In the Mythcon Hall of Fire

Hotel Elegante

In my 2013 book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I shared with everyone a strange realization.  I argued that scattered details in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium originated from Skidi Pawnee mythology.  This insight soon led me down another path – I wondered about Tolkien’s attitudes and notions concerning what he termed “Red Indians.”  Eventually I began to investigate the fact that he drew on the traditions of race to colorize his orcs for The Lord of the Rings.

With such thoughts in mind, at moonrise on the last day of July 2015, I set forth for a certain city in the south.  A giant blue moon stood sprinkling silver light down on the eastern horizon.  Arriving late that night, I soon found myself wandering among Gormenghast-like corridors in a sprawling hotel complex.  Here at the edge of the ancient realm of the Pawnees, at the feet of the Mountain That Touches the Sky, the folk of the Mythopoeic Society were gathering for Mythcon 46.

MythCon Aspen RoomThe next day, Saturday afternoon, I read my paper on Tolkien’s racialized orcs.  The Mythcon organizers gave me a small meeting room that overlooked green treetops and a swimming pool full of the dim cries of splashing children.  Twenty or so people attended my session.  They had to forego the other two sessions – a panel on “Reclaiming Tolkien’s Women for the 21st Century,” and a paper by Peter Oas on the making of Galadriel.

The panel emerged from the publication this year of Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan.  This collection of essays was prepared “to remedy perceptions that Tolkien’s works are bereft of female characters, are colored by anti-feminist tendencies, and have yielded little serious academic work on women’s issues.”  I wish this volume had included some detailed consideration of a long letter Tolkien wrote in 1941 on women, sex, and marriage, but the essays shed much interesting light on the women characters in The Lord of the Rings, and I’m sure that the session was enlightening.

I have the impression that the Mythopoeic Society sees itself as a companionable participant in the social agenda of the Tolkien Society – a dedication to “promoting the life and works of JRR Tolkien.”  Pondering Mythcon, the Mythopoeic Society, and the Tolkien Society, I sense a culture of amiable shared values.  One important shared value has to do with the bonding experience of defending Tolkien and Middle-earth fandom from unwarranted negative criticism.

Given the nature of my paper, I didn’t necessarily think it would be welcome at Mythcon.  In the vast field of Tolkien scholarship, not much deep thinking has materialized on Tolkien’s use of a racial stereotype in modeling his orcs.  This topic has been widely acknowledged.  But much of the commentary I have seen strikes me as shallow and dismissive.MythCon Sessions

The racialization of Tolkien’s Mongol-type orcs stands in apparent contrast with his well-known hatred of racism.  Most commenters seem to think it is impossible to reconcile these polarities, and so it is common for Tolkienists to embrace Tolkien the hater of racism.  My research shows that he sided with his academic peers on race, but he also accepted mainstream British attitudes on race.  The friendly folk who attended my talk seemed plenty energized by what I said, and they were delighted to share their own thoughts.

Kris Swank appeared at my session.  And the first thing she said was that she had attended a marvelous presentation on race that morning.  “If they come here, I’ll introduce you!”  Stephanie Brownell and Sara Rivera very much wanted to attend the main event next door, the panel on Tolkien and women.  But they decided to hear my paper instead.  That morning they had given a paper on race, “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Their program abstract sounds fascinating.  It considers the mythologizing of Middle-earth in the Dominican Republic – the equating of “the despotic Trujillo with Middle-earth’s dark lord…”  And they suggest that mythopoeic literature “has unique potential to create new dialogues bringing minority characters ‘out of Far Harad’ and into the center of narrative and discourse.”  I wish I had attended.  Chatting with them, they said my paper and their paper overlapped in pondering the making of race during the early 20th century.  As we talked, we touched on the groundbreaking research of Dimitra Fimi and Margaret Sinex.

The mention in the Brownell / Rivera abstract of Far Harad is a reference to the sole explicit appearance of racial black people in Tolkien’s novels – a battlefield listing of “black men like half-trolls…”  In my talk I asserted that Tolkien’s black orcs in The Lord of the Rings owe a likely debt to British Edwardian era anthropological reports on the Malay Peninsula.  But as with Mongol-type orcs, the monstrous black folk from Far Harad most often attract a defensive and dismissive tone in the Tolkien community.

