Revisiting Race in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Constructing Cultures and Ideologies in an Imaginary World

* This lecture was delivered as a keynote in 2012 at the Politics of Contemporary Fantasy conference at the University of Wurzburg, Germany. It revisits main ideas I explored in my 2008 book, Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History, and adds some new points. I am releasing this today to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my book and to offer readers the gist of my approach to Tolkien and race, a subject that keeps on appearing in the media.

One of the main attractions of the invented world of Middle-earth is that it is inhabited by a great variety of peoples, each one with their own history, language and culture. The three main beings of Tolkien’s cosmology, Elves, Dwarves and Men, are further divided into sub-categories determined by linguistic, cultural and historical factors. At the same time, the ‘evil’ peoples of Middle-earth, the Orcs and the Men allied to Melkor or Sauron, are partly derived from these three main groups, and they are also divided into sub-groups and categories. Although these cultural groups are a fascinating aspect of Tolkien’s mythology, related to constructing a feigned historical background and to how good and evil are defined and treated in the entire legendarium, their very existence poses a series of thorny questions for Tolkien readers and scholars, which have become even more entangled and confused by the recent cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson. Some of these questions include the following:

  • Why are there evaluative rankings in Middle-earth, like the Elves, who are ‘higher’ beings than Men, and the Númenóreans, who are more ‘noble’ than other Men?
  • Why are the Men allied to the forces of good (Rohirrim, Gondorians, etc) generally fair-skinned, while the evil Men (Southrons, Easterlings, Haradrim, etc) are dark-skinned?
  • Why are the Orcs invariably described as slant-eyed, swarthy and sallow-skinned?
  • Did the Germanic mythology that informs Tolkien’s mythopoeia lead to the portrayal of the heroic characters as white ‘Aryan’ types?
  • Why have neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organizations endorsed The Lord of the Rings?

There is a great deal of scholarly work that approaches these questions in terms of medievalism, or gives it a positive spin by arguing for Tolkien’s multiculturalism. However, the most vocal writers who have addressed these questions are academics and journalists accusing Tolkien of racism and racial prejudice. The cases of John Yatt (2002), writing for The Guardian and Dr. Stephen Shapiro of the University of Warwick, who was interviewed for The Scotsman (Reynolds and Stewart, 2002) made headlines and are still very much discussed in internet forums and online fan communities.

As it is often the case with Tolkien’s work, the critical perspective of medievalism provides some fruitful points in terms of the depiction of race in the legendarium. Within the context of a pseudo-medieval world, Tolkien’s hierarchical world makes a lot of sense. It is evident that in Middle-earth there is a hierarchy of the different anthropomorphic beings, with the Elves at the top and the Orcs at the bottom. Tolkien referred clearly to the ranking of his invented ‘races’ in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman, in which he emphasises the Noldor Elves’ different status in Middle-earth and in Valinor respectively. Commenting on the Noldor’s ‘lingering’ in Middle-earth during the Second Age he writes:

There was nothing wrong essentially in their lingering against counsel… But they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of ‘The West’, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild Elves, dwarves, and Men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.

(Letters, p. 151, emphasis added)

Starting from this clear acknowledgment of a hierarchical secondary world, especially an invented world that is largely medieval in inspiration and setting, the validity of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, reflecting the medieval world view of cosmic hierarchy, is hardly surprising.

The medieval ‘Great Chain of Being’ was a powerful visual metaphor that represented a divinely planned hierarchical order, ranking all forms of life according to their proportion of ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’. The more ‘spirit’ and less ‘matter’ a form of life contained, the higher it was placed on the chain. Expectedly God himself was at the top of the chain, followed by the angels, men, animals, and finally plants and stones.

That Tolkien conceived Middle-earth in this ‘medieval’ hierarchical style is evident from one of his early linguistic manuscripts, edited posthumously and published in the journal Parma Eldalamberon. In the document known as ‘Early Qenya Fragments’, Tolkien presents his ‘hierarchical reordering of the seven categories of beings’ of the mythology (Early Qenya Fragments, p. 7): the Valar and their folk at the top, followed by the Fays (later to become the Maiar), then the Elves and Fairies (at that stage of the mythology these two terms were used interchangeably) and the Children of Men ‘who thus occupy the middle place in the seven orders’ (Early Qenya Fragments, p. 10). The three last categories are the ‘Earthlings’ (which includes the Dwarves, who at that point were an evil people), the ‘Beasts & Creatures’ (which points to the animal world) and finally the ‘Monsters’ including the creatures of Morgoth, comprising mainly Orcs and demons (Early Qenya Fragments, p. 10). As with the medieval cosmic hierarchy, it is clear that Tolkien’s ranking criteria are moral and spiritual. Beings allied to the forces of good are higher up in this chain, while Morgoth’s creatures, intrinsically evil in this early version of the mythology, are at the bottom.

This early ‘chain of being’ can be further compared with Tolkien’s classification of the three different sub-divisions of the Elves in his 1954 letter to Naomi Mitchison, in which it is evident that the ‘Lesser Elves’ (called the Avari in The Silmarillion) are inferior to the Eldar in a theological sense:

They [the Elves] are represented as having become early divided in to two, or three, varieties. 1. The Eldar who heard the summons of the Valar or Powers to pass from Middle-earth over the Sea to the West; and 2. the Lesser Elves who did not answer it. Most of the Eldar after a great march reached the Western Shores and passed over the Sea; these were the High Elves, who became immensely enhanced in powers and knowledge. But part of them in the event remained in the coast-lands of the North-west: these were the Sindar or Grey-elves. The lesser Elves hardly appear, except as part of the people of The Elf-realm; of Northern Mirkwood, and of Lórien, ruled by Eldar.

(Letters, p. 176)

Similarly, in the published Silmarillion the Avari (translated as the ‘Unwilling’) are presented to have declined the call when summoned to Valinor, ‘preferring the starlight and the wide spaces of Middle-earth to the rumour of the Trees’ (Silmarillion, p. 52) and Tolkien comments in a later letter that they ‘made their irrevocable choice, preferring Middle-earth to paradise’ (Letters, p. 198).

Finally, Tolkien’s early ‘chain of being’ can be compared to Treebeard’s poem when he discovers Merry and Pippin in Fangorn forest:

Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;

Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses:

(The Two Towers, p. 464)

The poem recounts the ‘old lists’ that offer another evaluative classification of different Middle-earth beings from higher to lower. It is interesting to note that the criteria for Tolkien’s early ‘chain’ have slightly changed in Treebeard’s own classification: he mentions Ents quite high up in the hierarchy, but he does not include hobbits at all!

The dark skin of the ‘evil’ Men of the legendarium can also be approached by contextualising Middle-earth as a pseudo-medieval world. In recently published article Margaret Sinex (2010) has argued that the construction of the racial ‘other’ in Tolkien’s world is based on medieval racial stereotypes and prejudices familiar to Tolkien from a great number of medieval texts. Any bodily traits that deviated from the white, European physique was seen as a sign of inner blemishes and European Christian writers often saw the ‘racially’ different as not that dissimilar to the mythical ‘monstrous races’ often depicted in medieval maps. Tom Shippey has made a very similar point in a question and answer session with Tolkien fans, originally published on the HarperCollins website (sadly, no longer available). Answering a question about Tolkien’s allegedly racist portrayal of Sauron’s minions, he says:

The mention in ‘The Battle of the Pelennor Fields’ of ‘black men like half-trolls’ certainly sounds racist. I think I would say here that Tolkien at this point is trying to write like a medieval chronicler, and when medieval Europeans first encountered sub-Saharan Africans, they were genuinely confused about them, and rather frightened. As Tolkien pointed out in his early scholarly works, the ancient English seemed to have a belief in fire-demons, who naturally enough had skin like soot – their word for them, ‘harwan’, is related to Latin ‘carbo’, ‘soot,’ or carbon. An Anglo-Saxon meeting an African for the first time might then really wonder (for a moment, from a distance) whether this was a demon from his own mythology. This doesn’t mean that Tolkien shared the mythology, or the mistake.

(Shippey, 2001)

Tolkien’s ‘early scholarly works’ Shippey mentions refers to his two-part essay ‘Sigelwara Land’, published in Medium Aevum, in which Tolkien explores the Old English word Sigelhearwan, translated as ‘Ethiopians’.

However satisfactory a response the ‘medieval’ approach offers to the thorny questions I began this lecture with, it is not enough by itself. Tolkien’s world is steeped in medieval literature and culture, but Tolkien was a man who lived mostly in the twentieth century, and who (contrary to popular mythology) was not detached from what was happening around him. ‘Race’ was a term that changed in meaning and denotations during his lifetime, and it is important to explore its background before we can decide whether discussing ‘racism’ in Tolkien’s work is a valid topic at all, given the cultural and intellectual environment in which his works were produced.

In my book (Fimi, 2008, pp. 132-35) I discussed this topic in the light of Victorian ad Edwardian ‘racial’ anthropology: its main characteristics, its ideology, its ‘scientific’ basis, two of its most important trends (Social Darwinism and the Eugenic movement) and its final collapse and discrediting around the time of World War II (see Fimi, 2008, pp. 132-135). It is important to emphasise that dividing human beings into ‘races’ with fixed biological characteristics, and associating these physical traits with specific mental abilities, was considered not only natural, but also scientifically proven and supported in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. It was Social Darwinism that extrapolated from Darwin’s theory of evolution and reduced its findings to the simplistic motto of ‘the survival of the fittest’. At the same time, the Eugenics’ project to encourage more ‘evolved races’ to procreate and discourage ‘less evolved’ ones was initially taken up enthusiastically by a number of scientists who were adamant that they were only speeding up a ‘natural’ process. It was not until the atrocities of World War II that scientific disagreements were brought to the fore and the scientific community declared that ‘race’ was a myth, a subject only for biology and genetics, and not anthropology and ethnology.

