Friday, April 14, 2017

The Reality of Middle Earth from the Perspective of Philology

            Thor, Earth’s splendid son
steps forward,
the son of Odin goes forth
to fight the serpent;
Middle-Earth’s guardian strikes
With great spirit
(Somerville 52).

Without any context, the stanzas above could easily be mistaken as some poor attempt of a poetic fan-fiction enthusiast to meld the fandoms of Tolkien and Marvel Comics into one!  However, this cannot be further from the truth, in spite of the utterly unexpected apposition of “Thor” and “Middle-Earth.”  In fact, this passage comes from directly translated excerpts of the “Völuspá” found within the Poetic Edda as compiled by 13th century Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson.  This works stands within modern scholarship as the primary source from which our knowledge of Norse Pagan myth derives, and the passage these stanzas originate in actually describes the eschatological myth of ‘Ragnarök,’ the doom of the gods.  J.R.R. Tolkien, as a scholar of Germanic languages and literature, would have been without a doubt very familiar with this work, leading me to believe that his own use of “Middle Earth” takes on a special purpose when viewed within the larger spectrum of the mythic.  Our in-class discussions revealed the complexity of Tolkien’s view of his own internal literary world in relation to the external world, but I think that his position could be clarified by analyzing the historical, geographic, and mythological repercussions of choosing to invoke the term “Middle Earth.”

Tolkien, as a professional philologist, naturally looks to language as a prime medium for anchoring his legendarium in external history.  In his notes on W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King, he posits the following:

I am historically minded.  Middle-earth is not an imaginary world.  The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd>middle-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumenē, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell).  The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one on which we now live, but the historical period is imaginative (Letters 239).

Here, Tolkien presents his narrative as a historically-attentive and relevant piece by providing linguistic evidence in the forms of the words “midden-erd” and “oikoumenē” specifically. The latter is a Greek word that I will discuss more in depth later; the former, however, is Anglo-Saxon in origin and is thus Germanic.  The kinship of this word to the exact Old Norse word for “Middle-Earth” that occurs in the Poetic Edda as Miðgarðs (Midgard) can be quickly noticed, and this in turn leads to the philological conclusion that “Miðgarðs,” “midden-erd,” and “Middle-Earth” are at least related if not mutually intelligible to a certain degree.  This conscious choice of orientation has several implications: Tolkien’s use of an existing Norse word links his narrative more to the traditions and precedents of Nordic mythology, but his philologically accurate translation of it into English as “Middle Earth” marks his narrative as distinctly British in character.  Notice that these repercussions are inherently geographic in nature, as Tolkien’s use of a real historic term purposefully situates the mythos in “the objectively real world.”

Further evidence for Tolkien’s claims to the reality of Middle Earth as the real world come through analysis of “oikoumenē.”  This term is not only mentioned by Tolkien in Letter 183, but also in his 1954 letter to Hugh Brogan, where he states that “Middle-earth is just archaic English for hοκουμένη (oikoumenē), the inhabited world of men.  It lays then as it does.  In fact just as it does, round and inescapable” (Letters 186).  The Greek word being defined as such is also Latinized as ‘ecumene,’ a term with more recognizable connotations.  Primarily, ecumene is a technical term employed within the discipline of geography to denote areas favorable to human habitation and agricultural/economic development.  Ecumene is also a potent word in the context of the Christian Church.  In the same way that geographic ecumene encompasses all inhabited land, ecclesiastical ecumenical councils and movements all refer to the unity of Christians everywhere and the universality of the Body of Christ.  Both example meanings show the term “oikoumenē” as keenly rooted in real-world usage as the “Middle-earth” he likens it to.

Having explored the contexts of the linguistic evidence Tolkien employs in justifying Middle Earth as simply the World, I find it much easier to deduce how real he intends his work to be.  Both the terms of “Miðgarðs” and “oikoumenē” appear to be employed historically to tie real geographic locations (be they Norse inhabited lands or ecclesiastical dioceses) to the wider mythic realm, in essence superimposing a narrative within the continuum of temporal existence.  In this way, the Norse mythology presented in the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda tells a story of the creation and doom of the real world that is utterly impossible to prove through the human discipline of history but that cannot also be completely dismissed on the basis of historical evidence alone.  Tolkien sets his own narrative on this same plane as speculative history, or more accurately potential history, that inhabits the same unknown and unknowable times as true mythology.  It appears that his justification for this arises mostly from his own reservations with the seriousness and self-assurance that the discipline of history can apply to its own speculations, reservations that are vividly apparent in the satire we unpacked in “Farmer Giles of Ham” and in the exaggerations and anachronisms held as true by Norman Keeps in The Notion Club Papers.  With all of this in mind, I believe that the actual historicity and geographic reality of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind cannot truly be known to us in the same way that most of human history cannot be known now to us, but the rigour and conscientiousness he exhibits in using philology to make Middle Earth historically and geographically tenable gives me pause.

-C. Abbott       

Works Cited
“The Viking Age: A Reader.”  Edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald.  2nd ed.,
         University of Toronto Press, 2014.  Print.

“The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.”  Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien,   Houghton
         Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.  Print.


  1. Nice unpacking of Tolkien's use of "middle-earth" and "oikoumene," especially the degree to which both carry mythological or theological resonance even as they refer to the world human beings inhabit historically. You also make clear how disingenuous Tolkien is being in insisting that he did not make up "Middle Earth": he knows the term means more than just "Earth," the fourth third planet from the Sun. RFLB

  2. I wonder if Tolkien would say that the Midgard of Norse myth is "real" in the same way that he considers his Middle Earth to be real. The link between these didn't really sink in until the readings this week, and does lend an interesting philological angle to his claim that Middle Earth was discovered. I also think there may be an extent to which Tolkien is just playing with Middle Earth by using it to refer to "oikoumene" as well as the fictional world he created/discovered. While it isn't a very charitable view (as it seems to take Tolkien to be overly pedantic), it does at least clear up a lot of the strangeness surrounding how he talks about the realness of Middle Earth.