I took a blurry photo of Kris Swank giving her paper, “Black in Camelot: Racial Diversity in Historical England and Arthurian Legend.”  She introduced us to various characters identified as “Moors” and “Saracens” in medieval Arthurian literature.  And she surveyed racially identified Arthurian characters in contemporary television and film.  It was a nice introduction to an interesting topic, set forth with wise insights and charming quips.  Coming on the heels of my serious hour, it was great to laugh a little.

Kris SwankI visited with Kris a bit.  She said, “Say hello to everyone at Grey Havens for me!”  And she said she plans to continue developing her research on race.  It will be interesting to know more about the chaotic pre-racial notions of human diversity that ultimately gave rise to the racial social order that so many people today prize so much.  When Kris began her paper, she took a moment to observe that something very special was happening at Mythcon.  Three papers on race.  She suggested that we need a bigger and more inclusive world in mythological studies.

As a newcomer to the doings of the Mythopoeic Society, I can’t speak with much insight about its status quo.  But in my years of encountering such things in various kinds of worlds, I know that the idea of a “status quo” is a cherished and complicated illusion.  The rush of history often washes away treasured boundaries that seem perfectly rigid.

Time may well bring more analysis on various aspects of Tolkien and race.  And Tolkien’s orcs certainly deserve critical study.  People worldwide appreciate Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and a good number self-identify as the modern heirs of old-fashioned racial Mongol-types.  This includes the Pawnees.  I don’t do race in my life, but most Pawnees treasure their racial identities and enact race frequently, and some of them are fans of Middle-earth.

Tolkien declared his rejection of race.  He saw it as a pernicious idea.  But he then went on to racialize his orcs anyway.  We should try to make sense of the fact that JRR Tolkien took various details from a pernicious racial typology to produce monstrous enemies for his heroic mythmaking.


Kris Swank took this photo as I read my paper

That Saturday afternoon, finishing my hour at Mythcon, I knew that no one would object if I stood observing the doings of the status quo in Tolkienland.  But I had done what I went there to do.  Feeling like a guest in the Mythcon house, I decided I had troubled the councils of the wise enough for one day.  I got in my car that afternoon.

Driving away under the lengthening shadows of the mountains, I much enjoyed how the sunset kept breaking free of the clouds, a gentle settling of golden rays among the foothills.  At the darkening edges of Denver, I watched a sudden rose-colored light bloom up from the distant peaks.  In the midst of all that magic, cruising in the far west of ancient Pawneeland, I decided that I did enjoy my visit to the Mountain That Touches the Sky.

August Sunset

The Least Lovely Folk of Middle-earth

Surfing the websites of Tolkiendom, I often encounter negative critiques of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films. The most frequent complaint focuses on Jackson’s lack of fidelity to Tolkien’s texts. To attract a global mega-audience, Jackson and his colleagues extensively re-envisioned Middle-earth, deleting scenes, elevating action adventure over enchantment, amplifying and inserting women, and repositioning textual materials. I have much enjoyed Peter Jackson’s cinematic visits to Middle-earth, but I sympathize with those who find some of Jackson’s revisions debatable and even troubling.

In one respect, however, I appreciate Jackson’s choice to modestly revise Tolkien’s storytelling. This has to do with the characterization of orcs. Tolkien deliberately rooted his monstrous orcs in the social soils of race, as he wrote in 1958: “They are… in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” In contrast, Peter Jackson’s fantasy orcs do not seem much indebted to the real world traditions of race.

On the spectrum of Tolkien critics versus Tolkien fans, a defining divide centers on racial messaging. For those who find Middle-earth little to their liking, the evident manifestations of race offer a ready target for complaint. According to this position, Tolkien’s linkages of skin color and moral symbolism come across as racially insensitive, if not racist. On the other hand, fans of Tolkien know that he despised Nazi racialism. They see his diverse fantasy races uniting to defeat evil in the world, and they appreciate his moral vision of diversity achieving transcendent community. The interlocked circles of fandom and scholarship affirm the idea that Tolkien stood squarely against racism. Except… well, there is the problem of orcs.

In a 2003 study of Tolkien and miscegenation, Sandra Straubhaar mounted a defense of Tolkien, but acknowledged the problem of his slant-eyed orcs: “Tolkien seems to have exhibited a kind of racism perhaps not unremarkable in a mid-twentieth-century Western man[.]” A year later Anderson Rearick proposed that Tolkien might have projected the nature of his orcs through the non-racial lens of biblical references to darkness and evil – a view he would doubtless modify in light of Tolkien’s comment on orcs as “Mongol-types.” In her 2010 book, Dimitra Fimi constructed a rather convoluted logic designed to blur and soften the harsh clarities of Tolkien’s racialized orcs. And in 2012 Michael Martinez asserted that Tolkien simply meant to reference Mongols; but he concluded that Tolkien’s “Mongol-types” may provide “the only clear evidence of racism in Tolkien’s fiction – in that he uses a racist stereotype for one of his fantasy races.”