Tolkien’s views on ‘race’ changed throughout his lifetime, along with contemporary ideas and intellectual trends of his times. This gradual change of Tolkien’s views can be demonstrated by a selection of quotations from various writings by Tolkien during different periods. Consider, for example, the shocking (to our modern sensibilities) extract from an article in Tolkien’s school magazine, the King Edward’s School Chronicle. The article presents an account of the school’s Annual Open Debate, in which Tolkien, aged 19, is reported to have supported the (tongue-in-cheek) motion ‘That the works attributed to William Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon’. According to the periodical report, Tolkien poured:

a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character. He declared that to believe that so great a genius arose in such circumstances commits us to the belief that a fair-haired European infant could have a woolly-haired prognathous Papuan parent.

(Anonymous, 1911, p. 43)

Compare this extract, which reproduces nearly all the stereotypes of Victorian racial anthropology, with Tolkien’s declarations against Nazi Germany and its ‘Aryan’ ideology in his 1938 letters to Stanley Unwin concerning Rütten & Loening Verlag’s proposed German translation of The Hobbit:

Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung [i.e. confirmation of his ‘Aryan’ origin] (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

(Letters, p. 37)


But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people… the main part of my descent is… purely English… I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

(Letters, pp. 37–8)

Compare also his 1941 letter to Michael Tolkien, referring to the War that was already raging at that point:

Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

(Letters, pp. 55–6)

Consider, finally, Tolkien’s 1967 reaction to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, who had written that “Middle-earth …. corresponds spiritually to Nordic Europe”:

Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated… with racialist theories.

(Letters, p. 375)

The difference between young Tolkien’s light-hearted comments, which fall within what contemporary science would have supported, and his much more heated exclamations a few years later, when it really mattered, as he was actually asked to take a political stance to the then emerging Nazi ideology, is striking and makes for a much more informed discussion on Tolkien’s response to ‘race’.

At the same time, it is important to point out that Tolkien’s own area of expertise, philology, preserved a ‘romantic’ and somewhat confusing conflation of language with ‘race’. For Victorian scientists and philologists, language was another exciting tool to research the history of the ‘human races’. Early ethnologists like Prichard and Latham used linguistic evidence in their classification of peoples according to blood and descent and even Darwin, influenced by the philologist Franz Bopp, claimed that an accurate genealogical classification of the races of man would allow the best categorisation of the languages they spoke (Alter, 1999, pp. 30-2; see also Fimi, 2008, p. 138). Many philologists used the term ‘race’ in a loose way to refer to a group of people with a shared language and cultural identity (what we would call today national or ethnic groups), but even in these cases the term ‘race’ often retained its evaluative sense and implied a classification of different peoples, nations or cultures.

This relationship between a philological understanding of language, and an evaluative way of looking at sub-divisions of Men, is evident in Tolkien’s mythology, especially in his construction of the First Age of Middle-earth, as can be seen in an important extract from Tolkien’s 1960s essay ‘Of Dwarves and Men’, published posthumously. In this extract, which discusses the pedigree of the three Houses of Men during the First Age of Middle-earth, ‘racial’ physical characteristics are associated with similarities or differences in the languages spoken by the Men of Hador, Bëor and Haleth:

For the most part [the Folk of Hador] were tall people, with flaxen or golden hair and blue-grey eyes… [and] they were akin to the Folk of Bëor, as was shown by their speech… The Elvish loremasters were of opinion that both languages were descended from one that had diverged… The language of Hador was apparently less changed and more uniform in style, whereas the language of Bëor contained many elements that were alien in character. This contrast in speech was probably connected with the observable physical differences between the two peoples. There were fair-haired men and women among the Folk of Bëor, but most of them had brown hair… and many were less fair in skin, some indeed being swarthy. Men as tall as the Folk of Hador were rare among them, and most were broader and more heavy in build… The Folk of Haleth were strangers to the other Atani, speaking an alien language.

(Peoples, p. 307–8, emphasis added)

Tolkien’s construction of the sub-divisions of Men during the First Age of Middle-earth is quite neat and tidy. There are three Houses of Men,

the house of Hador (described as ‘the greatest… and most beloved by the Elves’) who are ‘yellow-haired and blue-eyed for the most part’ and ‘were of greater strength and stature in body than the Elves; quick to wrath and laughter, fierce in battle, generous to friends, swift in resolve, fast in loyalty, young in heart, the Children of Ilúvatar in the youth of mankind’.

the woodland folk of Haleth ‘were not so tall; their backs were broader and their legs shorter and less swift. Less fiery were their spirits; slower but more deep was the movement of their thought; their words were fewer, for they had joy in silence, wandering free in the greenwood, while the wonder of the world was new upon them’.

the people of Bëor ‘were dark or brown of hair; their eyes were grey, and their faces fair to look upon; shapely they were of form, yet hardy and long-enduring. Their height was no greater than that of the Elves of that day’ and ‘they were eager of mind, cunning-handed, swift of understanding, long in memory’ but ‘short-lived’.

(Lost Road, p. 276)

This tripartite ‘racial’ division of the Men of the First Age according to their phenotype, stature and character, brings to mind the ‘three European races’ of William Ripley whose seminal work The Races of Europe (1899) was further popularised by Madison Grant’s very influential book The Passing of the Great Race (1916). According to Ripley there were three main ‘racial’ distinctions amongst the people of modern Europe: the Nordic, the Alpine and the Mediterranean.

The Nordic race was described as tall with fair hair and blue eyes, the Mediterranean race as rather short, slender and agile, with dark hair and eyes, while the Alpine was of medium stature, stocky build and with hair and eye colour intermediate between the other two ‘races’. Grant’s elaboration of this scheme added ‘racial aptitudes’ to the three physical descriptions, portraying the Nordics as a race of ‘soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats’, while the Alpines are attributed an ‘essentially peasant character’. The Mediterraneans are ‘inferior in bodily stamina’ to the other two races, but superior in the field of art (Grant, 1936, p. 228).

Given Tolkien’s assertion that Middle-earth is not really an imaginary world, but an imaginary conception of Northern Europe in a very remote past (some kind of mythical ‘proto-prehistory’), then the ‘racial’ characteristics of European types have been logically transposed to the Houses of Men of Middle-earth. However, with the development of Tolkien’s mythology and the addition of the Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth, things became much more complicated, and the image of the ‘races’ of Men during the time of the plot of The Lord of the Rings is a much more complex and interesting one.

In the 1930s, Tolkien invented the story of the Men of Númenor, whose desire for Elvish immortality led to the downfall of their Atlantis-like island. The ‘race’ of the Númenóreans differed from common Men in biological and mental characteristics; thus, at the beginning of their existence, they are described as ‘tall, taller than the tallest of the sons of Middle-earth’ and in addition they are far-sighted. Their ‘increased […] stature’ was also followed by increase ‘of mind’ (Silmarillion, pp. 261–2) and their lifespan is far greater than that of common Men (Return of the King, p. 1128). Their appearance, their biological characteristics and their mental abilities appear to be very close to that of the Elves, but Tolkien is quick to emphasize their main difference:

[The Númenóreans] became thus in appearance, and even in powers of mind, hardly distinguishable from the Elves – but they remained mortal, even though rewarded by a triple, or more than a triple, span of years.

(Letters, p. 154)

After the Fall of Númenor, the few ‘faithful’ Númenóreans sailed to Middle-earth, where they established new kingdoms, including Gondor, and a dynastic lineage that culminates with Aragorn, son of Arathorn, the King who returns to rule at the end of The Lord of the Rings.

If we consider the landscape and demographics of Middle-earth during the end of the Third Age, then – the period during which the plot of The Lord of the Rings takes place – we will find the descendants of the Men of Númenor, the descendants of the Three Houses of Men of the First Age, but also other groups of Men of different origins.

In The Return of the King, there is a highly significant passage where Faramir talks to Frodo and Sam about the past history of Gondor and gives them a very clear idea of what Virginia Luling has called ‘the Gondorian theory of anthropology’ (1996, p. 54).

For so we reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West, which were Númenóreans; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight, such as are the Rohirrim and their kin that dwell still far in the North; and the Wild, the Men of Darkness.

(Return of the King, p. 678–9)

According to this classification, the ‘Highest’ race is indisputably the Númenóreans, proved by their enhanced bodily and intellectual characteristics. They have won this pre-eminence by being the allies of the Elves, virtually by ‘sticking to the good side’. Although their empowerment was initially related to theological or moral factors, they evolved into a superior race that stood apart from all the others. On the contrary, the Swarthy Men who fought against the Elves on the side of the evil forces remain inferior. But things are not that simple. In Faramir’s classification there is an in-between group called the ‘Middle Peoples’ or the ‘men of the Twilight’. The Rohirrim are described as belonging to that order. And – just to complicate things further – there is also another group of Men that seems to have been left out of Faramir’s anthropological classification: the Woses, or Wild Men of the Woods, who appear out of the blue to help the Rohirrim reach Gondor and assist against its siege.

