieze the story as the early English settlers might have heard it from the natives of Britain, when the process of cooking the legend of Arthur in the Cauldron of British story had only just begun.
Once we identify conversations with Collingwood as a major source of The Fall of Arthur we can also begin to identify how he might have conceived of the enchantment of the queen by way of a blending of two “older figures” of Faërie – the personalities of two local Celtic divinities who had their respective homes either side of the Severn Estuary and who were evidenty the subject of some intense conversations between the two fellows of Pembroke.
Collingwood’s research on Roman Britain continues to serve as our guide. In his Archaeology of Roman Britain (1930 p.166) we read in a chapter on Inscriptions of “the very numerous non-Roman divinities whom the religious life of the Empire welcomed with its characteristic tolerance.” Examples are said to include “Nodens the god of Lyndey” and “Sul the goddess of Bath.”
Six years later, in a footnote appended to a chapter on Religion in his Oxford volume on Roman Britain, Collingwood gives a tangible illustration of the help on matters of Celtic philology for which he thanks Professor J.R.R. Tolkien in his acknowledgements. His colleague points out, reports Collingwood, that while traditionally (and as in his earlier book) called Sul, “the Celtic nominative can only be Sulis” (1937, p. 264). In other words, Tolkien told his colleague he had earlier got the name of the goddess wrong – she is Sulis. The footnote concludes with a haunting rumour of our professor’s further philological ruminations:
The Celtic sulis may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the Sun.
This vital footnote is appended to a passage that describes the building of the temple of Sulis and, much later, a temple to her neighbour Nodens across the water. As we shall see in a moment, Collingwood has learned who Nodens was from Tolkien:
Sulis, the goddess of the hot springs at Bath, came into her own at a very early date; her temple, with its classical architecture and very unclassical sculpture, was probably built in the Flavian period. But less than thirty miles away across the Severn, Nodens, the hunter-god of the Forest of Dean, who survived in later mythology as Nuada of the Silver Hand, king of the Tuatha dé Dannann, and later still as King Lear, had to wait for his splendid temple, with its hostelry and baths and precinct, until the pagan revival initiated by Julian the Apostate, though, no doubt, his hill-top above Lydney had always been sacred ground. (1937, pp. 264-5)
Sulis and Nodens are presented by Collingwood as Celtic gods known to us by the happy chance that in matters of religion the Roman governors and soldiers readily went native, learned who the local god was, and set about a Roman worship of the Celtic god that involved naming the divinity in inscriptions that today give us just about our only hint of them.
The name Nodens is recorded on three inscriptions in Britain, one of them a curse, all found at Lydney and recorded by Collingwood in his posthumously published Roman Inscriptions of Britain (online here, here, and here).
All these inscriptions had been found already long before the dig at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, organized by the archaeologist R.E.M. Wheeler and his wife in the late 1920s. The Wheelers’ dig aroused a lot excitement, however, for archaeology had recently come into its own as the key to a hitherto unknown ancient history of mankind. Collingwood now persuaded his colleague to take a look at them. The result was Tolkien’s The Name Nodens, published in 1932 as Appendix I to the Wheelers’ Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman Site.
The first half of Tolkien’s brief but dense note provides the substance of Collingwood’s report above that the local god of Lydney Park, Nodens, who in the end received a splendid temple and who is mention in three inscriptions found at the site, would become Nuada of the Silver Hand, king of the Tuatha dé Dannann of later Irish mythology, and later still King Lear.
The second half of Tolkien’s note looks backwards rather than forwards in time and is not referred to by Collingwood. It is, however, even more interesting. Tolkien declares that Nodens “was probably in origin adjectival, a title of a god whose remoter proper name is lost” (p. 180), and he observes that the title likely contained a once intelligble verbal stem, which while not found in Celtic is common in Germanic and has meanings of ‘acquire,’ ‘catch,’ ‘ensnare,’ and ‘entrap.’
“Nodens the Catcher” is a translation; a more poetic rendering of which might be “Nodens of the silver hand.” The name Nodens means ‘to catch,’ to ‘have a silver hand.’ Nodens is a title that once belonged to an original name. Sauron the Catcher. Bilbo of the silver hand.
