An Anglo-Saxon in Middle Earth

In an early version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories, the tales of Middle Earth are brought to our world by Ottor Wǽfre, who would go on to be the father of both the author of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain.

Andrew Lang's engravings of Beowulf
Andrew Lang, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Frame stories have been a staple of fantasy literature since… well, since there has been literature. One of the earliest frame stories dates back to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor); the story of Scheherazade famously frames One Thousand and One Nights; both Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum embed their fantasies within a framing dream. Frames create an extra layer around the story, creating distance (between the readers and the fantasy world) or parallels (between the narrator and the fantasy) or both.

The frame story in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is a simple one. The novels we read are supposedly taken from Bilbo Baggins’ own account, The Red Book of Westmarch. But, much earlier in Tolkien’s writing career, he conceived of a very different frame story, one that would tie Middle Earth to our modern Earth, and to an imaginary history of Britain itself.

In Tolkien’s early writings, a Germanic sailor named Ottor Wǽfre sets out from Heligoland in northern Germany. He is shipwrecked on a distant island. An old man guides him to some elves, who tell him stories of Middle Earth. (The old man, by the way, turns out to be one of the Valar, the gods / angels of Middle Earth.) The elves grant the sailor the name / title Ælfwine (“elf-friend”).

After Ælfwine returns to the normal world, he has three sons. Two of them (in Tolkien’s mythology) are Hengist and Horsa, actual historical figures who led the Germanic invasion of Britain – the ones that put the Saxon in Anglo-Saxon, in other words. The third, Heorrenda, would go on to write that classic of Anglo-Saxon literature Beowulf – and also carry the stories of the elves and Middle Earth on to us.

Tolkien conceived of his Middle Earth stories as a kind of imagined history for Britain, a saga to match the great Norse and Icelandic stories. The Ælfwine frame story did not carry into the works published in his lifetime, but appears in the books compiled by his son Christopher.

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