Tolkien and Hyperborea – The Four Ages of Middle-earth

It is somewhat surprising, given the popularity of Tolkien’s works, that relatively little attention has been paid to some of the supplementary artwork for The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. Among the more intriguing pieces produced by the author are the heraldic designs for the various Elven houses. To my mind, no one has yet considered the symbolic content of these family crests; perhaps the majority of fans regard them as no more than pretty patterns with vague nature themes.

Yet what if there was more to these images than that? What if they signified a great deal more than anyone has yet suspected?

The Symbolism of the Elven Sigils

Remarkably, the sigils of Finwë, Fëanor, Fingolfin, and Elwë all reproduce the same figure with minor variations – that is, the swastika. One wouldn’t necessarily recognise it as such unless one understood the symbolism of that figure, which is the “cosmic wheel”. The extended lines of the cross represent the rotation of the figure, and precisely the rotation around the axis of the pole. This accounts for the flames and solar imagery that adorn most of these sigils – for it is precisely at the North Pole that the Sun no longer appears to travel from East to West, but spins around on the spot. Traditional cultures have thus regarded this figure as a symbol of impassibility – the paradisical state that is immune to the changes and vicissitudes of the world.

Sigils of Finwë (left) and Fingolfin (right)

We might ask ourselves: can the movements of the Sun really have had any special significance for Tolkien? Would he even have considered this kind of symbolism? Fortunately, we have evidence in Tolkien’s own work that he did. As his son, Christopher Tolkien, writes:

Finally, at the end of all the early writing concerning it, it may be remarked how major a place was taken in my father’s original conception by the creation of the Sun and Moon and the government of their motions: the astronomical myth is central to the whole. Afterwards it was steadily diminished, until in the end, perhaps, it would have disappeared altogether.1

I think it would be fair to say that it never really diminished, it only shifted into the background, to form the metaphysical foundation of the world Tolkien created.

The one who has reached the North Pole is one who has escaped the alterations of fortune that he is prey to in the world, and has thus transcended time, with its cycles of birth and death. Now, on an immediate level this seems an appropriate symbol for the Elves, who are themselves uncorrupted (though not unaffected) by the passage of time and the changes of the world. Why, then, is it only applied to certain Elves in particular? Is there a more definite meaning to be found here that gives this symbol particular significance for these houses?

Hyperborea

The North Pole has been associated with traditional accounts of Hyperborea and the Hyperboreans – a land and a people said literally to dwell ‘above boreas’ (boreas perhaps signifying the North Wind). Among ancient peoples belief in a sacred geography was widespread, and some elements of this remain in the work of Greek authors such as Herodotus. His account, however, shows that the idea of a land to the North, Hyperborea, was already old when he attempted to verify its existence by interrogating those who (presumably) dwelt nearest to it, the Scythians:

About a Hyperborean people the Scythians report nothing, nor do any of those who dwell in this region, unless it be the Issedonians: but in my opinion neither do these report anything; for if they did the Scythians also would report it, as they do about the one-eyed people. Hesiod however has spoken of Hyperboreans, and so also has Homer in the poem of the “Epigonoi,” at least if Homer was really the composer of that Epic.

[…]

Let this suffice which has been said of the Hyperboreans; for the tale of Abaris, who is reported to have been a Hyperborean, I do not tell, namely how he carried the arrow about all over the earth, eating no food. If however there are any Hyperboreans, it follows that there are also Hypernotians; and I laugh when I see that, though many before this have drawn maps of the Earth, yet no one has set the matter forth in an intelligent way; seeing that they draw Ocean flowing round the Earth, which is circular exactly as if drawn with compasses, and they make Asia equal in size to Europe. In a few words I shall declare the size of each division and of what nature it is as regards outline.2

The very elusiveness of this tradition would no doubt have intrigued Tolkien, had he been familiar with the sources that touch upon it. As he wrote in a draft for his essay On Fairy Stories, ‘I feel strongly, the fascination of the attempt to unravel the intricately knotted and ramified history of fairy-tales’.3

The accounts of Hyperborea almost universally represent it as a kind of earthly paradise or utopia. Pindar wrote of it in his tenth Pythian ode:

Never the Muse is absent

from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry

and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.

Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed

in their sacred blood; far from labour and battle they live.

A very blessed state, such as Tolkien’s Elves seems to have enjoyed in Aman, another sacred land removed from the geography of the known world.

