J.R.R. Tolkien

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There are actually two very short fragments, of no more than forty five lines in total, from the unpublished “Fall of Arthur” available to the researcher within Tolkien’s manuscripts at the Bodleian… [and] it is significant that Christopher Tolkien’s note on the Folio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 https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/3252

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: https://viewer.library.wales/4623419#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0

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: http://dimitrafimi.com/articlesandessays/tolkiens-celtic-type-of-legends-merging-traditions/

[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: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/geoffrey_thompson.pdf, 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

Tolkien at IMC Leeds 2018 – round-up

I am now back from Leeds, after an excellent Tolkien Society Seminar, and an outstanding series of papers and a roundtable discussion on Tolkien at the International Medieval Congress 2018. Here’s a quick overview of all papers presented at the IMC, mostly based on my live-tweeting during the sessions. Just to warn you that my reporting of the papers is uneven at best, and doesn’t always reflect the richness and depth of each individual presentation. The number of tweets I could do was often limited by the fact that I was also chairing/moderating a number of these sessions, so I have done the best I could under the circumstances! At least readers will get a flavour of the scope and range of topics covered. I also should say that all the Tolkien sessions were very well attended, often to the point of having people standing or sitting on the floor! After the midpoint, the IMC very kindly started moving us to bigger rooms!

Session 127
Title: Memory in Tolkien’s Medievalism, I
Session Time: Mon. 02 July – 11.15-12.45

World-Building and Memory in The Name-List to the ‘Fall of Gondolin’
Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar, Brighton

  • @asthiggins: lists were important in #Tolkien’s early mythology, as in ancient and medieval epics and tales #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • @asthiggins: The Book of Lost Tales records philological debates which contest how origins of names are remembered in his Invented world #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • @asthiggins: Legolas features as an obscure character in the very early writings of #Tolkien, and in the name-list associated with The Fall of Gondolin. Legolas = green-leaf and keen-sight (different meanings in his two invented languages) #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • @asthiggins: the name list to The Fall of Gondolin becomes an archival memory of stories and characters – the first of many paratextual elements that #Tolkien would integrate in his Invented mythology #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds


The Smith, the Weaver and the Librarian: Sub-Creating Memory in Tolkien’s work
Gaëlle Abaléa, Centre d’Etudes Médiévales Anglaises (CEMA), Université Paris IV – Sorbonne

  • Abaléa: the figure of the weaver reoccurs in #Tolkien’s mythology – linked with mythological figures such as the Norse Norns. #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Abaléa: weaving is significant among the Valar, linked with sub-creating the fabric of time in the early versions of the legendarium #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Abaléa: Ungoliant and Shelob as anti-weavers or “dark”-weavers – literally creating darkness and sucking in light and memory #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Abaléa: Aule and Feanor as a prime examples of the figure of the Smith in the legendarium. The incident at the Barrow-Downs also as an example of armour-giving linked to memory. The weapons obtained there seem to carry the memory of past conflicts with them #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Abaléa: The Elves too attached to memory and to preserving the past. But not preserving leads to misremembering – see Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth

Tolkien’s Typological Imagination
Anna Smol, Department of English, Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia

  • .@AnnaMSmol#Tolkien would have been familiar with typological interpretations of the Bible. The term has also been applied to the study of myth. #imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AnnaMSmol: Conventional Christian typology: defining of “types” who predict or look forward to “anti-types” and make spiritual links. E.g. Adam as a “type” for Christ. #Tolkien#imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AnnaMSmol#Tolkien’s imagination is typological – 4 Ages in the legendarium – movement towards an end (finite time) #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AnnaMSmol: Sauron and Shelob as a later version of Melkor and Ungoliant. Also Arwen as a re-enactment of Lúthien. In both cases these are separate characters but with typological analogies. #Tolkien#imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AnnaMSmol: Interesting moments when types merge into one: Frodo and Eärendil as two overlapping layers in the cave of Shelob when Sam reminds Frodo to use Galadriel’s phial. #Tolkien#imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AnnaMSmol: Eärendil also acts as a prefigurement: as Eärendil sails to Valinor (without permission) Frodo does too at the end of the #LordoftheRings (with permission) #imc2018@IMC_Leeds#Tolkien
  • .@AnnaMSmol#Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories: each leaf of the tree of tales is a unique embodiment of the pattern. But in On Fairy-Stories there IS an overarching pattern: all fairy stories are typological in a particular Christian way. #imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AnnaMSmol: the typological imagination prefers the proliferation of specific historical examples of “types”, rather than reducing everything into allegory. #Tolkien#imc2018@IMC_Leeds


Session 227
Title: Memory in Tolkien’s Medievalism, II
Session Time: Mon. 02 July – 14.15-15.45

Tolkien Remembering Tolkien: Textual Memory in the 1977 Silmarillion
Gergely Nagy, Independent Scholar, Budapest

  • Nagy: the 1977 Silmarillion as a “textual field” – it was accused of reducing the multiplicity of the variants that #Tolkien created. #s227 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Nagy: the making of the Silmarils – the diction around Feanor’s actions changed subtly throughout the different versions. Christopher Tolkien seems to have been attuned to the sounds of language when choosing between versions. #s227 #imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Nagy: Christopher Tolkien (externally) and Bilbo (internally) as editors – the published Silmarillion is a work of editorial processes #Tolkien #s227 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Nagy: how much is Bilbo imagined to have acted as a unified of textual variants? #Silmarillion #s227 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Nagy proposes the term “secondary philology” for this process in the fictional level – Bilbo as translator/editor/compiler/negotiator of the 1977 Silmarillion. #Tolkien sees history and culture as a series of textual transformations. #s277 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds

Remembering and Forgetting: National Identity Construction in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
Sara Brown, Independent Scholar, Conwy

  • .@AranelParmadil#Tolkien is interested in record-keeping and ways of preservation past history, but Middle-earth itself and its nexus of texts draws attention to the insufficiency of memory via written texts #s227 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@AranelParmadil: Tolkien’s recurring “Atlantis” dream: inherited memory as a neat way to solve the problem of the insufficiency of textual memory? #s227 #imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@AranelParmadil: forgetting as equally important in terms of nation-building – Boromir as a case of forgetting negative elements of one’s national history (in contrast to Elrond’s words about Númenor) #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@AranelParmadil: the healing of the Shire with the seeds from Galadriel allows the hobbits to forget the trauma of the recent war – the hobbits positively erase memories of the war (wish fulfilment?) Forgetting allows the regeneration of their “nation”. #s227 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds

Longing to Remember, Dying to Forget: Memory and Monstrosity
Penelope Holdaway, Department of Humanities, Cardiff Metropolitan University

  • Holdaway: is the monstrous located in the physical? Cohen’s 7 theses may offer a broader way to look at the monstrous #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Holdaway: more emphasis on cultural definitions of the monstrous – Túrin’s otherness is a cultural otherness, where does that cross into the monstrous? #s227 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Holdaway: Túrin is monstrous within the Elves but not monstrous enough among the Outlaws – always othered. #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Holdaway: Túrin’s weakness is that he can’t let go of the past – he’s most at peace with Nienor because he has no memory of her as a sister. Is memory a curse? #s227#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Holdaway: Wolverine as a point of comparison with #Tolkien’s Túrin. Wolverine is a mutant with no culture or morality – he fulfils more of Cohen’s theses about the “monstrous”. #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Holdaway: The peaceful part of Wolverine’s past ends when his past life starts to emerge – memory as a curse again? #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Holdaway: the monsters are those with distorted memories – those who remember more, less, or differently to others. #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds

‘Forgot even the stones’: Stone Monuments and Imperfect Cultural and Personal Memories in The Lord of the Rings
Kristine Larsen, Department of Geological Sciences, Central Connecticut State University