Some critics similarly point to Peter Jackson’s Uruk-hai as overly racialized. But it is also notable that he chose to bestow upon his orc-folk diverse flesh-tones ranging from very white to very dark. In contrast, Tolkien refers to orc skin-coloration as “black,” while his half-orcs are all “sallow-skinned” – none fall at the pale end of the spectrum. Tolkien intended for his orcs to embody repulsive “Mongol-types,” and when we study the evolution of his orcs, we can indeed see what he meant. He meant race. To formulate insights about what this signifies, it is important to contextualize Tolkien in history, to identify the likely cultural influences that illuminate what he meant by “Mongol-types.”

In my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I set forth detailed textual comparisons to show how Tolkien made use of Skidi Pawnee mythological materials. Tolkien would have seen the Pawnee storytellers as “Mongol-types” – as members of the same racial group that inspired him to colorize his orcs. But he wasn’t thinking of Pawnees when he racialized his orcs. It is apparent that he turned instead to Asia for inspiration.

Sitting down to visit Peter Jackson’s version of Middle-earth, I find his cinematic orcs an awkward fit, at best, to the narratives of race. But reading The Lord of the Rings, it is impossible to miss the racial tones of Tolkien’s orcs and half-orcs. If we are to understand what race signifies in our world and how it has shaped our lives, we must inquire into the reach of its teachings. And to make sense of Tolkien and race, we must delve into what he meant when he said that his orcs comprised a “degraded” version of the “least lovely Mongol-types.”

Considering how the teachings of race made their way into the making of Middle-earth, I have been fortunate to discuss my work with many interested friends and colleagues – I read an early version of my research in September 2014 before a gathering of the Grey Havens Group of Colorado. On April 25 I will read a new version of this research at Real Myth and Mithril, a special symposium organized by Grey Havens. The abstract of my paper can be found on the Grey Havens blog: The Least Lovely Folk March Into Real Myth

Roger Echo-Hawk at Grey Havens, September 18, 2014

Roger Echo-Hawk at Grey Havens, September 18, 2014

Tolkien’s Marvelous Tales

In Tolkien in Pawneeland I have shown how JRR Tolkien made use of Skidi Pawnee traditions in constructing Middle-earth. As an academician Tolkien had ready access to global literature, and in his fictional world-building he seamlessly wove together elements from various traditional mythologies into his own vision of a legendary past. The inventive weaving of threads from diverse materials served him as a useful creative strategy throughout his life.

This strategy is evident in Tolkien’s recently released “Sellic Spell,” his reconstruction of the lost folktale that gave rise to the Beowulf poem. Tolkien wondered whether he could “reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf.” The study of the transmission of verbal documents over long time periods is necessarily an art, not a science – he knew this kind of project could not be accomplished “with certainty,” but he thought he could do a rendering that would reflect “the difference of style, tone and atmosphere if the particular heroic or historical is cut out.” He seemed to mean here that references to historical events crept into the original folktale, as well as a heroic dimension, and if these elements were deleted, one might well have in hand an ancient folktale – the ancient tale that at some point morphed into a historically minded heroic elegy.

To recreate the forgotten story that led to Beowulf, Tolkien pondered a widespread folktale called the “bear’s son tale.” He followed a trajectory of logic that he described in 1943 as “turning… the bear-boy into the knight Beowulf…” And he had at hand a substantial body of literature to study. We might presume that the back-engineering of the substance of a lost tradition would be based on the systematic review of surviving descendant narratives among related literary traditions, but it does not appear that Tolkien left notes reflecting any such study of relevant textual materials.

Andrea Mathwich, "Curious Bear"

Andrea Mathwich, “Curious Bear”

In the course of composing his essay, “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien conducted a wide-ranging survey of fairytale / mythological literature between 1938 and 1943. This was the same period when he is believed to have written “Sellic Spell,” and in fact Tolkien made mention of the bear’s son tale in that essay with the statement, “We read that Beowulf ‘is only a version of Dat Erdmänneken…’” Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson note that this is a reference to a Brothers Grimm story which “bears virtually no resemblance to Beowulf.” But the story in question is a typical tale of the bear’s son legend complex. When compared to “Sellic Spell” the resemblances are clear.

