‘Lord of the Rings’ as English Mythology

Of all the correspondence published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter 131 is probably the most quoted. Around 1951, as he worked to complete The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his publishing friend Milton Waldman:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own … Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

Commentators have read these words as the confession of an early desire – subsequently abandoned – to create a mythology for England. A frame is thus provided for interpretation of The Silmarillion, or at least the earlier versions of it.

But these lines can also be read as a combination of English self-effacement with admission that the early vision of an entire body of legend was a little too ambitious.

This second reading opens up the possibility that Tolkien had in mind also The Lord of the Rings as a contribution to his English mythology. Bringing together the perspectives of my last two posts on Tolkien – on the Island of Zealand and on the Religion of the North –  helps us to see what such a frame might mean for this great story of the war with Sauron and the end of the Third Age.

Emil Doepler, 'Nerthus', 1905

Emil Doepler, ‘Nerthus’, 1905

Zealand, now the largest island of modern Denmark, was identified by Tolkien in his scholarly writings as the site of a very ancient Northern cult and, as such, “the centre of the Anglo-Frisian world” prior to the English colonization of the south-eastern part of the British Isles. Tolkien connected the Zealand cult with a religion of fertility and corn and the tradition of the great peace of Fróda.

Alongside Fróda, a legendary king, the mythological figures associated with the cult were the Earth goddess Nerthus (mentioned by Tacitus) and the mysterious Ing, who comes from and departs over the sea. In later Norse traditions Nerthus somehow became the male god Njörðr, foremost of the Vanir, while Ing was related to both Frey and to the culture-hero Shef, the great Northern king who is said to have come from over the sea, arriving as a baby in a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head.

Emil Doepler, 'Ing'

Emil Doepler, ‘Ing’

How do these traditions of the Zealand cult relate to that late chapter of a lost English mythology known to us today as The Lord of the Rings? The answer is found by way of Tolkien’s distinctive understanding of the paganism of the North.

Emil Deopler, 'Ragnarök'

Emil Deopler, ‘Ragnarök’

Tolkien envisaged this ancient Baltic cult as wholly different from the bloodthirsty religion of Odin and his ravens. This latter he saw as a Viking Age relapse into violence and barbarism, symbolized in surviving Norse mythology itself by the war of the Æsir and the Vanir gods.

Furthermore, Tolkien understood the gods of the North (in contrast to those of ancient Greece) as closer to heroic men writ large than to actual deities. Ing and Nerthus are in the first instance simply legendary heroes, the stories told of them but memories of great deeds performed in the distant past.

For sure, the ancient Northern tribes who celebrated these heroes of old lapsed on occasion into idolatry and worshiped their heroes as gods. But this was a failure of collective will (analogous to the weakness of the Children of Israel  when they bowed down before idols).

Of course we should not take this too far and proclaim the traditions of the ancient North simply folk tales derived from secular history. As a Catholic, Tolkien saw a place within the world for both mortals taken up to divinity (saints) and elements of the divine who take physical form (angels). Folk tales may record miraculous intrusions into history, which leave real historical effects.

Nevertheless, if saints and angels belie a bleak vision of the universe as absolutely separated from the face of God, they are not for all that deities to be worshipped.

Emil Doepler, 'After Ragnarök', 1905

Emil Doepler, ‘After Ragnarök’, 1905

And now, I think, we can begin to see how The Lord of the Rings might be conceived as the final chapter in a body of legends dedicated to England.

I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world… The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. (Letter 183)

Middle-earth is conceived as a very distant past of our world; a past that was old already when the ancestors of the modern English still lived on the shores of the Baltic. The Zealand cult, in which scholars perceive the very oldest traditions of the English, is thus a bridge between that world of long ago and our own days, between mythical and historical time.

The stories of Zealand are the form in which the last days of mythical time were remembered down the long ages that eventually became recorded history. Not surprisingly, these very ancient stories became somewhat confused in the telling, even at times degenerating into heathenism as the heroes of the past were worshiped by a frightened people.

But once we read the true stories in The Lord of the Rings the meaning of the fragments of tradition preserved on Zealand become immediately apparent.

Aragorn is remembered first as Ing, then as Shef, a man of the North whose ancestors came out of the West over the sea, the descendant of kings who refounded a royal house and taught his people many new things. 

Arwen, born an immortal Elf maid, becomes the fertility goddess Nerthus – memory of her Elven grace stands at the center of the Zealand cult.

Frodo it turns out was not a king, though he helped crown one; but having helped bring about the Great Peace of the days of the king, he departs on a boat into the West. And if Frodo is something of a pagan saint, Gandalf is an angel of the North, sent out of the West to aid a fallen world in its fight against the monsters.

Tolkien’s understanding of the paganism of the North and the pre-conquest English cult of Zealand were the fruit of profound scholarship. Together, these two arms of his learning imparted shape and form to the creation of his literary genius.