Edwardian classicists were struck by similarities between the gods of ancient Greece and those of the old North. In her Religion of Ancient Greece (1905), for example, Jane Harrison tells us that Homer’s Olympian pantheon anticipates “the atmosphere of the Eddas”. The reason behind the parallels, the classicists argued, was that the ancient Aegean had been invaded by a prehistoric Germanic tribe, the Achaeans, who had brought their religion with them. The underlying idea was that classical Greek culture sprung from a North European seed planted in Southern soil.
J.R.R. Tolkien went up to Oxford in 1911 and, for two years, read Classics. In 1913 he switched to what would become a lifetime study of (Old) English. As a scholar of the old North, Tolkien was determined to sunder the connection between North and South proposed by the Edwardian classicists. He wanted the old North understood on its own terms, not judged in relation to some wider vision of European civilization. With regard to the touted religious similarities his strategy was twofold.
Firstly, Tolkien insisted that the classicists had compared Homer’s Olympus to a Norse pantheon that only came into being in the thirteenth century after Christ. The original religion of the North, he argued, was bound up in fertility rituals and corn gods. The violence and bloodshed associated with Odin and his ravens – the hallmark of Norse mythology in the popular mind – arose only in the later, degenerate, Viking Age. Odin himself was actually a latecomer, an imported deity from the South. And the whole family portrait, with Odin at the head, was but a fabrication of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic politician whose Prose Edda, compiled in Christian times, is our major source for the mythology of the old North.
Secondly, Tolkien emphasized the differences, as opposed to the similarities, between the gods of ancient Greece and the gods of the North. He pointed out that the Greek gods are immortal while those of the North are “enmeshed in time”. Baldr is already dead, while others are doomed to die at the great battle of Ragnarök. This great battle will be fought – and lost – by mankind together with the gods, a final defeat at the hands of the monsters. This alliance of gods and men against the monsters is absent in Greek mythology: Poseidon, for example, is angered when Odysseus maims the Cyclops, his kin.
For those interested in Tolkien’s thought this second line of argument is peculiarly interesting, for it leads directly into his distinctive conception of the relationship between the old pagan and the new Christian North.
Beowulf + the gospels = King Arthur
The Greek gods are separated from humanity by a gulf: they are immortal and, taken as a whole, indifferent to our fate. Tolkien suggests that this fosters a contemplative contrast between humanity in time and the eternal world of the divine. This is the route to philosophy and, ultimately, to that intellectualist version of Christianity that understands Christ as the eternal logos made flesh.
But the gods of the North die, and are fated to lose their struggle with the monsters of chaos. So where Tolkien sees the Greek gods as touching upon eternity, he proclaims the gods of the North as “in their very beings but the shadows of great men and warriors cast upon the walls of the world” (Beowulf and the Critics, 65). The pagan North comes into view as rather godless than heathen.
Tolkien hails what he calls ‘the Northern theory of courage’ as the greatest achievement of the pagan North. The Northern vision of the human condition is a fight with fate that every man must sooner or later lose. Hence the great virtue of the pagan North is courage: the will to fight a battle that can only end in defeat. And all that a man may trust in this struggle is himself. Idolatry, the worship of pagan deities, arises when courage fails – it indicates loss of faith in oneself.
What Christianity brings to the North is a message of hope: a teaching that mankind has a friend in the fight against the monsters and that ultimate victory is assured, albeit not in this world. From the Christian perspective, Northern paganism (as Tolkien presents it) is a correct analysis of the world without the teaching of Christ: a world without hope in which men can have faith only in themselves.
When the gospel of Christ is brought to the North paganism transforms into medievalism. The Arthurian knight is simply the old pagan warrior who has always given battle with the monsters but who now fights, not only for himself, but also for God.
This post is dedicated to Yaakov Zweig, who asks questions, and to Gavin Fearnley, who reads.