The section of “On Fairy-stories” where Tolkien made mention of Dat Erdmänneken is interesting because he gave it the heading, “Origins.” There he dismissed the work of folklorists and anthropologists as “people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested.” But we should read this criticism through Tolkien’s own preferred lens – a lens through which he peered at textual material in search of useful details to set into his own stories. And Tolkien knew to look at Dat Erdmänneken due to the analytical research of a greatly esteemed colleague and friend, RW Chambers, who briefly mentioned the story in Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, published in 1921 with a new edition in 1932. Chambers cited the story as an example of the bear’s son tale, together with another Grimm story from the same collection – the two stories account for at least two minor details and a deleted passage in “Sellic Spell,” pointing to Tolkien’s typical usage pattern.

Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson present a list of publications consulted by Tolkien in preparing “On Fairy-stories,” and this list contains references to two additional works cited by Chambers in his consideration of the bear’s son legend complex. Tolkien’s research for “On Fairy-stories” and “Sellic Spell” thus overlapped, and the seeming absence of research notes for the latter could mean that as Tolkien’s work for “On Fairy-stories” unfolded he found sufficient material to prepare “Sellic Spell” to his satisfaction. Flieger and Anderson found two notes in the draft manuscripts for the essay showing that Tolkien searched through Andrew Lang’s fairy books for a story that resembled Beowulf. When this search failed to turn up a likely candidate, he noted, “It should be retold as a fairy-story.” Christopher Tolkien believes that “Sellic Spell” was written by his father during the early 1940s; Flieger and Anderson suggest that the story might have originated in the spring or summer of 1943.

Tolkien’s understanding of the connection of Beowulf to the bear’s son tradition was amplified by the work of RW Chambers. Chambers cited previous research pointing to the likelihood that an ancient version of the bear’s son tale gave rise to certain aspects of both Beowulf and a related Norse tradition, Grettis Saga. He outlined eight versions of the bear’s son tale found in various European traditional literatures, and he included an abstract of a Russian version from the early 1860s, “Ivashko Medvedko.”   This drew Tolkien’s notice, but Anderson noted that he was not “known to have been adept in Russian.”

In the end, it is apparent that Tolkien turned to an English translation of this Russian tradition for help. Textual comparison shows a number of elements that match between “Sellic Spell” and a 1912 translation of the Russian story called “Little Bear’s-Son” in Post Wheeler’s Russian Wonder Tales. Some of these parallels are general defining features, and so must be common to many versions. Tolkien knew well the Norse Grettis Saga – we can guess that he reviewed it in the course of writing “Sellic Spell,” and it must have been helpful in various ways, but there does not seem to be any clear indication that he borrowed anything unique from the saga. In fact, since Tolkien left no record of the research he did for this project, we can only identify a handful of texts that he arguably consulted aside from Beowulf, and this includes the Russian story. The textual convergences between “Sellic Spell” and “Little Bear’s-Son” are notable.Russian Wonder Tales

In the Russian story a peasant who hunted bears and wolves “tracked a bear to its den, and having killed it, he found there to his astonishment a little boy three years old, naked and sturdy, whom the bear had stolen and had been rearing like a cub.” Tolkien has huntsmen encounter a bear, and they “tracked him to his lair and killed him, and in his den they found a man-child” and they “marveled much, for it was a fine child, about three years old, and in good health,” and the huntsmen thought “it must have been fostered by the bears, for it growled like a cub.” In the Russian story “[t]he lad grew” and “did not realize his own strength… as he played with the other lads of his village…” But his strength was dangerous and the neighbors complained. Tolkien wrote that “Beewolf grew, and as he grew he became stronger, until first the boys and lads and at length even the men began to fear him.” In the Russian story the bear-boy goes into exile and travels, encountering three strong giants who he befriends as companions, including one called “Oak-man.” Tolkien has Beewolf set forth from his home, and he falls in with several companions who have magical strength, including one named “Ashwood.” The Russian story has the new friends setting up a home, and each of the giants takes a turn watching the home, but each is worsted by a horrible enemy. Tolkien has Beewolf and his two companions appear at Heorot, and the two companions each take a turn at watch, and each is worsted and slain by a horrible enemy. The Russian story has the bear-boy taking his turn and besting the horrible enemy, who escapes. Tolkien has Beewolf taking his turn and besting a horrible enemy, who escapes. The Russian story has the bear-boy entering a hole in the ground, where the horrible enemy “is a hundred times more powerful… surrounded by her enchantments…” Tolkien has Beewolf enter a lake and an underground cave and there he meets a horrible enemy and “[v]ery strong she was, there in her own house over which many spells were woven.” The Russian story has the bear-boy eventually encountering the horrible enemy, and he beheads her with a sword. Tolkien has Beewolf confront the horrible enemy, and he beheads her with a sword. The Russian story has a betrayal when the bear-boy climbs a rope out of the underworld and he falls back underground. Tolkien has Beewolf betrayed while climbing his rope, and he falls back into the lake. The Russian story has the bear-boy receiving aid from a bird. Tolkien has Beewolf swimming in the lake looking to escape, “but there was no way up… save for birds.” The Russian story has the bear-boy eventually prevailing and the story ends with his marriage. Tolkien has Beewolf prevailing and the story ends with his marriage.

