04.12.24, Bates, The Real Middle Earth

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Alfred Siewers

The Medieval Review baj9928.0412.024


Bates, Brian. The Real Middle Earth: Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Middle Ages, J.R.R. Tolkein and "The Lord of the Rings". New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. ix, 292. ISBN: 1-4039-6319-3.

Reviewed by:
Alfred Siewers
Bucknell University

The basic problem with The Real Middle-Earth starts and ends with it taking its title too seriously: It seeks to be a revelatory if popular volume on both Tolkienian and medieval studies and falls short on both scores. Here the term "Middle-Earth" references not only J.R.R. Tolkien's literary creation but also early medieval northwestern Europe, lumping together Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic cultures in an unspecified pre-Christian idyllic era (which nonetheless unexplainedly appears mostly in Christian literatures), and also the nature of the earth itself as we experience it today. Such New Age revisionism would be OK if adequately labeled and kept out of the hands of undergraduates working on research papers for medieval history, literature, or religion courses. However the "real" label, reminiscent of the ''Real Thing'' advertising slogan, is taken much too earnestly by the author, and we are left with observations such as this on a homeogeneously portrayed early medieval pagan spirituality: "The strings and strands of the sun and moon were intertwined inextricably with the strings and strands of our personal lives, forming our own unique patterns as our lives unfold.

Each individual life-form is a kind of energy knot, or interlock, in the overall vibrating pattern" (183-84). Such comments throughout the book illustrate a tendency to comment (at times admittedly insightfully or even poetically) on what could be called cosmic emphases of early medieval Christian cultures, and drawing out what could be called self-help lessons from the same, based paradoxically on purportedly pagan content. It is at its best when seeking to relate experientially the author's own insights with early traditions and various archaeological and natural landscapes in England, but wallows in bogs of generalization.

Medieval studies can always use efforts to establish more experiential relevance of materials for students and readers and researchers alike. Yet it is the "truth claim," beginning with the title, that makes the tone unnecessarily cloying, even smarmy, at times. This is all the more ironic given that the book appears aimed at part at subverting homogenized Western perceptions of early paganism in light of Christian truth-claims (notions which, however, have been so long subverted that such efforts are, culturally, more-than-yesterday's news). In the process it sets up a new form of homogenized truth: that of the pagan "real Middle-Earth" that stretches vaguely from early Irish texts to high-medieval Old Icelandic poetry and narrative, somehow eluding the Christian literary cultures that committed almost all the sources for this Atlantean-like vanished pagan culture to writing. At the same time, the author makes little or no effort to engage meaningfully with his other purported primary subject matter, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, in the sense of Tolkien's own declaration (supported by work in the recently growing academic field of Tolkien Studies) that The Lord of the Rings was at base a "Catholic book," related to an ecclesiastical tradition with roots in the time period that the Real Middle-Earth claims to focus upon.

Take as an example of the author's selective use of evidence, the section of the book on "Magical Beasts" and the chapter on "The Raven's Omen.'' Bates here discusses the importance of birds as spirit-messengers in his purportedly historical Real Middle-Earth. A central piece of evidence he uses from early texts is the figure of King Edwin in his telling of the latter's encounter with a crow as described in the Whitby Life of St. Gregory the Great. In that account, as recounted by Bates, a crow appears and caws ominously to Edwin, thus foreshadowing, it is implied, the way in which Edwin, who has converted to Christianity, will be slain by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, with Edwin's royal center at Yeavering being abandoned as a result. It is noted as an aside, however, that the "Christian slant" of the text has as its point that the priest-missionary Paulinus had the crow slain to demonstrate that the bird did not know enough to predict its own death. Bates also does admit that it is not known how much longer after the alleged incident it was before Edwin was killed. The discussion follows the story of the conversion of Edwin, based on Bede's account, leaving out its most famous bird figure, the image of the sparrow in the great hall. An adviser to the king, in deciding to follow the lead of the chief pagan priest in converting to Christianity, according to Bede, tells of how human life is like a sparrow flying through the hall--where it comes from and where it goes being a mystery to those inside. By leaving out that well-known example in his recounting of the story of Edwin's conversion amid a discussion of birds and spirituality, Bates not only demonstrates an anti-Christian slant to his own account, but also misses an opportunity to discuss the creative ways in which pagan and Christian traditions engaged during the period in the British Isles. He does not even refer to Tolkien's own treatment of crows in his fantasy epic, in which the "Crebain" are spies for the forces of evil, practically demonic in nature, and not fitting Bates' apparently neopagan view in this section of birds as spirit-messengers.

In a more nuanced account, perhaps Paulinus' contract on the crow in the Edwin story could have been contrasted with early Irish and Welsh traditions of the relations between saints and animals, such as the miracle of the horse that is suddenly slain and then resurrected by St. Patrick, the relation between St. Melangell of Wales, St. Brigit of Kildare, and St. Kevin of Glendalough with animals in medieval traditions, or, extending beyond animals to plants (as Bates does in other chapters) to the persistent tradition of sacred trees at Irish Christian sites. Bates elsewhere in the book also misses the opportunity to explore fully the possible relation between tree imagery in retro-pagan traditions such as the later-recorded Norse world tree Yggdrasil and the Christian cross in the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, or the portrayal of human and animal figures in visual early Insular art such as The Book of Kells.

And when he goes on after the section on birds to describe shape-shifting as a pagan tradition in the "real Middle-Earth", repressed by Christianity, he does not discuss how descriptions of shape-shifting in early texts occur often in Christian contexts, including the story of St. Patrick and his retinue changing into the form of deer to escape persecution, the shape-shifting Taliesin's description of himself in Christian terms, and the ways in which metamorphosis would have been a topic of interest to early incarnational Christian traditions in which the Transfiguration, the Eucharist, and the Incarnation itself were all seen as literal events with cosmic significance.

Throughout there is also an under-emphasis on Celtic traditions, which is ironic because these are both better-attested and arguably more "indigenous" than the sparser record of Anglo-Saxon traditions that are purportedly pagan. Recent scholarship by Celticists such as John Carey and Kim McCone on the Christian framework of early Irish secular literature, with its famous otherworldly tales of supposedly pagan provenance, is likewise not discussed. And the fact that basically all such traditions were written down as a part of Christian literatures is virtually ignored.

The author has done extensive homework, with a large number of sources listed in the back of the book ranging eclectically from Hope-Taylor's report on Yeavering to Marija Gimbutas' books on Neolithic goddess worship. Sections of the book can stand as a popularized index or summary of aspects of Insular medieval beliefs. Some of his observations are fresh and thought-provoking, as when he draws an analogy between what is known of the Germanic concept of "wyrd" and the Chinese religious-medical "chi" (although this discussion would have benefited from interaction with Paul Bauschatz's scholarship on "wyrd"). However the problem is that Bates, as a modern psychologist whose teaching subjects include Shamanic Consciousness, while professing respect for indigenous religious traditions is, in the work as a whole, not respecting the medieval traditions he is writing about enough to appreciate more humbly the real complexity of the relationship between Christianity (itself including a diversity of literary emphases in the period) and various pagan cultures, as well as the necessary limits to knowledge of such traditions by any person operating within an essentially modern framework--in experiential as well as more abstractly intellectual terms. Case in point: when the pagan Anglo-Saxons came to Britain, the indigenous culture was probably to a significant extent Christian, based on recent revisionist scholarship. And while there undoubtedly were analogues between Celtic and Germanic paganism, these were filtered through Christian literacy (and also, at least as noted by earlier Roman observers, exhibiting some differences, at least in terms of the existence of a druidic class among tribes identified as Celtic while Germanic peoples were described in their spirituality as focused on sacred kings).

Reading enough to be informed on issues such as revisionist views of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, Bates still has not made a real effort to engage critically with current scholarship, often seeming to rely on the authority of his own 21st-century spiritual experience to make up for gaps in his own knowledge, and many of his scholarly sources are somewhat outdated and tangential to current scholarly debate. Controversy over Gimbutas' interpretations for example, is not mentioned. While Bates' book is unlikely to be featured on Fox News, it in its own way reflects the same kind of "fair and balanced" canard when it claims to be anything more than experiential personal reflections on early texts by a wide-ranging reader and apparent practitioner of shamanism.

Efforts to reconstruct and reimagine early traditions in a New Age framework can be successful on their own terms (such as Marion Zimmer Bradley's enormously popular if non-historical Mists of Avalon, which like some other fantasy books has become for some young people, like Tolkien's works, a gateway drug of sorts to earlier literature) when honestly carried out as imaginative reconstruction rather than attached to the kind of "truth claim" they otherwise deride. Tolkien's fiction, clearly within a fantasy framework, remains such the premiere bridge between modern popular fiction and medieval literature because it is so strongly based in his own medieval scholarship, together with his experiential involvement in the traditions he studied, through his capacity for engaging with mythological material within the context of his faith.

The real pity here involves the resources and energy put into any popular book project such as this, with such unhappily mixed results, because it wasted an opportunity to explore genuinely fascinating issues of relations between pagan traditions and Christianity in the early-medieval Insular world. As Durham patristic scholar Andrew Louth and others note, there was arguably a watershed (though not always sharply defined) between early and late medieval cultural intellectual emphases in the West, in terms of attitudes toward nature and the body. However, the earlier period's tendency to view the body (and by extension physical nature) as a microcosm of a cosmic whole developed within a Christian context, as much as did later tendencies pointing toward modern secular Western views of nature as object. Here we are left with a book that, while decrying purportedly Christian-imposed binaries, ends up establishing its own binarizing of "Christian versus pagan," thus reflecting our own 21st-century Western "culture wars'' rather than taking advantage of a rare chance to bridge them through scholarship. And while implicitly critiquing the modern West's consumer worldview toward nature, it in effect reflects that worldview in its own smorgasbord approach to human traditions. Lest this reviewer become too self-righteous, however, the book's very presence (presumably filling a vacuum of sorts) can also be taken as a legitimate critique of our own profession, reminding us all of the need for scholars to address more effectively and accessibly popular concerns and interests in the Middle Ages, when possible on an experiential though substantive level.

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Author Biography

Alfred Siewers

Bucknell University