Tolkien’s Middle-earth

My ongoing work on Tolkien has so far generated one published essay: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology.

Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth are hailed as founding texts of modern fantasy. In this essay I argue that Middle-earth was born as a work of historical reconstruction.

Situating Tolkien’s creative work against the background of late-Victorian and Edwardian scholarly debate over prehistoric Britain and the origin of the English nation, my essay  shows The SilmarillionThe Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings as the stories that Tolkien imagined behind the traditions of the ancient English – myths and legends remembered in their original Baltic homeland, but forgotten following their westward migration and settlement of the British Isles.

Please make use of the comment section at the bottom of this page if you wish to alert me to mistakes in this e-essay, criticize its argument, or otherwise engage with its content.


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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology

Contents
1. Introduction
2. English History before Chadwick
3. Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation
4. Tolkien’s Lost Tales
5. King Sheave
6. The Lord of the Rings as English Mythology
7. Conclusion

 


Published for the Kindle in October 2014. Epub and pdf versions in early 2015.


1. Introduction
The argument set out: Tolkien believed that, some time after they had settled in Britain, the English began to forget the oral traditions of their original Baltic homeland. He dedicated much of his life to reconstructing these lost stories. Reconstruction was a two-pronged affair, involving careful reading of the oldest surviving English texts (Beowulf being the most important) searching for clues for older but now lost traditions, and imaginative construction of stories that made sense of those clues. The result are the tales of Aragorn and Arwen, Gandalf and Frodo that we read in The Lord of the Rings.

2. English History before Chadwick
This section draws on my extensive research into the scholarly impact of the discovery of European prehistory in the second half of the nineteenth century. I show how an earlier organic model of prehistoric migration and growth associated with comparative philology was overturned by new ideas of racial invasion. But I also point out that a new consensus never quite emerged – indeed the divisions between historians and archaeologists and other students of early European culture within the modern university suggests that the humanities as a whole have still not come to terms with the discovery of prehistory.

3. Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation
In this section I identify a seminal work of Edwardian scholarship that appeared shortly before Tolkien first went up to Oxford and which he undoubtedly engaged with both as an undergraduate and throughout much of his subsequent scholarly life. The book in question is The Origin of the English Nation, which was published in 1907 by the Cambridge Anglo-Saxon scholar H.M. Chadwick. What is so important about this book for Tolkien is, first of all, that it offered the first sustained attempt by an English scholar to trace English culture back before the migration to Britain, and secondly that Chadwick did so by means of identifying the ancient mythological traditions of the pre-migration English.

4. Tolkien’s Lost Tales
This section summarizes Tolkien’s earliest fairy stories, which he began to compose in 1917, and relates their contents to Chadwick’s analysis of ancient English traditions a decade earlier. It is suggested that Tolkien conceived of those traditions as a mortal perspective upon much older events that had involved the wars of the Elves in alliance with a few mortal Men – the ancestors of the modern English. But it is also shown how Tolkien’s stories also embody a fundamental criticism of Tolkien’s ‘Protestant’ interpretation of the ancient paganism of the North. Chadwick, Tolkien suggests, had conflated immortality with divinity, and thus mistaken hints of immortal Elves for beliefs in gods and goddesses.

5. King Sheave
In the 1930s Tolkien engaged intensely with the Old English epic poem Beowulf. This section focuses in particular on his analysis of the homage paid to the legendary king Scyld Scefing at the start of the poem. Behind this figure, Tolkien told his Oxford students, could be discerned ancient English traditions concerning a great king who had come to his people from over the water. At home, Tolkien was composing his version of this story, in which the king arrived as a baby on the Atlantic shore having escaped the destruction of Númenor, an imaginary island realm in his emerging mythology of Middle-earth.

6. The Lord of the Rings as English Mythology
The Lord of the Rings brought together these various strands of Tolkien’s scholarly and literary efforts. Scef became Elendil, but also Aragorn, who in his marriage to the Elf Arwen becomes the original for Chadwick’s discerning of ancient English ideas of the marriage of a mortal man with an immortal goddess. Together with the figures of Gandalf and Frodo, Aragorn and Arwen are also connected to legends of the ‘Great Peace’ associated in the traditions of the North with the peace king Fróði.

7. Conclusion
My concluding comments offer some preliminary reflections as to how a great work of historical reconstruction has come to be associated with the founding text of modern fantasy.


'A Prehistoric Fairytale'. Artist: Andrew Holgate.

‘A Prehistoric Fairytale’. Artist: Andrew Holgate.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology does not exhaust what I have to say about Tolkien and prehistory. Initially, the ebook was conceived with two parts, the first about the English before their migration to Britain, and the second about the land of Britain in Tolkien’s imagination. But the first part kept getting longer and in the end I decided to publish it as an ebook in itself.

Ultimately, the presentation of my ideas on the subject of Tolkien, prehistory and national identity will only be complete when I show how Hobbits are Tolkien’s depiction of Britain’s pre-Celtic farmers, a ‘little people’ whose blood flows in the veins of many of the current population of modern English.

So understood, Hobbits are at once a somewhat tongue-in-cheek) representation of Britain’s first farmers, and also a depiction of the inherited ‘inner selves’ of many who live in England today. They are that part of the English people that is native to the land; they are Tolkien’s way of explaining why the modern English truly belong to the land now called England.

And The Hobbit is a story of how this native part of us comes to terms with its English cultural inheritance: the tale of a peaceful bachelor, with a penchant for bacon and eggs, who rediscovers himself by venturing out into the perilous world of ancient English tradition; there, and back again.

Bag End entrance

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