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.
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)
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]
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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:
[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.
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 ]
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: