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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (16) Concluding Thoughts, Part 2: Of Christian Tenets, Northern “Barbarism,” & Tolkien’s Mythology


Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature- "Life of St. Edmund" depicting arrival of Angles, Jutes, Saxons, & other Germanic tribes in England (manuscript illustration, 12th c., Pierpont Morgan Library)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature- “Life of St. Edmund” depicting arrival of Angles, Jutes, Saxons, & other Germanic tribes in England (manuscript illustration, 12th c., Pierpont Morgan Library)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (16) Concluding Thoughts, Part 2: Of Christian Tenets, Northern “Barbarism,” & Tolkien’s Mythology

Hello, Everyone!

I’ve been on vacation and just returned from a medieval history conference, so let’s resume wrapping things up in re how would-be epic fantasists should avail themselves of the rich record of medieval language and literature!

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.)

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

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

To resume, with a bit of recap for the new followers I’ve been getting on Twitter…okay, sidebar: need to give a shout-out “Thank You!” for all of the new Twitter support I’ve been finding the last couple of months since I started using the site.  I very much appreciate that I crossed the “700”-follower mark; appreciate every single newbie to the epic-fantasy world I’m creating with The Artifacts of Destiny, and now looking forward to reaching 800 followers…hmmm, still in a rush of intellectual excitement from the conference, and mention of any “700s” evoke thoughts of the Venerable Bede, Jarrow monastery, & the Viking sack of Lindisfarne Abbey in 793.  And to now try and reach the “800”-Twitter follower mark? Well 800 A.D. was a good — if not complex — Christmas Day for Charlemagne and Pope Leo III, eh?).

ANYWAY, back to concluding this particular blog series on medieval language and literature as a way to inspire a new generation of epic fantasists.  For those just joining the party, I believe that a huge part of the loss of originality in the current spate of so-called “epic fantasy” books has to do with the fact that — judging from the manifold variations of fantasy themes and characters first introduced by Tolkien — creators these days seem not to have read the actual source material from which J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis drew such inspiration when they created the genre in the 1930s through 1950s.  If our current generation of writers truly desires to create something original for a 21st Century audience still willing to return to the Middle Ages (evident in the continued popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings , and their Peter Jackson film adaptations), these blogs on “Medieval Language and Literature” are my attempt to recommend some of the same materials with which Tolkien and Lewis were so familiar: medieval literature itself (for those seeking ideas, please see the two reading lists I ostensibly made for “would-be epic fantasists,” but which really could be used for anyone interested in the period: AJs Medieval Lit Reading List, Pt 1 and AJs Medieval Lit Reading List, Pt 2

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Wild Hunt" from British, Germanic, & Scandinavian Mythologies ("Åsgårdsreien," Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Wild Hunt” from British, Germanic, & Scandinavian Mythologies (“Åsgårdsreien,” Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872)

Viking Village, Sweden

Viking Village, Sweden

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)

Now, even if the would-be fantasists among you were to learn all that there is to know about medieval literature from c. 500-1500 A.D., a creator’s onus is to create something unique, compelling, and “out-of-this world” for the audience; not a surprising mandate, because that reality’s been a storyteller’s burden since before Icelandic skalds sang their poetry to audiences almost a thousand years ago.  Last time, I discussed the environment of the Viking Age and Anglo-Saxon period that informed the languages in which the professor was most deeply steeped.  I also emphasized my belief that Tolkien’s accomplishment in his works’ lay in those books’ collective evocation of a “medieval mindset” for a then-20th Century audience. To make that point, I situated Tolkien’s success by using four lecture points that drew from the Middle Ages themselves, points that bear repeating because it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve touched down in the blogsphere:

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. (from A.J. Carlisle, “An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (15)…Blog-post 5.29.14]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Bible & Christianity in Early Middle Ages (Cross of Lothair II, 10th c., demonstrating blending of Roman & Christian traditions -- emperor in center of cross)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Bible & Christianity in Early Middle Ages (Cross of Lothair II, 10th c., demonstrating blending of Roman & Christian traditions — emperor in center of cross)