The lengthiest treatment of Hyperborea in ancient literature comes from the author Diodorus Siculus, who tantalisingly links it with an island ‘beyond the land of the Celts’; presumably Britain.

Now for our part, since we have seen fit to make mention of the regions of Asia which lie to the north, we feel that it will not be foreign to our purpose to discuss the legendary accounts of the Hyperboreans. Of those who have written about the ancient myths, Hecataeus and certain others say that in the regions beyond the land of the Celts there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island, the account continues, is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, who are called by that name because their home is beyond the point whence the north wind (Boreas) blows; and the island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and since it has an unusually temperate climate it produces two harvests each year. Moreover, the following legend is told concerning it: Leto was born on this island, and for that reason Apollo is honoured among them above all other gods; and the inhabitants are looked upon as priests of Apollo, after a manner, since daily they praise this god continuously in song and honour him exceedingly. And there is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape. Furthermore, a city is there which is sacred to this god, and the majority of its inhabitants are players on the cithara; and these continually play on this instrument in the temple and sing hymns of praise to the god, glorifying his deeds.

The Hyperboreans also have a language, we informed, which is peculiar to them, and are most friendly disposed towards the Greeks, and especially towards the Athenians and the Delians, who have inherited this good-will from most ancient times. The myth also relates that certain Greeks visited the Hyperboreans and left behind them there costly votive offerings bearing inscriptions in Greek letters. And in the same way Abaris, a Hyperborean, came to Greece in ancient times and renewed the good-will and kinship of his people to the Delians. They say also that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be but a little distance from the earth and to have upon it prominences, like those of the earth, which are visible to the eye. The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years, the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished; and for this reason the nineteen-year period is called by the Greeks the “year of Meton.” At the time of this appearance of the god he both plays on the cithara and dances continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades, expressing in this manner his delight in his successes. And the kings of this city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called Boreadae, since they are descendants of Boreas, and the succession to these positions is always kept in their family.4

Thus we have an ancient source which identifies Hyperborea with Britain (‘in the regions beyond the land of the Celts there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily […], situated in the north and […] inhabited by the Hyperboreans’), and we know that Tolkien intended to write a ‘mythology for England’ when he began constructing his legendarium.

Indeed, in his own words: ‘no one of us can really invent or ‘create’ in a void, we can only reconstruct and perhaps impress a personal pattern on ‘ancestral’ material’.5 Perhaps he had a specific meaning in mind when he spoke of this “ancestral’ material’; a Hyperborean ancestry, even?

It’s certainly the case that, initially, he had in mind a more direct association between the land of Faery and the Island of Britain. As the mythology developed, it expanded, and it would be fair to say that what began as a tale about Britain grew to encompass a much wider slice of the world. When he came to graft onto this tale the myth of Numenor, based, in his own words in an ‘Atlantis complex’, it is clear that his initial Boreacentrism would now be complicated by a new strand of tradition.

Proceeding ex hypothesi with this idea that the inclusion of Numenor represented a progressive stage in the development of Arda, we may speculate that Tolkien would have returned to his ancient sources to figure out how the myth of Atlantis fits into the wider sacred geography which included Hyperborea among other traditional spiritual “centres”.

The Four Yugas of Middle-earth

In using the language of ‘spiritual centres’ I am following the work of René Guénon, the traditionalist, who suggested that the origins of all cultures were to be found in such a centre – a concentrated point, as it were – in accordance with the metaphysical principle that nemo dat quod non habet (nothing gives what it doesn’t have). What is accomplished in the expansion of a culture (or lineage) must have been present, virtually or potentially, from the very beginning – as in a seed.

The spiritual centre, then, represents on a physical level the origins of a race – such as the Elves, in Tolkien’s mythology – which will develop and spread out across the globe, setting up subordinate centres along the way. For mankind, the ultimate centre is of course Eden, where Adam was created, yet Tolkien acknowledged that the Silmarillion was not anthropocentric but “Eldarocentric”; it was the story of the Eldar, the Elves. Immediately, then, we may wonder whether there may not be another spiritual centre, prior to Eden, which corresponds to the ‘first-born’ of Eru, the Elves.

