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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (15) Concluding Thoughts, Part 1: Of Vikings, Old English, & the Heroic Ideal

Medieval Language & Literature: A Work of Monastic, Carolingian Elites: The "Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram," 870 (Carolingian Art)

Medieval Language & Literature: A Work of Monastic, Carolingian Elites: The “Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram,” 870 (Carolingian Art)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (15) Concluding Thoughts, Part 1: Of Vikings, Old English, & the Heroic Ideal

Good Afternoon, Everybody!

As I reach the concluding blog on this series that’s looked at J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy work vis-a-vis medieval literature, I’ve made it clear that one of the reasons for the longevity of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion lies in what Tolkien himself called a “subcreation” of a faux-medieval world.

The Middle Earth mythology that Tolkien invented relies on literary styles, conceits, and themes of a historical period that too many modern would-be epic fantasists forget: the violent, unpredictable, and explicitly non-literary world of the 5th-11th centuries in Britain, the northern Germanic, and Scandinavian lands.

Sutton Hoo Burial Mounds (6th & 7th Century Cemeteries; Suffolk, England)

Sutton Hoo Burial Mounds (6th & 7th Century Cemeteries; Suffolk, England)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Remember that point, please. The early English, Germanic, and Scandinavian world that Tolkien studied, and which I’ve been describing via that world’s literature, until the High Middle Ages (12th to 13th centuries) was essentially a preliterate and non-literary world.  His achievement was to bring aspects of that medieval past into the 20th Century, and thanks to Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Tolkien’s vision of Middle-Earth is enduring and popular well into the 21st Century.  When we look to the period itself, however, the fragmentary historical and literary record allow us to speculate and hypothesize with some certainty, but any literary remains are vestiges of a past that’s forever irrecoverable.

Tolkien himself noted the difficulty of reconciling past actions with the literary record in a lecture on Beowulf in the 1920s, when discussing the ship burial of Scyld:

“The author of Beowulf was not a heathen, but he wrote in a time when the pagan past was still very near; so near that not only some facts were remembered, but moods and motives also.  His source was no doubt primarily oral and literary: actual mention and description of these things in lays and stories.  There must have been far more visible ‘archaeological’ evidence in his day in England than now. But that will not help the case of real ship-burial (in which the ship is actually set adrift); and a man of the West Marches (as I believe our poet to have been) would not often see such mounds as those at Sutton Hoo.  If he did, he would require tradition (lay or history) to explain their contents and purpose.  People who dug into graves and carried off the treasures dedicated to the dead were still in those days called thieves and not archaeologists. (From J.R.R. Tolkien, “Commentary,” in Beowulf, Christopher Tolkien, ed., Houghton-Mifflin, 2014; p. 150)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("The Hall of Heorot," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“The Hall of Heorot,” art by John Howe)

The Viking Age (8th to 11th c.)

The Viking Age (8th to 11th c.)

Viking Skulls in Weymouth Burial Pit (c. 890-1030 AD; Oxford Archaeology)

Viking Skulls in Weymouth Burial Pit (c. 890-1030 AD; Oxford Archaeology)

For all of the emphasis that I’ve placed on the medieval literary tradition, that focus is a specialized one, and it doesn’t truly reflect the brutality and beauty that simultaneously existed in early medieval world of a thousand-plus years past.  Until the Late Middle Ages, the majority of the literary remnants we’ve discovered were often written by a literary elite (monastic and noble households) whose connection to the “common folk” was a tenuous one at best.

The saga literature of the 12th-13th century allows us some insight into the “mindset” of the Danes (the king of whom sought help from the Geatish hero, Beowulf) with a glimpse of some values they extolled.  To illustrate, here’s an example from Clifford R. Backman’s The Worlds of Medieval Europe:

The Danes were renowned for their ferocity and fearlessness…their popular sagas commemorated savage heroes like Bui of Børnholm who once, when he received a vicious sword blow that sliced off his chin and lips and loosened most of his teeth, merely spat the useless teeth to the ground and said with a laugh: “I suppose the women of Børnholm won’t be so eager to kiss me now!” Later in the saga Bui, after a profitable raid on England, was forced to abandon ship in a storm.  Even though he had since suffered having both of his hands chopped off, he refused to part with his treasure chest — so he stuck his arm-stumps through the chest handles and leapt with a laugh into the sea.” [Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Ed., p. 238]

Viking Funeral (Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee; Wikipedia)

Viking Funeral (Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee; Wikipedia)

Land of the Vikings (Lofoten Islands, Norway; pic by Babak Tafreshi)

Land of the Vikings (Lofoten Islands, Norway; pic by Babak Tafreshi)

I started laughing when I read this excerpt to Sophia and Adriana, partly because the account seemed like a script for a Monty Python skit, but also because it’s such a great example of the kind of gems you can find buried in the saga literature that still evokes a response today.  This kind of moment is why I think that epic fantasists in 2014 should at least check out some of the medieval literature that’s readily available in print or e-book formats.  Trust me, whether you’re an aspiring epic fantasy writer or a reader simply interested in the subject, the reading will make your life and work just a bit more interesting.  Moreover, any attempt at writing about, or seeking to understand, a “reality” of the Middle Ages should always be contextualized by an awareness that while we can make highly educated guesses and hypotheses about life in the so-called Dark Ages of the 6th-10th centuries, the people who lived in that time were in a fight for daily survival and trying to thrive in an often-hostile world.

There was no educational resources, no time in the daily fight for survival, and no interest in writing down either histories or stories, and if there were any desire to share such things, skalds (court poets) or storytellers would express themselves orally, entertaining both commoners and elites in mead-halls, around campfires, or in other environments that are forever lost to our knowledge.  The landscapes in which the Northmen lived still endure, though, and it takes only a slight effort of imagination (with some historical & literary knowledge) to know that the centuries of the Viking Age could offer Nordic fishermen a glorious view of the Aurora Borealis off the Lofoten Islands just as easily as it might provide the terrorizing sight of Vikings stepping ashore onto French & English landfalls.

"Norwegians Landing on Iceland, 872" (Oscar Wergeland, 1877; oil on canvas)

“Norwegians Landing on Iceland, 872” (Oscar Wergeland, 1877; oil on canvas)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf" ("Grendel," art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf” (“Grendel,” art by John Howe)

Medieval Language & Literature: "St. George & the Dragon" (from the "Moralia of Job," ms. lat., 12thc.)

Medieval Language & Literature: “St. George & the Dragon” (from the “Moralia of Job,” ms. lat., 12thc.)

Tolkien’s lifetime immersion in (and mastery of) Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages inspired him to recreate a facsimile of early medieval life (6th-11th centuries A.D.) with a self-contained mythology (The Silmarillion). This facsimile was so convincing that it both tangentially and explicitly evoked the medieval realities of (1) the “heroic ideals” of the Viking Age  (2) the conflict of Christian tenets with Scandinavian and Germanic “barbarism,” (3) the 9th-14th century “rise of Old English & Middle English vernacular languages,” and, finally, (4) poetic and romantic literary expressions that marked the Early and High Middle Ages.  In these few concluding blogs on the subject of “Epic Fantasy and the Literary Middle Ages,” I want to persuade writers who aspire to follow in Tolkien’s footsteps to be mindful of that epic fantasist’s governing passion: the love of medieval language and literature.  I don’t think that you have to be the expert that Tolkien was in the subject, but it certainly will help your world-building if you can familiarize yourself with something of the “medieval mindset” that we’ve gleaned from centuries of studying the Middle Ages (500-1500 A.D.) through its literary remains.

As we’ve seen in previous blogs, from the appearance of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s through the current series of Peter Jackson films based on LotR and The Hobbit, Tolkien’s literary critics have certainly acknowledged Tolkien’s academic credentials, paying lip-service to his expertise in medieval philology, but then those critics invariably proceed to cherry-pick certain aspects of his works, calling them everything from “pretentious” & “fraudulent” (Robert Flood, a Benedictine monk), to “simplistic” in the presentation of Good and Evil (Alfred Duggan), to “over-wrought,” “archaic,” and “quaint stuff” (Harold Bloom), to, finally, reflections of some kind of sentimental yearning for a  pastoral past by conservative, suburban middle-class readers (the “Epic Pooh” assessment by Michael Moorcock).

Thingvellir, Iceland (site of Viking Althing, proto-parliamentary National Assembly, c. 1000)

Thingvellir, Iceland (site of Viking Althing, proto-parliamentary National Assembly, c. 1000)

Viking Settlement, L'Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

Viking Settlement, L’Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

What all of these critics fail to address — or, in the case of Bloom and Moorcock, often-times grossly mischaracterize — is that a central success of Tolkien’s works lies in the fact that both his medievalist training and creative genius allowed him to express and transform aspects of the early medieval period into a modern work of literature (e.g., medieval literary veneration of heroic idealism, violence of war, the unpredictability of life, the slow pace of travel, etc).  Yes, to offer a differing opinion to Moorcock’s essay “Epic Pooh,” the yearning for a pastoral past by a British pre- and post-World War I middle class might be evident in both The Hobbit and LotR, but that romantic sentiment wasn’t invented in the Victorian Era of the Preraphaelites that Tolkien admired & Moorcock despised:  it was a creation of the Middle Ages themselves!

Medieval Language & Literature: The Impact of the Norman Conquest, 1066 ("Death of Harold Godwinson at Battle of Hastings," Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070)

Medieval Language & Literature: The Impact of the Norman Conquest, 1066 (“Death of Harold Godwinson at Battle of Hastings,” Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070)

From the time that Viking longboats silently slid up the waters of the Seine or Thames to the Norman Conquest of 1066, French and English writers a thousand years ago were wishing for a peaceful era that would bring an end to the “sea-raiders'” incursions. Those who fought against the Vikings were praised in verse and song, and Christian missionaries were forced to adapt the ethos of the warrior-cultures they discovered in the British Isles and Scandinavia into something that resembled the “Gospel truths” they promoted.  Thus, this desire for an older, “bygone age” that detractors see in The Hobbit and LotR wasn’t the invention of Tolkien, but rather what he discovered by reading the historical literature from the 6th through 11th centuries.

Making this point is why I’ve taken the approach of discussing the impact of medieval literature upon both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  I’ve gone to great lengths to focus on “medieval language and literature” as the lens through which to focus on Tolkien’s contribution/creation of the epic fantasy genre in the early 20th century, with a demand that we need to “reboot and universalize” that genre for a 21st century audience.  A huge part of that effort requires a writer to immerse oneself into that bygone age, and thanks to the past half-century of historical & literary research, archaeological finds, and interpretations of the early medieval period, we can both advance upon AND return to Tolkien’s path.

Medieval Language & Literature: The Legend of "Sigurd and Fafnir" (Alan Lee)

Medieval Language & Literature: The Legend of “Sigurd and Fafnir” (Alan Lee)

When you assess J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Book of Lost Tales, or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, as readers in 2014 we have to judge the works partly with “modern,” 21st century sensibilities; however, if we’re to really try to understand what Tolkien accomplished in contributing to literature, I think we’d do a disservice to his works if — as some of the critics have done — we disallowed the “medieval” component of those creations.  Except for C.S. Lewis & W.H. Auden, I’ve yet to read a review about Tolkien that truly incorporated some early medieval literary realities when assessing his works.

First, where is the discussion of the “heroic ideal” that so informed the fragmentary literary remains we have from the 9th-10th centuries? I’ll address Beowulf next time when I turn to medieval poetry, but what about truly Viking Age material such as “The Wanderer” or “The Battle of Maldon”?  These are works with which Tolkien was very familiar, and the heroic ideal that’s emphasized in each poem is one to which he returned repeatedly.

