Wednesday, January 12, 2005

BOOK: Brian Bates, "The Real Middle-earth"

Brian Bates: The Real Middle-earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages. (First ed.: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002.) Pan Books, 2003. ISBN: 0330491709. xix + 292 pp. 12 pages of color plates.

The term "Middle-earth" is now perhaps best known for its use in J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction, and it is also quite well-known that Tolkien borrowed the term, and perhaps some aspects of its meaning, from Old English. Apparently the term was fairly important in the world-view of the pagan inhabitants of northwestern Europe in the first millennium AD. This book attempts to describe how these people saw the world and their place in it. This is what attracted my attention and encouraged me to read it; it doesn't deal with political history or material culture (except for one or two short chapters), but with the history of their ideas and beliefs. I was curious to see how these early people, whose way of life differed in so many ways from the life of later periods, saw the world and what sort of beliefs they held.

As it often happens to me when I read books about folklore, mythology, anthropology or similar topics, I found much of it rather boring. I'm sure this is no fault of the book itself; it's just that I'm not all that interested in details about myths, rituals, etc.; many other readers might be delighted by them, and anyway there aren't so many details that one should avoid the book on that account. After all, it is a book for the general public, not for experts. It has a lot of information about various kinds of mythological beings, about the magical nature of plants, shamans travelling into the otherworld, seeresses and their rituals, the belief that people can change into animals, etc., etc.

The author is sympathetic to the people and beliefs about which he writes, pointing out in several places how the scientific and rational explanations of the world, on which our modern society is based, often turn out to be unsatisfying in many ways, and how "the forces of fantasy, intuition, and imagination may yield some deeper perspectives which could help us better understand our place in the world" (pp. 254-255). This is something that I find difficult to agree with; I am inclined to think that fantasy and imagination, and intuition as well unless it is tested and held back on every step by reason and experiment, may produce fascinating or beautiful things but little genuine understanding of the world or our place in it; although it might give us the illusion of understanding, just like the early medieval people surely believed that they genuinely understood things although they really only had a bunch of myths. I think it's better to admit that there are many things which we just aren't able to understand and explain really well, rather than to dress it all up in fantasy and nebulous terms and pretend that we understand them better than before. But I don't want to give the wrong impression; this is not meant to be a big criticism of the book, and the author is not in any way a crank or anything of the sort; he does not in any way idealise the early medieval people he writes about, and is perfectly well aware of the harsh realities of their life and the many ways in which they were worse off than us.

Some of the passages I found particularly interesting:

Page 59 mentions the cosmological beliefs of the early medieval NW-Europeans; there was an Upperworld, the Middle-earth, and a Lowerworld, all connected by the giant ash tree Yggdrasil; the three areas were subdivided further and inhabited by various types of beings. It is all, however, fairly intricate and apt to start boring me fairly quickly. I often wonder why I do not find Greek mythology nearly as boring, nor the names occuring in it nearly as impenetrable and easy to forget, as that of other cultures; I can scarcely believe that there is some objective difference, some difference in quality, between Greek mythology and that of other peoples; but can it really all be only due to the fact that we tend to be exposed more to Greek mythology than to those of other cultures, and at an earlier and therefore more impressionable age?

Chapter 5 speaks about a very curious phenomenon: apparently, the Anglo-Saxons, after they had settled in England, tended to avoid the remnants of Roman towns, even though they could have settled there and taken advantage of the existing buildings, stone-work, etc. It seems that they didn't want to live crowded in towns or cities, and inhabit houses built primarily of stone (p. 71); apparently this was not just an aesthetic preference but a spiritual one, based on the idea that it would be wrong to set oneself apart from the natural world by living in walled towns and stone buildings (p. 74). I can't help wondering if this sort of explanation is really necessary or even correct; couldn't this be explained simply by the fact that they weren't used to living in cities, nor was their population so large as to require part of the people to inhabit cities, nor did they really have the skills to make the cities function properly? Not being at all used to living in cities, wouldn't they have very naturally avoided them as an unfamiliar way of life (the benefits of which would not have been apparent to them) and preferred to settle in villages with wooden houses and carry on the same sort of life that they were already used to and familiar with?

