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The Real Middle-earth
Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Midde Ages, J.R.R. Tolkien and "The Lord of the Rings"
By Brian Bates
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2002 Brian Bates
All rights reserved.
The Real Middle-earth
The gods and goddesses lived in the bright spaces of the Upperworld, along with the light elves. Far beneath, in the cavernous shadows of the Lowerworld, lurked the spirits of the dead; they were accompanied by dark elves and the dragon called Nidhog. And in between, reached by a bridge formed of a rainbow called Bifrost (Trembling Pathway), lay the enchanted landscape of Middle-earth. It was a magical realm inhabited by men and women, and surrounded by an infinite ocean. In the ocean swam a serpent so huge he encircled all of Middle-earth and bit on his own tail. In the mountains bordering the ocean lived the giants. This landscape of three realms, one above the other, is how the peoples of historical north-west Europe saw their world during the first millennium, that early period sometimes called the Dark Ages (so-called by scholars to mark the relative lack of written records during the first thousand years of English history, and the absence for several centuries of Christianity). The great cultures of those times, the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse, infused their lives with a remarkable imagination and sense of spirituality. The natural landscape of Europe took on a whole new meaning – a deeper, enchanted dimension, making it a realm of magic and mystery. These were the people of the Real Middle-earth.
Today, the term Middle-earth conjures a fictional realm of spirits and sorcery made famous by J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. His invented tales of the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, the hero Aragorn, the fire-demon Balrog, rings of power, Queen Galadriel, quests through ancient and evocative landscapes – the whole fantastical world of magic and adventure – have made his among the most popular novels over the last fifty years.
But now there is another remarkable story to be told: Middle-earth really existed. Historical research has revealed that, stretching from Old England to Scandinavia and across to western Europe, there arose about two thousand years ago a largely forgotten civilization which foreshadowed Tolkien's imagined world. Tolkien readily admitted in his letters that the concept of Middle-earth was not his own invention, but an old Anglo-Saxon term for the magical world inhabited by people in the first millennium (AD 0–1000). And it is this culture, made up of many colourful early European tribes now identified under the umbrella titles of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse, on which he based The Lord of the Rings.
Until recently, historians tended to regard these peoples as primitive, violent and obscure barbarians, living in the shadows of the more widely documented Romans who formed an empire over all of Europe in those early times. But research in a wide range of disciplines is revolutionizing our view of the past. We now realize that at their best these ancient civilizations were characterized by some remarkable perspectives on the nature of reality.
The people of the Real Middle-earth had a vision of life animated by beings beyond the material world – elves, dwarves, giants and fire-breathing dragons. They believed that real wizards cast spells, and flew on eight-legged horses. A life-force enchanted everything. Berserker warriors were believed to change into bears, and heroes journeyed on perilous quests for truth in the land of the giants. The cosmos was held together by an interlaced web of golden threads visible only to the wizards. And at the centre of it all lay Middle-earth, inhabited by people and suffused with a magical power.
While their many tribal cultures were rich and varied (and in this book I point out some of the differences between them), in comparison with the twenty-first century their commonalities were strong. Even in the mundane realities of everyday life, these peoples of ancient Europe shared the experience of living in a natural, un-engineered world markedly different from today. In particular, their imaginative and inspired view of life makes these people sufficiently homogeneous for us to approach their remarkable cultures as a single destination for a journey back in time.
Totalling perhaps two or three million people at the beginning of the first millennium, they lived in a landscape of trees, streams, hills and a carpentered world of wooden buildings. They followed a self-sufficient style of life based on farming, hunting and weaving. Technologically their culture was quite simple, and in ancient Europe throughout the first millennium, living conditions could be physically harsh. They were of necessity a quintessentially pragmatic people. These were no airy-fairy daydreamers. But what makes them so special is that they imbued their lives with an all-embracing imagination. Today, in a more secular and rational age defined by science and engineering, we tend to approach our lives from a more objective perspective. And yet the huge interest today in such fictional versions of their culture as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings confirms our hunger to reconnect with the imagination of our ancestors.
And ancestors they were. Travelling back in time a hundred generations or so takes us to the beginnings of this remarkable civilization. The people who populated it now have, through the mathematics of biological progeny, hundreds of millions of descendants. And interbreeding with later tribal incomers means that everyone of north-west European heritage living today, anywhere in the world, has one of these people in their early family tree. The magical world of Middle-earth is our personal heritage.
Keys to the Forgotten World
In this book I have brought together historical, literary, psychological and archaeological research on this forgotten world to reveal once again the civilization I call the Real Middle-earth. The primary sources on which this scholarship is based are necessarily varied and patchy for several reasons. One is that the Anglo-Saxons and Norse, in particular, wrote down little of their beliefs and traditions. Theirs were oral cultures. They told stories, some of which, fortunately were written down at the end of the millennium, including the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. They memorized healing remedies, a small corpus of which were recorded by Christian monks and are available to us now, a thousand years later, in Anglo-Saxon documents such as the magical healing manuscript called Lacnunga, kept in the British Library. They used runes as symbolic writing for the magical purposes of divination and spell-casting, and only in a limited fashion for naming or explaining things. Archaeologists have excavated many objects such as swords which are marked with runes, apparently for identifying not only the owner of the weapon, but also the spirit beings which give it a special power.
By about AD 600 we have documents which were drawn up as legal property boundaries, or to make functional arrangements for laws and social order. Some of these contracts give us glimpses into the ways in which they visioned their lives – such as the inclusion of a monster called Grendel as a landmark among the more prosaic features of named trees and streams. So we are able to gain at least some insights into the real Middle-earth from these early writings.
However, the Romans, who had many encounters with the early Germanic and Celtic peoples in Europe when expanding their empire, did write reports in Latin on the customs and beliefs of these still tribal peoples. Some of them have survived, and serve as an early kind of anthropology. The reports of the Roman official Cornelius Tacitus, in particular, writing in the first century AD, afford clear and vivid accounts of their lives. Like all writers, Tacitus had his own particular perspective which somewhat coloured his reporting. He thought Rome was becoming indulgent and decadent, and he sought to portray the tribal people he observed or read about in a positive light, as an instructive example of what he believed the citizens of his home city state were losing – an early example of the 'noble savage' phenomenon. Nevertheless he is a prime source of historical material, describing for example the significance of Nerthus the goddess of Earth, who was drawn in a sacred cart through early Germanic territories bringing peace wherever she stopped. Other Roman writers also left valuable accounts, including descriptions of the Celtic warrior queen Boudicca, who led an uprising in Britain against the brutality of the Roman overlords in AD 61.
In the second half of the millennium, the Christian missionaries who travelled among the tribal peoples also left some accounts of the people they were attempting to convert. They also battled to replace the pre-Christian spiritual practices by sermonizing, and promulgating both Church and secular laws outlawing some of the practices. Some of these writings have survived, and tell us what the people of the real Middle-earth were doing rather in the form of a 'negative' through which we can read a positive 'print' of early magical and spiritual traditions. For example, Wulfstan, an early Archbishop of York, left instructions to all priests to 'promote Christianity eagerly, and thoroughly obliterate any [trace of] heathenism' by forbidding 'the veneration of springs and magic involving dead bodies and omens and charms and the veneration of human beings and the evil that people perpetrate through various others [kinds of] trees and at stones and in all sorts of errors in which people persist the more they should not.' In breathlessly attempting to banish these activities, he has provided us with documentation about them which now, a thousand years later, helps us to understand some of the magical practices of Middle-earth.
Naturally, many of the written records in monasteries were often biased against the indigenous pre-Christian views. When Christianity was imposed by missionary activity sponsored from Rome, it usually evangelized and sought to destroy the spiritual beliefs which preceded it. And in the eleventh century social, political and religious upheavals in Europe changed the nature of official belief and repressed many of the ancient traditions. However, our knowledge of the real Middle-earth is greatly enhanced by the fact that Iceland did not officially convert to Christianity until the year AD 1000. The relatively late date of this conversion, and the fact that it happened as a result of a deliberate and democratic decision, meant that the old beliefs and practices were largely tolerated long after that date, and more fully documented.
Working from documents now lost to us, as well as traditional folk stories, one writer in particular called Snorri Sturluson recorded accounts of the pre-Christian beliefs of Iceland. Similarly, in the storytelling tradition that thrived and began to be written down in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, tales known as sagas recreated life in the pre-Christian period, sometimes containing vivid accounts of early practices. We have to allow for some literary elaboration in these stories, and slippage in accuracy with the intervening passage of time, but life did not change so rapidly in those days, and many of the old ways may still have been current even generations after the offical conversion. These sagas provide us with such valuable details as the appearance and trance techniques of Thorbiorg the seeress, who travelled the countryside to foretell events on behalf of individuals and whole communities.
