Tolkien’s most famous contribution to scholarship is his idea that the Anglo Saxon poet who composed Beowulf was a Christian who passed over the old pagan gods yet retained the monsters of the ancient mythology.
deorc déaþscua, duguþe ond geogoþe, seomade ond syrede; sinnihte héold mistige móras; men ne cunnon, hwyder helrúnan hwyrftum scríþað. (Beowulf lines 160-3; Klaeber 7)
…a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors: men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 17)
The poet here classes the monster Grendel as one of the helrúnan. What is a helrún? In his recently published commentary, Tolkien tells us the Old English word is composed of two elements: hell ‘Hell’ and rún ‘secret.’ Hell is a native word meaning “the ‘hidden land’ of all the dead” (Beowulf T&C 298) and “is ultimately related to helan ‘conceal’” (Beowulf T&C 167). Thus, a helrún is one who knows the secrets of the hidden realm of the dead – a necromancer.
One of the most important lessons to be gleaned from Tolkien’s commentary is that he saw that the Old English poet glimpsed also something of ‘the other side’. The first lines of the poem tell of Scyld Scefing, the founding king of the Danish royal house, who came to his people from the further shore beyond the shoreless sea.
Tolkien believed that the Danes had taken a very ancient legend of Sheave (Scef) and welded it into their own royal genealogy. The Anglo Saxon poet was presenting the new Danish version of the ancient story. Yet Tolkien also believed that the poet had discerned something at the heart of the original story:
….at his allotted hour Scyld the valiant passed into the keeping of the Lord; and to the flowing sea his dear comrades bore him… With lesser gifts no whit did they adorn him, with treasures of that people, than did those that in the beginning sent him forth alone over the waves, a little child… (Beowulf 26-46, Tolkien’s translation; emphasis added)
In his commentary, Tolkien observes that the ship burial is not found in other versions of the Scyld Scefing story. He identifies its presence here as an innovation, albeit one that demonstrates a poetic insight into the ancient meaning of a legend already distorted and half-forgotten in the poet’s day. Specifically, in the ship burial Tolkien finds “the suggestion” – no more: for “the idea was probably not fully formed” in the mind of the poet – that Scyld Scefing had come “out of the Unknown beyond the Great Sea, and returned into it: a miraculous intrusion into history, which nonetheless left real historical effects” (Beowulf T&C 151).
Tolkien’s commentary reveals the importance that he attached to the unspecified “those” – þá – who in lines 43-46 are said to have sent the infant alone over the waves to his impoverished people. Here is a glimpse of mysterious allies of mankind, mythological beings who may or may not be gods but are certainly not the monsters of the ancient pagan mythology. Where Tolkien discovered Sauron the Necromancer in the word helrún, in the poet’s suggestion of a further shore beyond the shoreless sea he perceived Valinor.
* Post revised after some helpful criticism. I am indebted to the allwise Richard Rohlin.
We find magical items in Middle-earth, and also magical creatures, but at first sight magical spells appear rather scarce. Yet once we take Tolkien at his word we find magic interspersed throughout his stories, which themselves weave a spell of extraordinary potency.
A spell, Tolkien explained in his St Andrews lecture on fairy stories, “means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men” (OFS 47).
Here is a philologist talking. Yet the meaning of spell as story is not so arcane as you might think. Children still learn their letters, that is, are taught to spell. Spelling is associated with words as well as magic, or if you want, with word magic.
The older meaning of spell as story is preserved in our gospel, a word that is indirectly invoked in The Lord of the Rings when, in the hall of Théoden, Gríma Wormtongue names Gandalf Láthspell. Gospel is from the Old English good spell, or good story; Láthspell, its opposite, means evil story or ill news.
Tolkien does not state outright that the two meanings of spell are the same; he does not say that a story told is a formula of power. Yet I would argue that he plays on the difference while holding that at root the two may be the same.
Consider this description of the faithless Unfriend in ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s telling of the fairy story he discerned within Beowulf:
He had a keen wit, and the King set great store by his counsels, though some said that he used secret spells, and that his counsels roused strife more often than they made peace. (Beowulf 365-6)
On the surface a distinction is clearly drawn here between the counsel Unfriend offers the king and his secret spells. Yet it is not the narrator who separates spells and counsel, but some others in the story. A suspicion hangs in the air that these are people who do not quite grasp the full potency of words in themselves.
Now, Gríma Wormtongue, the counsellor of King Théoden, was drawn by Tolkien out of the character Unfriend (Unferth in Beowulf). I want to compare the cinematic treatment of Gandalf’s encounter with Wormtongue with the scene as told in Tolkien’s own story because, I think, it will allow us to weigh better the significance of this suspicion.
In this scene from the movie a magical dual takes place between Gandalf and Saruman, who has possessed the mind and body of King Théoden. Wormtongue is early stomped upon by Gimli the Dwarf, and is incidental to the battle between the two wizards, which concludes with Saruman’s exorcism and the physical transformation of Théoden from decrepit wreck to comely if middle-aged king.