John Rateliff’s discussion of Medwed / Beorn in The Hobbit shows that Tolkien was thinking as early as circa 1932 of a reference to either a Russian term or a Russian source-story for the fantasy commingling of bear and man. Douglas Anderson thinks it is likely that Tolkien’s formulation of Beorn reflects the Chambers publication on Beowulf, with its abstract of “Ivashko Medvedko.” It is clear enough that Tolkien was indeed thinking of Russian tradition and “Ivashko Medvedko” during the writing of The Hobbit, given his use of Medwed as the original name of Beorn. But his story contains nothing of the bear’s son tradition. When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit he decided not to draw from Russian folklore for his portrayal of Medwed, and he eventually dropped the Russian name and replaced it with a Norse name. As I explain in Tolkien in Pawneeland, he nevertheless did make use of pre-existing myth to construct his tale of Beorn – in this case, he drew upon a Pawnee tradition for raw material.

Seeing a spectrum of corresponding elements between “Little Bear’s-Son” in Russian Wonder Tales and “Sellic Spell,” it is evident that Tolkien consulted the Russian story sometime in 1943 and drew useful elements from it. He did not invent all the story elements in “Sellic Spell”; instead, he borrowed pre-existing traditional elements from a handful of stories and he wove them into his narrative. Following this process of invention, Tolkien felt satisfied enough with the result that he was willing to affirm that indeed a “bear-boy” tradition served as the originating source for the story of Beowulf, as he wrote in a 1953 lecture: “…the Bear-boy lurks behind the heroic Beowulf…” Pondering the “unhistorical” Beowulf, Tolkien pictured a “bear-man” and a “giant-killer” most at home in the world of fairytale. And after stripping away what he considered to be a later accretion of heroic knighthood, he thought we should find a “lumpish and greedy bearboy, who is a trouble to keep and feed, but who is now offering to earn his keep…” The end result is a regressive transformation of the Christianized Anglo-Saxon knight Beowulf into Beewolf, a “lumpish and greedy bearboy” who ultimately becomes “a great lord.” This reconstructed story is slightly Russianized, but Tolkien deemed it a useful representation of the kind of folktale that might be told at an Anglo-Saxon fireside of circa 700 CE. Little Bear's-Son

Borrowing material from a Russian tradition, Tolkien added details to “Sellic Spell” that he felt would impart a tone of antiquity, a primitive folkloric quality. This was also the composition procedure he followed in his use of Pawnee traditions. Tolkien’s creative agenda in part had to do with expressing what he deemed a “Northern spirit” related to English and Anglo-Saxon culture – that is, an esoteric quality that he associated most strongly with things Norse and Old English tradition. Russia lay somewhat askew from such associations. And Pawneeland could never have an explicit place on any map of Tolkienian Northernness.

When Tolkien decided to make use of a Skidi Pawnee story to colorize the story of Beorn in The Hobbit, his choice of a story was interesting. As I explain in Tolkien in Pawneeland, the story he used was called “The Boy, the Bears, and White Crow” – this tradition features recognizable traces of the bear’s son tale. This legend complex was not limited to Europe. It is also found throughout North America, and this may help to explain why Tolkien made use of it.

