Brian Bates, The Real Middle-earth (Palgrave MacMillan, 2003)
The Real Middle-earth is a reissue of a 2002 book from Sidgewick and Jackson. The author, Brian Bates, has a Ph.D. in psychology, is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, formerly of the University of Brighton, the author of a novel The Way of the Wyrd, and co-author with John Cleese of The Human Face, an exploration of psychoanalysis.
I had high hopes for this book, which describes itself as "exploring the magic and mystery of the middle ages, J. R. R. Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings. I settled down to read it with expectations that, alas, were dashed almost immediately upon opening it. This is a truly idiotic book. (If you're curious about Tolkien's authentically medieval inspiration for his imaginative constructs, then you might want to skip to the end of this review where I offer some suggestions about good books to read regarding the relationships between medieval literatures, myths, and cultures, and Tolkien's Middle-earth.) The book opens with a map of Western Europe, and includes some black and white photographs of places and artifacts. There is an index, though the book lacks end-notes, or a bibliography. The last few pages are a listing of sources, organized by chapters. Bates seems to lump the good in with the bad, and, unfortunately, relies almost exclusively on translations and secondary sources, many of which are less than scholarly.
By "the Real Middle-earth," Bates means the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Norse "colourful early European tribes" of the first millennium C.E. (4). Bates' constant references to "the Real Middle-earth" quickly become annoying. In fact Middle-earth, like the variants in other Germanic languages, is simply a reference to this earth, versus the worlds above and below; Middle-earth is the earth in the middle. Bates sees ordinary life in the middle ages, and hence "the Real Middle-earth" as "magical," not only in the sense that magic was perceived as a natural force but also in the sense of magic as a positive aspect of life, with the all the new age implications of fluff and fairy glitter one would expect an ostensibly scholarly book to avoid. He switches between languages and cultures frequently, lumping them together as "the Real Middle-earth," and finds no problem in asserting that the cultures of the first thousand years C.E. were apparently unchanging, and that Norse, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon were all much of a muchness, referring to them all simultaneously as "this culture" (4). The insertion of poorly integrated first person accounts of site visits between the "historical" analyses, is confusing, leaving the reader wondering what the link to Tolkien is, since most are described as personal spiritual revelations.
Bates presents these early European cultures as earth-worshipping, tree-hugging and spiritually vested in the land. In some ways, he's probably right, but only in a very limited fashion. According to Bates, "The people of Middle-earth, whether Celts, Anglo-Saxons, or Norse, all had a view of nature which we would call enchanted. They ascribed to the natural world a palpable energy called life-force" (9), a theory which smacks more of Obi-Wan Kenobi and George Lucas than it does of authentic Germanic and Celtic world-views. One of the reasons we know what the early English and Irish and Welsh and Norse ate and used and made is because they thoughtfully left huge middens filled with their garbage. We can see how individual species of plants and animals were consumed to the point of local extinction, to be replaced by another species, in a constant progression of consumption that we are still unfortunately enthusiastically pursuing today. We know about early European's metallurgy, as much from the artifacts, as from the slag heaps left behind. We know something of various ritual practices because of the burial of the dead, willing and unwilling, in graves laden with rich grave-goods, which he discusses, and in inhumations and bog-deposits a practice he discusses while largely managing to ignore the negative implications.
Bates spends almost an entire chapter, "Towers of Doom," discussing Roman ruins, and speculating about why abandoned Roman villas were not taken over by the Germanic speaking denizens of England. He concludes that it was for spiritual reasons, that: "The real connection with divine forces for these people was with more intimate spirit beings which were indivisible from natural phenomena like great oaks, running streams and wild animals. This is why the engineered environment of the Romans was rejected in favour of their own traditional timber buildings" (75).
This explanation of course ignores the Roman tendency to adopt local deities, and to associate spirits with particular trees, springs, and hills, not to mention the lares, the household gods. If he'd actually considered the standard layout of a Roman villa, with its central court yard, and its outbuildings for slaves, he'd have a clue. The Roman villa, in England and throughout Europe, is the center of a wealthy aristocrat's domain. It was designed for a wealthy owner supported by highly trained servants, freedman, and many slaves. Just keeping the furnaces stoked and the baths ready required constant supplies and attendants. The typical Anglo-Saxon social order was kinship-based, and though they too had slaves and various social function classes besides the aristocratic warriors featured in Old English poetry, Anglo-Saxon society was based on smaller family units within the greater "tribal" units. Individuals owed allegiance to a local leader or king (note that the root of "king" is cognate with "kin"), and farmed shared lands. The community often had a central hall, the place for gatherings and mead-sharing, with an open hearth. Open hearths require ventilation, and the Roman villas, heated by hypocausts and braziers, for the most part, wouldn't have met the requirements of a mead hall like Heorot in Beowulf, or Meduseld, the home of Theoden, King of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings edifices which were, by the way, just as "engineered" as Roman villas. What's more, the early English, like the early Irish, often moved an entire settlement when the forest was over-lumbered, or the game and fish over-hunted, the land over-farmed; this is much easier to do with timber structures than those made with stone, brick, tile, and plumbing and heating systems.
The historical naivete inThe Real Middle-earth is exceeded only by its linguistic lapses. Welsh, Irish and Continental Celtic practices, names, and texts are lumped together under the ubiquitous "Celtic" label, ignoring the fact that at least a thousand years separate Continental Celtic languages from Old Welsh. Bates asserts that "Runnymede," most closely associated with the Magna Carta, is Old English for the "Place of runes." In fact, it's Old English for "Counsel island meadow." Geographically, Runnymede is an area near the Thames with several marshy low lying islands. Old English run means "regular meeting," (the run for "secret" which gives us Modern English "runes," is a different word). Runnymede was a common location for meetings of the Witan, the governing council in King Alfred's era, long before the Magna Carta; it is, in short, a meeting place. To be fair, Bates is a psychologist, not a philologist but he could have researched the actual etymology relatively easily.
The chapter titled "The Seeress" begins "The languages of Middle-earth teemed with terms for magic like Eskimo languages famously do for varieties of snow" (186), an offensive urban myth that should ring false to anyone who has survived an undergraduate linguistics class in the last twenty years, or read even the most basic introductory linguistics survey. The author states that "in Ireland, the term for "seer" was filidh," when in fact filidh is the word for poets; poets often were, by their nature, seers, (filid is cognate with Welsh gweled "to see") but the word best translated as seer is fáith. Fedelm, the Irish seer whose prophesy for Queen Medb in the beginning of the Táin Bo Cúailnge Bates discusses, specifically identifies herself as a banfili, a "woman poet." After Fedelm says she can prophesy, Medb refers to Fedelm as a banfáith, a "woman prophet". The difference is perhaps not crucial, but the sloppiness here is indicative of the the book as a whole. There are other problems with the names of Irish deities and texts; for instance, Badb, one of the Mórrígna becomes, "Babd" (151).
The linguistic errors are perhaps less troubling than the book's underlying New Age assumptions about the values and historical practices of medieval cultures. As an example of this fictive reconstruction, in a discussion about runes Bates asserts that "They used runes as symbolic writing for the magical purposes of divination and spell-casting, and only in a limited fashion for naming or explaining things" (5). This in in fact the inverse of the truth; the association of runes with spell-casting is largely because they represented words, making them visible and portable, not because they were themselves powerful. In fact, runes were mostly used for mundane purposes, like property and grave markers, merchant tallies and identification, brief memos and messages, puns, and of course, graffiti.
Fine, you might be thinking, the author is neither a linguist nor a historian, but this book is about Tolkien, right? One would think so, but unfortunately, Bates is on even shakier ground in terms of Tolkien's Middle-earth. The connections to Tolkien are tenuous there is no discussion of Tolkien's background as a philologist and medievalist, and the references to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are few and far between, and more often than not, wrong. Bates describes an Anglo-Saxon house and implies that its turf-covered roof is the basis of the Hobbits' houses. In fact, as the opening lines of The Hobbit suggest and the subsequent references to smials and burrows confirm, the Hobbits of the Shire preferred to live under hills, much like the fairy hills and síd of Middle English and medieval Irish texts. Bates refers to Strider as "the Strider," (113) and the Lady Galadriel as "Queen Galadriel" (135). He asserts, in his discussion of Elves, that all of Tolkien's elves are "good," (103) conveniently ignoring Tolkien's references to the "Dark Elves" in The Silmarillion, indeed, ignoring the entire history of the Wars for the Silmarils, and the behavior of the Wood Elves in The Hobbit.
Given the paucity of actual references to Tolkien as a writer (there are none to Tolkien as scholar, though there are a few to "Tolkien's research") it seems readily apparent to me that The Real Middle-earth attempts to cash in on the current popularity of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Certainly the book fails to shed much light on Tolkien's relationship with medieval cultures and languages, even managing to imply that Tolkien merely retold medieval tales, when in truth he used a collection of motifs to build a new mythos and several languages.
Here's what Bates should have told you. Tolkien is still one of the preeminent scholars of Germanic medieval literature and philology, particularly those in Old and Middle English. He produced editions of texts in Old English and Middle English that are still the standard editions today. He almost single-handedly changed the nature of Beowulf scholarship through a persuasive 1936 lecture, later published, on "The Monsters and the Critics" a much better source for a study of the roles played by dragons and monsters in Old English than Bates' discussions of dragons and Ents. Tolkien drew on the languages and myths of Old English, Old Norse, Old German, Gothic, and Finnish (Bates completely ignores Finnish) and, to a lesser extent, Irish and Welsh (the Welsh language influenced him more than the myths) to create a new mythos. If you're interested in how these languages and myths influenced Tolkien, you might read Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, and Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth. Shippey is both a respected Anglo-Saxonist and a Tolkien scholar, much like Michael Drout, editor of the complete version of Tolkien's "The Monsters and the Critics" essay, Beowulf and the Critics. Leslie Ellen Jones in Myth & Middle-Earth: Exploring the Medieval Legends Behind J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings offers a survey of the Northern European and Celtic mythological and linguistic influences in Tolkien's work.
If you're curious about Anglo-Saxon architecture and daily life, you might
pay close attention to the insides and outsides of the buildings of Rohan in
Peter Jackson's film version of Tolkien's The Two Towers; Meduseld at
Edoras in particular is a dead ringer for the hall, Heorot, in Beowulf, with
the proviso that you should imagine the Equine motifs of Rohan are replaced
by a Stag motif; the horse, historically, was less thoroughly integrated into
Anglo-Saxon culture ... I simply must stop now. Avoid this book.