Remarkably, Guénon identifies two traditional spiritual centres, one at the North Pole – which he calls the Hyperborean – and one (subordinate) centre in the West, associated with Atlantis. It would be impossible for these two to be coeval, since there can only be one primordial centre, and Guénon favours Hyperborea for this. Considering Tolkien’s mythology, the fact that Atlantis follows in the second place is very interesting. After all, Tolkien’s tale of Numenor and its downfall neatly brackets the Second Age of Arda, while the tale of the Elves in the ancient North of Arda – Beleriand – comes to an end at the close of the First Age.6 This fact alone suggests that Tolkien was quite deliberate in his association of each Age of Arda with the pre-eminence of a specific spiritual and geographic centre.

One tradition that incorporates such a historical scheme in the primary world is that of Hinduism. The Hindu term for an Age in the precise sense allotted it by Tolkien is a Yuga (Sanskrit: युग, lit. ’an age of the gods’). A complete cycle consists of four yugas, each of diminishing quality. This is symbolised in one aspect by the diminishing duration of each yuga, at a ratio of 4:3:2:1, accompanied by a dwindling of the lifespan of men according to each age.

The First Age is named the Satya Yuga or Krita Yuga, and is a “golden age” of peace and longevity for men. This, I submit, we can associate with the Hyperborean Age of Arda, when the Elves came to dwell in Beleriand. Of course, there are some problems that inhibit our making a direct association here, since the First Age was tainted by wars against Morgoth (a subject we will cover in more depth later in this article). I suggest that Tolkien was dealing, even in his mythology, with a more contingent and particular manifestation of this pattern, and contained the true utopia within the Undying Lands in the True West – in Aman. But more on that later.

The Second Age of Arda corresponds to the Treta Yuga, in which wars become frequent, and the lifespan of humans is shortened. This accords very well with Tolkien’s depictions of Numenor, which is created at the very start of the Second Age, for the habitation of Men. Already we are to recognise a diminishment from the epic First Age, but not so great as that of the Third Age.

The Dvapara Yuga follows much in the same direction. It is the Third Age, when Gandalf comes to Middle-earth to battle against Sauron, the Lord of the Ring. At the close of this Age the Elves depart into the True West, and the true dominion of Men beings.

Finally we have the Kali Yuga – the Iron Age. This, of course, is the Fourth Age of Middle-earth, which begins with the peace secured by the destruction of the Ring, in which the Hobbits prosper. Yet this age, naturally, sees a further decline in the lifespan of men, and increasing conflict and illness. It culminates in the catastrophic end of the total cycle, and, in the Hindu tradition, a restoration of that primordial state of the Krita Yuga, as the new cycle begins with a Golden Age. It should be noted that the end of the Yugas and the start of a new cycle is decidedly “Eucatastrophic” in Tolkien’s words – it is only when the world exhausts its potential for goodness that it can be “remade” so to speak, and we discover, emerging from the bottleneck of evil and conflict, that it was in some unforeseeable way, all for the ultimate Good. As Finrod says in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (Debate of Finrod and Andreth): ‘that Arda [Earth] Healed shall not be Arda Unmarred, but a third thing and a greater, and yet the same.’7

A Lost World

Tolkien makes it clear, for all his love of things Northern, that the Hyperborean Age as it is recorded in legend is irrecoverable. As he expressed it in a letter of 1945:

[C]ertainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’. […] As far as we can go back the nobler part of the human mind is filled with the thoughts of sibb, peace and goodwill, and with the thought of its loss. We shall never recover it, for that is not the way of repentance, which works spirally and not in a closed circle; we may recover something like it; but on a higher plane.8

Tolkien reveals here his very profound understanding of the progression of time; since “God does not repeat Himself”, a new Yuga cycle will not resemble in all respects the last. While the motion is cyclical in one respect, we are still moving forward, hence the ‘way of repentance’ the only way forward for us, ‘works spirally and not in a closed circle’. Attempts merely to revive the past, however well intentioned they seem, can only be to work against the grain of history, and in a sense to resist the path of repentance.

Tolkien and the Swastika

It would be somewhat remiss of me, since I began this whole enquiry on the basis of a symbol found in the heraldry of the Elves, not to address the significance of the swastika in Tolkien’s own time.

As much as Tolkien loved the Northern spirit, he had, in his lifetime, seen it defiled and misapplied in the worst possible ways by Nazism. It would be fair to say that the Nazis had inverted or reversed the very significance of the emblems they employed – the swastika, that symbol of the pole. Rather than signifying conformity to the peaceful order of the cosmos, the Nazi swastika signified in its use world domination under an evil ideology. To this day it arouses strong feelings.

Few in his own day repudiated the Nazi ideology with greater insight than Tolkien. As he put it, in a letter to his son Michael in June, 1941:

There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people image in the ‘Germanic’ ideal. I was much attracted by it as an undergraduate (when Hitler was, I suppose, dabbling in paint, and had not heard of it), in reaction against the ‘Classics’. You have to understand the good in things to detect the real evil. But no one ever calls on me to ‘broadcast’, or do a postscript! Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense. Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge – which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.9

In another letter he attempted to correct the impression that he was exclusively devoted to this ‘noble northern spirit’:

Auden has asserted that for me ‘the North is a sacred direction’. That is not true. The North-West of Europe, where I […] have lived, has my affection, as a man’s home should […] But it is not ‘sacred’, nor does it exhaust my affection. I have, for instance, a particular love for the Latin language.10

As to the power of emblems, Tolkien was interviewed by Denys Gueroult for the BBC in 1964, and part of their exchange concerned the symbolic content of the Rings:

Geroult: These are trees [in the Rings] that are more than trees…

Tolkien: Oh yes

G: …because they are symbols of great importance. Is there something in your own life, in your own background…

T: They’re not symbols to me at all. I don’t work in symbols at all, other people can find that they are symbolic – they may be symbols in my mind, but they’re not symbols to me in my conscious mind at all. I’m entirely historically minded.

G: Well, this is true, perhaps, but nevertheless you use the white tree of Minas Tirith as a symbol of lordship, of kingship do you not?

T: Oh well yes yes, an emblem certainly, yes.

G: But not symbolic of anything more than…

T: Well what are the leopards of England symbolic of?

G: I state I take your point.

If we take Tolkien at his word, he acknowledges there to be ‘emblems’ in his story; and if this is not merely evasiveness, then clearly he has something quite specific in mind.

In a poem dedicated to fellow Inkling Charles Williams, Tolkien demonstrated that he was not altogether fond of the former’s Arthurian poetry. Remarking on its fanciful representation of the Byzantine Empire, Tolkien writes:

…For War, I must confess,

Eagles to me no more than Ravens bless,

no more that Fylfot, or Chrysanthemum

blown to a blood-red Sun.

The Fylfot is another name for the swastika, which Tolkien himself utilised in his heraldic designs. He regards Byzantium, mythical or otherwise, as only ‘one greater hive,/rotting within while outwardly alive,/where power corrupts and the venal thrive;’ displaying a notable scepticism towards Williams’ representation of it as the “City of God” in an Augustinian sense. Clearly, Tolkien is drawing parallels with the contemporary situation of the second world war, and the pretensions of the axis powers.

Yet his reference to the symbols of these powers ‘bless[ing]’ is curious, especially given his own use of the traditional swastika figure. Could it be that part of his ‘private grudge’ with Hitler (as he described it once) was the perversion of this traditional symbol; and with that, is there an acknowledgement of its talismanic properties? These references to the emblems of Nazi Germany and Japan, in the context of war, recall his mention of the ‘leopards of England’ in the BBC interview. He implied there that such emblems did not signify in the manner of symbols, but I do not think we can infer from this that they have no power for Tolkien. Rather, I suggest that the emblem for Tolkien is precisely something concrete, real, and even magical.

On the other hand, Tolkien’s association of magic with technology is well established, as is his disapproval of both. The Elven sigils, we may infer, are not “magical” in the debased sense in which the Nazis used the swastika – they are not intended to manipulate, but rather to signify and even to actualise the allegiance of the Elves to the sacred order of the cosmos, and their obedience to Eru. The sigils’ meaning, then, is not coercive (which Tolkien regarded as the ultimate evil) but revelatory, and submissive.

Allegory and Romance

Is this then, a secondary significance to the conflicts of the First Age, in Beleriand – the Hyperborea of Arda? Is the war against Morgoth a mythical war against Nazism, for the conquest of the North? Before my critics leap to gainsay this proposal, on the basis of Tolkien’s distaste for allegory, allow me to cite two letters he wrote to his son Christopher on the nature of those early legends about Beleriand:

Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels.11

He had written, earlier, that:

You are inside a very great story! I think also that you are suffering from suppressed ‘writing’. […] I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes.12

In a letter dated 10th June 1944, he seems to follow up on the same conversation:

