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.

'A Prehistoric Fairytale'. Artist: Andrew Holgate.

‘A Prehistoric Fairytale’. Artist: Andrew Holgate.

The original thesis concerned ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, the very early fairy stories of Middle-earth that Tolkien began to compose in the winter of 1916 as he lay recovering from trench fever in a hospital bed. My argument was that key themes in these ‘lost tales’ were directly related to the reconstruction of the religious traditions of the Continental English tribes set out in a seminal work of Edwardian scholarship: H. M. Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation (1907).

In particular: Tolkien’s distinct stories of Ing, a mysterious king of the English, and Eärendil, a child of human-elf union, were intended  by Tolkien as the ‘original’ stories behind Chadwick’s reconstruction of ancient English traditions concerning a mortal who both marries a goddess and becomes king of the North.

This thesis was developed last winter and written up in an essay entitled ‘The Peace of Frodo’, which is to be published in the 2015 volume of the journal Tolkien Studies.

I encountered the new evidence in Tolkien’s commentary on Beowulf, which was composed in the 1930s but only published in May 2014 (after ‘The Peace of Frodo’ had already been accepted by Tolkien Studies).

TolkienBeowulfIn the first instance, this commentary simply confirms Tolkien’s engagement with Chadwick – and this in a striking way: for Chadwick’s argument that the island of Zealand was the center of the ancient English cult of Nerthus stands at the center of Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf.

But the introduction of Beowulf into the picture demands some careful consideration. And such musing – after much head-scratching and confused false starts – generates a more subtle interpretative framework than that set out in ‘The Peace of Frodo’.

The key is the tale of ‘King Sheave’, written down by Tolkien in both prose and verse forms in the 1930s. This is the story of a baby who appears alone in a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head, becomes the great king of the North, but eventually departs back over the water into the great unknown.

Ing - or Sheave - or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Ing – or Sheave – or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ is intriguing in part because it is at once (a) the retelling of the story of Scyld-Scefing with which the Beowulf poem beings, and (b) a working-up of an outline of a story about Ing that Tolkien had sketched for his ‘Book of Lost Tales’.

Now, Chadwick, in his 1907 book, had argued that the Beowulf story was originally a story of Ing, now told about the Danish king, Scyld. And Tolkien in his commentary affirms this interpretation of Beowulf.

So why did Tolkien at the same time compose a tale about king Scef (which means ‘sheave’) with no reference to Scyld?

The newly published commentary provides an answer. It show that Tolkien believed that the original English mythological traditions concerned Ing and Sheave, but that after the Danish conquest of Zealand (hitherto the center of the English world) the Danes had taken these traditions for their own, and in doing so had ‘Danified’ them – for example, adding the name of their own king, Scyld, to that of Scef.

‘King Sheave’ is thus an attempt to reconstruct the original English tradition that we have received in Danified form through Beowulf. (It is analogous to ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s conjectured telling of the original folk story that he believed to have been worked up by a gifted poet into the epic of Beowulf).

But ‘King Sheave’ is also the tale of a baby who escapes the destruction of Númenor and becomes king in the North. Númenor, of course, is Tolkien’s version of Atlantis, an island in the western ocean ruled by the mortal descendants of Eärendil (Elros, its first king, is the brother of Elrond).

In other words, over the course of the 1930s Tolkien’s study of Beowulf led him to posit the ancient Zealand traditions as a bridge between mythical and historical time. The destruction of Númenor at the end of the Second Age, and the journey of the refugee Scef (or Sheave, or Ing) to the shores of the Atlantic coast, marks the moment of passage from myth into history.

Put another way, in Beowulf we find dim and confused memories of those very early historical events in the North that themselves flowed out of an earlier mythical past.

In the stories better known to us today, of course, the time of myth has been extended. The end of the Second Age gives rise, not to historical time, but to the Third Age. And the tale of the infant Scef is transformed into the story of how Elendil and a few faithful companions escaped the destruction of Númenor and returned to Middle-earth, where they founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. And the immediate source for the historical traditions concerning the original king of the North has become the heir of Elendil, Aragorn (whose marriage to Arwen provides the source also for the later tradition of the goddess Nerthus and her mortal consort).

The reformulated thesis, therefore, does not negate any elements of my original argument, but it does demand that these themes be placed within a temporal framework. Specifically, we can set out the following four steps that take us from Aragorn, in The Lord of the Rings, to Scyld-Scefing in Beowulf.

1. Tolkien’s fairy-stories of the First, Second and – especially – Third Ages of Middle-earth

—- provide the conjectured source of:

2. Those ancient traditions of the English, prior to their settlement of parts of the British Isles;

—- traditions which are, subsequently:

3. Taken up and to some degree confused by the conquering Danes,

—- in which ‘Danified’ form these traditions are:

4. Presented to us in the Old English poem Beowulf.