J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology

Simon J. Cook

Rounded Globe

This essay is dedicated to Andrew Holgate, Keith Tribe, and Rachel Stroumsa who, each in their own way, have shown me my way.
‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’

The Two Towers, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’


English History before Chadwick
Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation
Tolkien’s Lost Tales
King Sheave
The Lord of the Rings as English Mythology
About the Author


In my childhood I read The Lord of the Rings and entered an all-encompassing and spell-binding fantasy world. When I watch Peter Jackson’s movies with my own children today I experience a similar escapism, carried away on the magic of the unfamiliar.

But in recent years I’ve become aware of the ways in which Tolkien’s stories connect to various ancient English myths and legends. Consequently, I have come to think of Tolkien’s universe differently: an exploration of the ancient imagination of the North, forged from profound scholarship as well as literary genius, and situated on the threshold of actual history.

What follows is an exercise in the history of ideas. It does not pretend to be light reading. It does not presume to tell you how you should read The Lord of the Rings. Nor is it meant to replace the excellent work on Tolkien by various students of English language and literature. But it does claim to explain, for the first time, how Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth were crafted as reconstructions of a lost English mythology.

By the end of this essay, Aragorn, Arwen, and Frodo will appear in a new light – no longer just icons of modern fantasy, but also the original heroes of lost English song and story.

A few acknowledgements are in order before we begin. My children, Yair, Albert, and Yotam, have graciously allowed me to read The Hobbit to them (several times). I myself am indebted to Roger Took, who read The Hobbit to me, long ago. I would like to thank Pieter Collier of the Tolkien Library website for his support and encouragement of my Tolkien research. Finally, I am grateful to Sue Bridgwater, who carefully read over the present essay (needless to say, all remaining errors are mine).


The English are unsure of their national identity. Like the Scots and the Welsh, they raise an eyebrow at those beyond their island who do not grasp that England and Britain are not the same, that England forms but one part of a united kingdom. But at heart they, too, are befuddled by what it means to be English as well as British. Some locate the source of confusion in the empire-building days of the eighteenth century, when the English supposedly forged the idea of a Great Britain that would rule the waves. Consequently, and in contrast to their fellow islanders, they had few distinctive traditions to call their own as local ethnic identities were fashioned during the nineteenth century. Other explanations look further back in English history. To the Norman Conquest, for example, and its imposition of a foreign, French-speaking aristocracy who placed a contempt for the traditions of the conquered at the very heart of the ruling culture of the English nation. J.R.R. Tolkien would probably have been sympathetic to both explanations; but, in his wonderfully idiosyncratic way, he believed the rot had set in centuries before, during the reign of Alfred the Great.

King Alfred is the only English monarch accorded the title of ‘great’. His valiant military resistance to the Danes, who in the ninth century threatened to overwhelm all the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, is no doubt at the heart of his heroic status in English history. But he is celebrated too for his administrative reforms, his code of laws, and his patronage of education. In fact, Alfred’s reign is regarded as a renaissance of sorts, a moment when the old learning of Roman Britain was revived. A devout Catholic, Tolkien saw much good in this new English interest in Latin learning. But he saw it too as a pivotal moment of national self-consciousness. For the English are not native to the British Isles; they are immigrants from northern waters. And for four hundred years they had lived amidst the ruins of British-Roman civilization whilst retelling the stories and passing on the songs of their Baltic homeland. But when Alfred set his scribes to translate the old Latin books, the English began to forget the oral traditions of their pagan past and to identify their cultural heritage with the glory of Rome, whose departure from their new island home they now lamented. The English thus came to feel themselves in a Dark Ages, and in mourning the passing of the learning of Christian Rome they eventually forgot even that they had forgotten their own traditions.

Tolkien devoted a good part of his life to recovering and reconstructing the lost traditions of the English. Recovery was a scholarly endeavour, involving close readings of old literature. Of particular importance was the Old English poem Beowulf, which he once likened to “a play in a room through the windows of which a distant view can be seen over a large part of the English traditions about the world of their original home.”1 As we shall see, in the opening lines of Beowulf Tolkien would eventually discern the figure of Aragorn, the king who returns to claim the crown of Middle-earth. Beyond scholarly recovery lay literary construction, the composition of stories imagined as illuminating the original source of those English traditions dimly discernible in odd lines of Old English poetry and strange snatches of ancient Northern song. For Tolkien, scholarly and literary efforts were deeply intertwined. If Aragorn was distilled from profound meditation upon Beowulf, he is also a literary hypothesis – an imagined figure of heroic legend created to explain the various ancient traditions that have come down to us concerning the first kings of the North.

This essay shows how The Lord of the Rings arose as a conjectural reconstruction of the lost mythology of the English. After discussing the Edwardian scholarship that shaped and informed his early imagination, we will trace three stages in the development of Tolkien’s – now iconic – vision of the end of the ‘Third Age’ of Middle-earth. We begin with the fairy stories he began writing during World War One, which eventually became The Silmarillion. I will suggest that two mortals in the final series of these stories – Tuor and Ing – were conceived as key to the subsequent historical traditions of the North. But Tolkien’s early narrative of Ing was never completed, and in the 1930s, as he extended his mythology forward in time, Ing’s story was retold by way of an astonishing meeting of mythology and scholarship. The new story of Ing provided the seed out of which later emerged the figures of Elendil, Aragorn, and Frodo. Finally, as he worked on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien rethought the relationship between his stories of Middle-earth and the lost mythology of the English. The early fairy stories faded into the background and the stirring events that brought the Third Age to a close were now posited as the original source of the ancient traditions of the North.

An initial word is in order regarding the very idea of a national mythology. In a now famous letter, composed around 1951, Tolkien recalled how in his youth he was grieved that his “own beloved country… had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil),” and so resolved to compose a body of myth, fairy story, and heroic legend “which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.”2 This letter has fuelled an intensive and ongoing inquiry among Tolkien scholars concerning the relationship between the various stories of Middle-earth and the geographical entity known today as England. What is rarely noticed, however, is that Tolkien’s reference to ‘English story’ in this letter is complex, and relates to language as well as land. My concern in this essay is not with those stories that he tied to the soil of England, but with his reconstruction of traditions once preserved in a language not native to that soil.

Of course, Tolkien’s deep love of the English countryside cannot and should not be discounted. The physical landscape of England haunted his imagination, ravished his heart, and provided the solid ground upon which was raised in story a shifting vision of one corner of Middle-earth. In his earliest tales, England is imagined as a last refuge of the elves, most of whom have already departed from Middle-earth. In the later stories England becomes the Shire, the green and pleasant land of the hobbits. And there is another tale waiting to be told as to how one ‘little people’ (hobbits) came to replace another (fairies) in Tolkien’s vision of the prehistoric inhabitants of his beloved country. But for all the gentle charm of the Shire, hobbits have adventures by leaving it. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of little Englanders who depart their rustic homes in order to explore a wider, perilous world of ancient English tradition. Aragorn, the great king who returns to claim his crown, may be a forerunner of Alfred in his combination of martial valour and mastery of lore, but he is born from myths and legends in which elves give council to the kings, not of England, but of the North.

Behind Tolkien’s stories, be they of England or the English, stands his scholarship. As noted, he approached the tales of long ago by way of surviving manuscripts – records of old traditions that, sometimes, alluded to even older stories now lost. But Tolkien’s interpretation of these archaic texts did not occur in a vacuum. His was – without doubt and far more than most – an original scholarly mind, yet he was still bound by his context: his reading of the old literature of the North was of necessity informed by his critical engagement with contemporary scholarship. As we shall see, one particular study of the mythological traditions of the Continental English played a crucial role in shaping Tolkien’s imagination. More generally, but no less fundamentally, Tolkien’s conjectural stories of Middle-earth are explorations of that vast expanse of time recently opened up to the modern imagination by the startling discovery that Northern Europe had been inhabited by farmers and warriors for time out of mind. Before we turn to Tolkien’s literary creations we need first to grasp the significance of those intellectual revolutions and scholarly upheavals that reshaped Edwardian conceptions of the English before they ever settled in the British Isles.