  • Larsen: (forgetting) family history in the #LordoftheRings: the hobbits mistake the Trolls as real, while Aragorn remembers the story of their petrification from Bilbo #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds #Tolkien
  • Larsen: forgetting (“other”) cultural history: the Púkel-men at Dunharrow – the head of the Gondorian king on the way to Mordor. #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Larsen: the symbolism of the stone monument is significant throughout the #LordoftheRings#s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Larsen: for #Tolkien the lack of cultural memory leads to superstition and fear: e.g. the stone of Erech. Also, the Argonath invoke fear and dread to those not in possession of cultural memory (e.g. the hobbits). #s227 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds


Session 311
Title: ‘New’ Tolkien: Expanding the Canon
Session Time: Mon. 02 July – 16.30-18.00

‘I will give you a name’: Sentient Objects in Tolkien’s Fiction
J. Patrick Pazdziora, College of Liberal Arts, Shantou University, China

  • Pazdziora: Kullervo is, in reality, “old” #Tolkien – pre-war, pre-Middle-earth. The paper will focus on animism, esp. Kullervo’s talking sword. #s311 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds #Tolkien
  • Pazdziora: the speaking sword is the most tangible link between Kullervo and Narn-i-chin-Húrin – but it doesn’t occur in the Kalevala. #s311 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds#Tolkien
  • Pazdziora: Tailbiter in Farmer Giles of Ham is also described in anthropomorphic terms and has agency. Bilbo’s Sting seems to also have this sort of agency and a name. #s311 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds #Tolkien
  • Pazdziora: where does that leave us in terms of the agency of the One Ring? The “luxuriant animism” of Kullervo remained as a subtle element in Middle-earth. #s311#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds #Tolkien

Tolkien’s ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’ and The Lay of Leithian
Yvette Kisor, School of American & International Studies, Ramapo College of New Jersey

  • Kisor: The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun and The Lay of Leithien were written at the same time and they both contain elements of sexual desire and rapaciousness. #s311#imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Kisor: The encounter of Beren and Lúthien in the Lay is intensely physical, as opposed to the text of the Book of Lost Tales. #s311#imc2018@IMC_Leeds#Tolkien


  • Kisor: the illegitimate desire of Curufin and his brother for Lúthien chimes with the desire of the Corrigan for Aotrou and Aotrou’s greed for a lineage. #s311 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds #Tolkien

Invented Language and Invented Religion: Tolkien’s Innovative Symbolic Systems and New Religious Movements
Nathan Fredrickson, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

  • Fredrickson: there’s an essentialist humanistic way of thinking in #Tolkien, but also a critical, almost post-modernist emphasis on the constructiveness of things.
  • Fredrickson: linguistic invention has been neglected in fiction-based religions. There is some acknowledgment but not a proper consideration in #Tolkien-inspired religious movements.
  • Fredrickson: neologisms are crucial – as #Tolkien points out, new languages create new worldviews. This is something we need to discuss more in terms of these movements. #s311 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds #Tolkien

The Grammar of Historical Memory in Tolkien’s Legendarium: The Tale of Beren and Lúthien
Christian F. Hempelmann and Robin Anne Reid, Department of Literature & Languages, Texas A&M University, Commerce

  • Reid: project on computational linguistics comparing “Tinuviel”, “Beren and Lúthien”, and “Aragorn and Arwen” in terms of text statistics, archaisms, geographical terminology, and “keyness”. #s311#IMC2018@IMC_Leeds#Tolkien
  • Reid: more onomastic richness (in terms of place and geography) in Beren and Lúthien, rather than Tinuviel. Evidence of the development of #Tolkien’s worldbuilding? #S311#imc2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Reid: shift from dance to song from Tinuviel and Beren and Lúthien – time and doom are words that occur more in Aragorn and Arwen. #s311#IMC2018@IMC_Leeds#Tolkien


Session 749
Title: Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches, I
Session Time: Tue. 03 July – 14.15-15.45

Some Boethian Themes as Tools of Characterization in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Andrzej Wicher, Zakład Dramatu i Dawnej Literatury Angielskiej, Uniwersytet Łódzki

  • Wicher links Théoden’s lethargy with the amnesia/lethargy that Lady Philosophy can heal in Boethius #s749 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Wicher: Gandalf and Galadriel as two sides of one character, both with androgynous characteristics #s749 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Wicher: views on Boethius as implementing a “neutralised Christianity” – comparison with #Tolkien’s Christian-inspired yet non-overtly-Christian mythology. #s749#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Wicher: Lady Philosophy bridges a number of binaries: male/female, young/old – compare these two descriptions of Lady Philosophy and Galadriel #s749#IMC2018@IMC_Leeds

Eldest: Tom Bombadil and Fintan Mac Bóchra
Kris Swank, Northwest Campus Library, Pima Community College, Arizona

  • .@krisswank: Tom Bombadil has much in common with Fintan Mac Bóchra of the Irish tradition. In an early prose fragment Tom B is “one of the oldest inhabitants of the kingdom” after the Britain had suffered many invasions. #s749 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@krisswank: original answer of Tom B when Bingo (later Frodo) asks him who he is was “I am an aborigine”. #s749 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@krisswank: Tolkien made a note about Fintan in his drafts of The Lost Road. Many parallels between Tom B and the legend of Fintan, esp. being the oldest man in the world. #s749 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@krisswank: Both Fintan and Tom B have experienced deluge: Tom remember the world “before the seas were bent”. Both have otherworldly associations. #s749#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@krisswank: Fintan is called upon to give evidence about the history of the land – he tells the story of a yew tree from seed to great tree. Tom remembers “the first acorn” and the history of the trees in the Old Forest. #s749 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@krisswank: Tom as a guide and teacher for the hobbits, the guardian of historical knowledge – just like Fintan #s749 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds

Hobbits: The Un-Recorded People of Middle-Earth
Aurélie Brémont, Centre d’Études Médiévales Anglaises (CEMA), Université Paris IV – Sorbonne

  • .@LelieFairy: what do hobbits know about the world outside the Shire? In The Hobbit Bilbo knows very little, and so does the reader. In The #LordoftheRings Tolkien world have had two sort of readers: those who knew The Hobbit and those who didn’t. #IMC2018 #s749 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@LelieFairy: in their origin history, on their way to the Shire, hobbits meet Elves and Dúnedain, and learn letters and crafts from them. They promptly forget whatever language they spoke before. #s749 #IMC2018 #Tolkien @IMC_Leeds
  • .@LelieFairy: the hobbits have also forgotten what they knew about the “Guardians”, the people who protected them – the remnants of the Dúnedain. Why were the hobbits under this protection? (long before Bilbo found the Ring) #s749 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • .@LelieFairy: We don’t really know enough about where the hobbits come from – what happened BEFORE they crossed into Eriador. #Tolkien doesn’t tell us. #s749#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • .@LelieFairy: for the War of the Ring #Tolkien needed heroes; by randomly asserting the hobbits’ “tough” core, without explanation, he could really exploit the element of surprise and turn the hobbits into heroes for the needs of The #LordoftheRings#s749#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds

Session 849
Title: Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches, II
Session Time: Tue. 03 July – 16.30-18.00

Longing for Death: Tolkien and Sehnsucht
Anna Vaninskaya, School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures, University of Edinburgh

