Category Archives: Writing

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Tolkien’s English Mythology (revisited)

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.


What they don’t teach you at college

Someone just said to me that “writing is hard”. This was an incorrect statement. Writing is easy; thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard but it is very easy to fool ourselves and think thinking easy. When we think about something we are alone in our heads, in a private world. Nobody is there to call us out when we miss a step, converge one line of thought into another that is actually distinct, or take more out of something than is actually in it. The act of thinking too easily slides into that of day-dreaming; we give ourselves a long hard look in a mirror with a face covered in cosmetics and the lighting turned down.

Putting our thoughts on paper is about rinsing our face in cold water and turning on the lights.
Writing is not hard. But our writing is often bad. This is because our thinking turns out to be not nearly so clear as we had wanted to believe. Picking out the flaws in our writing is an indirect but powerful way of correcting our thinking. That is why I say that editing is the ultimate Socratic art: an editor is the midwife of thought.

But this is not an art you are likely to learn at college. You may be taught about theories of history, or molecular physics, media communications or library management, physical anthropology or political science, but you are unlikely to be taught how to think.

And this is not so surprising. From around the 1880s and for about a century, rising social prosperity fueled a massive expansion in higher education. But all the self-illusions of liberal arts colleges notwithstanding, the kind of intensive personal engagement between master and student that one encounters in a Platonic dialogue is simply too costly to be a viable option even in elite universities.

But the end result is depressing for all that. For every year these educational institutes turn out thousands of graduates who can talk the talk, strike a posture, flood your head with jargon, but cannot think through a complicated idea and, consequently, are unlikely to give birth to any truly original thoughts.

Photo credit: ‘Seagull in deep thought’ by Lars Ploughman (cc license).

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


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.