This is the only part of my present research project that I’ve published (see Apprenticeship). The book opens with the allegory of the tower by which Tolkien introduced his famous British Academy lecture on Beowulf. Tolkien scholars (and fans) routinely read this allegory as an attack on scholarship, with Tolkien telling his learned audience of distinguished scholars that they were monsters. One reason for this (ridiculous) misreading is that readers are transfixed by the scene of demolition as the friends of the builder push his tower over and so fail to engage with the real point of the story, which is that from the top of his tower the builder had been able to look upon the sea. My book traces the origin of the tower and its subsequent appearance in The Lord of the Rings (as the White Tower of Frodo’s dream at Crickhollow) to unveil the meaning of a view looking over the sea.
I begin with the Oxford lectures (edited by Michael Drout) that were worked up into the British Academy lecture of November 1936. These lectures open with a similar allegory, only Beowulf is not here a tower but a rock garden. Moving between these lectures and Tolkien’s recently published commentary on Beowulf, as well as my own research into the context of Tolkien’s historical studies, I show how the metaphor of a rock garden captures Tolkien’s understanding of the Old English poem as a design that arranges the old and ancient stories that the poet’s ancestors brought with them over the sea.
Of these stories (stones, in the metaphor), that which stands at the beginning of the poem – the story of Scyld Scefing – was seen by Tolkien as an origin story of the ancient English standing on the border between myth and history. In early 1936, following discussion about myth with C.S. Lewis, Tolkien began a never finished book of time travel, ‘The Lost Road,’ which culminated in ‘The Fall of Númenor’, the world-changing story that introduces the Second Age of Middle-earth. I show how ‘The Fall of Númenor’ was a continuation of Tolkien’s Beowulf studies by means of art, an attempt to draw out the ethos of the ancient North by way of a comparative story that made use of elements of Plato, the Book of Genesis, and British stories of King Arthur.
‘The Fall of Númenor’ concludes with the exiled Númenoreans building high towers to look back over the sea on a world of myth now lost to them. I argue that one of these towers replaced the rock garden as the exordium to the British Academy lecture on Beowulf, indicating that the Old English poet was gazing back into the lost realm of ancient English history, engaging in a dialogue with dead masters of his art. From here I unpack the meaning of the horizon where the sea meets the sky as the point at which myth becomes metaphor and explore how this vision was embodied in The Lord of the Rings, with the Palantíri (‘seeing stones’) drawn from the stones of the metaphorical tower and the Mirror of Galadriel imagined as a view in the other direction from that afforded by the tower – from myth into history.