Page 77 refers to "the imagination-imbued world view of people in ancient England". Sometimes I wonder if all this imagination and fervid fantasy so often ascribed to early medieval Germanic peoples is not more an heritage of early nineteenth-century German Romanticism rather than any actual characteristic of those medieval people. Or if, anyway, since they had little concrete or definite or reliable information about some aspects of the world, yet they wanted answers anyway, they simply exercised their imagination instead and made them up. But I don't know enough about these things to be able to really form an opinion about this. Anyway, I am not saying that it is wrong to have a strongly-functional imagination, although I don't necessarily find it very praiseworthy in itself; still, it is not always bad; after all, the Greeks were also highly imaginative, and it led to plenty of amusing mythology but also, in due course, to philosophical speculation and to some rudiments of science.

Page 80 includes this suggestion about the wide distribution of legends about dragons: "Perhaps stemming from a folk-memory of dinosaurs, embedded deep in human memory -- even beyond the handing down of stories through thousands of generations they became a kind of instinctive adversary [...]." I think this is by far the weirdest idea in the whole book. As far as I know, 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs went extinct, our ancestors were basically small tree-dwelling primates whose appearance reminds me largely of squirrels. I sure wonder how they managed to pass on, through not thousands but millions of generations, having neither the ability to speak nor to draw, and perhaps not even to form the very concept of a dinosaur or dragon or anything of the sort, this folk-memory of dinosaurs which then finally allowed, sixty-five million years later, the ancient homo sapiens to come up with all those dragon-legends of myth and folklore. Surely almost any other explanation would be more reasonable than this; perhaps they saw fossil remnants, either of dinosaurs or of some later large animal, and wrapped the few bones they saw in a thick layer of imagination to produce the dragon; or even more likely they saw snakes and lizards and figured that larger versions of these same animals might also conceivably exist, just as they believed e.g. in antropomorphic giants. Incidentally, the book contains many other speculative passages, usually prefixed by "perhaps" or something like that; but fortunately most of them are not nearly this bizarre. Anyway some speculation is to be excused in a book like this, for it is difficult to write about the beliefs and rituals of a culture that left only a moderate amount of written records, and whatever is left often lacks many details.

Anyway, the legendary dragons come in two varieties: drakes, which could fly, and wyrms, which could not and only crawled on the ground like snakes (p. 84).

The concept of wyrd seems to have been fairly important (p. 76). It is somewhat like fate or destiny but with the emphasis that the course of events is the outcome of natural processes and previous events rather than of a capricious Fate. Nevertheless a group of three Fate-like deities was known (the wyrd sisters, p. 177-179). An interesting idea is that of everything in the world being connected, but through many intricate ways which an individual cannot really follow through and see them all clearly at the same time; like the threads in a complicated woven tapestry (p. 179). This has supposedly also influenced the intricate patterns found in e.g. Anglo-Saxon jewellry (p. 221).

"The implication, and an intriguing one, is that life is a gift, or at least a `loan', and it forms a debt to which we are subject, and which we eventually honour with our life -- or rather, with our death. [...] The life we lead has with it a responsibility, as in something owed. To the earth?" (P. 183.) Although I can't really agree with this view of life the concept is certainly fascinating. It reminds me somewhat of Kafka; life as guilt, death as a punishment for it.

"Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices." (An early-twentieth century shaman, quoted on p. 201.)

"A fine pattern-welded sword could have taken a team of smiths weeks or months to produce." (P. 217.) The superstitious beliefs of iron and metalworking in general as somewhat supernatural and magical activities, with the corresponding high reputation of smiths and metallurgists, seems to have been as common here as in many other cultures (p. 218-220). "Dwarves were known for driving hard bargains for their magical smithwork, and to obtain the necklace, Freya slept with all four dwarves." (P. 219.) That's still three less than Snow White.

Mound burial going in and out of fashion, and in again and out again; p. 247.

Describing how pieces of wood inscribed with spells were inserted under a corpse's tongue: "we do not know whether rune staves could be similarly inserted under the tongue of a ghost raised from the dead" (p. 250). Some of us might we willing to hazard a guess, however.

"Historical research has revealed that, stretching from Old England to Scandinavia and across to western Europe, there arose about two thousand years ago a largely forgotten civilization which foreshadowed Tolkien's imagined world. [...] this culture, made up of many colourful early European tribes now identified under the umbrella terms of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse [...]." (Pp. 3-4.) I haven't thought of those areas and that period as having so much in common, culturally speaking. I am intrigued by the use of the term "civilization" here; I wonder if they really had so much coherence as to form a civilization, and if this is a suitable term at all for such a largely non-urban culture.

Incidentally, the book would also be interesting for people who are not familiar with or interested in Tolkien's works, as it only refers to them every now and then when it mentions in a few sentences how this or that concept from early medieval beliefs may have influenced this or that aspect of Tolkien's imaginary world.


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