The Anglo-Saxon Community in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by Dr Deborah Higgens is a fascinating book about the Medieval Anglo-Saxon culture and literature that Tolkien drew from when he was creating Middle-earth. Dr Higgins connects Anglo-Saxon works – such as the classic Beowulf – to Tolkien’s Elves, Rohirrim, and the broader world of Middle-earth.
The Anglo-Saxon Community… is a very approachable book. It balances its academic focus and tone with a very inviting writing style. The full-color illumination-style illustrations also give it feeling that you’re reading a beautiful Medieval manuscript.
I had the opportunity to speak with Dr Higgins about her book:
GB: What draws you to the world of the Anglo-Saxons?
Deborah Higgens: That’s a difficult thing to answer. I’ve always like Medieval literature. As a young girl I read mythologies and Norse legends, that sort of thing. I loved Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While I was studying at Middle Tennessee State University for doctoral program I came in contact with more ancient literature. I examined older literature more seriously which intrigued and fascinated me very much; I was drawn to it.
For the book I used all my own translations of Beowulf from my doctorate. Culture is contained in language, if you study a language you’ll see bits of culture, because the words are different and you see into the lives of the people. The Anglo-Saxon language touched me very deeply. Some of it is the heroic. Some of it is the melancholy. But there is also honor. You uphold, you fight to the death. Even if you watch movies, like Marvel comic book movies, like Thor: you want the great ones to win. Its even better if they have a fault. But you want the heroic character to win.
GB: What do you think drew Tolkien?
Deborah Higgens: Probably much the same thing, I think. He loved the old myths. He loved the Norse myths. He spoke Old Norse. He was a philologist. That’s how he and Lewis met. I think it was the language that contained the culture, or part of the culture. Tolkien spoke all these languages. And through these languages come culture. Its something that comes from deep within.
GB: In your book, you focus a great deal on Beowulf; is there a translation you would recommend if a reader hasn’t read Beowulf before or hasn’t read it in a while?
Deborah Higgens: I’ll name three:
- Seamus Heaney. He went more for the beauty of the language and the structure than for accuracy. So I would supplemate that. Its liked, its used, its very understandable.
- I like Frederick Klaeber’s translation. It’s very accurate. Anyone can find it. It’s online.
- And the new thing that’s coming out. That’s going to sell out so fast its not going to be funny. That’s going to be marvelous. I’m sure that’s going to be THE translation to use. And I understand they’re going to have some of his notes and class notes also, and that’s going to be invaluable.
And I hope my book will go with that. To compliment.
GB: What other works from Old English do you recommend for a reader who would like to see more?
Deborah Higgens: There aren’t a lot of Old English works out there. They were burned in fires and that type of thing. The Battle of Malden is absolutely outstanding. its not a finished work, but you can guess the ending: everybody dies.
The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Riddles. They’re all kind of melancholy pieces. I think its showing a loss of that society. They were doomed. The invaders were coming in. They were doomed. So there’s a lot of despair along side of the heroic.
GB: Is there any extra-Middle-earth work by Tolkien that you would suggest for a scholar curious to know more about literature or history?
Deborah Higgins: As I discuss in the book, On Faerie Stories and on Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. They’re tough to wade through.
I do a lot of comparison of Lewis and Tolkien because I live in Lewis’ home. But Lewis is easy to read, Tolkien you have to chew on it. That’s how he writes and its how he lectured, too. Lewis wrote an article “On Stories” talking about good escapism. I’d highly recommend that. Its fascinating and Lewis is much easier to read than Tolkien.
There’s a book called The Tolkien Reader that has a lot of these small pieces in it. He finishes the Battle of Malden. And through ending the Battle of Malden he gives his opinion. Fascinating. Well, worth it The Tolkien Reader. As are the Collected Letters of Tolkien. He describes some of the background of The Silmarillion. He describes the background of the Elves. He describes who the hero is of the Lord of the Rings, who he thinks the hero is. He says the real hero is Sam. Sam is the everyman. The soldier who gave his life. The English soldier.
There’s so much culture reflected in Tolkien’s work. Especially if you live in England. There’s a lot of religious language. He’s saying so much in his work. Things still change, the Elves are still gone. Tolkien still keeps the Anglo-Saxon element of melancholy.
GB: Thank you, Dr Higgens, for taking the time for this interview.
Deborah Higgins: Thank you! My book is my passion. It’s not just a book I sat down and wrote offhandedly, but it was a ten-year project. And it’s still my passion. It’s not just Tolkien’s and Lewis’s works that I love, and I say this with care, but my passion is with the Old English works. My passion lies where Tolkien’s works and Lewis’s works touch the ancient works. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and Lewis was a professor of Medieval Literature, but often we forget that in favor of their fictional works.
Jody “Goldberry Riverdaughter” Boyce
“Goldberry Riverdaughter” has been her friends’ and families’ resident book nerd since reading the Tao of Pooh at age eight. Since then her literary exploration has lead her straight to Lord of the Rings where she’s made her home. In addition to a staff reporter for Legendarium, she also runs Hells Hobbits. She has a degree in History, as well as a new-found penchant for disassembling literary canon. She lives with her equally nerdy husband and two gigantic cats enjoying table top games & cosplay.