Review: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology by Simon Cook

Author: Simon Cook 
Format/Source: eBook/Author
Published: October 2014
Publisher: Ye Machine
Length: 49 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: Enjoyed Cook’s article on Tolkien fundamentalism
Read If You’re: A Tolkien fan, esp. one interested in how his mythology connects to English history
Quote: “Thus the two traditions of Ing identified by Chadwick are, for the first time in Tolkien’s writings, seamlessly integrated” (74%).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Back in the spring, Simon Cook published a short article, “On Tolkien Fundamentalism“,  at Tolkien Library. I enjoyed the article and posted a response, which Cook commented on. I was happy to engage in discussion, and so I was also happy accept an invitation to review his recently published essay, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology”.  The essay explores “how The Lord of the Rings arose as a conjectural reconstruction of the lost mythology of the English” (9%). Cook explores H.M. Chadwick’s understanding of ancient English history and how Tolkien’s mythology responds to those theories.

Until about 60% of the way through, I wondered what evidence exists to show Tolkien was very familiar with Chadwick, as I had not heard of him before. Early on, Cook notes that Tolkien would have studied Chadwick during his undergrad (24%), but given the extent of Cook’s discussion I expected more evidence of Tolkien’s engagement with Chadwick. Cook eventually points to the lecture notes published alongside Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf earlier this year (which I have not yet read) that demonstrate Tolkien’s familiarity with Chadwick (63%). So, if you’re like me and wondering if Cook’s argument has a solid foundation – it does! 

I was cautioned that the essay might be a tough read due to its scholarly nature. Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge for me – not quite because of its nature but because of its content. I think I may have got more out of the essay were I familiar with Chadwick’s work. This essay was my first encounter with him, though I am sure now it will not be my last. Regardless, I enjoyed the reading and feeling my brain working hard (it has missed critical thinking since I finished university). I made many highlights and notes to make sure I could keep on top of everything. A lot of groundwork is laid before reaching the final segment, “The Lord of the Rings”, in which Cook demonstrates how the central characters of that story relate back to the ancient English history about which Chadwick theorized. Following along carefully, I understood and appreciated Cook’s analysis and conclusion – what Chadwick argued, where Tolkien disagreed with him, and how the ancient stories influenced Tolkien’s mythology. The bulk of the essay was a lot of new information for me, but I had an “Aha!” moment of understanding as Cook tied everything together towards the end.  Cook successfully argues how (and why) Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for lost English mythology, partially in response to the ancient English ideas of Chadwick.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of little Englanders who depart their rustic homes in order to explore a wider, perilous world of ancient English tradition. (12%)

At the very heart of [Tolkien’s] project stands the passionate conviction that the stories of the ancient English could spark imaginative delight in the hearts and minds of a modern audience. (84%)

Part way through reading, I made a note – “it’s exciting to consider Tolkien in new ways (possibly not just me this time?)”, meaning I think there are fresh ideas here even for a more well-read Tolkien enthusiast than I. That Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for the mythology England ‘lost’ is part of the reason his work is so fascinating to me. It’s fiction, yes, but the historical roots make it so much more real.  This is an aspect of Tolkien’s work I really enjoy and I liked reading more about this connection between the mythology and English history. There is always so much to read about Tolkien’s mythology, I have trouble focusing on one topic, but this is an area I would love to delve into further one day. Of course, it might be helpful if I acquaint myself a bit further with English history… (that 6 credit course on the history of the English language can only get me so far).

The Bottom Line: For those unfamiliar with Chadwick, this essay may take some work to get through. I would like to read a bit more from Chadwick and then return to this essay. But, if you’re interested in how Tolkien’s mythology relates to English history, definitely give it a read.

Further Reading: