I’m still burning the midnight oil, tracing the emergence of Tolkien’s English mythology.
A central thread begins with the traditional story of King Sheave, or – in the form the story is told in Beowulf – Scyld-Scefing: the child who, appearing alone on a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head, is adopted by and becomes a celebrated king of the people of the shore.
Now, from his recently published commentary we know that Tolkien believed that the Beowulf poet had added to the traditional story the suggestion that, at the end of his life, the king was placed on a boat and (like Arthur in a different tradition) returned to the great unknown across the water.
I’m convinced that the belief that the Beowulf poet had added to this traditional story was intimately bound up with the – absolutely fundamental – addition that Tolkien himself early on introduced to this tradition.
Tolkien’s innovation is found in an outline for a story about Ing that he wrote down around 1917. As he had recently learned at Oxford, Ing was the original name of that mysterious king of the North who later became known as Scef or Scyld.
The latter part of Tolkien’s outline reflects the story found in Beowulf: Ing is shipwrecked, rescued alone on a raft, taken as king of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians, who he teaches much magic; but after many years Ing returns over the sea.
The only difference from the Beowulf story so far is that Ing is not a baby when he appears to the Northern tribes. The reason for this revision is that Tolkien has in fact added an introductory chapter to the story – a prequel, as it were, in which Ing meets the half-elven Eärendil, who gives to Ing a drink that makes him immortal.
The young Tolkien’s innovation is fundamental because it suggests that the miraculous elements in the story of Ing (or Sheave or Scyld) have their roots in the elves.
Put another way, the young Tolkien has looked the Beowulf poet full in the face, wholeheartedly assented to his suggestion that Scyld-Scefing returns over the great water, and then added his own insight that beyond the western ocean is found the land of faëry, the undying lands where the elves still dwell.
I think that this conception provides a thread that winds all the way through Tolkien’s subsequent vision of Middle-earth.
By the 1930s, as I discussed in my last post, the story of Ing was written up as the tale of ‘King Sheave’. Tolkien here returned to the idea of a baby arriving alone on a boat, but now suggested that the baby was a survivor of the destruction of Númenor. But this is a development rather than a revision of the earlier outline on Ing: for the men of Númenor are elf-friends – it was because of the aid they gave the elves in their wars of the First Age that they were allowed to dwell on an island situated far out in the Western ocean, as near as mortal men may come to the land of faëry.
And then, of course, by The Lord of the Rings Ing has transformed into Aragorn, who is simply the descendant of Elendil, who escapted the destruction of Númenor and became king in Middle-earth.
The successive incarnations of Ing – as King Sheave, as Elendil, and as Aragorn – take him further away from a direct encounter with Eärendil and his elven draught of immortality. But in each incarnation we find an elf-friend, whose lineage is bound up in Eärendil and the elves.
And – again – the thread that weaves through all these stories seems to begin with an insight into the innovation made by the Beowulf poet in the ancient tradition about Ing, and a related innovation on Tolkien’s part.