My last blog covered the first point, the “heroic ideal” that informed many medieval literary works.  Today I want to assess what we know was a very tangible “reality” for medieval people in Western Europe, the Scandinavian and Icelandic lands, and across the Mediterranean Sea basin:  the “conflict of Christian tenets with Scandinavian and Germanic barbarism.”  Particularly, we need to look at how/if an epic fantasist needs to include that medieval “reality” into a story in order to achieve verisimilitude in a faux-medieval world.  If we look to Tolkien’s case for guidance because he invented the genre as we know it, the answer is obviously “no.”  (In my own series, The Artifacts of Destiny, my own answer is “yes,” but that’s part of the point I’m trying to make about our need to look at the same sources Tolkien did, and then find a different path when trying to tell an entertaining story.  But, that line of thought is a blog for another time!)

Those readers of Tolkien know that he created his own mythology in both The Silmarillion and other works (references to the earlier Ages of Middle Earth abound in The Lord of the RingsBook of Lost Tales, The Hobbit, etc), but throughout Tolkien’s entire oeuvre, the professor of Anglo-Saxon carefully excised an essential aspect of the Middle Ages:  Christianity.  In addition to the Barbarian Invasions and the legacy of the Roman Empire, one simply can’t understand the medieval period without reference to the Roman Catholic & Greek Orthodox churches, and the versions of Christianity that spread throughout the Western World via missionaries, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and a steadily growing “papal monarchy” in Rome.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature- "The Book of Kells" as example of Hiberno-Saxon Style (folio 292r, c. 800; Gospel of John)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature- “The Book of Kells” as example of Hiberno-Saxon Style (folio 292r, c. 800; Gospel of John)

The fusion of Christianity with medieval polities that spanned from Constantinople & the Eastern Roman Empire to Frankish and Scandinavian lands is a tale for another blog, but — if I’m to fully make a case for epic fantasists to learn as much as possible about medieval language and literature as sources of creative inspiration — we need to look at how and why Tolkien divorced this religion that was omni-present in the Middle Ages from his otherwise faithfully faux-medieval works.  Given his Anglo-Saxon and early Britain interests, we know that in England from the conversionary period (beginning with St. Augustine’s 597 conversion of Æthelbert of Kent), through the time of Beowulf, and beyond to Geoffrey Chaucer’s works (e.g., The Canterbury Tales), Christianity was a constant tension in the medieval world that Tolkien studied; remaining strictly within the literary tradition, think here of a few examples from the Anglo-Saxon period that Tolkien so loved: the Venerable Bede’s “Story of Cædmon,” “The Dream of the Rood,” and the elegiac “The Wanderer.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Venerable Bede, "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (c. 731 A.D., St. Paul's Monastery, Jarrow)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Venerable Bede, “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” (c. 731 A.D., St. Paul’s Monastery, Jarrow)

Even if we take time to just glance at the language in these few examples, you’ll see perhaps the evocative power of the language & themes that so influenced Tolkien’s world-building:

from Bede’s account of “The Story of Cædmon”, or “Cædmon’s Hymn” (composed c. 658-680 A.D.):

[after an angel has enjoined Cædmon to sing a song in a shed…]
“What must I sing?” he said.
And he [the angel] said, “Sing about Creation.”
At this, Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator, which he had never heard before and of which the sense is this:

Nu sculon herigean                    heofonrices Weard
(Now we must praise                    heaven-kingdom’s Guardian)
Meotodes meahte                       and his modgeþanc
(the Measurer’s might                  and his mind-plans)
weorc Wuldor-Fæder                 swa he wundra gehwæs
(the work of the Glory-Father     when he wonders of every one)
ece Drihten                                  or onstealde
(eternal Lord                                  the beginning established)
He ærest sceop                            ielda bearnum
(He first created                             for men’s sons)
hèofen to hrofe                            halig Scyppend
(heaven as a roof                           holy Creator)
đo middangeard                          moncynnes Weard
(then middle-earth                       mankind’s Guardian)
ece Drihten                                  æfter teode
(eternal Lord                                afterwards made —)
firum foldan                                Frea ælmihtig
(for men earth                             Master almighty.)

This is the general sense but not the exact order of the words that Cædmon sang in his sleep; for it is impossible to make a literal translation, no matter how well-written, of poetry into another language without losing some of the beauty and dignity. When he woke up, he remembered everything that he had sung in his sleep, and to this he soon added, in the same poetic measure, more verses praising God… [End of excerpt from Venerable Bede, An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., pp. 20-21]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "The Dream of the Rood" (10th c. Vercelli Book)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “The Dream of the Rood” (10th c. Vercelli Book)

And here’s an excerpt from “The Dream of the Rood” (late 10th c.), whereby the narrator dreams that the Crucifix [“Rood”] of Christ speaks to him:

The Ruthwell Cross (8th c., with part of "The Dream of the Rood" inscribed)

The Ruthwell Cross (8th c., with part of “The Dream of the Rood” inscribed)

“It was long ago — I remember it still — that I was hewn down at the wood’s edge, taken from my stump. Strong foes seized me there, hewed me to the shape they wished to see, commanded me to lift their criminals.  Men carried me on their shoulders, then set me on a hill; foes enough fastened me there.  Then I saw the Lord of mankind hasten with stout heart, for he would climb upon me. I dared not bow or break against God’s word when I saw the earth’s surface tremble. I might have felled all foes, but I stood fast. Then the young Hero stripped himself — that was God Almighty — strong and stouthearted. He climbed on the high gallows, bold in the sight of many, when he would free mankind. I trembled when the warrior embraced me, yet I dared not bow to earth, fall to the ground’s surface; but I must stand fast.  I was raised up, a cross; I lifted up the Mighty King, Lord of the Heavens: I dared not bend.  They pierced me with dark nails: the wounds are seen on me, open gashes of hatred. Nor did I harm any of them. They mocked us both together. I was all wet with blood, drenched from the side of that Man after he had sent forth his spirit.  I had endured many bitter happenings on that hill. I saw the God of Hosts cruelly racked. The shades of night had covered the Ruler’s body with their mists, the bright splendor. Shadow came forth, dark beneath the clouds.  All creation wept, bewailed the King’s fall, Christ was on Cross…” [End of excerpt from “The Dream of the Rood,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., pp. 20-21]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Hobbits' First Sight of Ithilien," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Hobbits’ First Sight of Ithilien,” by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Frodo and Gandalf," by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Frodo and Gandalf,” by Alan Lee)

When you think about The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, there should be enough similarities in these excerpts (and last blog’s attention on the 10th century work, “The Wanderer”) to see similarities to Tolkien’s presentation of a Middle Earth that closely parallels the bygone era and elegiac mourning evoked in these medieval literary works.  In the case of  The Hobbit and LotR, particularly, Tolkien’s focus on Bilbo, Frodo, and the other hobbits may be seen as evocative of Chrsitianity’s themes of “universality” that were part of the conversionary appeal to “barbarian” tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks, etc. (the Greek word for “universal” is καθολικής, or “katholikos”).  From this perspective, Tolkien’s works assert that it wasn’t in the realms of nobility and clergy that medieval Europe excelled, but rather in the greatness latent in the “common folk,” or hobbits.

Tolkien himself was a Catholic, but part of the reason that he excluded any form of Christianity in his works can be gleaned from the professor himself, here in a conversation that one of his biographers, Michael White, reconstructed from both men’s letters:

C.S. Lewis (Holy Trinity College)

C.S. Lewis (Holy Trinity College)

J.R.R. Tolkien (in 1955)

J.R.R. Tolkien (in 1955)

