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Excavating Middle-earth Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Tom Shippey

Why has J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series so endured? Brian Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Brighton, believes the key is Middle-earth, a world created by Tolkien from the millennia-old civilizations of Northern Europe. Readers continue to respond to it because "it is the landscape of our deep imagination." In the new paperback The Real Middle Earth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004; $16.95), Bates brings together archaeology, history, and mythology to explore the attraction of the cultures that inspired Tolkien. But too often he exploits them for his main point-our putative spiritual decline.

The Real Middle Earth

Bates has found ancient analogs for the elves and the dwarves, for Beorn the were-bear and Aragorn's herbal magic. The hobbits' hole-dwellings may originate from Anglo-Saxon semisunken huts known as grubenhäuser, like those found at West Stow, Sussex; Celtic and Roman wells from all over Britain may have inspired the spiritual waters the elf-queen Galadriel controls; and both Boromir's funeral and the dwarves' smithing abilities are linked to the Sutton Hoo burial ship and its bounty of gold and silver artifacts.

But archaeological references hardly justify Bates's certainty that he knows how Anglo-Saxons, Celts, and the Norse thought and felt. "They thought of nature not only as an objective world," he writes, "but as also reaching internally." The landscape, he says, was animated by a sort of feng shui. But there is not much physical evidence for these assertions. The runes on weapons are believed to identify owners or makers, not "spirit beings." Ship burials set on fire by burning arrows are from Hollywood, not from real sites like Norway's Vendel or Nydam. And Bates has nothing to say about the grislier discoveries of Anglo-Saxon society, like the mass charnel-burial at Repton. As for concepts such as "shamanic consciousness," "sun- and moon-thinking," life-forces, and primal mysteries, these are sooner located in the late twentieth century than in the first, fifth, or tenth.

Tom Shippey is the author of Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America