terça-feira, 17 de novembro de 2009

Tolkien and Iceland:The philology of envy

Em homenagem a essa picture encontrada hoje durante as pesquisas dos últimos posts e em saudação às intenções de Tolkien que pretendia resgatar as coisas "nórdicas" do vilipêndio sofrido nas mãos dos fascistas do século XX em particular os membros do Terceiro Reich.

Mesmo assim, suponho que sei melhor do que a maioria das pessoas qual é a verdade sobre esse absurdo “nórdico”**. De qualquer modo, tenho nesta Guerra um ardente ressentimento particular — que provavelmente faria de mim um soldado melhor aos 49 do que eu fui aos 22 — contra aquele maldito tampinha ignorante chamado Adolf Hitler (pois a coisa estranha sobre inspiração e ímpeto demoníacos é que eles de modo algum aumentam a estatura puramente intelectual: afetam mormente a simples vontade), que está arruinando, pervertendo, fazendo mau uso e tornando para sempre amaldiçoado aquele nobre espírito setentrional, uma contribuição suprema para a Europa, que eu sempre amei e tentei apresentar sob sua verdadeira luz. Em nenhum outro lugar, incidentalmente, ele foi mais nobre do que na Inglaterra, nem inicialmente mais santificado e cristianizado.....

Tolkien, Laxness, Undset. Tom Shippey: (13.09.2002)

Symposium, The Nordic House
Tolkien, Laxness, Undset
September 13th -14th 2002

Tom Shippey


One of the things most often said about J.R.R. Tolkien is that it was his intention, in his fiction, to create "a mythology for England." It seems that he never in fact used this particular phrase; but just the same, on more than one occasion he said something quite similar. Thus, in one letter written after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, or Hringadrottins saga, he says that he had "set myself a task, the arrogance of which I fully recognized and trembled at: being precisely to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own." [1] Another and earlier letter declares in more detail that "once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body or more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story... which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country." [2] This second letter was written in 1951, when The Lord of the Rings was still not published, and not accepted by any publisher, while The Silmarillion had been shown once to a publisher and firmly rejected. We know now that in 1951 Tolkien had already written a body of legend ranging from the cosmogonic (the early parts of The Silmarillion) to an epic romance (The Lord of the Rings). He abandoned the attempt to dedicate these works "to England; to my country," but it is very likely that a major initial motive for him was both nationalist and mythological.

In this, of course, he was by no means alone, though he was a hundred years late. In 1835 Jacob Grimm had produced his Deutsche Mythologie, and even earlier Nikolai Grundtvig had produced his two different versions of Nordens Mytologi (1808 and 1832), both of them with similarly nationalist motives. Tolkien, however, had a problem, or rather two problems, which were not so acute for his two predecessors. One is that almost nothing survives of Old English pre-Christian tradition, or myth: there is no Old English Edda. There is no English equivalent to Jón Árnason, either, not even to the Grimms' Haus- und Kindermärchen. By the time folk-tale collectors got to work in England, there was almost nothing left to collect. This was not true in other areas of the British Isles - so, for instance, the Grimms could bring out in 1826 their translation of Thomas Croker's Irische Elfenmärchen - but Tolkien was never a British or Celtic nationalist, he was an English nationalist, so this was no help to him. In the second letter already quoted he says indeed:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its own tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought (and found as an ingredient) in legends of other lands...Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalised, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English [and also] it is involved in, and explicitly contains, the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal...

An element of jealousy, or envy, is added in a note he wrote maybe as early as 1917, in which he declares, speaking of very early versions of The Silmarillion, "Thus it is that...the Engle [the English] have the true tradition of the fairies, of which the Iras and the Wealas [the Irish and the Welsh] tell garbled things."[3] Tolkien wanted English myths, and English legends, and English fairy-stories, and these did not exist. He refused to borrow from Celtic tradition, which he regarded as alien. What was he going to do? The answer is, of course, that he was going to borrow from Old Norse, which, for philological reasons, he did NOT regard as alien.

