An Anglo-Saxon poet, whose name I know not, once built a tower from which he could see the sea. His tower is known as Beowulf.
Tolkien presented this metaphor of the Old English poem as a tower in his famous 1936 lecture on Beowulf. He did so whilst telling a short story of modern critics who knock over the tower to better inspect the individual stones. None of these scholarly vandals appreciate that “from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea” (M&C 7-8).
With this story, Tolkien effectively sealed the gates of his own Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s recently published commentary on the poem reveals that he could mine these stories better than anyone. In fact, these stones of Beowulf provide the keys to Middle-earth. Yet a declaration to enter the long disused mine out of which Tolkien hewed his great story of The Lord of the Rings sounds in the world of Tolkien studies as a call to a reckless dynamiting of a great work of literature.
For fear of appearing a foolish critic, to give but one example, nobody has dared recognize the tower of the 1936 lecture when it appears in Frodo’s dream on his last night in the Shire before setting out on the path that will take him, first to Mount Doom, and ultimately over the sea.
So great has been the spell cast by Tolkien’s story of the foolish critics that the meaning of the metaphor around which his story is built has itself remained hidden! Even the great Tom Shippey, doyen of Tolkien studies, reads the tower as a “private image of Tolkien’s own for what he desired in literature” (Road 37). The tower is not a private image but one that Tolkien hewed out of the first stone of Beowulf.
Turn back now all who do not wish to be a burglar in Bag-end.
Tolkien’s 1936 Beowulf lecture began as some Oxford lectures of the early 1930s, now edited by Michael Drout and published as Beowulf & the Critics. An isolated note found amongst this material provides us with a key:
The noble but brief exordium. Places us just this side of the ancient myths and beginning: we are just in history. The ship burial (B&C 423).
The exordium is the story of Scyld Scefing of the opening lines of Beowulf. Scyld Scefing is here the founder of the Danish royal house, who was sent to his people by unknown hands beyond the shoreless sea, and at his end was sent back over the ocean into the West.
A tower looking over the sea and a story of the king who comes out of the sea…
Tolkien’s commentary on Beowulf reveals he believed the exordium a telling of a very ancient Heathobard story that, following their conquest of Zealand, the Danish royal house of the Scyldings adopted for their own genealogy.
How to reach the original story? The isolated note from the early 1930s is of vital importance because it reveals the genesis of the crucial opposition between myth and history (legend) by which Tolkien will first make sense of and then begin to make use of the story of Sheave (Scef). As such, the note is a signpost to ‘The Lost Road,’ the unfinished story of time travel that Tolkien began writing in 1936.
‘The Lost Road’ was to tell of a journey from the present back through the known (historical) legends of the ancient north to arrive at what Tolkien named a mythical beginning: a version of the Atlantis story, told in the concluding (and finished) chapter, entitled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ This concluding story – the earliest in terms of imagined chronology – was presented as the last told by the elves and, as such, the concluding tale of Tolkien’s ‘Silmarillion’ material.
‘The Fall of Númenor’ tells of a great island between Valinor and Middle-earth, home to the Men of the West, the elf-friends. It is a story of a northern Fall: Sauron leads the Númenóreans into temptation by persuading them to claim immortal life by sailing to Valinor – and the subsequent anger of God sees the island of Númenor sunk beneath the waves and the hitherto round world bent into a globe so that the ‘straight road’ to the West is lost to mortals.
The story is a myth of cosmic disenchantment – a metaphor of the sundering of history from myth.
Disenchantment is not total, however. The elves tell how a few rightous Númenóreans were spared and, on the wings of storm, arrived on the shores of Middle-earth. Elendil, their king, steps out of myth as the original king who came out of the sea. The story of Elendil is a meeting-point of myth and historical legend and, as such, a continuation of mythical enchantment into the days of history.
‘The Fall of Númenor’ is Tolkien reflecting on Beowulf by other means. He uses the story to imagine (make a myth of) the original story of Sheave. Elendil is the myth that becomes the legend of Sheave. Tolkien thus imagines Elendil’s story as the original (mythical) legend behind the ancient traditions of the Zealand cult.
To fully understand what Tolkien was doing in ‘The Fall of Númenor’ we have to approach his myth from the perspective of legend, that is, history.
For between the days of Elendil and our own time is not one continuous history but rather two cycles of history: the first cycle ends with the death of Freawaru’s husband, Ingeld, last of the priest-kings of the ancient North; the second begins when the English migrants step out of the sea onto the shores of Britain.
Tolkien imagines his mythical beginning of history by framing as cosmic myth the precise moment of disenchantment by which the cycle of ancient English history came to an end. ‘The Fall of Númenor’ is a mythical rendering of the historical story of Freawaru. ‘The Lost Road’ is a story of a mythical beginning imagined as a cosmic version of a known historical ending. Freawaru’s tragedy becomes a mythical image of world-changing disenchantment.
Yet Tolkien seeks more than to retell historical tragedy as myth – he seeks to redeem that history. Crucial here is his observation that the return of Sheave into the West is not found in other versions of this ancient legend and conclusion that it was an innovation of the Anglo Saxon poet (Beowulf T&C 151).
In Tolkien’s own version of the myth, Elendil therefore comes out of the sea but does not return over it – rather he dies as does the hero Beowulf, fighting the monsters (already in this 1936 story Elendil dies side by side with the elf king Gil-galad fighting Sauron outside the gates of Mordor).
Nevertheless, Tolkien placed supreme value on the poet’s innovation, discerning in it a profound insight into the traditions of the ancient mythology concerning a hidden land in the West where dwell allies of mankind in their fight against the monsters.
It is this innovation that justifies Tolkien’s metaphor of Beowulf as a tower looking over the sea. At the heart of his 1936 lecture is the idea that an early Christian poet presented the enduring value in the ancient pagan stories by discarding the old gods but retaining the monsters. But with his opening hint of unknown hands sending and receiving the founder of the royal house, the poet reveals that he both knows and appreciates the light as well as the darkness in the ancient traditions.
Restored to his original role as Elendil, the founder of the royal house of the ancient North is revealed as a mortal man of flesh and blood, like Beowulf himself. Yet the poet’s idea of a return over the sea establishes the reality of an unknown shore from out of which myth may at any moment miraculously break into history.
Tolkien evidently recognized the parallel between the poet’s innovation and the story of Arthur departing over the waters and the idea that he will come again – the once and future king. Whether he believed the Anglo Saxon poet was drawing on early Arthurian myths, or whether those myths themselves incorporated an ancient English idea, I cannot say. What is clear is that he recognized in the idea of this passage over the sea to a mysterious shore an element of myth by which a lost past remains bound to the present – a profound mixture of yearning for a lost age of enchantment and hope for another miraculous intervention of myth into history – the return of the king.
Yet Tolkien very deliberately sets himself against the simple idea of a vanished past returning. His vision of history as a whole is one of repeating cycles of ever deepening disenchantment as myth recedes ever further from the shores of our history.
A continuity between lost past and present is drawn, but Elendil is no elf or god, nor even a wizard. What distinguishes him from the heathen peoples of the shores of Middle-earth is that he is (indeed, his name means) an elf-friend. Elendil is one who knows and maintains the otherwise lost mythical traditions of the elves.
Within one cycle of his imaginary history – the Third Age of The Lord of the Rings – Tolkien permits himself to tell a version of the once and future king, of the return of Elendil’s heir to his rightful throne. But he does not envisage a return of the heirs of Elendil in the present age of the world – no more than he imagines the elves returning to Middle-earth (rather than leaving it) in the Third Age.
Redemption of past and present is to be found only in remembering and retelling anew the traditions of the vanished past. This the Beowulf poet achieved when he told the story of Beowulf’s fights with the ancient monsters and hinted in his opening lines at mysterious allies who in ancient days aided mankind in their battles with the forces of darkness. Just this memory of a forgotten age of the world is what Tolkien aspired to achieve in ‘The Lost Road.’ And just this ideal is imagined metaphorically within ‘The Fall of Númenor’ when Tolkien tells how, in the days of Elendil:
many of the Númenóreans could see or half see the paths to the True West, and believed that at times from a high place they could descry the peaks of Taniquetil at the end of the straight road, high above the world. Therefore they built very high towers in those days. (Lost Road 18, 30)
An image of memory of a lost enchanted past. One of these high coastal towers would be presented when, in November of 1936 (the year he wrote the ‘Fall of Númenor) Tolkien delivered a lecture on Beowulf before the British Academy in London – a metaphor for Beowulf.
A tower hewed from the first stone of Beowulf, which nevertheless represents the whole of that poem. A poem that modern readers had failed to recognize for what it is, now imagined as a tower that readers of Tolkien’s lecture will fail to recognize for what it is.
This same tower will stand before two others in the imagination of the Tower Hills to the west of the Shire, the hills of seeing where stand three elf-towers, one of which is seen by Frodo Baggins in his dream at Crickhollow on his last night in the Shire.
He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder. ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’, The Fellowship of the Ring
In the appendices to The Lord of the Rings we discover that this tower housed the Stone of Elendil, by which the original Sheave would cast his gaze into the West when his heart was weary with exile.
This same tower will find its opposite in the Dark Tower of the Necromancer, from which the Eye of Sauron looks out over Middle-earth. From it Tolkien will derive some lesser albeit splendid and ancient Númenórean towers, each housing Seeing Stones. In one of these towers dwells a fallen wizard, in another the Ring-wraiths, and in a third the Steward of Gondor.
From this initial image of a memory of the lost traditions of a vanished age of the world was born the map of The Lord of the Rings.