Saturday, 8 November 2014

Remembering Origins: "Tolkien's Lost English Mythology"

Some weeks back, just as I left on my tour of Scotland, I had the fortune of connecting with the wonderful Simon J. Cook, a particularly unique and insightful scholar, especially of Tolkien. He recently published the following book and you can find out more about him, his other work, and purchase the highly affordable book itself through the links below: 

Ye Machine - Simon J. Cook's Portfolio

Amazon -  (Don't be thrown by it's "Kindle Edition" listing, you can drop the Kindle app on any smartphone, tablet or PC and read it like any other ebook file).

Cook, Simon J. (2014-10-14). J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology. Ye Machine. Kindle Edition.

Book Description:

A path-breaking account of Tolkien’s Middle-earth as the lost world of ancient English mythology.
In this essay the award winning intellectual historian, Simon J. Cook, explores Tolkien’s lifelong project of reconstructing the ancient traditions of the North – myths and legends once at the heart of English culture but forgotten after the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the British Isles. Cook situates The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings in relation to Edwardian scholarship on the prehistory of Northern Europe and the origin of the English nation. Taking us through three key stages of his creative writing, Cook shows how Tolkien crafted stories that fit – and illuminate – our fragmentary knowledge of ancient English traditions. By the end of his essay, Aragorn, Arwen, and Frodo appear in a new light – no longer just icons of modern fantasy, but also the original heroes of a lost English mythology.

So, what did I think?

Tolkien stands as icon of fantasy and of Englishness. His Shire and the resident hobbits are just one of the few embodiments of English culture. Or are they?

Most scholarship on Tolkien focuses on his relationship with the land and the events he employed which lay the ground for the fantasy genre. Namely they are either concerned about physical evidence found in the lay of the land, as the Shire is a perfect copy of English countryside or they focus on the plot and character arcs filled with particular genre tropes made famous by Tolkien's groundwork, such as the Hero's Journey.

In J.R.R Tolkien's Lost English Mythology, the intellectual historian Simon J. Cook, focuses on not on how Tolkien is the forefather and inventor of fantasy, but how he is an archeologist of the origins of English culture. He merely is the medium through which England might be reacquainted with their lost cultural origins. Or so was the original intention.

This immediately makes Cook's book a worthwhile read since it seeks to explore ground which isn't particularly acknowledged in the sphere of Tolkien scholarship.

However, despite it most certainly being a unique and thereby, valuable addition to the compendium of Tolkien discourse, there is an undercurrent of apology, particularly in Cook's "Preface" in which he describes his research to be a mere "exercise," and he also insists this is not meant to be a definitive way of reading any of Tolkien's works, particularly The Lord of the Rings, when really, the purpose of all academic research and argument is to create a space to explore, compare and to most of all, look at things in different lights. 

Cook's discourse is most definitely that and despite the attitude of the beginning, it is evident Cook's awareness of his unique perspective does lend itself well to clearly walking readers through the step-ladder of influence which eventually led to Tolkien's works.

The exploration on how Tolkien's world of Middle Earth reconstructs the lost myths of the English begins with a heavy chapter on how the English viewed history in the mid-Victorian period. However the heaviness is no fault of Cook's as the period is rife with a convoluted chaos; each scholar and intellectual field of study seeking to rise over the other with an ultimate truth. 

What follows however is a much more straightforward and easy to connect section between a particular book, The Origin of the English Nation, by Hector Munro Chadwick which reaffirms Tolkien as a man many years ahead of his time of binaries, which allowed little room for history and heritage to overlap, let alone sit in the same subject together. Cook subsequently endeavours and succeeds at showing how Tolkien's bridging of the gap led to the beginnings of his Middle Earth saga.
In short, Tolkien was not writing just to make stories of faeries (Middle Earth's elves), or quaint English countryside but to hearken readers back to a matriarchal period of time when agriculture was more queen than king was war and thus, nothing was a faerie story, but a culture. 

Fresh revelation after revelation it is easy to get caught up in Cook's perspective and to eagerly re-read passage after passage, if only to re-live the amazed realisation of some new tidbit you had not made the connection to before. As an exemplar, the link between King Sheave, or Scyld Scefing, at the beginning of Beowulf, which calls forward the culture of corn on a distant island whence much of English myth originated according to Chadwick, of whom Tolkien builds his mythological framework, was particularly powerful. Thus a fabulous interconnection of all the elements which Cook has thus far carefully laid out, come to together at the end. 

Again however, it is made very evident how Cook's discourse will open the ground for new debates as all of which he discusses alludes more toward cultural history than chronological history. Yet, the chronological history is as much part of what Tolkien is attempting to bridge in terms of his engagement with Chadwick and his reconstruction. Particularly in terms of how Tolkien alludes to the passage of these stories from Middle Earth figures, to figures of English myth. Nonetheless, Cook in all his care, leaves little ground to fault him for not spending time clarifying this differentiation as even Tolkien convolutes the two. Furthermore, at heart, this book recants that Tolkien's stories are elaborate imaginations, influenced by his personal scholarship, in an effort to illuminate the reality of Arda, or Middle Earth, as a reconstruction of as much a chronological history as a cultural one.

Cook rounds out his discourse with a final word on Tolkien's true passion, language. This, however makes Cook's use of 'English' mythology unfortunately insufficient, as he notes most of the world now speaks English. It is in the language where culture flourishes. As such, that makes Tolkien's writings today, less of a geographically English story, and more of a story for the English language, meaning any speaker of it can connect. Thus it is less a story of the English people and more a story of English speakers.

Overall, Simon J. Cook has forged a new path of study for the future of Tolkien scholars, which not so much demands acceptance of his perspective, as much as offers it as a suggestion. The book sits as a small bite of delicacy which leads to one wishing for another bite. 

Though this delicacy is perhaps not easily accessible to the casual reader, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who hasn't dipped even lightly into Tolkien scholarship, it is a highly valuable addition to the never-ending discussion to the purpose, place and origin of Tolkien's mythology. To anyone who knows Tolkien like they know an old friend, this book reads like the discovery of an old family genealogy which reaches beyond time.

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