J.R.R Tolkien And Ireland
My first experience of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien was at the age of ten or eleven and through the imaginative classes of a teacher whose name has long since left me (Mister Richmond?) but whose influences have long remained behind. Every Friday morning for an hour or so he would read from Tolkien’s children’s book, The Hobbit, to a spell-struck room of otherwise unruly Irish school kids. A native of Belfast he breathed life into the storytelling with an actor’s vigour (he was also a talented artist) that kept us in rapt attention. As far as I remember he began reading to us at the start of the school term in a warm autumnal September until the tale reached its culmination at the Christmas break amidst a chill and blustery December. I have a distinct recollection of listening to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarfish companions and then going out with my friends to our lunchbreak, playing between the gale-driven curtains of sand on a beach which seemed to go on forever (my primary school was a vast, many-passaged Victorian pile on the edge of the sea, its playground the dunes and seashore that lay around. It’s now the site of kitsch Spanish-style holiday villas and apartments for Dublin’s would-be elites – or what’s left of them in these depressionary times).
Thus began a life-long love affair with the legendarium of Middle-earth and a world that in my youth felt as familiar to me as any earthly location. Coming from an Irish background, where legend and history seemed to be bound up with every field and hill, Tolkien’s tales were no different in tone from the stories my mother or teachers had to tell of “Old Ireland”. Celticness and Tolkienesque seemed an almost perfect match. Ironically as I grew older and read more I learned that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had begun life as a “mythology” for England: the desire of an English-parented immigrant born in British-ruled South Africa to give to his adopted English home a “national” tradition of myth comparable to that of the Greeks or Romans, the Scandinavians or Finns.
As I wrote back in 2010:
“With the publication his epic story ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (LTR) in the mid-1950s, or more correctly the success of the US editions in the 1960s, J.R.R. Tolkien became the Fantasy author, and LTR the Fantasy series, against which all others were measured. Everything that came before, and much that came after, fell into insignificance or obscurity. In fact there were earlier and arguably better works in the Fantasy genre than Tolkien’s, and others that drew upon the same sources of inspiration as he did and with similar or sometimes superior results. After all Tolkien’s original aim when he began writing his legendarium (as it is now styled) was to recreate a mythology for the English people to rival those found with their Scandinavian and German cousins, and to take its place amongst the Celtic, Finnish and Greek myths in the imagination and culture of late 19th and early 20th century European civilization.
Tolkien was in some senses an English nationalist, though largely not an imperialist, and he was in fact part of the same cultural movement of folk-consciousness and ethnicity that swept Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s, and that in Ireland led to the twin movements of the Gaelic Revival and the Celtic Renaissance (and eventual Revolution). Pádraig Mac Piarais and W.B. Yeats would have found much in common with Tolkien’s celebration of the multiplicity of European identities.
However for J.R.R. Tolkien the greatest problem was the lack of raw materials to build his English mythology upon. Writers in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany had a whole body of literature and folklore to draw from for inspiration in fiction, poetry and art. Similarly German, Danish, Finnish or Greek writers could likewise look to the past and find plenty of materials to inspire them. Unfortunately the English were not so lucky. The diverse nature of the Germanic immigrants to Romano-Celtic Britain (who in time were to become the English), the gradual conversion to Christianity, the Scandinavian-Danish invasions and conquests of the 10th and 11th centuries coupled with the Norman-French invasion and conquest of the 11th century, had rendered the idea of a distinctly English nation of England more of a modern political theory than a historic fact.
As Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman in 1951:
“I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story-the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.”
J.R.R. Tolkien then did not so much recreate but entirely invent a mythology for modern England, one drawn partly from the few scraps of legend that had survived amongst the English people but much more so from the mythologies of the Germanic near-relatives of the English, with borrowed bits and pieces from places as far apart as Germany and Iceland. Into this was thrown liberal doses of themes and ideas taken from Irish and Celtic Mythology (both of which Tolkien had a strange relationship with), as well as bits and pieces from Roman, Greek and Finnish myth (the latter of which had effected him deeply in his youth).