Turning to the book, I suggest that the real confrontation begins already when the travellers – Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas – arrive at the gates of the hill fort of Edoras and men in bright mail spring up to bar their way, crying in the tongue of the Riddermark:
Stay, strangers here unknown!
Gandalf replies in their language, but observes that it is a tongue that few strangers understand. If you wish to be answered, he asks the guards, why not speak in the Common Tongue? The guards reply that it is the will of Théoden that none enter who do not speak the language of Rohan. Yet a moment later it is suggested that Wormtongue – and this is the first time we hear his name – has been instrumental in establishing this gate policy:
It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.
Here is no sorcery. Yet Wormtongue is implicated from the first in an attempt to use words to isolate the Rohirrim and their king. And Gandalf, the wizard, overcomes this obstacle by mastery of their language.
The travellers now enter Edoras and climb up to Meduseld, the golden hall of Théoden. At the far end of the hall sits the King on a great gilded chair, while at his feet upon the steps sits Gríma Wormtongue, “a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes”.
There was a silence.
At length Gandalf speaks. Théoden replies briefly, and not with words of welcome. Then Gríma speaks, naming Gandalf Láthspell, ill-news. An exchange of words unfolds between Gandalf and Wormtongue, who accuses the wizard of being in league with the Lady Galadriel, “the Sorceress of the Golden Wood”, where “webs of deceit were ever woven”. Gandalf has had enough. He sings a song about Galadriel, commands Wormtongue to silence, and then raises his staff and performs the only bit of theatrical magic in the whole scene:
There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers.
And still Wormtongue speaks: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?”
There was a flash as if lightening had cloven the roof. Then all was silent.
Thunder and lightning, and a wizard’s staff. A moment of drama that achieves one end: the silencing of Wormtongue. And this is the real magic performed by Gandalf. Not the exorcism of Saruman, but the breaking of Gríma’s web of deceit by the silencing of his spells.
And the rest is easy.
‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf… ‘No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’
Gandalf leads Théoden out of his hall.
Quickly now Gandalf spoke. His voice was low and secret, and none save the king heard what he said. But ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye…
On the silver screen Peter Jackson treated us to a struggle between wizards. Tolkien, however, tells a story of a battle between two counsellors. Gandalf does not break the incantations of Saruman but silences the twisted words of Wormtongue. He does not lead Théoden back to the light by exorcising Saruman, but by talking to him, speaking to him words of good counsel.
None of this is meant especially as criticism of the movie scene. Peter Jackson correctly discerned that this is a scene of magic, in which spells are spoken and a part of Gandalf’s true nature is revealed. But the real magic in Tolkien’s story, the dramatic thunder and lightning notwithstanding, is word magic.
And this does perhaps point to an intrinsic limitation of the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s stories. For how can a visual drama capture and convey Tolkien’s foundational idea that words are the real magic, that stories sung or spoken aloud are the real spells?
Those who know Tolkien’s writings only through their cinematic adaptations are like those who held that Unfriend relied upon “secret spells” – ignorant of the power of Tolkien’s words they conflate the real magic of Middle-earth with computer aided special effects.
But again, neither Peter Jackson nor those who suspected Unfriend of using secret spells are altogether off the mark. Tolkien was not demystifying sorcery by collapsing magical spells into story and counsel. He was reminding us of the magic incarnate in cunningly crafted words. A battle between two counsellors is a struggle of opposing magical forces.
We can appreciate the real magic invoked by Tolkien in this part of his story by noting three key moments in the coming of the travellers to Rohan.
First, walking between the burial mounds of the kings of Rohan before their arrival at Edoras itself, Aragorn sings – first in the original tongue, then in the Common Speech – the song of “a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan”.
Second, outside the doors of Meduseld, Háma, the door warden, hearing of the lineage of Aragorn’s sword, declares:
It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days…
And third, recall how Gandalf’s ‘thunder and lightning’ moment of magic is directly preceded by his soft singing of a song of Lórien and Galadriel.
Here, in these two songs and the intimation of songs from a long forgotten past, is an indication of the profound magical power brought by these travellers to Rohan: a magic that can hardly fail to break the cunning webs of deceit woven by Gríma Wormtongue.
It is now two years since I first formulated the idea that Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth were conceived as the stories of a lost English mythology. Since then the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf commentary has amply corroborated this thesis, and my own research has established more clearly its range and, also, its limitations. The time feels ripe for a brief review.
First, three core facts.
Firstly, Tolkien’s undergraduate career at Oxford followed closely in the wake of the big event in Edwardian Anglo-Saxon studies – the publication of H.M. Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation. Chadwick broke new ground in tracing the history of the English before they ever came to Britain, and – crucially – he did so by reconstructing the mythology of the ancient English tribes.
Secondly, Tolkien’s mature scholarship demonstrates that he accepted Chadwick’s idea that the spiritual center of pre-migration English life had been a sanctuary on the (now Danish) island of Zealand.
