- Original Sin in Heorot and Valinor
J.R.R. Tolkien used Germanic heroic elements in his fiction to great effect, but he was also personally deeply conflicted about their dual nature: Germanic1 heroism can be noble and defiant, but it is also often cruel and gruesome. Tolkien wanted to esteem the laudable aspects such as we find in Beowulf. He writes,
We do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting Grendel and the dragon. Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall. But Beowulf, I fancy, plays a larger part than is recognized in helping us esteem them.(M&C 17)
But he was deeply critical of the adverse aspects of Germanic heroism such as, for example, overmastering pride. If we look closely, we may observe this conflict in his characters and in the narrative structure of his fictional works, particularly in the fiery imagery and ruthless deeds of his pivotal character, Fëanor. It is those very negative heroic elements, such as Fëanor’s oath and the sin of the kin-slaying of the Teleri, that are critical to the structure the narrative framework. Indeed, Fëanor’s sin sets in motion the entire Germanic narrative cycle of Tolkien’s Elder Days. Furthermore, it is a sin that has precedents not only in Beowulf, where it is personified in the monster Grendel, but in the ancient Germanic world in general.
In this essay, I argue that, first, Tolkien’s concept of the hero rests on a coming-to-terms with the Germanic ethos; second, that the larger narrative structure is heroic; and third, that this structure sustains itself in cycles of cause and effect (which start with Fëanor’s particular Germanic Original Sin) from the ethical code of Germanic heroes in Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, and Old Norse fiction, subscribers to a code that we (following Tolkien) may call “Northern courage.” This ancient code found its expression in the poetry of the Germanic world, poetry that Harald Haferland describes thus: “Germanic heroic poetry—like all heroic poetry—tells of conflict and hostility, but its hero, oddly enough, is not a victorious one. On the contrary, he often must accept his own demise and the death of those close to him, and his heroism displays itself with decidedly greater clarity in demise than in victory” (Haferland 208). [End Page 109]
Tolkien wrote with admiration about Northern courage, stating that “one of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage, which is the great contribution of early Northern literature”; furthermore, “the fundamentally similar heroic temper of ancient England and Scandinavia cannot have been founded on (or perhaps rather, cannot have generated) mythologies divergent on this essential point” (B&C 20,21). Tolkien’s admiration, and his criticism, of Northern courage are key points to note as the phenomenon is the crux of the narrative of Tolkien’s fictional legendarium.
While the traits of Northern courage grew out of a pagan society, they themselves do not necessarily need to be pagan. Larry D. Benson argues that “most of the elements in Beowulf that once supplied arguments for its essential paganism—the function of wyrd, the emphasis on the comitatus, the duty of revenge—are now recognized not as pagan but as secular values that were easily incorporated into the framework of Anglo-Saxon Christianity” (193). They may even exist as Christian elements, as G. Ronald Murphy notes, “thus it seems that the private characteristics of a personality, the very attributes that the original describes as ‘to be filled with the Holy Spirit,’ came from other forces as well as from God. The Heliand author seems to have found a place for Fate and time2 (if not for Saxnot) within Christian theology” (34). Tolkien’s conflict, I believe, actually lies within the author himself. George Clark illustrates this problem for Tolkien very well when he states that
Tolkien knew and loved the literature that preserved the heroic ethos of the...