Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
Please forgive me what may be considered a distraction but I’ve literally just returned home from watching The Hobbit with my nine year old son and feel compelled to write. There we were, father and son, marvelling at Bilbo, the unlikely hero, with his dwarf companions, out on their journey that superficially was for treasure, but underneath was about honour and revenge, and above all about reclaiming a lost kingdom as the rightful heir to a throne.
And something inside of me clicked…
It’s obvious now I’m back in the light of my living room. It may be obvious to you, reading this. But I haven’t read Lord of the Rings for over twenty-five years and The Hobbit for even longer. The similarities between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the Middle Ages I’m currently reading, as well as the Northumbrian history I’ve just finished writing, are staggering.
And so, when Bilbo and his companions found swords in troll caves, which were later known to be the Elvish swords of legend, Orcrist and Glamdring, I found myself having this epiphany moment and needing to scribble some words down.
Question: what kind of writer has a pen in his pocket but no paper?
Answer: a stupid one.
And so, in the darkness of Screen 5, I scribbled a few words on my hands and watched the rest of the film, which was my son rightly described as “epic” and awesome.” Then, when I’d gone to relieve myself afterwards and was washing my hands in the brightness of the toilets an elderly man gave me a funny look and frowned at my ink covered hand. I nodded at him. Don’t most forty-something men have the words TOLKIEN, SPARE, GOLLUM AND HOME written on their hands in large capital letters these days?
‘Tolkien’ is obvious and refers to the need to do a little research upon arrival home.
‘Spare’ comes from the quote Gandalf said to a bashful Bilbo when he handed him a sword; “it takes a brave man to take a life but an even braver man to spare a life.”
The word ‘Gollum’ referred to the moment that Bilbo took Gandalf’s words to heart. Invisible because of the ring, he had the chance to kill Gollum, who would gladly have killed him, but he decided to spare the creature’s life instead.
The word ‘home’ meanwhile, refers to the point when Bilbo understood why he would be continuing on this adventure, however dangerous it was becoming. The dwarves were followers of the road, with no home. Later, he understood that this was the whole point of their quest; that they needed to find their home, their long lost kingdom that had been taken from them. They had no choice but to be on the road, until at last they could find their home once more. But with that life of travel, came adventure and danger, and the creation of tales that would last centuries to come. Echoes of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons here, except of course they weren’t seeking a kingdom that had once been theirs beforehand. And definite echoes of Prince Edwin and Prince Oswald, men like Thorin the Dwarf who had gathered a group of warriors and were prepared to put their lives at stake in a bid to recapture the throne that was rightfully theirs.
A little research shows Tolkien was inspired by early Germanic, especially Old English, literature, poetry and mythology. He was Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College, Oxford, when he wrote The Hobbit and he later admitted that the old English epic poem Beowulf was one of his most valued sources when it came to writing Lord of the Rings.
He also lived in a time of terrible warfare and uncertainty. During the First World War he was a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, where he came down with Trench Foot. When asked about his experiences he replied, “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression…by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Like Bede and St Cuthbert, the fact he was a devout catholic inspired him to write, something he acknowledged in later life. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” he said, “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. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
The writer Stratford Caldecott, has the following theological view on the Ring in Tolkien’s work and what it represents. “The Ring of Power exemplifies the dark magic of the corrupted will, the assertion of self in disobedience to God. It appears to give freedom, but its true function is to enslave the wearer to the Fallen Angel. It corrodes the human will of the wearer, rendering him increasingly “thin” and unreal; indeed, its gift of invisibility symbolises this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity. You could say the Ring is sin itself: tempting and seemingly harmless to begin with, increasingly hard to give up and corrupting in the long run.”
Of course if I had a ring of invisibility I’d be very tempted to wear it myself, whatever the consequences, and I’m guessing you would too. But maybe that’s the point. And so to finish off I decided to do a Google search for ‘Tolkien’ and ‘Northumbria’ and see what came up.
Here’s the findings:
The promo picture for the first Hobbit film (below) has Gandalf striding across the shire, but the backdrop is actually Northumberland’s Simonside Hills. So maybe Northumbria was subconsciously the inspiration behind Middle Earth after all.
This came from The Tolkien Society: “Scholars believe, on linguistic grounds, that the poem Beowulf took its present shape in the eighth century in England somewhere north of the Thames, in Mercia or Northumbria.
Also from The Tolkien Society: “In The Hobbit Tolkien introduces his readers to the use of Runes, a form of writing used across Northern Europe during the early Middle Ages – the time of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Tolkien adapts a few of the real signs and gives a key to translating them. Two of the most famous examples of the use of runes are both Christian in intention. The runes on the Franks Casket c. 700 AD form a border around a carving of the Coming of the Magi and mark the transitional stage between the pagan Norse beliefs and the conversion to Christianity. (Interruption by me: the Franks Casket, a whale bone chest, is Northumbrian in origin and is said to have been made at the monastery of Ripon). The second example is the Ruthwell Cross which was carved in the 8th century with runes that tell part of the story of The Dream of the Rood in the Northumbrian dialect.” The Community of St Cuthbert will undoubtedly have passed Ruthwell Cross on their journey back from Whithorn, so myself and Paul will be visiting there on our reconstruction of the journey in April 2013.
According to the website ‘Middle Earth and JRR Tolkien News and Articles’, the green fields of Calenardhon in Tolkien’s Middle Earth have been compared to the grasslands of Northumbria.
Okay, that last point wasn’t the strongest, but don’t worry, I’m leaving the best until last…
The Bookseller states a publisher has bought the world rights to Max Adams’ ‘The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria’, described as a “thrilling and rigorously researched recreation of the life of the seventh-century Northumbrian warrior-king who was the real-life inspiration for J R R Tolkien’s Aragorn.”
Some passages of The Hobbit were originally written in the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon to help Tolkien imagine events in non-modern languages.
Thank you and goodnight. I rest my case.