Art Economics Low Politics Decline Political Theology Power Geopolitics

A New Heroic Archetype: Moving Beyond Tolkien

A New Heroic Archetype: Moving Beyond Tolkien
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge / Unsplash

Stories for a Winter Age

In the summer of 2023, Scyldings hosted a conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Many were drawn from across the USA to discuss an important subject: how can we forge a common foundation within the Dissident Right, with particular relation to the American context. The speeches were of a very high calibre, each speaker addressing the issue with imagination, wit and foresight. It is not at many conferences that you will get talks that range from the Spanish Civil War, to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, to 3D gun printing. If you have not already, you should definitely pre-order the event book.

Dave the Distributist gave a speech that was a formative influence upon this post. Without wanting to spoil it (again, buy the book!), he challenged the audience to consider the kinds of story we tell about ourselves. Every community defines itself through the tales it celebrates and recites. The stories that have dominated the West following World War Two have elevated Faustian individualism. Heroes triumph by throwing off the shackles of restraint. As Dave pointed out, many of the stories that we in the DR enjoy have this underlying message. In Star Wars, for example, a band of plucky rebels must overcome the tyrannical empire. It is a tale of liberation from authority that maps on well to the progressive spirit of the 1960s and 70s. Many in that period believed that by transgressing sexual norms and moral conventions they were like Luke Skywalker, asserting the liberty of the individual against the stifling culture of 1950s Christian suburbia.

We were not born in a Summer of Love but in an Age of Winter. Our culture is stuck in a series of endless reboots because it returns to an optimistic tale, the absolute liberation of the individual. It does not match with our experience of decline; it is not authentic to the spirit of our age. Dave challenged his audience to develop stories that emerge from and address the challenges of today, to tell stories for a Winter people. Not only will such narratives bring fresh creativity to the stale art, literature and media of the West; they can provide a foundation upon which communities can survive and (hopefully) flourish amongst the ruins.

What would a story appropriate for the Age of Winter look like? There are many ways to address this question. For my own part, I was interested in engaging with the issue from the perspective of mythology, fantasy and science fiction. If stories like Star Wars belong to a different time, what kinds of sci-fi should we be producing today? Is there anything in these genres that would be more appropriate for the spirit of our time? Instinctually, my mind first turned to Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings: The Anglo-Saxon’s Last Stand

In a lecture delivered in 1936 entitled ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’, J.R.R. Tolkien outlined his understanding of the ancient Germanic worldview. Though the pagan mythology of the Anglo-Saxons had been lost, Tolkien thought that the Norse Sagas gave insight into the metaphysical and moral universe one encounters in a poem like Beowulf. He describes a dualistic reality. The gods, led by Odin, are in a perpetual conflict with the giants and monsters. With the help of the Valkyrie, Odin calls to Asgard the mightiest heroes of men. At the appointed time, these great warriors die in battle so that they can be brought to the hall of Valhalla. There they drink, feast and train for the war against the foes of the gods. Eventually, a cataclysmic fight will commence: Ragnarök. Surtr, the fire giant, will lead his forces against the Asgardians. Odin will be devoured by Fenrir the wolf; Thor and the World Serpent will slay each other; and Surtr will envelop the world in fire. The gods will be defeated, as the fates had decreed aeons before. Nonetheless, Odin and the heroes of old will fight on, defiantly standing against the monstrous horde, though they know they are doomed to die.

Old English poetry shared this world picture, albeit through a Christian lens. The land was punctuated by the halls of great kings, such as Heorot in Beowulf. These were places of warmth and sanctuary. Men huddled around the hearth, eating good food and listening to bards recount the mighty deeds of heroes long gone. Outside these safe places were cold winds and icy rains. Within the wilderness dwelled monsters. Man eating trolls (like the Giant Grendel), witches (such as Grendel’s mother) and dragons haunt the wastes. These cursed sons of Cain are the foes of God and men, regardless of their political allegiances. They press in against the walls of the hall, ever seeking to encroach upon and defile the comfort and goodness found within. Though these beasts can be repelled for a time, such as when Beowulf slew Grendel, they will be victorious in due course. Even Beowulf, slayer of sea serpents, was himself mortally wounded by a Worm who had wrought havoc within his realm. As his body was placed upon the funeral pyre, an old Geatish woman lamented that a time of enslavement and destruction was at hand.

