BBC invokes Tolkien with “1066: Battle for Middle Earth”

How do you promote history to masses of people who are losing interest in history? The Times Online suggests that using Hobbit actor Ian Holm as narrator helps spark interest. Young students watching a new historical documentary about the 1066 invasion drew inferences of Tolkien from the movie’s use of “orcs” and “elves”.

The obvious inclusion of “Middle Earth” in the two-part film’s title doesn’t make it more difficult to draw Tolkien inferences, either. Clearly the film’s producers — who staged battles similar to those of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies — are gaming the viewing audience in the hope of riding J.R.R. Tolkien’s coat-tails.

The documentary may help spark interest in Tolkien fan films such as “The Hunt for Gollum” and “Born of Hope” but it will also help reinforce some of the myths that have stood between Tolkien fans and a clear understanding of Tolkien’s work. Many readers wrongly infer that The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s self-proclaimed “mythology for England”, and they point to the obvious connections between the Rohirrim and Old English as proof for the claim.

Tolkien’s mythology for England was, in fact, The Book of Lost Tales, which his son Christopher published years after JRRT’s death in two volumes — the first two volumes in the 12-part History of Middle-earth. “But then Middle-earth must be England,” some people argue if The Book of Lost Tales was part of the history of Middle-earth.

There is no questiioning the legitimate debt that Middle-earth owes to The Book of Lost Tales, but the landscape and cultures of The Lord of the Rings are drawn mostly on non-English sources. Tolkien merged many elements of classic and modern historical periods and cultures to devise his Middle-earth cultures. He was, in a way, creating an “asterisk-Europe” the way philologists create “asterisk-words” to represent their research.

Tolkien was not saying so much, “This is the way I think it was before we had a historical record” as “this is a plausible depiction of what could have been before history” if certain things had happened: if there really were immortal Elves and long-lived Dwarves and flying dragons and embodied angels who struggled for control over the Earth.

Whereas The Book of Lost Tales is set in an imaginary prehistoric England, The Lord of the Rings is set in an imaginary prehistoric Europe with no direct connection to English geography or peoples. The Hobbits and the Shire, of course, are widely acknowledged as caricatures of late Victorian rural England — an identification Tolkien himself shared with his readers. Nonetheless the Shire is notEngland — neither historical nor prehistorical in any sense. The Shire is simply a region of one of Middle-earth’s continents, which is only figuratively identical to Europe.

But for the fannish Great Need To Know none of these facts and distinctions would matter one bit. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are rollicking good stories and millions of people read and reread them every year. One is tempted to say, “Who cares?” And yet, many people care. They care enough to tell their friends with solemn purpose that “this is England and these are the English people” and ladeedah dah dah.

The Great Need To Know has spawned much misinformation on many topics, because people who don’t actually know will nonetheless strive to share what they think they know with those whom they feel also want to know. At one level we are sharing insights, feelings, interpretations, and experiences. At another level we are making myths, creating stories to explain things in a way with which we are comfortable.

The BBC documentary about 1066 — while perhaps based on good research — has fallen prey to the myth-making aspect of The Great Need To Know. Educators and film-makers recognize that interest in historical topics is dropping off and they have resorted to making history look like fantasy in order to “dress it up”. In doing so, they have created an archival resource that will paint images of Orcs and Elves across Normans and Anglo-Saxons, obscuring “true” history under a veneer of modern cultural references.

Such an approach perhaps makes the subject more relevant to its audience, which is important in the art of story-telling, but the story itself becomes less relevant to the events it describes. In what Tolkien might have described as a “Homeric fashion” the BBC documentary has set about the task of creating a new mythology. And that the new mythology borrows from the Tolkien mythology, which was very much driven by the consequences of the 1066 invasion, is both ironic and perhaps a tribute to Tolkien’s success.

It was, according to esteemed scholars like Tom Shippey, the 1066 invasion which led to Tolkien’s dissatisfaction with English literature. He felt that all the real English stuff had pretty much been lost, wiped out by the Normans. Although “Beowulf” survived, it’s not so much an Old English poem as an old Germanic story set down in an Old English manuscript. The events of “Beowulf” and its characters are drawn from Scandinavian history and lore. There is certainly a strong connection between England and Scandinavia, a connection Tolkien acknowledged and exploited, but “Beowulf” is still not as fully English as some other poems and stories might have been.

We’ll never know because those ancient works have not survived.

But one must wonder what future generations will know, and think they know, as this generation continues to produce new stories and mythologies that bury the past more deeply in the human psyche. The story-telling must continue for that is how we share what we have learned, what we remember. But the slow evolutionary pace cannot be impeded. The need to change things, to “dress them up”, is too compelling. In another 100 years today’s documentary will seem old-fashioned and inaccurate because the mythologies will have moved on and left it behind.

Maybe 100 years from the Normans will be dressed up to look like Peter Jackson’s Orcs, because that will make history look more interesting to an otherwise unconcerned audience.

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