The Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse had an enchanted view of the natural landscape. Woods, springs, lakes, mountains, stones and beasts were all imbued with a sacred life-force; this was a landscape inhabited by mythical warriors, kings, elves, goblins, wizards and monsters. Magic was not forgotten even during the Christian centuries of the so-called Dark Ages, when monks struggled for men’s souls. The evidence of this ancient world is all around us – burial mounds, chalk figures, sacred trees and springs, the rich findings from excavations, beautiful jewellery and weaponry from British and Scandinavian graves, place-names, strange runic languages and inscriptions, sagas and poems which were written down after centuries of oral transmission. In his new book, The Real Middle Earth, Brian Bates treats all of these things and much more as keys to a forgotten world.
Initially, Bates recreates the everyday life of the Germanic tribes, particularly the Angles and Saxons of England, and, almost immediately, well-organised and self-sufficient villages such as West Stow, are compared to the Hobbit ‘Shire’ of The Lord of the Rings. Bates, and Tolkien, conjure up images of a cosy communal life, aided by Tacitus’ descriptions and excavated long-halls, set within a safe forest clearing. Outside this world, though, lay the unknown. What would the Saxons have thought of the Roman villas that lay deserted around them? Bates suggests that they avoided Roman towns for positive reasons – they felt more naturally at home in their houses of wood ‘with provisions, just like crops, provided for them by the spirits’. The Saxons and Norse had a particularly rich terminology for the natural world and their complicated distinctions between different types of dragon leaves Bates in no doubt that our ancestors knew dragons existed.
The Real Middle Earth presents a fine tour through the mythology of early medieval England, based on an original and compelling use of archaeological and literary sources. Clinical analysis of grave-goods, cemeteries, building remains, monuments, industrial finds from medieval York, place-names, Bede, chronicles and other pieces of evidence is effectively mixed with eloquent, imaginative and often personal accounts of journeys through landscapes and ancient folklore.
For many of us, Tolkien is as familiar for his literary criticism as he is for his novels. His extraordinarily penetrating analysis of the world of Beowulf, its monsters and conflicts, continue to influence and inspire. This is reflected in a recent collection of essays, presented at Kalamazoo in 2001, which pay tribute to Tolkien’s enduring scholarship and work as both novelist and critic. Tolkien the Medievalist is a scholarly collection which students of early medieval literature, mythology and Christianity should not be without.
Tolkien’s groundbreaking masterpiece The Monsters and the Critics is still available, most recently reprinted in 1997. In seven essays Tolkien discusses some of the texts that most influenced his own work including Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
So this Christmas when you queue up to buy your tickets to the next instalment of The Lord of the Rings at the movies, The Two Towers, remember that Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Saruman may not be as fantastical as you once thought.