Now this is a good place to also bring in Tolkien’s understanding of ‘culture’ in Middle-earth, and his borrowing from real, historical cultures to construct these sub-divisions of Men in the Third Age.

As I briefly noted earlier on, Tolkien identified Middle-earth with the north of Europe in a very remote past or ‘proto-prehistory’. Tolkien’s claims in the ‘Prologue’ of The Lord of the Rings that the hobbits inhabit the ‘North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea’ (Fellowship Of The Ring, p. 2) were corroborated by a comment he made in response to W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King:

I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world . . . The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time.

(Letters, p. 239)

Given this ‘European’ flavour of Middle-earth, one is not surprised to find an identification of the cultures of Men in the Third Age with actual historical European cultures. Especially when one thinks of the Rohirrim and the Men of Gondor, Tolkien has linked both ‘cultures’ – directly or by implication – to actual historical ‘cultures’ of the past.

Gondor was not only compared by Tolkien to Byzantium in its period of decline, but also to Rome and the Roman Empire, as well as to ancient Egypt – especially in terms of the Gondorian obsession with death and monuments, and their custom of ‘embalming’ dead kings (Letters, pp. 157, 376, 281). I have also discussed in my book (Fimi, 2008, pp. 165-191) a number of material culture links that associate the Númenóreans (and hence their descendants, the Men of Gondor) to the Vikings, especially their prowess as mariners, and their practice of ship-burials and boar funerals. Despite these cultural references of widely disparate cultures, the main element that characterises the Men of Gondor is the fact that – towards the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth – they are a culture in decline, a culture that has reached its peak and is heading towards decay, despite the promise of hope and renewal with the return of Aragorn as the rightful king and the restoration of the royal lineage.

On the contrary, the Men of Rohan are at a different stage of their development. In Faramir’s ‘Gondorian anthropology’ it is clear that the Men of Rohan do not share the ‘noble blood’ of the Númenóreans, but they are separated by the Men of Darkness due to their common ancestral roots with the Men of Gondor: the forefather of the Rohirrim are also the three houses of Men of the First Age of Middle-earth that I explored in more detail earlier on. Faramir actually goes on to talk very admiringly about the Rohirrim, describing them as:

tall men and fair women, valiant both alike, golden-haired, bright-eyed, and strong; they remind us of the youth of Men, as they were in the Elder Days. Indeed it is said by our lore-masters that they have from of old this affinity with us that they are come from those same Three Houses of Men as were the Númenóreans in their beginning; not from Hador the Goldenhaired, the Elf-friend, maybe, yet from such of his people as went not over Sea into the West…

(Return of the King, p. 678)

This portrayal of the Rohirrim ties in quite well with their historical identification as a pseudo-Anglo-Saxon culture. The Rohirrim are not only assigned Old English as their language and source of nomenclature, but they are also depicted as Anglo-Saxons in terms of their social values, institutions and their society. Tom Shippey has discussed the Old English resonances in the culture of Rohan, not least in terms of textual references to Beowulf and other famous Old English literature. For example, Tolkien’s description of the entrance of Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas into the Golden Hall of Edoras is very ‘Beowulfian’: firstly the arriving party is met by the gate guards, secondly by the door guards, then requested to leave their weapons aside before entering the hall, and finally they are challenged by the king’s counsellor – the same sequence as when Beowulf and his Men approach King Hrothgar’s hall (Treason, p. 442; Shippey 2005, p. 141; Shippey 2001, p. 94–6). However, I would like to add elements of the material culture of the Men of Rohan and their links to similar Anglo-Saxon cultural artefacts.

First of all, Tolkien compared the apparel and armour of the Rohirrim to a specific artefact: the Bayeux Tapestry. In a reply to Rhona Beare’s question about the clothes of the peoples of Middle-earth he noted that:

The Rohirrim were not ‘mediaeval’, in our sense. The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in England) fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chain-mail of small rings.

(Letters, pp. 280–1)

The Bayeux Tapestry was initially assumed to have been produced in Normandy, but during the beginning of the nineteenth century the argument for its English origin was put forward – and has been maintained ever since, with scholarly agreement – on the basis of the stitching techniques used, the Latin spellings and letter forms in the inscriptions as well as the use of Anglo-Saxon manuscript sources for the tapestry’s illustrations (Brown, 1988, p. 33). It is significant, then, that Tolkien uses the depictions of the tapestry to describe the dress and armoury of the Rohirrim, since he relies on images that are considered to be true to the material culture of the English in the Middle Ages. Significantly, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts one of the most crucial (if tragic, for Tolkien) moments of English history: the Norman invasion (the story of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, Earl of Wessex, whose men were defeated by the army of William the Conqueror in 1066).

There are other instances too of Tolkien’s insistence on an Anglo-Saxon material culture for the Rohirrim. When Morton Grady Zimmerman wrote a script for The Lord of the Rings with the intention to making an animated film adaptation, Tolkien was shown a copy of the script which he annotated heavily. This annotated script is now kept in the Tolkien MSS collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and records Tolkien’s general displeasure with the script (which says a lot, actually, about how Tolkien might have reacted to the recent film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson!)

Tolkien raised three specific points regarding Zimmerman’s incorrect portrayal of the material culture of the Rohirrim. The first point concerned the rooms of Théoden in Edoras. Zimmerman’s script referred to Théoden’s ‘chamber’ and later, during the scene when the Rohirrim prepare to leave for Helm’s Deep, Zimmerman wrote that ‘the chamber-room is turned into a beehive of bustling activity’. At the first occurrence of the word, Tolkien corrected ‘chamber’ to ‘hall’ and on the second he underlined the word ‘chamber-room’ and marked an ‘x’ in the right margin of the page, indicating his disagreement (Marquette, JRRT 8/1/1, pp. 31–2). It is worth mentioning that just under this second correction, Zimmerman had described Éowyn as Théoden’s daughter (rather than Théoden’s niece), but Tolkien did not respond to this obvious error, instead he payed more attention to the mistake of calling Théoden’s ‘hall’ a ‘chamber’ (Marquette, JRRT 8/1/1, p. 32)!

In a letter to his publishers, commenting on the script, Tolkien wrote:

In such a time private ‘chambers’ played no part. Théoden probably had none, unless he had a sleeping ‘bower’ in a separate small ‘outhouse’. He received guests or emissaries, seated on the dais in his royal hall. This is quite clear in the book; and the scene should be much more effective to Illustrate… Even if the king of such a people had a ‘bower’, it could not become ‘a beehive of bustling activity’!! The bustle takes place outside and in the town. What is showable of it should occur on the wide pavement before the great doors.

(Letters, p. 276)

The second instance where Tolkien felt he had to intervene was the scene immediately after Gandalf freed Théoden from the ‘spell’ of Saruman. Zimmerman wrote that ‘Théoden orders the windows thrown open and his sword to be brought to him’. Tolkien underlined the phrase ‘the windows thrown open’ and marked again an ‘x’ in the right margin of the page (Marquette, JRRT 8/1/1, p. 32). In the letter to his publishers Tolkien continues:

Why do not Théoden and Gandalf go into the open before the doors, as I have told? Though I have somewhat enriched the culture of the ‘heroic’ Rohirrim, it did not run to glass windows that could be thrown open!! We might be in a hotel. (The ‘east windows’ of the hall, II 116, 119, were slits under the eaves, unglazed.)

(Letters, p. 276)

The third and last point of Tolkien’s disagreement, which is not mentioned in the letter to his publishers, is when the slayer of the Nazgûl is revealed as Éowyn, who has followed the Riders of Rohan secretly, dressed as a man. Zimmerman wrote: ‘The knight throws back his visor and it is Éowyn, Théoden’s daughter’. Tolkien underlined the word ‘visor’ and wrote in the right margin of the page ‘it had none’ (Marquette, JRRT 8/1/1, p. 44). He – again – did not react to Éowyn being called ‘Théoden’s daughter’!

Out of these three points raised by Tolkien, the first appears to be of a linguistic nature, but it still reveals Tolkien’s construction of Middle-earth’s materiality and cultures. The word ‘chamber’ is French in origin, denoting a private room (see OED, ‘chamber’), and it would probably bring to mind the milieu of medieval romances, rather than anything Anglo-Saxon. The same argument is valid for Tolkien’s second and third points, the ‘windows’ of Théoden’s hall and Éowyn’s ‘visor’. Tolkien refers to ‘the culture of the “heroic” Rohirrim’, associating their material culture with the Anglo-Saxons rather than with popular medieval Romance culture, which would contain private ‘chambers’ and glass windows as well as visors in knights’ armour. This contrast of Anglo-Saxon and Romance materiality, as well as the social values and atmosphere it denotes, is illustrated once more in a letter where Tolkien defends Éowyn and Faramir’s love, which – according to one of his readers – was too quickly developed. He wrote:

In my experience feelings and decisions ripen very quickly . . . in periods of great stress, and especially under the expectation of imminent death. And I do not think that persons of high estate and breeding need all the petty fencing and approaches in matters of ‘love’. This tale does not deal with a period of ‘Courtly Love’ and its pretences; but with a culture more primitive (sc. less corrupt) and nobler.

