"Mad" Elves and "Elusive Beauty": Some Celtic Strands of Tolkien's Mythology [1]

By Fimi, Dimitra | Folklore, August 2006 | Go to article overview
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"Mad" Elves and "Elusive Beauty": Some Celtic Strands of Tolkien's Mythology [1]

Fimi, Dimitra, Folklore


Contrary to Tolkien's refutation of "Celtic things" as a source for his own mythology, this article attempts to show how his work has been inspired by Celtic folklore and myth. The article is not just a source study. It concentrates on one main example from Tolkien's early literary writings that betrays a Celtic influence. At the same time it discusses Tolkien's complex attitude towards "things Celtic" within the context of his strong sense of English identity. Finally, it seeks to explain Tolkien's derogatory comments on Celtic material as a result of popular ideas of "Celticity."


In November 1937, after the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien sent to his publishers "The Silmarillion," [2] the myths and legends of the Elves that he had been working on for years, with a possible view to publication. In turn, they passed the manuscript to one of the firm's outside readers, Edward Crankshaw, for evaluation. He reported unfavourably on it, part of the reason being its "eyes-plitting Celtic names." He also claimed that "It has something of that mad, bright-eyed beauty that perplexes all Anglo-Saxons in face of Celtic art" (Carpenter 1981, 27). Tolkien's response to his publishers shows that he was rather annoyed by such a characterisation of his work. He defended his nomenclature, by saying: "I am sorry the names split his eyes--personally I believe ... they are good, and a large part of the effect." He also added quite angrily:

   Needless to say they are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do 
   know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and 
   Welsh), and feel for them a certain distaste: largely for their 
   fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a 
   broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in 
   fact 'mad' as your reader says--but I don't believe I am 
   (Carpenter 1981, 26). 

Tolkien's reaction to "things Celtic" being identified as possible sources for his own mythology seems rather over-emotional. In another letter written almost twenty years later, however, Tolkien commented on his "invented language" for the Grey Elves, namely Sindarin (the Elvish language most prominently featuring in The Lord of the Rings), and explained how it was "deliberately devised to give it a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh." He added that one of the reasons for modelling this language upon Welsh was "because it seems to fit the rather 'Celtic' type of legends and stories told of its speakers" (Carpenter 1981, 176).

These two contradictory statements seem to summarise Tolkien's complex attitude towards things Celtic. His strong refutation of Celtic material as a source of, or influence on, his literature might not appear to be so strange if one takes into account his own special area of academic expertise, and his character and "mission" as a writer. Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon philology, with a strong sense of English identity that he often associated with Britain's Anglo-Saxon past. At the same time he had started writing his stories of the Elves in an effort to create a "mythology for England," England being understood as opposed to Britain. On the other hand, however, as the letter to his publishers quoted earlier also suggests, Tolkien was far from ignorant about "things Celtic" and he later described his stories of the Grey Elves as being of a "Celtic type." This love-hate relationship with "things Celtic" has made Tolkien's mythology of Middle-earth more complex and more attractive.

"I do know Celtic things": Tolkien and Celtic Studies

Tolkien had nourished an attraction for the Welsh language and a fascination with the stories of King Arthur since childhood. It might have been his school friend G. B. Smith, however, an admirer of the "Mabinogion" and of the Arthurian legend--particularly its Welsh origins--who triggered his interest in "things Celtic" in a more general sense.

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"Mad" Elves and "Elusive Beauty": Some Celtic Strands of Tolkien's Mythology [1]


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