Sunday, January 19, 2014

Abyssinian Gondar

So, earlier this month I came across a reference to a new book on Tolkien that I hadn't heard anything about: Michael Muhling's THE REAL MIDDLE-EARTH.

This is not to be confused with an earlier book of the same title, THE REAL MIDDLE EARTH, by Brian Bates [2003], which I have but have not yet read. Bates' book seems to focus on Medieval England, while Muhling believes The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Abyssinia, the ancient country now known as Ethiopia. This has the virtue of being a new idea (or at least a new revival and expansion of a v. old idea) in a field where too many new books recycle ideas already thoroughly explored by others. The question then becomes did he pull it off -- has this new idea coming out of left field been made into a persuasive case?

Having now just finished reading the book, I'd say it's really an essay stretched out to book length. The author, a Tolkien scholar from Perth, has ahold of an interesting idea, but a more concentrated presentation would have served him better. It's certainly interesting that a number of Ethiopian place-names resemble names in Tolkien's book (most notably Gondar, a former Ethiopian capital), but efforts to draw more parallels between Ethiopian history and the events in LotR (e.g. the smoke plume from Mt Doom being inspired by spray from the Blue Nile waterfall) don't really come off.* This is too bad, because Muhling is disarmingly aware of possible pitfalls -- there's a good section towards the end, for example, where he points out that knowing a person owned a certain book doesn't prove he read it, and likewise the absence of a particular book from someone's private collection doesn't mean he didn't read it. He even takes into account Tolkien's explicit statement in a 1971 letter about not being influenced by the name 'Gondar', from which Muhling acknowledges that any such influence must therefore be subconscious. And Muhling certainly does his due diligence in suggesting various works through which Tolkien cd have learned about Abyssinia -- primarily articles in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and books by E. Wallis Budge and Evelyn Waugh.

Not being cognizant of Ethiopian history other than in broad outline, I can't say whether Muhling has done a good job presenting it here, but I found his piecemeal approach a little hard to follow. I'm made somewhat wary by a certain carelessness in contradictory details within his text  -- for example, his statement that the language once spoken there, Ge'ez, is Semitic ("like Hebrew and Arabic"). True enough. But in the next sentence he goes on to assert that "Ge'ez is closely related to Latin" (p. 41). Given that the Ethiopians spoke a South Semetic language, and that Semetic belongs to the AfroAsiatic language group, and that Latin belongs to the IndoEuropean language group, that's simply not so. What he probably meant is that Ge'ez, as a liturgical language no longer spoken outside of rituals, Ge'ez fulfills a function within the Coptic Church that Latin once did within the Roman Church. But that's not what he said, and what he said is simply wrong. In another odd example, he says the Ethiopians invaded Yemen "around 300 AD" (p. 102), then on the next page says this was done at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (p. 103) -- who reigned from 527 to 565 AD. Two and a half centuries later.  Neither of these slips much affects his argument, but it does diminish my faith in the rest of the historical material he presents.

One point I really found surprising was Muhling's section (p. 124ff) about whether the Abyssinian town of Bahir Dar might have inspired Tolkien's Barad-dur. The names are similar, but Muhling's suggestion that Bahir Dar would have had negative association for Tolkien because it was a Jesuit stronghold seems inherently unlikely, as does the parallel Muhling seeks to draw between  (1) the Portuguese missionaries who first aided the Ethiopian Xians against Muslim encroachment and then sought to undermine the Coptic Church and (2) Sauron's treacherous guise as Lord of Gifts. That seems to be a stretch.

So, in the end an interesting idea but I'd say a failed execution which leaves its thesis -- possible inspiration from Abyssinia, or the legend of Prester John, as unproven as ever.

--John R.


Roger Echo-Hawk said...

I hope you don't mind if I draw your attention to my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland -- your work on The Hobbit was very helpful to me:

binihashem said...

The author of the lord of the rings was in Ethiopia 1year before he starts writing..