Sometimes important books do not make their presence obvious. What if I told you there was a book, a reasonably sized book of about 400 pages of reading that managed to explain three different but interconnected historical mysteries. One, where did Tolkien’s approach to Middle Earth come from and how is it connected to the larger body of literature that had come before it? Two, how is it that the English speaking people were so intent on calling the Germans Huns during World War I, and what significance did it have when it came to Anglo-American nationalism? Three, what differences exist between the English and German treatments of the various myths of the time before the German people became part of Western civilization through their adoption of Christianity in England in the continent in the seventh and eighth and ninth centuries? To be sure, these are questions that may not interest a lot of people, but as someone who has enjoyed reading a diverse amount of literature, these are questions of interest to me, and the fact that they are questions which are illuminated by a single obscure book is even more intriguing.
Let us begin with Tolkien. Over the past couple of decades at least half a dozen massively successful films have been made from Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium, and numerous aspects of this larger mythic world have been published for various readers who have been, for a variety of reasons, unwilling to tackle the sprawling mess of the Simarillion and various related tales. Yet for many readers, Tolkien’s writing seems to come out of nowhere. After all, no one today, except perhaps in parody, writes like Tolkien does. Literary critics sneer at the flatness of characters and the deliberately formal and archaic aspects of speech that can be found in the Middle Earth series, and readers tend to think of Tolkien as an entirely original genius. Yet when we read William Morris’ The Roots Of The Mountains, we come face to face with the same sort of mixture of song and prose epic, the same flat characters, the same elevated language and stilted dialogue. I believe Tolkien was a better writer than Morris, but they were clearly the same kind of writers interested in telling the same kind of tale. Reading Morris reminds us that while Tolkien was a skilled writer, his Middle Earth was not quite as original as many might think, and it is for the better that we understand at least some of that context by reading Morris.
In reading The Roots Of The Mountain we not only read people with bizarrely on-the-nose names talking in stilted but honorable phrases to each other, but we also are put in a story that shows freedom loving Germanic peoples banding together to fight a defiling and dusky horde of Huns. Indeed, the novel is unsparing in its harsh view of the Huns and in their brutality. In reading this book one can feel a certain amount of the immense hostility shown by the English towards the Germans during World War I. At first glance, one might think that the Germans and the English, as a result of their common Germanic language and their similarities in history, might have come to terms with each other. By World War II the idea of a common Germanic identity had become highly problematic due to Nazi anti-Semitism, something that the pro-Germanic Roots Of The Mountains does not possess, but during World War I it was quite possible that this appeal would have made sense. And yet when one sees the militaristic Huns being condemned on page after page, one can see why it was that the English (and Americans) viewed the Germans not as racial and linguistic kindred (which they were) but as some kind of cosmic evil that drew disunited and disparate but freedom loving peoples together in order to oppose them. This myth is powerful as historical fiction, and it had consequences in helping to encourage the United Kingdom and the United States (among others) to stand together against German militarism. The historical and literary undergirding of that unity has, sadly, been forgotten today.
And it is telling as well that The Roots Of The Mountain provides an alternative to Wagner’s portrayal of the same conflict in his cycle of operas. It is not by accident that Wagner became ensnared in the problem of German identity politics, or that the nihilism of his opera would be oddly prophetic in looking at the destruction of Germany in two world wars that Germany started through its aggression against almost all of its neighbors simultaneously. It is also not by accident that Morris’ portrayal of this history is far more sympathetic than Wagner’s is. We get no incest, and indeed nothing more scandalous than a man who breaks an engagement with a woman because he falls in love with another woman whose wisdom he respects and whose beauty he finds transcendent. And even the spurned woman finds a worthy husband of her own, and so ultimately this breaking of troth does not lead to a rupture within their society. While Wagner reveled in the gloom and in the heathen culture of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, Morris portrays the Anglo-Saxons as being almost Christian in their sense of honor and decorum, and as holy warriors in a fight against evil. The gulf between Hitler’s Nazi view of German origins and the Anglo-Saxon view of their Germanic heritage could hardly be wider, or more significant, than in looking at how they treated the same historical materials of their cultural past.
What all of this means is that books have consequences. This is true even of books that are so obscure that they are seldom read, much less understood. Knowing certain books helps us to understand larger contexts that would be impoverished by their absence. We can see how a book can help inspire how it is that fundamentally good and decent people (in our own mind) can fight against cosmic evils, and how that fight can be portrayed in a way that does not wallow in the darkness and brutality of war. We can see how a reader can pick up some hints on style and approach from an earlier writer and do the same thing better in a fantasy rather than a historical setting. We can gain evidence for how to view the influence of works on the language and worldview of readers, even after the inspiration is forgotten by future generations. And we can view how different writers with different perspectives treat the same historical materials based on their worldviews and approach and how that reveals the gulf that exists between people divided by different interpretations of the same history and culture that they share between them. Surely such lessons are important for a time like ours, are they not?