English History before Chadwick

Mid-Victorian historians of England began with the Anglo-Saxons. More precisely, they took as their starting-point the English settlement of large parts of the British Isles following the migration from original homelands between the Baltic and the North Sea. Typically, a prefatory paragraph on the Continental English served to introduce the true subject of early English history – the Anglo-Saxon mark, or village community, that the migrating folk planted on British soil. Historians were convinced these village communities were extended families, kinship groups holding some of their agricultural land in common. The history of English society – the story of the making of modern England – was essentially the story of how these archaic village communities had evolved, by way of the feudal manor, into communities of property-holding individuals. The underlying idea was that the kinship group was an essentially primitive social form, a legacy of not so distant days of nomadic tribalism; but once a people settled down to steady agricultural life, membership of the community came to rest merely on territorial proximity (living somewhere in England) as opposed to shared blood (belonging to one or another English tribe).

Behind this mid-Victorian story of the evolution of modern English society stood a more general historical model derived from the study of comparative philology. The late eighteenth-century discovery that Greek and Latin derived from the same parent language as Sanskrit opened up an unexpected vista on the prehistoric past. Positing an original Indo-European (or ‘Aryan’) people located somewhere in the East, scholars proceeded to map out prehistoric migration routes based upon the genealogical relationships of the various Indo-European languages. From their homeland in the East, went the story, various branches of the original Indo-European family had split off, migrating into modern India, Persia and Europe. The different waves of migrants were taken as the forefathers of the various modern nations, each speaking a distinctive version of the original language. The story of the Anglo-Saxon settlements told by the English historians was simply a late chapter in this much larger story: one of many wandering Indo-European folk, nomadic English tribes had entered German lands from the East and soon continued their westward migration, crossing the sea to Britain and bringing their language with them.

Over the course of the 1880s this established history of the English settlement of Britain came under sustained and ultimately successful attack. The immediate point of contention concerned the fate of the native Britons. The older historians had envisioned a sort of Dark Ages ethnic cleansing, with the natives either fleeing (mainly west, into the mountains of Wales) or being put to the sword. This picture was challenged by a new enthusiasm for correlating skull shape with racial type. Comparison of ancient skulls (unearthed by archaeologists) with modern skulls (measured by anthropologists) was hailed as demonstrating the general racial continuity of population in England since the Stone Age. Two basic types of skulls were posited, with long heads identified as indigenous, and broad heads as intrusive. The consensus reading of the archaeological evidence was that successive waves of broad-skulled invaders had gradually been assimilated into the long-skulled natives. In a related development, antiquarians argued that many modern English villages predated the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, suggesting that the invaders had simply established themselves as a ruling warrior caste over much older British settlements. The earlier model of genocidal settlement thus gave way to a new vision of conquest, initial enslavement, but ultimate survival of the indigenous population. From this new perspective, the supposedly primitive characteristics of the old English village – its archaic rituals and mythological traditions as well as social relations – appeared now as survivals from the prehistoric British past rather than Anglo-Saxon imports from the Continent.

Behind this revision of mid-Victorian English history stood the discovery of a vast expanse of European prehistory. The nineteenth-century debate over human antiquity saw the final assault of science on the literal reading of the Biblical creation story. Prior to 1859 it had been widely held that humanity was not much older than 6000 years, and the three major language families were often traced back to the three sons of Noah (Indo-European speakers being descendants of Japheth). But in 1859 the British scientific establishment accepted that human tools excavated in the Somme valley had been found in the same geological strata as the bones of now extinct animals. The impact of the discovery of human antiquity was not immediate: respectable antiquarians a decade later could still maintain that prior to the Roman invasion Britain had been inhabited for at most a few generations. But by the 1880s it was widely accepted that the paintings found on the walls of European caves predated by many a long age the earliest recorded languages. Archaeology and anthropology (the study of primitive society) now displaced comparative philology as the new master sciences of prehistory.

The archaeologists and anthropologists proposed a new model of language diffusion. In place of folk migrations they posited small bands of warriors who conquered, ruled over, and ultimately interbred with native populations across Eurasia. Differences in Indo-European languages were related to the ways native speech habits might have distorted and reshaped the language of the conquerors. The revisionists also seized upon the claim by philologists at the University of Leipzig that Sanskrit was not as ancient as hitherto believed. This opened the door to a reversing of the direction of the great cultural movement of prehistory: in place of westward folk migrations from an original homeland in the East, it become fashionable to assert a North European homeland, a land of ice and snow out of which had poured bands of warriors, the conquerors of pre-Aryan populations from Britain to India. Like the Normans after them and the Celts before, the Anglo-Saxons came into view as one more wave of Northern warriors overrunning a land originally settled by pre-Aryan farmers.

But a new consensus as to the shape of the prehistoric past never quite emerged. The state of research was just too messy, the clamour of competing opinions too noisy. A ragtag army of self-declared antiquarian experts enthusiastically declaimed ever more eccentric theories of ancient Britain and its various populations. Indeed, a good deal of today’s popular but lunatic fringe ideas concerning the likes of Merlin and Stonehenge date to these years. Folklorists roamed the countryside seeking survivals of archaic fertility rituals, which they connected to the Green Man, John Barleycorn, and the May Queen (all of whom live on, either in the names of public houses or the rock music of the 1970s). Archaeologists unearthed evidence of ancient British hilltop terracing, which they took to be the work of aboriginal farmers of the same pre-Aryan race that had fashioned similar terracing in India. Anthropologists depicted these aboriginals as a peaceful people, living in egalitarian and matriarchal societies. The coming of patriarchal Aryan warriors could appear – depending upon one’s point of view – as either the kickstarter of moral and material progress or the end of an archaic feminist utopia.

By around 1900 the historians had had enough. Frederic William Maitland, the greatest of modern English historians, redrew the disciplinary boundaries, marking off the respectable history of England from what he saw as a motley collection of largely unprovable speculations. Maitland insisted that the mid-Victorian historians had been correct in identifying the modern English village as essentially an Anglo-Saxon import. But he dismissed the mid-Victorian story of modern individualism emerging out of the primitive communism and kinship ties of the village community: “so far back as we can see,” he argued, “the German village had a solid core of individualism.”3 More fundamentally, Maitland now insisted that the proper subject of English history was not the emergence of individualism but of the modern English state, which he dated to the fourteenth century. Questions as to the origins of individualism “should be placed for our race beyond the limit of history.”4

The unilateral withdrawal by historians from scholarly terrain they once policed left Edwardian prehistoric research as a series of forays into academic no-man’s land. Maitland’s skepticism regarding research into prehistoric origins was not shared by the various folklorists, archaeologists, anthropologists, philologists and students of comparative mythology, all of whom continued to advance their diverse and at times wildly incompatible theories. None of this ground properly belonged to any one university discipline, and many who wandered upon it appeared lost in the eyes of the polite dons teaching English history at Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, the establishment of academic departments of British archaeology or Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic literature notwithstanding, Maitland’s distinction between England’s history and heritage still stands. The former remains a subject of polite conversation at high table; the latter is visited on weekends and the summer solstice by the great British public, and consumed together with old ale and other more potent brews. It is out of this latter world that Tolkien’s thought emerged.

Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation

The young Tolkien did find one reputable guidebook to aid his navigation through one area of this still undisciplined and wild terrain: Hector Munro Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation. This seminal study traced the history of the English back before their settlement of Britain, and did so by way of reconstructing the ancient traditions of the Continental English. Still authoritative today, Origin was first published in 1907 – four years before Tolkien went up to Oxford and six years before he switched his undergraduate studies from Classics to English. Tolkien was thus one of the first generation of English students to cut their teeth on Chadwick’s Origin: some of the questions that he faced in his final examinations in Literis Anglicis (English Literature) in 1915 required discussion of Chadwick’s ground-breaking arguments. Tolkien, we may be confident, read Origin carefully prior to taking his final examinations and, as will become clear, key elements of Chadwick’s arguments would remain deep in his mind even as he donned khaki and headed off to France to fight in the Great War.

Chadwick was a Cambridge scholar who accepted Maitland’s expulsion of the study of English origins beyond the borders of history proper. He operated in the no-man’s land between Folklore, Anthropology, and English; but where most denizens of this stateless landscape appeared at best eccentric and at worst seriously cracked, Chadwick’s scholarly credentials were impeccable and his respectability unquestionable. His Origin was a turning-point in Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Pushing aside older philological methods, he looked to cultural affinities discovered through literary study of old folktales and ancient mythology. The result was a turning away from older identifications of the English as Low German tribesmen and the careful drawing of an alternative image of the English as originally a Baltic people attached to the Scandinavian world.

Mid-Victorian historians had not had much to say about the Continental English. Using Roman sources, and focusing primarily upon the Saxons, they sketched a vague picture of semi-nomadic tribesmen with little agricultural knowledge, recently arrived in German lands after long years of wanderings out of the East. By contrast, Chadwick argued that prior to the settlement of Britain the Angles had conquered the Saxons. This allowed him to turn his attention north, to Angeln on the Baltic coast of Schleswig, which he argued was the original homeland of the Angles; and he pointed to the recent archaeological claim of continuous agricultural settlement in this region since the Stone Age. The starting-point of his research into the Continental English thus became the one brief mention of the Angles in the Germania of the first-century Roman historian Tacitus.

Tacitus identifies the Angles as one of several Northern tribes who worship a fertility goddess called Nerthus, whose cult he connects with an unnamed island. Chadwick picks up this statement as one end of a long and winding thread, which he proceeds to trace through a multitude of Old Norse and Old English traditions. He begins by pointing out that the name of the later Norse god Niörðr is phonetically equivalent to Nerthus, and that both are associated with fertility and water, as are also Frey and Freya, the son and daughter of Niörðr. Looking further afield, he wonders whether Fróði is connected to the ancient English cult. Fróði is the peace-king of Danish legend in whose idyllic reign gold rings were supposedly left untouched on the public high-roads. But Chadwick argues that Fróði is represented as distinct from the gods and, therefore, cannot be related to the cult of Nerthus. He finds a better candidate in the goddess Gefion, the Danish counterpart of Freya, who is associated with agriculture and whose cult is connected with the island of Zealand. By connecting Gefion with Nerthus, Chadwick is led to the identification of Zealand – the largest island of modern Denmark – as the island on which the cult of Nerthus was located.

Turning to Old English traditions, Chadwick notes the place accorded in the English royal genealogies to Scyld, the celebrated founder of the Danish royal house. As Scyld Scefing, this king also appears in the opening lines of Beowulf. This Old English poem begins with that “good king” who, tradition tells, arrived mysteriously as a child alone on a boat with a sheaf of wheat beneath his head. The child is raised by the people of the shore, eventually becoming their king. At the end of his celebrated reign, the Beowulf-poet adds (but Tolkien seems to have been the first to realize that this was an innovation), Scyld Scefing is placed back on a boat and returned across the water to the great unknown. Chadwick argues that the sheaf of corn is an original element of the story of Scyld, connecting him to the ancient fertility cult of the North. He also points out that Scyld, the first Danish king, is said to be the husband of the goddess Gefion. Alongside the Swedes and the Danes, the English are thus shown to have retained traditions that can be traced back to the original cult of Nerthus.

But there is a problem. Nerthus is a female earth-goddess, while Niörðr, Frey and Scyld are all male and associated with the royal houses of the North. Chadwick’s attempt to connect the ancient traditions of Nerthus with the migration-age traditions of Niörðr and other male deities is at once the most original and the most speculative part of The Origin of the English Nation. And it is precisely the element of Chadwick’s book with which Tolkien engaged most intensely, most critically, and most creatively. Indeed, to engage with the young Tolkien’s criticisms of Chadwick’s methodology and solutions is to stand on the very threshold of Tolkien’s vision of a lost English mythology. The road to Middle-earth crossed through Chadwick’s attempt to connect ancient and migration-age traditions.

Chadwick appeals to then-fashionable anthropological theory, according to which primitive societies were originally matriarchal. At the heart of his argument is the idea that the goddess Nerthus took a mortal consort. When Nerthus emerged from her lake and was placed in a cart that was taken around the island of Zealand, one priest was allowed to touch her cart, and this priest – suggests Chadwick – was held to be the husband of the corn goddess.5 But between the time of Tacitus and the Viking Age, Chadwick argues, Northern society lost its original matriarchal basis. As patriarchal institutions became dominant, the priests of the North established themselves as kings, taking for themselves many of the divine characteristics of the original goddess. Thus, for example, the earliest sources indicate that the Swedish queen is both descendant and living representative of the goddess Freya; but by the thirteenth century, when Snorri Sturluson wrote the early history of the Norse kings in his Ynglinga Saga, the established tradition was that Frey succeeded Niörðr as king of the Swedes. Thus the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy is invoked as an explanation of the shifting gender of the central divinity of Northern tradition.

Also pivotal to Chadwick’s speculative connection of earlier and later traditions is the mysterious figure of Ing. Chadwick identifies the Ing of ancient tradition with the mortal consort of the goddess Nerthus.6 In later tradition, however, Ing takes on a quite different role. According to the Anglo-Saxon ‘Old Runic Poem’: Ing “was first seen by men among the East-Danes” but subsequently “departed eastwards over the waves”. Chadwick argues that these rather obscure lines show that the Ing of migration-age traditions has become a god (for the Danes are said to be the first humans to see him). He further argues that Ing is the original of the great king, Scyld: both sojourn among the Danes, appear to come from a non-human world beyond the sea, and eventually pass over the sea, perhaps back to the divine lands from whence they came. Ing thus becomes for Chadwick the key figure in the mythology of the North. Ing is the ancient mortal consort of Nerthus who, in the centuries leading up to the English migration to Britain, is transformed into a deity and celebrated as the original king of the North. Tolkien’s mythology of English origins would emerge by way of a series of critical engagements with Chadwick’s conceptions of Ing.

Tolkien’s Lost Tales

In the winter of late 1916, a year after graduating from Oxford and a few weeks after returning to England from France and the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien lay in a hospital bed, recovering from trench fever. Picking up a notebook he wrote a title on the cover: ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, and began to write down a body of connected stories which could be dedicated to his country, England. These ‘lost tales’ are, in two senses, fairy stories: they are told by fairies, or as Tolkien increasingly came to call them, elves; and the series of tales as a whole provides a sort of history of the elves, the ‘firstborn’ who awoke in the world long ages before the coming of men. It is true that the tales begin before the waking of the elves, telling of the creation of the world and its inhabitation by the Valar, angelic caretakers or gods. And it is true, too, that the climactic conclusion envisioned (but only completed in later versions of these stories) begins with a seminal intervention by Tuor, a mortal man. Yet Valar and mortals are really but supporting cast in stories that are essentially told by elves, about elves, and (usually) to other elves. How could Tolkien have conceived of these fairy stories as illuminating the lost mythology of the English?

At the heart of the young Tolkien’s creative vision was the idea of a special relationship between the elves and the English. One side of this relationship is established in the conceit by means of which the fairy stories are supposed to have come down to us. The tales are told by the elves to a mortal traveller, a man who has reached an enchanted island upon which some elves still dwell. This mortal is named Eriol, and he is called by the elves Angol, after the regions of his home between the seas in the northern parts of the Great Lands.7 Eriol, in other words, is a pre-migration Englishman; and, because he has transmitted these stories to his descendants, so “the Engle (i.e. the English) have the true tradition of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”8 All this is explicit in Tolkien’s very earliest stories.

But there is another, implicit side to Eriol’s encounter with the elven tellers of story. For as Tolkien would put it in 1926, theirs are “the tales of the days before the days, in the Northern regions of the Western World.”9 More prosaically, if the tales of the elves are told to an Englishman on an island to the west of the Great Lands, much of the most interesting action they describe takes place to the north-east, in the regions from whence Eriol comes. The elves, in other words, tell Eriol of the prehistory of the North European mainland, where the original homeland of the English is found; and as we come to the end of their stories we find ourselves at the threshold of the history of the men of the North, Eriol’s forefathers. Thus these fairy stories illuminate the old English northern traditions investigated by Chadwick. Indeed, Tolkien was suggesting that the lost traditions of the English derive from the same tales, albeit told from a mortal perspective. In receiving the elven lore the English do not merely steal a march on their Celtic neighbours; they are also given a key to the meaning of their own ancient traditions.10

What is the elvish prehistory of the North? We need a brief outline of Tolkien’s ‘lost tales’ if we are to draw out their relationship to Chadwick’s reconstruction of early English mythology. Running through all of these fairy stories, from the creation of the world onwards, is the figure of Melko, a rebellious Vala (i.e. a fallen angel), who sows seeds of destruction, both poisoned words uttered under a cloak of friendship and direct preparations for open warfare. Because of the evil that Melko has caused in the Great Lands, where the elves awake, the Valar call upon them to cross the western ocean and dwell with them in Valinor. Long ages later, Melko instigates a rebellion among one of the three elvish tribes, the Noldoli, who now return to the Great Lands, albeit only after slaying kin who stand in their way.

The curtain now rises on the final – and for our purposes, most important – series of stories envisaged for ‘The Book of Lost Tales’. Aided by a few heroic men, the Noldoli engage in an ultimately hopeless struggle against Melko and his legions of monsters. Eventually, and by a series of events that we must investigate more closely, the elves of Valinor are moved to come to their aid: Melko suffers a great defeat, and most of the elves return to Valinor. It is from the few who still linger on the edge of the Great Lands that these stories are passed on to mortal Englishmen. Of the stories they tell, it is these final tales that bear upon the first days of the men of the North. They are also the most animated of the tales, the richest in narrative content, and clearly spring from the very heart of Tolkien’s creative vision. At the same time, the concluding part of the entire drama was never finished, and exists only in a series of outlines, suggesting perhaps that the young Tolkien remained uncertain as to some elements of the relationship between his fairy stories and the earliest known traditions of the English.

“And thus did all the fates of the fairies weave then to one strand, and that strand is the great tale of Eärendel”.11 So concludes the last of the completed narratives of ‘The Book of Lost Tales’. But while the tale of Eärendel was never completed, its beginnings are richly embroidered in ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, the most accomplished of all the lost tales. The prime mover in this story is Ulmo, Lord of Waters, the one Vala who remains well-disposed to the Noldoli after their departure from Valinor. Knowing that Melko pays little regard to the doings of men, Ulmo guides the mortal Tuor to the hidden kingdom of Gondolin to deliver a message to its king. The elven king does not heed Ulmo’s counsel; but Ulmo had also another reason for guiding Tuor to Gondolin: Idril, the elven daughter of the king, falls in love with the mortal Tuor and bears him a son, Eärendel. When Gondolin falls due to treachery, Tuor escapes, together with Idril and their half-elven and half-mortal son. And now, in telling the subsequent story of Eärendel, we pass from polished narrative to various outlines sketched by Tolkien concerning the final acts of the great drama. Essentially, Eärendel too hears the call of Ulmo, who bids him sail to Valinor to seek aid against Melko. Eärendel has various adventures along the way, which include meeting Ing, but eventually the elves of Valinor march to the aid of their kindred in the Great Lands. Melko is defeated, and the “days before the days” in the Northern world come to a close.

With the end of the stories of the elves begins the historical traditions of mortal men. How might the men of the North remember the same stories? An immediate answer, without doubt present in Tolkien’s mind, is not so well and with some inevitable confusion. Being immortal, the original tellers of fairy tales may well have been eye-witnesses to the events they describe. At most there are likely to be only a few links of transmission. But mortal men, doomed to die, must hand on their memories from generation to generation, and each transmission increases the likelihood of distortion, confusion, and loss. Tolkien would highlight the contrast between immortal and mortal perspectives in his much later account of ‘The Council of Elrond’ in The Fellowship of the Ring. Elrond (the son of Eärendel) is telling of events long ago concerning the “Last Alliance of Elves and Men” and the fate of the One Ring. Frodo is astonished when he realizes that Elrond was witness to the events he is recounting. Boromir, for his part, exclaims that in Gondor the tale of the ring “has long been forgotten”. But Gandalf, the wizard, has bridged the long years by archival research, having found among the ancient records of Gondor a scroll that reveals the history of the ring during its brief time in the hands of men. The art of writing combined with the scholarship of the learned allows a preservation of tradition that is natural to the elves. But the first men of the North passed down their memories by word of mouth, and we should expect some errors and confusions to have entered into their traditions.

Still, we have yet to identify those stirring events at the beginning of history that most likely made the most impression upon mortal men. What elements of the lost fairy tales might correspond to the original stories at the basis of the later traditions of the men of the North? It seems obvious that their traditions would center on Tuor. Elements of the later tale of Eärendel might have been preserved (and we have yet to turn to his meeting with Ing), but Tuor’s immortal son passed out of human (if not elven) ken when he crossed the western ocean. Now, Tuor’s story does indeed bear a rough and ready resemblance to elements of the ancient traditions as interpreted by Chadwick – for Tuor weds an immortal wife, albeit the fairy Idril as opposed to the goddess Nerthus. Further inspection reveals that Nerthus is connected to the story of Tuor: in one of his outlines Tolkien makes clear that Ulmo is another name for Neorth,12 the Old English form of Niörðr, the later Norse god connected by Chadwick with Nerthus. Thus Tuor’s story is bound up, not only with marriage to an immortal, but also with the crucial intervention of a divinity identified with Nerthus. Chadwick’s interpretation of the early traditions, the young Tolkien’s fairy story suggests, has conflated these two immortals – the one elven the other divine – and made Tuor into the mortal consort of Nerthus.

Once we stop to think about it this is not so surprising; the young Tolkien was bound to discover a conflation of this sort in Chadwick’s reconstructions of the traditions of the North. This is because there is no place for elves – or other magical creatures – in Chadwick’s interpretations. Chadwick assumes that a figure from tradition is either human or divine. Recall the line from the Old Runic Poem that Ing “was first seen by men among the East-Danes”, from which Chadwick reasoned that Ing is not human and, therefore, must be a god. The same logic dictates that the suggestion of marriage of mortal and immortal must refer to the union of human and divinity. Unlike Tolkien, Chadwick has no interest in all those folk stories of young men who wandered off into the great beyond and married fairy brides. So the entire framework of Tolkien’s lost tales – fairy stories about the elves who inhabit the Northern world before the ancestors of the English – constitutes a challenge to Chadwick’s reading of the traditions, undermining the simple binary at the heart of his scholarship.

Tolkien’s implicit criticism of Chadwick can be framed in terms of a divergence between Protestant and Catholic readings of the paganism of the North. Chadwick’s Protestant reading is marked by simplicity and economy of theological conception. His old religion of the North contains no middle ground: a figure from tradition is either a human or a god. Tolkien’s Catholic reading of the same sources discovers all sorts of supernatural beings, few of which are actual gods. Tolkien in fact suggests that gods have little place in the traditions passed down by the men of the North. For sure, the Valar play a substantial role in the stories of the elves. But with the exception of Ulmo (Nerthus), in the stories of mortal men it is immortal elves as opposed to gods who provide the main (if not sole) immortal partner. There is a spiritual hierarchy at work here, with each level of creation enthused by the grace of the level immediately above it. And this metaphysical vision dovetails neatly with Tolkien’s sense of the inherent godlessness of the historical paganism of the North.

Tolkien regarded the gods of the North as “in their very beings but the shadows of great men and warriors cast upon the walls of the world”.13 In some notes from the 1930s he contrasts these gods with those of ancient Greece: the latter are immortal, and separated from humanity by a great gulf. But the gods of the North are “enmeshed in time” – Baldur is already dead, while others are doomed to die at Ragnarök, the great battle that will be fought – and lost – by the gods fighting side by side with mankind against the monsters. This insight into the paganism of the North is bound up with Tolkien’s understanding of the origins of English individualism (a subject, it will be recalled, banished by Maitland beyond the limits of history). Doomed to die, the hero of the North resolves to meet the monsters in battle nonetheless. Individualism arises out of this pagan strength of character, the victory of will over despair; its opposite is idolatry, the turning to alien deities when faith in oneself is lost. The courageous hero may receive external aid from figures who step out of myth and legend. But only a people who do not believe in themselves are liable to worship such wonderful beings.14

But while downplaying the role of gods in Northern tradition, Tolkien did see a place within the created world for a large variety of mythical beings. His profound belief in fallen human nature notwithstanding, the Augustinian idea of a near absolute gulf between God and his Creation was quite alien to him. Tolkien saw a place under the Northern sky for mortals taken up to divinity (saints), for elements of the divine who take physical form (angels), and for many other intermediate forms besides. Fairy stories today told by mortal men may contain memories of strange beings, now deemed mythological, who once aided mankind in its struggle with the monsters; beings who were neither mortals doomed to die nor deities meriting worship. Northern traditions may recall miraculous intrusions into mortal history, passages over the great ocean associated with the origin of historical nations.

For Tolkien, the story of Ing was always bound up with just such a miraculous intrusion into the history of the North. In one of his outlines of the later story of Eärendel we find the following sketch of the story of Ing: at one point on his travels Eärendel is said to take refuge with Ing (whose name is here written Ingwë). He gives Ingwë an enchanted elven drink that makes him immortal. Ingwë is subsequently shipwrecked at sea, rescued alone on a raft, and taken as king of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians, “who adopt the title of Ingwaiwar. He teaches them much magic and first sets men’s hearts to seafaring westward”. But after many years, “Ingwë sets sail in a little boat and is heard of no more”.15 For the most part, this story of Ing is obviously a retelling of that of Scyld Scefing as given in the opening lines of Beowulf. Indeed, Tolkien retains the idea of the king eventually departing back over the ocean, which he came to regard as an innovation by the Beowulf-poet. But he also gives his own twist to the tale, adding a crucial beginning that links the miraculous elements of Ing’s kingship to prior dealings with elves and their beverages. The origin of the royal house of the North is shown to be bound up in fairy tale.

In this early outline on Ing we have the seed out of which would grow, by way of a vision of Eärendel’s progeny and a further engagement with both Chadwick and Beowulf, the idea of Aragorn, the king who returns to Middle-earth. But the figure of Aragorn was the fruit of many years of creative meditation and study on Tolkien’s part, and identifying the next stage of his development will be our chief concern in the following section. For the moment it is important to appreciate how much is already packed into the brief outline just described. By making clear that Ing and Tuor (the father of Eärendel) are distinct characters, Tolkien is separating the tradition of Ing as king of the North from the tradition of Ing as mortal consort of an immortal bride. And yet Tolkien manages to suggest that Chadwick’s idea of Ing transforming from mortal to immortal is not all wrong (only the transformation happened, not over centuries, but all at once, as a result of a single drink). This metamorphosis itself illustrates the range of supernatural beings that Tolkien is prepared to incorporate into his body of ancient English stories. In contrast to Chadwick’s equation of immortality with divinity, Tolkien presents us with two immortals, Eärendel and Ing, neither of whom are gods, but whose immortalities are different – the one inherits immortality from his fairy mother, the other drinks his way to it.

There was more to Ing in Tolkien’s early thinking; although precisely what is not easy to establish. The mortal Ing who becomes the immortal king of the Northern tribes is only one of two Ings who appear in ‘The Book of Lost Tales’. The other Ing is an immortal elf, who not only made it into some of the completed narratives of the lost tales but subsequently (as Ingwë, King of the Vanyar) also into The Silmarillion. In ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ this second Ing is the greatest elven king and the founding father of the royal clan of the Inwir.16 After Eärendel’s mission, and on hearing the lament of men and elves, this elf king leads his people to battle in the Great Lands, where he meets his death. The two Ings are clearly distinct – the one born a mortal, the other awakened an elf. Yet there is evidently a deliberate parallel in their stories of kingship and the founding of royal houses. Just as the elven Ing founds the Inwir, so the mortal Ing founds the Ingwaiwar or Inguaeones – which latter name means ‘people of Ing’, and derives from the name given to the Northern tribes by the Roman writers Tacitus and Pliny.

What was Tolkien trying to do with these two Ings? It is hard to be certain, although it seems clear that we are witnessing an attempt to embody the idea of a special relationship between the elves and the English, whose royal histories are shown to reflect one another. But there is surely more going on here. To begin with, by placing two different Ings within his fairy-tales, the one mortal and the other immortal, Tolkien is implicitly criticizing Chadwick’s idea of a transformation in tradition. The earlier and later traditions are not stories about a single individual, Ing, who begins as a mortal and ends as a divinity; they are simply stories about two different characters, the one an immortal fairy king, the other a miraculous mortal king (who does, however, become immortal). At the same time, it is noteworthy that Ing and Eärendel connote conceptually opposite ideas of mortal and immortal relationships: Ing is a single name given to two distinct characters, the one immortal and the other mortal; Eärendel is the offspring of a mixed marriage, the union of mortal and immortal. It seems no accident that both Ings are connected with Eärendel in the same narrative (Eärendel meets the mortal Ing on his way to Valinor, while the elven Ing departs from Valinor following his mission). One wonders whether the young Tolkien was exploring how later traditions might have conflated as well as connected various mortals and immortals.

We can be confident that Ing was important to Tolkien because he wanted his fairy stories to have some bearing upon the traditions concerning the royal houses of the North. At the center of Tolkien’s early vision of the original stories of the North is the conception of a marriage between mortal man and immortal elf. This was his primary – and enduring – response to Chadwick. But while Tuor of the lost tales does marry an elven king’s daughter, he is clearly not the founder of any mortal royal house. Nor is his son, Eärendel, who departs from the mortal world. And yet the traditions concerning Northern kingship are as central to the themes of early English mythology as any idea of Nerthus and her mortal consort. What the early outlines on Ing were providing was the germ of a fairy tale account of the origins of kingship in the North. What we shall trace in the next two sections, as we pursue Tolkien’s thinking through later decades, is the reintroduction of Ing into the mythology by another name. This reintroduction maintained the idea of a miraculous fairy intrusion into the history of the North, but transformed the beginning of the story by making Ing, not the acquaintance of Eärendel, but his descendant. The reworking of our outline on Ing was achieved by way of profound reflection upon its major historical source, the Old English poem Beowulf.

King Sheave

As Tolkien’s mythology developed, the name Ing disappeared; but the idea of a miraculous king of the North remained. In the 1930s Ing’s story was retold as ‘King Sheave’, which tale became the creative receptacle out of which would eventually step Elendil, his heir Aragorn, and the ring-bearer, Frodo. This new story of Ing as Sheave (or Scef) was born from the meeting of two creative movements. On the one hand, a continued development of the narrative arc of his fairy stories led Tolkien to posit a line of mortal descendants of Eärendel who, eventually, became kings of Middle-earth. On the other hand, a renewed engagement with Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation shaped a critical encounter with Beowulf, out of which was born a reconstruction of what Tolkien believed to be the oral tradition that lay behind the poem’s opening celebration of Scyld Scefing.

After working on ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ for several years, Tolkien turned aside from the endeavour as a whole. Leaving the tales unfinished, he worked two of them up into long poems. One, ‘The Lay of Leithian’, tells of the love of Beren and Lúthien. In the lost tales both had been elves, but in the 1920s Beren became a mortal man and the pair Tolkien’s second mixed union. The reworking of their story established symmetry on several levels. While Tuor’s love for Idril had resulted in his becoming an immortal,17 Lúthien’s love for Beren was now said to have led to her becoming mortal. By 1926 Tolkien would insist that “Tuor and Beren alone of mortal Men ever wedded Elves of old”, and so “of them alone has come the elfin blood into mortal Men”.18 Furthermore, Tolkien decided that Eärendel had married the granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien. The two different mortal and immortal unions thus came together in a single mixed bloodline. Then, in the 1930s, Tolkien decided that this bloodline had subsequently divided into two streams: Eärendel fathers two sons, Elrond, who chose the immortal life of the elves, and Elros, who chose a mortal life.19

Elros was conceived as Tolkien developed the legend of Númenor, which is central to his vision of what became the ‘Second Age’ of Middle-earth. Established upon an island in the western ocean and identified with the Atlantis of ancient Greek legend, the realm of Númenor was home to those men who had aided the elves in their struggle with Melko. Elros is the first king of Númenor, which becomes the greatest realm of men, its people receiving much wisdom and lore from the West. But eventually overweening pride causes the destruction of Númenor, which is overwhelmed by cataclysmic waves and sinks forever beneath the ocean. Tolkien envisaged a small boat escaping the deluge and carrying its mysterious cargo to the shores of the Atlantic coast.

‘King Sheave’ tells of how the people of the coast find an infant child within this boat, asleep, with a sheaf of corn beneath his head. They call the boy Sheaf (Scef), but “his true name was hidden and is forgotten”. Scef is looked after by those who dwell upon the land, and when he has grown he becomes their king. His reign is a golden age of plentiful harvests when “the carven houses of men were filled with gold”. King Sheave teaches men “many new words” – “song and verse-craft he taught them, and runecraft, and tillage and husbandry, and the making of many things”. His children are “many and fair, and it is sung that of them are come the kings of men of the North Danes and the West Danes, the South Angles and the East Gothfolk.” In their day “there was peace in the isles,” and “a man might cast a golden ring upon the highway and it would remain until he took it up again.” For in these years “the great mill of Sheaf was guarded still in the island sanctuary of the North”. But on reaching old age, Sheave lay upon his bed “and became as one in deep slumber”; his people placed him upon a ship, “and the sea took him, and the ship bore him unsteered far away into the uttermost West out of the sight or thought of men”.20

‘King Sheave’ is an astonishing meeting of Tolkien’s fairy stories and scholarly engagement with Beowulf. In the first place, the tale is recognizably a working up of the early outline discussed above in which Ing, on parting from Eärendel, is shipwrecked, rescued, becomes king of the Northern tribes, and finally sails back into the great unknown. The key difference is the opening of the story: the ruin of Númenor replaces the encounter with Eärendel and subsequent shipwreck. But the second part of the outline is of course but a version of the story of Scyld Scefing told in the opening lines of Beowulf. Nevertheless, Tolkien was not so much retelling the story of Scyld Scefing as groping behind it, attempting to recover the original oral tradition on which it was based. To understand why Tolkien thought this act of recovery was important, and how he proceeded, we need to appreciate how he situated Beowulf in relation to the history of the English.

Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English. Set entirely in Scandinavia, the poem tells of the adventures, first in youth then in mature age, of the great hero Beowulf. The opening lines present a genealogy of the Danish royal house that begins with the supposed founder of the dynasty, Scyld Scefing, and continues down to Hrothgar, the king who built Heorot, a famous mead hall. But we soon discover that a shadow lies upon Heorot: for twelve years it has been haunted by the monster Grendel. The first part of the poem tells of Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot and his fight, first with Grendel and then with Grendel’s mother. The second part tells how, having returned to his native Geatland (now southern Sweden), where he eventually becomes king, Beowulf fights and kills, but is also killed by, a great dragon.

Tolkien was convinced that Beowulf was composed in England in the eighth century. But if this is so, why does all the action take place on the Continent? During the 1930s, around the same time he composed ‘King Sheave’, Tolkien was lecturing on Beowulf in Oxford. In spring 2014 some of his lecture notes were published as a commentary, alongside his translation of the poem.21 These Oxford lecture notes reveal Tolkien’s answer as to why this English poem is situated in Continental regions north-east of England. They also show the centrality of Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation to Tolkien’s engagement with this Old English poem.

In his lecture notes Tolkien takes it as given that, as Chadwick had argued, the cult of Nerthus was at the heart of ancient English traditions. Furthermore, Tolkien fully accepts Chadwick’s conclusion that Zealand was the island home of the cult. What Tolkien adds to this – and here he departs from Chadwick – is the idea that Danish military expansion stands in the background of the Beowulf story, and indeed was the ultimate cause of the English migrations to the British Isles. Zealand, now the largest island of modern Denmark, is said to have been once the center of the Anglo-Frisian world.22 After Danish arms have expelled the English and other Northern tribes from their sacred island, the Danish king, Hrothgar, orders the building of Heorot on the very site of the ancient sanctuary of Nerthus. But this celebration of victory soon turns sour, for the monster Grendel begins to haunt the king’s new mead hall. Beowulf comes into view as an English poem that tells of terrible events at the very heart of a lost homeland.

Tolkien believed that the Danes, following their conquest of Zealand, made the ancient traditions of the island exclusively their own. What is more, the English came to accept this ‘Danification’ of their ancient myths and legends. For Tolkien this was a crucial moment of corruption and loss. To reach the lost mythology of the English it is necessary to strip away the Danish accretions, to imagine the stories that were told when Zealand and its sanctuary were the living heart of English life. None of this was derived from Chadwick, who believed Ing to have been originally a king of the Danes. Chadwick argued, however, that the term Ingwine, which in Beowulf refers to the Danes and means literally ‘Friends of Ing’, referred originally to both Danes and Angles. Tolkien, by contrast, located Ing at the heart of ancient English cultural traditions and thought of the Ingwine as originally the English and their Northern allies; the Danes, he was convinced, had usurped the term following their conquest of the ancient island sanctuary of the North. Where Chadwick had connected the ancient English with Norse culture, Tolkien was unveiling the original English culture of the North.

Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ was a conjectural reconstruction of the original (i.e. pre-Danish) story of Ing, the king of the North. In his Oxford lecture notes on Beowulf, Tolkien follows Chadwick in noting: “Our poet’s Scyld has (as it were) replaced Ing”.23 But Tolkien and Chadwick read the significance of this replacement quite differently: Chadwick posited a straightforward identification of the Danish kings Scyld and Ing; Tolkien discerned the victory of Danish propaganda, and rejected the identification as inauthentic. In his lecture notes Tolkien divides the genealogy with which Beowulf begins into two parts: the first two names, which he gives as Scef (Sheaf) and Beow (Barley),24 he derives from the ancient fertility cult of Zealand; the second two names, Healfdene and Hrothgar, he identifies as historical Danish kings, the conquerors of Zealand who graft their lineage onto the ancient mythology. Thus the name Scyld Scefing in Beowulf comes into view as composite: after their conquest of the ancient sanctuary the Danes joined the name Scef to that of their own heraldic military eponym, Scyld (Shield). ‘King Sheave’ is a telling of the original tale of Ing that dispenses with any spurious connection to Scyld and the Danish royal house.

But ‘King Sheave’ also joins historical reconstruction to invented mythology, since the infant Scef is envisaged as a refugee from the destruction of Númenor. As such, the story is intended to mark the transition from mythological into historical time. To place the envisaged relationships chronologically: the stories surrounding Eärendel take place at the close of (what now becomes) the First Age of mythic time; Elros, Eärendel’s son, becomes the first king of Númenor, the story of which is at the heart of the Second Age of mythic time; the journey of the infant Ing (Sheave) across the ocean marks the passage of myth into history; stories of Ing (in one form or another) constitute a good part of the ancient traditions of the historical men of the North; and these traditions, albeit in a form distorted by the Danes, are recorded in the earliest Old English literature that has come down to us today. The cultic traditions of Zealand highlighted by Chadwick thus provide Tolkien with a bridge between myth and history, connecting the English mythology that he invented with the Old English literature that he studied.

One further element of ‘King Sheave’ demands our attention: the reference to “the great mill of Sheaf… guarded still in the island sanctuary of the North”. Tolkien is here invoking Old Norse tales of the mill of peace and plenty. In his thirteenth-century Prose Edda, our major source for Norse mythology, Snorri Sturluson tells us that this mill belonged to the Danish king Fróði, in whose day – as Chadwick has already told us – a golden ring would remain untouched upon the public highway. Chadwick, it will be recalled, had considered Fróði as a candidate for inclusion in the Zealand mythology, but had rejected him because he was palpably neither married to a goddess nor himself a god. But this reasoning lost its force once Tolkien had separated the stories of Tuor (the mortal who marries an immortal) and Ing (the human king of the North). In ‘King Sheave’ we see Tolkien extending the story of Ing to include the tradition of Fróði and the Great Peace. Such an extension, it hardly needs to be said, was pregnant with narrative possibilities.

The Lord of the Rings as English Mythology

The Lord of the Rings provided a new and complete integration of those ideas of Ing and Eärendel that had been but partially embodied in Tolkien’s earlier narratives of the First and Second Ages. The background to this resolution was a substantial extension of the temporal horizons of the mythology, carried out over the course of the 1930s. In the early manuscript of The Hobbit, apparently composed in the winter of 1932, Elrond is described as “one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories of the beginning of history and the wars of the Elves and the goblins, and the brave men of the North.”25 Here the story of Eärendel, the father of Elrond, still marks the transition from fairy story to history. Tolkien’s vision of Númenor and a ‘Second Age’ of Middle-earth appears to have arisen around 1936. The following year The Hobbit was published, and by the end of 1937 Tolkien was working on the sequel that would become The Lord of the Rings.26 The work of systematically drawing the story of Bilbo into the mythology generated a new vision of a Third Age. The threshold between myth and history was now identified with the stories surrounding the finding and destruction of the One Ring that marked the end of this Third Age: a distant past, from our perspective, but imagined as a time in which the story of Eärendel was already very ancient.

The Third Age begins with Elendil, a descendant of Elros (the mortal son of Eärendel), escaping the deluge of Númenor and founding on Middle-earth the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Elendil thus takes the place of Ing and Sheave as the great founder of a royal house who comes from over the ocean. The stories that now unfold are bound up in the drama of the rings of power forged by Sauron (a servant of Melko). We have already encountered the first act in this drama when we observed Elrond, in The Fellowship of the Ring, recalling the events that followed the alliance of elves and men: the defeat of Sauron and the taking of the One Ring from his hand by Elendil’s son, Isildur, the death of Isildur, and the breaking of the line of the Númenorean kings. The final acts of the Third Age are told in The Lord of the Rings: the quest to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom and the return of the king in the person of Aragorn, heir of Elendil and descendant of Eärendel.

