Academic journal article Mythlore

Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth (1)

Academic journal article Mythlore

Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth (1)

Article excerpt

Sense of History and Sense of Place

ENCOUNTERS WITH RUINS are found in the earliest expressions of English literature, so it is not surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien would also include such scenes in his own fiction. For example, the dragon's lair in Beowulf is a chambered tomb (Keillor and Piggott 360-61), the Old English elegiac poem The Ruin describes a Roman town (Mitchell 131), and in Tolkien's own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the green chapel is a barrow mound (79). In Tolkien's usage, encounters with ruins-or, to choose a more inclusive term, archaeological places-contribute to the successful evocation of a sense of history in Middle-earth. This achievement of time-depth is one quality lending his secondary world its realism.

Tolkien's favored medium to accomplish this effect is linguistic, discussed at length by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth. Bits of old tales and partial recitations "do the job" of time-depth by suggesting there must have been some larger, older body of lore (Shippey 111). Tolkien's characters use words-folklore and proverbs, song, oral traditions of epic poetry, and written chronicles-to know, remember, and understand their world. Scholarship of words is a recurring motif throughout the fiction. Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam write the Red Book of Westmarch and compose poetry; Gandalf studies Gondor's archives to discover the history of the Ring; nearly everybody recites. All this makes perfect sense given Tolkien's lifelong fascination with language, and respecting his claims of the primacy of linguistic invention as the inspiration for the whole Middle-earth legendarium. (2)

But Tolkien also knew that a language is more than a list of words and rules about how to use them. His entire project demonstrates this. For a language to live, there must be stories to tell in it, people to speak the stories, and a reason to pass them on--in short, a living culture (e.g., Letters 231, 375). Furthermore, Tolkien clearly was sensitive to the fact that the life of a people, their beliefs and all the events that go to make up their history, are intimately bound up with place. This is reflected in his biography, in his feeling of a connectedness by descent to the West Midlands (Letters 54; Carpenter 132, 175), and by his youthful desire to restore, through invention, a body of myth that would be for England, tied, in his words, to the "air" and "soil" and "clime" of Britain (Letters 144).

As eloquently expressed by anthropologist Keith Basso,

   Fueled by sentiments of inclusion, belonging, and connectedness to
   the past, sense of place roots individuals in the social and
   cultural soils from which they have sprung together, holding them
   there in the grip of a shared identity, a localized version of
   selfhood. (85)

In Tolkien's successfully sub-created secondary world, no less than in the primary world, cultural identity is shaped by a shared experience of community whose sense of history is intertwined with a sense of place. Thus, Tolkien has carefully imprinted his imaginary mythology onto the landscape of Middle-earth, and worked into his narrative expressions of time-depth and a sense of history conveyed not only in words, but in the landscape itself.

This intimacy of story and landscape is reflected in what Tom Shippey calls the cartographic or map-driven plot of The Lord of the Rings (94-134). But if Tolkien "wisely started with a map, and made the story fit" (Letters 177), his map offers readers more than mere geography. A landscape "which carries tangible relics of the past" may function as a repository of cultural memory (Flieger 1). Tolkien made a culturized, a historicized geography. His maps, like our own, are loaded with place names in multiple languages, many of which refer to past events and contested territories, giving Middle-earth its "air of solidity and extent both in space and time" (Shippey 103). …

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