The Real Origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Middle-earth”

Most Old English poets were anonymous, and only a few are known by name. Cynewulf was one of them. The works definitively attributed to him are but four: Juliana; Elene; Fates of the Apostles; and The Ascension.

While the modern reader may need a little help to understand who Cynewulf was, I’m sure hardly anyone needs help with the name J.R.R. Tolkien. The great Mr. Tolkien: inventor of an entire world and language, father of the hobbit.

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But here’s the interesting part. It could be argued that a line from Cynewulf’s The Ascension sparked the entire body of Tolkien’s work. The line reads:

“Hail Earandel brightest of angels

Above middle-earth sent unto men.”

Anyone even slightly familiar with Tolkien’s work – heck, even anyone who’s seen one of the Lord of the Rings movies – can jump right on that inference. I mean, come on. Middle-earth? I think we’re seeing the parallel here.

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In Anglo-Saxon England, “Middle-Earth” (also known as “Midgard”) was the name for the world inhabited by, and known to humans. It was a remnant of early Germanic cosmology, and referred specifically to one of the Nine Worlds in Norse mythology.

After reading Cynewulf’s The Ascension, Tolkien said, “There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.”

While studying at Oxford, Tolkien developed a language that is known now as “Quenya.” Below is an example of the word Quenya written in Tolkien’s script, Tengwar.

Quenya_tengwar

Tolkien thought that the language of Quenya needed an internal history: “one spoken by elves, whom his character Eärendil meets during his journeys.” The next step was the “Lay of Eärendil,” a work composed of several poems describing Eärendil, his voyages, and the manner in which his ship was turned into a star.

Around 1914, Tolkien wrote a poem called “The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star,” published in The Book of Lost Tales 2. “Eärendil” means “lover of the sea” in Quenya.

But Eärendil was destined to become more than just a poem. Eärendil the Mariner is depicted in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion as a child of Men and Elves: a great seafarer who, upon his brow, carried the morning star across the sky.

Here is an illustration of Eärendil the Mariner with his wife Elwing in the form of a bird, drawn by Jenny Dolfen.

Jenny_Dolfen_-_Earendil_the_Mariner

According to the index of The Silmarillion, Eärendil was:

“Called ‘Halfelven’, ‘the Blessed’, ‘the Bright’, and ‘the Mariner’; son of Tuor and Idril Turgon’s daughter; escaped from the sack of Gondolin and wedded Elwing daughter of Dior at the Mouths of Sirion; sailed with her to Aman and pleaded for help against Morgoth; set to sail the skies in his ship Vingilot bearing the Silmaril that Beren and Lúthien brought out of Angband.”

Humphrey Carpenter (an English biographer, writer, and radio broadcaster) remarked in his biography of Tolkien that Eärendil “was in fact the beginning of Tolkien’s own mythology.”

So: Cynewulf’s poem spurred the creation of Eärendil the Mariner, and also of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the setting for his great works. The above line from The Ascension can be compared to a quote from Frodo Baggins’s in The Two Towers.

He says: “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” (Which means): “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!” In this case, Frodo’s exclamation was in reference to the “star-glass” he carried, which had been given to him by Galadriel, and which contained the light of Eärendil’s star, the Silmaril.

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23 thoughts on “The Real Origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Middle-earth”

  1. Excellently researched. The Norse element is very important as Tolkien translated the Icelandic Elder Edda which is one of the principle sources for our knowledge of Germanic/Norse mythology. Well worth reading as are the Icelandic sagas. The poem Voluspa is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You really shouldn’t encourage me. One of my passions and which I could bore you endlessly is medieval Icelandic literature. The Voluspa contains an interpolation with the names of the dwarves many of which you will find very familiar. It is also a rich source of norse cosmology covering as it does the beginning, the history and the ending of the world. In my post dreams of desire 23 I somewhat tenously link a lurid symbolist painting with Ragnarok, which is stretch even for me.

        Liked by 1 person

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