He knew about the wide European distribution of the bear’s son tale from a long history of scholarship on the topic, including from RW Chambers 1921 edition of Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem. He must have found it interesting to encounter a version of the story in America. The fact that he began with the name Medwed for Beorn tells us clearly that he knew about the bear’s son legend complex. He drew from a Russian bear’s son story for the name, and he drew from a Pawnee bear’s son story to colorize his tale. But he had no interest in retelling the bear’s son legend, so he made the story of Beorn unique, a marvelous weaving of tradition and creativity.

All the traditions of the world lay near to hand for JRR Tolkien, and he used them to tell his stories, weaving together their magic. And he found the traditions of Pawneeland useful, just as he found the traditions of Europe useful. Details from Pawnee tradition could colorize his vision of Middle-earth. And observing him at work weaving very diverse sources into his legendarium, we must learn to re-envision the significance of Middle-earth as a place made of the whole world. When we peer into the stories told by JRR Tolkien, we glimpse strange secret rumors and hidden whispers, and we see that he truly was a teller of marvelous tales.

Tolkien and the Taylorian

In Tolkien in Pawneeland I argue that JRR Tolkien consulted Skidi Pawnee texts in the course of creating his Middle-earth legendarium. Inspired by Pawnee mythological greenery, he colorized Middle-earth with what he thought of as an authentic aura of “primitive undergrowth.” I conclude in my book that Tolkien’s interest in Pawnee myth was sporadic, occurring during three different periods: in early 1919, 1930-1932, and early 1942. To these dates, I would now add the late summer of 1938. On all these occasions I believe he consulted a 1904 book by George A. Dorsey titled Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.

This means that Tolkien had life-long access to a copy of the book. The evidence for this insight is clear enough, but my argument is based on the identification of shared unique textual elements rather than knowledge that he consulted any specific copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee over the years. I simply conclude that it is logical to presume access of some kind.

I have seen no evidence that Tolkien or any member of his family owned a copy of the book, and I have no basis for supposing that a friend had a convenient copy. Moreover, I do not have any clear idea as to the general availability of the book in England during the early 20th century. It does seem safe to presume that the book was not widely distributed either in the United States or in England – I know of no English researcher who has ever made use of this volume in any publication.

Comparison of unique and substantive textual material has convinced me that Tolkien did make use of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee in the course of writing The Book of Lost Tales (in early 1919), The Hobbit (in 1930-1932), and The Lord of the Rings (in 1938 and 1942). And in my book on this topic, Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 140-165), I put forth the view that Tolkien had reasons for deliberately keeping secret his use of obscure Skidi tradition.

In mid-2012 as I began to ponder the possibility that Tolkien made use of Pawnee myth in his Middle-earth legendarium, I discovered that the collections of Oxford University did include a copy of Traditions of Skidi Pawnee. During the late summer of 2013 a prominent Tolkien scholar traveled to Oxford University and she very kindly tracked down a copy of the book in the Oxford library system. She affirmed that the book had entered the collections at the time of its 1904 publication. And she found the book in a very interesting location. It sits today on the shelves of the Taylor Institution, also known as the Taylorian.

A book shelf at the Taylorian

A book shelf at the Taylorian

In Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s authoritative The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide (2006, p. 709) the Taylorian is described as “the centre for the study of modern European languages and literatures at Oxford.” I do not know why a book on Pawnee tradition ended up in this library collection at Oxford. My guess is that this had to do with the fact that certain narratives in the volume contain passages written in Latin.

But one thing is clear. The presence of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee on the shelves of the Taylorian makes it an excellent candidate to have been the copy that Tolkien consulted over the years.

In 1911 Tolkien became a student at Oxford University. That fall he “attended lectures at the Taylor Institution” every Tuesday and Thursday (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 28). Both the book and Tolkien could be found at the Taylorian in 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1914 (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 28, 31, 32, 34, 36, 50, 52, 54).

One area of particular focus for Tolkien during this period was “Medieval and Modern European Languages” (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 39). This means that, in addition to taking classes in the Taylorian, he would have spent quite a lot of time researching the collections of that library. Tolkien had plenty of opportunity during his student days to encounter Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.

Corresponding with the staff at the Taylorian in 2013, I learned that no evidence exists in their fragmentary files that Tolkien ever borrowed Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. But their records do not show that he ever checked out any book from the Taylorian. If this is actually the case, we should probably surmise that during his student days he spent considerable time in the library consulting the collections, roaming among the shelves, selecting materials to study, and preparing notes. As he wrote in an October 1914 letter, “I have got to go to the library now and get filthy amongst dusty books” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, 2000 edition, p. 7).