[Begin excerpt from Michael White, Tolkien: A Biography]
It was Saturday evening, 19 September 1931. Lewis and Tolkien’s friend Hugo Dyson (who was also a Christian) was making one of his frequent visits to Oxford and had dined with Jack [C.S. Lewis] and Tolkien at Magdalen [College].  He was quite aware of the many conversations his two friends had and on the subject and was keen to join them.  After dinner, all three of them went for a stroll and the conversation naturally turned to Christianity.  Lewis had become entrenched in his Pantheist version of God and because of this he could not begin to embrace orthodox Christianity, which at its heart requires a belief in Christ and an unflinching conviction that Jesus was sent to die upon the cross in order to save our souls. Lewis could accept none of this as being anything other than myth. He, like Tolkien, was a scholar of ancient mythologies, of tales of heroes and of pagan moral salvation.  To him, the story of Christ was simply just another legend, another myth no more accurate or meaningful to him and the modern world than any other. And at their root, he believed, myths are of course, lies.

Tolkien listened carefully to what his friend said and when Lewis reached this conclusion, he threw up his arms as if to say “So, how then can you believe the Christ story to be anything but an ancient legend?” Then Tolkien came back with an argument that changed the course of Lewis’s life.

Myths, Tolkien declared, are most certainly not lies.  Myths derive a kernel of truth and portray very specific cultural meaning. Christianity is based upon what Lewis considered the ‘myth of Christ.’ Very well then, Tolkien argued, call it a myth if you want to, but it was constructed upon real events and it was inspired by a deep truth. Ultimately, no myth was a lie, Tolkien believed, and the ‘myth’ that lay at the core of Christianity provided a route to follow for the non-materialistic aspect of every human being, an in-road to a deeper, spiritual truth.

Revelation did not come instantly, but it is clear that this conversation set Lewis thinking about the problem of faith in a quite different way to the one he was used to… [End of excerpt from Michael White, Tolkien: A Biography,  pp. 136-137]

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)

When you apply Tolkien’s maxim to how he expressed his own mythology and world-building in his version of the Norse and Anglo-Saxon “Middle Earth” (see the 10th Century middangeard above), the complete excision of explicit Christianity puts his works more in the Beowulf and The Wanderer categories of mythic literature than anything else from the Middle Ages that generally dealt with/contained Christian themes (The Dream of the Rood, The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, The Divine Comedy).  For all of the disagreements that I have with White’s assessment of Tolkien (i.e., I think that he misconstrues many things in his observations about Tolkien & Lewis’s friendship, especially if you read Tolkien’s 1940s letters to his son, Christopher, where “C.S.L.” is mentioned frequently), White does touch upon some ways that Tolkien did include some tangential Christian themes into The Lord of the Rings:

Illuvatar's Gift to Beren & Luthien: die alone, or live life together as mortals without any guarantee of happiness..." [Tolkien, The Silmarillion, "Tinuviel Reborn," art by Ted Nasmith]

Illuvatar’s Gift to Beren & Luthien: die alone, or live life together as mortals without any guarantee of happiness…” [Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Tinuviel Reborn,” art by Ted Nasmith]

[Begin excerpt from Michael White, Tolkien: A Biography]
Tolkien considered his mythology to be a profoundly religious work and perceived The Lord of the Rings as a Christian, even a Catholic story.  And yet on first reading, this is a conclusion very difficult to understand, for Middle-earth appears to be a wholly pagan world.  The only form of prayer is when a ‘weak’ or ‘powerless’ individual in desperate need (such as Sam Gamgee in Mordor) calls upon a stronger demi-god and demi-goddess such as Galadriel or Lúthien Tinúviel.  When warriors fall and are buried there are no prayers said over their graves. There are no churches or chapels anywhere in Middle-earth. The only ‘holy books’ are records of elder days. And yet, there are hints of religiosity, even Christian orthodoxy.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Illuin: Lamp of the Valar," art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Illuin: Lamp of the Valar,” art by Ted Nasmith)

The Silmarillion describes the One and offers an alternative Creation before telling of the First and Second Ages, the adventures of elves and men and their fight against Morgoth and Sauron. But, if Tolkien was trying to convey a subtle religious backdrop to his mythology, it appears to have been a confused one, for we get mixed and sometimes contradictory messages.

This is most clear when we try to categorize many of the lead characters and even objects at the centre of the story.  Frodo shows Christ-like qualities — he is the bearer of the Ring, burdened with the cross — he is tempted at the Crack of Doom, just as Christ was tempted. Sauron and Melkor (or Morgoth) are clearly figures from Hell, Morgoth, the fallen Valar of black angel, Sauron, the fallen Maiar, a devil by any other name.  Gandalf is clearly a prophet-figure, but what of Galadriel? She appears only fleetingly, but exerts a powerful presence throughout the second half of The Lord of the Rings. She is one of the disgraced Noldor, who disobeyed the Valar during the First Age, but there is also perhaps something of the Virgin Mary about her…


J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: "Frodo's Quest for Mount Doom" (art by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “Frodo’s Quest for Mount Doom” (art by John Howe)

Yet, the most curious religious aspect of The Lord of the Rings is not so much the elements that go to create the central characters but a subtle undercurrent implicit in the telling of the tale, and Tolkien’s timing.  In Appendix B of LotR we are told that the fellowship leaves Rivendell to begin its mission on 25 December. The day Frodo and Sam succeed in destroying the Ring, the day it is cast into the Crack of Doom and the new era truly begins, in the Gondorian reckoning, 25 March.  Now although this date has little significance for most people, in the old English tradition (a subject about which Tolkien was quite familiar), 25 March was the date of the  first Good Friday, the date of Christ’s crucifixion…

There is no reason for this to be planted in the story except as a form of a subtle ‘hidden message.’ Tolkien is imposing his faith upon a pagan world, his characters act out their roles in a non-Christian void, but their ‘sub-creator’ can move them through a time frame that is Christian — after all he has the final say…

Beyond this, what Tolkien meant when he claimed his work was Christian and even Catholic in nature was the sense of grace that informs the work.  His characters live in a world in which magic is real, in which belief alone can make things happen.  This is not simply a question of will power or determination, but thought-made-physical.  In Middle-earth, true belief can overcome the strain of reality, it can distort the flow of cause and effect. And, although there is no specific Christianity in any of Tolkien’s fiction — no Bibles, no crucifixes, no altars —the ‘Christian spirit’ is everywhere.  The essential core of the story is good versus evil and the triumph of good, but it is also about sacrifice, temptation, self-determination and free-will.  Tolkien’s friend and supporter W.H. Auden knew this and remarked that, “The unstated presuppositions of The Lord of the Rings are Christian…” [End of excerpt from Michael White, Tolkien: A Biography,  pp. 205-207]

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

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

As a medievalist myself, I find that the choice Tolkien made in writing his fiction falls more in line with his attempts to create a faux-medieval, pre-Christian world that he studied as an Anglo-Saxon philologist, rather than such attempts by biographers like White (or reviewers like Auden) to cast Tolkien as akin to medieval Christian missionaries who “cloaked” Christians message in a way that pre-literate Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian “natives” (or even 20th Century readers!) would understand.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature? The Tempestuous Northern Seas of the Vikings...J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Queen Tar-Miriel & the Great Wave," by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature? The Tempestuous Northern Seas of the Vikings…J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Queen Tar-Miriel & the Great Wave,” by Ted Nasmith)

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)

No, I still believe that “medieval language and literature” is the key to understanding Tolkien’s conceits in writing The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Not because I’ve spent 16 blogs on the darn subject, but because it’s what Tolkien himself repeatedly made clear to anyone that would bother to listen and not bring their own preconceptions to the author.  An assertion that language can create a story is so far removed from most people’s daily experience that looking in LotR appendices for Christian correlations in works consciously devoid of them seems preferable to my alternative:  to try to understand what the life of a medieval philologist means, especially when a specialist such as Tolkien stepped outside of his collegiate environment to sub-create a world based on the arcane and esoteric environments in which he’s trained.

