Sunday 27 July 2014

Tolkien Inside Anglo-Saxon Society

A review of Dr. Deborah A. Higgens, Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings. Oloris Publishing, 2014.

Much has been written about the Anglo-Saxon sources to Tolkien’s work, and I cannot claim to have read all of it. I have, nonetheless, been looking forward to reading this book ever since I first saw it announced in December, as the book promised a more detailed view of the Anglo-Saxon cultural sources and their use within The Lord of the Rings than what I have previously seen.

I started reading the book on my smartphone, which was an error. I had previously read fiction on the phone with no problems, but though the reading application works nicely with non-fiction, I found that I too often lost the thread while reading because too little context was visible at the screen at any given time. When I finally got myself a real e-reader and started reading on that, I found that I could move on at a much greater pace and that I got far more out of my reading. Eventually I went back and read the first chapters again, this time on the bigger screen of the e-reader, and this time getting the full benefit of chapters that had initially left me somewhat unconvinced.

Given the secrecy surrounding the release of Tolkien’s Beowulf, I doubt that Oloris Publishing could have had any knowledge of the plans, but the announcement on March 19th of the upcoming release of Tolkien’s translation and commentary could not have been better timed with the release on the 25th of Deborah Higgens’ book (announced in December 2013) if it had been planned – serendipitous seems the word here.

In addition to the chapters found in the contents list, there are a number of sub-chapter headlines that structure the discussion. In order to give an overview of this, I give here the full contents list, including such sub-chapter headlines:
2On Fairy-Stories and Monsters
“On Fairy-Stories”
Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”
Of Monsters and Heroes: Themes in Beowulf
Of Monsters and Heroes: Themes in The Lord of the Rings
Heathen and Christian Elements in Beowulf
Heathen and Christian Elements in The Lord of the Rings
Structural Artistry in Beowulf
Structural Artistry in The Lord of the Rings
Of Faërie and Monsters: The Bigger Picture
3Tolkien Enters the Anglo-Saxon Community Through the Mead-Hall Building
The Mead Hall: An Introduction
The Mead Hall in Anglo-Saxon Society: Structure and Description
The Mead Hall in Old English Poetry: Structure and Description
The Mead Hall in The Lord of the Rings: The Culture of Rohan
The Riders of Rohan: Tolkien's Anglo-Saxons
4The Role of the Lord, Comitatus, and Gift-Giving within the Mead Hall
The Function of the Mead Hall in Anglo-Saxon Society
The Function of Mead-Hall Society in Old English Poetry (excluding Beowulf)
The Function of Mead-Hall Society in Beowulf
The Function of Mead-Hall Society within Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
The Function of the Mead-Hall Feast within The Lord of the Rings
5Lady with a Mead Cup: The Lady and Her Role as Cup-bearer, Ambassador, Wife, and Warrior
The Lady in Anglo-Saxon Society
The Lady in Anglo-Saxon Poetry
The Lady as Portrayed in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Works cited

The general structure of the book is such that Dr. Higgens first introduces a topic, then discusses this topic with respect to the Old English culture –  first with respect to Anglo-Saxon society and then with respect to its poetry – and last she discusses how Tolkien applies this in The Lord of the Rings.

Higgens starts by introducing the central idea of her book – that Tolkien partook in the community of the Anglo-Saxon scóp, shaping is new, original, story in part by manipulating older idea and elements as did the scóps of old. As a scholar, however, Tolkien also entered the Anglo-Saxon world as a critic, through its texts; Lewis’ comment that Tolkien “had been inside language” (Carpenter) may forget the fact that Tolkien was as much inside the stories of these languages, absorbing them even as he understood them and commented upon them. Higgens writes,

Tolkien hearkens back to a literary community shrouded in mystery and Faërie, from Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry to medieval legend. He enters that community both as a critic, examining lost elements of an heroic society, and also as an insider, who manipulates, as did ancient poets, the elements of Story to create his own great fairy-story.

The remainder of the introduction gives an overview of the lay-out of the book, introducing each chapter in turn. As my review moves on, I will introduce each chapter with a quotation from this part, so as to allow Higgens to introduce the intention of the chapter.

Chapter Two is a review of Tolkien’s two articles, “On Fairy-Stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” and their relationship to Tolkien’s place within the Anglo-Saxon literary community.
In this chapter Deborah Higgens explores Tolkien’s entry into the Anglo-Saxon literary community as a critic through his two seminal lecture-essays, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture for 1936) and ‘On Fairy-stories’ (Andrew Lang lecture for 1938–39).

First Higgens revisits the points from Tolkien’s essays that she wishes to use in the discussion of the other aspect of Tolkien’s relation to the Anglo-Saxon literary community – that of the story-teller. Using the critical vocabulary that Tolkien develops in these two essays on his own work – even to the point of quoting his descriptions of the Beowulf poem and poet while applying them to The Lord of the Rings and its author – Higgens demonstrates how Tolkien’s analysis and understanding of the story-telling tradition is also reflected in his own stories.

With respect to the fairy-story essay, Higgens emphasises the ‘sense of reality’ that is created by Tolkien’s stories, and suggests that this is also related to Tolkien, as a cook, drawing himself from the Cauldron of Story, and picking, among other elements from the Cauldron, also from the Anglo-Saxon world that he knew so well.

One of the essential points that Higgens makes in her discussion of the essay ‘On Fairy-stories’ is that while the essay mainly deals with authored fairy-stories, most of it is also applicable to the broader group of folk-tales (a point that has also been made by Verlyn Flieger, and which I used in the paper I read at The Return of the Ring).

As can be seen from the contents list above, Higgens’ reading of the Beowulf essay is split into several sub-sections dealing with some of the major elements of the poem, discussing first the major themes in Tolkien’s critical approach and then how Tolkien applied them in his own work. Given the centrality of Beowulf to the understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world, it is fully justified to spend extra time with this essay.

Discussing first ‘Monsters and Heroes’ she notes the central role that Tolkien in his essay gives to the monsters of Beowulf, both for the story itself and for the development of the Hero, and then she compares this to his use of the monster and the hero in his own work. Moving on to ‘Heathen and Christian’ elements, Higgens notes how Tolkien took the philosophy of unyielding will from the heathen north but combined it with his ideas on the eucatastrophe (as developed in ‘On Fairy-stories’). She writes,

Tolkien used the ancient poet and his work as a rubric for his own writings. As professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College in Oxford, he intellectually and emotionally lived in the Anglo-Saxon world so completely that he could not but embrace it while writing his own myth.

Looking finally at ‘Structural Artistry’ the claim is that the structure of Tolkien’s own story, The Lord of the Rings, in many ways follow a similar structure to Beowulf as he himself analysed the latter. Higgens notes that while it “may not be Tolkien’s entire or only theme, yet he presents the same heroic-elegiac element in The Lord of the Rings as is present in Beowulf” and she goes on to explain the majority of The Lord of the Rings as a this kind of heroic elegy as a prelude to a dirge.

At the more concrete level, she likens Frodo’s confrontations with first the human-like wraiths (at Weathertop) and later his symbolic death to Shelob to Beowulf’s confrontations first with Grendel and in the end his death to the dragon.

Chapter Three, “Tolkien Enters the Anglo-Saxon Community through the Mead Hall,” defines the manner in which Tolkien enters the Anglo-Saxon community in its widest sense.
In this chapter, Higgens discusses Tolkien’s personal “entry into the Anglo-Saxon community”, first as a young boy and man discovering the myths and legends of the North and later through both his philological work and his work as a story-teller.

A large part of the chapter is also devoted to the physical structure of the mead hall and its construction based on archaeological evidence and poetic evidence and how Tolkien uses the idea of the hall in The Lord of the Rings, including an interesting comparison of between Heorot and Meduseld as physical structures.

Higgens approaches, but doesn’t quite reach, the integral ideas of cultural identity that Tolkien works with, and where language, stories (myth and folk-tale) combine with the physical lands and the people of the land to a unique cultural identity. See for instance this discussion at the LotR Fanatics Plaza, A Strong Sense of Place:

In the last sub-section of chapter 3, Higgens speaks of ‘The Riders of Rohan: Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxons’. With this particular subject, I had hoped to find a response to Thomas Honegger’s paper, ‘The Rohirrim: “Anglo-Saxons on Horseback”? An Inquiry into Tolkien’s Use of Sources’ in Tolkien and the Study of His Sources edited by Jason Fisher. This paper is, however, not on the bibliography, though I will greatly recommend it to anyone wishing to investigate this question.

Chapter Four, “The Function of the Mead Hall: The Role of the Lord, Comitatus, and Gift-Giving,” explores the actual function of the mead hall within Anglo-Saxon society, in Old English poetry, and in the feasts described in The Lord of the Rings.
This chapter goes through the role and function of the mead hall in various Anglo-Saxon cultural expressions and discusses how Tolkien reflects this in The Lord of the Rings. The role of the mead hall is extended to include the functions and rituals that were performed in the hall – the societal bonding that takes place in the mead hall, the feasting, gift-giving and, particularly, the comitatus bond between the Lord of the hall and his thanes. The mead hall is described as the central focal point for Anglo-Saxon society – belonging to a lord, but in a manner that I find reminiscent of Tolkien’s overall description of the role of the ruler (I find that Tolkien portrays the ruler as essentially a servant of the society as a whole – kingship is as much an obligation as a right).

Higgens points out that several elements of this mead hall society and the associated feasts and rites are reflected not only in the society of the Riddermark and Meduseld, but also in other cultures in The Lord of the Rings, not least the Elves, where we see many elements of the Anglo-Saxon mead hall culture reflected in the meetings, and not least the feasts, with Elvish rulers in both Rivendell and Lothlórien.

Chapter Five, “Lady with a Mead Cup: The Lady and Her Role as Cup-bearer, Ambassador, Wife, and Warrior,” examines the function of the wife of the lord or king as reflected in Anglo-Saxon society, Old English poetry, and in Tolkien’s incorporation of the Lady in his story.
The role of the queen, the Lady, in Anglo-Saxon society is well summarised in the title of the penultimate chapter, and once again the central role of the mead hall is emphasised with the Lady of the hall contributing to the construction of communal identity through the bonding that is a result of partaking in the communal rituals of the hall.

In Tolkien’s work, the role of the Lady is seen through both Galadriel and Éowyn, discussing how they each fulfil their roles as cup-bearers, ambassadors, wives and warriors. The character analysis of Éowyn, seeing her through the lens of the Anglo-Saxon Lady of the mead hall, is a joy to read, and adds an important chapter to the list of character studies of characters from The Lord of the Rings.

Chapter Six, the conclusion, addresses the value of ancient mead-hall culture, the decline of this culture, and the need to preserve some of its codes for our present day.
In her concluding chapter, Deborah Higgens returns to the practice of applying to himself and his own work Tolkien’s own critical comments on the poets of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on fairy-stories in general. This technique is excellently suited to summarising, and collecting all the various threads of her discussions, and Higgens manages reasonably well with tying the threads into a firm knot.

Wherever the book stays within the main track of Tolkien’s manner of relating to Anglo-Saxon culture both as a critic and as a story-teller and myth-maker, the discussion is informative and flows quite well, though sometimes it seems to me that Higgens has more to say than what fits easily under the umbrella of Tolkien’s understanding and literary use of Anglo-Saxon culture. These side-tracks are not always as successful as the threads in the main track of the book.

I could also have wished that Higgens had chosen to respond more directly to the work of others – she mentions Tom Shippey, but not his discussion of the Anglo-Saxon elements in Rohirric culture (both in The Road to Middle-earth and in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century), and other contributions to this topic are also ignored such as the one by Honegger mentioned earlier or Anna Smol’s entry on ‘History, Anglo-Saxon’ in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment.

The discussions of Anglo-Saxon society are interesting, and I have learned much about this from reading this book, but in terms of new perspectives on Tolkien’s work, there are, for me, two points where this book truly shines are. First when Deborah Higgens applies Tolkien’s own critical vocabulary and analysis to his own work, allowing us to understand Tolkien’s work through Tolkien’s own understanding of fairy-stories and Anglo-Saxon poetry. Secondly the character analysis of Éowyn as an example of the Anglo-Saxon Lady stands out as an important contribution to our understanding of her character.

These three, the solid introduction to Anglo-Saxon society and culture, the application of Tolkien’s own critical approach to his own work, and the character analysis of Éowyn, are ample reason for reading Dr. Higgens’ book, and fair reasons for me to recommend it warmly – though perhaps particularly to those of us whose prior knowledge of Anglo-Saxon culture is not so thorough.


  1. When I do a review, I try as well as possible to accept the premises of the book – to review, if you will, the book that the book itself claims or attempts to be, rather than trying to review another book that I might have liked to see on the same general topic.

    This has been particularly relevant when reviewing Deborah Higgens' book. Announced at the end of 2013, Anglo-Saxon Community in J.R.R. Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings came out just two months prior to the release of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, and less than a week after the announcement of that latter book.

    Though it is terribly tempting to read Higgens' book through the lens of Tolkien's Beowulf and discuss what other book she might have written if her book had been finished a year later than it did, I have deliberately tried to abstain from taking that perspective (so much that I have, in fact, postponed my own reading of Tolkien's Beowulf until I had written this review). There is a short span of time where we can read these two book in their right order, so that our reading of Tolkien's translation and commentary on Beowulf may be read through the lens of Deborah Higgens' analysis of his usage of themes from Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon sources helped shape his Lord of the Rings.

    Though contra-factual discussions are quite common in many parts of the Tolkien community (what if ... for instance, the balrog in Moria had seized the Master Ring? Even Tolkien engages in this in some of letters – what if the redemption of Gollum at the top of the stairs before Torech Ungol had been successful?), but I think it is rather pointless to discuss how this book would have different, if it had been written after the release of Tolkien's Beowulf; it would no longer be this book, but some other book that was not the one I wanted to review.

    Having said that, I would love to also review the (hypothesised) follow-up book or paper in which Dr. Higgens will discuss her topic through the particular lens of Tolkien's translation of and detailed commentary on the Beowulf poem and poet if she should decide to write that.

    1. This comment is a result of an interesting conversation with Simon Cook on Google+, for which I am thankful. This conversation has made me realise that I would have to address this question explicitly.


Please remember to state your name or a well-known handle. Spam and comments that are perceived as disrespectful of the author or other commenters will not be allowed.