The Anglo-Saxons did not succumb to despair in the face of inevitable decay and ruin. Rather, they embraced what Tolkien variously called the ‘Northern Heroic Spirit’ or ‘Northern Courage’. Like Odin facing an overwhelming foe, they celebrated those, such as Beowulf, who fought on even if doing so was hopeless. Defeat at the hands of a stronger foe was not a refutation of the beaten warrior. Only cowardice and retreat were a mark of shame for the Saxon or Viking. The most famous expression of this conviction can be found in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, an epic and elegiac telling of a historical battle between the Saxons and the Danes on 11th August 991 AD. Earl Byrhtnoth led his warriors in defence of Essex against a Viking invasion. The Norsemen were too strong and Byrhtnoth was slain. Some of his men turned tail, but his bodyguard remained. As Tolkien notes, they fulfilled their duty, stood fast and defended what they loved. They were praiseworthy because even though death was inevitable, they fought tooth and nail to protect their people, their lord, their kingdom.

The tragic worldview that permeates Anglo-Saxon literature influenced the dynamics we encounter in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The world is made up of a few safe havens. Places like the Shire, Rivendell and Lothlórien are sanctuaries, domains where food is flowing, ale is spilled and pipeweed is smoked. They are shielded from the harsh and hostile world outside. Orcs, trolls and other foul creatures roam the wilds. Woods are filled with black hearted trees; mountains send gales to prevent passage over them. Nature is a threat. A Dark Lord, Sauron, rules over a desert filled with miserable slaves and ravenous monsters. He seeks to conquer the whole world. It is only a matter of time until he is victorious. Whereas once before mighty heroes like Elendil could resist and even push back the forces of darkness, such is not the case now. The Elves are fading and will soon leave Middle-earth. The Kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan are in decay, a shadow of their former glories. Once ruled by strong warriors, they are now left to old men consumed by despair.

Nonetheless, the protagonists do not surrender or flee. They fight for what they have, they defend what they love. When roused from his depression Théoden, King of Rohan, leads his people in a defiant last stand on two occasions. At the Battle of Helm’s Deep, when his forces have been crushed by the Uruk-hai of Saruman the wizard, he and his remaining men charge forth from the keep in glorious defiance. Again, at the Battle of the Pelenor Fields, with the host of Sauron before him, Théoden rallies his men to charge the enemy line. Like an Anglo-Saxon figure of legend, he cries:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

In the Peter Jackson film adaptation, the Northern Courage of the Rohirrim is even more pronounced as they shout ‘Death!’ three times before charging into Sauron’s army.

The Defensive Hero

It would be fair to characterise The Lord of the Rings, then, as a tale that incorporates the Norse and Old English picture of the world. Heroes defend the last few havens against insurmountable odds. However, whereas the Anglo-Saxon is resigned to defeat, Tolkien’s tales are informed by his belief in the resurrection of Christ. Several times in the narrative we encounter a situation when all seems lost and then, suddenly, out of nowhere, help arrives. Gandalf and Erkenbrand appear just when Théoden makes his charge out of the Hornburg; Aragorn and the Grey Company relieve the beleaguered defenders of Minas Tirith; and Frodo’s failure to destroy the Ring is saved unintentionally by the intervention of Gollum. It is tragic Norse paganism inflected with a Christian twist.

Nevertheless, the tale’s heroes are primarily defensive in nature. While some, like Boromir and Eowyn, seek glory, most of the protagonists fight to protect what they love. Frodo and Sam set out to destroy the Ring to save the Shire; Théoden does battle to preserve his people; Aragorn confronts his foes to restore the Kingdom of Gondor. They do not go in search of adventure, lands to conquer or treasures to plunder. Nor do they seek to overthrow authority and achieve individual liberation. Far from it. Instead, they perform their duty, making a last stand for what they value. This resolute attitude is best expressed by Faramir, a captain of Gondor:

I do not love the sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.

There are several reasons why Tolkien’s heroes follow this defensive, somewhat passive, archetype. Like the Saxon hero, they live in a world where they have something worth holding onto that is under threat from an encroaching menace. This may have been Tolkien’s experience. He lived in an era when many of the things he loved were under attack. The rural English countryside, the university, English culture and Christian faith: all these were increasingly marginalised by big industry and progressivism. Nonetheless, remnants of these things remained, such as the presence of traditional thinkers, like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, in university settings. There was still a Shire to fight for and a Gondor to defend, and many young men lost their lives doing so in the two World Wars.