This was not the work of one year, or one decade, but a lifetime; the lifetime of one man who through his imagination became many. What started out as one thing grew into something quite different as Tolkien’s imagined past of England (and Western Europe) outgrew his original inspirations. The side-results of this were stories that gave birth to books like the ‘Hobbit’, the ‘Lord of the Rings’, and the whole Middle-earth cycle that we are now so familiar with. This, in part, accounts for the air of verisimilitude that hangs over all of Tolkien’s works. All those maps, all those annals, all those languages, were not created simply as literary devices – to sell a book. They were real; they existed because Tolkien created them to flesh out the imaginary legendary past the English people were to have and which he spent decades creating.”
Tolkien And Ireland
Being Irish, and an Irish Republican, it may seem somewhat incongruous to draw inspiration from the works of someone who was essentially an English nationalist writer. But it has never felt like that to me. For J.R.R. Tolkien, son of an English mother and father, was no different from that great Irish nationalist writer, son of an Irish mother and an English father, by the name of Pádraig Mac Piarais. Both began their experimentation with writing, and their love of the history and myths of their people, at the same time and in much the same way (and both “outsiders”, through a place of birth, parentage or religion, seeking acceptance?). But, whereas Tolkien became a respectable, almost establishment figure, Mac Piarais became a revolutionary, in every sense of the word and in every area of his life and ultimately paid the price for his beliefs – and in the process laid the foundations for the freedom of the greater part of his people and nation.
Many years later, much to my dismay, I learned of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “peculiar” opinions about Ireland and the Irish; including our language and the vast body of indigenous literature we inherited. Of course it wasn’t simply an anti-Irish bias or anything as straightforward as that. Tolkien expressed a general dislike for all things “Celtic”. But the more one read the more it became clear that by “Celtic” he very much meant Irish. Ironically of course Tolkien was not so adverse to the Irish “punt” (or pound) and spent many years working as an external examiner for various Irish universities, which meant numerous visits to Ireland in the period from 1949 to the mid 1960s (with occasional ad hoc holiday trips around our island nation too – though significantly not to the British Occupied North). However he never got over his very “English” view of Ireland, a view perhaps best described in Winston Churchill’s infamous summation of British attitudes to the people of Ireland: “We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English”.
Unlike Pádraig Mac Piarais, a man who progressed from a limited if cosmopolitan background to enjoy and celebrate all the cultures and ethnicities of contemporary Europe (including that of England), J.R.R. Tolkien remained very much man of his time and of his background. Though perhaps not an English nationalist in the sense of being a “Greater Englander” he carried with him the strange almost dualistic attraction and repulsion for the Irish borne by many English people of his era. Tolkien, a man conscious of the weight of “tradition” more so than most, would have been acutely aware that the Irish, more so than the French or even latterly the Germans, were the “traditional” enemies of the English since the English decided to make enemies of the Irish. Yet, as always with Tolkien, the paradox: he was a man who had at one time expressed some support for “Irish Home Rule” (or limited autonomy for Ireland within the then “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”).
Many writers, scholarly and otherwise, have drawn attention to the obvious “Celtic strain” in the stories of Middle-earth, particularly in the earliest strata of Tolkien’s self-made myths. While he himself pointed to several diverse sources for inspiration, notably the ancient mythological cycles of Scandinavia and Finland, he frequently denied any Celtic influences and railed against those who dared to point them out. Preoccupied with creating a supposedly genuine mythological tradition for England (or “of England” as Tolkien expert Tom Shippey rightly notes) it later became clear that no “contamination” from the Celtic World, much of which England had displaced or oppressed, could be acknowledged. Tolkien was painfully aware of his Roman Catholic faith in an England which was intensely anti-Catholic (particularly in the first half of the 20th century) and both he and his family experienced sectarian abuse at the hands of others. The United Kingdom as a whole was not just anti-Catholic in its general culture but in the very institutions of the state itself (Roman Catholics are still legally prevented from becoming the British head of state while in the early 2000s rumours that the then British prime minister Tony Blair was contemplating a conversion to Catholicism led to an outbreak of sectarian commentary in the British news media). A fear of “guilt by association” cannot have been entirely absent from his mind.