(Letters, p. 324, emphasis added)

Tolkien’s insistence on the Rohirrim as a culture ‘more primitive (sc. less corrupt) and nobler’, without glass windows, visors in their armours, and private ‘chambers’, plays within a very recognisable motif: that of the ‘primitive’ as ‘purer’, ‘nobler’ and ‘incorrupt’ by the excesses of a ‘civilized’ life that has ended up being decadent and self-indulgent. The Riders of Rohan and the citizens of Gondor are portrayed as two contrasting societies. The descendants of the Númenórean civilisation, the inhabitants of the lands of Gondor have become too sophisticated and are heading towards an age of decline by the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth. To the contrary, the Rohirrim are portrayed as a younger culture, probably closer to the stereotype of Northern ‘barbarians’ than to the over-tired, southern civilisation of Númenor. In this equation, the Rohirrim are perceived as a stronger ‘race’, full of vigour and energy. Faramir mentions them in a complimentary manner in the quotation I used earlier on; they remind him of the ‘youth of Men’. At the same time, if the Rohirrim are equated with the Anglo-Saxons, then their ancestors – the Northmen of Rhovanion who have Gothic names (Unfinished Tales, p. 311–12; Shippey 2005, pp. 17–18) – are an adaptation of the Goths, another ‘barbarian’ people admired by Tolkien and associated with a ‘nobler’ and ‘purer’ culture. In the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien gives us a remarkable episode in the history of Gondor and its association with the ‘primitive’ but its loyal and hearty neighbouring barbarians, in which the ‘mingling’ of the line of the kings with non-Númenórean blood does not cause harm, but rather enriches it: King Valacar of Gondor married Vidumavi the daughter of the King of the Northmen. When their son, Eldacar, succeeded him to the throne ‘to the lineage of Gondor he added the fearless spirit of the Northmen’ (Return of the King, p. 1046).

And talking about ‘noble’ barbarians, this is a good place to go back to a group of Men whom we see playing an active role in the War of the Ring and the fate of Middle-earth in the Third Age, but who are not included in Faramir’s account, and seem to have been forgotten by history. The Woses, or Wild Men of the Woods, are clearly not Númenóreans, neither can they claim the same origin as the Rohirrim. Still, they are neither hostile to Elves and Men nor allies of Sauron. This ‘race’ of Men seems to appear out of the blue to help the Rohirrim reach Gondor and help at its greatest need. They are a primitive tribe of wild men described as short-legged and fat-armed, exactly like the statues of the ‘Púkel-Men’ which the riders encounter before they meet with their leader, Ghân-buri-Ghân (Return of the King, pp. 831–2). The depiction of this ‘uncivilized’ tribe is highly reminiscent of the eighteenth-century romantic idealisation of the ‘noble savage’: a primitive man who is free, peaceful and close to nature (Gillespie, 2002, pp. 89–90; Steeves, 1973, p. 93). Ghân-buri-Ghân speaks in abrupt and grammatically liminal sentences and is dressed only with ‘grass about his waist’. He refuses to send his men to war, as he claims that: ‘we fight not’, but he offers help to the Rohirrim, declaring himself and his people as foes of the Orcs (Return of the King, pp. 831–2).

At the same time, though, the portrayal of the Woses shows another commonplace idea of Victorian anthropology: the equation of the mental development of the primitive, ‘savage’ man with that of ‘civilized’ children (Stocking, 1982, p. 126). According to this view, the mental development in ‘lower’, ‘uncivilized’ races halted in early adolescence and so their character remained more automatic and instinctive. In Unfinished Tales, the Wild Men (the Drúedain, as the Elves call them) are indeed given child-like characteristics. Tolkien describes them as hairless below their eyebrows, save only a few, who were proud to have ‘a small tail of black hair in the midst of the chin’ (Unfinished Tales, pp. 377), and their laughter is rich and rolling as one would expect a child’s laughter to be. Tolkien adds that ‘in peace they often laughed at work or play when other Men might sing’ (Unfinished Tales, p. 378), which adds to their characterisation as young adolescents.

Consequently the Woses are a deviation from the strict racial hierarchy of Middle-earth as I have discussed it so far. Instead of being classified as an inferior race due to their primitiveness, Tolkien seems to view them as ‘noble savages’: unlovely in appearance rather than exotically beautiful (as other ‘noble savages’ in contemporary literature are often portrayed), but still romanticized. Their primitiveness is respected rather than despised.

Now, having discussed the hierarchical world of Men in the First and Third Ages of Middle-earth, one cannot help but feel the urge to return to those thorny questions I asked at the very beginning of this paper, and a persistent question – and one even fervent Tolkien fans find uncomfortable to deal with in terms of contemporary politics and ideas – is Tolkien’s portrayal of evil in Middle-earth, as represented by the Dark Men, but most significantly by the Orcs.

Such intrinsically ‘evil’ creatures as goblins, orcs, gnomes, or whatever else they might be called have developed into ‘staple’ characters in modern fantasy, often viewed as an ‘easy’ way to create enemies for the main heroes to fight and lead to a large set-piece battle towards at the climax of the plot. Before Tolkien, George MacDonald used the goblins in such a way, and after Tolkien many followers and imitators adopted this premise.

Nevertheless, in Tolkien’s understanding of ‘race’ – as discussed so far – anthropological and theological (or spiritual) perspectives often mix and mingle in very interesting ways. The Orcs may represent the typical villains of Middle-earth, but their origins lie in the highest ‘race’. The account of their creation in the published Silmarillion talks about some of the first Elves who were terribly afraid when Oromë came to meet them and fled. They were subsequently ensnared by Melkor and ‘by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved’ so that the race of Orcs was made ‘in envy and mockery of the Elves’ (Silmarillion, p. 50). Tolkien seems to have emphasized the fact that the Orcs were not ‘created’ by Melkor, but rather turned into a ‘counterfeit’ of their original Elvish nature (Letters, p. 190).

The issue of the ‘creation’ or ‘corruption’ of the Orcs seems to have troubled Tolkien, especially in the years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, due to its theological and philosophical implications. The ‘solution’ of the Orcs as ‘corrupted’ forms of Elves meant that Morgoth obviously did not have the power to ‘create’ new things, which was in line with his evil nature. Only Illúvatar, God, could create new life. But on the other hand, the thought that the hideous and malicious Orcs were once Elves – the ‘highest’ beings of Middle-earth – became increasingly unbearable for Tolkien.

Christopher Tolkien has edited a series of Tolkien’s essays and notes on the Orcs, dating from the late 1950s up to the late 1960s, in which Tolkien’s views wavered between different ‘solutions’ for the Orcs: sticking to his original idea of the Orcs as corrupted Elves, changing to Orcs as corrupted forms of Men or even corruptions of fallen Maia in one version. He even considered the possibility of the Orcs as automata created by Sauron with only echoic speech like parrots (see Morgoth, p. 408–24).

In most versions, though, Orcs seem to be the ‘negative’ version of Elves and Men. Tolkien’s visualisation of them is especially intriguing when viewed in such a context. In all of Tolkien’s ‘legendarium’ the Orcs are hardly ever described in detail – they are only identified as evil. In The Lord of the Rings, however, there are a number of instances where their physical appearance is a bit more evident. One of the Orc chieftains in Moria is described as ‘almost man-high’ and we are told that ‘his broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red’ (Fellowship Of The Ring, p. 325). The ‘goblin-soldiers’ of Isengard are described as being ‘of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands’ and elsewhere as ‘large, swart, slant-eyed’ (Two Towers, pp. 415, 451). Finally, a glimpse of the appearance of the Orcs is also given through the description of Saruman’s half-goblin or half-Orcish Men, the result of his having ‘blended the races of Orcs and Men’ (Two Towers, p. 473). Already in Bree we meet a ‘squint-eyed southerner’, the companion of Bill Ferny, who is also described elsewhere as ‘swarthy’ and with ‘a sallow face with sly, slanting eyes’ (Fellowship Of The Ring, pp. 160, 165, 180). The same appearance is also attributed to some of Saruman’s army as seen by Merry and Pippin before the destruction of Isengard as well as to the ruffians that the hobbits have to face in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ (Two Towers, p. 566; Return of the King, pp. 1004, 1005, 1015).

This image of the Orcs becomes much clearer in one of Tolkien’s letters, where he explains that:

The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.

(Letters, p. 274)

This statement is important from an anthropological point of view, as it seems to reflect popular ideas of the traditional hierarchy of the three extreme human racial types: the Caucasoid, the Mongoloid and the Negroid (Montagu, 1997, p. 50; Metraux, 1951, p. 153). In this case, Tolkien seems to identify himself with the ‘European’ race, usually associated with the Caucasoid, and chooses for his villains the physical characteristics in extreme of the so-called Mongoloid race, traditionally seen as inferior from a western European perspective.

However, at the same time, the identification of Orcs with the Mongoloid race evokes popular ideas on racial degeneration and mental disability. For many years – officially until 1961 – the medical condition today known as ‘Down’s Syndrome’ was referred to as ‘Mongolian idiocy’ or ‘Mongolism’. The term originated in the writings of John Langdon Down, who was the first to describe and study the condition. His name was subsequently used as the modern term to refer to this condition (Ward, 1999, p. 22). Writing during the second half of the nineteenth century and influenced by racial anthropology, Down came to view mental disability as a form of regression to earlier, less ‘developed’ races of humans. He categorised the patients of the asylum he was working in into different racial groups. He observed that a great number of them were ‘typical Mongols’ (Ward 1999, p. 20; Wright 2001, p. 164). His description of the ‘Mongolian idiots’ is alarmingly close to Tolkien’s description of the Orcs:

The face is flat and broad, and destitute of prominence. The cheeks are roundish, and extended laterally. The eyes are obliquely placed, and the internal canthi more than normally distant from one another . . . The lips are large and thick, with transverse fissures. The tongue is long, thick and is much roughened. The nose is small.

(Down, 1862, p. 122)

The supposed ‘regression’ of the Down’s syndrome patients was an idea that persisted as late as 1924 when Crookshank claimed in The Mongol in our Midst that the syndrome represented regression to the characteristics of the orang-utang (1924). The identification of the Orcs with Mongols and the evocation of mental disability associated with such a term also seem to agree with a more general stereotypical attitude towards disability in society. This prejudice persists to this day in some societies and tends to view disabled people as sinister and evil (Barnes, 1992, p. 22).

Tolkien needed to create a ‘species’ of beings that would represent the forces of evil and which would engage in battles and warfare with the ‘good’ side without evoking the pity of the readers – in that sense the Orcs are ideal: they are intrinsically evil, without any hope of salvation and they are full of hatred for anything good or beautiful. Tolkien’s portrayal of the Orcs concentrates on unfamiliar characteristics (note Tolkien’s comment that the Mongol characteristics are unlovely ‘to Europeans’ rather than generally), stereotypical ideas of ‘degradation’ often associated with the racial ‘other’ and with the discourse of disability.

Gradually moving towards some final remarks and a conclusion to this lecture:

So far I discussed some aspects of Tolkien’s hierarchical invented world within the context of a possible medieval approach to his fantasy, but also via the framework of cultural history and the history of ideas during the long span of the evolution of his entire mythological corpus. I hope to have shed some light on what can be initially perceived as a contradiction between Tolkien’s vehement comments against the Nazis and the ‘pernicious race-doctrine’ he renounces from the 1930s and later, and the strict racial divisions in Middle-earth, which often show a reliance on much older understanding of anthropology. As I have argued in my book, Tolkien’s work started as a very specific ‘mode’ of writing, the construction of a mythology with some central spiritual and theological concerts at its centre, but ended with writing of a different genre: the ‘novelistic’ mode of The Lord of the Rings and later works. This transition from one ‘mode’ or genre of literary production to another, was accompanied by another transition: Tolkien is unusual, compared to many other writers, in that he developed a body of interrelated writings that shared the same setting and the same invented world for a span of over 60 years. Consequently, Middle-earth evolved together with Tolkien’s own ideas and worldviews as he aged and the world changed around him. Tolkien started his writing career very much as a late Victorian/Edwardian writer, with poems and tales of fairies and some very 19th-century ideological ‘baggage’, and ended up as a 20th-century writer with very different concerns, anxieties, and ways of understanding the world, having gone through two traumatic World Wars and having witnessed tremendous cultural changes. It is not surprising, therefore, that Middle-earth – especially when one considers Tolkien’s later, more famous writings, such as The Lord of the Rings – is a (not always consistent) mixture of medievalism, Victorian anthropology and contemporary ideas about the dangers of racial prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, at many points Elves look down upon Men as inferior, or other sub-categories of beings adopt the same approach, often with disastrous results – especially when it comes to some of the tragic stories of Middle-earth such as the tale of Beren and Lúthien, or The Children of Hurin.

But let me close with some last comments on one another series of texts that have recently served as the starting point of much popular and scholarly discussion of Tolkien: the cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson. It is not important to note that Jackson’s film trilogy has added a further layer of complexity (and often confusion) to readers’ interpretation of race in Tolkien’s work. Both Yatt’s and Shapiro’s headlines I used above, claiming that The Lord of the Rings is ‘rooted in racism’ are based entirely on, or are greatly influenced by, Jackson’s adaptation (Rearick, 2004).

It is important to remember that film adaptations are as much a product of their own cultural moment as the original literary works they interpret were of theirs. The echoes of medieval cosmology and Victorian anthropology in Tolkien’s work have taken on a very different hue in Jackson’s post 9/11 film trilogy. Brian Rosebury has recently commented that The Lord of the Rings is, actually, “a Eurocentric work and has added hat “Jackson cannot be blamed for the fact that his heroes, as well as some of his villains, are white,” nor that the threat seems to come from the east and south of the Middle-earth map (Rosebury, 2006, p. 557). However, as visual media, Jackson’s films have accentuated the “racial otherness” of different peoples by basing their characteristics on a (sometimes haphazard) blend of non-European material cultures: as the design and production teams comment in the extended DVDs of the films, they used North African, Maori, Pacific Island, and Japanese material culture elements to portray the Easterlings and the Haradrim (Rosebury, 2006; Kim, 2004). In a period of high tension between the Eastern and the Western world, such cultural borrowings can be deemed purposefully offensive and ideological.

Now, to end on a positive note, I have to say that whenever I teach Tolkien and race in my University (at undergraduate or postgraduate level) my students often quote a poignant passage from The Two Towers, which Jackson kept in the homonymous film, albeit giving it to a different character. When Faramir’s company attack the Easterlings, who are attempting to pass through Ithilien with their Oliphaunt, and then discover Frodo and Sam there, Jackson’s adaptation provides a shot in which Faramir stares at a dead young Easterling, before saying:

“His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there… in peace”

These words reproduce nearly verbatim Sam’s inner thoughts when witnessing the same scene in The Lord of the Rings (Two Towers, p. 661). Although in the film the audience actually sees the dead face, which has quite recognizable eastern features, Sam’s thoughts that have been given to Faramir still convey Tolkien’s own thoughts about the nature of war – about the battle against other human beings, whom we sometimes demonize and dehumanize in order to be able to fight them, and about the inner battle with our own human nature, which goes against killing our kin.

Thank you.


WorkS by J.R.R. Tolkien, cited in chronological order

The Lord of the Rings in three volumes:

I, The Fellowship of the Ring (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954 [cited here from 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, London: HarperCollins, 2004]).

II, The Two Towers (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954 [cited here from 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, London: HarperCollins, 2004]).

III, The Return of the King (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955 [cited here from 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, London: HarperCollins, 2004]).

Marquette University, Special Collections and Archives, JRRT 8/1/1. Screen treatment of The Lord of the Rings, written by Morton Grady Zimmerman, annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1957.

The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977).

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980).

The Lost Road and Other Writings: Language and Legend before The Lord of the Rings, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1987).

The Return of the Shadow, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1988).

The Treason of Isengard: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Two, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One: The Legends of Aman, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1993).

The Peoples of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1996).

‘Early Qenya Fragments’, edited by Patrick Wynne and Christopher Gilson, Parma Eldalamberon, 14 (2003): 3–34.


Other Works Cited

Alter, Stephen G. Darwinism and the Linguistic Image: Language, Race, and Natural Theology in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

Anonymous, ‘Debating Society’, King Edward’s School Chronicle, 26:187 (1911), 42-45.

Barnes, C. Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People (Derby: The British Council of Disabled, 1992).

Brown, Shirley Ann. The Bayeux Tapestry: History and Bibliography (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1988).

Down, J.L., ‘Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots’, London Hospital Reports, 3 (1862), 259-262.

Fimi, Dimitra. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Gillespie, Gerald, ‘In Search of the Noble Savage: Some Romantic Cases’, Neohelicon, 29:1 (2002), 89-95.

Grant, Madison, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1936 [first published in 1916]).

Kim, Sue, ‘Beyond Black and White: Race and Postmodernism in The Lord of the Rings Films’, Modern Fiction Studies, 50:4 (2004), 875-905.

Luling, Virginia, ‘An Anthropologist in Middle-earth’, pp. 53-57, in Reynolds, Patricia and GoodKnight, Glen (eds), Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, 1992: Proceedings of the Conference Held at Keble College, Oxford, England, 17th-24th August 1992 to Celebrate the Centenary of the Birth of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, Incorporating the 23rd Mythopoeic Conference (Mythcon XXIII) and Oxonmoot 1992 (Milton Keynes: Tolkien Society, 1996).

Metraux, A., ‘United Nations Economic and Security Council, Statement by Experts on Problems of Race’, American Anthropologist, 53:1 (1951), 142-5.

Montagu, Ashley. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (London: Altamira Press, 1997).

Rearick, Anderson III, ‘Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien’s World’, Modern Fiction Studies, 50: 4 (2004), 861–75.

Reynolds, James, and Stewart, Fiona, ‘Lord of the Rings Labelled Racist’, Scotsman, 14 December 2002.

Rosebury, Brian, ‘Race in Tolkien Films’, p. 557, in Drout, Michael D.C. (ed.), J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Shippey, T.A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2001).

Shippey, Tom, ‘An Interview with Tom Shippey’, HarperCollins website, 2001.

Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle-earth: Revised Edition (London: HarperCollins, 2005).

Sinex, Margaret, ‘Monsterized Saracens: Tolkien’s Haradrim, and Other Medieval “Fantasy Products”’, Tolkien Studies, 7 (2010), 175–96.

Steeves, Edna L., ‘Negritude and the Noble Savage’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 11:1 (1937), 91-104.

Stocking, George W. Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987).

Ward, O.C., ‘John Langdon Down: The Man and the Message’, Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 6:1 (1999), 19-24.

Wright, David. Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum 1847-1901 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Yatt, John, ‘Wraiths and Race’, Guardian, 2 December 2002.