Medieval Language & Literature: "The Wanderer" ("The Sea," John Howe)

Medieval Language & Literature: “The Wanderer” (“The Sea,” John Howe)

Viking Invasions, Angl0-Saxons, and the Rise of Old English Vernacular (“The Wanderer” and “The Battle of Maldon”)
Tolkien knew better than anyone that a fundamental shift occurred in the medieval West in the 8th to 11th centuries, a period in the history of literature that saw the impact of the Viking invasions coincide with the preservation of Roman antiquity via (1) Latin Literature (think of the Irish monks & their preservation of late antique lore in manuscripts), AND (2) the rise of an Old English/Anglo-Saxon vernacular that Tolkien so loved.  This was the period that saw the creation of works such as The Wanderer, an Old English poem (10th c.) found in the Exeter Book, which recounts the ruminations of an exiled warrior, whose memories are filled with imagery that evoke the losses of a past world which run consistently throughout Tolkien’s works (the end of the Third Age, the sorrows of the Elves, the doom of Men, etc).  Here’s an excerpt:

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Grey Ship of the Elves" (from "The Return of the King," Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Grey Ship of the Elves” (from “The Return of the King,” Alan Lee)

[Begin excerpt from “The Wanderer”]
…Then he wakens again, the man with no lord, sees the yellow waves before him, the sea-birds bathe, spread their feathers, frost and snow fall, mingled with hail.

Then the wounds are deeper in his heart, sore for want of his dear one. His sorrow renews as the memory of his kinsmen moves through his mind: he greets them with glad words, eagerly looks at them, a company of warriors. Again they fade, moving off over the water; the spirit of these fleeting ones brings to him no familiar voices. Care renews in him who must again and again send his weary heart out over the woven waves.

Therefore I cannot think why the thoughts of my heart should not grow dark when I consider all the life of men through this world — with what terrible swiftness they forgo the hall-floor, bold young retainer. So this middle-earth each day fails and falls. No man may indeed become wise before he has had his share of winters in this world’s kingdom. The wise man must be patient, must never be to hot-hearted, nor too hasty of speech, nor too fearful, nor too glad, nor too greedy for wealth, nor ever too eager to boast before he has thought clearly. A man must wait, when he speaks in boast, until he knows clearly, sure-minded, where the thoughts of his heart may turn.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Sea" (from "The Silmarillion," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Sea” (from “The Silmarillion,” Ted Nasmith)

The wise warrior must consider how ghostly it will be when all the wealth of this world stands waste, just as now here and there through this middle-earth wind-blown walls stand covered with frost-fall, storm-beaten dwellings. Wine-halls totter, the lord dies bereft of joy, all the company has fallen, bold men beside the wall.  War took away some, bore them forth on their way; a bird carried one away over the deep sea; a wolf shared one with Death; another man sad of face hid in an earth-pit.

So the Maker of mankind laid waste this dwelling-lace until the old works of giants stood idle, devoid of the noise of the stronghold’s keepers.  Therefore the man wise in his heart considers carefully this wall-place and this dark life, remembers the multitude of deadly combats long ago, and speaks these words: “Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior! Alas, the prince’s glory! How that time has gone, vanished beneath night’s cover, just as if it never had been! The wall, wondrous high, decorated with snake-likenesses, stands now over traces of the beloved company. The ash-spears’ might has borne the earls away — weapons greedy for slaughter, Fate the mighty; and storms beat on the stone walls, snow, the herald of winter, falling thick binds the earth when darkness comes and the night-shadow falls, sends harsh hailstones from the north in hatred of men. All earth’s kingdom is wretched, the world beneath the skies is changed by the work of the fates. Here wealth is fleeting, here man is fleeting, here woman is fleeting — all this earthly habitation shall be emptied… “ [end of “The Wanderer” excerpt, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th Ed., Vol. 1 ]

Causeway at Maldon (looking across to Northey Island, Maldon, Essex; where Vikings had made a beach-head)

Causeway at Maldon (looking across to Northey Island, Maldon, Essex; where Vikings had made a beach-head)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Théoden & Gamling" (Bernard Hill & Bruce Hopkins, in Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers," 2002)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Théoden & Gamling” (Bernard Hill & Bruce Hopkins, in Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers,” 2002)

Medieval Language & Literature: Brythnoth Statue, Maldon

Medieval Language & Literature: Brythnoth Statue, Maldon

I think that this 9th-10th century period, this “moment in time” to which Tolkien devoted a lifetime of study, is the proverbial “elephant in the room” that everyone diminishes or forgets when assessing his works.  Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair, & Phillipa Boyens didn’t forget when they wrote the screenplays for the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings.

Compare the language of the “Wanderer” in the above excerpt, and then recall Théoden’s remarks to Gamling at Helm’s Deep in the film version of The Two Towers:  “Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?”

To further exemplify the heroic ideal that Tolkien recreated in his works, check out this excerpt from “The Battle of Maldon” (c. late 10th c.), a poem that recounts a battle in 991 where Scandinavian sea-raiders were rebuffed by English warriors at a thin causeway that only appeared at low tide; if the English had just stayed put, they could have defended the spit of land indefinitely; however, in a surprising move, the leader of the outnumbered English — one “Byrhtnoth, the Earl of Essex” — responded to a frustrated Viking chieftain’s cry that the odds were unfair.  Trusting in strength of arms and a passionate defense of their homeland,Byrhtnoth let the Vikings cross the causeway, and subsequently watched his entire defense force slaughtered before he himself was slain!  To our eyes, this move seems completely foolish, but in that time a thousand years past, the “warrior culture” of both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings responded to different urgencies, and the “heroic ideal” that would imbue the entirety of the Middle Ages wasn’t one taken lightly:

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Clouds Burst" (from "The Hobbit," Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Clouds Burst” (from “The Hobbit,” Alan Lee)

[Begin, “The Battle of Maldon” excerpt]
…an armed Viking stepped toward the earl [Byrhtnoth]. He wished to seize the earl’s war-gear, make booty of rings and ornamented sword. Then Birhtnoth took his sword from its sheath, broad and bright-edged, and struck at his assailant’s coat of mail. Too soon one of the seafarers hindered him, wounded the earl in the arm. Then the gold-hilted sword fell to the earth: he might not hold the hard blade, wield his weapon. Yet he spoke words, the hoar battle-leader, encouraged his men, bade them go forward stoutly together. He might no longer stand firm on his feet. He looked toward Heaven and spoke: “I thank thee, Ruler of Nations, for all the joys that I have had in the world. Now, gentle Lord, I have most need that thou grant my spirit grace, that my soul may travel to thee — under thy protection, Prince of Angels, depart in peace. I beseech thee that fiends of hell harm it not.” Then the heathen warriors slew him and both of the men who stood by him; Ælfnoth and Wulfmær both were laid low; close by their lord they gave up their lives.” [end “The Battle of Maldon” excerpt, from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th Ed., Vol. 1]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields" (from "The Return of the King," Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” (from “The Return of the King,” Alan Lee)

I’ve only excerpted a small part of “The Battle of Maldon,” but after Byrhtnoth’s death, the slaughter of his kinsmen and allies is detailed, with the audience embroiled in the battle thanks to the power of the language:

[begin new “The Battle of Maldon” excerpt]
“Eadweard the Long…broke the shield-wall and fought against the foe until he had worthily avenged his treasure-giver on the sea-men — before he himself lay on the slaughter-bed”; and then, “…Æthelric, noble companion, eager and impetuous; he fought most resolutely, this brother of Sibirht, as did many another; they split the hollow shield and defended themselves boldly…The shield’s rim broke and the mail-shirt sang one of horror’s songs…Then in the battle Offa struck the seafarer so that he fell on the earth, and there Gadd’s kinsman himself sought ground: Offa was quickly hewn down in the fight.  He had, however, performed what he had promised his lord, what he had vowed to his ring-giver, that they should either both ride to the town, hale to their home, or fall among the host, die of wounds in the slaughter-place. He lay as a thane should, near his lord.” [end of “The Battle of Maldon” excerpt, from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th Ed., Vol. 1]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Helm's Deep" from "The Two Towers" (John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Helm’s Deep” from “The Two Towers” (John Howe)

One doesn’t need to search very hard in Tolkien’s work to find events and language that resonate the “heroic ideal” of the Angl0-Saxon age like that in “The Battle of Maldon.”  Recall the moment in Tolkien’s book, The Two Towers, when all is apparently lost at Helm’s Deep and Théoden prepares to make one last, Byrhtnoth-like sortie against innumerable enemies?  Read the following excerpt from Tolkien, and see if one couldn’t replace the Men of the Mark with the English, and the forces of Saruman with Viking raiders:

[Begin excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Théoden & Aragorn at Helm's Deep" (Bernard Hill & Viggo Mortensen, in Peter Jackson's 2002 "The Two Towers," New Line Cinema)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Théoden & Aragorn at Helm’s Deep” (Bernard Hill & Viggo Mortensen, in Peter Jackson’s 2002 “The Two Towers,” New Line Cinema)

“I fret in this prison,” said Théoden. “If I could have set a spear in rest, riding before my men upon the field, maybe I could have felt again the joy of battle and so ended. But I serve little purpose here.”

“Here at least you are guarded in the strongest fastness of the Mark,” said Aragorn. “More hope we have to defend you in the Hornburg than in Edoras, or even at Dunharrow in the mountains.”

“It is said that the Hornburg has never fallen to assault,” said Théoden, “but now my heart is doubtful. The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate? Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe I should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts of Gandalf. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.”

“Do not judge the counsel of Gandalf, until all is over, lord,” said Aragorn.

“The end will not take long,” said the king. “But I will not end here, taken like an old badger in a trap. Snowmane and Hasufel and the horses of my guard are in the inner court. When the dawn comes, I will bid men sound Helm’s horn, and I will ride forth. Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song — if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”

“I will ride with you,” said Aragorn. [End excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers]

J.R.R Tolkien, "The Ruin of Beleriand," from "The Silmarillion" (Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R Tolkien, “The Ruin of Beleriand,” from “The Silmarillion” (Ted Nasmith)

And even in his greater mythological work, The Silmarillion, we see a strong resonance of the kinsman-casualty list and descriptions from “The Battle of Maldon” in Tolkien’s account of “The Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin”:

[Begin excerpt]:
So great was the onslaught of Morgoth that Fingolfin and Fingon could not come to the aid of the sons of Finarfin; and the hosts of Hithlum were driven back with great loss to the fortresses of Ered Wethrin, and these they hardly defended against the Orcs. Before the walls of Eithel Sirion fell Hador the Golden-haired, defending the rearguard of his lord Fingolfin, being then sixty and six years of age, and with him fell Gundor his younger son, pierced with many arrows; and they were mourned by the Elves…[End excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fall of Fingolfin," from "The Silmarillion" (John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fall of Fingolfin,” from “The Silmarillion” (John Howe)

And, in my opinion, Tolkien more than matches the blow-by-blow account of the death of Byrhtnoth & his retainers in “The Battle of Maldon” with his description of Fingolfin’s confrontation with Morgoth (Sauron’s master):

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Fingolfin's Wrath" (from "The Silmarillion," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Fingolfin’s Wrath” (from “The Silmarillion,” Ted Nasmith)

[Begin excerpt from The Silmarillion]:
Thus [Fingolfin] came alone to Angband’s gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to single combat. And Morgoth came.

That was the last time in those wars that he passed the doors of his stronghold, and it is said that he took not the challenge willingly; for though his might was greatest of all things of this world, alone of the Valar he knew fear.  But he could not now deny the challenge before the face of his captains; for the rocks rang with the shrill music of Fingolfin’s horn, and his voice came keen and clear down into the depths of Angband; and Fingolfin named Morgoth craven, and lord of slaves. Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a storm cloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice… [End excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Of Tuor & the Fall of Gondolin," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Of Tuor & the Fall of Gondolin,” Ted Nasmith)

When we know even a little bit about Anglo-Saxon literature and the wellsprings of Tolkien’s medieval literary inspirations, how far we are from Bloom’s criticism that Tolkien’s work relies on a “King James version of the Bible” for its literary style, or that there is an affectation for “quaint” language that strikes the modern reader as curious.  To the contrary, Tolkien succeeded in bringing up-to-date a 1oth century concern with the “heroic ideal” in a way that could be appreciated by a 20th century audience.

These early medieval literary excerpts are just a couple of examples of how a modern epic fantasist can use the literature of the Early Middle Ages.  In the next couple of blogs, we’ll take a look at what to do with the same things that Tolkien saw as a medievalist:  pagan/Christian conflicts in the 5th-11th centuries, rise of vernacular languages in the 9th-14th c., and medieval elegiac/poetic expressions of romance that began in the 10th and carried through to modern times with the Arthurian legends!

Thanks for visiting!