Just as the indigenous Arthurian stories of the Welsh were gradually appropriated and eventually rewritten as English legends of High Medieval chivalry for later 19th and 20th century audiences (and shorn of their “Celticness”) Tolkien borrowed heavily from the literatures of Ireland and Wales for his source materials, recasting them in a new form. It was a process he was readily familiar with from his study of Arthurian myths in Medieval English literature like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the “Celtic” influenced Sir Orfeo. In some of his earliest writings Welsh and Irish references were commonplace (in “foundation works” like The Book of Lost Tales and from many years later The Lost Road where the Tuatha Dé Danann, Fionntán, Maol Dúin, Tír na nÓg, Tír na mBeo and others peoples and places are mentioned as story ideas, as well as in poems like “Imram” – based on the Irish literary genre of the Iomramh); but as his own “myth-making” progressed and he became more earnest about his new “pre-history” of the English the acknowledgement of Celtic sources became subject to qualification. It’s a position best summed up by a significant exchange in a story from the Book of Lost Tales where a character proclaims that the English remember the true history of the Elves and the proto-Middle-earth while the Welsh and Irish tell “garbled” versions. Professor Tom Shippey is not the first to point out the obvious motivation behind those words.
Is this also related, in some way, to the Irish Revolution of 1916-1923? Certainly the seismic shift in the politics of Ireland and Britain resulting from the majority success of Ireland’s War of Independence sent disruptive ripples throughout the social and cultural life of both nations. At the stroke of a metaphorical pen the very real “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” ceased to exist. To be a Roman Catholic in Britain at this time, even a respectable middle class academic and veteran of the Great War, was to be regarded with some suspicion in establishment or populist circles (and so it remains to some extent). More than one British politician or journalist voiced opinions in the early 1920s that portrayed some English Catholics as a seditious “enemy within”, while England faced another stereotypical “enemy without” (though in fact many leading activists in the Irish Revolution were of mixed faith: Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and even Jewish).
This climate of anti-Irish prejudice was to be given renewed vigour in the mid 1930s and ’40s when relations between Ireland and Britain sank to a new post-independence low: first by the dismantling of the Irish-British Treaty of 1921 which originally brought hostilities between both nations to an end, then the destructive Economic War of 1932 to 1938, and finally Irish neutrality during World War II. It is doubtful that Tolkien was untouched by this, however cloistered he may have chosen to be in his academic world, not least with members of his own family and circle of friends and colleagues participating in the war effort.
Tolkien On Ireland And The Irish – In His Own Words
Though J.R.R. Tolkien professed on several occasions his preference for “Englishness” above or indeed instead of “Britishness” this did not mean he was isolated from the times he lived in. His interest in the myths and legends of Ireland eventually came to an end; but not before they left their indelible effect on his imagination. When later queried over the contradictions in his writings between obvious Celtic influences and publicly professed animosity to all things Celtic (or rather more specifically Irish) Tolkien did not always respond in the measured or thoughtful tones that characterised so much else of his correspondence. From his own letters we can judge his views on various Celtic and Irish matters. Like many contemporaries he seldom referred to Ireland as “Ireland” using instead the antiquated (and often British nationalistic) term of Southern Ireland or Éire (which, of course, is simply “Ireland” in the Irish language and the official name of the island nation in that language, which he must have surely been aware of).
The most relevant passages are these:
J.R.R. Tolkien, 16th December 1937: “…I shall certainly now hope one day to be able, or to be able to afford, to publish the Silmarillion! Your reader’s comment affords me delight. I am sorry the names split his eyes – personally I believe (and here believe I am a good judge) they are good, and a large part of the effect. They are coherent and consistent and made upon two related linguistic formulae, so that they achieve a reality not fully achieved to my feeling by other name-inventors (say Swift or Dunsany!). 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.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, c.18th March 1945: “As for larger work. Of course, my only real desire is to publish ‘The Silmarillion’:* which your reader, you may possibly remember, allowed to have a certain beauty, but of a ‘Celtic’ kind irritating to Anglo-Saxons.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 24th February 1950: “You may, perhaps, remember about that work, a long legendary of imaginary times in a ‘high style’, and full of Elves (of a sort). It was rejected on the advice of your reader many years ago. As far as my memory goes he allowed to it a kind of Celtic beauty intolerable to Anglo-Saxons in large doses. He was probably perfectly right and just. And you commented that it was a work to be drawn upon rather than published.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 30th June 1955: “I am very untravelled, though I know Wales, and have often been in Scotland (never north of the Tay), and know something of France, Belgium, and Ireland. I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, and am since last July actually a D. Litt. Of University College Dublin; but be it noted I first set foot in ‘Eire’ in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished, and find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien – though the latter (not the language) is attractive.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 21st October 1955: [Charles O’Donnell Memorial Lecture, University of Oxford, Britain] “…the years 1953 to 1955 have for me been filled with a great many tasks, and their burden has not been decreased by the long-delayed appearance of a large `work’ [the Lord of the Rings], if it can be called that, which contains, in the way of presentation that I find most natural, much of what I personally have received from the study of things Celtic. [Footnote] If I may once more refer to my work, the Lord of the Rings, in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modelled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical). This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 28th October 1958: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much. I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resons, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 30th August 1964: “[C.S. Lewis] …of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all. He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, though a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, September 1965: “I enjoyed my holiday (or high speed raid) in Ireland [Tolkien flew to Ireland with his son Christopher, in his first ever airplane trip], where I have a good many friends and am treated as sort of Irish-by-adoption, sealed by the possession of a Dublin degree. We had good weather: 1 damp day and half a wet morning is very little (even in a good year) out of 7 days in Ireland largely spent in the extreme west. But the country is much more expensive to ‘tour’ than it was, and something of its curious shabby, happy-go-lucky, tumbledown charm has gone. Motor-cars, (of course) the main agents of ruin, but within a few miles of Dublin motoring is still actually a pleasure: quick, safe, and often entirely unhindered.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, draft letter August 1967: “nazg: the word for ‘ring’ m the Black Speech. …it remains remarkable that nasc is the word for ‘ring’ in Gaelic (Irish: in Scottish usually written nasg). It also fits well in meaning, since it also means, and prob. originally meant, a bond, and can be used for an ‘obligation’. Nonetheless I only became aware, or again aware, of its existence recently in looking for something in a Gaelic dictionary. I have no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards, as a language, but it is of course of great historical and philological interest, and I have at various times studied it. (With alas! very little success.) It is thus probable that nazg is actually derived from it, and this short, hard and clear vocable, sticking out from what seems to me (an unloving alien) a mushy language, became lodged in some comer of my linguistic memory.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 1971: “Of course I was also delighted to hear about your walking tour in Ireland [Addressed to Tolkien’s grandson, George Christopher] although in fact you were a little further North than the parts which I know well of which the best are Galway, Clare and Cork. I am always happy when I am in Eire (except, of course, the North, where I have never been) and am now suffering from acute Eire-starvation, but I see no immediate chance of getting back there again.”
Taken together one would certainly be left with the impression that J.R.R. Tolkien had mixed feelings about Ireland, while acknowledging being a frequent visitor to the country. In fact he goes out of his way to stress that he didn’t visit Ireland until after the Lord of the Rings was written.
What made him emphasise his relative lack of empathy for certain aspects of Ireland and Irishness, and above all the Irish language, while elsewhere clearly expressing his fondness for the nation? And why note that the Lord of the Rings, the most public expression of his by then much-changed mythology for England, was completed before he ever set foot in the country? Perhaps he was already worried that enquiring readers and critics would see more of Ireland in his legendarium than they would of England? Or perhaps his views were even more complex than that?
The Infamous “Dialogue” Claim
In January 1980 the Journal of the American Tolkien Society, Minas Tirith Evening Star, published an article (“A Dialogue” Vol. 9 No. 2), detailing a conversation during a Tolkien seminar between George Sayer (writer and close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien), Humphrey Carpenter (Tolkien’s official biographer) and Dr. Clyde S. Kilby (American author and “Inklings” scholar) at Wheaton University, Illinois, USA, on the 29th of September 1979. The article was essentially a transcript of a recorded discussion between the three examining Tolkien’s life, works and attitudes. An anecdote detailing Tolkien’s apparent views on Ireland is the one that has drawn the most attention down through the years:
“Professor Sayer: I’ve gone for one or two walks with Tolkien, and he did talk to me about natural scenes he visited. One of the things I noticed, which surprised me from the start, was the way in which he regarded certain natural scenes as evil. This came up most strongly after he’d been examining in order — that is to say classifying students in an Irish University according to their achievements in the English language and literature. He described Ireland as a country naturally evil. He said he could feel evil coming from the earth, from the peat bogs, from the clumps of trees, even from the cliffs, and this evil was only held in check by the great devotion of the southern Irish to their religion. This was a very strange view, and was not one I could even have guessed.