Tolkien Sessions at IMC Leeds, July 2019

I am very pleased to announce that all five sessions on J.R.R. Tolkien I proposed for the International Medieval Congress at Leeds 2019 have been accepted! This will be the 5th consecutive year of papers on J.R.R. Tolkien at IMC Leeds, after a successful series of sessions in 201520162017, and 2018. Leeds is, of course, a Tolkien-related location, and it is very fitting that his work will be once again explored in this prestigious conference. I am looking forward to a series of brilliant sessions and papers from well-established Tolkien scholars, alongside many new voices and perspectives!

Here are the sessions titles, abstracts, papers, speakers and times:

Session 130: Materiality in Tolkien’s Medievalism, I

Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Organiser: Dimitra Fimi, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Moderator/Chair: Sara Brown, Independent Scholar
Session Time: Mon. 01 July – 11.15-12.45

Medieval Automata and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Gondolin

Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University

Tolkien as Letter-Writer

Deidre Dawson, Independent Scholar

I glin grandin a Dol Erethrin Airi: An Exploration of Tolkien’s ‘Heraldic Devices of Tol-Erethrin’

Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar

Walking in Legend and on the Green Earth: Building the Verisimilitude of Tolkien’s Secondary World

Victoria Holtz-Wodzak, Viterbo University


Session 230: Materiality in Tolkien’s Medievalism, II

Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Organiser: Dimitra Fimi, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Moderator/Chair: Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University
Session Time:     Mon. 01 July – 14.15-15.45

From Mushrooms to Man-Flesh: The Cultural Significance of Food in the Material World of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Sara Brown, Independent Scholar

Corpses, Tomb, and Barrows: The Materiality of Death in Tolkien

Gaëlle Abaléa, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne

‘Cleaving the undead flesh’: Solid Blades and Invisible Foes in Middle-Earth

Aurélie Brémont, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne

Be Careful What You Bring for Your Journey: The Fate of the Fellowship Beaconed by Their Provisions

Aslı Bülbül Candaş, University of Glasgow


Session 330: Materiality in Tolkien’s Medievalism, III

Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Organiser: Dimitra Fimi, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Moderator/Chair: Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar
Session Time: Mon. 01 July – 16.30-18.00

Tolkien’s Elvish and Archaic First Map of Middle-Earth: Lost Connections in Space and Time

Erik Mueller-Harder, Independent Scholar

The Production of Secondary Manuscript Traditions

Brad Eden, Independent Scholar

Alan Lee’s Exploration of Tolkien’s Works: The Fall of Gondolin

Sultana Raza, Independent Scholar

From Finwë’s Winged Sun to the ‘Wheel of Fire’: Tolkien’s Heraldic Emblems as Signifiers in the Works of Sergei Iukhimov

Joel Merriner, University of Plymouth


Session 1046: J. R. R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches

Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Organiser: Dimitra Fimi, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Moderator/Chair: Deidre Dawson, Independent Scholar
Session Time: Wed. 03 July – 09.00-10.30

How Christian is The Lord of the Rings?: Tolkien’s Work Seen in the Context of the Biblical and                   Theological Tradition

Andrzej Wicher, Uniwersytet Łódzki

Tolkien’s Númenoreans and the Phaeacians: An Homeric Source before Plato’s Atlantis?

Hamish Williams, Universiteit Leiden

A Straussian Approach to Tolkien’s Medievalism: Or, Reading Tolkien’s Literary Adaptations in Light of the Conflict between Ancient and Modern

Dennis Wilson Wise, University of Arizona

The Medieval Faërie from Keats through Morris to Tolkien

William James Sherwood, University of Exeter


Session 1146: New Voices and New Topics in Tolkien Scholarship: A Round Table Discussion

Sponsor: School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Organiser: Dimitra Fimi, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Moderator/Chair: Dimitra Fimi, University of Glasgow
Session Time: Wed. 03 July – 11.15-12.45


Anahit Behrooz, University of Edinburgh

Michael Flowers, Independent Scholar

Dennis Wilson Wise, University of Arizona

This round table discussion will provide a forum for new scholars in Tolkien studies to share innovative approaches, new ideas, and underexplored areas of research. Dennis Wilson Wise’s research will discuss researching Tolkien via the lens of political philosophy; Anahit Behruz will focus on Tolkien’s texts as political and politicised texts, focusing on feminist, postcolonial, queer, and ecocritical readings; and Michael Flowers will discuss biographical and archival research on Tolkien, including online repositories but also fieldwork on location.

Sailing to the West: The Fall of Arthur, Beowulf, and Tol Eressea (Keynote Lecture for Oxonmoot 2017)

The last few years have seen the publication of two of Tolkien’s works that scholars and serious fans have known about for a very long time:

  • Tolkien’s unfinished alliterative poem The Fall of Arthur[i] and
  • Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf (together with relevant notes from Tolkien’s lectures, as well as his fairy-tale Selic Spell and two Lays on the story of Beowulf)[ii]


A lot has been written and said about the contribution of the Beowulf volume to Old English scholarship and on the ways Tolkien thought about the English Arthurian tradition as evidenced in The Fall of Arthur, but what I want to focus on today is what is it that linked those two works in Tolkien’s imagination as represented in his Middle-earth mythology.

So let me start with The Fall of Arthur:

It’s probably bad etiquette to begin with a quotation from my own published stuff, but bear with me: in this paper I may have to be self-reflective at points as I have long been interested in Tolkien’s “Celtic” sources, and I have hazarded public speculations on The Fall of Arthur before it ever appeared in print. So, here it goes:

In my 2007 paper in Tolkien Studies, volume 4[iii], I wrote about The Fall of Arthur:

Carpenter seems to be pointing to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur as an immediate source for Tolkien’s poem. However, Tolkien’s poem was written in alliterative metre, while Malory’s is in prose.

There are actually two very short fragments, of no more than forty five lines in total, from the unpublished “Fall of Arthur” available to the researcher within Tolkien’s manuscripts at the Bodleian… [and] it is significant that Christopher Tolkien’s note on the Folio refers to the poem as “Morte Arthure”. This title would not point to Malory’s poem but rather to the Middle-English text known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure. This is a late fourteenth-century Arthurian romance, which, together with the almost contemporary Stanzaic Morte Arthur, forms the main English Arthurian tradition before Malory […] Tolkien might have showed a preference for this poem rather than for Malory’s work because of it being part of the alliterative revival, a literary movement which began in the mid-fourteenth century and included such works as the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien co-edited with his colleague E. V. Gordon and also translated into Modern English alliterative verse. […]

Apart from a tribute to the alliterative form, though, the poem could also be a tribute to the Arthur of the English, to the English Arthurian tradition. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s “Fall of Arthur” is not available to consult and compare with either Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, or the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but both works would qualify as depicting an English Arthur, as opposed to a Welsh, or even worse for Tolkien, a French one.[iv] (emphasis added)

At that time I had very little to go on: just Carpenter’s description of The Fall of Arthur[v] and those 45 or so lines in the Bodleian (in pretty undecipherable handwriting), but Tolkien’s love and desire for a modern revival of alliterative poetry had been long known (not least from his published work – especially in The Lord of the Rings) and, of course, much has been written and discussed about Tolkien’s Francophobia; and Tolkien as a writer of Englishness, interested in an English mythology and identity, as opposed to “things Celtic”.

I suppose I got some things right – which brought a great feeling of relief when I finally read The Fall of Arthur in its entirety: the Alliterative Morte Arthure is indeed the most substantial source for Tolkien’s unfinished poem, and Christopher Tolkien’s commentary seems to support the idea that Tolkien had in mind the English “chronicle” tradition of King Arthur, rather than the French “Romance” tradition, or the Arthurian folklore tradition from the Welsh material. But, then, I really didn’t expect that Tolkien was contemplating linking The Fall of Arthur with his own legendarium. This was a complete surprise, which opened entirely new questions and research avenues.

For me, The Fall of Arthur raised two intriguing questions that demanded answers:

  1. What was Arthur doing in the East at the beginning of The Fall of Arthur?
  2. Where (and what) is Avalon?

I will address the latter first.

From Tolkien’s drafts and MSS on The Fall of Arthur, we know that he had certain ideas about how his poem would end. As I said above, Tolkien followed very closely (and for a large part of his poem) the Alliterative Morte Arthure. But the Alliterative Morte Arthure ends with the mortally wounded Arthur taken to Glastonbury, where he is eventually buried with great ceremony. In Tolkien’s drafts we have, instead:

Arthur dying in the gloom. Robbers search the field. [Excalibur >] Caliburn and the lake. The dark ship comes up the river. Arthur placed upon it.

Lancelot… rides ever west. The hermit by the sea shore tells him of Arthur’s departure. Lancelot gets a boat and sails west and never returns. – Eärendel passage.[vi]

And in another draft:

Lancelot parts from Guinevere and sets sail for Benwick but turns west and follows after Arthur. And never returns from the sea. Whether he found him in Avalon and will return no one knows.[vii] (emphasis added)

In the extraordinary draft poem that follows, which Christopher Tolkien calls, for convenience, “Eärendel’s Quest” (it seems to be the “Eärendel passage” Tolkien refers to in the last but one quotation), Eärendel seems to take the place of Lancelot (or vice versa?).