Aragorn is the key to Tolkien’s reworking of his English mythology. In his person are united the traditions of Ing (Sheave) and Tuor, the stories, that is, of both the marriage of mortal and immortal and of the king who comes to his people from over the water and whose mysterious origin is bound up with the elves. Of course, it is Aragorn’s ancestor, Elendil, who came over the water, not Aragorn himself. But Tolkien is careful to incorporate this element of the tradition into the deeply symbolic coronation of Aragorn, whose crown, carried to him by Frodo and placed upon his head by Gandalf, has the wings of a sea-bird, “for it was the emblem of kings who came over the Sea”.27 Aragorn is also connected to the elves; and this in three distinct ways: elvish blood flows in his veins, for he is the descendant of Eärendel; he was raised among the elves, in Rivendell, the house of Elrond; and he marries Arwen, Elrond’s daughter. And in so marrying the elf-maid Arwen, Aragorn echoes the actions of his ancestor Tuor. Thus the two traditions of Ing identified by Chadwick are, for the first time in Tolkien’s writings, seamlessly integrated.

Tolkien ties up the loose ends of tradition by way of three key figures bound up in the story of Aragorn: Arwen, Frodo, and Gandalf. The marriage of Arwen and Aragorn is posited as the immediate source of all those later myths and folk tales concerning the marriage of mortal man with goddess or fairy queen. But in later days, or so Tolkien suggests, memories of Arwen merged with much more ancient traditions concerning Ulmo, the Vala who instigated the union of Arwen’s great-grandparents, Tuor and Idril.28 In other words, the conflation of elven bride and male divinity once imputed to Chadwick is now posited as a deep confusion within actual historical tradition. The upshot is that memories of Arwen’s elven grace are supposed to have shaped the idea of Nerthus, the fertility goddess at the center of the Zealand cult, out of even more distant traditions of the male Vala, Ulmo.

A different confusion of tradition has seen the transference to Aragorn of elements actually belonging to the stories of Gandalf and Frodo. While Elendil came to Middle-earth from over the sea, neither he nor his descendant Aragorn return over it once their stories are done. But Gandalf, the wizard, both came from and departed over the sea, and during his stay in Middle-earth he taught men many things concerning elves and ancient lore. And Frodo, the ring-bearer, departs finally on a ship into the West. It is surely no coincidence that Gandalf and Frodo are drawn into the act of Aragorn’s coronation. Their part in the crowning of the king sets the scene for the confusion of the traditions of later ages, in which attributes of Aragorn’s companions become attached to the figure of Aragorn himself.

In later tradition the name of Gandalf has been quite forgotten (save for a single, puzzling mention in the Völuspá, the first part of the twelfth-century Poetic Edda).29 Frodo, however, is remembered in the legend of the Great Peace associated with king Fróði. With the return of the king, marked by the coronation – and then wedding – of Aragorn, a golden age commences for both men and hobbits. In those days, Tolkien tells us, the city of Gondor was “filled with trees and with fountains… and its streets were paved with white marble”, as “many songs have told”.30 Meanwhile, in the Shire “the fruit was so plentiful that young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream” and “no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass”.31 This more homely hobbit vision of the golden age was evidently associated in the minds of the Shire folk rather with the return of Frodo and his companions than the faraway coronation of Aragorn.

The Lord of the Rings provides a final form to a body of story identified as the kernel of the lost mythology of the English. Posited as the nearest of his mythological stories to historical time, the tales of Aragorn, Arwen, Gandalf, and Frodo become the immediate source of ancient, yet historical Northern traditions; the traditions of those tribes that venerated Ing and worshipped Nerthus, and included among their number the English. These were not fairy stories; the early conceit of elven oral lore recorded by an Englishman had given way to that of hobbit scribes, eyewitnesses to the chief events who also recorded many traditions of both elves and men. And being mortal and not dissimilar to men (if more likely to value food and cheer above carven halls and public ceremony), there is no need to sift through their writings seeking those few tales that might also be of concern to the later men of the North. Here, then, is the body of story that gave rise to the traditions associated with the ancient cult in Zealand; traditions that the English brought with them to Britain; songs and tales that began to fade from the national memory during the reign of Alfred, the only king whom the English today remember as Great.


Following the stages of Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth brings us face to face with two difficult issues. First of all, Tolkien’s ancient English mythology has become a cultural icon of our modern world. A spell-binding fantasy, popular around the globe, one suspects few fans feel they have embraced specifically English traditions. Secondly, it is hard to avoid the uncomfortable observation that, in the first part of the twentieth century, Tolkien’s interest in reconstructing the old pagan mythology of the North was shared by various proponents of Nordic supremacism and prophets of National Socialism. These aspects of Tolkien’s work are actually bound together, since they reflect different facets of the national component of his project. By way of concluding this essay, I offer a few thoughts concerning the relationship between Middle-earth, fantasy, and Englishness.

Let us begin by putting aside the insidious comparison of Tolkien’s English mythology and the more sinister invocations of Nordic paganism. Almost invariably, the harnessing of Norse myth to racist and fascist ideologies takes its starting-point in the blood-soaked religion of the Viking Age, centred on Odin and his ravens. But Odin was a latecomer to the North; his family takeover of old Scandinavian religion is represented in Old Norse stories of the war of the Æsir gods against Niörðr and the Vanir gods. Tolkien, following Chadwick, saw the ancient traditions of the English as woven around ideas of the Vanir gods, bound up with corn rituals and a goddess of fertility, and intertwined with the tradition of Fróði and the Great Peace associated with his name, the Fróðafriðr. So where the proponents of Nordic supremacism fashioned a violent Norse imagery of conquest and domination, Tolkien imagined an English mythology evocative of Maypoles and party trees, bustling English hedgerows, and the call of the sea wind.32

All the same, it would be foolish to deny that the legacy of racial Nordicism has profoundly shaped the reception of Tolkien’s work. Back in the early years of the twentieth century many Englishmen developed a passionate and (by and large) benign interest in the Northern European roots of English culture. After World War II, expressions of such an interest became thin on the ground as a taboo descended on once-mainstream ideas. To declare an interest in the Aryan or Nordic roots of English culture was, in effect, to declare oneself an extremist beyond the fringes of polite society. But a general sense of English culture’s Northern roots remained and, I think, goes some way to explaining Tolkien’s popular reception. With Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth, a bygone enthusiasm for what was once overtly historical resurfaced as a love-affair with a make-believe world, generally received as wholly imaginary. Here is one important clue as to how Tolkien’s project of historical reconstruction has come to be revered as a founding text of modern fantasy.

While postwar political sensibilities provide an external context, the transformation of scholarly reconstruction into fantasy literature is also tied to elements intrinsic to Tolkien’s project. To see how this is so, and also to grasp its significance for the national dimension of Middle-earth, it is helpful to situate Tolkien against the division among Edwardian scholars between folklorists and modernists. Where folklorists were concerned with survivals of ancient institutions in the present, modernists saw history as punctured by catastrophic upheavals that destroyed the continuity of history. On the whole, it was the modernists who shaped the Edwardian university. Maitland, it will be recalled, placed the inquiry into English origins beyond the boundaries of academic history, and neither Chadwick nor Tolkien were associated with history departments. In The Heroic Age, published in 1912, Chadwick argued that English individualism emerged when traditional Northern society collapsed in the migration age. Chadwick was thus wholly sympathetic to Maitland’s position that ancient English society was discontinuous with, and should be studied separately from the history of modern England. But while Tolkien’s project of reconstruction was framed in similar modernist terms, it was for all that built around a core vision of profound historical continuity.

Tolkien’s modernist credentials are straightforward. He pursued his research as a professor of English, not of history, and his entire project of reconstructing a lost English mythology is based upon the premise of discontinuity in cultural transmission: the English long ago forgot the songs and stories of their ancient homeland. Nor did Tolkien ever suggest that the content of his stories had implications for the institutions of the modern world – it is not as if The Lord of the Rings exhorts the English to overthrow their Norman monarchy and reinstate a royal house with fairy antecedents! Tolkien was not actually concerned with English kings; what interested him were traditions about them. The Lord of the Rings is not a reconstruction of events that occurred long ago in the North; it is a reconstruction of the tales and songs of those days. There is thus an element of fantasy at the core of Tolkien’s historical project – for what is a mythology if not a flight of imagination, an exercise in creativity, an invocation of the fantastic? It might be argued that ancient stories are as disconnected from the modern imagination as are, according to Chadwick, ancient society and modern social institutions. But this is not what Tolkien believed. At the very heart of his project stands the passionate conviction that the stories of the ancient English could spark imaginative delight in the hearts and minds of a modern audience.

