Tolkien and British History

Tolkien and the Stages of history

By Gwydion M. Williams

When I came to prepare this talk, I found that I had used a phrase, ‘stages of British history’, without being entirely clear as to what it meant. The more I thought about the matter, the less clear I found myself. I will try therefore to say what I don’t think it means.

Most of us absorb some sort of view of history proceeding by a series of ages, starting from primitive beginnings and leading eventually to ourselves. I suppose that the most familiar of these is the three-Ages system: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. It is utterly integral to archaeology, which is after all one theme of this gathering. But consider what one recent archaeological book has to say on the matter:

“The three-Ages system of Stone followed by Bronze and Iron was originally intended to classify museum collections. Although invented in 1836 in Denmark, it has served us well, but now, it must be admitted, it is beginning to show its age. There are many reasons for this, not the least being that the transitions between the various Ages do not always happen at times when society itself was undergoing significant change. Furthermore, the recent tendency amongst archaeologists to examine the development of entire landscapes often means that major changes can be seen to take place slowly: our view of prehistory is less like a ladder with neat rungs and more like a clambering vine: you select the stands that seem interesting and follow them wherever they may lead. Given this view of the past, the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age is highly significant if one is examining, for example, the development of axe-blade technology, but less so if one is concerned with the development of the landscape as a whole.”

This comes from Flag Fen, Prehistoric Fenland Centre by Francis Pryor, one of the excellent Batsford / English Heritage series. It seems to me that the notion of the development of the landscape as a whole is one that Tolkien rather anticipated. I also liked the notion of the clambering vine of history. Very harmonious, and deep too, since it emphasises that history can never be anticipated. Just when you think you’ve understood it, it goes rambling off God knows where.

With Tolkien, of course, one is not exactly talking about history as conventional scholarship understands it, The history of Middle-Earth starts with magic and descends to technology. I am aware of some people’s ingenious attempts to understand the magic of the First Age as superior science. But if this were so, one might ask why there is no mention of telescopes? Why no compasses? – very useful for people like Sam and Frodo, with no very good sense of direction. Why do not the orcs have crossbows? Why does Sauron not attach Minas Tirith with Uruk-hai descending from hot air balloons?

Consider the Phial of Galadriel. This is described as containing the light of Earendil’s star set amidst the waters of her fountain. As I am sure you remember, Earendil’s star is his sky-sailing ship, lit by one of the three jewels that Feanor made. Also it is the Flamifer, the morning and evening star. Now from a scientific point of view, the planet Venus is very definitely not a jewel created by an Elven smith within the last few tens of thousands of years. Its light has no special properties – though it reflects a world that would be more suitable for Sauron than for any man or elf. Though even he would have found appallingly hot and poisonous. The planet’s light, which is merely sunlight reflected of high clouds, could not be stored in a glass bottle for future use. And if it could, it would not be liable to go out in the face of stronger magic, as the Phial does do on Mount Doom.

So in Middle-Earth we are not dealing with something that can be reconciled with the world as we know it. ‘It’s history, Jim, but not as we know it.’ If one were to try to treat Middle-Earth as a literal reality, I would prefer to see it as a parallel world or pocket universe. Something separate from our own world, despite some obvious similarities.

So let’s look at the similarities, the familiar portions of the ‘climbing vine of history’. Start with the Shire, with its similarities to Britain in the late Victorian era. Can one believe in a society with such things as umbrellas and pocket handkerchiefs and postal services? Could you have this in a purely rural area that is not in contact with any cities or advanced industrialised areas? The ‘rungs on a ladder’ model suggest not. But why not? Nothing that the Hobbits have is beyond the scope of local craftsmanship. They are not given any impossibilities like a steam railway service. The Hobbits might have used and enjoyed such a thing, but some other sort of society would have had to have produced it.

The ‘rungs on a ladder’ also suggests that Britain at the start of the Industrial Revolution must have been the richest and most sophisticated society in the world. But Britons in the last 18th century – the Industrial Revolution is commonly dated to the 1760s – the people who lived at that time were far from feeling this. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations actually said that China was richer that any part of Europe, but static, while Europe was progressing.

Back to Middle-Earth. From the Shire, we come to Bree. And there, it is as if one has slipped from late nineteenth century Britain to the eighteenth or even seventeenth century level. Certainly there is no regular postal service from Bree to the Shire, a matter that is of some significance in the unfolding of the plot of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo can rely on the Shire postal service to deal with his party invitations, but Gandalf has to rely on Butterbur the innkeeper to get someone to do the job.

Beyond Bree – dealt with only in The Hobbit, but fitting the pattern – one has Laketown. Speaking impressionistically, I would say that we are at a mediaeval level, and no longer in Britain. The analogy that springs to mind is the various free cities of mediaeval Europe. Especially Switzerland, and in particular Geneva, though Geneva was not solidly established as Swiss until after the Napoleonic Wars.

One point in common between the Shire, Bree and Laketown is a form of republican government. In this matter Tolkien is historically accurate in a way that most writers of heroic fantasy are not. The reality of mediaeval Europeans was the coexistence of many different forms of government. Mostly this diversity would look to a king who is bound by law and custom.

In Middle-Earth, only Denethor seems in part to be putting himself above law and custom. Certainly, he rejects Boromir’s notion that the Stewards of the House of Anarion might claim to be kings. The office of Steward is part of the tradition he is determined to uphold. But this about as far as he will limit himself. He rejects Aragorn’s claim to the throne on Gondor, because of the ancient separation of the legacies of Isildur and his brother Anarion. But he also blames Faramir for not seizing the One Ring, which is clearly part of Isildur’s legacy. In brief, he is self-righteous, willing to invoke the law when it suits him and to bend it where it does not. He is well on the way to becoming something equivalent to Renaissance despot, rather than a ruler bound by laws and customs. A stage of British history that began under the Tudors, but was only definitely established under the Stuarts.

What other analogies can one find?

  • The barrow-downs are an obvious parallel, but dead history, not the living sort one finds elsewhere.
  • The Rohirrim as Anglo-Saxons are obvious and frequently noticed
  • Dunlendings are a highly negative aspect of Welsh – English conflict. My least favourite bit, I think.
  • Woses are primitive wild peoples, common in myth and legend.
  • Elves as fine fair and magical people did not begin with Tolkien. It is clearly expressed in Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, for instance.
  • Welsh and Irish tradition of sunken lands in the West.

Tolkien does enrich this tradition with some real history. The early kings and queens are makers as well as rulers. Also descent of kingship is to the eldest suitable male in the family, not to the son or daughter of the last ruler.

Unfortunately I’m not definite just when or where I gave this talk. It may have been the Tolkien Society seminar at Whitby in 2002.

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