But the draft I am most interested in is the next one, which Christopher Tolkien calls “Arthur’s Grave”, in which the same lines (or at least very similar ones) with the last part of “Eärendel’s Quest” are now attributed to Arthur, after listing the graves of other Arthurian characters:

The grave of Gawain under grass lieth
by the sounding sea, where the sun westers.
What grave hath Guinever The grey shadow
her gold in [?ground] [(struck out:) gleams like]
her gold in silence unseen gleameth.
Britain nor Benwick did barrow keep
of Lancelot and his lady.
No [(struck out:) grave hath Arthur]
No mound hath Arthur in mortal land
under moon or sun who in ………..
beyond the miles of the sea and the magic islands
beyond the halls of night upon Heaven’s borders
[(struck out:) the] dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Avalon on the borders of the world.
up[on] Earth’s border in Avalon [sleeping >] biding.
While the world w….eth
till the world [??awaketh]

(Christopher Tolkien notes that “In the penultimate line the verb is not waiteth and seems not to be watcheth.[ix])

Historia regum Britanniae, reproduced from

Now this ambiguous idea of Arthur mortally wounded, on the one hand, but carried over to Avalon over the sea to be healed, on the other, goes back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the beginning of the Arthurian legend as we know it today, where we hear very briefly that he was “carried thence to the isle of Avalon [insulam Auallonis] to be cured of his wounds”[x]. In his later work, Vita Merlini, Geoffrey elaborates on Avalon, and translates its name: he refers to it as the “Island of Apples, which is called the Fortunate Isle” [insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur]. Most scholars agree that the derivation of the place-name “Avalon” confirms Geoffrey’s translation: in Welsh afal means ‘apple’, so the term “Avalon” and its otherwordly associations point to a Welsh tradition. A cognate and parallel mythological use is attested in early Irish literature: Emain Ablach, ‘Emain of the apples’, is the poetic name for the Isle of Man when it is specifically identified as the blessed and otherworldly domain of the sea divinity Manannán mac Lir.

Though there are much more numerous in Irish medieval literature, there are examples of otherworld islands in the Welsh tradition, e.g. the timeless feast in the island of Gwales in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. But, most importantly, Arthur himself is involved in an expedition to an otherworld island in the early Welsh poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ (‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, c.850-1150). He leads a sea raid on an otherworldly stronghold made of glass in his ship, Prydwen. The aim is to rescue a prisoner and steal a magical cauldron that ‘does not boil the food of a coward’.

Vita Merlini, reproduced from:

But the tradition that Tolkien seems to be alluding to in his draft, is Arthur’s departure to Avalon and his promised return, a Messianic prophecy that gave the Anglo-Saxons and Normans a lot of headaches when they were faced with Welsh nationalism. In Vita Merlini Geoffrey includes this belief in Arthur’s return. But the belief seems to be earlier, part of the Welsh, pre-Galfridian Arthurian tradition. The first hint of this tradition in the Welsh medieval corpus is a text that Tolkien definitely knew, and that – I think – he emulates in his projected ending of The Fall of Arthur: the Englynion y Beddau (the Stanzas of the Graves). This is series of verses in the manuscript known as The Black Book of Carmarthen which list the locations of the graves of famous Welsh heroes.

The MS is quite late (13th century) but the stanzas themselves have been dated to the 9th century. The heroes whose graves are catalogued include important characters from the Mabinogion (Pryderi, Dylan), and Arthurian characters are very much present also. So we hear about the graves of Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain), Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere), and March (King Mark) of the Tristan stories, among others. The most important lines for the purposes of this paper are those of stanza 44:

Bet y march.
bet y guythur.
bet y gugaun cletyfrut.
Anoeth bid bet y arthur.

[There is] a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword
the world’s wonder (anoeth) [is] a grave for Arthur.[xi]

Now the word anoeth is archaic and difficult and can mean a wonder, or something difficult to obtain, or an impossible task. (So, for those of you who are familiar with the Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the “impossible tasks” that the giant Ysbaddaden demands that Culhwch should accomplish to win Olwen for his bride are called “anoethau”).  The line Anoeth bid bet y Arthur has variously been translated as “A wonder of the world is the grave of Arthur”, “a difficult thing is the grave of Arthur”, “Impossible to find in this world is the grave of Arthur”. Patrick Sims-Williams has linked this stanza with the Welsh tradition of Arthur’s temporary departure and eventual return, which is corroborated by William of Malmesbury’s remark in his Gesta regum Anglorum (c. 1125) that ‘Arthur’s grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return’.[xii]

To my knowledge, there is no other medieval work that lists the graves of Arthurian heroes in the way Tolkien does, other than the Englynion y Beddau. Tolkien actually owned two copies of this text: one in a 1888 facsimile and one in a 1907 edition and reproduction of the Black Book of Carmarthen. You can see the latter (in the exact edition Tolkien owned) in Image 1, and the pages containing the verses quoted above in Image 2.

Image 1

Image 2

So much for the Arthur of the English, then!

As I was reading The Fall of Arthur, I was definitely getting elements of motifs and tone from the Alliterative Morte Arthure (the strong homosocial bonds between Arthur and his knights, for example; or the insistence on the epic/chronicle depiction of Arthur as an active war leader, rather than the more shadowy Arthur of the Romances); but I was also getting bits and pieces of the Arthur of the Welsh. In Tolkien’s work, Arthur’s ship is Prydwen, a name attested in the Welsh tradition only (Geoffrey had evidently heard it but got it wrong, as he gives the name Pridwen to Arthur’s shield). Wales also figures as a location in the poem with somewhat mystical associations: twice Tolkien describes Wales in his poem as “the hidden kingdom” (Canto IV, lines 12, 67). There are many “hidden kingdoms” of the Elves in the legendarium, including Gondolin and Nargothrond, but the term Hidden Kingdom, capitalised, usually refers to Doriath, which – as I hypothesized in my 2007 article – is associated with tales for which Tolkien was inspired by “Celtic” material.

But what is more significant, is that – by the point of the projected ending of Tolkien’s poem – the Welsh-derived tradition of Arthur as the “once and future king” seems to have prevailed. And I think it is significant that the MS of the Alliterative Morte Arthure seems to echo exactly what Tolkien did: As I said before, this 14th-century poem ends with Arthur’s elaborate funeral and burial at Glastonbury. But added to the very end of the poem, in a different hand from that of the main MS scribe, is the line: “Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus.” (Here lies Arthur, king once and king to be.) Scholars have debated this addition, claiming that it clashes with the scene of Arthur’s funeral just a few lines above. Is this added line a reference to Arthur’s importance even after death? Is it Arthur’s supposed epitaph? Or is it – as Mary Hamel has claimed – that the writer simply ‘disagreed with the poet’s ending’[xiii]? I think that Tolkien’s interpretation would be the latter – or at least, he himself disagreed with this ending and went back to the older Welsh tradition, to Avalon and the absence of a grave for Arthur.

But why link this tradition with his own legendarium? Why make the Arthurian Avalon equivalent to Tol Eressea, the island of the Elves off Valinor?

In the notes that accompany the texts of The Fall of Arthur, Christopher Tolkien gives a full commentary of the emergence of the name Avallon in Tolkien’s mythology. In the legendarium, Avallon was also (initially) associated with Tol Eressea, but is there given as an alternative Elvish name for the island, in the mode of the linguistic punning that Tolkien often liked to use. The term first shows up in the legendarium with the emergence of Númenor and Tolkien’s unfinished novel The Lost Road around 1936-1937. Was that around the same time he was also contemplating the ending of The Fall of Arthur? Perhaps. Christopher Tolkien actually gives us a list of Tolkien’s plot notes for the ending of the poem (see Image 3) on which he writes down the date “Aug 1937” at the point where Arthur departs for Avalon, so there is corroboration for this hypothesis.

Image 3

Now calling an imaginary island in an imaginary mythology Avallon, is one thing. But to retell the story of Arthur’s last days, a legend of the real world, and then equate the Arthurian Avalon with the imaginary island in your own mythology, is quite another. What I think may point to an answer of why Tolkien explicitly links the Avalon of primary world legend to his own secondary world, may have to do with the first question I posed at the beginning of this paper:

What was the point of Arthur’s campaign in the East in The Fall of Arthur?

Christopher Tolkien is at pains to show that this is not a campaign against Rome and the Roman Emperor, as in much of the “chronicle” Arthurian tradition, including the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but a campaign to defend “the Roman realm”, which Christopher Tolkien concludes must be a reference to Roman Britain, i.e. Christian Britain, after the Romans left, but before the Anglo-Saxon invasion[xiv]: this is indeed the usual historical context for the possible existence of a “historical” Arthur, as per the writings of Gildas, Nenius, the Welsh Annals, etc. It was, definitely, astonishing for me, when reading The Fall of Arthur, to suddenly realise that Tolkien was in this poem writing from the point of you not of his usual semi-historical/semi-legendary Anglo-Saxon heroes, like Eriol, supposedly the father of Hengist and Horsa in The Book of Lost Tales, but from the point of view of the people the Anglo-Saxons oppressed, the Romano-British population, defended by Arthur in the Welsh Arthurian tradition. Tolkien’s much-praised Anglo-Saxon heroes are here oppressors, ravagers and – worst of all – heathens! The soul of the Frisian sea-captain, who brings Mordred news of Arthur in Tolkien’s poem, goes straight to hell[xv]. The sense of impending doom at the beginning of the poem is highlighted by lines that point to the end of an era:

Thus the tides of time to turn backward
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him
(Canto I, lines 5–6)


Now from hope’s summit headlong falling
his heart foreboded that his house was doomed,
the ancient world to its end falling
and the tides of time turned against him.
(Canto I, lines 176-9)


Time is changing;
the West waning, a wind rising
in the waxing East. The world falters.
(Canto II, lines 147-9)

Now we’ve seen many times in Tolkien’s world this motif of sorrow and loss over a changing world that will never be the same again – most recognisably in The Lord of the Rings, but it is astounding that Tolkien here laments the end of the Romano-British world, and portrays that Anglo-Saxon invasion as a disaster. Christopher Tolkien’s commentary also notes this remarkable deviation from Tolkien’s usual sympathies, and – significantly – he links this sense of a world at the edge of doom with Tolkien’s other long alliterative poem on a semi-historical, semi-legendary event: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.