Additionally, Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith made him wary of the vices that can afflict the hero. In an essay entitled ‘Ofermode’, he drew attention to a problem raised by the Anglo-Saxon emphasis on Northern Courage. Though that was a noble virtue, because it was praiseworthy many would seek out dangerous situations to gain the respect due to those who were brave. In so doing, they needlessly imperilled themselves and those in their care. Tolkien cites the commander at the Battle of Maldon, Byrhtnoth, as an example. As the poem begins, we learn that the Saxons are lined up on the riverbank. They are ready to repel the Norsemen as they land on the shore. The natives have a decisive advantage and will probably slaughter the invaders. The Vikings send a messenger to Byrhtnoth asking if he would remove his troops from the bank so that the two sides can have a fair fight. Seeking greater glory, he agrees. His decision, motivated by vanity and pride, resulted in the slaughter of his men and the conquest of his people. The pursuit of glory as an end in itself harms the defence of what one loves, hence it is largely absent from and presented in a negative light in Tolkien’s works

Moreover, The Lord of the Rings wrestles with the dangers of power. Early on, Frodo offers to the wizard Gandalf the Ring of Power. He vehemently refuses this gift. Though he would use it for good, he fears that it would turn him into a tyrant bent on enforcing the ‘common good’. Furthermore, those who pursue power, even if initially for the betterment of others, will in the end be consumed by a lust for domination. The temptation of power leads to the sundering of loyalties, the murder of friends and the enslavement of the Other. Tolkien tells a cautionary tale that warns against wanting power, even to put the world right. It is unsurprising that, in the main, his heroes defend an established order and do not seek out greater powers than they already have. The ideal he presents at the end of the tale is that of a distant king who safeguards a semi-anarchic pre-industrial society (the Shire). Finally, Tolkien wants to highlight that human agency is not enough to win the day. Even the strongest fall, as illustrated when temptation breaks Frodo’s will at Mount Doom. We need grace and mercy, the aid of unseen help, to rescue us. The limited ambition of Tolkien’s heroes reflects this emphasis within his stories.

Odin: A Hero for Winter

The Lord of the Rings is an Autumn story. Middle-earth is a world in decay, its peoples are in decline and ruin seems inevitable. However, all that is good has not been completely corrupted. There is still something to fight for. The heroes defend what they love, even if it is seemingly futile. At the end of the tale, they are able to return and renew their homelands. Though in the broader legendarium this is a temporary reprieve before ‘the long defeat’ is final, it is a halt on the darkness nonetheless. Even Thorin Oakenshield is a hero for the Autumn, although he is closer to Winter than most. Although he and his dwarves live in exile, their quest is to retake their homeland. It is Beowulf-like, insofar as they must evict the tenant, in this case Smaug the Dragon, and then they will be able to carry on as before. They fight for something that still exists.

Tolkien’s tales are wonderful, imaginative and stirring. They express the melancholic defiance of a man witnessing the decline of his beloved England. But do they speak for us today? Can a people who have lost everything rely upon a tale about fighting for the good things they still have, even if they are under threat? There is very little, if anything, left over from Tolkien’s time to ours. The Shire is gone, Gondor is a ruin and the orcs have multiplied. We cannot replicate an Aragorn because we do not have anything of our own to defend or restore. Winter has come. Most of us are more like nomads wandering the wilderness after the final defeat than men steadfastly protecting their homelands to the end. Though these tales can move us and draw on deep truths buried in our cultural heritage, they do not speak to our age. Their heroes are not the right ones for today. A new class of champion is needed in the tales we tell ourselves.

In an article published last year, Mike from Imperium Press presented a framework that should move us beyond the Left-Right dichotomy: the Odinic-Tyrrhic. It will be worth quoting his summary:

Odin represents the Great Man, and Tyr represents the Maintainer of Order. Moreover, you may notice that these are not opposites, but complements. Any sovereign necessarily discharges both functions—Odin and Tyr are co-sovereigns. Lastly, these are not equals; the one prevails over the other—Odin is the high god, Tyr subordinate to him.

In the Norse Sagas, Odin became king of the gods through violence. He killed Ymir, the first giant, and used his corpse to fashion the universe. By right of conquest, he thus established a new order, his domain, within which his rule directed the course of the world. This is a variation of the Chaoskampf motif found in many ancient traditions: a warrior god slays a monster, representing chaos, and uses their remains to produce a realm for him to rule. They thereby overthrow the old order (nature/chaos) and establish their own. In this sense, Odin is a destroyer and creator, a whirlwind who tears up all that is not tied down and brings new possibilities.

