I will afford myself a short respite from academic articles to post briefly about something lighter. Most Singaporeans know next to nothing about medieval history, let alone the Anglo-Saxon period, so I find myself struggling to explain what exactly I’m studying. I previously used the legends of Arthur and the days of chivalry as a vague point of reference, but even that has been met with looks of bewilderment on more than a few occasions.
Increasingly, I’ve simply resorted to the easy way out: Prof J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has exploded in popularity since Peter Jackson’s movies based on the books. It has suddenly become ‘cool’ to know everything about the LOTR trilogy – much to the annoyance of true fantasy geeks everywhere. For this Anglo-Saxonist, however, the rise in Tolkien’s popularity has been a much-needed shot in the arm. When asked to explain ‘Anglo-Saxon England’, I have long since given up trying to use the chronological boundaries of c.450-1066. Instead, I simply say, ‘You know Lord of the Rings? Tolkien was inspired by Anglo-Saxon literature. In fact, he even used to be a Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford!’
To prove that I’m not making this up, I usually pull out Theoden, King of Rohan. As those familiar with Old English would probably know, it is remarkably similar to the Old English word Þeoden, which was a title conferred upon the leader of a tribe or people. Once on the subject of LOTR, it is no great leap to delve into the Anglo-Saxon mythology that Tolkien draws upon so evidently. I have written briefly about elves elsewhere on this blog, but dwarves and, to a lesser extent, orcs can trace their origins to Anglo-Saxon world as well.
Dwarves and elves are found explicitly in Anglo-Saxon sources, but orcs were somewhat invented by Tolkien based upon the word orcneas in the description of Cain’s descendants in Beowulf. Speaking of Beowulf, I can only say that it is a shame that it remains the esoteric preserve of Anglo-Saxonists and Old English specialists. Tolkien played a tremendous part in dragging the epic poem from the fringes of fantasy into the realm of serious literature worthy of academic study. Unfortunately, the mention of Beowulf to a modern audience merely conjures images of Angelina Jolie prancing about in golden paint, which scarcely does justice to the value of the poem or Tolkien’s role in popularising it. I look forward to the day when Beowulf becomes another notch on the street cred of the Anglo-Saxonist.
For now, we will have to be content with Tolkien and Lord of the Rings as a point of entry into Anglo-Saxon England. It may not quite be what King Arthur is for the Hundred Years’ War, but at the same time, there are few periods of history where a former professor of the subject area is generally considered…well, pretty awesome. And for that, Prof Tolkien, I thank you.
Addendum (19 June 2013):
While researching for my paper, I came across an episode in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica where a sinful man is struck with daggers by demons. He says that the daggers are ‘creeping into the interior of my body’ and will eventually kill him. According to the translation by Judith McClure and Roger Collins, this episode may have inspired the incident in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo is pierced by the Witch-King – the ‘Knife in the Dark’. Fascinating.
Academic works by Tolkien:
Tolkien, J.R.R. ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.’ Proceedings of the British Academy, 22 (1936): pp.245-95. [available here]
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.
Other works on Anglo-Saxon mythological creatures:
Beowulf. Various translations. The translation by Seamus Heaney is generally considered to capture the essence of the Old English original for a modern audience.
Owen, Gale. Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996. Esp. pp.46-65.
Semple, Sarah. ‘A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of Middle and later Anglo-Saxon England.’ World Archaeology 30, 1 (1998): pp.109-26.