Nostalgia, Anglo-Saxon poetry and JRR Tolkien’s world view

anglo-saxon brooch

The common thread that runs through Anglo-Saxon poetry like the golden coils of a Sutton Hoo serpent is the nostalgic pain of longing for lost things. Again and again the same phrases are spoken in ‘Beowulf’ and in poems like ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Wanderer’. It feels as if one were a direct source for another and they may well have been if the poets were familiar with other works and created variations on a common theme of loss on a heroic scale through generations of oral transmission, weaving one passage into another over time.

Reading these works we almost get a sense that the Anglo-Saxons were fixated by the imagery of hardship and loss. Whether it be the exile of the sea or the abandonment of old age; the longing for the mead hall in days gone by pervades their poetry and the imagery is poignant and beautiful and intensely moving.

In the Sea-Farer we feel the bitterness of old age:

‘The days have departed, all the presumption
of earthly rule—there are no longer
the kings or kaisers or the gold-givers such as there were,
when they performed the greatest glories among them
and dwelt in the most sovereign reputation.
Crumbled are all these glories, their joys have departed.
The weaker abide and keep hold of the world,
brooking it by their busyness. The fruits are brought low.
The glory of the earth elders and withers,
as now do all men throughout middle-earth:
old age overtakes him, blanching his face—
the grey haired grieve. He knows his olden friend,
the noble child, was given up to the ground.’

There is an element of Viking culture here, better to die young in the prime of your life, cut down in the pursuit of glory and fame than to suffer the slights of old age and wither away, the last of your generation and live to see a smaller, less glorious age of men. This speaks of the shared ‘hero culture’ of the Germanic peoples which found expression in the Anglo-Saxon mead hall and war-band, through the bond of comitatus, as it did in the warrior culture of the Vikings to the north.

“Where has the horse gone? Where is the man? Where is the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas the bright goblet! Alas the mailed warrior!
Alas the pride of princes! How the time has passed,
it grows dark beneath the night-helm, as if it never was!

This passage from The Wanderer re-phrases the same sentiment of loss and memory for those who have departed middle-earth and left one behind to bear witness to the past. This was, after all, the function of the Scop in Anglo-Saxon society – to be the conduit of culture and memory, to bear witness in poetic form to the deeds of great men and keep their fame alive long after they were mouldering in their barrows or consigned to the flames of their funeral pyres. The poetic voice speaks so clear and true because it is the voice of the Scop, redolent with prophetic vision and doomed to carry the folk memory of their people in their heads.

The listing of symbolic images is a commonly shared device in this poetry which emphasizes all that is lost. Gold or precious objects such as cups go hand in hand with armour, weapons and other status objects which carry a weight beyond their actual, physical presence. These are symbols for the lost world because each one re-inforces the other.

The cup or the golden objects represent the wealth of the lord’s hall, his success in battle and alliances. They are the physical objects which bear out his ability to be a ‘good cycinga’ to his people. The lord as the ring-giver, the wealth provider, the strong central leader who keeps the people safe from their enemies and distributes land, armour and objects in the symbiotic relationship between ruler and his thanes. They return loyalty, service and love to their lord, making the community strong and secure.

VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

Brooch detail

The nostaglic pain over the armour is even deeper. The mail shirts, the shield, the sword and the great battle helm speak deeply to the one left behind because they embody the glory of past victories, they stood with the war-band in the days of greatest peril. Rather than being practical objects which were owned and put on when the need arose, they are almost separate ‘personalities’ who share in the experience of warfare. They represent the bonds of brotherhood on the field of battle, the glory of courage and ancestral spirit, handed down from generation to generation along with the genetics of bravery in the face of death and the nerve to stand your ground and go hand in hand with the deeply held belief in ‘wyrd’ or fate which was carried in the Anglo-Saxon DNA.

sutton hoo helm

We can see how legends grow up around armour and swords in particular during this period due to the nature of warrior culture and particularly the poetic expression of a heroic, warrior creed. If fame is dependent on personal courage and winning victory by strength of arms then the sword which deals the fatal blow takes on a personality and character of its own. In an arms race between tribes with varying access to new technology from the East the strength of your sword and the legend that grows up around it has huge symbolic power against your enemies and among your friends alike. The power of the sword takes on magical qualities and we see this is myth-making throughout this period from the earliest Arthurian legends of Excaliber, through Naegling, Joyeuse and the mighty Ulfberht Viking blades, forged with the bones of animals and ancestors, into later literature and Tolkien’s Narzil and Anduril.


Indeed Tolkien’s works are also suffused with the same sense of loss and regret. The passing of the Elves is hugely symbolic. It is a metaphor for the end of a golden age that lasted for thousands of years and which can never be seen again on Middle Earth. In human culture, Tolkien takes up this theme in the ruination of the ancient kingdom of Gondor and the end of the line of kings, in the fallen stonework in Ithilien and most particularly in the person of Theoden King.

Theoden becomes a symbol of kingly wisdom, concern for his people and ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of mankind. In this poem about the culture of Rohan, Tolkien pays tribute to the Anglo-Saxon poets more than any other:

‘Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?’

