Tolkien declared his story of the Ring no allegory, and it has never been my intention to offer a political reading of his tale. From the first, however, I have insisted that (as Tolkien says) the stories of Middle-earth are not set in some other world, but in our own world in a distant and imaginary past – a world of ancient and largely lost northern story. My current reading of the early drafts of the story is leading me to think that this underlying historical ground of Tolkien’s sub-created world took a new and substantial turn with the onset of World War II.
It is hard to be certain of such matters, but a textual echo seems suggestive. In his commentary on Beowulf, Tolkien contrasts the old Vanir gods of the ancient English and other northern tribes with the cult of the southern European Odin, just then entering the North thanks to the travels of the Goths. At the heart of the Vanir traditions is the god known to the English as Ing, Frey ‘the Lord’ to the Norse men, and Tolkien invokes an Old Testament vision of the cult of the priest-king and the farmer and the shepherd – a religion centered on the fertility of the land with a deep tradition of a past time of a Great Peace (when a gold ring would be left untouched on the highway). Soon after the English set sail from their old homelands and sailed to the British Isles, remarks Tolkien, the cult of Odin took over the religious life of the Danes (remembered in Norse mythology as the war of the Aesir and Vanir gods). So the ancient paganism of the English became the cult of blood and death of the Viking era, a later period but a relapse into heathenism.
The textual echo is found in the essay On Fairy-stories, first published in 1947 and so postading the Beowulf commentary, in which a key phrase of contrast of Frey and Odin is borrowed but also worked up, so that Tolkien now contrasts the traditions of golden Frey, of whom a love story may well be told, and Odin, lord of the slain and glutter of crows, the Necromancer. (I’ll add references later).
Before thinking out what this identification of Odin and the Necromancer might mean for a story named after Sauron the Necromancer, we need to fill out Tolkien’s historical discovery of necromancy in the days when Beowulf was composed. So, back to the commentary on the Old English poem, the most striking feature of which, in my opinion, is that it reveals the definite if quite idiosyncratic historical frame that Tolkien discovered through the poem and used to think about it.
Specifically, Tolkien held the Danes interlopers, a new military force that over the lives of two ferocious Danish kings completely overturned the ancient order in the North, destroying forever the Heathobards, the priestly tribe whose king is named from the ancient traditions of Ing and Froda. Heorot, the legendary meadhall of the younger king, Hrothgar, Tolkien suspects was erected on the very site of the ancient temple attended by the priest-king. So in Beowulf we find a story in which Grendel, an ogre, haunts the meadhall that is the great symbol of the new Danish supremacy in the North, seal on the fall of the English tribes, who know in their hearts their old homelands – and their ancient traditions – are forever lost to them. And Tolkien notes and comments on the line in the Old English poem in which Grendel the monster is named a helrun, one who knows the secrets of the land of the dead, a necromancer.
All of this takes on a startling significance when we put it together with the historical take-over of northern paganism by the (southern european) cult of Odin, which was in full swing in the age of Bede, when Tolkien believed a poet of the East-Midlands was writing down the poem known to us as Beowulf.
Tolkien insists in his commentary that the story of the ogre haunting Heorot was not told for the first time by ‘our poet’. Indeed, what he is concerned to show is the ways in which this deeply heathen story was rendered fit for Christian consumption. He is here pointing at much darker tales of Grendel and Heorot, pre-Christian English tales, ultimately curses.
Put all this together and the truly weird thing about the historical events that Tolkien perceives is that these curses in some way were driven home. That the English (and no doubt other ancient tribes of the North) sent a necromancer into Heorot in their stories, and that the Danes meanwhile embraced the cult of Odin, lost the Vanir religion they had stolen, and collapsed into a heathenism of murder and despair.
Now, to return to The Lord of the Rings how this plays out I now approach, not from the side of the Necromancer (discussed in several recent posts) but from that of Aragorn, or Ing. As noted in the last post, two periods of writing, late 1939 and then late 1940, open a sequel intended around the same size as The Hobbit into the great tale we know as its sequel. In the first period, that is, the later months of 1939, coinciding with the first months of war with Germany, Tolkien got clear (enough) what it meant for the Necromancer to make the One Ring, and only on return to writing in late summer 1940 and taking the Company (minus Gandalf) out of Moria, did the elf, dwarf, and – crucially – heir of Elendil, step into the story.
Oddly (to you and I), Trotter, originally a hobbit (and in late 1939, Peregrin Boffin) remained Trotter through the entire composition of the story. (Strider is never introduced before the ‘late typescripts’ edited by Christopher Tolkien.) When Trotter first becomes a man, the heir of Elendil, I think the name Aragorn also appears. But as soon as he is leading the Company into Lothlorien, this Ranger is renamed Ingold son of Ingrim – the Ing-element, as Tolkien obliquely puts it in a note to himself, ‘to represent the West’. I’ve argued at length (link to my Rounded Globe ebook) that Aragorn is born of Tolkien’s ruminations on the ancient story told of Scyld Scefing in the exordium to Beowulf, showing how the Middle-earth ancient legend of the sea-kings who came out of the West echoes the story in Beowulf of the baby sent alone on a boat from the further shore. I’ll return to it in later posts. What I begin to see now is the significance of this connection.
For the two-phase process by which the original sequel to The Hobbit (‘the mirror ghost index’) became The Lord of the Rings can be boiled down to this two-step engagement with the ancient stories and the history of the North:
- Late-summer to end of 1939: delineation of the face of the Necromancer, the Lord of the Rings.
- Late summer to end of 1940: conception of the historical tale of Numenor, the lost ancient story that makes sense of the traditions bound up with Ing (Frey), Froda, and the Golden Peace, the inaffable gift sent out of the west.
This is not to detect any allegory whatsoever. Rather, The Lord of the Rings comes into view as an attempt to, first, glimpse the face of the evil glimpsed in the ancient North, and secondly to imagine a tradition of good of that same North, a glimpse of that which is true where the Necromaner can only be counterfeit.
But it seems to me that this first glimpse, the glimpse of evil as it was seen in the North, is imagined by our author as a picture of the source of the evil not only of Viking killers who delighted in the name of Odin and trusted only themselves, but also of that which had exploded out of Germany and declared war on the world in the days in which Tolkien was first writing his story.
In which case, Tolkien’s subsequent imagination a tradition of Ing, a lost Vanir story, in which love as well as peace and prosperity had their place, the imagination, that is, of the long history of the exiles of Numenor, culminating with the return of the king and fragmented memories of babies in boats coming out of the west, is evidence of his resolve to discover a true tradition of the North, that is, stories that rested on the truths known in the North that the Necromancer denied.
In some of Tolkien’s earliest writings, now recorded in The Book of Lost Tales, the traditions of the English concerning the fairies are clearly competing with better established Welsh and Irish traditions. But as he grew older, Tolkien seems to have become more intent on distinguishing the ancient English ideology from its monstrous deviations in the hands of, first the Viking Danes, and in his own day the German military machine and the political ideology of power that had unleashed it.