Repeatedly throughout his life, Tolkien asserted that the main priority in his work in making a Middle-earth mythology lay in creating a language first, and then letting the stories follow from that creation.  A glimpse of this passion might be seen in a 1937 “Letter 19” (to Stanley Unwin), wherein he is elated that one of Unwin’s readers found some good things to say about a draft of The Silmarillion.  Attentive readers might recall the blog where I described Unwin’s main interest lying with The Hobbit, but pay heed to Tolkien’s characterization of the “Celtic languages” and how they need improvement:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Celtic Myths ("Cernunnos," John Howe, 2007)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Celtic Myths (“Cernunnos,” John Howe, 2007)

[Excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letter 19, 16 Dec 1937, to Stanley Unwin]:

My chief joy comes from learning that The Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn…your reader’s comment affords me delight. I am sorry the names split his eyes — personally I believe (and here I am a good judge) they are good, and a large part of the effect.  They are coherent and consistent and made upon two related linguistic formulae, so that they achieve a reality not fully achieved to my feeling by other name-inventors (say Swift or Dunsany!).  Needless to say they are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), and feel for them a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright color, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact ‘mad’ as your reader says — but I don’t believe I am. Still I am very grateful for his words, and particularly encouraged that the style is good for the purpose and even gets over the nomenclature.

…I think it is plain that…a sequel or successor to The Hobbit is called for.  I promise to give this thought and attention. But I am sure you will sympathize when I say that the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies my mind, and the Silmarils are in my heart…[End of Excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 19]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Beyond the Old Forest," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Beyond the Old Forest,” by Ted Nasmith)

Unfortunately, Unwin didn’t “sympathize” with Tolkien’s preoccupation with building a mythology and creating new languages; the author didn’t finish LotR until 1949, and couldn’t get it published by Unwin until The Silmarillion was excised from it (the book would have to wait for a posthumous publication by Christopher Tolkien in 1978).  No one (except perhaps C.S. Lewis) could “sympathize” with Tolkien’s preoccupation because no one else was a medieval philologist!  That lonely path — and the love of early medieval languages that shaped and bordered it — was one that allowed The Hobbit to strike like lightning, but Tolkien would have to wait until after he over 60 years’ old for The Lord of the Rings to see a mass audience.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Tom Bombadil's House," by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Tom Bombadil’s House,” by Alan Lee)

There’s been plenty written about Tolkien and language, but again, my purpose here is speak to the new generation of epic fantasists trying to find a way to be original in a genre that I sometimes find moribund because of the tendency for new authors to rehash or imitate what Tolkien created.  Tolkien succeeded because he so immersed himself in the medieval world that the languages of that world became a way to create languages in an imaginary world, and from there Tolkien’s medieval specializations fused with creative genius to create something wholly new.

One can catch a glimmer of this peculiar fusion of an academic “mode” of learning (medieval studies) and application (creative writing) in a letter to his son, Christopher, who was in the RAF during World War II at the time.  Later in life, besides serving in the military — as his father had during WWI — Christopher also followed Tolkien’s academic footsteps by serving as a Lecturer and Tutor in English Language at New College, Oxford, from 1964-1975.  In this excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien gives his son (and us) a glimpse of the writing process, and, no matter how religious he was in private life, I think there’s displayed here an interesting example of how medieval language and literature governed Tolkien’s professional outlook and creative expressions; in this case, the context is that of a veteran-father commiserating about a soldier’s life with his RAF-son, but look at the nature of the advice J.R.R. gives Christopher for how to deal with the stress of wartime:

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Across Gorgoroth," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Across Gorgoroth,” by Ted Nasmith)

[Excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 66, 6 May 1944, to son, Christopher]:

We [J.R.R. and Edith Tolkiendon’t mind your grousing at all — you have no one else, and I expect it relieves the strain. I used to write in just the same way or worse to poor old Fr. Vincent Reade, I remember. Life in camp seems not to have changed at all, and what makes it so exasperating is the fact that all its worse features are unnecessary, and due to human stupidity which (as ‘planners’ refuse to see) is always magnified indefinitely by ‘organization’. But England in 1917,1918 was in a poorway, and it is a bit thicker that in a land of relative plenty, you shd. have such conditions. And the taxpayers would like to know where are all the millions going, if the pick of their sons are so treated. However it is, humans being what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars – nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation. Your service is, of course, as anybody with any intelligence and ears and eyes knows, a very bad one, living on the repute of a few gallant men, and you are probably in a particularly bad comer of it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Sauron," by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Sauron,” by Alan Lee)