Wild blow the winds of war in Britain! says Sir Cradoc, when telling King Arthur (I.160) of the heathen dragon ships driving in on the unguarded shores; and five centuries later Torhthelm, in The  Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, repeats his words with reference to the Norsemen:


So the last is fallen of the line of earls,
from Saxon lords long-descended,
who sailed the seas, as songs tell us,
from Angel in the east, with eager swords
upon war’s anvil the Welsh smiting.
Realms here they won and royal kingdoms,
and in olden days this isle conquered.
And now from the North need comes again:
wild blows the wind of war to Britain![xvi]

In this poem we have another invasion from an external foe at a much later time, against England and the previous invaders, the Anglo-Saxons: the new invaders are the Vikings, some of whom came to stay. Tolkien was – I would claim – very interested in the idea of English history as a series of invasions: his drafts of The Book of Lost Tales include the idea of the “Seven Invasions of Luthany”. Some of the invaders are listed as: the ‘Rumhoth’, the ‘Ingwaiwar’, and the ‘Forodwaith’, identified as the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vikings[xvii]. In The Book of Lost Tales, the “good” invaders who save the Elves and learn their legends are the Anglo-Saxons, and it would be their perspective that would serve as the framework of The Book of Lost Tales. Much later, Tolkien contemplated another “framework”, the story of Númenor, now linked with the legend of Atlantis, and the transmission of the legends of the Elves via collective memory, rather than via the Anglo-Saxon ancestors[xviii].

Was Tolkien – at the time of The Fall of Arthur – contemplating yet another potential framework? The framework of the Arthurian legend? Would Lancelot find Arthur and learn the legends of the Elves in Avallon/Tol Eressea? Was Arthur going to come back, eventually, and save Britain from the waves of invaders that followed? I appreciate that this is pure speculation, but it may be that such an idea possibly entered Tolkien’s mind, if only for a while. After all, this was around the same time he was definitely considering different frameworks for his mythology, associated with the emergence of the Númenor story, which led to his famous note-to-self: “Do the Atlantis story and abandon Eriol-Saga” (brilliantly discussed by Professor Flieger in the first volume of Tolkien Studies).

I suppose we can’t ever know what “would-have-been”: but I’d like to emphasise here the strong attraction that Tolkien felt towards the idea of the otherworld over the sea.

The significance of the Voyage to an Otherworld island in the West in Tolkien’s mythos cannot be underestimated. It could even be claimed to be central. The example most readers would think of is the departure of the Elves, Gandalf, as well as Bilbo and Frodo, for the Undying Lands at the end of The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien’s extended mythology abounds with examples of many other characters who make the same voyage overseas – not least Eärendel, whom we mentioned already earlier. And that’s where we can bring in Beowulf.

It is noteworthy, I think, that in Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf we find in the recent volume, there is a discussion of the lines on Scyld Scefing and the famous scene of his ship funeral. In this note, Tolkien claims that the Beowulf poet blended the history-based legend of a heroic ancestor with a myth of a “corn-god” or “cultural hero” who comes in a boat “out of the unknown” and is returned to that unknown land upon his death. In Tolkien’s words, the Beowulf poet combined Scyld as a semi-historical ancestor with:

the more mysterious, far older and more poetical myth of the mysterious arrival of the babe, the corn-god or the culture-hero his descendant, at the beginning of a people’s history, and adding to it a mysterious Arthurian departure, back into the unknown, enriched by traditions of ship-burials in the not very remote heathen past…[xix]

So here’s a point of convergence. Both Tolkien’s rendition of the Arthurian legend and Beowulf include the motif of an otherworld land somewhere out there, across the sea. And they are not the only mythological texts to do so. Other European traditions include visions of otherworld lands or islands, and Tolkien himself reworked – or contemplated reworking – two of them:

  • The Voyage to Vinland as portrayed in OId Norse sagas[xx] and
  • The Irish material of St. Brendan’s voyage (you may be familiar with Tolkien’s poem “Immram”)[xxi]

So what is going on here? Is the motif of the voyage across the sea to the Undying Lands so strong in Tolkien’s imagination so as to make Arthur’s sailing to Avalon (perhaps the most iconic representation of such a story) to gravitate towards the more Anglo-Saxon-focused bulk of his mythology? And, if I go back to the hypothesis that Tolkien may have contemplated an “Arthurian framework” for his mythology, is it possible that Tolkien would have made the point that all of those heroes of all of those Northern European legends (Scyld, Arthur, St. Brendan and his company, the Vikings who travelled to Vinland, etc.) were all just misremembered fragments and versions of the same story, Eärendel’s voyage to the Lonely Island?

I suppose we’ll never know – unless any further notes or manuscripts emerge. But I think it is significant that there are numerous cross-references to the Arthurian matter throughout Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf. I am just noting a few, among around ten I located.

  • Apart from calling King Scyld’s departure across the sea “Arthurian”, (as per my earlier quotation) Tolkien also says that
  • any sense of a historical Beowulf would only be “historical, if at all, in the sense and degree that King Arthur is”[xxii]
  • And he also refers to “the ‘Arthurian’ court of Heorot, glorious and doomed, gnawed already by the canker of treachery”[xxiii].

In a longer parallel Tolkien notes:

Heorot was still glorious, but it was doomed to be burned. All the history of Heorot was in the mind of poet and audience; but the poet was conscious of dramatic time (as throughout). The ultimate doom of the dynasty of Healfdene and the great hall built by Hrothgar cast a shadow over the court of Heorot in Old English – as later a shadow lay on Arthur and Camelot.[xxiv]

One could argue that Tolkien’s Arthurian references in his Beowulf lecture notes are there for educational purposes: to help his student gain a deeper understanding of the contexts and atmosphere of this Old English poem. After all, everyone knows something about the story of King Arthur – the tale of Beowulf doesn’t have the same resonance for most people. But that may also explain Tolkien’s own fascination with the Arthurian legend, and may point to the reason why he may have contemplated bringing King Arthur’s departure to the heart of his own mythology. If the otherworld voyage was such a powerful stimulation to his imagination, how could he leave Arthur’s Avalon out?

Tolkien’s continued to be fascinated with what happened to King Arthur, precariously balanced between both being “mortally wounded” and “carried to Avalon to be healed”, an ambiguous ending that the Welsh tradition supports, a tradition that was bequeathed to Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings.

In his other unfinished novel, The Notion Club Papers, written nearly a decade after The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien includes a character named Ramer who narrates a dream scene to the rest of the members of the Notion Club. This is the image of an old librarian looking through “a volume made up of various manuscript-fragments bound together, probably in the sixteenth century.” Ramer continues:

In the remembered bit of the dream I knew I had been able to read the page before he turned over, and that it was not English; but I could remember no more than that – except that I was delighted, or he was. Actually it was a leaf, a unique fragment of a MS. in very early Welsh, before Geoffrey, about the death of Arthur.[xxv]

This desire for a more ancient, pre-Galfridian, and perhaps more “authentic” medieval source about Arthur’s death (or departure and perhaps possible return) which is only hinted at in The Stanzas of the Graves, remained strong in Tolkien’s imagination. Christopher Tolkien refers to the unfinished status of The Fall of Arthur as “one of the most grievous” of Tolkien’s “many abandonments”[xxvi] but we are lucky to have at the very least the drafts of how Tolkien might have imaginatively rendered the tradition of Arthur’s overseas voyage and how he might have linked it to his own mythology.



[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2013.

[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2014.

[iii] Fimi, Dimitra. ‘Tolkien’s “‘Celtic’ type of legends”: Merging Traditions’, Tolkien Studies, 4 (2007), pp. 51-71, also reprinted here:

[iv] Ibid, pp. 59-60.

[v] Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Allen and Unwin, 1977, pp. 168-9.

[vi] The Fall of Arthur, pp. 135-6

[vii] Ibid., p. 137

[viii] Ibid., pp. 138-9

[ix] Ibid., p. 139

[x] Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, transl. by Aaron Thompson, with revisions by J.A. Giles, available at:, p. 193.

[xi] Sims-Williams, Patrick. ‘The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems’, pp. 33-71, in Bromwich, R.. Jarman, A.O.H., and Roberts, B.F. (eds.) The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991, p. 49.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[xiii] Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition, edited by Mary Hamel. Garland Medieval Texts, 9. New York and London: Garland, 1984, p. 397.

[xiv] The Fall of Arthur, see pp. 86 and 88

[xv] Ibid., Canto II, lines 59-67

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 89-90

[xvii] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Book of Lost Tales: Part II, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1984, pp. 294 and 323.

[xviii] See ‘The Lost Road’ in Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1987.

[xix] Beowulf, pp. 138-9

[xx] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1987, p. 77

[xxi] See in Tolkien, J.R.R. Sauron Defeated, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

[xxii] Beowulf, p. 147

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 153

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 158

[xxv]  Sauron Defeated, p. 192

[xxvi] The Fall of Arthur, p. 124