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.


In his commentary we find Tolkien situating Beowulf in relation to the ancient history of the North. The immediate background of the poem is said to be recent Danish military expansion (which had pushed the Angles into their westerly migration to Britain). The Danes conquer Zealand, hitherto “the centre of the Anglo-Frisian world” and the site of the fertility cult mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus and discussed by Chadwick. To celebrate victory the Danish king Hrothgar builds a great mead hall, Heorot, on the site of the ancient pagan cult.

But a shadow lies upon Heorot: for twelve years the monster Grendel haunts the golden hall. As the poem tells, Grendel is finally killed by Beowulf; yet shortly afterwards Heorot is burned to the ground in a great battle with the Heathobards.

Writing of the struggle for control of the site of the ancient pagan cult on Zealand, Tolkien declares:

We touch in this conflict, and in the legends about it, on something very old and central to the nearly forgotten history of the Germanic North in heathen times. All but the final stages are already dim and remote in early Old English traditions.

Tolkien’s ambition was to craft the lost mythology of the English nation – a people who now lived amid the ruins of a quite different civilization, cut off from their old lands. His fairy stories – from the first stories of Elves written in the wake of the Battle of the Somme through to The Lord of the Rings – are conjectural accounts of the earliest stages of the “nearly forgotten history” of the North. Such at any rate is the argument of an essay (composed before the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf) forthcoming in the journal Tolkien Studies.

In this essay I argue that Tolkien’s starting-point was Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation (1907), which he first encountered as an undergraduate at Oxford before the Great War. As already noted, Chadwick argued that the Angles belonged to a confederacy of Northern tribes who worshipped a fertility goddess named Nerthus, whose cult was situated on Zealand. Chadwick further explained that originally Nerthus had a human consort, named Ing, but that over time Ing became in his own right the archetypal ‘culture-hero’. The myth of the culture-hero tells of a semi-divine figure that comes from over the sea, founds a royal house, gives great gifts to his people, and finally departs over the sea.

Tolkien in fact concluded that three distinct traditions were associated with the Zealand cult: stories of immortal maids who marry mortal men; stories of culture heroes who come from and depart over the sea; and memories of a time of peace and prosperity associated with the name of Fróda. He set out to provide the ‘original’ stories out of which these traditions might have emerged: the three marriages of human and elf maid (Tuor and Idril, Beren and Lúthien, Aragorn and Arwen); tales of those heroes who either came out of and/or sailed back into the West (Elendil, Gandalf, Frodo); and a story that led up to the great ‘peace of Frodo’ that followed the defeat of Sauron and the return of the king. The Lord of the Rings and, ultimately, also The Silmarillion provide those ancient stories the (dim and somewhat confused) memory of which informs the early English mythologies bound up with the Zealand cult.

TolkienBeowulfWhat the new Beowulf commentary adds to this picture is a startling insight into how Tolkien saw his own fairy stories in relation to this great Old English poem. To be clear, it has long been recognized that Tolkien identified profoundly with the Beowulf poet and saw himself grappling with similar concerns and themes (in particular, the goodness of pagan ancestors and the theological significance of battle with monsters). But what now comes into view is an image of The Silmarillion as a prelude to Beowulf; or, perhaps better, of Beowulf as a postscript to The Lord of the Rings.

Long years of prehistoric English cultural life centered upon Zealand stand between the respective fairy-tales of Middle-earth and of Heorot; long ages between the wars of the orcs and the coming of the new monster, Grendel. On pre-Danish Zealand are remembered the great heroes of the war against Sauron and stories are told of battles fought and great deeds performed even in the ages before the War of the Ring. This English mythology is lost when the Danes conquer Zealand and the English migrate to new homes on a more westerly island. But though they forget the reason why, the English nevertheless retain a profound sense of the importance of Zealand. Hence they tell stories of the golden mead hall that the Danes built upon their old sanctuary; and they tell of how it burned to the ground. And with uncanny intuition (stirred perhaps by dim ancestral memories) the Beowulf poet places at the center of his version of the story, not the burning of Heorot, but the haunting of this golden hall by the monster Grendel.

 His poem is like a play in a room through the windows of which a distant view can be seen over a large part of the English traditions about the world of their original home.

Tolkien on the Beowulf poet