Middle Earth and Old English

Writing at the Chronicles Magazine blog, Aaron Wolf writes that J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of Middle Earth came from a poem in Anglo-Saxon(the earliest form of English) by Cynewulf called either “Christ” or “The Ascension.” Wolf provides a translation by Charles Kennedy:

Hail Day-Star!  Brightest angel sent to man *throughout the earth* [in Middle Earth], and Thou steadfast splendour of the sun, bright above stars!  Ever Thou dost illumine with Thy light the time of every season.  As Thou, begotten God of God, Son of the True Father, without beginning abodest ever in the splendour of heaven, so now for need Thy handiwork bessecheth  boldly that Thou send the bright sun unto us; that Thou come and shed Thy light on those who long ere this, compassed about with mist and in the darkness, clothed in sin, sit here in the long night, and must needs endure the dark shadow of Death.

The reference to Christ as the “brightest angel” is a bit jarring at first, but you can see that any potential confusion is clarified in the middle of the poem: “begotten God of God, Son of the True Father, without beginning abodest ever in the splendour of heaven.” Perhaps Cynewulf was using “angel” in the sense of “messenger.”

Hat tip: Joel via Google Reader



  1. The Middle = Throughout connection reminds me of a teaching I heard on the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which were in the “midst” of the garden. The idea was that “midst” meant “within and among” rather than what we think of as middle / center.

      • I’m not familiar enough with Tolkien to make a good guess about his implications… maybe a closer connection to being amongst us and throughout our Earth, or perhaps he just meant it as a transition between Earths (e.g. between Paganism and Christianity)? I have no idea, really.

        Regarding the Bible, I think it suggests a symbolic or spiritual tree rather than a literal tree — in particular, I’ve seen the Tree of Life compared to Holy Spirit being within and among us. Eating of the Tree might correspond to utilizing the fruits of the Spirit.

        Eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that is likewise in the “midst” might be the decision to choose Evil and thereby know the difference between Good and Evil (since they had only known Good). A choice that subtly began as everything went from “Good” to “Not Good”, to permitting Satan in the garden that they were to tend, to miscommunication, to their explicit choice and hiding from God.

        A lot can be read into the story. 🙂

  2. The Anglo-Saxon religious poems are really beautiful; my favorite is “The Dream of the Rood.” Good point about the use of “angel.” By itself it might be rather worrying, but Cynewulf clearly explains the truth of Christ’s eternal and divine nature. “Angel” merely meaning “messenger” seems most likely.

    • I have the Dream of the Rood in one of my collections. I need to go back and either read it or re-read it. I can’t remember if I have before.

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