Tolkien, however, had another problem, which is that he was his life a believing Christian and (unlike Grimm and Grundtvig) a Roman Catholic. It could well be said that a believing Christian has no business reviving heathen myths and constructing alternative mythologies. There is only one true myth, which is the Christian one, and it tolerates no competitors, as we all know from the First Commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods but me." If the first question I have raised, then, is "HOW could Tolkien create a mythology for England ?", my second must be "WHY would he want to create a mythology for anyone?" I shall give my detailed answer to this second question first.


It is very easy now for us to forget or to underestimate the impact which Old Norse literature had on the learned world as it was rediscovered, from Icelandic sources, between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. The history of this impact has been written in part, for instance by Dr Wawn in his book The Vikings and the Victorians, but of course it began before the Victorians. I cannot give a complete account any more than anyone else, but major turning points include Ole Worm's Runer, seu Danica Literatura Antiquissima vulgo Gothica dicta hic reddita opera (1636), based on manuscripts supplied by Magnús Óláfsson of Laufás, Bishop Brynjófr Sveinsson's delivery of the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda to Copenhagen in 1662, Thomas Bartholinus's Antiquitatum Danicarum de Causis Contemptæ Mortis a Danis adhuc gentilibus libri tres ex vetustis codicis & monumentis hactenus ineditis congesti (1689), Mallet's Monumens de la mythologie et de la poésie des Celtes et particulierement des anciens Scandinaves (1756), Thomas Percy's translation of Mallet as Northern Antiquities (1770), and Percy's own Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, translated from the Islandic Language (1763) Furthermore, even the partial accounts of this impact which I know about do not answer the question, what made the Poetic Edda, and Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, and the Krakumál, and indeed the fornaldarsögur, so irresistibly attractive. I will give here, very briefly, three reasons, which I think apply to Tolkien's urge to recreate England's missing mythology, and perhaps to other recreators as well.

The first is that Old Norse myth is strangely funny. I don't mean "comic," exactly, I mean amusing. Thórr is often a figure of fun, in a way which is not true of Zeus or Jupiter. Think of him disguised as Freyja when he tries to recover his hammer in Þrymskvida, with the giant asking:

Hví eru öndótt augu Freyju?

Þykki mér ór augum eldr of brenna

and Loki craftily replying:

Svaf vætr Freyja átta nóttum,

svá vas hon óðfús í Jötunheima.

Think of him struggling to drain the drinking-horn in the house of Útgarða-Loki, which is connected to the sea, or to pick up the cat, which is really the Miðgarðsormr. This is not the kind of story we are told about Hercules. But there are plenty of other examples. The Krakumál ends with Ragnar Loðbrók saying hlæjandi skal ek deyja, and in another of the versions of his death in the ormgarðr his last words are gnyðja munu grísir ef galtar hag vissi - "if they knew how the old boar died, the little pigs would grunt." But gnyðja is surely a vulgar word, and "the little pigs" is a funny way to refer to Ívarr hinn beinlaussi and Sigurðr orm-i-auga. They do not say things like this in Virgil's Aeneid.

Nevertheless these vulgar or amusing ways of telling mythic or heroic story are not intended in any way to diminish the status of Norse gods or heroes, just the opposite. And Norse saga and edda is perfectly capable of reaching out to the sublime and the magnificent, as we see from the Völuspá or the Sólarljóð. You will find the funny, and the heroic, and the sublime, all very close together in the pages of the Introduction to Old Norse brought out by E.V. Gordon in 1927, a book which announces its special debt to Tolkien in the "Preface," and which was clearly prepared at a time when Tolkien and Gordon were close colleagues and collaborators, at Leeds University in the mid-1920s. I would sugest, in fact, that this book shows very well a second reason for the attraction of Old Norse literature in the learned world, which is that as well as being funny, it rejects the classical notion of decorum: of keeping the styles separate, high style, middle style, low style. This is notoriously a native English trait as well - it is what made Shakespeare unacceptable to Voltaire - but Old Norse literature gave this English failing a distinguished ancestry. (Let me note, en passant, that in this Introduction Gordon gives a strangely composite account of the Battle of Stiklastaðir, which is highly "indecorous," and reminds me in a way of the end of Gerpla.)

However, the third reason I would indicate for the powerful impact of Old Norse on European scholars, and on Tolkien, is the rationale it gives for heroism. The most surprising image of Old Norse mythology, for Christians, is perhaps the idea of Ragnarök, an Armageddon which the wrong side wins. Tolkien was very impressed by this, as one can see from his comments in his 1936 British Academy lecture on Beowulf:

It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent and terrible solution in naked will and courage. 'As a working theory absolutely impregnable.' So potent is it, that while the older southern [i.e. Classical] imagination has faded for even into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, as it did even with the goðlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death. [4]

However, one can also see that - writing just before the outbreak of World War II - Tolkien was also rather disturbed by it: he saw that the ethos it represented could be used by either side, as indeed it was in the deliberate cultivation of Götterdämmerung by the Nazi leadership a few years later. Nevertheless it did provide an image of heroic virtue which could exist, and could be admired, outside the Christian framework. In some respects the Old Norse "theory of courage" might even be regarded as ethically superior to the Classical if not to the Christian world-view, in that it demanded commitment to virtue without any offer of lasting reward. Men must fight monsters because it was their duty, not because they thought the monsters would lose, or the gods would win. In the deep disillusionment which overtook the Western world, and England especially, after 1918, the Old Norse mythology seemed immune to self-doubt, precisely because it had no self-belief.

In answer to my question, WHY did Tolkien want to invent a new mythology, then, I would say that, like Grimm or Grundtvig, he very much wanted a mythology which seemed native, which was not identifiably Judaeo-Classical. He also felt that Old Norse mythology provided a model for what one might call "virtuous paganism," which was heathen; conscious of its own inadequacy, and so ripe for conversion; but not yet sunk into despair and disillusionment like so much of 20th century post-Christian literature; a mythology which was in its way light-hearted. He defended his right to create mythology in a long poem called "Mythopoeia." But I would just add that one final attraction which Icelandic literature had for Tolkien was the fact that so much of it is lost. All his life, Tolkien enjoyed filling gaps in what survives. There is, for instance, a well-known gap in the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda, where some eight pages of the Sigurðr cycle are missing. But Tolkien wrote two poems to fill this gap, in Old Norse, in the appropriate meter, which are called, we believe, Sigurðarkvida hin nyja and Guðrunarkviða hin nyja. Unfortunately these remain unprinted.


I should turn now to my other question, HOW Tolkien created his new "mythology for England" with nothing English to work from, and the answer is in essence quite simple. He practised what we shall call the Leeds University Evasion, still in perfect working order, which is to say that Norse literature is really English: first, because the two languages, and cultural traditions, are philologically cognate, and second because once upon a time, in parts of England, including Leeds, the natives spoke Norse as well as English. The poems of the Elder Edda may not be written in English but they could have been written in England. In any case, perhaps they are written in English. Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín said that Beowulf was written in Old English, but, like Old Icelandic, this is just a dialect of Old Danish, poema danicum dialecto anglosaxonica. Grundtvig agreed with him, saying that all these languages are just dialects of Old-Nordisk. Grimm of course did not agree, insisting that English was a German language, a form of Plattdeutsch, but then what do you expect? He was answered by Gísli Brynjólfsson in the 1850s, who argued that English was really South-Scandinavian, not West-Germanic. The last work of George Stephens, the Copenhagen professor, was titled Er Engelsk en tysk sprog?, and his answer was "No"! The issue remains debatable to this day. But let us just say that it is easy, and philologically justifiable, to translate Old Norse into Old English, and to tell yourself that what you have created really did once exist: and that is what Tolkien repeatedly did.

We can see this from the very dawn of his fiction, written perhaps as early as 1917, though not published till almost seventy years later. In these early drafts of The Silmarillion Tolkien creates a pantheon of Valar, who are so to speak demigods, or demiurges, subordinate to Eru, the One, who is God, of whom they are well aware, but with supernatural powers far above the human. The Valar, you might say, are the Æsir fitted in to a Christian framework. One in particular, the warlike Vala Tulkas, seems to be a rewriting of Snorri's account of the god Týr, while his name looks very like the hypothetical Primitive Germanic form of the Norse word tulkr, "spokesman," which came to mean "warrior" in Middle English: so, you see, the word is English, "tolke," but derived from Norse, tulkr, but both are derived from the same root *tulkas, so Norse and English are really the same thing. In the same way Tolkien rather doubtfully incorporates a version of Snorri's description of Valhöll into his early mythology (later dropped as too warlike); while the very seed of all his mythological writings seems to be the idea of the elves, or álfar. I shall say nothing about this, knowing that Dr Gunnell is going to take the topic up, except that once again the very thin and flimsy accounts in Old English of the ylfe - just enough to show that the early English knew the word and the concept - are very much expanded to take in the accounts of Snorri Sturluson, and I suspect of Danish and Norwegian medieval ballads.