Thirdly, Tolkien’s mature scholarship demonstrates that he believed the English migration to Britain to have been caused by a period of ruthless Danish military expansion, which saw the Danes conquer Zealand, take over the ancient cult, and – again, crucially – make the ancient mythology of the English their own, in so doing distorting and it remaking it in their own more warlike image.
From these three facts two implications are obvious and straightforward.
Firstly, when Tolkien talked of an ancient English mythology he had in mind, not the ancient stories told in and about Britain (as nearly all Tolkien scholars seem to believe) but the ancient stories told by the English in their original homeland between the Baltic and the North Sea.
Secondly, the parallel between Tolkien’s stories and various Norse myths is not to be taken at face value (it nearly always is). Tolkien certainly took the Norse stories as a starting-point, but what he wanted was to get back to the original ancient English stories that he believed lay behind them.
All of the above seems to me undeniable. What comes next is invariably speculative, and this for the reason that Tolkien himself, faced with reconstructing the ancient English stories, had no choice but to make imaginative leaps into the dark. The best we can do is hold up points in the ancient extant stories that evidently exercised Tolkien’s imagination, read his scholarly musings on these points, and take note of the fairly obvious parallels found in his own fairy stories. Here are three such points, but for the close textual readings and arguments necessary to support them you will have to look at my published and forthcoming work.
Firstly, there is the Norse story of King Froda, a king who ruled in a time of peace and security when a gold ring could be left on the highway without anyone taking it. In his Beowulf commentary Tolkien declares that behind this Norse myth was an older legend, bound up with the ancient cult of the English on Zealand. We can read The Lord of the Rings as providing a story of the original Froda (Frodo), who was not a king, but was closely connected with one (Aragorn) and also with the dawning of a great golden age of peace. And we can note Faramir’s twice repeated statement about the Ring, that not if he found it on a highway would he take it (Two Towers).
Secondly, Beowulf begins with the story of Scyld Scefing, who arrived as a baby from over the sea and on his death departed back over the ocean. Perhaps no other lines in this Old English poem so exercised the imagination of Tolkien. With this in mind we can look with Frodo into the Mirror of Galadriel and see a great ship born out of the West on wings of storm, and another with fairy lights departing into the West. And again we see how Tolkien came to think of later ages confusing the stories of Aragorn and Frodo – for the ship that comes out of the West bears Elendil, the first King and forefather of Aragorn, whereas the ship that departs into the West bears Frodo, the Ring-bearer.
And thirdly we can note the story told in Old Icelandic of the love of the god Frey with Gerdr, daughter of the giant Gymir. In his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ Tolkien connected this story with the love story of Ingeld and Freawaru, found in Beowulf. The god called Frey by the Norsemen is the same that the ancient English called Ing, who was at the center of the ancient English cult on Zealand. Tolkien points out that both Ingeld and Freawaru bear names associated with this cult, and that their story clearly contains a mythological dimension. Nevertheless, he suggests that these two lovers were historical, yet playing out in real life a very ancient story (much more ancient than that of Frey and Gerdr), bound up with the cult, and telling of the love between the members of two very different houses. Careful inspection of his argument (which I do not reproduce here) suggests that here we have some of the seeds that within a few years would sprout, in Tolkien’s own imagination, into the story of the love of Aragorn, King Elessar, who weds an Elven bride, Arwen Undómiel.
And a parting observation on the reception of these ideas. By January 1st, 2014 I had a first working scholarly paper on these themes, which I submitted to the academic journal Tolkien Studies. The paper was accepted but as of today volume 12 of Tolkien Studies, in which it will appear, has still not been published! Meanwhile, in the summer of 2014 I developed the argument of this paper into a small ebook, which I published under the title Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, which was released in October 2014.
Last summer I wrote a second academic paper, which has also been accepted by Tolkien Studies, and which examines Tolkien’s scholarly writings of the 1930s in order to chart the development of his search for the ancient English mythology that could be detected on the outer edges of Beowulf. But when this second scholarly paper will appear in print not even Gandalf could tell you!
So this coming January I plan to take a month out of my normal work in order to, once again, write up the fruits of my research – which includes some sustained reflections on Tolkien’s idea of fantasy – in a new ebook, tentatively titled On the Shores of the Shoreless Sea: essays on Tolkien’s Faërie .
The following is a guest post by Richard W. Rohlin:
I’ve been taking a close look at Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ poem (you can read the full text here). This poem has completely captivated my attention and I’ve come back to it several times over the course of the semester when I really should have been working on other things.
As I detail in my research paper ‘Men out of the Sea: Corn-kings and Culture Heroes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,’ the ‘King Sheave’ poem is an effort on Tolkien’s part to connect the “corn-king” and Sceaf/Sheave legends of Northern Europe with the Númenorean cycle of his mythology. All right, so that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the point is that it was part of an evolving effort to engage with the Sceaf legend. You can read all about this in The Lost Road, volume V of The History of MiddleEarth. What I’m more interested in for purposes of this post is the way that Tolkien engages with the mythical past of Northern Europe, not just through his subject matter, but through his diction. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
‘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.Continue reading →
Edwardian 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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →