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 .
Image: Eric Gross, ‘Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse – Northern Jutland, Denmark‘, (cc) license.