OSC at SVU Home Page    |    Hatrack.com    |    Southern Virginia University    

Kim Walin

Eng 375r

Prof Card


Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth

            Marjorie Burns begins in this book with a brief introduction on Tolkien’s “contrasistency”, or “consistent inconsistency”.  Basically how he purports opposites at the same time like fellowships and hierarchy, Bilbo leaving home yet taking it with him, and such like.  Burns goes on by mentioning the character matching and shadowing that is explored in depth later within the book along with a brief background of Tolkien’s life.  Tolkien originally was born in modern day South Africa in 1892 and came to England when he was three and remained there after his father died.  When his mother died in 1904, he and his brother went under the guardianship of Father Francis Xavier Morgan.  Tolkien more than likely received his focus of male bloodlines and inheritance from this and his desire to emphasize his Englishness.  

            During this time period, England in general was emphasizing itself and pushing pride in its Teutonic (Norse and Anglo-Saxon) roots while despising its Celtic roots.  Although the English past is full of a variety of invasions one after another, the focus on what was English moved towards the influence from the North of Europe (England wasn’t too happy with what was going on in Southern Europe and wanted to separate itself) giving the options of Teutonic and Celtic influence.  Celtic is feminine due to its stereotype being more poetic and imaginative while Teutonic (or Nordic) is considered to be masculine, for its stereotype is seen as practical and courageous, when not influenced with beer.  With the historical occurrences of the time period, a vast masculinization of nations occurred, so anything Celtic, being feminine, was despised and anything Nordic, being masculine, was praised. 

Tolkien in turn emphasized the Nordic influence within his Middle-earth (a term actually used referring to the Scandinavian, Germanic, and English lands that Tolkien actually used as a topographic model for his world) while originally denying the Celtic influence (though he admits the influence later on within his letters).  The Teutonic influence exists through out with the “unyielding heroism” and “inevitable doom” that pervade the storyline, along with characters and items borrowed from the Norse Eddas.  For example the Balrog is modeled after Surt a Nordic fire Spirit, and a lot of the Valinor is from the Asgard gods (name of the dominate, most powerful group of Nordic gods).  The Celtic influence is mainly less obvious with the emphasis on kingship, Sauron’s threat echoing the evils from Lludd and Lluelys (barrenness, emasculating shrieks, etc), and the One Ring acting like the Stone of Luned.  The only thing that is predominately, and obviously, Celtic would be Tolkien’s elves.  These were originally called Fairies in early drafts but that was too French so, Tolkien used the Teutonic word elf.  The Teutonic influence upon the race stops with just the name while the concept of different kinds of elves (light, forest, dark, etc) comes from Anglo-Saxon influence and the characteristics, the divinity is especially Celtic.  Burns also makes a note on other cultural influences like the Hobbits in the shire are modeled after rustic England and the Goblins/Orcs along with Mordor and Mount Doom are the ravages of industrialization.

            The next chapter focuses upon Beorn and his complexity.  Beorn is clearly of Norse origin with his independence and brusque nature and Icelandic homestead (Norse-like hall and courtyards).  Beorn’s complexity resides in him being a double-character, as in him being a mix of opposites like being a friendly gardener but also a berserking loner (along with the obvious human/bear and civilized/wild pairings).  Burns then compares Beorn with Bertilak from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Beowulf.  The relation with Beowulf is mostly to do with their names. Beowulf breaking down into Bee-wolf which is considered to be the bear and Beorn changes into a bear and raises bees.  The comparison with Bertilak is more in depth with the sharing of physical characteristics, great abodes (a great hall versus a castle), and both as shape-changers.  A tangent then emerges from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” depicting more of a Celtic air with Druidic oak-woods and otherworldliness, leading to the revelation that shape-changing is also a Celtic tradition. 

            ‘Bridges, Gates, and Doors’ delves more into the various Celtic and Nordic traditions existing side-by-side.  Burns begins with a rather unrelated tangent on Tolkien’s philologistic abilities of creating his own languages within Middle Earth to create certain feelings. For example the words referring to orcs (yrch and Uruk-hai) create a sense of Orcness (the author doesn’t enlighten the reader of what this Orcness is that is conveyed but merely states that the essence of Orcness exists within the words).  The author also dissects other words of Tolkien way to far  like degenerating “attercop”, an insult Bilbo uses, into ‘cup’ or ‘vessel’ and such a connection leads us “outside Time itself” (how ‘spider’ turning into ‘cup’ puts the reader outside time it doesn’t explain).  The tangent slowly transitions into the actual subject that the chapter title alludes to through stating that language and transference work together, namely how Gollum became Smeagol and a ‘magic ring’ is actually THE Ring.  The transference between realms, perception and attitude, are demarcated by bridges, gates, and doors.  For example, Bilbo crossing The Water signals the leaving of his known home.  These demarcating structures in the Lord of the Rings become used even more so and more symbolic in nature.  The structures can also be divided into two categories of Norse and Celtic influence, giving a particular structure a certain implication towards the change in setting, atmosphere, etc.  The Norse influenced structures are “obstinate gates, hefty bridges, and inhibiting natural formations” that allude to hindrance, contention, battles and a need for courage.  A prime example is the Bridge of Khazad-dum in Moria, which the author links to Bifrost (a bridge in Norse mythology that the battle of Ragnarok takes place on) equating the Balrog with Surt.  Other examples are the gates to the Tower of Cirith Ungol and the stone shaped finger of doom at the entrance to the paths of the dead.  The Celtic structures, on the other hand, are more subtle consisting of water crossings, archways of branches and trees, and shadowy descents, alluding to the transition into a more ethereal realm.  An example is the crossing of the rivers Nimrodel and Silverlode to get into Lothlorien.

            Chapter 4, Iceland and Middle Earth: Two Who Loved the North attempts to relate a perceived influence of William Morris’s Journals (an account of his first visit to Iceland) within The Hobbit.  Morris, a known writer of the late 19th century, learned and idealized the Icelandic culture, an idealization that Tolkien shared.  In Nordic tales, the land of the dead, giants, and other non-niceties lie towards the North and East, the same direction the Morris went as well as the direction of Smaug’s cave and Mordor.  The author then relates that certain passages in The Hobbit approach the passages of the Journals, namely a rainy day that a fire wouldn’t light and the frightening of a pony.  Both also travel by/through ravines, bogs, and waterfalls to reach a haven (Rivendell for Bilbo and Water-dale for Morris.  The comparisons then become more inane like a relation that both Morris and Bilbo are fat and the novice of their expedition (umm, so what?).  At one point the author even notes that both used horses/ponies (what else would be the beast of burden in Middle Earth? Alpacas? I can see it, Gandalf riding to the front of battle upon Shadowfax the godlike alpaca.  If the author is noting such things as pudginess and horse as echoes, the other examples are now questionable in their relation.  The connections of both stories having horse issues would be expected.  In order to relay the hardship and peril involved, along with creating a story to begin with, issues in the trip have to arise (or else the journey seems as if its merely a walk in the park, creating a very boring book) and there are only so many things that can occur in which most will happen in a fictional story so that any issues that Morris has traveling the harsh climate and landscape of Iceland could easily be similar to those occurring in The Hobbit, or any other story of a perilous journey riding horse, without the author being actually influenced), 

            Tolkien’s use of opposing characters to create a moral complexity, namely Shelob with Galadriel and Gandalf with Sauron, is examined next.  The Norse origin of Gandalf and Sauron is rather clear when Odin, an Asgard god of Norse mythology, is dissected.  The common image of Odin, the wandering old man, is what Tolkien admits to modeling Gandalf after, and some of the Odinic epithets also apply to Gandalf as well (“Broad-Hat”, “Sage”, “Wayweary”, etc.)  Though seemingly applying only the good characteristics of the complex Odin to the characterization of Gandalf, a few more fearsome characteristics of Odin having been placed in are alluded to with the epithet of “Master Stormcrow” and the fights with his staff (the same weapon of choice as Odin).  The author then links Sauron (and in so Saruman) with the negative side of Odin.  Both Sauron and Odin have a symbolic eye (Sauron being the “Red Eye” and Odin called “Fiery-eyed” along with losing an eye) and powerful rings (the one ring and an arm ring that multiplies every nine nights.  Saruman, in particular works as a crossing link, displaying the Odin the wanderer characteristics along with a few of the less desirable characteristics (the Bringer of War) as well as displaying what Gandalf could be.  Odin’s animal familiars (crows, eagles, wolves, and Sleipnir) are also split between the two forces: Gandalf having the aid of eagles along with Shadowfax (Sleipnir’s equivalent as otherworldly horses) and Sauron with Sarumon using crows to and wolves to track and attack their enemies.  The author then relates how Tolkien splits the Celtic goddess, the Morrigan to create the opposing characters of Galadriel and Shelob (similar to the previously mentioned splitting of Odin).  After admitting to the complexity of the connection that has been made, the author gives a connective summary starting with Galadriel and ending with Shelob that would be better to quote than to try to relate:


Beginning with Galadriel… and moving backwards …, we come first to Tolkien’s Melian of the Thousand Caves.  Behind Melian…lie the more auspicious traits of Haggard’s enchantress She…, a woman of immortal power whose side was inspired by both Victorian and medieval versions of Morgan le Fay, as Morgan appears in her wise, cooperative guise, a guise which is itself based on the Celtic Morrigan’s favorable attributes of perception, regeneration, and fertility.

…this time moving forward from the Morrigan’s dark, destructive side, which is manifested in the Corrigan of Brittany and in the negative aspects of Morgan le Fay, keeping in mind that Morgan le Fay was one of the prime seductive enchantresses of to haunt the Victorian mind, a haunting which created Ayesha (or she), whose destructive side and association with darkness and death appear in both Ungoliant and Shelob, who…share much with the ‘Odras’ Morrigan, a type that may well have influenced Spenser’s Errour and Milton’s Sin, two figures that clearly left their mark on Tolkien’s Shelob the Great. (126)

The author also states that Galadriel participates in the taking down of Shelob via the phial that she gave to the two hobbits concluding their drama (did the two even acknowledge each others existence, nevertheless have a drama?).  (With so many sources to go through, and at a complexity that the author has to write a specific summary in order to help clarify the connection, the existence of any actual true connection, nevertheless an intentional connection, is highly doubted.  It seems as if this section was merely sticking together large words and literary references to prove a nonexistent point and hoping that just because it looks intelligent that the reader will not realize how farfetched and forced the connection between Shelob and Galadriel as opposing characters is. )

            Marjorie Burns continues with analyzing the feminine and the few females that are depicted with in the Lord of the Rings.  Burns begins with mentioning that the most admirable races and males contain feminine qualities, mostly compassion, hospitality, and service.  The general exclusion of females is mostly to do with the then current concept of the quest in which the main character is male and unattached and the emphasis on patriarchal bloodlines.  Eowyn’s character as a warrior woman is then explored along side the role of Merry within the battle that the two have snuck into, where their desire to fight is sympathized with and yet they are not fully tainted by war.  Unlike Merry and the others, Eowyn is not publicly praised but instead married off to Faramir and disappears. The author insists that this is due to Eowyn being female and to escape from that implied role would cause sterility and disruption, and Tolkien wanted to quickly remove her from the foreground.  The author then explains that the different treatment of Galadriel has much to do with her being depicted as the ideal female (and in so no conflict in implied roles), her links with Valinor, and with her remaining(at least until the end) in her sphere.

            Burns then relates the morality of certain characters and races through what they eat and the perils of being eaten.  The perils of being are so great that the descriptive words usually for eating are also applied to the most dangerous lands.  The morality that is conveyed within the diets is clearly seen with the enlightened leaning towards vegetarianism and the more wretched the creature/race is the more cannibalistic and raw the diet.  The orcs, for example, have many allusions to cannibalism with the threats of “I’ll eat you” and a reward consisting of man’s-flesh, showing disregard for fellow creatures.  The corrupted, degenerative state of Smeagol is displayed in his preference for things raw and grubs, and intolerance for things cooked and elven food.  Contrarily, the good characters are described as eating little meat and proper foods like bread, honeycomb, and berries. The author then goes into the ‘desserts’ of the characters actions. Basically, if service others and sacrifice yourself, you will be strengthened and filled but if you hoard and are selfish, you will become empty and a void.

            Marjorie Burns then concludes with three linking questions of: Who wins, Norseman or Celt? Is it a fusion or a confusion that we come to in the end?, and JRR Tolkien Christian Believer or Crier of Nordic Doom?.  The actual answer to the first question is unknown due to both the Celtic and Nordic having their good points and a story consisting of influence from only one of the two would not be as interesting as a mix. This leads to the second one in which the answer seems to be a fusion at first but in the end the answer is confusion because disruption is necessary for a story.  As for the last question, Tolkien is both with the Christian belief residing towards the afterlife that gives peace while the Nordic doom that is cried is of the degenerating of the mortal plane.

Copyright © 2021 Orson Scott Card All Rights Reserved. Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com