Carpenter: I have nothing to add to that extremely illuminating reminiscence except that, to say that he was a very knowledgeable observer of the details of scenery…”
So did Tolkien’s alleged wariness of Ireland (and its language and at least some of its people) go further than mere envy for a country that had retained a “national tradition” that his own had long since abandoned? Driven by jealousy did Tolkien allow the anti-Irish prejudices of his English homeland to influence him? Or could all this have been something as simple as Tolkien the philologist and linguist resenting his claimed (and rather strange) inability to master the Irish language? And everything else stemmed from that?
Historic Parallels In The Lord Of The Rings
In the published Lord of the Rings there is certainly some echoes of the real world reflected in Tolkien’s imaginary version. One of the most debated peoples in Middle-earth are the Dunlendings, the Wild Men of Dunland, and the remnant of a once much more widespread race in Middle-earth. Generally presented in a disparaging light by the author they originally occupied the lands later possessed by the Rohirrim – principally the kingdom of Rohan – until displaced by the latter and driven into barren and desolate regions.
Interestingly Tolkien stated that the language of the Rohirrim was consciously modelled on Old English or Anglo-Saxon while that of the Dunlendings was given a distinctly “Celtic” feel. The analogies with the history of the island of Britain are all too obvious. The Germanic tribes who invaded 5th and 6th century Britain in the aftermath of the collapse of Roman rule in the country (and who eventually amalgamated to become the ancestors of the English) find a ready equivalent in the Rohirrim. Similarly the indigenous Celtic peoples of Britain (the ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish on one hand and the Scots on the other) driven from their lands into the so-called “Celtic Fringe” unfortunately correspond to the Dunlendings.
The analogy can be taken even further if one sees the original unwelcome rule of the Kingdom of Gondor over the native Dunlendings in a province the Gondorans called Calenardhon in a similar vein to the rule of the Roman Empire over much of the Celtic peoples of Britain in a province they called Britannia. When Gondoran power collapsed and withdrew from the region they settled the Rohirrim as allies in the lands they had vacated placing them over the indigenous “Wild Men” creating the kingdom of Rohan. The antecedents of the English made very similar claims for their right to be in Britain, invitees of the failing Roman Empire rather than alien invaders.
Is all this coincidence? Perhaps. However given J.R.R. Tolkien’s nature and his careful use of the mythologies and early histories of Western Europe for ideas it is unlikely that he was unaware of the obvious analogies here. We know that Tolkien sought inspiration for his artificial Elfish tongues in the Welsh language and took some effort to try and capture the look and feel of Welsh in the Sindarin form of Elvish speech. This was coupled with his well known support for the language in contemporary Britain (in one sense he rejected the characterisation of the English as “British”, seeing the Welsh as the true inheritors of the title. An extraordinarily generous attitude for someone of his background). So it would be unfair to characterise Tolkien as simply an anti-Celtic English chauvinist. Far from it.
Tolkien – An English Nationalist
Tolkien was no racist, despite the best efforts of some of his modern critics to portray him as such (some of which are hysterically puerile). Nor was he a British imperialist, as such. Undoubtedly he was an English nationalist. His lifetime’s work both academic and private was in some ways a celebration of Englishness. In the stories of Middle-earth he gave the people of England the mythology of their own that they lacked. However it eventually grew beyond him and beyond that simple original premise or impulse. It became a global mythology, something I think he perhaps later recognised. It was no longer simply the “Matter of England” but the property of readers across the globe.
Yet he remained, as he was born, a late Victorian gentleman of the British Empire. It shaped his views, his likes and dislikes in equal measure. That he could grow beyond them, that he could see England as an entity in its own right, free of the colonial possessions and peoples on whose suffering it had risen to the status of empire was itself remarkable. How far that truly went is now probably beyond recovery. Certainly we know Tolkien’s repeated disdain for the imperium he grew up in. However in large part it was because he felt it had eclipsed his true nation: England. In Tolkien’s eyes, for at least a period of his life, England was as much a prisoner of empire as Ireland.
For that reason J.R.R. Tolkien, the quintessential Englishman with his quintessential (and typically paradoxical) English views of Ireland and the Irish, will remain one of my favourite writers.