Seminar CCXI: two medievalist myth-makers

As you may have noticed, things have calmed down enough that I am beginning to have time to blog again, but I am nonetheless currently a year and two days behind still. I’m not apologising, so much as explaining that I still have a certain amount of Birmingham stuff to report on that still seems worthwhile, and the first of them is last year’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Public Lecture, which was given by Dr Carl Phelpstead with the title, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and J. R. R. Tolkien: myth-making and national identity in the twelfth and twentieth centuries”.

Cover of Lewis Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Cover of Lewis Thorpe’s translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

You may well look at that and wonder where the comparison could lie between these two figures, I mean, apart from being internationally-famous writers of fantasy literature that was translated into many languages who were born outside England but finished up with jobs in Oxford obviously.1 And indeed I steal that hook straight from Dr Phelpstead’s lecture but there is, he was arguing, more to the comparison even than that, in that they were both at some level out to create a new national myth that was like, but not ultimately based in, history. The comparison only goes so far in this direction, of course, since as far as we clearly understand what Geoffrey of Monmouth was up to it was to reinsert Britonnic heroes and the past of his Welsh nation into the longer history of the kingdom that was now England, and he seems to have done this cleverly enough to be liked and read in equal measure by those who identified against the English and those like King Henry II who wanted it to be clear how the perhaps-separate histories of the British and English nations were now united, indissolubly, under one obedience, namely to him.2 Tolkien, on the other hand, was apparently dubious about the meaning of Britain as a construct, identified fairly firmly as English and when pushed as Mercian, and reportedly told his son in a letter that if he was anything he was Hwiccian, a marginal identity par excellence but not one with a great deal of meaning attached outside Anglo-Saxonist circles perhaps.3 In this light, it is notable (said Dr Phelpstead, but it seems to be right to me) that except when there is a war afoot, admittedly for most of the Lord of the Rings cycle, the various races of Middle Earth normally leave each other alone and certainly have no shared or overruling government.

Obviously, we have a lot more material from which to gauge Tolkien’s intentions than we do for Geoffrey’s, and the most interesting thing about this lecture for me was those snippets of the author before The Lord of the Rings became the thing for which he was mostly known, indeed before it existed. These suggest that what he was after to provide a missing English epic, something to make up for the fact that England (definitely England) has no sagas, no equivalent to the Kalevala and so on. Like those, it would not need to be historical, but it would need to be in keeping, and for Tolkien at least, express what he called, “a certain truth” about the nation whose culture he aimed thus to supplement. For Dr Phelpstead this was also a point of junction between the two authors: Geoffrey’s ‘certain truth’ was that the history of the island was really that of its older inhabitants, for Tolkien it was more about the quality of heroism and determination in the cause of peace, but the aim to put across a deeper message in their stories was there. Of course, Tolkien knew Geoffrey’s work but precisely because of its British agenda it wouldn’t serve as a basis for his own. In the event, of course, neither did England, and in fact neither did Britain for Geoffrey; both epics escape national confines fairly dramatically and transcend into something that appealed to readers of a great many more nationalities than the target ones, in ways neither author could easily have foreseen.

Pages from an illuminated edition of Tolkien's Silmarilion

Of course, of course someone has done this, this being a hand-illuminated edition of Tolkien’s Silmarilion. There is an interview with the artist, Benjamin Harff, here.

I’m not sure, going back over this, that the comparison here actually yields new insights about either Geoffrey or Tolkien; I learnt a lot about Tolkien and something about Geoffrey from this paper, but more separately than together. The curmudgeon in me wants to cite Chris Wickham’s demand that historical comparison must have a meaningful object to be worth doing, but a public lecture can perhaps be allowed to be entertainment for the brain rather than world-changing insight, and of course I’m not a literature scholar and every now and then I get reminded that things are different over that fence.4 The important thing about this lecture was therefore probably that I enjoyed it and learnt things, and it tided well for the seminar programme ahead.

1. It has subsequently become clear to me that I have, for the last few years, been proceeding around Tolkien’s career itinerary in the wrong order: he grew up in Birmingham, studied and got his first job in Oxford, went from there to a Readership at Leeds and then returned to Oxford as a professor. I’m now slightly worried lest I have to balance all this out by dying in South Africa, where he was born.

2. In so far as I didn’t learn all this from the Internet and seminar papers by John Gillingham, I think that I have it from David Dumville, “An early text of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the circulation of some Latin histories in twelfth-century Normandy” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 4 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, repr. with addenda in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), XIV, and Nicholas Higham, “Historical Narratives as Cultural Politics: Rome, ‘British-ness’ and ‘English-ness'” in idem (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 68-79. But mainly John and the Internet are to blame.

.3. Tolkien’s letters are partly published as Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (edd.), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: a selection (London 1981), whence this kind of information was largely drawn.

4. But it would be curmudgeonly, so I won’t.

This post was written with the aid of Moon Healing Activation by Das Ludicroix, and jolly effective it was too.

5 responses to “Seminar CCXI: two medievalist myth-makers

  1. Allan McKinley

    If that Hwiccan link is meant to prove that their identity was so marginal that any sort of nonsense can be imposed on it, it worked. It seems spectacularly badly informed (my favourite is the use of Caer Baddan, an appropriately probable Geoffrey of Monmouth back formation from the English Bath, itself seemingly a tenth-century innovation as a name) and uses sources that somehow think one can differentiate Angles and Saxons by material culture… You might want to put a warning for the casual reader by that link.

    Anyway, my pet hate of simplified accounts of the Hwiccan identity aside, if Tolkien was claiming a Hwiccan identity from his Birmingham heritage he seems to have missed the evidence that the Hwiccan diocesan boundary (arguably something different from the kingdom’s boundary) was literally recorded on the southern edge of the modern city. I suspect he may have been being obtuse in that case though, selecting the obscure and non-politicised identity as a point, rather than misinformed.

    • I should have looked more closely at the link, shouldn’t I? Sorry. Tolkien, however, may be defensible; he grew up in Worcestershire (King’s Heath, indeed, apparently), even if then moved to Warwickshire (Edgbaston). That would be beyond the line, wouldn’t it? I guess that does tell us that he thought that where he grew up was more determinative of his son’s identity than where his son grew up, though.

  2. While I have read a goodly part of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and can see how, in his day, his collection of myths and legends (some he maybe contributed himself) could be taken as history, I fail to see how LOTR can be likewise. I’m treading on dangerous ground, because Tolkien is a quasi-god for some readers, but LOTR can never be taken as anything other than fantasy fiction (and as a fantasy fiction writer myself, I can appreciate and enjoy his stories). But they lack what might pass as the practice of religion in any form, and apart from the obvious reference to the ‘Shire’ they do not connect at all with England. How then can he have achieved his supposed aim of writing a mythology for England? On the other hand, I highly recommend his ‘Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun’ which is, of course, one of his academic works. But as a Germanic myth we English might find it easier to connect with Sigurd, and the dragon, and . . . okay, maybe not Attila . . . than with Sauron & co. Despite he denied any contemporary allegory in LOTR, we cannot help but see parallels. In that, he was brilliant. But particularly English he wasn’t (by whichever tribe he wished to claim affinity . . . mine’s full Anglian)

    • In some part you put your finger on weaknesses of the paper here, but in others it’s my fault: Dr Phelpstead did stress, as I have not so much, how much the eventual Lord of the Rings exceeded Tolkien’s original vision for it. As for taking it as reflecting on England, though, well, consider some of the significances that have been drawn from Beowulf about world-views, weaponry and culture, to name but a little, despite the magic, superhuman feats, monsters and dragons. Tolkien, too, was maybe trying to express such inner truths as have been found in heroic verse—I’m not sure I believe this but I see how the case would be made—but as to about whom, you might have a good question…

      • I think, too, I was unfair to Tolkien. What was the Ring if not an integral part of English (Germanic) elite society. While being the lord’s gift to his men, it was also what ‘bound’ those men to him. The word ‘ring’ has several applications (at least in ON); there’s the sacred ring upon which oaths were made, and that’s even mentioned in ASCs. There’s the ‘ring of doom’, the area cordoned off that served in similar fashion to today’s courtroom. What’s more, there were two types of rings: one flexible, spiral-formed, the other rigid, binding, as in an arm ring. I guess it’s just that, apart from the wedding ring, the Germanic ‘ring’ is no longer a part of our culture. Easy then to dismiss its relevance to mythology. There’s also the mythic theme of ‘men’ binding the gods.

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