However, perhaps the most revealing aspect of Tolkien's early mythology is his attempt to explain how it came to him. As a philologist, it was never enough for him to have a story: he also had to have a chain of transmission. How was it that the English alone had "the true tradition of the fairies, of which the Irish and the Welsh tell garbled things." Tolkien's answer was that the mythology of the elves had been told by them to an early Englishman, whose name was Ottor (not Ohthere, which would be definitely English, not Ottarr, which would be definitely Norse, but Ottor, which could be either). This Ottor was the father of Hengest and Horsa, the legendary founders of England, so he must have been English. But no, for Hengest is known to have been a Jute, from Jutland, and so Danish. But no, because in Tolkien's view the Jutes of that time were deeply hostile to the Danes, and Beowulf is in part about that Jutish-Danish-English confrontation. So what was Hengest - or Henjest, as Tolkien always called him, insisting on the palatalisation ? Never mind. His father Ottor, the bearer of the true tradition, was the ancestor of the English, but himself Norse. And the first man in Tolkien's mythology was not called Askr, as he is in Völuspá, but Æsc - the same name, but with English palatalisation. Tne English got the story right, the Celts got the story wrong, but the Norse are the ones who happened to remember it. Translate Old Norse, or Old Icelandic, back into Old English - they are after all the same language - and everything will be OK.

This was Tolkien's procedure not only in The Silmarillion but also to some extent in the more famous and more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The most inarguable case must be the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit: in order of appearance, on Bilbo Baggins's doorstep, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Thorin Oakenshield son of Thrain son of Thror, descendant of Durin and relative of Dain, eighteen names in all including one nickname, and the nineteenth name of course being Gandalf. Well, there can be no doubt where these come from. They come from the "Dvergatal" section of Völuspá, which I give in Snorri's version:

Nýi, Niði, Norðri, Suðri,

Austri, Vestri, Alþjófr, Dvalinn,

Nár, Náinn, Nípingr, Dáinn,

Bífur, Báfur, Bömbur, Nóri,

Órinn, Ónarr, Óinn, Miöðvitnir,

Vigr og Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Þorinn,

Fíli, Kíli, Fundinn, Váli,

Þrór, Þróinn, Þettr, Litr, Vitr ...

Hár, Hugstari, Hléþjófr, Glóinn,

Dóri, Óri, Dufur, Andvari...

Álfr, Ingi, Eikinskjaldi. [5]

Seventeen of the nineteen names are there, and Dúrinn is just a few lines away as the ancestor of the dwarves, just as he is in Tolkien. However Tolkien did not just copy the "Tally of the Dwarves", or quarry it for names. He must rather have looked at it, refused to see it, as most scholars do, as a meaningless or no longer comprehensible rigmarole, and instead asked himself a string of questions about it. What, for instance, is "Gandálfr" doing in the list, when the second element is quite clearly álfr, "elf", a creature in all tradition quite distinct from a dwarf? And why is "Eikinskjaldi" there, when unlike the others it does not seem to be a possible name, but looks like a nickname, "Oakenshield"? In Tolkien of course it is a nickname, the origin of which is eventually given in Appendix A (III) of The Lord of the Rings. As for Gandálfr, or Gandalf, Tolkien seems to have worked out a more complex explanation. In early drafts of The Hobbit Gandalf was the name given to the chief dwarf, but Tolkien soon abandoned this: is someone is called álfr he cannot be a dwarf. Gand, however, must mean "staff," and a staff or magic wand is what magicians carry; and a magician might be called an álfr by people who associated the elves with magic. So Gandalf is a wizard, but the first thing that Bilbo sees is "an old man with a staff". The name creates the staff, and the staff creates the idea of a wizard. What Tolkien did, in other words, was to take the "Dvergatal" seriously; to assume that it was a record of something that had had a story attached to it, an Odyssey of the dwarves; and that it had got garbled, so that nicknames got mixed up with names, and a magician, or elvish creature, with a magician's staff, had been listed wrongly but understandably, as a dwarf, when he was really a companion of the dwarves.

