|Author (and recording artist) J.R.R. Tolkien|
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.Although Tolkien had a deep personal commitment to Catholicism, he also had an abiding love for what he called “that noble northern spirit” – the historical, literary and philosophical heritage of pre-Christian northern Europe. He lamented that the coming of Christianity had obliterated any detailed record of the ancient mythology of his own country, as opposed to Iceland’s preservation of its literary heritage in the Eddas. His decades-long creation of the Middle-earth corpus was, in part, an effort to create a “mythology for England.” This mythology is not a Christian one; Tolkien referred to Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer,” not a Christ figure (despite what today’s movie reviewers may tell you).
|Iceland actually has beer|
named for saga heroes.
Tolkien’s deep love for the literary heritage of northern Europe can be felt throughout his works. I teach a semester-long course teasing out the many elements of Norse myth that permeate The Hobbit alone. In this article, I will focus on a close reading of a single bit of dialogue in The Lord of the Rings to show how powerfully the pre-Christian philosophy resonates in Tolkien’s fantasy.
In “The Passing of the Grey Company,” the second chapter of The Return of the King, Aragorn tells Éowyn that she may not ride with him to battle, but must remain behind as the men go off to war. Her response immediately shows her allegiance to heathen ideals.
‘You are a stern lord and resolute,’ she said; ‘and thus do men win renown.’ She paused. ‘Lord.’ she said, ‘if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.’
|Odin's words still fascinate, as evidenced by|
release of yet another Poetic Edda translation.
Cattle die, kinsmen die,In Norse religion, it was brave actions of the individual in this life that mattered – not quiet piety and prayer aimed at a future afterlife. By forbidding that Éowyn participate in the great conflicts of her era, Aragorn acts with the patriarchal authority of a Biblical king as he denies a heathen woman the right to live a full and fulfilling life.
the self must also die;
but glory never dies,
for the man who is able to achieve it.
When Aragorn then tells Éowyn of her duty (a word long used to bind women to the home), she gives a fiercely proud reply:
‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’Her words specifically associate her with the ancient Germanic peoples. In Old English, before it meant “earl,” eorl (which Tolkien here uses as a proper name) simply meant “warrior.” With much of the language associated with Éowyn’s people, Tolkien ties the Riders of Rohan to the old Anglo-Saxons. For example, Éowyn is the niece of Théoden, whose own name is a modernized spelling of the Old English þēoden (“ruler,” “lord”).
|Anglo-Saxon runes on Thror's Map from The Hobbit|
|Tolkien's Finn and Hengest|
|"Cimbric Women Defending the Fortification of Wagons"|
from Ward Lock's The Illustrated History of the World (c1880)
Here the women met them, holding swords and axes in their hands. With hideous shrieks of rage they tried to drive back the hunted and the hunters, the fugitive as deserters, the pursuers as foes. With bare hands the women tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, enduring mutilating wounds. Their fierce spirit unvanquished to the end.
|Statue of Veleda (1844)|
by Hippolyte Maindron
a maiden of the tribe of the Bructeri, who possessed extensive dominion; for by ancient usage the Germans attributed to many of their women prophetic powers and, as the superstition grew in strength, even actual divinity. The authority of Veleda was then at its height, because she had foretold the success of the Germans and the destruction of the legions.The historical role of heathen women in military and religious spheres is reflected in mythological and literary sources. The shieldmaidens of Norse mythology and saga are striking figures (in both senses of the word). Carolyne Larrington’s description of the shieldmaidens of mythic poetry reads like a thumbnail portrait of Éowyn, stating that they are “human girls who, scorning domesticity and female tasks, take up the warrior life; as such they can overlap with valkyries.”
|Éowyn ready for battle as a shieldmaiden|
in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings
I am a shield-maiden. I wear a helmet and ride with the warrior kings. I must support them, and I am not averse to fighting.Later in The Return of the King, Éowyn literally puts Brynhild’s words into action by wearing a helmet to disguise herself and riding into battle with the warrior-king Théoden. Throughout the novel, she makes abundantly clear that she is “not averse to fighting.”
As a mystic Valkyrie, Brynhild determines the outcome of human battles and possesses great wisdom and magical knowledge. The hero Sigurd asks her to teach him the ways of the world and says, “Never can there be found a wiser woman in the world than you. Give me more wise counsel.” Although written down after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, the saga is based on older poetry and mythology (Odin is a recurring character) and has a thoroughly heathen worldview. Notably, it portrays Brynhild as a warlike wise woman – a role that women actually played in pre-Christian society.
|A Valkyrie welcomes a warrior to Valhalla with a drinking horn|
on a Swedish memorial stone from the Viking Age
She was clad as a Rider and girt with a sword. In her hand she bore a cup, and she set it to her lips and drank a little, wishing them good speed; and then she gave the cup to Aragorn.Here and elsewhere in the novel, Tolkien’s description of Éowyn recalls the description of Brynhild in the Saga of the Volsungs as “in a mail coat, with her sword in her hand and a helmet on her head.” In this scene, Éowyn is dressed as a shieldmaiden while she replicates the ritual cup-bearing actions of the Valkyries, further tying herself to heathen tradition.
To be continued in Part Two.