Odin was the first figure to feature in Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History (1841). He was an example of what Carlyle called a ‘Great Man’. Such are unique individuals who, driven by absolute conviction, are able to remould the world according to their vision and strength of will. The Carlylian hero is a great man who overthrows an insincere, corrupt and wicked order, replacing it with a regime that implements the laws of justice. Most of us are drawn by the magnetism of these individuals to follow and love them, caught up in their transformation of reality. When set in the cyclical histories of thinkers like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the Carlylian Great Man is he who lights the spark of a new civilisation. When the older order can no longer face the challenges of the day, there can arise an individual, such as Julius Caesar, the Prophet Muhammad or Napoleon Bonaparte, who brings new lifeblood and energy, reshaping the political paradigm with new values, ideas and will to struggle.

The Odinic Great Man is the hero for a Winter age because they bring Spring into being. As my friend Brother Alexander has suggested, many great heroes return a people to Spring regardless of the season they are in. This is more pronounced in the Winter Hero. They overturn what has gone before and remake it into something new. Such a character conquers the wilderness and establishes a new kingdom. These heroes clear the ruins and set in their place new foundations. They are the flood, chaos and law combined. As such, the Carlylian Great Man belongs at the end of Winter, for they are the transition from death to rebirth. The time is ripe for these individuals when there is nothing left to hold on to. While carrying some of the past with them, they do so in a new form. The old values and practices are reworked to meet the challenges of the present day.

For those in the age of Winter, such a hero is important. Their stories give us hope amidst the ruins. We discover anew our purpose within the cycle. Someone has to pave the way for a future Odin. The coming of Jesus was foretold by John the Baptist. He prepared the people for the coming Messiah. Moreover, the Great Man does not spring out of a hole in the ground: he is the product of a community. It takes a particular kind of people, such as the puritan faithful, to give rise to an Oliver Cromwell. Our task is to build and maintain the kind of people that would produce and aid a Carlylian hero. It may be beyond our lifetimes that such a figure emerges, but nonetheless the building starts here. Moreover, life imitates art. What is presented in fantasy often becomes reality. It seeds into the collective consciousness possibilities that then get taken up in due course. What is more, this archetype is already rising. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and the BBC’s recent documentary on Julius Caesar are both attempts at discrediting their respective subjects. But the very fact they thought it necessary to tarnish the Great Man of history highlights that this archetype is on the move in the popular psyche. The hero for a Winter Age is coming. We must recognise this and embrace it in the stories we tell.

Planting Seeds

Reading The Lord of the Rings is a good thing to do. It is a landmark work which re-presents to a modern audience Northwestern European culture. The story confronts the important things in life, wrestles with the fallibility of all and encourages even the smallest of us to play our part. You can spend countless hours exploring the magnificent world Tolkien produced. His heroes make you consider your values and provide role models for those in the pursuit of virtue. You will be a more informed and richer person for having read Tolkien’s legendarium. For these reasons, I have produced several videos, livestreams and essays on Middle-earth.

So, this article is not a plea to abandon Tolkien. Far from it. Instead, it is an attempt to see the limitations in his work for our current time. His Tyrrhic heroes belong in the Autumn, whereas we dwell in the Winter. While we can enjoy his tales and learn much from them, it would be inauthentic to write stories that replicate his defiant and defensive protagonists. The people of Winter are led by the promise of an active hero who establishes a new land. The stories we tell as a community need to move beyond Tolkien’s Saxons towards the whirlwind of Odin.

This is easily said, but difficult to execute. As children of the ashes, it will be difficult to write convincing Carlylian heroes. We do not share their spirit. Moreover, there is a danger of falling into escapist power fantasies, where we gorge on dreams of punishing our enemies. Furthermore, it will be difficult to avoid boredom unless such heroes face genuine struggle as they bring in the spring. For this reason, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King do not focus on Arthur, for his purity makes him uninteresting. The poems focus upon the travails of his knights. However, Tennyson’s poetic sensibilities could show us a way to approach the Carlylian hero. Rather than seeing it as a singular individual, it could be construed as the collective effort of an organised minority. It was, after all, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that won the war against the wicked barons, not the King alone. Cromwell would not have succeeded without Thomas Fairfax, while Odin needed the help of his brothers to slay Ymir. Future stories could work on this premise, telling the tale of a group that constituted an Odinic force.

Whatever the form, the Carlylian Hero is the heroic archetype for our Winter Age. In one sense, this brand of hero is not new. It is as old as the myths of Babylon and Scandinavia. But it is novel in the sense that it marks a departure from the heroes that dominate modern fantasy and science fiction. It is time to move beyond Tolkien. We should prepare the way for the coming of Odin.

Many thanks to Rag Plays, Reen and Brother Alexander, whose thoughts and feedback have informed this article.