None of this explains Mr Baggins, or hobbits, but hobbits are easily overlooked. The creatures that he meets, however, very often come from Tolkien's imaginary world where Norse names and Norse concepts were appropriated as English. There are, for instance, the Wargs, the intelligent wolves who seem a cross between Old English wearh and Old Norse vargr; or Bard the bowman, son of Brand, who could easily be Barðr son of Brandr; or Beorn the were-bear, who is like both Böðvarr Bjarki in the Hrolfs saga Kraka and Beowulf in the English epic, and whose name could just as easily be Björn, as indeed it is in he Icelandic translation Hobbitinn; or of course the dragon Smaug. If he were an English dragon, his name would come from the verb *sméogan, and would be *smeah, and there is a reference in Old English to the smeogan wyrme, the "creeping worm." But this time Tolkien has translated the Old English into Old Norse, the verb smjúga, whose past tense is smaug, "he crept." So if Beorn is an English hero, and Gollum, or Sméagol as he once was, is an English villain, Smaug is a Norse dragon, perhaps because his enemies are Norse dwarves. But they all move in the same world. To Tolkien it was the same world: Middan-geard, Miðgarðr, Middle-earth.

But Icelandic literature, and here I do mean Icelandic specifically, not the more neutral term Norse, had one more and more significant utility for Tolkien: which is that it gave him a behaviour-pattern. The dwarves in The Hobbit are rather attractive people, but no-one could call them "nice." They are surly, vengeful, tight-fisted. They keep their word, but only to the letter, not to the spirit. They are loyal to their fellows, and English "fellow" is borrowed from Old Norse félagi, but they may decide you aren't a fellow at all. When the dwarves have escaped from the goblins in the Misty Mountains, without Bilbo, and are debating what to do, one of them says, "If we have got to go back into those abominable tunnels to look for him, then drat him, I say." Vengeful, tight-fisted, literal-minded, sometimes loyal and sometimes not - they are characters from Icelandic saga, and as the story goes on this element becomes more and more prominent. The whole story, I would suggest, really develops a contrast between two modes of heroic behaviour: the ancient one of Icelandic saga, exemplified by the dwarves, and by Beorn, and by Smaug, and the modern one of Tolkien's own life, of twentieth-century warfare, exemplified by Bilbo, and to some extent by Bard. The contrast between these provides much of the story's amusement: but the final point is that - just like modern English and Old Norse, or modern English and modern Icelandic - to the philologist they are different only superficially. See for instance the final words of Balin the dwarf to Bilbo, and Bilbo's reply, in chapter 18 of The Hobbit, which I take the liberty here of giving in Icelandic:

"Vertu sæll og gæfan fylgi þér, hvert sem þú ferð," stundi Balinn loksins upp. "Ef þú einhvern tímann gætir heimsótt okkur aftur þegar salir standa fagrir enn á ný í allri sinni dýrð, skyldum við halda veizlu sem tæki öllum fram."

"Ef þið ættuð nokkurn tímann leið framhjá mÍnum húsum," sagði Bilbó, "skuluð þið ekki hika við að berja að durum! Tetíminn er eins og venjulega klukkan fjögur, en auðvitað eruð þið velkomnir á hvaða tíma dags sem er." [6]

The way they talk is very different. But what they are saying is the same thing.


What I have been saying is that Tolkien's response to Old Norse literature was philological in exactly the sense that he thought proper to that word. It was founded on a very acute sense of linguistic correspondences, which we must credit originally to Jacob Grimm. These correspondences, these details of comparative philology, were real and immediate to Tolkien. They made him insist on the pronunciation "Henjest" for Hengest. They made him insist that the plural of "dwarf" was "dwarves," not "dwarfs" - so much so that he made the printers change every single example in The Hobbit, hundreds of them, back to what he had written. He saw philology in every detail of daily life, including the surnames of modern people, like Neave and Woodhouse, or the names of modern places, like Hincksey - Hengestes ieg - or Brill, the model for the hobbits' Bree.

