Apr/May 2003 Book Reviews

The Real Middle Earth

Brian Bates
Picador, Macmillan 292 pages
ISBN: 0 283 07353 5

reviewed by David Skea

If you've read Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and have seen the movies, then maybe you wondered if any of these tales were based on a time that really existed or if it was all just pure fantasy?

Professor Bates tells us that Middle Earth really existed. Historical research has revealed that some 2000 years ago there arose a largely forgotten civilisation stretching from Old England to Scandinavia and across western Europe that foreshadowed Tolkien's imagined world.

Tolkien readily admitted in his letters that the concept of Middle Earth was not his own invention, but rather an old Anglo-Saxon term for the magical world inhabited, in the first millennium, by the people now known as Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse. Fortunately some of their knowledge has survived, and Professor Bates has put a lot of this information into this book.

He begins by telling how Middle Earth came about and about the people who lived there. These people lived in a land that was far more wooded than we know today and lived very close to nature. To them the land was a magical place inhabited by dragons, elves, dwarves, giants, wizards, monsters and other beings, some beneficial and many malevolent. And these beings were taken into account in everyday living. Bates believes that many of the strange beings that Tolkien wrote about in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings really did exist.

Professor Bates then documents many of the strange beings and myths associated with Middle Earth and makes links to the characters Tolkien wrote about. We learn about dragons, elves, wells of wisdom, plant magic, the raven's omen, seeresses, ents, dwarves, spider monsters and the web of destiny, among other things.

Professor Bates identifies the source of many of the myths, strange beings and places used by Tolkien and for those wanting to research further a full reference list is given in the Notes. These include Tacitus' account of the early German peoples written in 98CE, the 1000 year old medical manuscript in the British Library (Harley 585) known as Lugnunga, and Snorri Sturluson's The Prose Edda written about 1200CE.

After the Norman Conquest and throughout the Middle Ages, these pre-Christian beliefs were denigrated and dismissed as primitive superstitions and as an embarrassing interlude of history between the Romans and the Normans. However it is interesting to observe that the Christian Church believed in many of these superstitions, their objection to them being that they gained their powers from sources outside the blessings of the Church and hence undermined the political power of the Church. Where the Church could not successfully outlaw a magical practice they adopted it into Christian custom. And so these age-old beliefs live on.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Real Middle Earth, a book that I am sure to refer to in the future.


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