Rohan is a old culture, full of tradition and custom and deeply rooted in the symbolism and spirit of the horse-lords but it is under the threat of extinction from dark forces. Theoden has been bound by dark magic and so reduced that he can not even recognize his own kin but he is redeemed by the white magic of the wizard Gandalf in order to lead his people in their hour of greatest need. There is an Arthurian undertone to this, ‘the once and future king’, who will return to his people and lead them against their greatest enemy with the help of Merlin’s magic. There is also a deep vein of sacrifice in Theoden’s journey. In order to fulfil his destiny and be worthy of lying with the great kings of old he must lay down his life for his people and spend his old age, not in the peace of his hall at Meduseld, but on horseback and in armour. Theoden has doubts and fears, he suffers and grieves and sometimes fails to listen to good council but he is brave and true-hearted and he dies honourably in battle. There are also comparisons to be drawn with Beowulf’s last stand against the dragon. Like Theoden he has ruled his people for many years, he is respected and loved. He must summon up his old heroic courage to meet his doom and like Theoden he has one companion who faces his final nemesis with him in loyalty and love. Beowulf finds his ‘brother-in-peril’ in Wiglaf and Theoden discovers that it is his niece Eowyn, disguised as Durnhelm who stands between him and the Nazgul.

Returning to the Ango-Saxon poetry which inspired Tolkien ‘The Wanderer’ continues:

‘Therefore he knows who must long forgo
the counsels of beloved lord,
when sleep and sorrow both together
often constrain the miserable loner,
it seems to him in his mind that he embraces
and kisses his lord, and lays both hands and head
on his knee, just as he sometimes
in the days of old delighted in the gift-throne.
Then he soon wakes up, a friendless man,
seeing before him the fallow waves,
the sea-birds bathing, fanning their feathers,
ice and snow falling down, mixed with hail.

Then the hurt of the heart will be heavier,
painful after the beloved. Sorrow will be renewed.
Whenever the memory of kin pervades his mind,
he greets them joyfully, eagerly looking them up and down,
the companions of men—
they always swim away.
The spirits of seabirds do not bring many
familiar voices there. Cares will be renewed
for him who must very frequently send
his weary soul over the binding of the waves.’

anglo-saxon warband

This dream-vision form is particularly poignant as we feel the grief of the wanderer who on waking, realizes that the image of the lord and the hall and his companions are but a dream, a memory of things which have passed and can not be felt again. The Dream-vision form which we find in the extraordinary ‘The Dream of the Rood’ poem would continue into medieval literature and is highly expressive. Our sub-conscious reveals our greatest desires to us as we sleep. We can conjour a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional world inside our heads which is so bright and clear that we can smell and taste it but when we wake it dissolves and disappears like mist, leaving behind only regret and longing.

‘The Ruin’ is another powerful Anglo-Saxon poem dealing with the remembrance of things lost. Here the ruins of a mighty settlement or dwelling are described with loving detail and already myth is interwoven with reality. It was built by giants rather than men though the ghosts of the craftsmen and builders live on beyond the ‘grave’s-grip.’

‘These wall-stones are wondrous —
crumpled by calamity, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants
corrupted. The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Ice at the joints has unroofed the barred-gates, sheared
the scarred storm-walls have disappeared—
the years have gnawed them from beneath. A grave-grip holds
the master-crafters, decrepit and departed, in the ground’s harsh
grasp, until one hundred generations of human-nations have
trod past. Subsequently this wall, lichen-grey and rust-stained,
often experiencing one kingdom after another,
standing still under storms, high and wide—
it failed—’

mead hall

There is an epic grandeur and nobility of spirit in this writing which speaks to us through all the intervening centuries and touches us with a common bond of of human kinship. We all know what it feels like to walk around a ruined castle or a deserted abbey and feel the weight of history around us and sense the ghosts of the dead so close that we can almost turn and glimpse them through through a faded archway. We can all relate to the sense of loss for another age which the poet is alluding to and which has come down through the ages to us in the words of Shakespeare, Milton or Shelley…

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

All of these ideas and images come together, for me, in the most beautiful passage of Beowulf and expressed through the poetic genius of Seamus Heaney’s translation. Here the poet conjours up the image of an old man who must bury the treasures of his house in a barrow because he senses that his time is running short. As he commits the objects to the earth he remembers the glories of the older days and the destruction of his people:

‘A newly constructed 

Barrow stood waiting, on a wide headland

Close to the waves, its entryway secured.

Into it the keeper of the hoard had carried

All the goods and golden ware

Worth preserving.  His words were few:

“Now, earth, hold what earls once held

And heroes can no more; it was mined from you first

By honorable men.  My own people

Have been ruined in war; one by one                     2250

They went down to death, looked their last

On sweet life in the hall.  I am left with nobody

To bear a sword or burnish plated goblets,

Put a sheen on the cup.  The companies have departed.

The hard helmet, hasped with gold,

Will be stripped of its hoops; and the helmet-shiner

Who should polish the metal of the war-mask sleeps;

The coat of mail that came through all fights,

Through shield-collapse and cut of sword,

Decays with the warrior.  Nor may webbed mail           2260

Range far and wide on a warlord’s back

Beside his mustered troops.  No trembling harp,

No tuned timber, no tumbling hawk

Swerving through the hall, no swift horse

Pawing the courtyard.  pillage and slaughter

Have emptied the earth of entire peoples.”

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,

Deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness

Day and night, until death’s flood

Brimmed up in his heart.’

What more eloquent passage could have been written for a lost age than this one? We have it all here, the respect for dead leaders, the memory of the good life of the mead hall and all that meant in terms of warmth, light, security, friendship and honour. We have the remembered servants who polished the war-gear and readied their lords for battle and the list of the objects most poignantly described in terms of what they withstood in battle but in addition a new layer of imagery is added. Now we also hear the Scop’s harp ringing in the tuned timbers of the great hall, the princely hawk; echoing another great image from the Anglo-Saxon age of the sparrow’s flight through the hall of life before it flies out again into the darkness of eternity; and finally the mighty war horse, eager for action in the courtyard beyond the hall.  It is a dream-vision but spoken rather than recalled. It goes to the very heart of Anglo-Saxon culture and everything I admire about it.                             


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

%d bloggers like this: