The Silent Valley

(Photograph depicts Todmorden, West Yorkshire. Photograph by Fay Godwin from Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes)

On the 2nd of September 1973 the English author and Anglo-Saxon scholar J.R.R Tolkein died. His fiction is often classified alongside other “fantasy” writers but this is unfair and demeaning to his true legacy and unique skill as a storyteller and myth maker.

He had a parallel career as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. His literary and academic life was dedicated to the revival of the ancient languages, legends and lore of England. However this was not merely an idle pastime, it was a serious endeavour of his, shaped by his devout Catholic faith and the trauma he experienced in the trenches of the First World War.

Tolkein was a veteran of the Somme and witnessed death and destruction on an almost industrial scale. He was like many young survivors, seeking meaning and purpose after a battle that defied comprehension and reason. He began an imaginary quest into the world of old England. His vision was mystic, focussing upon the pre-industrial environs of Birmingham where he spent most of his childhood. Birmingham used to be part of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. These ancient kingdoms had a moral and spiritual quality to them that was lost in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. After this cataclysmic event the country was on a mindless and soulless trajectory for progression at the expense of nature and humanity.

Myth, for Tolkein, had an essential truth. The ancient myth that trees were once animated and capable of walking amongst us is not just a supernatural vision. This myth is a profound metaphor, a way of describing the spiritual connection between the English people and the trees that surround them. It is also a pertinent allusion to the roots of the nation.

(Image- Big Belly Oak, situated in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. This is reportedly the oldest tree in England as it is believed to be 1100 years old).

Tolkein also reminded us that our traditions and stories need to be preserved for future generations. Every nation has its own foundation myths and England is no exception, we often speak of our pride in industrial innovation but we also need to honour the lives and achievements of our ancestors living before mechanisation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s