Modern Medievalism – John Masefield’s Box of Delights and JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit

Reading both the Box of Delights and the Hobbit, I was struck by the way that both authors use an anachronistic Medieval period to intersect and comment on the Modern.

Both authors had served in the Great War and both lived in Oxford: Tolkien on Northmoor Road and Masefield in Boar’s Hill. Furthermore, both had met each other previously as Tolkien comments in a letter written in 1938 when Masefield invites him to perform the Nun’s Priest’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales in Middle English.  Unfortunately there are few surviving letters from the 1930s and John Masefield did not want his papers kept after his death since he did not want any biographies written (he failed in this last aspect but Constance Babbington Smith’s life is somewhat sparse owing to lack of documentary evidence).

However there had recently been a change towards the increasingly importance of Old and Middle English in the University curriculum. After the war, Tolkien returned to Oxford and headed into the battle for the soul of the English department. The department was split into the Literature and Language factions and Tolkien was firmly in the Language department through his love of early English poetry and his lack of studying literature at school. The goal of his changes was to allow students to study early and middle English literature rather than modern books and to lift the shift the focus of the study of language away from just the linguistic rules such as Grimm’s or Verner’s laws. One of the outcomes was his budding friendship with C.S. Lewis who had begun informal “Beer and Beowulf” sessions in the pub. As part of his campaign, Tolkien began the Coal Biters club which allowed dons to meet and translate old Norse myths from the original into English. Lewis joined shortly after its inception and its turned into the Inklings during the early 1930s.

The prevailing tendency towards Medievalism seemed to been the air as Masefield had been rereading Dante’s Divine Comedy in an attempt to find the Babbington Smith called an “old religion” – it appears to be a form of high Anglicanism or Catholicism).  He also uses Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Both texts have embedded criticisms of the world around them and this feeds into Masefield’s view that Britain needed the new generation to save, that adults are not to be trusted and have lost their way, vis-a-vis the Pouncer and Abner. Somehow, the land needs to have faith brought back into it to be  vital again.

Whilst the Hobbit is not a Christian text in the way that Lord of the Rings is (personally I think any moral reading of the text is somewhat dubious and overread since it is a collection of episodes strung together as an adventure), it is a recasting of the fairy tale land of the Brother’s Grimm and the techniques of philology to create what Tom Shippey (in Author of the Century and the Road to Middle Earth) calls Asterisk Reality.

In philology, language ancestors are derived from comparing language groups and seeing how the worlds intersect. The create a predecessor, one looks for similarities and certain shifts in language to try and work out where a language may have come from. This is has a limit where one tries to define  a common ancestor, such as the Indo-European language which is long since dead. No record of it survives but philologists have begun to recreate what it may have sounded like using commonalities and the laws of language to make an educated guess and this is denoted by having an asterisk at the beginning of the word. Tolkien was aware of the fairy tale world and the Beowulf poem, using them to try and create his own version of fairy. As Shippey argues in Author of the Century, the nascent world of Middle-earth is powerful because it is ultimately so believable.

On top of this, he also uses his own memories of childhood to create the Shire, an anachronistic land which is Middle England and out of tune with the wild world around it. Bilbo is already out of step with fairy and Tolkien uses the gap in between myth and modernity to great effect with the narrative voice which cajoles the reader to believe in the land because to do so would be a betrayal akin to the killing of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan (a play of which JRRT was aware).

As a reader of Beowulf (his essay in the Monster and the Critics is one of the most quoted academic essays), Tolkien was aware of the difficulties of writing a pagan poem by a committed Christian. (I suspect more so than Masefield.) He has a running commentary on the nature of heroism with Bilbo’s actions as he develops into his role (finally taking his place once he gains the ring) with the dwarves. He represents a common person who is called to do some extraordinary things in his time, akin to serving in the war. Kay finds himself likewise put upon to retain the Box from the evils of the world and its clandestine religiosity.

Both the Box of Delights and the Hobbit create a land which never and could never exist. The authors use the mythology to comment on perceived gaps in the modern world and create their own fixes. The anachronistic worlds create the artificiality which forces us out or to believe in the world which Barrie had begun in his play. Their medievality comments upon modernity and Modernism.

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