In recent years the work of archaeologists has become an increasingly finely developed science. The techniques of recording, dating and analysing materials recovered from the ground, are sometimes of breathtaking sensitivity. But particularly, the written reports of excavations are these days often placed in a context of other historical information – the digs are not merely reported, but analyzed as to their import in understanding spiritual beliefs, as well as the everyday world of the people of Middle-earth.
A Journey Through Middle-earth
In this book I have sought to select material which throws light on the magical world of the first millennium – the beliefs and practices of those people which express their religion, healing and especially the enchanted view they took of their lives and their environment. We look first at the tribal peoples who made up the populace of this magical time, the ways in which they coalesced to form the potent combinations of cultures, and how they conjured a quality of imagination which transcended the challenging environment in which they lived.
Then we review the way in which they lived their daily lives, constructed their houses, designed their clothes, grew and cooked their food. These are the sorts of prosaic details which help us to get closer to and empathize with them as people. If we can identify with them, it helps us to enter more fully into the more fantastic aspects of their beliefs, such as dragons, giants and elves.
After that we explore the hidden history of Middle-earth, a world of magic, mystery and destiny. A starting point is the forest, for trees were hugely significant features of their understanding of life. Timber was a staple material, of course, for building, fuel, tool-making and so on. But the people's connections with trees went much deeper, and even provided a template on which they imaged their entire spiritual cosmos.
The magic and mystery can also be discovered in surprising places. When the Romans arrived, they subjugated the indigenous Celtic peoples; and when the Saxons came afterwards, the Romans had not long withdrawn from the island. Over a period of a relatively few years, as Roman functionaries and retired soldiers followed the armies which had protected them, they left behind magnificent villas, even entire walled towns. Hundreds of fine Roman-built villas lay empty and ripe for occupation. Astonishingly, the Saxons avoided these buildings as if they were harbingers of doom. Investigating this phenomenon reveals more about the special relationship the Saxons had with their environment, and their strongly-developed views about destiny.
The landscape of Middle-earth England was both geographical and mystical. The hidden history reveals, for example, their belief in the existence of dragons. A creature of fantasy to us, the dragon is shown to embody philosophical views for them about the dark side of wealth, and the inevitable life-cycle of civilizations. Dealing death to dragons turns out to be a deep and subtle element of their understanding of life. We encounter some of the bloodiest battles with these beasts, and enter their lairs and treasure hoards.
The people of Middle-earth, whether Celts, Anglo-Saxons or Norse, all had a view of nature which we would call enchanted. They ascribed to the natural world a palpable energy called life-force. Also they felt that the environment was imbued with spirit in a way that could be manifested. Their world was inhabited by elves, and other supernatural presences associated with water, wells, plants and the heavenly galaxies. This used to be boxed and wrapped by modern anthropologists as primitive 'vitalism', which patronized the indigenous cultures' ascription of a kind of sentient consciousness to inanimate aspects of nature. However, we can now see that in Middle-earth, the enchanted landscape incorporated attitudes to health and healing which are only just re-emerging in the medical practices of today. We sample some of the rituals, spells and insights of enchantment.
In the second half of the thousand years of Middle-earth culture, their views of life were influenced by what was then an imported, evangelical religion – Christianity. The struggle between these two traditions and their practitioners – Middle-earth wizards and Christian priests – is usually portrayed as a religious rivalry. But it was just as much a power struggle for control of the magic – even the spells – for as we shall see, the Christians believed in magic too, so long as it was mediated by God.
In first-millennium Europe, people encountered a much greater number of wild animals than we see today in our urban and suburban environments. The relationship of people with these animals is instructive, for it touches upon their understanding of the human soul. We document the ways in which certain people were believed to change into animals, and to take on their powers – and the consequences they suffered.
They also believed that individual lives were inextricably linked with all other people, beings and events. This is reflected in the beautiful and complex designs of Celtic, Saxon and Norse jewellery, which often had a characteristic interlaced pattern.
The connectedness of all events meant also that their experience of past, present and future was different from ours. They believed that future events could be predicted by people with the gift of foresight. We shall consider the techniques and trances of these seers – often women who were honoured highly in early Europe.
Excerpted from The Real Middle-earth by Brian Bates. Copyright © 2002 Brian Bates. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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