  • Vaninskaya will focus on the recurrent motif in #Tolkien of the desire to voyage to Elvenhome via the concept of Sehnsucht (Longing) #s849 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Vaninskaya: William Peter’s “imitation” of Schiller interprets the “other” land of desire in a non-Christian context – compare with Tolkien’s Undying Lands. #s848#IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Vaninskaya: The desire implies homesickness – there’s imagery of fragrance and flowers, and flexibility of space and time. The land is across the sea and there are associations with the desire for death. #IMC2018 #s849 @IMC_Leeds #Tolkien
  • Vaninskaya: significant question in #Tolkien’s legendarium: where is the home of Men? Ideas of home and homelessness abound in the legendarium. #s849 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Vaninskaya: Eriol/Ælfwine already express this longing but many more characters from the legendarium suffer from Sehnsucht. #s849 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds #Tolkien
  • Vaninskaya: as the figure of the voyager reoccurs, his old age becomes more central, thus highlighting the impossibility of reaching the Undying Lands. #s849 #IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Vaninskaya: link with #Tolkien’s biography? Many of these voyagers are father figures with sons. #s849 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Vaninskaya: Sea-longing, home-longing, death-longing, merge into one. #s849#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds

Tolkien’s Agrarianism in its Time
Joshua Richards, Faculty of English, Williams Baptist College, Arkansas

  • Richards: can we really accept that the early Middle-earth is the same as the later one? Themes may be the same, but the socio-cultural context is different. Focus on one version of Middle-earth in this paper: the earliest #LordoftheRings drafts. #s849#IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Richards: earlier stages of #LordoftheRings – use of agrarianism by #Tolkien to test its boundaries, especially in the Shire. The hobbits are creatures of an agrarian society, well-ordered and well-farmed. #s849 #imc2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Richards: Bingo (early version of Frodo) contemplates a career as a gardener or carpenter – spiritual resonances. Agrarianism and spiritual links also apparent in Chesterton and Eliot. #s849 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Richards: links between Chesterton and Tolkien – e.g. #Tolkien reading The Ballad of the White Horse. #s849 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Richards: in both Chesterton and #Tolkien: connection of land and literature, against industrialization. The cohesive aspects of society dissolve in industry. #s849 #imc2018@IMC_Leeds

Frodo Surrealist: André Breton and J. R. R. Tolkien on Dreams
Claudio Antonio Testi, Independent Scholar, Modena

  • Testi argues that there are surrealist moments in The #LordoftheRings via dreams. Breton’s manifesto attempted to merge reality and dreams via surrealism. He also talked about dreaming while awake. #s849 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Testi: 1936: International Surrealist Exhibition in London with an abstract and concrete show in Oxford. Tolkien was then working on The Lost Road and soon after The #LordoftheRings#s849 #IMC2018 @IMC_Leeds
  • Testi: Tolkien’s early art had some surrealist overtones. #s849#IMC2018@IMC_Leeds
  • Testi: #Tolkien referenced Surrealism in On Fairy-Stories. There are several types of dreams in Tolkien’s work, all experienced by Frodo, including, notoriously, Faërian Drama.
  • Testi: The Faërian Drama experiences by Frodo in Rivendell has surrealist overtones which can be read via Breton. #s849#IMC2018@IMC_Leeds

A Man of His Time?: Tolkien and the Edwardian Worldview
Brad Eden, Christopher Center for Library & Information Resources, Valparaiso University, Indiana

Session 949
Title: Tolkien in Context(s): A Round Table Discussion
Session Time: Tue. 03 July – 19.00-20.00

Moderator/Chair: Dimitra Fimi


  • Yvette Kisor, School of American & International Studies, Ramapo College of New Jersey
  • Kristine Larsen, Department of Geological Sciences, Central Connecticut State University
  • Irina Metzler, College of Arts & Humanities, Swansea University
  • Gergely Nagy, Independent Scholar, Budapest
  • Sara L. Uckelman, Institute of Medieval & Early Modern Studies, Durham University

Not much chance of live-tweeting for this last session, as I was (actively!) moderating! But the Tolkien @ IMC Leeds sessions ended (as always!) with a meal with the Tolkien scholars, presenters and attendees!

Here’s to Tolkien @ IMC Leeds 2019!