Taking the position that during his later years Tolkien consulted the Taylorian copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, we should find a reasonable correspondence between the chronology of his likely access to the Taylorian collections and the chronology of his insertion of Pawnee material in his legendarium. In fact, to a significant degree, these chronologies do match.

In 1919 Tolkien returned to Oxford to work as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. His knowledge of the Taylorian collections must have helped. We can assume that he spent some time at the Taylor Institution because it was in 1919 that details from Skidi stories began to enter his legendarium. This may have been the period when he first encountered Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, but it remains possible that he learned of the book during his tenure as a student in 1911-1914 when he studied Latin. By the time of his return to Oxford Tolkien had already launched into early versions of several of his mythological tales. Visiting the familiar collections of the Taylorian to do his OED research, he now had a special interest as a budding mythmaker to revisit the Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. Picking it up and skimming through it in early 1919, he found inspiration for his creation story and for Ungoliant the spider.

After 1925 Tolkien could be found once again at Oxford, this time as a professor. In the spring of 1930 he lectured on “Germanic Numerals” – it would have logical for him to stop by the Taylorian at some point to look for material to help prepare his lecture notes (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 153). Recalling the usefulness of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee in 1919, it must have been in the late spring of 1930 Tolkien revisited the volume. Again he found it helpful. He drew from three Skidi “Animal Tales” to envision four episodes that appear in a poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” This experience also precipitated the writing of The Hobbit.

Beginning in January 1932 Tolkien’s schedule included two lectures held every Tuesday and Friday at the Taylor Institution (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 162). Sometime in the course of 1932 he paused once more to open the pages of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. He had taken a long pause in writing The Hobbit, and perhaps he sought inspiration of the same sort that had helped him on two previous occasions already. Now he encountered a Pawnee story that helped him to chart a course into the story of Beorn the shapeshifter and into the story of spider-infested Mirkwood.

Tolkien next consulted Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee during the late summer of 1938. In May of that year he received an appointment to serve as “an elector to the Taylorian Professorship of German Language and literature” (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 216). He would have had reason to stop by the library on occasion during the months that followed. Now hard at work on The Lord of the Rings, one day he decided to consult Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee for help in situating Tom Bombadil in Middle-earth – he looked once more at the same story that had inspired his poem about Bombadil in 1930. This took him deep into the darkest recesses of “The Old Forest.”

Beginning in early January of 1942 Tolkien’s lectures brought him to the Taylorian every Tuesday and Thursday (Scull and Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 252). It was then that he made his final foray into Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. He encountered a story that helped to shape his account of the death and resurrection of Gandalf in “The White Rider.”

My research in Tolkien in Pawneeland reveals that non-trivial parallel textual elements are shared by Tolkien’s legendarium and the Skidi stories. A theory of independent invention is unlikely. While no direct evidence has come forward to show that Tolkien opened any specific copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, it is clear that he had ample opportunity to do so throughout the course of his academic life at Oxford University. The established chronology of Tolkien’s known associations with the Taylorian contains meaningful overlap with the chronology of his evident use of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.

JRR Tolkien was a mythologist. The process he followed in borrowing from Pawnee myth was not an isolated or unique creative process for him. This is evident in his recently released story “Sellic Spell” (JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2014). The story is Tolkien’s reconstruction of what he took to be the lost folktale behind the Beowulf poem. To recreate this story, Tolkien followed an approach that he termed (in “On Fairy-stories”) “turning… the bear-boy into the knight Beowulf…” To do this, it seems apparent that he took inspiration from a story found in a collection of Russian folktales (Post Wheeler, Russian Wonder Tales, 1912, “Little Bear’s-Son,” p. 249-271). But his process was to borrow elements, rather than cut and paste from the story or simply retell it. This was also the procedure he followed in using Pawnee material.

As an academician Tolkien had access to global mythological literature, and it is clear that he had access to Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. In the extensive literature of Tolkien source scholarship that has emerged since his death, Tolkien himself has come to be treated as a comfortably parochial author who knew next to nothing about world mythological traditions. This notion deserves to be revisited. While it is certainly surprising to learn that he secretly drew on Skidi Pawnee traditions to colorize the mythological textures of Middle-earth, it should not be surprising to anyone that he would feel curiosity about the wide world beyond mythic Europe.

Taylorian Traditions (artwork by Roger Echo-Hawk)

Taylorian Traditions
(artwork by Roger Echo-Hawk)