But to Tolkien philology was not just about linguistic correspondences, it was also about the criticism of literary works, which in his opinion could not and should not be separated from the language in which those works were written. That was why he disliked literary critics so much: because they characteristically ignored language when they talked about literature. But thought and word went together. There were some thoughts, Tolkien pointed out, again in his Letters, which could not be said in modern words without sounding false. Replying to an accusation of pointless archaism, he wrote:

"take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible)...'Nay, Gandalf,' said the King, 'You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.'

This is a fair sample - moderate or watered archaism... I know well enough what a modern would say. "not at all, my dear G. You don';t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren't going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties' - and then what? Theoden would certainly think, and probably say 'thus shall I sleep better'! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have 'I shall lie easier in my grave', or 'I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home' - if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual 'archaic' English that I have used." [7]

In other words, if you wanted to express ideas from a heroic world, you must find a way of saying them which was modern enough to be understood, but old-fashioned enough to sound true. I would say that this was the problem of The Lord of the Rings: in that work Tolkien wanted to express a heroic ethic, set in a pre-Christian world, which he derived from Old English epic and Old Norse edda and saga. But he also wanted to make it sayable in a contemporary idiom, understandable to contemporary readers, and not in contradiction of Christian belief.

Let me take first the lesser issue of linguistic correspondences in The Lord of the Rings. We know now that Tolkien had great difficulty in getting his story going. In my opinion, he did not break through until, on February 9th 1942, he settled the issue of languages. Think about the dwarves, with their Old Norse names. Clearly it was not possible for the dwarves really to have had Old Norse names, they lived long long ago, long before Old Norse was a language. So the names Tolkien had given them, in work written in modern English, must be there just to show that the dwarves, for convenience, spoke a language which related to the hobbits' language in the same sort of way as Old Norse to modern English, or modern Icelandic to modern English - these things do happen in reality. But if that was the case, then it was possible to imagine, in Middle-earth, a place where people were still speaking Old English, or even Gothic, a place where the poem Beowulf was still alive. Once Tolkien allowed himself to think this - and we can see him doing so on p. 424 of The Treason of Isengard - then he could immediately, and with great ease, imagine the society of the Riders of Rohan, or the Riddermark, contrast them with the post-Imperial society of Gondor, and allow his story suddenly to expand in entirely new and to Tolkien quite unexpected directions. The linguistic correspondences freed Tolkien's imagination. They made the book three times as long as it was supposed to be. That's the first half of philology.

For the second half one has to remember the facts of Tolkien's life. An orphan from the age of 12, he graduated from Oxford University in 1915, and immediately joined the army like everyone else he knew. He fought as an infantry officer in the Battle of the Somme, in which his two closest friends were killed. The Battle of the Somme has become, in popular British history, a byword for disaster and futility. But I do not think Tolkien saw it like that. For one thing, his battalion, the 13th Lancashire Fusiliers, was an unusually successful one, congratulated (I believe) by Field Marshal Haig in person for a successful attack in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme.[8] For another, he remembered an important fact that people forget nowadays, which was that the battle and the war were both won, when they could easily have been lost. Nevertheless, by the time Tolkien became an Oxford Professor in 1925, popular opinion had changed drastically. These were the years of the ascendancy of modernism; of T.S. Eliot and "The Waste Land"; of Evelyn Waugh and his satirical novels; of E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. The connecting factor was disillusionment and irony, especially against anything associated with military virtues. Heroes were out of fashion. It was impossible to take epic, or saga, seriously in the mdoern world.

Or at least in the modern literary world. Because the military virtues, it turned out, were just as vital as they had ever been. The Oxford Union, we remember, voted in 1936 in favour of the motion, "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and country." But it turned out they didn't mean it. In 1939 the British Government appealed for volunteers to fight the Nazis and got 250,000 men on the first day, and a million in the first week. Even Evelyn Waugh joined the army, to fight in the Battle of Crete. It was under these circumstances that Tolkien began to write his heroic, and pre-Christian, romance: reviving ancient literary modes, which it turned out were vitally contemporary once again.

I will point only to one fact which connects The Lord of the Rings to Old Norse heroic and mythical literature. It is deeply sad, almost without hope. The story is not a quest, about finding something, it is an anti-quest, about throwing it away. The price of throwing it away is extinction. The elves will disappear. So will the ents, and the hobbits. Frodo, the hero, is incurably wounded. He is taken away across the sea, but only to die. The dominating word of the last page of the story is "grey," as the other characters ride back unspeaking on "the long grey road" from the "grey firth," and the "grey sea," and the "grey rain-curtains," and the Grey Havens. Something has gone out of the world, and it will not come back. And that is how things have always been. Much earlier in the story Elrond the Half-elf looks back over his life and says "I have seen many defeats, and many fruitless victories." Galadriel says of herself, "through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat." There is a victory in The Lord of the Rings, but it is made as clear as ever it could be that this is local, and temporary, and dear-bought. The characters have only a dim idea - an inkling, one might say, but then Tolkien's literary group was called the Inklings - of any final victory over evil. And this is because they are pre-Christians.

Tolkien in a way is re-imagining characters like those so common in Icelandic saga, who are pre-Christians, but only because they know nothing else - men and women like Njáll, or Víga-Glúmr, or Guðrun, who are not Christians, but not exactly heathens either, and who will accept a better hope if someone will offer it to them. Such people, Tolkien believed, kept going because of the "theory of courage," which meant that you kept on even if you knew you were just fighting a "long defeat," with no ultimate hope at all. Gandalf in fact repeatedly makes statements about the "theory of courage." He does not expect to win, he knows there is a risk even for Frodo of becoming a wraith. "Still," he said, standing suddenly up and sticking out his chin, while his beard went stiff and straight like bristling wire, "we must keep up our courage."

But this was also, for Tolkien, the state of mind of many of his countrymen in the 1940s. Christianity was no longer the universally-accepted belief it had been. Evil seemd to be unconquerable, to rise again from every defeat. There was a strong impulse to give up, to make terms, to do the kind of deal with Sauron, or with Saruman, which is suggested several times in The Lord of the Rings. But they must not do it. They must learn to go on without assurance of victory, without trust in God, if necessary to go on fighting a long defeat. If the spirit of the godless Viking could be revived in modern times, as it had been in the Nazi ideology of heathenism and Oðinn-worship, then the spirit of the virtuous pagan could also be revived: another aspect of saga-tradition, men like Njáll or Gunnarr, wise, brave, doing the best they could under difficult circumstances, going down in the end to defeat, but not allowing this to change their hearts.

And I believe that is why Tolkien has remained so strangely popular. I would put it this way. The standard accusation made by my critical colleagues about Tolkien is that his work is "escapist." I think this is the exact reverse of the truth. Like Orwell's 1984, or Golding's Lord of the Flies, or Laxness's Gerpla, Tolkien's fantastic or antiquarian works confront the major problems of the twentieth century, which have been war, despair, failure, disillusionment. And they provide answers which seem strangely old-fashioned, but which have come alive again. They are serious answers to serious questions, which in my opinion it is escapist to ignore. But the works also owe much of their charm to the mixture of gravity and amusement, and the extreme stylistic indecorum, which the world first learned to appreciate from the literature of Iceland. It has been well said that the true hero of Tolkien's work is Middle-earth itself. In it he recreated his version of the lost world of pre-Christian English myth; but he could do this only by working from the much more impressive and fortunately-preserved world of Icelandic tradition.

Saint Louis University, Tom Shippey.


[1] See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 180 (14th January 1956).
[2] Letters, 131, late 1951.
[3] See Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales Part 2, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Allen & Unwin, 1984), 290.
[4] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and other essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1987), 25-6.
[5] See Snorra Edda, ed. Árni Björnsson (Reyjavik: Iðunn, 1975), 29-30.
[6] The Icelandic translation is by Þorsteinn Thorarensen, Hobbitinn (Reykjavik: Fjölvaútgáfan, 2001).
[7] Letters 171, September 1955.
[8] Confirmation of this must wait on the publication of John Garth's full study, Tolkien and the Great War, forthcoming from HarperCollins.


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