10

In the letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldan, he wrote:

Also – and here I hope I shall not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its 'faerie' is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read

What did he mean that the legend of King Arthur was associated with Britain but not with English? Did he mean the English language? Did he mean King Arthur was not written in English originally?

  • 6
    He meant (essentially) that although the legend of Arthur was British, it was Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon in origin (its roots are Welsh, and the earliest version of it is in the Mabinogion); and Tolkien was always more interested in Germanic languages, literature, and story than in Celtic. – Matt Gutting Apr 2 '15 at 15:51
  • I did not study History so I do not know what is the difference between Celtic/Germanic/Anglo Saxon, I would try my best to read Wikipedia about their difference. It would help if you could elaborate as answer. Thanks. – lamwaiman1988 Apr 2 '15 at 16:08
  • 2
    Tolkien was a linguist first; since English is pretty young as languages go he may have been referring to the lack of legends written originally in/for/by native English-speaking peoples, as opposed to legends translated from other languages. – Joe L. Apr 2 '15 at 16:16
15

Being a philologist, Tolkien viewed Anglo-Saxon as the original source of English culture, and thus the correct source for any truly English mythology. It frustrated him that Anglo-Saxon mythology had essentially been obliterated by the Norman conquest. Of course, Tolkien appreciated the Arthur legends at a certain level--he even began an alliterative work called The Fall of Arthur that was recently published by his son. However, he knew that the King Arthur stories were not Anglo-Saxon, nor were they mythology proper (the specificity of the Christian references is one of the things that Tolkien--a Christian himself--believed prevented the Arthur stories from being true mythology).

The King Arthur stories have a Celtic ("British"), not an English ("Anglo-Saxon") origin. Presumably "Arthur" was based on a Celtic chieftain. The legends about him were developed in Wales, where Arthur had a close connection to the Otherworld of Welsh mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric, wrote the first "historical" account of Arthur. The stories were carried to Brittany, the Celtic region of France, from where they were picked up by the non-Breton French. Here Arthur's warriors turned into knights, and the Celtic Gawain was replaced by the French Lancelot du Lake as the foremost member of Arthur's court. The stories then made their way to England, where Thomas Mallory eventually put them into his famous Morte d'Arthur (still a French title).

The closest thing to an Anglo-Saxon Arthur story is a Middle English Death of King Arthur which was written in the alliterative Anglo-Saxon poetic style. But Tolkien considered it one of the weaker retellings of the Arthur story, not least because it presents Arthur as an emperor who spends most of the poem fighting the Roman Empire in France. That's certainly not the Arthur we normally imagine!

The "traditional English" King Arthur stories, as handed through Mallory, present an Arthur who is a creature of French romance, not English legend. Some modern fantasies have tried to present a more Celtic Arthur, but those stories did not exist at the time Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldan, and in any case would not have supplied England with the Anglo-Saxon mythology Tolkien was looking for.

  • I am no British and I do not understand why Tolkien thought Celtic myth is not British and why he thought Anglo-Saxon is British. – lamwaiman1988 Apr 6 '15 at 11:30
  • 3
    Great Britain was created in 1707 by the Act of Union, but Britain was named long before that for the Britons, the original Celtic inhabitants. (The Romans called it Britannia.) So historically speaking, Celts and Britons are the same thing, and Celtic myths can be called "British." The Britons were driven west into Wales and Cornwall by the Anglo-Saxon invasion, leaving to the Anglo-Saxons the part of Britain we now call England. Anglo-Saxon and English are closely aligned historically. King Arthur was created as a British/Celtic legend, not an Anglo-Saxon/English one. – E. J. Apr 6 '15 at 14:16
  • So although Tolkien is citizen of the United Kingdom, he thought he was Anglo-Saxon/English but not British/Celtic? – lamwaiman1988 Apr 8 '15 at 4:22
  • 4
    Basically, yes. Tolkien lived in England for most of his life--never in Wales or Cornwall. He also said that, aside from the long-dead German ancestor who had given him his last name, his relatives were all English. And of course, he spoke English as his native language, which meant a lot to Tolkien--language was his life. He loved the Welsh language, but linguistically speaking, Welsh and its associated legends are very different from Anglo-Saxon. Thanks to the Norman conquest of England, most Anglo-Saxon legends were lost, which genuinely grieved Tolkien. – E. J. Apr 9 '15 at 22:07
3

The English culture is descended from that of the Germanic Angles and Saxons and Jutes ("oh my!") who invaded Britain in the Fifth Century AD and eventually completed the conquest of Britain in 1282-83 AD.

Arthur was reportedly the leader of British resistance to the invading English ancestors sometime between about 450 and 550 AD. If Arthur and the other British leaders throughout the eight hundred year conquest period had been totally successful there would never have been an England. Thus legends and myths about Arthur are not English in the sense of being pro English and having English protagonists. They are anti English because Arthur fought to prevent England.

It is quite possible that Arthur's battle cry might have translated to "Die, English scum!"

Thus a patriotic Englishman fond of everything Anglo-Saxon might consider Arthurian myths and legends too anti English to be the basis of a national ENGLISH mythology, though just right for a national BRITISH mythology.

If Tolkien had felt more British and less English and Anglo-Saxon he might have written the greatest version of the Arthurian story ever.

  • But perfect for us Americans. ;) It's also worth pointing out that Tolkien originally wanted the story to end with an Anglo-Saxon sailor traveling to Elvenhome (off the coast of Valinor) which returns to Europe somehow and becomes England. Under this scenario the Elves would be associated more with the Celts, presumably. – Ber Oct 16 '16 at 10:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.