But all Big Things planned in a big way feel like that to the toad under the harrow, though on a general view they do function and do their job. An ultimately evil job. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron [A.J.’s note: viz., Hitler] with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. Not that in real life things are as clear cut as in a story, and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side. …. Well, there you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story! I think also that you are suffering from suppressed ‘writing’. That may be my fault. You have had rather too much of me and my peculiar mode of thought and reaction. And as we are so akin it has proved rather powerful. Possibly inhibited you. I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for a start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes. Lots of the early pans of which (and the languages) – discarded or absorbed – were done in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire. It did not make for efficiency and present-mindedness, of course, and I was not a good officer. …. [End excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 66]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("Wellinghall," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“Wellinghall,” by Ted Nasmith)

“Well, there you you are: a hobbit amongst the Urukhai.”  For a son of such a creator, I imagine   Christopher —who since teenage years had been a primary reader/editor/map-maker for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — knew that such a statement was high praise.  For us, peering at the this private letter and seeking to reconcile parts of it with the template of mastering “medieval language and literature” that I’ve been urging, the revelation of where Tolkien wrote his stories should be inspiring; “grimy canteens?” “lectures in cold fogs?” “by candle light in cold tents?” For those of you not following me on Twitter from Afghanistan, and who might at this very moment be sitting in a Starbucks stateside, sipping at a Venti half-caff, one-pump, mocha latte and agonizing over how to find inspiration…buck up!  Be grateful you’re not in a war-zone as you try to write, and need only perhaps read a little bit from Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval: The Story of the Grail, or Tolkien’s own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to stimulate the creative juices!

Beowulf, "The Hall of Heorot" (by John Howe)

Beowulf, “The Hall of Heorot” (by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Sam Enters Mordor Alone," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Sam Enters Mordor Alone,” by Ted Nasmith)

I’ll end with this: perhaps Tolkien never “removed” or “divorced” or “excised” Christianity from his work.  I don’t think that any elements from that religion were there to begin with!  That is, for a medievalist who thinks about the “Christian conversionary centuries” of Europe, the inclination is to see a missionary behind every Saxon oak tree, or hunkered in a cave on the Irish coast.  For Tolkien’s view of the medieval world — and think here of the world depicted in Beowulf — his interest was first and foremost in the heroic potential of the medieval Everyman, or, in his case, hobbits.  When building a faux-medieval reality with the Bilbo Baggins story as the initial template and creating elvish languages and lore as the actual edifice, I think that Tolkien would’ve been trying to square a circle if he tried to introduce Christianity or any other religion into the mix.  The reason that he didn’t need to add such elements was because he’d mastered the connective tissues needed to tell a story epic in scope: the medieval languages and literature by which the real people of the Middle Ages both communicated and rendered reality.

For us, I’m not stating that such mastery of (and passion for) medieval language and literature is a prerequisite for successful epic fantasy writing, but if a new generation of fantasists can reach a point where you follow Tolkien’s path, and allow your professional interest in writing to incorporate some knowledge of the literary sources of medieval language, literature, life, and culture, you might light upon new and original phenomena that can inform your own world-building and let you contribute to the genre for which you profess a kinship and passion.

At the very least, once armed with such lore, you might have the pleasure of so fully immersing yourself in a past world that the characters and lessons which emerge from that bygone age help you contend with any daily travails, and, perhaps, if you’re as lucky in your own “sub-creations” as Tolkien was, the worlds you create might be enjoyed by audiences long after your own story is over.

“Keeping up your hobbitry in your heart,” indeed.

Next Time:  Epic Fantasists and the 9th-14th century “rise of Old English & Middle English vernacular languages!”

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