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  • The Real Middle-earth: Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Middle Ages, J.R.R. Tolkien, and “The Lord of the Rings,”
  • Brad Eden
The Real Middle-earth: Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Middle Ages, J.R.R. Tolkien, and “The Lord of the Rings,” by Brian Bates . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. viii, 292 pp. $24.95 (hardcover) ISBN 1403963193. [Previously published in the UK as The Real Middle-earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002. £18.99 (hardcover) ISBN 0283073535.]

There have been many books, both popular and scholarly, that have appeared (or proliferated) because of the recent popularity of The Lord of the Rings movies. Some of them are quite good, others are okay, and most don't deserve comment. Bates's book is perhaps one of the better ones, given that he attempts to provide sound explanations for much of Tolkien's inspiration and medieval sources for his novel. For those who are well versed in medieval history, religion, life, and culture, this book may almost seem like a "dummies" guide to Tolkien and the Middle Ages (yes, there is one of those that has come out recently as well), and yet the presentation by this author is much more scholarly, understandable, and historical than other books that I have recently perused on the topic. Being a medievalist myself, and a long-time admirer of Tolkien's works, I find Bates's book a step up from the "Dummies" guide currently available on this topic, and closer to a simplified, historical explanation of what many people commonly refer to as the "Dark Ages" in Britain.

The author has divided the book into seven major sections. Section 1, "Rediscovering the real Middle-earth," is comprised of four chapters discussing what the "real" Middle-earth was, the people that inhabited that world, how they lived, and the power associated with trees and the woods during the Dark Ages. Section 2, "The Doom of Dragons," has three chapters discussing the Roman occupation of Britain, the concept of dragons and the hoarding of gold, different types of dragons, and the story of Beowulf. Section 3, "The Enchanted Earth," contains Chapters 8-11 and deals with the various types of plants and other items that were believed to contain magical and mystical powers. In Section 4, "Magical Beasts," Bates explains some of the history of the Northumbrian royal conversion to Christianity while describing beasts such as ravens and crows as omen-bearers, as well as the concept of wyrd and destiny in Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon life. Section 5, "Wizards of Wyrd," contains [End Page 256] two chapters describing Norse mythology and the role of seeresses, women diviners, and trances. Section 6, "Dwarves, Giants and Monsters," discusses some of the medieval inspirations for Ents, the dwarves, the use of spells, and large spiders/monsters. Section 7, "Voyage to the Otherworld," is an extended description and explanation of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, specifically related to King Redwald's burial in seventh-century East Anglia.

There are extensive footnotes provided for each chapter, which indicate a more scholarly approach for this author's statements. There are also some very helpful historical maps of Dark Age Britain and the European continent given near the beginning of the book, and an extensive index at the back of the book. There is also an extended illustration/photo section in the middle of the book that shows some of the treasures found at Sutton Hoo.

Overall, this book provides a fairly simplified overview of the "Dark Ages" inspiration behind some of Tolkien's concepts and characters in his works. The author maintains a fairly laid-back presentation style throughout the book, often giving information in the first person and referring to his current location as he writes certain sections of the book (i.e., on page 245 at the start of chapter 21 where he says "I am sitting on top of King Redwald's burial mound"). The organization of the book is chaotic at times, moving from one subject to another fairly quickly, with no real attempt to link ideas and concepts for the...