J.R.R Tolkien was a card-carrying fan of all things Welsh.
He loved the country, he loved the language, he loved the literature and became somewhat of an expert in it even busying himself working on both translations and his own epic Arthurian poetry created in the style of the Welsh bardds. At the same time he was unhappy with the way that scribes and bards of the middle ages had taken the earliest oral traditions and re-assembled them in ways that he felt were deeply flawed.
Like ‘reassembling a stained glass window without design’ he is quoted as writing.
So the great respect and curiosity he held for the essence and themes of the stories did not extend to the middle age rendering of either scribe or bard.
But it was only as I was reviewing The Mabinogion for research on y Ddraig that I noticed the emergence of some very familiar themes in one of its stories. The Mabinogion was translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest from much older Welsh texts which, themselves, were written captures of vastly older oral tradition.
Authors Shippey and Day have already pointed out the similarities between Tolkien’s “The Tale of Beren & Luthien” (from his novel the Simarillion) with the story of Culhwch & Olwen from The Mabinogion.
I was looking at a different set of characters to Culhwch & Olwen. I was looking at Peredur (son of Evrawc) in the tales featured in the source document The Red Book of Hergest.
No question Tolkien would have been familiar with the story of Peredur from his own extensive study. But can we deduce that he has pared back either tale back to its essential human themes and then used them in new contexts in his own writing?
The source document for the Peredur tale is the Red Book of Hergest which is a document used as source material for a great deal of later writing by all kinds of authors. It is known that this is the book he had in mind when he created his own fictional book the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’ a fictional source from which hobbit-lore arose.
So he knew the Red Book and almost certainly the stories within, and he knew them well.
Like all Welsh tales—grouped, presumably, to aid in the recall/retelling by bards and in the comprehension by listeners—the story of Peredur is a long sequence of adventures (and misadventures) suffered by a young man out adventuring in the wilds of Wales. Amongst many adventures, he suffers one in particular which gives us three themes that are intriguingly common to the modern reader.
Out travelling unfamiliar lands, gentle and ill-equipped Peredur comes across a shabby little house in the middle of nowhere made poor by the greed of a ‘serpent’ which is curled around a golden ring and maintains a seven mile exclusion zone to keep people at bay. For no explained reason (perhaps simply because it was deemed heroic to middle age audiences) Peredur battles the dragon serpent violently and desperately, wins, and takes the ring. Subsequently he is then overcome with ‘extreme longing’ for the things he values most and loses both condition and colour in their wanting.
An ill-equipped man out questing on adventures unknown whose bravery and courage grows across the story. A ring, guarded by a nasty, desperate, creature. A man subsequently filled with longing/avarice after taking the ring. Drained of his vigour and colour. A dragon archetype, hoarding treasure.
All these themes are strong in his famous works, The Hobbit and (later) The Lord of the Rings.
In fact, now that I’ve realised what a massive critical studier of Welsh literature Tolkien was, both books make so much more sense. I was always vaguely annoyed at the processive nature of one adventure after the other but, looking at it now with my Welsh goggles on, it is clearly modelled in the style of bardic tradition. Long, epic, progressive tales that grew as new adventures were added.
I like it all the more for it.