Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Unnecessity of an Anglo-Saxon National Epic

I’ve never enjoyed the blending of history and myth. As a self-professed medieval history nerd, particularly the era of the third crusade and the early Plantagenet kings of England, the widespread belief in Robin Hood as a real historical figure irks me. Belief in King Arthur as a real, historical king of England or acceptance of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as fact are both ludicrous beliefs. As we discussed, while melding myth and history gives a semblance of truth to the myth, it also cheapens the history.

Tolkien is blending myth and history to a massive extent. Though much of his legendarium takes place in an era before we have records of the actual historical truth, including Creation, we do have rough ideas of the politics and cultures of the world throughout its history. Certainly, we have artifact records of early complex societies, and we can be fairly certain that Gondor and Arnor did not exist. Similarly, we have accepted theories for the creation of the world (from science) and the development of biodiverse life that do not mesh with the stories Tolkien says. By tying himself to the real world through his fragments (Hey Diddle Diddle, King Scefing, et cetera), Tolkien is presenting a fantastical version of his world which we already know some things about.

We know--or at least, are fairly certain, scientifically--that complex life formed through evolution. It was not created in its present form. As lovely as New Zealand is, we can be fairly certain by studying the formation of geographical features and the geology of the world, that Mordor never existed, and if precursor elves ever walked the Earth and built towers and kingdoms, we should have come across their ruins. And if Middle-Earth is some other place, inaccessible to the modern human, then how did we get the fragments that Tolkien placed in his works? How did Hey, Diddle Diddle make its way to the real world?

However, Tolkien isn’t trying to create an alternative history of the world. He is not, to my understanding, arguing that his narrative is actual, literal history, but is rather of the same vein of mythological-historical blending of which the Eddas or Gilgamesh are parts. Tolkien is creating this sort of mythological-history as a national epic for the English people. Much like Sturluson did with the Prose Edda, or existed with the Song of Roland for France, the national epic is an important part to a culture’s development. Tolkien, as an Anglo-Saxonist, believed that England--particularly Anglo-Saxon England--was missing such an epic, and set out to create one.

In class, we based our discussion off the premise that Tolkien wrote his apology and explained his reasoning for creating his legendarium for a good reason. To a certain extent, I reject this premise for two reasons. The first is that England has a national epic to the extent that England has a national culture. The second is that the mythos of the Lord of the Rings is so distinct that it does not truly function as a national epic.

England already has a multitude of epics. The problem is not that England does not have an epic, but that it is missing a unified culture to agree on which cultural epic can become national. Denmark has been comparatively stable, culturally, and thus the Sagas can adequately address the culture present there. England does not have a monolithic culture. It is a country of continuously supplanting cultures: Celts to Britons to Anglo-Saxons to Norman. The fact that the English mythos is similarly mixed, with its primary features of King Arthur being Anglo-French, is apt considering the nature and makeup of English culture and history. Tolkien’s desire for an “English” epic, meaning an Anglo-Saxon epic, is fulfilled by Beowulf. Tolkien would then argue that Beowulf is too focused on Danes to be the story of Englishmen, but Anglo-Saxon culture come from Denmark and from the Netherlands. Beowulf thus accurately serves as an epic for that culture, and the comparatively indigenous Welsh already have their own epics. Thus, the gap Tolkien seeks to fill simply does not exist, at least not in the size that Tolkien tried to fill.

Moreover, even if Tolkien had an adequately large space to fill, he does not fill it particularly well--not in terms of quality of writing, but it terms of fulfilling the essential function of a national epic. Certainly, other national epics relate the stories of creation, of elves, and of heroes. Tolkien ties his stories by using fragments of modern culture (Hey, Diddle Diddle, among others) to try to force his story to relate to England, but for all but the analytical reader, the connections to England can be entirely missed. A national epic exists to inform the parts of the nation about a mythological past, and is generally not subtle with its relation to the nation. Snorri Sturluson does not couch his writings behind fictional countries--he relates the stories of the Kings of the Danes. By hiding his ties to English history, by relating to the real world only through fragments, Tolkien hides the nationalism of his national, Anglo-Saxon epic. Thus he fails to fill the void he intended to fill.

The Lord of the Rings stands alone as an excellent work of fiction. Tolkien succeeded in creating an entire world that seems as complex and historically rich as our own. Such a task is monumental and impressive by itself. As a Game Master for D&D and a fan of fantasy novels, I admire Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth. However, in a quest to craft a new national epic for the Anglo-Saxon people, Tolkien attempted to tie himself to history, but in a way too hidden and fantastic for it to succeed as a national epic--particularly in the modern age, when so much more is known about the historical history of the world. Middle Earth can stand on its own, without needing to rely on the crutch of English history; the way most people read Tolkien, unknowing of his quest to create a national epic and without diminished enjoyment for that ignorance, proves it.



  1. I believe that Tolkien wanted a epic reflective of the modern England he was familiar with. Similar to the war Tolkien pulls from Medieval sources as well as modern events, the Great War of which is present in the machines of Sauron.

    The gap that he speaks of is one rooted in morality and religious belief. Arthur is too Christian because he is derived from indigenous pagan mythologies (Joseph Cambell elloborates on this) and Christian archetypes i.e. The Holy Grail are taked onto the myth at a later date. The Arthur mythos is inconsistent as it becomes of congolermation of several other European mythologies with no core connective tissue. Unlike, say Perceval which has a definite arc and stagnant text so as to becomein it's own epic separate from the British Arthur.

    Similarly, Beowulf lacks a connection to a modern England. It ties the faerie elements and supernatural traits of a bygone Britain, but lacks the morals and religious connotations of the present England.

    Tolkien had no choice but to take the elements of Beowulf and a host of Germanic, Icelandic, and other sources to create a cohesive interconnected mythology with a Christian Mythology that fit with the pagan roots of England. In this way he succeeded where others failed. Middle Earth is complete. It is built off of pre-existing mythologies, but remains unique in itself.

    Furthmore, but giving the epic a historical connection (Red Book of Westmarch), Tolkien gave something of his own creation a life of its own, rooting it in a very real yet imaginary England.

  2. Very good point that England does not have a monolithic culture, but nowhere does Tolkien say he meant to recover or invent an Anglo-Saxon epic per se. He says he wanted to dedicate his legendarium to "England." It is worth thinking a bit more about what he meant by "England." RLFB