Tolkien’s vision of historical continuity is founded upon his sense of language. The English may have forgotten their ancient traditions, but they still speak the language that shaped – and was shaped by – those traditions. Certainly that language has changed in time; to a modern English-speaker, the language of Beowulf sounds like a foreign tongue. But to a comparative philologist like Tolkien there is just one, continuously developing language. His stories of Middle-earth, Tolkien believed, were “bound up with” this tongue, and as such should resonate with speakers of English. Of course, one can read a book in translation or watch a foreign-language movie with subtitles. But this is to leap over a cultural divide. An ancient English mythology could provide the fairy stories or fantasy literature of modern day English-speakers, Tolkien believed, because that mythology is indelibly bound up with the linguistic component of their identity.

Today English-speakers are spread across the face of the globe. Here is the answer to the global appeal of Middle-earth in the modern age suggested by Tolkien’s ideas of language, history, and imagination. For Tolkien distinguished between different facets of national identity, observing that there is no necessary connection between ancestry, locality, and language. The English invaders of Britain, Tolkien believed, interbred with and assimilated into the native Britons, producing the basis of the mixed race population of modern England. What conquered completely was not blood or genes, but language; and the advance of the English language did not come to an end with its migration from the Baltic coast to the British Isles. English is today a global language and English-speakers are found throughout the planet. This is not to deny that both blood and land played a vital role in Tolkien’s ideas of Englishness. But although (I believe) both these facets of national identity left their imprint upon Middle-earth, their place in Tolkien’s literary imagination has not been our concern in this essay. What we have investigated is the cultural dimension of Tolkien’s idea of Englishness, a heritage that, according to his own thinking, belongs now to the whole world.


1. J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2014), 254.
2. See Letter 131 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (New York, Harper Collins, 2012).
3. F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England (Cambridge, University Press, 1897), 349 and 348.
4. F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law before the time of Edward I (Cambridge, University Press, 1895), 2: 240.
5. H. M. Chadwick, The Origin of the English Nation (Cambridge, University Press, 1907), 256.
6. Chadwick, Origin of the English Nation, 190.
7. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Parts I and II, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Ballantine Books 1992 [1983, 1984]), I: 14-15. The two seas are the Baltic and the North Sea. In his early stories, Tolkien writes of the ‘Great Lands’ rather than ‘Middle-earth’.
8. Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, II: 295.
9. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Shaping of Middle-earth: the Quenta, the Ambarkanta, and the Annals, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York, Ballantine Books, 1995 [1986]), 47.
10. The land of England plays an important part in Tolkien’s early vision. England is imagined (tellingly) as an island in the western ocean, a staging post on the journey between the Great Lands in the East and the home of the gods, Valinor, in the West. As such, England is posited as a last refuge of the elves of later days, when men have multiplied and most of their kindred have already departed into the West. This vision of England as originally a fairy kingdom transforms the special connection of English and fairies into the half-developed suggestion that the English have also a special connection to the lands that they took from the ancient Britons; that while the Celts had been mere interlopers the English were somehow the true heirs of the fairies. But Tolkien’s thinking here was both complex and obscure. His ideas shifted even before he stopped work on these tales in the 1920s, and the place of England in his mythology was dramatically reconceived in the 1930s with the invention of hobbits and the discovery of the Shire. As stated above, there is an interesting story waiting to be told about the place in Tolkien’s imagination of the geographical entity known as England; but that story is not told here.
11. Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, 2: 243.
12. Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, 2: 337-8. That Ulmo is identified in Tolkien’s lost tales as “Lord of Waters” is quite in keeping with this connection because (as Tolkien was well aware) water and fertility are typically associated in Norse traditions (indeed, Nerthus is said by Tacitus to emerge from a lake and then return to it).
13. J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf and the Critics, edited by Michael Drout, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Volume 248 (Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies), 65. Tolkien adds that the Northern conception of an alliance of gods and men against the monsters is absent in Greek mythology. Poseidon, for example, is angered when Odysseus maims the monstrous Cyclops, his kin.
14. Cf. the discussion of the spirit of the North and the twilight of paganism in the ‘Introduction to the “Elder Edda”‘ in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2009).
15. Tolkien, Book of Lost Tales, II: 312-13.
16. Although first written as Ing, in the polished version of the tales the name of this elven king is given as Inwë.
17. Possibly, Tolkien wanted to provide another hint of an ‘original’ source for Chadwick’s idea that Ing had evolved into a god.
18. Tolkien, Shaping of Middle-earth, 138, 186, 171-2.
19. On the emergence of Elros as the mortal brother of Elrond see J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lost Road and Other Writings: Language and Legend before The Lord of the Rings, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York, Ballantine Books, 1996 [1987]), 372.
20. Tolkien, Lost Road, 94-5.
21. See Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. This edition also includes ‘Sellic Spell’, Tolkien’s conjectural formulation of a folk story of the kind that he believed was worked up by a gifted poet into the epic of Beowulf. ‘Sellic Spell’ and ‘King Sheave’ are analogous enterprises, born out of similar creative and scholarly engagements with Beowulf.
22. Frisia is a North Sea coastal region; its people spoke a language closely related to English and – famously – felt the sting of Danish arms. Tolkien believed the Frisians to have played a part in the Germanic settlement of the British Isles.
23. Tolkien, Lost Road, 105.
24. In the manuscript the second name is given not as Beow but as Beowulf, which Tolkien in his commentary argues at length is the result of scribal confusion of the son of Scef with the main subject of the poem.
25. John D. Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit (London, Harper Collins, 2007), I: xvi and (for quotation) 115. Compare the text of the published Hobbit, where Elrond is said to be “one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginnings of history, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North” (‘A Short Rest’, emphases added).
26. Tolkien, Lost Road, 10; J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings Part One, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 [1988]), 11.
27. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, book VI, chapter v. I do not give page numbers to a specific edition as there are so many editions it would not be helpful.
28. Tolkien is looking backwards as well as forward. If the union of Aragorn and Arwen replaces that of Eärendel’s parents (and of Beren and Lúthien) as the source of later mythological traditions concerning Nerthus and her mortal consort, it also replicates Tolkien’s first mixed marriage. For both Arwen and Aragorn are descended from Eärendel: Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, while Aragorn is descended from Elrond’s mortal brother, Elros. Indeed, the tale of Eärendel ‘the evening star’ is recalled in Tolkien’s description of Arwen, as she rides to her wedding, as the “Evenstar of her people” (Tolkien, Return of the King, VI, v).
29. In The Hobbit most of the names of the dwarves are derived from the Dvergatal, or ‘Catalogue of Dwarves’, in the Völuspá. In the early drafts the wizard is called Bladorthin, while Gandalf is the name of the chief dwarf (see Rateliff’s History of the Hobbit). Tom Shippey provides a nice meditation upon the possible emergence of the familiar character of Gandalf the wizard by way of Tolkien’s philological musings upon what a name suggestive of elves was doing in a catalogue of dwarves. See T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (London, Allen and Unwin, 1982), 73-4; and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London, Harper Collins, 2001), 15-17.
30. Tolkien, Return of the King, VI, v.
31. Tolkien, Return of the King, VI, ix.
32. Other fundamental contrasts between Tolkien’s work and less savoury modern treatments of North mythology could also be drawn. For example, where sympathizers of National Socialism tended to invoke Germanic paganism as an alternative to Christianity, which they accused of sapping the Nordic spirit with its “slave morality”, Tolkien saw Christianity as essentially compatible with the old paganism of the North, which (as we have seen) he regarded as godless but not idolatrous. For Tolkien, the old pagan vision of a world without hope is basically a correct appraisal of the human situation without the teaching of Christ and the blessing of the Church.

About the Author

Simon J. Cook is an intellectual historian. He was born in London, England, spent too many years at Cambridge, UK, and taught for five years at Duke University in North Carolina. Today he is an independent scholar, conducting historical research outside established academic institutions.

Simon’s initial research was on the history of political economy. His 2009 book, The Intellectual Foundations of Alfred Marshall’s Economic Science, won the best monograph award of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought. Today he is primarily interested in Victorian and Edwardian conceptions of psychology, mythology, prehistory, and the origins of the modern world.

Simon lives with a growing family of children, guinea-pigs and cats in a small village in Israel situated just left of the end of the world.

An ongoing blog together with links to most of his academic publications can be found on his website, Ye Machine. Please feel free to use this website to communicate any errors that you spot in this essay or simply to engage with its argument.

About the Artist

PUCK is a graphic designer/transit artist living in New York City. His Middle-earth inspired work can be found in the NYC subway system and on his website Puck Works.


Text copyright © 2014 Simon J. Cook

Cover image copyright © 2014 William Puck

This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence. This licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared with others, and adapted as long as it is shared under the same license and attribution is credited to the original. To view a copy of this licence, visit here.

First published October 2014.

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