Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tolkien and Archaeology

An old idea of mine is popping up independently in the heads of other scholars who aren't just musing about it but actually publishing studies -- on Tolkien and archaeology.

Said I in Swedish in the gaming mag Codex in October of 2001:
Just like everyone in Middle-earth is always ready to deliver a snatch of an old heroic lay, so Tolkien's landscape is full of ancient monuments. The Barrow Downs, Weathertop, Moria, Argonath and Amon Hen, Dunharrow and the Paths of the Dead; the examples are many. They contribute to an illusion that Middle-earth is much larger than the story we happen to be reading, much older; ourselves and the main characters of the narrative we're following are incidental figures and not a central condition for the existence of the world. The painting continues outside the frame, and behind the central figures we can make out a busy background of history.
Says Deborah Sabo of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey (Thanks to Beregond for the heads-up!):
"Tolkien ... imprinted the time-depth of his legendary world on the land, through place-names, ruins and monuments. [A]rcheological places provide the setting of many incidents within the book. ... Taken together, these places form a cultural landscape that is experienced by hobbits, dwarves, elves, men and orcs in distinctive ways."
Dr Dimitra Fimi of Cardiff wrote her PhD thesis on "The Creative Uses of Scholarly Knowledge in the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien". She will be teaching an on-line course titled "Exploring Tolkien: There and Back Again" starting on 12 February 2007.
"This on-line course will examine Tolkien's awareness of northern European mythologies and languages as well as other aspects of his scholarly background, such as anthropology and archaeology."
I've never gotten round myself to systematically identifying Tolkien's archaeological sources, but I do know there are at least two Swedish ones. Early Iron Age rock carvings of mounted warriors at Tegneby in Bohuslän show up among the goblins' cave art in The Father Christmas Letters. And Laketown in The Hobbit looks a lot like the 12th century AD pile dwelling in Lake Tingstäde on Gotland.

Actually, my studies of archaeology and neighbouring subjects have somewhat diminished my enjoyment of Tolkien. They have made the flaws, joints and white spots in his work apparent like they never were to me as a child. Middle-earth doesn't really work when seen from anthropological and economic viewpoints. And Tolkien's world-building makes heavy use of models and interpretations of real-world history that are no longer accepted by scholars. But still he's one of my great favourites.

Yesterday I sat down with my son and played the Gameboy version of The Two Towers, which is a really silly game. An Aragorn looking a lot like Viggo Mortensen was running around the western foothills of the Misty Mountains, killing orcs and collecting gems. A lot of the orcs were also carrying lembas travel bread, on such a scale that they must have had a captive Elven baker hidden somewhere. Abandoned sacks, crates and treasure chests dotted the landscape, and Viggo-Aragorn had to hit them with his sword for gems to appear. Still, my 8-year-old thinks the game is pretty OK, and unlike me he's a member of the target audience. I can always return to the books.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I've never understood why people apply anthropological or economic or political analysis to Middle-Earth. (The worst that I can recall was an essay, whose title escapes me, where the author wrote in great detail about how the Shire couldn't actually operate as it did.)
The Lord of the Rings is an epic poem, albeit in prose form. Do these same people try to analyze the Elder Eddas or the Iliad in the same fashion? (Actually, they probably do, now that I think on it.)
For most of the history of Middle-Earth, the majority of the world was ruled by a Lucifer-analogue or his chief lieutenant. The "free world" was dominated by immortal, unsleeping, virtually indestructible elves. Clearly, their economies are going to be a little different than ours!

Sorry to rant, just a pet peeve of mine. Your main point, about archeological inspirations of Tolkein, was quite interesting, never thought about it before. The ruins that dot the landscape definitely help foster the sense of age and loss that underpin the book.

11 December, 2006 21:45  
Blogger Martin said...

You are of course aware that you are arguing exactly the same point regarding LOTR as Tolkien himself argued regarding Beowulf, when he defended the poem against the nit-pickers in his "Monsters & Critics" lecture!

As Tolkien put it, the Beowulf poet "was telling of things already old and weighted with regret"...

The reason that nit-pickers study Tolkien the way they would never study Narnia or Harry Potter is, in my opinion, that Middle-earth comes very close to working in many respects. And so the temptation to test it from other viewpoints too is strong.

11 December, 2006 22:33  
Anonymous Lucy Jr said...

And then there is Tolkien and Paleoanthropology. I found the Flores Island "Hobbit" discovery exciting, and then the unfolding story started living up to its name. There was a Smaug-like Professor hoarding fossils, who became increasingly Gollum-like over possession of the Hobbit skull.
Individual researchers resembled Dwarfs, Elves and Wizards with old rivalries and passions. Factional warfare developed over interpretation of the find and possession of the skull, beneath a backdrop of misty mountains...

13 December, 2006 07:40  
Anonymous John said...

I find myself torn between the two perspectives. I want Tolkien's world to work as a world in a modern sense, and in fact my understanding is that he also felt the same way. In fact I think the authors of the ancient epics themselves felt the same way! But their perception of the reality of the world was just profoundly different from ours, and almost unreachable to us.

But Tolkien comes close, much closer I think than any other writer working in the Heroic Fantasy genre that Tolkien pretty much created. So in a way, even though Tolkien was a modern writer, judging his world by modern standards is unfair. But the temptation is hard to resist.

Here is an example. In the recent movies there are many examples of one of the heros being set upon by dozens of fearsome Orcs, and holding them all off single handedly. Normally when I see something like this happening in a movie my instinct is just to cringe! This is a total action movie cliche -- in reality no single fighter would stand a chance in such a situation. And yet in this case the movies were being true to the books. And beyond that, the books themselves were being true to the spirit of the ancient epics, where such things happen all the time.

So for me there is always this double consciousness when I am reading Tolkien. The new and the old are always competing with each other in my mind. I really don't get that with anyone else that I read.

21 December, 2006 17:41  
Blogger Martin said...

We should get Bill Gates to fund a program where kids are allowed to grow up entirely ignorant of the real world, but given access to all the great fantasy classics. That way, us jaded real-world types might know that someone at least was enjoying fantasy to the full. (-;

21 December, 2006 19:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John said:
"So for me there is always this double consciousness when I am reading Tolkien. The new and the old are always competing with each other in my mind. I really don't get that with anyone else that I read."

Susan R. Matthews does it for me. She has confessed in the past to a fondness for the old epics, and it shows in her work. For example, from her latest, Warring States:

"He knew perfectly well that he was ugly. He’d been born ugly, raised ugly by ugly in the middle of ugly’s eldest brother, and improved on ugly by acquiring appropriate decorations over time -- a by-now-permanently deformed nose, the scar tissue that had made it possible for the first time in his life for him to raise a single eyebrow because the other wasn’t working any more, and similar beauty marks too numerous to mention."

Her characters travel in spacecraft, but at least once in every novel someone is pondering an epic poem of some sort. One of her cultures (called Borderers at one point, I'm still waiting for the kilts to appear) pass on culture via epic songs called Weaves. By mixing Past, Present and Future, she creates alien environments that are still recognizable human.

But then. Isn't SF/Fanstasy at its core about 'What does it mean to be human...when you're traveling in a spaceship pondering epic poetry?' ;)

03 January, 2007 02:16  

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