Reviewed by Sandra Scholes
Rather than reviewing a book about Tolkien and the movies that have been made from his novels, it is refreshing to be able to review Higgens’s novel that concentrates on what life would have been like in Anglo-Saxon times through Tolkien’s books and the story of Beowulf. The book is, for the most part split with several sections; the relation to Beowulf to Tolkien’s works and the fairy stories and monsters taking bits from Anglo-Saxon culture and myth.
The four main chapters are Through the Mead-Hall Building, The Role of the Lord Comitatus and Gift-Giving and the Lady with the Mead-Cup. Here Higgens explains the Beowulf poem and that the Mead-Hall spoke of the heart of the community as strength and happiness and she uses it to give us an idea of what the Mead-Hall would have resembled in those times too. She goes into the rituals that would have gone on in the hall that praised their lord. The structure of Rohan is one such construction that has its inspiration from the poem Heorot in Beowulf. There are other stories that cover the whole Mead-Hall theme and each one is enlightening as to the myth. The Role of the Lord Comitatus and Gift-Giving explains the lord as king and his dealings with his men. The Lady with a Mead-Cup is about how the lady or queen has social standing amid a hall full of men, and of course, her king.
Fairy Stories and monsters tell us more on the Cauldron story and how Tolkien used it in his works with Higgens mentioning that both Beowulf and Tolkien featured the myths of Anglo-Saxon history to create their own type of stories. By basing them on Anglo-Saxon culture and myth, they give a sense of realism to their stories, especially Tolkien who like to fuse fact with fiction as well as the myths. Although Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has some bearing in this chapter, more is written on Beowulf.
There is a lot of research that has gone into making this as good a read as it is, with the focus being on specific chapters and specific myth, it also goes on to clarify each myth for us. As readers might have guessed, this gives the impression it is an academic book, yet for those who want to find out more on how Tolkien came up with the various characters and settings for his novels, it is a real gem of a book and one that should not by any means be overlooked. Through the study of Beowulf Higgens cites how Tolkien used Anglo-Saxon legend and myth to show the customs and their influence on that society. Through what Higgens says we get to see what happened in the Halls of Rohan with the mortals, their unusual customs, the different elven lands and their own customs and how they educated and brought up their own children.