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Construing Chicken Guts
on May 21, 2014
I picked this up in a university library (seemingly a safe venue) after a cursory glance at the chapter titles and pictures. If that glance had noted the publisher (iffy Palgrave) I could have saved the trip. This is not a book (though it claims to be) about the correlation between Tolkien's Middle Earth and pre-Norman Conquest Europe. Tolkien is just an excuse to sell a few more copies. The book is another New Age Shaman retelling of history and at that a charmless and pedantic one.
Bates proposes with a straight face that 1,000 years of non-Roman European history (Celt, Pict, Gaul, Goth, and Finn) constitutes a "culture" which he relentlessly calls "the Real Middle Earth" (one eventually yearns for an acronym). For a moment, consider the difference between the United States of 2012 and North America in 1012, if you can, or the evolution of England since the Battle of Hastings (about 1,000 years ago). Really? Your culture and Finland of 1015: Pas difference?
Bates decides that there really were dragons in England because people wrote about them. Evidence? Who needs evidence? There is a whole book waiting to be researched and written about British dragons; this isn't even a related activity.
The author somehow finds Grendel's "pit" in Essex -- forgetting for the convenience of the moment that Beowulf is set in Denmark and ignoring the fact that "grendel" is an Old English term that means "drain" ("swamp", "drain," get it?). He concludes that Essex was overrun with "Grendels" of "a kind of material reality" (whatever that means). I think his source is Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, although it's hard to imagine anyone sitting through the entirety of The 13th Warrior.
He proposes that the White Horse of Uffington is "a depiction of Epona," the Celtic maternal god who was mistress of horses, in defiance of the fact that the chalk horse predates the Celts by not centuries but by millennia. And conveniently ignoring the fact that Eporna is represented in "Celtic depictions" as a "mistress of horses," NOT a horse (and the fact that Tolkien vehemently denied any connection between LotR and Celts -- misleadingly, as it turns out).
This book is precisely the sort of pseudo-history that Tolkien loathed as it sprang up like greasy weeds around his beloved Middle Earth. Not only does it distort and misrepresent history routinely to buttress its own specious counter-history, but it never even bothers to establish that Tolkien would have known about Bates' Celtic shamans, Teutonic lightsabers, and laurel-addled Dionysus wannabees.
On the rare occasions when Bates references Tolkien, one suspects that Bates hasn't read LotR at all, and drifted off in the films. Aragorn is "the Strider," for example, in a paragraph that thoroughly garbles Frodo's wound on Weathertop (Tolkien actually refers to Aragorn once, in 1,000 pages, as THE Strider, and it isn't at Weathertop). He's also pretty thick about folklore, and his Beowulf is stale. After quoting a bit of wisdom on using mugwort (one assumes Bates is busy compiling "The REAL Hogwarts"), he explains the "She" reference in the recipe by telling us that elves were called "She" because they were associated with "the Weird Sisters." "She" is of course the common spelling of "Sidhe" and "Si," Gaelic words often used to refer to elves (in other words, unrelated homophones to 'she'). He also mentions awefully that the Celtic interlace pattern "looks uncannily like DNA"... because those Celtic shamans and dwarven smiths, they were SOOOOO wise. (To me it looks more like a Boston roadmap, which is hardly a proof of Celtic wisdom.) As for Beowulf, he makes the case for Beowulf as a berserker (were-bear) on the "fact" that he kills Grendel with a "bear hug." Not. He rips Grendel's arm off (which would make him at best a were-orca). Even in the movie. Bates must have been getting more popcorn when that happened.
When I return this thing, I intend to point out to the respectable university library that shelving it with legitimate books about Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon England is a skidmark in the school's undies.