Next time:  How Epic Fantasists Might Follow Tolkien’s Lead in Contending with the Christianized Culture of Medieval Europe (or, not!)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (14) Tolkien’s Decision to Split LotR from The Silmarillion (1952)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Cirith Ninniach, the Rainbow Cleft," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Cirith Ninniach, the Rainbow Cleft,” Ted Nasmith)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (14) Tolkien’s Decision to Split LotR from The Silmarillion (1952)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Here’s a question: can the market bear true “epic fantasy” anymore?  That is, in this blog series about the importance of medieval language and literature to Professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis back in the early to mid-20th century, I’ve focused both on the literature of late antiquity and the medieval period that so influenced them, but I’ve also begun to assess how Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were initially received by the literary community and public when the novels were published.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Gandalf arrives in Hobbiton," by Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Gandalf arrives in Hobbiton,” by Michael Kaluta)

I think that they hold up remarkably well, but the point I’m curious about is whether or not they would sell if they were presented as from a first-time author in today’s marketplace?  Tolkien himself couldn’t get The Silmarillion published; his son, Christopher, succeeded in getting the work printed posthumously in 1977, some four years after his father’s death, in the wake of a demand for more work by the beloved author.  And, even publishing what we’ve come to know as The Lord of the Rings was difficult for J.R.R. Tolkien during the years 1949-1953, when publishers simply wanted a continuation of The Hobbit and didn’t know what to make of the the 600,000 word LotR manuscript that Tolkien submitted.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Gandalf at Weathertop," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Gandalf at Weathertop,” Ted Nasmith)

Michael White, "Tolkien: A Biography"

Michael White, “Tolkien: A Biography”

After bouncing between a couple of houses, Allen & Unwin finally published the book, but demanded (because of paper costs in a rationed industry) that the work not include The Silmarillion and that it be divided into the three volumes we know today.

As I draw near the end of this series on the crossover between Tolkien’s specializing in medieval literature (Anglo-Saxon) and himself contributing to a modern version of it (saga/epic), let’s look at part of the creator/publisher interaction in the modern age.  Here’s an excerpt from Michael White’s work, Tolkien: A Biography:

[begin White excerpt] …Tolkien wrote to Unwin [the publisher of The Hobbit, some 16 years prior] explaining that his new book had run out of control. Combined with The Silmarillion, he told him, his mythology now ran to over a million words, and he had begun to wonder whether anyone would actually be interested in such a monstrous thing. Unwin asked if it could not be split into several volumes, and in reply Tolkien made it clear that he could never allow such a thing.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("The Burning of the Ships")

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“The Burning of the Ships”)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Beleg is Slain," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Beleg is Slain,” Ted Nasmith)

[Michael White excerpt continued]
But Tolkien had miscalculated. By playing so hard to get [so he could move to another publisher], he had merely succeeded in making [Stanley] Unwin more interested … Rayner Unwin had already seen some of The Lord of the Rings a few years earlier and understood the potential of the book. In a letter to his father, he suggested that The Lord of the Rings was complete enough on its own and did not need The Silmarillion as a companion volume and that there may be material in the latter that could enhance the former. He went on to point out that a competent editor could work with Tolkien to extract such appropriate material, that they could publish The Lord of the Rings, and then, after a reasonable amount of time, drop The Silmarillion altogether.

Sir Stanley Unwin (published "The Hobbit" in 1937 after 10-year-old son, Rayner, read & approved of it!)

Sir Stanley Unwin (published “The Hobbit” in 1937 after 10-year-old son, Rayner, read & approved of it!)

Rayner had not meant for this letter to be seen by Tolkien, but Sir Stanley included his son’s comments in a letter he sent to the author a few days later. Naturally, Tolkien was furious and had to draft and redraft his reply several times before he could frame his anger sufficiently well. Barely keeping his cool, he gave Unwin an ultimatum; either take both books or neither.

Faced with such a choice Unwin could do nothing but let Tolkien go. He wrote expressing his genuine regret that they could not come to an understanding and that the author had forced him into turning down his work … it was clear to all that the relationship had fallen apart. Tolkien wanted to be free of George Allen and Unwin so he could follow through with the interest shown by Waldman [at the publisher, Collins]; Unwin did not want The Silmarillion and could not be forced into accepting it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Elrond recalls the hosts of Gil-gilad," by Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Elrond recalls the hosts of Gil-gilad,” by Michael Kaluta)

[Michael White excerpt continuedTolkien was now free both contractually and, he believed, morally, and so he now gave a commitment to Milton Waldman and William Collins [the publishers of Agatha Christie’s first six novels, and also of C.S. Lewis’s works] that they could publish his work.  But then he immediately confused the matter by informing Waldman that he expected the completed version of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings to come in at around one million words.  A puzzled Milton Waldman pointed out that the manuscript for LotR was about half a million words in length and The Silmarillion was only about 125,000 words long. It was then that Tolkien dropped the bombshell — that he considered The Silmarillion only partially finished and that it would require a huge effort to prepare it for publication, an effort requiring the addition of more material. This was not quite what Waldman had had in mind; he was about to tell Tolkien that LotR needed substantial cutting.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Gandalf and the Balrog," by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Gandalf and the Balrog,” by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien,"The Silmarillion" ("Luthien," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien,”The Silmarillion” (“Luthien,” by Ted Nasmith)

[Michael White excerpt continuedWhen Tolkien was told this, he was genuinely shocked. He had believed that he had found a sympathetic publisher who understood how he worked and appreciated that his mythology could only be adequately explained if there were no restrictions on the length of the books and the level of detail he demanded. But, rather than trying to reach a compromise with his new editor, Tolkien decided it was the right time to send Waldman several new sections of The Silmarillion, which he posted to the London offices of Collins without explaining either where they were to be placed in the main manuscript or how they linked with the rest of the book.

It’s possible that even at this stage something could have been salvaged from this disastrous new beginning, but it was not to be. In the summer of 1950, Waldman left for Italy where he spent most of each year. He left Tolkien in the hands of others in the London office of Collins, but they had no understanding of what had transpired and could make neither head nor tail of the strange bundle of papers pertaining to Professor Tolkien. Waldman was due to return to England for a few months in the autumn of 1950, but the trip was postponed when he fell ill in Italy.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("Zirikzigal," by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“Zirikzigal,” by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Earendil the Mariner," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Earendil the Mariner,” Ted Nasmith)

[Michael White excerpt continuedAnd so, Tolkien’s relationship with Collins fell apart … to exacerbate the situation further, the price of paper had increased dramatically in 1951, making the publication of a Middle-earth mythology an even greater gamble for a publisher than it had been two years earlier. In frustration, Tolkien wrote to Collins offering them a similar ultimatum to the one he had imposed upon Stanley Unwin — they must either accept his work as it was and completely unexpurgated or return it forthwith.

A few days later, Tolkien’s manuscripts were on his desk once more and the first time since the late-1930s, he was without any form of relationship with a publishing house. The time had come, he now realised, to shift his perspective … A few months earlier he had celebrated his sixtieth birthday and his work was no more nearer publication then it had been when he had finished writing LotR almost three years earlier. He thought of his own creation, the character, Niggle, and how he had only seen his work completed in heaven; if he was to see published the mythology to which he had devoted so much time and energy, he must act now. He must eat humble pie, and for once, must accept compromise.

The Gambler & The Dreamer: Rayner had believed in Tolkien since age 10 -- at age 28 took a chance with Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and the rest is history! (Rayner Unwin & J.R.R. Tolkien)

The Gambler & The Dreamer: Rayner had believed in Tolkien since age 10 — at age 28 took a chance with Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and the rest is history! (Rayner Unwin & J.R.R. Tolkien)

In June, Tolkien wrote to Rayner Unwin explaining the way his book had become entangled and wondering if he and his father Sir Stanley would still be interested after so long. Rayner Unwin replied immediately to arrange a meeting in Oxford, and in September he picked up the manuscript from Tolkien’s house in Holywell Street.

Now there was no question of publishing the entire mythology and Tolkien agreed that LotR would have to be split into three separate volumes and published over a period of at least twelve months. But even then Rayner was concerned. His feeling was that George Allen and Unwin must definitely publish the book, he considered it a work of genius, but he also had no confidence in its commercial potential. Although The Hobbit was still selling, Tolkien had lost any cachet he once had from the initial burst of enthusiasm for hobbits and Rayner Unwin thought that a book as dark, as detailed and as long as LotR, a book he could visualise fitting into any existing genre, would only appeal to a very small section of the market.

Lime Cottage of Rayner Unwin (frequented by Roald Dahl & J.R.R. Tolkien; Daily Mail, UK)

Lime Cottage of Rayner Unwin (frequented by Roald Dahl & J.R.R. Tolkien; Daily Mail, UK)

[Michael White excerpt continuedRayner was now deeply involved with the family business … after doing some calculations … [he explained to his father] that he believed the book would lose the company up to £1,000, but that they should still publish it as a prestige title that would gain great literary kudos. Stanley Unwin agreed and between them they decided to offer Tolkien a deal in which they would pay no advance for the book and no royalty, but they would enter into a profit-sharing scheme. This meant that George Allen and Unwin would cover the costs of production, distribution, and advertising and if there was any profit to be made it would be split fifty-fifty with Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("The Entmoot," by Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“The Entmoot,” by Michael Kaluta)

[Michael White excerpt continuedTolkien accepted the offer immediately. By this time, he had come to the conclusion that he was never likely to make very much money from his writing and he simply wanted to see his book in print and given due attention … In August 1954, The Fellowship of the Ring finally reached the bookshops. [End of Michael White excerpt, from Tolkien: A Biography, pp. 188-196]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Arwen & King Elessar," Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Arwen & King Elessar,” Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("The Eagles of Manwe," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“The Eagles of Manwe,” Ted Nasmith)

So, Tolkien’s works were finally published, thanks to the unwavering belief of Rayner Unwin who from age 10, when his father had him read the original manuscript of The Hobbit to see if it was publishable — & having also banked on Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — showed remarkable perspicacity in supporting authors whose works didn’t immediately conform to proven genres.

It would take another decade before the reception enjoyed the kind of success we associate with the hugely popular, semi-cultic Middle-earth fan base we know today (a base largely created by college student followings in the 1960s), but Unwin’s belief in the books, and Tolkien’s willingness to divest his original vision of a Silmarillion/LotR combo, made for a winning strategy.

What do you think? If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, do you think they’d have a chance in the publishing world and marketplace today?  I’ve posted a poll below, with positive and negative criticisms from the 1950s serving as possible responses.

Please let me know what you think & let’s start a conversation!

Next time:  Why Rayner Unwin Gambled & Won:  Reconciling Tolkien’s Works as Faux-Medieval Literature with the Fears of the Modern Publishing World


An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (13) Literary Critics of Tolkien (Bloom, Moorcock, et al)


J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring," 1953 (here, "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” 1953 (here, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony,” by Ted Nasmith)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (13) Literary Critics of Tolkien (Bloom, Moorcock, et al)

Good Morning, Everyone!

Last time, I reprinted the poet W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King from 1956, a piece that praised both the concluding book of the trilogy and the epic fantasy contribution to literature that Tolkien made with the entire Lord of the Rings.  Auden and C.S. Lewis both were aware that Tolkien was recapturing a lost form of the past — namely, the medieval epics and Scandinavian sagas canvassed in some of my earlier blogs — but it wasn’t so much the length of the story that impressed them, as much as the depth and scope of Tolkien’s multivalent achievement; for both Lewis and Auden, Tolkien’s works evoked truths philosophical, mythological, and (for Auden) even existential and religious.

Other critics weren’t so warm in their reception of The Lord of the Rings, and if I’m to maintain the demand that any “epic fantasy” for the 21st century should be held to literary standards, we need to also look at negative critiques of Tolkien’s works.  Tolkien himself assessed the criticisms made shortly after the 1953 publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, a “sequel” in publishers’ minds to The Hobbit that the public had been awaiting 16 years to read.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (by the Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (by the Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Tolkien’s Perspective on the Critical Response to The Fellowship of the Ring:
Personally, as I begin my own quest to “reboot and universalize epic fantasy” for a 21st century generation, I find myself heartened by Tolkien’s response to the release of The Fellowship of the Ring.  In other letters, Tolkien acknowledged that the book was of a prodigious length (he had to be convinced by publishers to break it into three parts), and as the public finally got its sequel to The Hobbit, not everyone was convinced by the narrative merits of The Fellowship of the Ring, nor by its potential to have sequels.  In the following letter, you see Tolkien responding to those doubters, as well as expressing hope that people will come back to purchase Parts 2 and 3, which were to be released in the following years!