Tolkien’s philological search for a missing name that coupled with the adjectival Nodens is illuminated by his account of ‘fairy elements’ in On Fairy-stories. Fairy elements are said to be the linguistic origin of ‘fantasy,’ an expression that engenders an imagination of things and beings not indeed found in our world (OFS pp. 38, 41). A fairy element begins as a speech act: a man talks to himself and joins a noun and an adjective in a peculiar way, thus making a queer sign.
Examples of such fairy elements might be: magic ring, fairy story, queen of Faërie, elvish artist, hobbit burglar, nameless eye…
- where the adjective is in each case italicized and is the form taken by the only name by which this Celtic diety is recorded. The name of this god is the ensnaring name; Nodens is the title of a person who ensnares. With one eye on his own imagination, Tolkien concludes:
Whether the god was called the ‘snarer’ or the ‘catcher’ or the ‘hunter’ in some sinister sense… mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, in this connexon that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. (p. 182)
Collingwood showed Tolkien the historical Arthur, a pagan world in which every neighbourhood had its own god, and his own drawings of some Roman inscriptions that named two local Celtic deities whose homes were thirty miles and a river away from one another. Tolkien read into what he was shown a goddess who was a daisy and a sinister cult of a silver-handed hunter.
An eye in a blue face
Saw an eye in a green face.
“That eye is like to this eye”
Said the first eye,
“but in low place
Not in high place.”
Sulis. Goddess of the natural springs at Bath. The eye of the sun. A daisy. Sulis is no nameless eye but an elvish queen who reads your mind and shows your heart a mirror in her magical waters. Sulis of the pure eye has a longstanding feud with the nameless Nodens, or so imagines Tolkien: that hunter of men’s souls seeks to see her naked and trap her with a ring. The compass directions will be reversed but we will see the Avon valley in this imagination of a local Celtic feud between divinities from the top of a hill somewhere near Glastonbury, revealed in The Lord of the Rings as the heart of elvendom on earth.
Frodo looked and saw, still at some distance, a hill of many mighty trees, or a city of green towers: which it was he could not tell. Out of it, it seemed to him that the power and light came that held all the land in sway. He longed suddenly to fly like a bird to rest in the green city. Then he looked eastward and saw all the land of Lórien running down to the pale gleam of Anduin, the Great River. He lifted his eyes across the river and all the light went out, and he was back again in the world he knew. Beyond the river the land appeared flat and empty, formless and vague, until far away it rose again like a wall, dark and drear. The sun that lay on Lothlórien had no power to enlighten the shadow of that distant height.
Nodens, the ensnarer, whose home is to the north-west, across the Severn Estuary. Nodens of the silver hand, who lost his power when he lost his hand. Nodens, who Silvianus calls on to curse the named thief who stole his gold ring.
‘There lies the fastness of Southern Mirkwood,’ said Haldir. ‘It is clad in a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither. In the midst upon a stony height stands Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy had his dwelling. We fear that now it is inhabited again…’
Tolkien’s Guinevere can be read as simply a blending of the two local divinities who had in Arthur’s day already for centuries faced each other across the Severn.
Guinevere is Sulis, a queen of Faërie. A daisy. An eye of the sun. Sulis is an eye of power reflected in her waters, which sees your thoughts and may grant the wishes of your heart.
But Guinevere is also Nodens, the hunter, the ensnarer, the catcher. An enchantress with a silver hand and a rumour of a stolen ring.
In The Lord of the Rings the character of Guinevere as an enchantress will return to its two original states and Tolkien will draw a picture of Frodo’s encounter with both Sulis and Nodens, mediated in both cases by a ring.
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In my ebook (2014) I argued that as an undergraduate Tolkien discovered the idea of a lost ancient English mythology in the pages of H.M. Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation (1907).
What I now discover is how at Pembroke in the late 1920s and early 1930s Collingwood showed Tolkien Roman Britain, and how his younger colleague began to see how Roman Britain could help him to imagine a lost mythology of the English.
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