J.R.R. Tolkien believed that the Anglo-Saxon world might offer us strength to redeem Christendom. The hero of “The Lord of the Rings,” after all, is an Anglo-Saxon farmer turned citizen-warrior.
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Bradley J. Birzer, as he discusses J.R.R. Tolkien’s christological interpretation of Anglo-Saxon myth. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of the Anglo-Saxon language and culture is legendary among both Tolkien scholars and aficionados, as is his hatred of all things French. His biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, wrote that he suffered from “Gallophobia.” His student and friend, George Sayer, commented that when Tolkien stayed with him and his wife, he very politely ate Sayer’s wife’s French cooking. Below the surface pleasantries, though, lingered old hostilities. Though Tolkien wrote a beautiful thank you note for the dinner, “he seemed to detest everything French” Sayers bluntly noted. Even as a child, Tolkien had disliked the sound of French.
His personal feelings carried over to adulthood and into the classroom, where he trivialized French achievements. To his students, for example, Tolkien compared the complex and Christianized Anglo-Saxon language and culture to the relative simplicity of the Normans: “At the first of these classes he handed round some sample passages of medieval English he had had typed out. One of them was an English translation of the first verses of the Gospel according to John,” a student remembered. “ ‘You see,’ he said triumphantly, ‘English was a language that could move easily in abstract concepts when French was still a vulgar Norman patois.’ ”
While Tolkien made a number of such anti-French statements during his life, his highly favorable views toward the Anglo-Saxon culture should be taken for what they were. They were not, as some seem to have suggested, merely negative reactions against the French, but, instead, statements about a time, culture, language, and people he truly cherished. Already sanctified, the Anglo-Saxon imagination could readily conjure up an understanding of the rather complex Greek, stoic, and Christianized conception of the Logos. Nowhere, he wrote in a private letter during World War II, was the northern spirit “nobler than it was in England, no more early sanctified and Christianized.” For Tolkien, the true history and heritage of England resided in and derived from its Anglo-Saxon character. William the Conquerer’s Norman Conquest, it seemed, only added some frustration and a bureaucratic layer to true English culture. One can find Tolkien’s love of the Anglo-Saxon world in his academic endeavors as well as in his private hobby, the Middle-earth mythology, out of which sprang The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
In his 1959 Valedictory Address, Tolkien admitted that he had once been challenged to defend, on an academic level, the need for English students at Oxford to learn pre-Chaucerian English. Stunned by the question, Tolkien refused to answer the inquirer, noting that any off the cuff remark would be “uncivil.” Hypothetically, though, he admitted, he would have answered:
If you do not know any language, learn some—or try to. You should have done so long ago. The knowledge is not hidden. If you cannot learn, or find the stuff distasteful, then keep humbly quiet. You are a deaf man at a concert. If you do not specially enjoy old wine of a good vintage, drink some. Drink again. Persevere. Take it with your other meats—and perhaps cut down on whiskey!
In his address, Tolkien defended the need for any English student at Oxford to discover both the language and the literature sides of the study. Born in South Africa, Tolkien noted that he had “the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature.” To ignore either one would lead one to an adulterated understanding. Literature, though one of the best means by which to understand Language, nonetheless springs forth from Language, and “its study is profound and fundamental.”
No matter what the Normans contributed to English politics and culture after 1066, one could trace a direct line of language development from Beowulf through the present day. Tolkien’s own fields of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English provided ample evidence of this. As the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon (1925-1945) at Pembroke College and then the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature (1945-1959), Tolkien knew his subject well. In addition to his several profound publications on Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English subjects, Tolkien taught a variety of courses on early Germanic and Icelandic languages and legends as well as on poems such as Beowulf, “The Battle of Maldon,” and the “Wanderer.”
For Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxon language should not be regarded as some kind of transition and small part of a cultural stew that made up modern English, equal to Latin and French. Rather, it is vitally important and complex in and of itself. “Anglo-Saxon is a language whose literary verse idiom is at once cultivated and remote from the modern,” Tolkien argued in 1930. “It can awake and repay a scholarly enthusiasm similar in quality to that excited by a classical language.” In his essay on the Ancrene Wisse and the Hali Meidhad, he noted that one can find a continuity between Middle and Old English. The language of the Ancrene Wisse, a dialect of Middle-English, “is not a language long relegated to the ‘uplands’ struggling once more for expression in apologetic emulation of its betters or out of compassions for the lewd, but rather one that has never fallen back into ‘lewdness,’ and has contrived in troublous times to maintain the air of a gentleman, if a country gentleman. It has traditions and some acquaintance with books and the pen, but it is also close touch with a good living speech—a soil somewhere in England.” In other words, William the Conquerer changed little, except to burden an already profound and distinctly complex cultural tradition and language.
Tolkien’s reform of the English syllabus [course requirements] in 1931 served as a vital moment in his own personal history as well as in the history of Christianity, myth, and literature in the twentieth century. Tolkien received unanimous approval from the English faculty for his revisions, thus re-forming language and literature as two parts of a whole of English Studies for the remainder of the century. Even more important, without the syllabus reform and the struggle for it, the Inklings may never have come to exist. Attempting to demonstrate to the faculty of Oxford the need for a study of northern languages and culture, Tolkien formed the Koalbitars, a group of men dedicated to reading Old Icelandic sagas and myths in the original. Their numbers included C.S. Lewis. On Tuesday, February 8, 1927, Lewis recorded his own excitement regarding his activities in the Koalbitars.
Spent the morning partly on the Edda. . . . An exciting experience when I remember my first passion for things Norse under the initiation of Longfellow at about the age of nine; and its return, much stronger, when I was about 13, when the high priests were M. Arnold, Wagner’s music, and Arthur Rackham ‘Ring’. It seemed impossible then that I should ever come to read these things in the original. The old authentic thrill came back to me once or twice this morning; the mere names of god and giant catching my eye as I turned the pages of Zeega’s dictionary was enough.
One of Lewis’s closest friends, Owen Barfield, never shared Lewis’s love of the northern. “What I hadn’t got any—rapport with Lewis, or, I said, not that I didn’t sympathize with it, but just hadn’t had the experience was this terrific emphasis, emotional emphasis, he had on what he called Northernness. . . . And even the climate.—I think he’d rather have gone to Finland than to Greece.”
Two years later, Tolkien and Lewis admitted to one another their great love of the northern gods and Tolkien shared his own mythology with Lewis, who found it astounding. “One week I was up till 2.30 on Monday talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien,” Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, “who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing on the gods & giants & Asgard for three hours.” It proved a major moment for both of them, the real beginning of their long-lasting friendship. Tolkien must have especially regarded the late-night discussion as important, for he afterwards lent to Lewis parts of The Silmarillion, a work he regarded as intensely personal. In what must have been a great relief to Tolkien, Lewis responded positively to Tolkien’s work. After that, Tolkien read other parts of The Silmarillion to Lewis, and Lewis continued to critique these pieces favorably.
In 1950, Tolkien admitted that he originally conceived what would become his Middle-earth mythology as a mythology for England. “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands.” Even “Beowulf,” the greatest of Anglo-Saxon poems, dealt with Scandinavians. Tolkien told Clyde Kilby that the seed of the mythology came from the Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf in his poem “Crist”: “Lux fulgebat super nos. Eala Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended.” These are “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology,” Tolkien admitted. Kilby asked Tolkien in person to translate the Anglo-Saxon. “Here Earendel brightest of angels, sent from God to men,” Tolkien replied.
Entitled The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien’s original mythological stories follow a mariner by the name of Eriol, Angol, Waefre, or Aelfwine. Eriol means “one who dreams alone,” Angol is obviously Angle, Waefre is Anglo-Saxon for “restless,” and Aelfwine is a character who appears in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon.” Much, perhaps, like Tolkien himself, Eriol is a restless, wandering Anglo-Saxon, in search of legend and truth. As Christopher Tolkien noted in his commentaries in the History of Middle-earth, “Thus it is through Eriol and his sons the Engle (i.e. the English) have the true tradition of the fairies, of whom the Iras and Wealas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.” With these stories, Christopher continued, “a specifically English fairy-lore is born, and one more true than anything to be found in Celtic lands.”
