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Tolkien’s English Mythology

J. R. R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth are hailed as founding texts of modern fantasy. But his recently published commentary on the Old English poem Beowulf suggests that Tolkien saw his creative writing as a work of historical reconstruction. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings were conceived as the original stories behind an ancient but long lost English mythology.

An Oxford scholar, Tolkien was fascinated by the origins of the English, their culture and history in the days before their migration to the British Isles. Focusing especially on the Angles, Tolkien followed the Edwardian scholar H.M. Chadwick in identifying the island of Zealand (now the largest island of Denmark) as the ancient center of English life. Both Chadwick and Tolkien believed that Zealand was once the site of the cult of Nerthus, the fertility goddess connected with the Angles by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus.

In his authoritative study of The Origin of the English Nation (1907), Chadwick had identified two key features of ancient English traditions. Firstly, he argued, the goddess Nerthus was said to take a mortal husband. Secondly, this husband was identified with the mysterious figure of Ing, who came to be regarded as the founding father of the northern tribes and the first great king of the North. Chadwick argued that Scyld Scefing, the “good king” praised in the opening lines of Beowulf, was just another name for Ing.

First page of Beowulf, manuscript dating from 975-1025AD
First page of Beowulf, manuscript dating from 975-1025AD

As his commentary on Beowulf makes clear, Tolkien thought that Chadwick had bought into age-old Danish propaganda. Tolkien saw the story of the English settlement of the British Isles as beginning with Danish military expansion in Baltic waters. Conquering Zealand, and pushing the English into their westward migration, the Danes had claimed the ancient English sanctuary of Nerthus and its associated traditions for themselves. Eventually, even the English had come to accept this ‘Danification’ of ancient English traditions, as illustrated by the praise of the Danish king Scyld Scefing in Beowulf. Tolkien was determined to discover the original English story that lay behind the later, distorted tales of Ing, the first great king of the North.

A key element in the traditions about Scyld Scefing and Ing is his mysterious arrival on a boat from over the western ocean. In ‘King Sheave’, composed in the 1930s, Tolkien envisaged this figure of ancient English myth reaching the Atlantic shore after escaping the destruction of Númenor – the imaginary island realm at the center of Tolkien’s conception of the ‘Second Age’ of Middle-earth. As he worked on The Lord of the Rings in later years, Tolkien worked up this idea of Ing into the figure of Elendil, the king who came from over the sea to found the realms of Arnor and Gondor, the father of Isildur and ancestor of Aragorn.

Aragorn was at the center of Tolkien’s reworking of Chadwick’s interpretations of the ancient mythology of the English. The descendant of Elendil, the founder of the royal house of Middle-earth, Aragorn is associated with the tradition of Ing, the king of the North. But in marrying the Elf-maid Arwen, Aragorn is also connected to the tradition of Ing the mortal husband of an immortal bride. In Tolkien’s version, of course, Ing weds an immortal elf rather than a divine goddess, the implicit suggestion being that Chadwick (or perhaps the ancient English in telling these stories) had confused an Elf with a goddess.

Map of Middle Earth

At the kernel of The Lord of the Rings is thus a conception of the original stories behind those later (but still ancient) English traditions investigated by scholars such as Chadwick – and Tolkien himself.

How did the English come to forget their ancient stories? For four hundred years after their settlement of Britain the English had retained their pagan traditions, passing on the stories and songs of their Baltic homeland even as they built a new life amidst the ruins of another civilization. But when King Alfred turned their attention toward Church learning and the study of Latin authors, the English began to forget their own oral traditions. Today Alfred is the only king they remember as ‘great’.

Yet Tolkien was convinced that the stories and songs of an oral culture shape the language in which they are told. As such, he regarded the ancient stories of the English as bound up in the linguistic identity of modern English speakers. If the stories had been forgotten an underlying affinity for the traditions remained. Tolkien would not have been altogether surprised at the extent to which the English today have embraced his retelling of their ancient stories.


About Simon J. Cook

Simon J. Cook is an award-winning intellectual historian. His website, Ye Machine, can be found here: http://yemachine.com. Simon has recently published an electronic essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology (available from Amazon).

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