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (art by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (art by Ted Nasmith)

Here is Tolkien’s response to some of the criticisms, from J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 149 (9 Sept 1954):

As for the reviews [of The Fellowship of the Ring] they were a great deal better than I feared, and I think might have been better still, if we had not quoted the Ariosto remark, or indeed got involved at all with the extraordinary animosity that C.S.L. [C.S. Lewis] seems to excite in certain quarters. He warned me long ago that his support might do me as much harm as good. I did not take it seriously, though in any case I should not have wished other than to be associated with him – since only by his support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end of the labour. All the same many commentators seem to have preferred lampooning his remarks or his review to reading the book.

The (unavoidable) disadvantage of issuing in three pans has been shown in the ‘shapelessness’ that several readers have found, since that is true if one volume is supposed to stand alone. ‘Trilogy’, which is not really accurate, is partly to blame. There is too much ‘hobbitry’ in Vol. I taken by itself; and several critics have obviously not got far beyond Chapter I.

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (art by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (art by Ted Nasmith)

I must say that I was unfortunate in coming into the hands of the D. Telegraph, during the absence of Betjeman. My work is not in his line, but he at any rate is neither ignorant nor a gutter- boy. Peter Green seems to be both. I do not know him or of him, but he is so rude as to make one suspect malice. Though actually I think ‘the cold in his head’ made it more convenient for him to use Edwin Muir in the Observer2 and Lambert in the S. Times, with a slight hotting up of the above.

I am most puzzled by the remarks on the style. I do not expect, and did not expect, many to be amused by hobbits, or interested in the general story and its modes, but the discrepancy in the judgements on the style (which one would have thought referable to standards independent of personal liking) are very odd – from laudatory quotation to ‘Boys Own Paper’ (which has no one style)!

I gather that you are not wholly dissatisfied. But there have been some very appreciative notices apart from C.S.L. (who had the advantage of knowing the whole), though not usually in the high places. Cherryman in Truth and Howard Spring in C. Life were pleasing to one’s vanity, and also Cherryman’s ending: that he would turn eagerly to the second and third volumes! May others feel the same!

Fawcett in the M. Guardian was complimentary in brief; and I was specially interested by a long notice in the Oxford Times (by the editor himself) in being by one quite outside the ring, and he seemed to have enjoyed himself. He sent an interviewer up, but what he will chum out for the O. Mail this week I do not know. ….

Well, this letter is already inordinately long. In the midst of it Professor d’Ardenne of Liege has arrived to harass me with philological work on which we are supposed to be engaged. [End, Tolkien Letter 149]

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Under the Spell of the Barrow-Wight," Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Under the Spell of the Barrow-Wight,” Ted Nasmith)

We know that readers did, indeed, come back for The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but even those works were criticized by the literati, and to provide some equal time to my (admittedly) biased love of the Tolkien’s entire oeuvre, I’m going to provide some insight into problems that Tolkien’s detractors have had with The Lord of the Rings.

Christopher Snyder, "The Making of Middle Earth" (2013)

Christopher Snyder, “The Making of Middle Earth” (2013)


Christopher Snyder’s recent book on Tolkien, The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien has a good synopsis of the negative reviews:

While C.S. Lewis admittedly gushed over The Lord of the Rings, most early reviews were, to say the least, mixed.  In the Times Literary Supplement, Alfred Duggan, while praising The Fellowship as “sound prose and rare imagination,” complained about Tolkien’s simplistic conception of good and evil and suggested that the novel was a subtle political allegory about the West versus the Communist East.  In its review of The Two Towers, the same publication hailed it “as a prose epic in praise of courage,” and yet lacking in its treatment of women.

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

Writing for The Nation in 1956, the American critic Edmund Wilson called the trilogy “juvenile trash,” while the British journalist Philip Toynbee celebrated (prematurely) in 1961 that Tolkien’s “childish” books “have passed into a merciful oblivion.”  Robert Flood, a Benedictine priest, even declared The Fellowship “pretentious snobbery” and “a fraud.” While the academics and other literati were mostly hostile, students on campuses from Britain to America became enamored of Middle-Earth in the late 1950s and early ’60s. By the time The Lord of the Rings appeared in paperback in America in 1965, it had already reached cult status among college students… [End Snyder quotation, p. 224.]

Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (here, "Attack of the Critics"...oops, I mean, "Attack of the Wraiths," art by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (here, “Attack of the Critics”…oops, I mean, “Attack of the Wraiths,” art by Ted Nasmith)

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

For more general assessment of the LotR, here’s a brief critique from one of the most foremost literary critics of the 20th & early 21st Centuries, Harold Bloom (from the Introduction, Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings):

“I will attempt, rather briefly, to define my aesthetic doubts about Tolkien’s trilogy by contrasting them to the shrewd defense by Roger Sale, Tolkien’s best critic, of what he regards as Tolkien’s and the protagonist Frodo Baggins’s heroism.

Tolkien, at twenty-three, went off to the Western Front, was wounded, and lost to the war nearly all his friends in his own generation. For Sale, the trilogy is Tolkien’s delayed, ultimate reaction to the Great War [World War I, 1914-1918], which decimated Great Britain’s young men. Tolkien dated his lifelong love of fairy stories to his turning away from the war, and The Lord of the Rings is a vast fairy story.

"...a descent into hell" (Tolkien, RotK, "Across Gorgoroth," by Ted Nasmith)

“…a descent into hell” (Tolkien, RotK, “Across Gorgoroth,” by Ted Nasmith)

Sale accurately observes that the trilogy purports to be a quest but actually is a descent into hell. Whether a visionary descent into hell can be rendered persuasively in language that is acutely self-conscious, even arch, seems to me the hard question. I am fond of The Hobbit, which is rarely pretentious, but The Lord of the Rings seems to be inflated, overwritten, tendentious, and moralistic in the extreme. Is it not a giant Period Piece?

Sale nevertheless makes quite a strong case for the trilogy, and a vast readership implicitly agrees with him. I don’t know whether Frodo Baggins breaks free and away from Tolkien’s moralism to anything like the extent Sale suggests. Frodo, and Tolkien’s deep creation of fairy lore, are the strengths of the trilogy, in Sale’s account.

Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Houses of Healing," The Brothers Hildebrandt)

Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Houses of Healing,” The Brothers Hildebrandt)

[Bloom critique, continued]
But there is still the burden of Tolkien’s style: stiff, false archaic, overwrought, and finally a real hindrance in Volume III, The Return of the King, which have had trouble rereading. At seventy-seven, I may just be too old, but here is The Return of the King, opened pretty much at random:

“At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he had supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow. And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they labored far into the night. And word went through the city: ‘The King is come again indeed.’ And they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.”

I am not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff. Why “hurt or wound”; are they not the same? What justifies the heavy King James Bible influence upon this style? Sometimes, reading Tolkien, I am reminded of the Book of Mormon. Tolkien met a need, particularly in the early days of the counterculture in the later 1960s. Whether he is an author for the duration of the twenty-first century seems to me open to some doubt.”  [end of Harold Bloom article, pp. 1-2, from Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings (2001)]

Peter Jackson, "The Lord of the Rings" (The Green Dragon Inn, New Line Cinema)

Peter Jackson, “The Lord of the Rings” (The Green Dragon Inn, New Line Cinema)

Michael Moorcock’s Essay, “Epic Pooh”
And now, from the same volume of Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings, here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite fantasy authors (with whom, in this case, I almost completely disagree, but more on that next time…), Michael Moorcock’s critique, “Epic Pooh”:

…The sort of prose most often identified with “high” fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions…

A.A. Milne (1882-1956), Creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

A.A. Milne (1882-1956), Creator of Winnie-the-Pooh

“One day when the sun had come back over the forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellows fault, but it didn’t matter very much; on such a day as this Christopher Robin whistled in a special way he had, and Owl came flying out of the Hundred Acre Wood to see what was wanted.”  [Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926]

Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock

[Moorcock, continued…] It is the predominate tone of The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and it is the main reason why these books, liken many similar ones in the past, are successful. It is the tone of many forgotten British and American bestsellers, well-remembered children’s books, like The Wind in the Willows, you often hear it in regional fiction addressed to a local audience, or, in a more sophisticated form, James Barrie (Dear BrutusMary Rose and, of course, Peter Pan). Unlike the tone of E.Nesbit (Five Children and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the ‘William’ books) Terry Pratchett or the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy. The humour is often unconscious because, as with Tolkien, the authors take words seriously but without pleasure:

Lobelia & Otho Sackville-Baggins, in Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001)

Lobelia & Otho Sackville-Baggins, in Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

One summer’s evening an astonishing piece of news reached the Ivy Bush and Green Dragon. Giants and other portents on the borders of the Shire were forgotten for more important matters; Mr. Frodo was selling Bag End, indeed he had already sold it — to the Sackville-Bagginses!
“For a nice bit, too,” said some. “At a bargain price,” said others, “and that’s more likely when Mistress Lobelia’s the buyer.” (Otho had died some years before, at the ripe but disappointed age of 102.)
Just why Mr. Frodo was selling his beautiful hole was even more debatable than the price…  [The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954]

Tolkien, "At the Court of the Fountain" from "The Return of the King" (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “At the Court of the Fountain” from “The Return of the King” (Ted Nasmith)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
I have been told it is not fair to quote from the earlier parts of The Lord of the Rings, that I should look elsewhere to find much better stuff so, opening it entirely at random, I find some improvement in substance and writing, but that tone is still there:

         Pippin became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained posts at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South. “It is long since the beacons of the North were lit,” he said; “and in the ancient days of Gondor they were not needed, for they had the Seven Stones.”
Pippin stirred uneasily. [The Return of the King, 1955]

Tolkien does, admittedly, rise above this sort of thing on occasions, in some key scenes, but often such a scene will be ruined by ghastly verse and it is remarkable how frequently he will draw back from the implications of the subject matter. Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos.  These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly a war-film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism.

Moorcock's Critique of 18th C. British Toryism & Bucolic Utopias sans Cities("Landscape in Suffolk," Thomas Gainsborough, 1748)

Moorcock’s Critique of 18th C. British Toryism & Bucolic Utopias sans Cities(“Landscape in Suffolk,” Thomas Gainsborough, 1748)

Some Critics' Association of Tolkien with Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (here Odin & Loki, Arthur Rackham, 1910)

Some Critics’ Association of Tolkien with Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” (here Odin & Loki, Arthur Rackham, 1910)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
In many ways The Lord of the Rings is, if not exactly anti-romantic, an anti-romance. Tolkien, and his fellow “Inklings” (the dons who met in Lewis’s Oxford rooms to read their work in progress to one another), had extraordinarily ambiguous attitudes towards Romance (and just about everything else), which is doubtless why his trilogy has so many confused moments when the tension flags completely. But he could, at his best, produce prose much better than that of his Oxford contemporaries who perhaps lacked his respect for middle-English poetry. He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.

"Britannia between Death and the Doctors" (Political Cartoon, 1804, Gillray)

“Britannia between Death and the Doctors” (Political Cartoon, 1804, Gillray)

I suppose I respond so antipathetically to Lewis and Tolkien because I find this sort of consolatory orthodoxy as distasteful as any other self-serving misanthropic doctrine. One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction, typical of the second-rate schoolmaster so cheerfully mocked by [Mervyn] Peake and [J.K.] Rowling, but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy. Their theories dignify the mood of a disenchanted and thoroughly discredited section of the repressed English middle-class too afraid, even as it falls, to make any sort of direct complaint (“They kicked us out of Rhodesia, you know”), least of all to the Higher Authority, their Tory God who has evidently failed them …

William Shakespeare, "To make my small elves coats," from "A Midsummer Night's Dream (Arthur Rackham)

William Shakespeare, “To make my small elves coats,” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arthur Rackham)

Sauron (John Howe & Alan Lee Concept art)

Sauron (John Howe & Alan Lee Concept art)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
… The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob — mindless football supporters throwing their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means “conventional behaviour in all circumstances”. This is not to deny that courageous characters are found in The Lord of the Rings, or a willingness to fight Evil (never really defined), but somehow those courageous characters take on the aspect of retired colonels at last driven to write a letter toThe Times and we are not sure — because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders — if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad.

