A Meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle, February 23, 2017
Tonight a wintry snowfall descended on Longmont, and the Tolkien Reading Circle hosted a special guest speaker at the Hobbit Hole. Tiffany Beechy is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, specializing in Anglo-Saxon studies. She shared with us her perspective on Tolkien’s creative mingling of mythological essences, and how this idea is in fact reflected in Anglo-Saxon England.
Tiffany began by pointing out how Rohirrim names and language are rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture. Edoras, Théoden, and Éomer are just a few examples of words borrowed from Old English to colorize Rohan. She also mentioned a touching Peter Jackson film character, the youth “Haleth” in The Two Towers – the Old English version of this name is hæleþ, meaning “hero.” So in the scene when Aragorn asks his name and gives him a word of encouragement on the eve of battle, the youth is really a young hero.
Tolkien framed the Rohirrim as a horse culture. He borrowed detail from actual horse cultures, but he also referred to Anglo-Saxon tradition. Tiffany read a passage from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the tradition of Hengest (“Stallion”) and Horsa (“Horse”) arriving on the shores of Celtic Britain and meeting Vortigern. Scholars today see a more gradual settlement process, but this tradition does make reference to horses.
Tiffany told how Tolkien is sometimes dismissed in academic English studies as a kind of presumed fascist ideologue for his project of idealizing a glorious nationalistic past. But this framing of his Middle-earth novels does not do justice to his actual cultural project, which often evokes a cultural blending that conflicts with the fascist project of asserting forms of cultural purity.
This cultural mingling can be seen in the historical storytelling we find in records set down in Anglo-Saxon literature. Citing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Tiffany reminds us that the merging of Christian ideology with Anglo-Saxon culture was a syncretic process, a hybridization of concepts rather than a replacement. But this ultimately did bring about an eclipse of tradition.
Everything written about Anglo-Saxons was produced by monks since the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons left no written literature, only rune sticks. Bede has a passage that has the Chief Priest Coifi requesting King Edwin’s arms and stallion “to destroy the idols” of Northumbria. The symbolic transition of culture thus involved horse imagery. Tiffany read an excerpt from her translation of “The Dream of the Rood” – we borrowed from it for the title of this blog. The poem illustrates how the Anglo-Saxons were more likely to accept this new religion if Christ could be treated more like an active hero rather than a passive victim. Tiffany also touched on the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, a monument featuring runes, Latin inscriptions, religious imagery, and references to “The Dream of the Rood.”
All enjoyed a lively and enlightening evening. Errors in this description of the meeting are due to the wandering minds of the Hobbit Hole scribes!