Though Tolkien eventually abandoned much of his material from The Book of Lost Tales, the love of—and inspiration from—Anglo-Saxon culture and literature continued. Tolkien’s hobbits represented the best of the pre–Norman invasion Anglo-Saxons. Like the English (made up of Jutes, Angles, and Saxons), the hobbits (made up of Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides) migrated from the east. Additionally, the hobbits lived on land that was originally not theirs but had once belonged to a greater, and now long-gone, power. There were other specifically Anglo-Saxon elements as well. Tom Shippey speculates that the Rohirrim are Anglo-Saxons as they might have developed had they had a mounted horse culture. Much of the ceremony, for example, of Gandalf entering the Golden Hall mirrors Beowulf’s entrance into the Great Hall. Additionally, the Riders call their own land, “The Mark.” The old translation for Mercia (an Anglo-Saxon medieval kingdom) was “The Mark.” Indeed, Shippey believes that Tolkien mixed his affection for the Anglo-Saxons with his regard for the warrior culture of North American Indians found in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Tolkien mentioned in “On Fairy-Stories” that he liked “Red Indians” better than Alice in Wonderland or Treasure Island, as they offered him “glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and, above all, forests.”
Anglo-Saxon England, Protector of Christendom
Though Tolkien had originally envisioned his myth as a specifically English myth, in his re-conception after the Book of Lost Tales, the Anglo-Saxon and northern languages, cultures and mythologies became a means by which to re-energize the world. The myth became one of universal—rather than national—significance and import. The Christian should embrace and sanctify the most noble virtues to come out of the northern pagan mind: courage and raw will. “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage,” Tolkien wrote. “The northern [imagination] has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times.” Tolkien thought that a vigorous Christianity needed that northern pagan myth spirit to make it stronger. The German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini argued along the same lines.
Deeply significant for the new religious outlook of medieval man was the influx of the Germanic spirit. The religious bent of the Nordic myths, the restlessness of the migrating peoples and the armed marches of the Germanic tribes revealed a new spirit which burst everywhere into history like a spear thrust into the infinite. This mobile and nervous soul worked itself into the Christian affirmation. There it grew mightily. In its fullness it produced that immense medieval drive which aimed at cracking the boundaries of the world.
From its original conception as a myth for England, first conceived in muck and blood-filled trenches in northern France, Tolkien’s legendarium grew much larger in scope and significance. The story, especially The Lord of the Rings, became much more than a myth for any one people or any one nation. It, instead, became a myth for the restoration of Christendom itself. The intrepid Anglo-Saxon missionaries, in particular St. Boniface of Crediton, created medieval, Christian Europe by carrying classical and Christian traditions into the heart of pagan, barbarian Europe. St. Boniface converted innumerable barbarians to Christianity, unifying them under Rome. St. Boniface even crowned Pepin, son of Charles Martel, an action that would eventually lead to the papal recognition of Charlemagne as the revived Holy Roman Emperor in 800 a.d. With the return of the king Aragorn to his rightful throne, Tolkien argued, the “progress of the tales ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome.” In his own private writings, Tolkien equated numerous parts of Italy with various geographical aspects of Gondor. In his diary, for example, Tolkien recorded that with his trip to Italy, he had “come to the head of Christendom: an exile from the borders and far provinces returning home, or at least to the home of his fathers.” In a letter to a friend, Tolkien stated that he had holidayed “in Gondor, or in modern parlance, Venice.” That Tolkien should place a mythologized Italy, and ultimately Rome, at the center of his legendarium is not surprising, as he viewed the Reformation as ultimately responsible for the modern, secularized world.
That Tolkien believed that the Anglo-Saxon world might offer us strength to redeem Christendom, should not surprise us. The hero of The Lord of the Rings, after all, is an Anglo-Saxon farmer turned citizen-warrior. Even as an uneducated gardener, this most loyal of companions recognized hope deep in the heart of Mordor. “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” Like his real counterparts who understood the meaning of the Logos, Sam, too, can comprehend the abstract.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2016.
This essay originally appeared in the St. Austin Review (Autumn 2003) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author.
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 Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 67.
 George Sayer, “Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien,” in Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration (London, ENG: Fount, 1999), 9.
 Anthony Curtis, “Remembering Tolkien and Lewis,” British Book News (June 1977): 429.
 Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 56.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Valedictory Address,” in Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell, eds., J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 30.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Valedictory Address,” 30.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Valedictory Address,” 31.
 Tolkien, “The Oxford English School,” The Oxford Magazine (29 May 1930): 780.
 On Tolkien’s teaching, see the excellent essay by his last undergraduate students, John S. Ryan, “Tolkien’s Formal Lecturing and Teaching,” VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review 19 (2002): 45-62.
 Tolkien, “The Oxford English School,” 779.
 Tolkien, “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meidhad,” in H.W. Garrod, ed., Essays and Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929), 106.
 Or, as Tom Shippey wonderfully put it: “It is in short a language which had defied conquest and the Conquerer.” See Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, revised and expanded ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 40.
 Ryan, “Tolkien’s Formal Lecturing,” 47.
 C.S. Lewis, A Biography, By W.H. Lewis (unpublished), in the Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois (hereafter WCWC).
 Interview with Owen Barfield, WCWC. Date: November 19, 1983. Location: Kent, England. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett.
 Walter Hooper, ed., The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (New York: Collier Books, 1979), 317.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand, volume 3 of Christopher Tolkien ed., The History of Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 150-51.
 Pearce, “Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: An Interview with Walter Hooper,” in Tolkien: A Celebration, 192.
 Carpenter, ed., Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 144. See also page 231.
 Tolkien, Oxford, to Clyde Kilby, Wheaton Ill, December 18, 1965, in WCWC, Folder; JRRT to Miscellaneous Correspondents.
 Unpublished chapter, “The Manuscript of THE SILMARILLION”, pg. 81. in WCWC, Kilby Files, 1-12, TOLKIEN AND THE SILMARILLION.
 “The Battle of Maldon,” in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999), 16. See also Verlyn Flieger’s path-breaking chapter, “The Footsteps of Aelfwine,” in Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter, eds., Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on the History of Middle-earth (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000), 183-198. Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Book of Lost Tales (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 14.
 Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Book of Lost Tales, Part II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 290.
 Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw, 1976), 51; Philip Norman, “The Prevalence of Hobbits,” The New York Times Magazine (15 January 1967), 98; and Tolkien interview with Dennis Gerrolt, BBC Radio 4, January 1971.
 Shippey first made this point in The Road to Middle-earth, 1st ed., 77-8.
 Shippey, Road to Middle-earth, 1st ed., 97, 223; Cooper, James Fenimore. The Leatherstocking Tales. Edited by Blake Nevius. New York: Library of America, 2012.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 134. For Cooper’s mixing of myth, history, and politics, see Bradley J. Birzer and John Willson, “Introduction,” in James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat and Other Political Essays (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2000); Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Bantam Classics, 1984; Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1993.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. The Books of Lost Tales 1. New York: Del Ray, 1992.
 Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” in Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1963), 78.
 Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” 77.
 Carpenter, ed., Letters, 56.
 Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (1956; Wilmington, Dela.: ISI Books, 1998), 9.
 Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (1932; New York: Meridian, 1974), 169-201.
 Carpenter, ed., Letters, 376.
 See, for example, Carpenter, ed., Letters, 223; and Carpenter, Tolkien, 222.
 Quoted in Carpenter, Tolkien, 222.
 Quoted in Barry Leighton, “Tolkien’s Clue to The Lord of the Rings,” Bristol Western Daily Press (26 February 2002), 11.
 Tolkien, The Return of the King, 199.
The featured image is an illustration of an Anglo-Saxon king and his Witan from an eleventh century Hexateuch, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.