‘As for what to try and write: I don’t know. I tried a diary with portraits […] of persons and events seen; but I found it was not my line. So I took to ‘escapism’: or really transforming experience into another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalie (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on; and it has stood me in good stead in many hard years since and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out.’13

Of course, the bulk of these legends had been ‘hammered out’ long before any kind of Nazi party existed, so there can be no question of a direct allegory. Nevertheless, that there is applicability I think few could contest; and, I would hazard, even a prophetic sense to these tales, given what did follow in the 20th century. Yet (lest we forget it) Tolkien was far too wise to apportion all the orcs to the “other side”, and recognised the spirit of Mordor very much alive in Britain and all the Allied countries. The real allegory was always the ‘inner war’ against the powers and principalities, which all men must fight.

Tolkien and Dee’s Monas – Patterns of Orientation

Carl Lingard, an independent researcher, has done much work to uncover Tolkien’s “secret grammar”; a sacred geometry which undergirds all his major works. He is probably the first person to associate John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica with Tolkien’s legendarium.

Now the Monas of the title is a figure to which Dee ascribed ultimate significance. Without wanting to get into the nitty-gritty of Dee’s convoluted symbolism, he wrote that this figure would undergo four revolutions, and that each orientation, with regards to the cardinal directions, represented a significant change in the conditions of the world.

We assert that the reasoning, which our Ancestors extolled is not as complete and exact as the one we will now make known. It is neither in the power of NATURE, nor any ART to impel any MOVEMENT or progress UNLESS IT BE BY FOUR Supercelestial Revolutions. After this, the MONAD will be wholly and fully Physically Restored (then, indeed, it is a MOST UNITED MONAS, what the Magi proclaim as ONENESS).14

If Lingard is correct in associating the scheme of Tolkien’s legendarium with Dee’s Monas, it matters all the more which spiritual “centre” comes first chronologically. Of course, the true centre must surely be one that transcends all four points of the compass – the spiritual fifth point of the cross, at its centre. Nevertheless, if we assume that Tolkien maintained that Hyperborea was associated with the North (as in the point on the compass, considered in relation to the other cardinal directions), and came first chronologically, then we can see that the Kali Yuga corresponds to the East – i.e. with Eden. Yet as a faithful Catholic he would have to maintain that this was actually the True centre as far as mankind is concerned.

I think, then, that the ‘third turn’ here refers to the return to Eden. If we start at North, we rotate first toward the West, second towards the South, and third, toward the East. As I remarked earlier:

[The Kali Yuga] culminates in the catastrophic end of the total cycle, and, in the Hindu tradition, a restoration of that primordial state of the Krita Yuga, as the new cycle begins with a Golden Age. It should be noted that the end of the Yugas and the start of a new cycle is decidedly “Eucatastrophic” in Tolkien’s words – it is only when the world exhausts its potential for goodness that it can be “remade” so to speak, and we discover, emerging from the bottleneck of evil and conflict, that it was in some unforeseeable way, all for the ultimate Good. As Finrod says in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (Debate of Finrod and Andreth): ‘that Arda [Earth] Healed shall not be Arda Unmarred, but a third thing and a greater, and yet the same.’15

The end of the story – the true story – is a return to Eden; not the first Eden, ‘but a third thing and a greater, and yet the same.’

1 The Book of Lost Tales, p.228

2 Herodotus Book 4: Melpomene 32; 36, in The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek, tr. G. C. Macaulay, (1890)

3 Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B – pg. 219, V. Flieger and D. Anderson, 2014

4 Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book II, 47–48, published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935, pp.39-41

5 Tolkien Letter to L.M. Cutts, 26th October 1958

6 That the houses associated with the “cosmic wheel” sigil are those that left Valinor to travel to Beleriand is significant, affirming its association with Hyperborea.

7 Morgoth’s Ring, p.318

8 Letters, Letter 96 to Christopher Tolkien, 30th January 1945 p.110

9 Letters, Letter 45 to Michal Tolkien, 9 June 1941, pp.55-6

10 Letters, p.376

11 Letters, Letter 71, To Christopher Tolkien, 25 May 1944, p.82

12 Letters, Letter 66, 6 May 1944, p.78

13 Letters, Letter 73, p.85

14 Monas Hieroglyphica, p.27r

15 Morgoth’s Ring, p.318

Cover Image is White Ships From Valinor Copyright Ted Nasmith.

One thought on “Tolkien and Hyperborea – The Four Ages of Middle-earth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s