As is well known, the origins of Tolkien’s legendarium are bound up with a desire to dedicate a mythology to England. The present essay claims that an early engagement with Hector Munro Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation (1907) shaped Tolkien’s basic idea of what an English mythology might look like, and did so by pointing his gaze beyond the borders of England. It also argues that Chadwick’s book suggested to Tolkien some of the defining—and enduring—features of his English mythology. But it is further suggested that Tolkien’s reading of Chadwick was not uncritical, and that the connection between the former’s legendarium and the latter’s scholarship is not unidirectional. Chadwick provided Tolkien with a crucial literary resource; but Tolkien’s legendarium embodied a critical reappraisal of Chadwick’s methodological approach to Northern traditions.
Chadwick’s Origin was a turning point in Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Late-Victorian historians of England usually prefaced their account of the Anglo-Saxon settlements with a few remarks on the preconquest English. Drawing upon Roman sources, they sketched a picture of semi-nomadic barbarians but recently migrated from the East.1 Chadwick’s starting point was the recent archeological discovery that the Baltic coasts and islands had been home to sedentary agriculturists since the Stone Age. He further argued that the Romans had described the Germanic peoples on the Rhine and the Danube with whom they had come in contact, but that the Continental English belonged to a more northern maritime Teutonic world of which the Romans had little knowledge. The origins of the English nation, he insisted, were to be found through close readings of native English poems and traditions supplemented by early Scandinavian traditions.
Tolkien belonged to the first generation of students to cut their teeth on Chadwick’s Origin. His final examinations in Literis Anglicis (English) were taken in 1915, less than a decade after the publication of Chadwick’s book, and some of the questions he faced reflect the debate initiated by Chadwick’s groundbreaking arguments.2 Tolkien, we may be confident, read The Origin of the English Nation carefully and closely prior to his examinations. Nevertheless, Chadwick was a Cambridge scholar and his impact upon Anglo-Saxon scholarship in Oxford has perhaps not been fully appreciated. By turning to [End Page 59] Beowulf and Norse sagas, Chadwick brought the study of history and the reading of Northern literature into intimate contact. Tolkien, as is well known, would lodge some fierce protests against what he took to be an overemphasis upon historical or anthropological extraction at the expense of literary appreciation in the study of these texts. But his protest was premised upon a basic acceptance that this literature did indeed illuminate the obscure prehistory of the North. In his lectures on the Finn story found in both Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment, for example, Tolkien insists that the story of Finn is “central to, and embedded in, the complex and stirring events in the northern waters which led to the Germanic colonization of Britain” (Tolkien 12).3
The plan of the remainder of this essay is as follows. We begin by reviewing the interpretation of proto-English mythological traditions set out in Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation. It is then suggested that Tolkien’s undergraduate engagement with Chadwick’s book, having simmered away in the cauldron of his imagination during his war service on the Western Front, significantly shaped his conceptions of that body of more or less connected legend that he determined to dedicate to England. Two particular themes found in The Book of Lost Tales are connected with the Northern traditions reviewed by Chadwick: Tolkien’s conception of Eärendil as half-Elven is related to the ancient tradition that the earth goddess Nerthus took a mortal consort, while the shadowy figure of Ing contained in some of Tolkien’s early outlines for stories is shown to be derived from Chadwick’s book. The following section notes how Tolkien developed the idea of Elf-human marriage in the 1920s and explores how...