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Tolkien and Ireland April 8, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

By the by, a great post here by An Sionnach Fionn on Tolkien and Ireland. It’s difficult reading it not to get the sense that as Tolkien grew more familiar with Ireland his feelings towards it became more positive so that by the end perhaps a penny dropped and he realised that the Shire was in a sense closer to Ireland than anywhere else.

Something the map here sort of suggests! Though that was unintentional and he made it clear that the Shire was, if anywhere most likely positioned close to the heart of England.

“The action of the story takes place in the North-west of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. … If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.”[21]

Having read a lot of Irish myth, legend and fairy stories, I’m not entirely hostile to Tolkien’s description of them as ‘mad’. Certainly the ones towards the end of this volume mentioned here have some of those characteristics. Yet the same is true to an extent of many of the stories in the companion volume of English stories too. I think that that might be a function of an oral tradition (in both instances).

On a slight tangent, I’ve always been impressed by Tolkiens answer to those asking when in history the LOTR was set…

The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by enchantment of distance in time.(Letters, no. 183)


1. EWI - April 8, 2017

Tolkien isn’t the only bestselling Anglophile fantasy author to express racist anti-Irish views through analogues in his best-known works; Robert Jordan has done so as well (his ‘Andor’ is presented as naturally ruling both France-analogue Cairhien and Ireland-analogue Murandy).


WorldbyStorm - April 8, 2017

Is that though what Tolkien did? I can’t see any analogue of the Irish in the LOTR whatsoever. What he did seem to have was an ignorant aversion to Ireland until he actually went there. Given that he was a Catholic it might be interesting to parse that out. But it’s clear by the end of his life his attitude to Ireland was hugely positive.

I haven’t read Robert Jordan and given what you say i don’t think I will. Jack Vance’s Lyonesse is better as I recall but it’s been years since I read it.


ivorthorne - April 11, 2017

I can’t say you’re missing much by not reading the WOT WBS. There are enjoyable elements and I’m glad it was finished, but the bad outweighs the good.

Can’t say I remember noticing Murandy as an analogue for Ireland though EWI.

There’s a lot of fantasy I have not read, but I think that the only series that approaches Tolkien’s works with regard to depth of world-building is ASOIAF. Erickson’s Malazan series is enjoyable and has a complex plot but what Tolkien’s world and its mythology/history is probably more appealing and rewarding than the stories set in it.

ASOIAF probably surpasses Tolkien with respect to the subtle ways it tells us about the world’s history. What I thought were little shout-outs to other 1000 world tales actually seem to be more than that.


2. Dermot O Connor - April 8, 2017

Tolkien of course was obsessed with the idea of the Atlantean flooding (it was a recurring dream, and he was gobsmacked when one of his sons told him that he was having the same dream; father had never mentioned it to anyone). Anyway, in the ancient times that Tolkien was imagining, Ireland and GB were linked to europe a la middle Earth (making distinctions between them moot). Time Team did a really fun special about ‘Doggerland’ which you might enjoy if not already seen:

Liked by 1 person

3. Dermot O Connor - April 8, 2017

And on the subject of decline and fall, yesterday I stumbled across this fantastic saxon poem (probably 8th or 9th century, not much later) about the Roman ruins and their final collapse (jealous of wonks like Tolkien who could read this stuff in the original):


The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten up by age.
And grit holds in its grip, the hard embrace
Of earth, the dead-departed master-builders,
Until a hundred generations now
Of people have passed by. Often this wall
Stained red and grey with lichen has stood by
Surviving storms while kingdoms rose and fell.
And now the high curved wall itself has fallen.
The heart inspired, incited to swift action.
Resolute masons, skilled in rounded building
Wondrously linked the framework with iron bonds.
The public halls were bright, with lofty gables,
Bath-houses many; great the cheerful noise,
And many mead-halls filled with human pleasures.
Till mighty fate brought change upon it all.
Slaughter was widespread, pestilence was rife,
And death took all those valiant men away.
The martial halls became deserted places,
The cities crumbled, its repairers fell,
Its armies to the earth. And so these halls
Are empty, and this red curved roof now sheds
Its tiles, decay has brought it to the ground,
Smashed it to piles of rubble, where long since
A host of heroes, glorious, gold-adorned,
Gleaming in splendour, proud and flushed with wine,
Shone in their armour, gazed on gems and treasure,
On silver, riches, wealth and jewelry,
On this bright city with its wide domains.
Stone buildings stood, and the hot streams cast forth
Wide sprays of water, which a wall enclosed
In its bright compass, where convenient
Stood hot baths ready for them at the centre.
Hot streams poured forth over the clear grey stone,
To the round pool and down into the baths.

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sonofstan - April 9, 2017

You get the same theme of the passing of great cities towards the end of the Seafarer, possibly the finest poem in Anglo -Saxon. Some of the imagery is astonishing in its starkness- the breast as, literally, ‘the heart coffin’ the sea as the ‘whale road’ snow as the ‘coldest of grains’


4. lcox - April 9, 2017

I think the Celtic = Irish is overstated in the ASF post. Tolkien’s overt inspiration for the Shire is normally taken to be the west Midlands (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shire_(Middle-earth)#Inspiration) where his own family were from, ie the presently English side of the Welsh borders. The sense of living in a land from which the Elves had vanished and which had once been part of an older kingdom is modelled on Tolkien’s perspective on the Angles and Saxons (as in the poem above) – while his Sindarin is strongly influenced by Welsh.

This isn’t to deny the importance of Ireland in Tolkien’s imagining but it’s a mistake to assume that “Celtic” is primarily a synonym for “Irish”. In the mythological studies of the day (and of course for philologists) there was not only an awareness of “Goidelic” and “Brythonic” as coexisting branches of the Celtic language tree but also (in these islands) of Scots Gaelic, Cornish, Manx, Celtic placenames in present-day England and then Breton and the various remnants of pre-Latin Celtic in continental Europe. “The Celts” had once been (it was felt) everywhere (at least south and west of “Germanic” peoples) and then conquered by Rome and displaced in the Age of Migrations.

In retrospect what is maybe most interesting in this respect is the difficulty of fitting the world as imagined by reconstructionist cultural nationalists into present day realities: mines and seaside resorts in Wales or for that matter the intense industrialisation of the west Midlands (represented by Saruman and the miller) ran counter to a world that should have been one of elves and hobbits. Raymond Williams has written some good stuff about this in relation to Wales (in opposition to nationalists whose vision of Welshness excluded most actual Welsh people).

Something very similar happened in Asia where Orientalist scholars loved their reconstructed versions of e.g. Buddhism (based again on textual and archaeological scholarship) and felt that actual (colonised) Buddhists were a terrible disappointment.


An Sionnach Fionn - April 15, 2017

I agree with a lot of that, Icox. I wrote the quick Tolkien/Ireland piece on the fly a long time ago and I haven’t returned to it since. I keep promising people a rewrite to better articulate my views but finding the time is the problem. It was mostly a reaction to the Ireland = Middle-earth nonsense that was floating around the media at the time and in the end I didn’t even address that. DOH!

Yep, “Celtic” in terms of Tolkien’s influences is a lot more than Irish.

I will do a proper write-up in the next few weeks.

Liked by 1 person

lcox - April 15, 2017

Looking forward to it!


lcox - April 15, 2017

Hit reply too soon – meant to say thanks!


5. Starkadder - April 11, 2017

Speaking of famous fantasy writers and Ireland, Kurth Sprague’s book “T.H. White’s Troubled Heart” mentions that White has developed a “growing dislike of the Irish”, despite staying in this country to avoid taking part in WWII. In his journals White wrote this nasty passage “The Irish really are a foul race, and that’s all there is to be said about it.”

White gave vent to his negative feelings about this country in “The Elephant and The Kangeroo”, which so offended White’s hosts in Ireland, the McDonaghs, ” that the book’s publication generated a permanent rift between them.” (See the Laura Lambdin,& ‎Robert Thomas Lambdin “Encyclopedia of Arthurian Writers”).


Joe - April 15, 2017
6. Ramzi Nohra - November 18, 2017

Of relevance perhaps is Tolkien’s friendship with CA Lewis who defines himself as Irish.


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