There is no happy ending to the Romance of Robin Hood, however, whereas Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces one on us – as a matter of policy:

And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy stories provide many examples and modes of this – which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies… But the “consolation” of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. For more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.  [J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”]

A Pre-Raphaelite Dream of Nature: William Holman Hunt, "Asparagus Island"

A Pre-Raphaelite Dream of Nature: William Holman Hunt, “Asparagus Island”

Tolkien, "Last Sight of Hobbiton" (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “Last Sight of Hobbiton” (Ted Nasmith)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.

Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, at least, people have been yearning for an ideal rural world they believe to have vanished — yearning for a mythical state of innocence (as Morris did) as heartily as the Israelites yearned for the Garden of Eden. This refusal to face or derive any pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life, this longing to possess, again, the infant’s eye view of the countryside, is a fundamental theme in popular English literature. Novels set in the countryside probably always outsell novels set in the city, perhaps because most people now live in cities.

Tolkien, "Green Hill Country" (Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien, “Green Hill Country” (Ted Nasmith)

If I find this nostalgia for a “vanished” landscape a bit strange it is probably because as I write I can look from my window over twenty miles of superb countryside to the sea and a sparsely populated coast. This county, like many others, has seemingly limitless landscapes of great beauty and variety, unspoiled by excessive tourism or the uglier forms of industry. Elsewhere big cities have certainly destroyed the surrounding countryside but rapid transport now makes it possible for a Londoner to spend the time they would have needed to get to Box Hill forty years ago in getting to Northumberland. I think it is simple neophobia which makes people hate the modern world and its changing society; it is xenophobia which makes them unable to imagine what rural beauty might lie beyond the boundaries of their particular Shire. They would rather read Miss Read and The Horse Whisperer and share a miserable complaint or two on the commuter train while planning to take their holidays in Bournemouth, as usual, because they can’t afford to go to Spain this year. They don’t want rural beauty anyway; they want a sunny day, a pretty view.

Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Grey Havens," John Howe)

Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Grey Havens,” John Howe)


Alfred Tennyson, "Idylls of the King" (Gustave Dore)

Alfred Tennyson, “Idylls of the King” (Gustave Dore)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down; they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in … [Moorcock then proceeds to review some contemporary fantasy writers — praising works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Susan Cooper — before concluding with Tolkien…]

…It is Tolkien who is most widely read and worshipped. And it was Tolkien who most betrayed the romantic discipline, more so than ever Tennyson could in Idylls of the King, which enjoyed a similar vogue in Victorian England.

Corrupted romanticism is as unwholesome as the corrupted realism of, say, Ayn Rand. Cabell’s somewhat obvious irony is easier to take than Tolkien’s less obvious sentimentality, largely because Cabell’s writing is wittier, more inventive and better disciplined. I find William Morris naïve and silly but essentially good-hearted (and a better utopianist than a fantasist); Dunsany I find slight but inoffensive. Lewis speaks for the middle-class status quo, as, more subtly, does Charles Williams. Lewis uses the stuff of fantasy to preach sermons quite as nasty as any to be found in Victorian sentimental fiction, and he writes badly. A group of self-congratulatory friends can often ensure that any writing emerging from it remains hasty and unpolished.

A Fantasy World Moorcock Approves, Mervyn Peake's "Gormenghast" (art by John Howe)

A Fantasy World Moorcock Approves, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” (art by John Howe)

Lin Carter (1930-1988)

Lin Carter (1930-1988)

Lin Carter, "Imaginary Worlds" (1973)

Lin Carter, “Imaginary Worlds” (1973)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
Ideally fiction should offer us escape and force us, at least, to ask questions; it should provide a release from anxiety but give us some insight into the causes of anxiety. Lin Carter, in his Imaginary Worlds — the only book I have been able to find on the general subject of epic fantasy — uses an argument familiar to those who are used to reading apologies from that kind of sf or thriller buff who feels compelled to justify his philistinism: “The charge of ‘escapist reading,'” says Carter, “is most often levelled against fantasy and science fiction by those who have forgotten or overlooked the simple fact that virtually all reading – all music and poetry and art and drama and philosophy for that matter —is a temporary escape from what is around us.” Like so many of his colleagues in the professional sf world, Carter expresses distaste for fiction which is not predominantly escapist by charging it with being “depressing” or “negative” if it does not provide him with the moral and psychological comforts he seems to need. An unorthodox view, such as that of Tolkien’s contemporary David Lindsay (Voyage to Arcturus) is regarded as a negative view. This, of course, is the response of those deeply and often unconsciously wedded to their cultural presumptions, who regard examination of them as an attack.

Fritz Leiber, "Swords against Death," Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

Fritz Leiber, “Swords against Death,” Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (art by Jeffery Catherine Jones, d. 2011)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

The Quest for the Grail (Tapestry, William Morris, c. 1860s)

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
Carter dismisses Spenser as “dull” and Joyce as “a titanic bore” and writes in clichés, euphemisms and wretchedly distorted syntax, telling us that the PreRaphaelites were “lisping exquisites” and that Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) was a young man attracted to the movement by Morris’s (1834-96) fiery Welsh (born Walthamstow, near London) dynamism and that because Tolkien got a CBE (not a knighthood) we must now call him “Sir John” — but Carter, at least, is not the snob some American adherents are (and there is nobody more risible than the provincial American literary snob — Gore Vidal being the most developed example).

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992)

In a recent anthology compiled by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski, The Fantastic Imagination, we find the following: “In addition to their all being high fantasy, the stories selected here are good literature.” Amongst the writers to be found in the volume are C. S. Lewis, John Buchan, Frank R. Stockton and Lloyd Alexander, not one of whom can match the literary talents of, say, Fritz Leiber, whose work has primarily been published in commercial magazines and genre paperback series. For years American thriller buffs with pretensions ignored Hammett and Chandler in favour of inferior English writers like D. L. Sayers and here we see the same thing occurring with American fantasy writers. Those who produce the closest approximation to an English style are most praised. Those who use more vigorous American models are regarded as less literary! The crux of the thing remains: the writers admired are not “literary” or “literate”. As often as not they flatter middle-brow sensibilities and reinforce middle-class sentimentality and therefore do not threaten a carefully maintained set of social and intellectual assumptions.

Yet Tennyson, who had his moments, inspired better poets who followed him, who sought the origin of his inspiration and made nobler use of it. Both Swinburne and Morris could, for instance, employ the old ballad metres more effectively than Tennyson himself, refusing, unlike him, to modify their toughness. Doubtless Tolkien will also inspire writers who will take his raw materials and put them to nobler uses. I would love to believe that the day of the rural romance is done at last.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The King Recrowned," Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The King Recrowned,” Michael Kaluta)

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

[Michael Moorcock critique, “Epic Pooh,” continued]
The commercial genre which has developed from Tolkien is probably the most dismaying effect of all. I grew up in a world where Joyce was considered to be the best Anglophone writer of the 20th century. I happen to believe that Faulkner is better, while others would pick Conrad, say. Thomas Mann is an exemplary giant of moral, mythic fiction. But to introduce Tolkien’s fantasy into such a debate is a sad comment on our standards and our ambitions. Is it a sign of our dumber times that Lord of the Rings can replace Ulysses as the exemplary book of its century? Some of the writers who most slavishly imitate him seem to be using English as a rather inexpertly-learned second language.

The Colour of Magic, Discworld Series #1(Terry Pratchett)

The Colour of Magic, Discworld Series #1(Terry Pratchett)

So many of them are unbelievably bad that they defy description and are scarcely worth listing individually. Terry Pratchett once remarked that all his readers were called Kevin. He is lucky in that he appears to be the only Terry in fantasy land who is able to write a decent complex sentence. That such writers also depend upon recycling the plots of their literary superiors and are rewarded for this bland repetition isn’t surprising in a world of sensation movies and manufactured pop bands. That they are rewarded with the lavish lifestyles of the most successful whores is also unsurprising. To pretend that this addictive cabbage is anything more than the worst sort of pulp historical romance or western is, however, a depressing sign of our intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards” [End of Michael Moorcock excerpts from pp. 1-18 of Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: The Lord of the Rings (2001).]

So, what do you think, Folks?  

By making film adaptations, Peter Jackson has certainly popularized key aspects of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but have you gone back recently to the actual books and read them as works of literature? Go flip through some of the The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, and see what you think of the prose.  Are these criticisms off-base? Do they have merit? And, in the context of getting published in today’s marketplace, what would modern editors and publishing houses think of Tolkien’s fantasy?

Please jot me a line in the box below and let’s start a conversation!

Next time:  The Perspective of a Medievalist:  Writing a Medieval Literary Saga or Epic in the Modern Publishing World (or, why even in 1953, Tolkien had to split The Silmarillion from The Lord of the Rings to Get His Magnum Opus Published!)





An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (12) Medieval Literature & Epic Fantasy Monomyth (Tolkien, Campbell, & W.H. Auden)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: W.H. Auden's comment that Tolkien's World-Building included Flora & Fauna ("Old Man Willow," from Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring"; art by the Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: W.H. Auden’s comment that Tolkien’s World-Building included Flora & Fauna (“Old Man Willow,” from Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”; art by the Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (12) Medieval Literature & Epic Fantasy Monomyth (Tolkien, Campbell, & W.H. Auden)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

In this blog-series on “medieval literature and epic fantasy,” I’ve been sketching a template for a new kind of epic fantasy that builds upon and then departs from works of the most popular 20th Century creators of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Last time I ended on a note that wondered if the kind of “mythopoetic” achievement of Tolkien could be repeated in our own day, and that’s a difficult question to answer.

Does the often-cynical (i.e., 24/7 news cycle) nature of our modern society even allow for new myth-making, and will it recognize it when it sees it?  I would, of course, argue “yes, we can!” — else why spend almost half a month on this subject? — but I also acknowledge that myth-making takes time, and, ultimately, just as with the Greco-Roman or Norse mythologies (see scene from Homer’s The Odyssey below), such stories need to be persuasive to a large enough part of the population that they can develop lives of their own and become self-sustaining. To achieve that status, such stories need to be original, entertaining, and have a constant relevance to the human condition.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Campbell's "Heroic Quest" ("Ulysses and the Sirens," John William Waterhouse, 1891)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Campbell’s “Heroic Quest” (“Ulysses and the Sirens,” John William Waterhouse, 1891)

Tolkien’s The Hobbit appeared in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the mid-1950s, but in the 1960s the works started becoming very popular in the United States and fifty years later essential aspects of Middle Earth are well-known to the world thanks to the Peter Jackson films of the 21st century.  Does that literary and cultural popularity endow the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo with the status of “myth?” If we follow the definition of Joseph Campbell‘s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, then, yes:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man…” [Campbell, p. 23]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Fragments" of a Medieval Past as "Figurae" into the Present, "Le Morte D'Arthur' (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Fragments” of a Medieval Past as “Figurae” into the Present, “Le Morte D’Arthur’ (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Given that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partake of that same “monomyth” — that is, Campbell’s belief that the entirety of humanity shares in the “unfolding of a single great story,” aspects of which we recognize and identify with when we read, see, or hear a truly persuasive story in literature or poetry — I’ve been arguing that the new generation of would-be 21st Century epic fantasists need to tap the same wellsprings of inspiration that Tolkien and Lewis spent their lifetimes studying:  medieval and Renaissance literature, Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, & Scandinavian sagas and epic poetry.

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line Cinema, 2001)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (New Line Cinema, 2001)

These different kinds of literature had a profound impact on Tolkien & Lewis and, particularly for Tolkien, the attempt to “subcreate” (his term) a completely new mythology with an invented language, history, and cosmology resonated deeply with a mass audience from the 1960s through the present.  The Peter Jackson films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit thus far have been inarguably successful, and I believe that — for many people — the cinematic versions of Tolkien’s works will be the primary or sole introductions to his world.  Oh, some may read The Hobbit from cover to cover, but the entirety of the The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices might pose more of a challenge.  I hope that I’m wrong (and perhaps it says more about the company I keep than any reflection of reality!), but I’ve yet to meet a majority of Tolkien readers who have read the entirety of the works, including Appendices and The Silmarillion.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Nordic Lands in Tolkien's "The Silmarillion" ("Beleriand," by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Nordic Lands in Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” (“Beleriand,” by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit"   (New Line Cinema, 2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”
(New Line Cinema, 2013)

The literary aspect of Tolkien needs to be addressed, because for all his expressed intentions that The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Books of Lost Tales, etc were all “subcreated” mythologies or “recaptured” languages & mythologies of a distant past, the texts are explicitly literary works, published for a modern audience.  That that audience has embraced Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems inarguable from the billions of dollars that the films have made, but in these concluding blogs on the importance of “medieval language & literature,” I think its important to see how Tolkien’s books themselves were viewed by the literati of the 20th Century.

J.R.R. Tolkien (in 1955; Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

J.R.R. Tolkien (in 1955; Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

First up, then, the review of the concluding book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by one of Tolkien’s former students, the Anglo-American poet, W.H. Auden, who himself later became (like Tolkien) a professor at Oxford, and considered by some to be one of the greatest 20th century poets (he was also the Chancellor of American Poets from 1954 to 1973).  In the review, you’ll note that Auden praises Tolkien’s work, and also touches upon many of the matters we’ve been assessing with respect to medieval language & literature — Auerbach, philology, mythology, philosophy, theology, existentialism, folklore, etc.

Next time, I’ll present some contrary/negative views from literary critics, and then wrap up this series on medieval literature with some concluding thoughts.

Thanks for visiting!


W.H. Auden, c. 1956 (pic by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

W.H. Auden, c. 1956 (pic by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

W.H. AUDEN’S BOOK REVIEW: ” ‘The Return of the King’: At the End of the Quest, Victory” (The New York Times, 1956)

‘In The Return of the King, Frodo Baggins fulfills his Quest, the realm of Sauron is ended forever, the Third Age is over and J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings complete. I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte.

The Shadow of Sauron (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King; art by Ted Nasmith

The Shadow of Sauron (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King; art by Ted Nasmith

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

The difficulty in presenting a complete picture of reality lies in the gulf between the subjectively real, a man’s experience of his own existence, and the objectively real, his experience of the lives of others and the world about him. Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives, made for a short-term or long-term purpose; the actions I take, that is to say, are less significant to me than the conflicts of motives, temptations, doubts in which they originate. Further, my subjective experience of time is not of a cyclical motion outside myself but of an irreversible history of unique moments which are made by my decisions.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Quest Motif in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2001)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Quest Motif in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2001)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
For objectifying this experience, the natural image is that of a journey with a purpose, beset by dangerous hazards and obstacles, some merely difficult, others actively hostile. But when I observe my fellow-men, such an image seems false. I can see, for example, that only the rich and those on vacation can take journeys; most men, most of the time must work in one place.

I cannot observe them making choices, only the actions they take and, if I know someone well, I can usually predict correctly how he will act in a given situation. I observe, all too often, men in conflict with each other, wars and hatreds, but seldom, if ever, a clear-cut issue between Good on the one side and Evil on the other, though I also observe that both sides usually describe it as such. If then, I try to describe what I see as if I were an impersonal camera, I shall produce not a Quest, but a “naturalistic” document.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest ("Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King," Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest (“Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King,” Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Knightly Ethos of "Romantic Chivalry" (Frank Dicksee, 1885)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Knightly Ethos of “Romantic Chivalry” (Frank Dicksee, 1885)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
Both extremes, of course, falsify life. There are medieval Quests which deserve the criticism made by Erich Auerbach in his book Mimesis:

“The world of knightly proving is a world of adventure. It not only contains a practically uninterrupted series of adventures; more specifically, it contains nothing but the requisites of adventure… Except feats of arms and love, nothing occurs in the courtly world-and even these two are of a special sort: they are not occurrences or emotions which can be absent for a time; they are permanently connected with the person of the perfect knight, they are part of his definition, so that he cannot for one moment be without adventure in arms nor for one moment without amorous entanglement… His exploits are feats of arms, not ‘war,’ for they are feats accomplished at random which do not fit into any politically purposive pattern.”

And there are contemporary “thrillers” in which the identification of hero and villain with contemporary politics is depressingly obvious. On the other hand, there are naturalistic novels in which the characters are the mere puppets of Fate, or rather, of the author who, from some mysterious point of freedom, contemplates the workings of Fate.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Shelob's Retreat," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Shelob’s Retreat,” by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien's "Lothlorien "(The Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

Tolkien’s “Lothlorien “(The Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
If, as I believe, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded more completely than any previous writer in this genre in using the traditional properties of the Quest, the heroic journey, the Numinous Object, the conflict between Good and Evil while at the same time satisfying our sense of historical and social reality, it should be possible to show how he has succeeded. To begin with, no previous writer has, to my knowledge, created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail.  By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices to this last volume, he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world.

Mr. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own: it includes, for example, elves, beings who know good and evil but have not fallen, and, though not physically indestructible, do not suffer natural death. It is afflicted by Sauron, an incarnate of absolute evil, and creatures like Shelob, the monster spider, or the orcs who are corrupt past hope of redemption. But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader’s sense of the credible is never violated.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auden's Talismans of Good & Evil ("Frodo in Mt. Doom with the One Ring," Tolkien's RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auden’s Talismans of Good & Evil (“Frodo in Mt. Doom with the One Ring,” Tolkien’s RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
Even the One Ring, the absolute physical and psychological weapon which must corrupt any who dares to use it, is a perfectly plausible hypothesis from which the political duty to destroy it which motivates Frodo’s quest logically follows.

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Themes of Good vs. Evil in John Milton's "Paradise Lost" ("Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell," William Blake, 1808)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Themes of Good vs. Evil in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (“Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell,” William Blake, 1808)

Milton's Paradise Lost ("Satan Presiding at Council," Gustave Doré)

Milton’s Paradise Lost (“Satan Presiding at Council,” Gustave Doré)

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) "Return of the King" (New Line, 2003)

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) “Return of the King” (New Line, 2003)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation in the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Good vs. Evil in Tolkien's RotK ("The Witch King of Angmar & MInas Tirith," John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Good vs. Evil in Tolkien’s RotK (“The Witch King of Angmar & MInas Tirith,” John Howe)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head, and his eye is kept toward Gondor and away from Mordor and the Mount of Doom.

Billy Boyd as Pippin and "The Palantir of Orthanc" (from Tolkien's RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Billy Boyd as Pippin and “The Palantir of Orthanc” (from Tolkien’s RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Further, his worship of power is accompanied, as it must be, by anger and a lust for cruelty: learning of Saruman’s attempt to steal the Ring for himself, Sauron is so preoccupied with wrath that for two crucial days he pays no attention to a report of spies on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, and when Pippin is foolish enough to look in the palantir of Orthanc, Sauron could have learned all about the Quest. His wish to capture Pippin and torture the truth from him makes him miss his precious opportunity.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("The Wrath of the Ents," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“The Wrath of the Ents,” Ted Nasmith)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
The demands made on the writer’s powers in an epic as long as The Lord of the Rings are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds — the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling — but I can only say that Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them. From the appendices readers will get tantalizing glimpses of the First and Second Ages. The legends of these are, I understand, already written and I hope that, as soon as the publishers have seen The Lord of the Rings into a paper-back edition, they will not keep Mr. Tolkien’s growing army of fans waiting too long.

Mr. Auden is the author of “Nones” and “The Shield of Achilles” among other volumes of verse.’— W.H. Auden, January 22, 1956 [End of Auden review]

For more information on W.H. Auden, here’s the Wikipedia link:

Next time:  Negative Literary Critiques of Tolkien’s Works (Wilson, Bloom, & Moorcock)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (11) Medieval Literature as Transcendental (Auerbach, Tolkien, Lewis, & Medieval World-Building)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Merton Professor of English Language & Literature (3rd Academic Chair, 1945; picture of Oxfordshire, Oxford, New College, Garden Front)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Merton Professor of English Language & Literature (3rd Academic Chair, 1945; picture of Oxfordshire, Oxford, New College, Garden Front)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (11) Medieval Literature as Transcendental (Auerbach, Tolkien, Lewis, & Medieval World-Building)

Good Morning, Everyone!

On the way to see (what else?) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with the family, but wanted to start tying together some of the philological strains that I’ve been observing between J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Erich Auerbach; all academics of the early 20th Century who truly believed in the capacity of literature for any given historical period to both (1) serve as a reader’s referent for that moment in time, and (2) infuse a sense of faux-medieval (or ancient) reality into “modern” thought and discourse.

Keeping in mind from my last blog of Auerbach’s belief that a historical period can be understood through it’s literature, I invite you to read an excerpt from Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages, wherein he describes the historical and cultural milieus that informed the writings of Tolkien and Lewis:

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

From Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century (1991):

“… Lewis and Tolkien were products of an era of British decline that occupied most of their lifetimes. They fought as officers in the First World War. Both witnessed scenes of indescribable carnage. From this experience they derived an appreciation of physical courage, an imaginative taste for violence, and a sense of the instability and fragility of life.  The “Dark Power” is an ever-recurring threat. All these qualities are reflected in their fantasy novels. Lewis and Tolkien belonged to Britain’s posthegemonic generation.  The Empire was not lost until World War II, but in the late thirties and forties, between Munich in 1938 and the abandonment of the raj ten years later, in spite of dogged Christian heroism of the war, it was pretty clear that Britain’s day of wealth and power was over. It was the time of Britannia’s “sunset and evening star.”

Humphrey Carpenter, "The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, & their friends"

Humphrey Carpenter, “The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, & their friends”

The response to economic and imperial decline was in the Britain of the 1940s a literary ambience of despairing resignation, suspicion of and incapacity to sustain an advanced technological society, and an intense but short-lived Christian revival. The leading British writers of the period — T.S. Eliot in poetry and drama, F.R. Leavis in literary criticism and cultural commentary, J.B. Priestly in fiction, Arnold Toynbee in metahistorical speculation — shared this temperament. It even effects later writings, the satirical fantasies, of George Orwell. Translated into focus on the bureaucratic establishment, it is a theme also in C.P. Snow’s novels … this was the sad ambience, the bitter, depleted world in which Lewis and Tolkien wrote.  They had, however, a more positive response to these conditions and events than the postimperial stoicism, cultural despair, and resigned Christian pessimism that were the common response of their British contemporaries.  They were not prepared imaginatively and intellectually to withdraw and accept defeat. Out of the medieval Norse, Celtic, and Grail legends, they conjured fantasies of revenge and recovery, an ethos of return and triumph. As Chaucer said in Troilus and Criseyde, they aimed to “make dreams truth and fables histories.” A mythopoetic vision of medieval heroism was to be communicated to the masses through fantasy stories. “That something which the educated receive from poetry,” Lewis wrote in 1947, “can reach the masses in stories of adventure, and almost in no other way.” [End of Cantor excerpt, pp. 211-213]

Theology Lesson (Sorbonne) 15th c. , French School Ms 129 f. 32

Theology Lesson (Sorbonne) 15th c. , French School Ms 129 f. 32

For those readers who might doubt this interpretation of the abiding power and influence of faux-medieval fantasizing and myth-making, let’s peer at the men themselves, and observe how these matters were discussed between Tolkien and Lewis, and, most importantly, how they applied their learning and passion for matters medieval to philosophical and religious understandings of the world.  The following excerpts are from a more recent vintage than Cantor, but by another historian whose excellent biography on Tolkien I urge everyone to pick up!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Lewis, Conversionary Power of Bible ("The Mission of St. Columba to the Picts, A.D. 563-597," William Hole, 1898)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Lewis, Conversionary Power of Bible (“The Mission of St. Columba to the Picts, A.D. 563-597,” William Hole, 1898)

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth (2013)

From Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien (2013):

…[Tolkien in the 1920s & 1930s was more interested in myths as a “traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” OED.] By studying ancient myths, [Tolkien] sought understanding about the people who produced them; by writing his own, he acted as a sub creator, carrying on the tradition for modern audiences. Like ancient myths but unlike most modern fantasy, Tolkien’s sub creation aimed for higher things than artistic novelty and creative ingenuity. “It was the only way that certain transcendent truths could be expressed in intelligible form,” writes English-born writer and professor of humanities Joseph Pearce.

Addison's Walk (Magdalen Deer Park, Oxford, England)

Addison’s Walk (Magdalen Deer Park, Oxford, England)

As Tolkien famously explained to C.S. Lewis in 1931 during an after-dinner walk … Christianity was “the truest myth,” the one played out in recorded history. Or, to put it another way, it was God’s myth told directly to man as opposed to men’s myths in which God used the mind of the individual poet to express Himself, “using such images as he found there.” (p. 21) … Lewis recalled in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955), that this conversation led directly to his own conversion to Christianity.  Lewis attempted to repay his debt by constant encouragement of Tolkien in his Middle-Earth writing, resulting in the publication of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.” (pp. 29-30)  [End of Snyder excerpt]


Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: The Myths of Tolkien's Middle Earth: "Gandalf's Home, The Light of Valinor on the Western Sea," by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: The Myths of Tolkien’s Middle Earth: “Gandalf’s Home, The Light of Valinor on the Western Sea,” by Ted Nasmith)

C.S. Lewis's Narnia (art by Pauline Baynes)

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia (art by Pauline Baynes)

So, a lot to think about my epic-fantasy friends and enthusiasts.  In philology, Tolkien and Auerbach truly believed that not only could the history of a period could be gleaned from a people’s literary remains, but that certain kinds of myth-making allowed for a transcendental, spiritual interaction of a kind that passed into religious beliefs of a people.

Lewis was so persuaded by this power of philology that he converted to Christianity, and spent the remainder of his life promoting medieval and Renaissance literature, Christianity, and his own take on fantasy world-building with Narnia.

For Tolkien, those literary remains of a medieval past were primarily approached through a study of the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain (5th-11th centuries), wherein he specialized academically in interpreting works such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and other literature for an early 20th century audience; on the literary side of things, Tolkien made his own contribution to literature by his works, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, which all cast back into a medieval era that never was, and revealed forevermore how the Middle Ages could have been.

For Auerbach, when writers such as Tolkien and Lewis use language to craft epic fantasy, they, too, can also be used as referents for their own time, and the excerpt from the Cantor and Snyder books reveal how even the Oxford fantasists might have been doing more in the context of the World Wars eras than telling adventure stories about the Middle Ages.

C.S. Lewis, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" ("Cair Paravel," Disney/20th C. Fox)

C.S. Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (“Cair Paravel,” Disney/20th C. Fox)

Christ Church Meadow (near Tolkien's home in retirement, Oxford)

Christ Church Meadow (near Tolkien’s home in retirement, Oxford)

When 21st century epic fantasists of today craft their tales, do you think that themes and situations in our “modern times” will inform fantasy writing?  I think that any writer’s environment must shape his or her writing at the subconscious level, but what I’m hoping for from this generation of fantasists is a willingness to do the mental “legwork” necessary for great storytelling:  learn something about the literature and history of the time you’re writing about, not to make a dissertation of it, but to make a story more believable because, like Tolkien’s  demand of language and storytelling,  epic fantasy “…should be ‘high,’ purged of the gross, and fit for the adult mind of a land steeped in beauty.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Creator of Middle-Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Creator of Middle-Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Unless current writers of epic fantasy strive for that kind of elevated literary storytelling Tolkien recommended, we’ll still have novels published by the hundreds across all “sub-genres” of the fantasy field — no stopping that in an age where everyone too-often believes that the mere possession of a thought merits the publishing of it — but I do wonder how many of those modern, so-called “epic fantasy” stories will linger in our memories, or become active parts of our lives such the “mythopoetic” achievements of Tolkien and Lewis?

Thanks for visiting!

Next time: Epic Fantasy and the Literary Middle Ages continues with one of Tolkien’s students, the Pulitizer-Prize winning poet, W.H. Auden!



An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (10) Medieval Literature as History (Philology & Erich Auerbach)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Erich Auerbach & Dante Alighieri, "The Divine Comedy" (Domenico di Michelino, fresco, wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, 1465)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Erich Auerbach & Dante Alighieri, “The Divine Comedy” (Domenico di Michelino, fresco, wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, 1465)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (10) Medieval Literature as History (Philology & Erich Auerbach)

Good Afternoon, Everybody!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Erich Auerbach & Dante's Inferno (Canto XIII, Gustave Doré)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Erich Auerbach & Dante’s Inferno (Canto XIII, Gustave Doré)

I’m not one to point out a problem and not try to offer a solution, so here’s the bundle: to avoid ripping off or imitating great fantasists of the past (i.e., the “problem”), I think that creators can avoid a lot of the recycled Tolkien-Lewis style of “epic fantasy” out there by — “solution” — returning to the medieval wellsprings from which those Oxford & Cambridge professors drew inspiration: Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Otherwise, many would-be fantasy writers risk simply treading over the same ground that Tolkien and Lewis long ago traveled in the 20th Century, leaving those of us in the 21st century with that slightly dismaying feeling of “haven’t I seen this before?” when reading fantasy novels.

For this series of blogs on the importance of knowing something about medieval literature when writing epic fantasy, I’ve been exploring how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien brought aspects of their enthusiasm for the medieval period into their respective creations of Narnia and Middle Earth.  I’ve particularly emphasized these creators’ academic credentials, and today I want to introduce you to the works of Erich Auerbach, an intellectual peer of Lewis and Tolkien, who with Tolkien shared a passion for philology — or, “the study of language in written historical sources.” (Personally, Auerbach’s works had a profound impact on my early training in medieval studies, and remains an important influence whenever I research literary topics in the Middle Ages.)

For my recommendation that would-be epic fantasy writers strive to recreate a “bygone age” that evokes aspects of the period 500-1500, the works of Erich Auerbach (and one of his 18th century influences, Giambattista Vico) can do much in teaching how reading the literature of a certain time can give one a true sense of cultural and historical realities for that time.  If you’re trying to write “realistic” fantasy fiction that’s based on an imagined Middle Ages, you could do no better than reading Auerbach, and discovering how each century of the medieval era was reflected in its literature!

Okay, on with a brief recap of Auerbach’s work — in the form of a book review because, frankly, I’ve been on Goodreads for a couple of years and have yet to post one! — and then I’ll make some concluding thoughts afterwards on how Auerbach’s work relates to Tolkien and Lewis.  (Please note: all bold emphases are mine … trying to emphasize points to which I’ll return when discussing Auerbach’s critique of Tolkien in a later blog!)

Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages

Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages

Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (Trans. by Ralph Mannheim.  New Foreword by Jan M. Ziolkowski. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Language)

Erich Auerbach was born in Berlin, Germany, on November 9, 1892. His family was upper-middle class and Jewish, and Auerbach received an excellent education at the Französisches Gymnasium, which emphasized classical studies and French literature. He earned a law degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1913, and then served in the German Army during World War I. His intellectual interests changed during the course of the war, because in 1921 he received his doctorate in philosophy (with an emphasis on Romance philology) from the University of Greifswald.  He served as a librarian in the Prussian State Library from 1923 to 1929, during which time he published his first work, a translation of Giambattista Vico’s Principi di una Scienza Nuova.

Erich Auerbach (d. 1957; Getty Images)

Erich Auerbach (d. 1957; Getty Images)

In 1929, he was appointed to the chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg, and it was at that university where he published Dante, Poet of the Secular World (1929); he continued working here until he was dismissed by the Nazis in 1935 because of the race laws that went into effect in Germany.  Auerbach fled the country with his wife and son, and he relocated in Turkey, where he began teaching at the University of Istanbul — he remained in this country until 1947, and completed two works during his tenure there: Mimesis (publ. 1946) and Introduction to Romance Languages and Literature (publ. 1949). In 1947, Auerbach moved his family to the United States, where he taught for a brief time at Pennsylvania State University and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; thereafter, in 1950, he was appointed as professor of Romance philology at Yale, where he remained until his death on October 13, 1957.

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis:  "Odysseus's Scar" & Eurykleia (Gustave Boulanger 1849; Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “Odysseus’s Scar” & Eurykleia (Gustave Boulanger 1849; Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris)

Mimesis was the work that set forth the thesis that is central to Auerbach’s critical methodology:  the proposition that literary texts can be used as means to understand the historical reality of a given time period, because the authors of that time period shape the way that reality is perceived.  In Mimesis, Auerbach began with a comparison of passages from Homer’s Odyssey and the Old Testament, and then continued with an assessment that analyzes texts from the Middle Ages through the Modern Era.  Auerbach’s final work, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, was published posthumously in Germany in 1958, with an English translation appearing in the United States in 1965. The book was intended, in the author’s words, as a “…supplement to Mimesis” in its approach to the title subject.

In a manner similar to how Tolkien expressed his love of philology, Auerbach’s whole career was devoted to the study of language as a means of understanding historical phenomena because language, as a creation of — and articulation of — human thought in the past, possessed the capacity to serve as a “window” for researchers to entire swaths of history in fields beyond the written or spoken word.  In this belief, Auerbach followed Giambattista Vico’s axiom that one could analyze historical periods with reference to contemporaneous human actions within those periods.

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis: "Roland against Ganelon," here in "Roland at Roncesvalles" (Francois Guizot, 1883)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “Roland against Ganelon,” here in “Roland at Roncesvalles” (Francois Guizot, 1883)

Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) was an Italian philosopher who sought to scientifically approach the study of history.  Auerbach’s intellectual debt to Vico consisted primarily of three elements:  (1) a belief that history is an “intelligible whole”, (2) a belief in Geistesgechichte (or, “spiritual history”) of a people, and, finally, (3) Vico’s belief that the history of past human life can be recaptured by analysis.

For Auerbach, these past human lives were best-captured in looking at the literary achievements of a given age, because the authors of written texts reflected the environment in which they lived.  His work in Mimesis concentrated on the philological analysis of literature in relation to history, with careful attention to texts and authors that spanned a time frame from the Old Testament and Homer’s Odyssey to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in the Modern period.  In Mimesis, Auerbach’s method was to analyze selected texts by means of critical apparatus that he had developed during his career, which assessed documents by: (1) a recognition of “high, middle, and low” styles that had been identified by literary theorists of antiquity; (2) an application of “figural interpretations” for assessments of how the medieval person understood the Bible; and (3) an analytical concentration on key passages in the literary works, or, rather, a “fragmentary” approach to the texts which sought to induce from the narratives a historical reality that revealed the Geistesgechichte (“history of ideas”) for the people of the time period.

This method of inductive inquiry also characterized Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages.  Auerbach’s intention was to describe the rise of a reading public in the medieval period by assessing four themes: (1) the Christian concept of sermo humilis; (2) Latin prose in the Early Middle Ages; (3) the “rebirth of the sublime” in the Twelfth Century; and (4) the “literary public” that existed from the Augustan Age to around 1300 A.D., the period of Dante Aligheri (1265-1321).

Because this work is a “supplement” to Mimesis, Auerbach believed that he must address a special problem from that work: “…the great hiatus [600-1100 A.D.], the period in which there is no literary public and no generally intelligible literary language.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach's "Dante's Inferno" (Canto 34's "Lucifer King of Hell," art by Gustave Dore, c. 1861-1868)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach’s “Dante’s Inferno” (Canto 34’s “Lucifer King of Hell,” art by Gustave Dore, c. 1861-1868)

The first chapter, “Sermo Humilis,” begins with an examination of the rhetorical style of St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) with reference to the three Ciceronian categories of writing: (1) the “sublime,” which teaches, (2) the “intermediate,” which is used for condemnation or praise, and (3) the “lowly,” which is to persuade.  “Sermo” here is the actual means by which the Christian message is transmitted to an audience, while “humilis” is the “low-lying” manner in which Christian oratory and literature began to be presented in order to reach the widest possible audience. Auerbach saw in this term — derived from the Latin humiliates — a literary style designed for a broad audience because of its clarity of language and lack of ornamentation. He saw the sermo humilis as characterizing the language of both the Holy Scriptures and all the Christian literature of Late Antiquity (e.g., the Patristic Literature, sermons, martyrologies) because the simple style can present the “sublime” issues of Christian doctrine in a way that a mass audience can understand (for example, the complex concept of the Incarnation) .

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach's "Sermo Humilis" (Stained glass depiction of Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, and Ambrose; Cologne Cathedral; pic by Stephen Bay)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach’s “Sermo Humilis” (Stained glass depiction of Augustine, Jerome, Gregory, and Ambrose; Cologne Cathedral; pic by Stephen Bay)

Christian writers never lost this capacity for making clear their message about God, and in the section within this chapter entitled “Excursus: Gloria Passionis,” Auerbach demonstrated how writers treated one aspect of Christian belief (the Passion of Christ’s death) during a five hundred year period. Featured prominently in this section are mystical considerations of the “earthly transcendence” of Christ’s “passio” — a transcendence which Christian writers advocated should be imitated by those of the faith — by St.Ambrose (339-397 A.D.), St. Augustine, the martyrologies of Late Antiquity, and also in the medieval period, in St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s (1090-1153 A.D.) commentary on the Song of Songs and Cistercian mysticism.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach's "Latin Prose" (Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy as influencing "Wheel of Fortune" motifs throughout period; from Boccaccio ms, 1467)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach’s “Latin Prose” (Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy as influencing “Wheel of Fortune” motifs throughout period; from Boccaccio ms, 1467)

The second chapter, “Latin Prose in the Early Middle Ages,” assessed the title topic with an analyses of Boethius (475-525 A.D.), whom Auerbach calls the last “ancient’ author; that is, a writer who explicitly concerned himself with classical philosophy instead of completely Christian subjects.  He also assesses writers such as Caesarius of Arles (470-542), Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.), Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.), Gregory of Tours (538-594) and the Carolingian writer, Einhard (770-840).

Auerbach saw Latin literature becoming “medieval” in the first half of the Sixth Century, because the language was more “pragmatic and utilitarian” as it spread into the barbarian provinces of Gaul, Germany and Spain. Auerbach’s account analyzed the texts with an attention to the “sermo humilis” by Christian writers; this topos used to such an extent that the Latin language ceases to develop and flourish as it might have done otherwise. In this case, Auerbach exemplified the process of grammatical and topical “disintegration” very apparent in the work of both Gregory the Great and Gregory of Tours.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach's "Ch. 2, Latin Prose in the Middle Ages" (Gregory the Great's "Dialogues & Sermons," eschatology; here, Gustave Doré's "Death on a Pale Horse" from Book of Revelations; 1865)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach’s “Ch. 2, Latin Prose in the Middle Ages” (Gregory the Great’s “Dialogues & Sermons,” eschatology; here, Gustave Doré’s “Death on a Pale Horse” from Book of Revelations; 1865)

Gregory of Tours, "The History of the Franks"

Gregory of Tours, “The History of the Franks”

Auerbach’s analysis of the language of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues revealed an “…almost childlike, fairy-tale world” that Auerbach saw reflecting some aspects of the popular perception of the time. (Side-note:  keep this “fairy tale” aspect in mind; we saw Tolkien’s concern with it in the last blog, and the themes within ancient and medieval folklore recur often in tales of Middle Earth, as well as in Lewis’s Narnia books!) In the latter case, Gregory of Tours rhetorical attempts to reach the masses in a vernacular manner that revealed Christian views — i.e., an to interpret historical actions and current events in Biblical terms — underlay much of the literary changes that began in the Early Middle Ages.  In this example, Auerbach observed that the “…narration [became]…an end in itself.”

More precisely, as one commentator on Auerbach observed, “Through his enormously sensitive intuition and the breadth of his vision, Auerbach was able to identify the special contribution of Christianity to the development of Western literature. It was a ‘figural’ view of mankind that conferred transcendent meaning upon ordinary characters and their temporal existence.   The story of Christ in the Gospels provided Auerbach an almost sacred source for that revolutionary concept of the human condition.” (Edward W. Amend, “Erich Auerbach.” In Roland Turner ed.,Thinkers of the Twentieth Century. [Chicago: St. James Press, 1987], p. 32.)

Using Christian writing as a touchstone, Auerbach went on to analyze Gregory of Tours’ works, and found that what the Merovingian historian lacked in attention to classical Latin grammatical forms, he more than compensated for both in the originality of his presentations and in his ability to recount the actual “pace of events.” However, the disintegration of the Latin language (which, ironically, Auerbach also saw beginning with Gregory of Tours), reached a crisis by the time of the of Einhard and the Carolingians, a process which does start to reverse itself until the advent of the Ottonians (i.e., 919-1024 A.D., particularly with the work of Gerbert of Aurillac).  Auerbach in this section attributed much of the credit to the influences of monastic houses such as Cluny and Gorze, as well as to the Ottonian court itself.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Death of Roland" (from the Chanson de Geste, The Song of Roland; art from 15th c. ms)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Death of Roland” (from the Chanson de Geste, The Song of Roland; art from 15th c. ms)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach & Dante ("Harpies in the Infernal Wood," Gustave Dore, from Dante's Divine Comedy, Canto 13)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach & Dante (“Harpies in the Infernal Wood,” Gustave Dore, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Canto 13)

The third chapter, “Camilla, or, the Rebirth of the Sublime,” demonstrated how much of a change took place in Latin literature from antiquity to the medieval period.   Auerbach initially compared Virgil’s Aeneid with the poem of an anonymous man in the Plantagenet court of France; in this French poem, Auerbach found an “ornamentation” of style that totally “destroys” what Auerbach calls the “happening [of the event].” The rest of the chapter was devoted to this kind of analysis, measuring medieval poetry (including the chansons de geste), the historiography of the Crusades and of English history that appeared in the Twelfth Century, and the “courtly roman” (novel) against classical models throughout the period until the time of Dante (c. 1300).

For Auerbach, Dante Alighieri’s works represent the highest achievement of late medieval literature, especially in how the poet developed a vernacular language (Italian) to the point where it could present the “sublime” in a competitive manner with the Latin literature of antiquity.  This was a watershed moment in the history of literary studies, for Auerbach had identified a crucial transformation.  As Frank Kermode observed in a contemporary review : “..[until this high medieval moment] the sublime was confined to religion, and literature was the preserve of the church schools. And this state of affairs continued until love provided the topic of the secular sublime, and the vernacular assumed the power and authority of Latin. This was [in Auerbach’s view], largely the work of Dante… .” (Frank Kermode, “Dante,” New Statesman, Friday, 7 January 1966.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach's "Ch. 4, The Western Public and Its Language" ("The Burning of Troy," from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," Bk 13; Johann Georg Trautmann, 1713–1769)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auerbach’s “Ch. 4, The Western Public and Its Language” (“The Burning of Troy,” from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Bk 13; Johann Georg Trautmann, 1713–1769)

Auerbach then launched into his fourth chapter, “The Western Public and Its Language,” which basically recounted how the Latin language was transformed into the Romance languages with which we still live today.   His attention started in the days of the Principate (i.e., 27 B.C. to 284 A.D.) with the works of Horace, Propertius, and Ovid, and masterfully traced a continuity all the way to Dante, with an analytical line that always focused on a “literary language” that Auerbach differentiated from colloquial language by “…selectivity, homogeneity, and conservatism.”  In a breath-taking sweep of historical assessment, Auerbach traced the disintegration of the Roman school system (because of the barbarian invasion of the Fifth Century), but also highlighted how teaching shifted into the province of the Church.  He also tended to the business of justifying the title of his book by charting the decline and disappearance of a “literary public,” with special attention given to the fact that the “educated classes” who could participate in a literary tradition simply disappeared from the historical evidence after the late Fifth Century.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("Godfrey of Boulogne," art by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“Godfrey of Boulogne,” art by John Vernon Lord)

Only in the Twelfth Century does Latin begin to emerge as a literature for another educated circle, the Scholastics (those who sought to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology), and here Auerbach’s attention turned to the work of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), but he also kept attention on what was occurring in the vernacular, as seen in his discussion of the Strasbourg Oaths of 842 (notable because they were recorded simultaneously in the developing vernaculars of the time: German, French, and Latin).  He also maintained a tight focus on hagiographic sermons and epic legends that were used to reach the masses in a vernacular manner. The chapter continues an account of the rise of vernacular languages in France, England, Italy, and Germany, ending with an assertion that the Europe of the 20th Century — despite the many vernacular forms of language that Latin took — shared in a common cultural “self-awareness and a will to cultivate its own humanity,” and further, in the same concluding passage:

“...we may venture to speak of a European society and even of a European Hochsprache. What unites them is their common root in antiquity and Christianity. For this combination contains the dialectical force which, even if  Europe, like Rome before it, should now lose its power and even cease to exist as  such — has prefigured the forms of a common social and cultural life on our planet.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas ("Ragnarok," by Simon Brett, engraving)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Epics & Sagas (“Ragnarok,” by Simon Brett, engraving)

Auerbach’s statement here that antiquity and Christianity combined in the historical period of Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages focused on the idea of “prefigurement.”  Here the J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis fans should take special note, because the idea was one that lay behind much of their academic work, but appeared clearly in the epic fantasies that they wrote!  “Prefigurement” is the idea of symbolic representation, especially in the Christian context, and it is immensely important to Auerbach, Tolkien, and Lewis’s understanding of the Latin language and also the history of Western Europe.  Tolkien and Auerbach, particularly, believed in the power of philology to reveal historical “truth” about great periods of time, and in this book Auerbach demonstrated a masterpiece application of this principle. Auerbach focused on the dominance of Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, and how that presence changed the very nature of literary expression.

To recap:  in Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, Auerbach explained an almost thousand-year change in its title topic first by an analysis of the sermo humilis style of writing that was adopted by Christian writers from the Fifth Century onwards; secondly, he recounted the disintegration of Latin literature in its classical form and the reemergence of a literary language in the Romance vernaculars; third, these off-shoots of Latin began to attain true sophistication with a “sublime” style that appeared in the so-called Twelfth Century Renaissance, and culminated with, fourth, the writings of Dante Alighieri in the late-13th and early-14th Centuries. That increased sophistication of language was achieved because a shift began to occur in the literature that moves from Christianity per se to the incorporation of “love” as a central element in literary works, with Dante Aligheri being the prime example of this shift. Both points are proven by Auerbach by his attention to the historical texts with a lens of figurae in literature — a concept developed in his earlier works — always present.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Fragments" of a Medieval Past as "Figurae" into the Present, "Le Morte D'Arthur' (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Fragments” of a Medieval Past as “Figurae” into the Present, “Le Morte D’Arthur’ (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Beyond the attention to figurae in literature, Auerbach also remained consistent with his analytic method of attending carefully to “fragments” in historical texts as a means of explaining greater historical phenomena. Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages is justifiably “highly recommended reading” for any aspiring medievalist or would-be epic fantasist, for in its pages (and also in Mimesis and all of Auerbach’s work) are conceptual and analytical tools which, with careful application, can immensely aid one’s understanding of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "Sir Gawain & the Green Knight" (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight” (art by John Howe)

Most importantly for this blog-series’ attempts at urging would-be epic fantasists, many of Auerbach’s beliefs about the relevance of antiquity and the Middle Ages were shared by Tolkien himself, a fellow philologist who incorporated those periods in his academic and world-building.  As Christopher Snyder notes in his wonderful biography of Tolkien that I just discovered,

“… [a strand of continuity in Tolkien’s fiction runs from the barbarian age to the fifteenth century] and is what scholars call ‘medievalism,’ a reimagining of the Middle Ages that blends contemporary preoccupations with the historical realities of medieval Europe.  Both the medieval and medievalism had an enormous impact on Tolkien in his creation of a secondary world he called Middle-Earth, which itself has now become one of the most famous examples of medievalism. In other words, Tolkien the academic was a medievalist who expanded our knowledge of the Middle Ages, while Tolkien the writer of fiction extended and expanded the scope of medievalism at a time when few people thought the medieval world had anything to teach the modern one.”  (Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien, New York: Sterling, 2013; p. 39.)

Auerbach, Tolkien, and Lewis realized that the medieval world had many things to teach us, and with most of the panoply of late antique and medieval literature readily available (and many have free versions), you can start reading the texts these professors did with a simple visit to the library or a click of the cursor!

What are you still doing here?  Get on it and start reading some medieval literature!

Thanks for visiting,


Next Time:  Erich Auerbach’s Review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Work!










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