Category Archives: Edwardian

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Concerning Hobbits

A few years back I stumbled upon a Hobbit hole. I chanced upon it in a lecture of 1900 by John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic. Rhys was arguing that behind the divinities, demons, fairies and phantoms of Celtic folklore are dim memories of various peoples that once inhabited the British Isles. What especially drew my attention was his interpretation of Welsh fairy stories.

Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’, Rhys explained, have their origin in encounters between incoming Celtic tribesmen and pre-Celtic farmers, who the Celts drove into the hills. From the stories he inferred that these first settlers of Britain had been:

“a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground.”

Turning to archaeology, Rhys pointed to the remains of “certain underground – or partially underground – habitations.” He connected these dwellings with Britain’s native settlers, and observed that some of their homes:

“appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature…”

Was this the origin of Tolkien’s Hobbits? If so, how did Bilbo Baggins emerge out of an apparently playful reading of Rhys’ account of Welsh fairy tales? I set out to answer these questions.

Initial results were encouraging. Rhys was still teaching when Tolkien went up to Oxford, and the undergraduate Tolkien probably attended his lectures on the Mabinogian. And serious scholarly engagement with Rhys is evident in Tolkien’s essay on ‘The Name “Nodens”’, a paper engaging with inscriptions unearthed at Lydney Park on the Welsh border and published in 1932 – the year that Tolkien first wrote down the story that would be published five years later as The Hobbit.

The picture became complicated, however, when I opened up Tolkien’s earliest tales. If anything, they suggest hostility to Rhys’ reading of Welsh fairy stories. For the young Tolkien not only belittles Celtic tradition but also identifies as the original settlers of the British Isles, not peaceful mound-dwellers, but Elves, who in his stories are quite warlike and live in cottages and towers and such like.

These early stories tell of the history of the Elves in “the days before the days, in the Northern regions of the Western World.” But they are also imagined as a lost tradition of English folklore. Tolkien describes a pre-migration Englishman, an Angle, who travels to an island in the west where Elves still dwell. This island is Britain. The Elves of Britain tell the traveler their stories and, because he passes these tales on to his sons, and they to theirs, so today the English “have the true traditions of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”

Behind his combative attitude towards Celtic folklore one can discern Tolkien’s unease with the idea that the English took their present lands from others. In these early writings he tells of how, in the face of successive invasions by different Celtic tribes and Roman legions, the Elves of England faded and diminished; but they are said to perk up again on the arrival of the English, with whom they recognize a special affinity. The suggestion – not entirely convincing – is that the Anglo-Saxons were not so much invading the lands of the ancient Britons as coming home to the original land of the fairies.

Tolkien was evidently unsatisfied with this early attempt to tie the English to England. His idea of England as the last refuge of the Elves was soon revised and, by the late 1920s pretty much abandoned.

What I think happened next – my ‘Hobbit hypothesis’, if you will – is that on reencountering Rhys’ scholarship in the early 1930s Tolkien came to see that it offered a new solution to an old problem. The result was the reconceptualization of ancient England as the green and pleasant Shire of the Hobbits.

The key to this new development was Tolkien’s dual theory of national identity. This is articulated in ‘English and Welsh’, a lecture delivered in 1955 (the day after publication of The Return of the King). According to Tolkien, we each receive two inheritances. From what he calls “our speech-ancestors” we receive our “cradle language”, and also the culture associated with it. From our biological ancestors we inherit our inner nature, which manifests itself in our individual dispositions and predilections. There is no necessary connection between our outer language and culture and our inner selves.

Tolkien’s vision of the history of the British Isles gives concrete form to this rather abstract theory. He agreed with Rhys that Britain had been settled before the arrival of Celtic-speakers. He also believed that neither Celts nor Anglo-Saxons had driven these first settlers from the land: the history of Britain is one of racial mixing not ethnic cleansing. So the succession of incursions has given rise to wholesale changes of language, but not of blood; and this entails that many today who speak English (or Welsh) are descendants of those pre-Celtic settlers that Rhys back in 1900 had discerned behind Welsh traditions of the ‘little people’.

If my hypothesis is correct we are now in a position to answer that most delicious of questions: what is a Hobbit?

Well, Hobbits are (a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) representation of the little people that back in 1900 Rhys had identified as Britain’s first farmers. But because this original population has never been driven from the land, Hobbits are at the same time a depiction of the inherited ‘inner selves’ of many who live in England today.

Hobbits are that part of the English people that is native to the land; they are Tolkien’s way of explaining why the modern English truly belong to the land now called England.

And The Hobbit is a story of how this native part of us comes to terms with its English cultural inheritance: the tale of a peaceful bachelor, with a penchant for bacon and eggs, who rediscovers himself by venturing out into the perilous world of ancient English tradition; there, and back again.

Sources

For the Tolkien quotes see The Shaping of Middle-earth: the Quenta, the Ambarkanta, and the Annals(1986) and The Book of Lost Tales, edited by Christopher Tolkien¸ Volume II (1984); ‘English and Welsh’, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). All three of these volumes are edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in the UK by Allen & Unwin. They are given here in the order in which the quotations appear in the essay.

For Rhys’ lecture see ‘Presidential Address to Section H. of the BAAS’, Report of the Seventieth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London: John Murray, 1900, pp. 884-896, available at the Internet Archive.

For the scholarly context informing the work of both Rhys and Tolkien see my essay ‘The Making of the English: English history, British identity, Aryan villages, 1870-1914’, Journal of the History of Ideas, October 2014, available on my academia.edu page and my recent essay J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, available in electronic format from Amazon.


This essay first appeared on The History Vault.

 

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Meetings of People: W.H.R. Rivers & Diffusionism

Originally posted to the Grote Club.

W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure in the development of both psychology and anthropology in early twentieth-century Cambridge. Consequently, much of what is distinctive in the development of one discipline in this period relates directly to the other. Nevertheless, the pivotal event in Rivers’ anthropological career – his ‘conversion to diffusionism’ around 1911 – was not directly related to his psychological research.

Rivers announced his conversion in his 1911 Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He explained that in writing up the results of  his 1908 expedition to Melanesia he had come to see that “the change I had traced was not a spontaneous evolution, but one which had taken place under the influence of the blending of peoples”. Quite why Rivers came to see social change in this new way has mystified modern scholars.

In this post I explain Rivers’ 1911 ‘conversion’. The explanation is extrapolated from several published articles (details below) and constitutes a digression from my series of posts on Rivers and psychology. Taking this digression, however, will allow us in later posts to pinpoint more accurately the place of psychology in the Cambridge moral sciences. Continue reading

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Emerging unconscious

W.H.R. Rivers was one of the first English psychologists to discover the unconscious. His work with ‘shell shocked’ soldiers during World War One is today well-known thanks to his appearance, alongside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Identifying the instinct of self-preservation rather than sex as the key to the psycho-neuroses of his patients, Rivers fashioned a version of Freudian doctrines palatable to a respectable English audience.

My intention in this post is to show how Rivers’ notion of the unconscious was derived from the psychological model introduced in my last post. This is not to question the significance of Rivers’ encounter with Freud. I am merely pointing out how easily some of Freud’s ideas could be integrated into the established Cambridge model of the mind. Continue reading

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The Cambridge Mind, 1868-1920

In this post I introduce the psychological model at the center of a series of posts I am contributing to a new online venture: the collaborative blog known as the Grote Club.

From the late 1860s through to World War One and beyond, this model of the mind was widely regarded within Cambridge as the foundation of the various sciences of Man and of Society. Its distinguishing characteristic was that it looked to a unified physiological account of the nervous system in order to explain both reasoning and  instinctual action. This physiological model was itself evolutionary and hierarchical. But this gave rise to a psychological model that, as we shall see, supported two quite opposite readings of human society. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

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Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Aliens or immigrants? Watching by the threshold

For an exercise in irony, try asking some British Jews about Muslim immigration. Perhaps because I live in Israel (and my sympathy is thereby assumed) I’ve heard a lot on this score. But almost every stereotype leveled is a modification of accusations hurled against Jewish immigrants to Britain a century ago. Continue reading