these are my notes

As such, they are a mess. I type quickly and leave errors behind, I forget to use quote marks, although I usually remember to tag the author, I mis-categorize things, and I over-use Borges. But, as my notes, they work very well for me. I do hope that eventually they may be of some use to others, but these initial allowances must be taken into account. You are not reading a resource site about early medieval Europe. You are peeking into someone else’s notebook; you are coming along on an exploration. Welcome.

On the impersonal tone of the sagas

From P. Borges:

“the word saga is related to sagen, to say, in German. They started out as oral and were later written down, but because they were originally oral , the narrator was forbidden to enter into the mind of the heroes. He could not… Say that a person hated or loved; this would be to intrude upon the mind of the character. Only what the characters did or made could be told. The sagas are told as if they are real, and if they abound in fantastical elements it is because the narrators and listeners believed in them.”

Narrative Layers in Tolkien

“We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.” Peter S. Beagle, The Tolkien Reader

From the dustjacket and foreword of Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, vol. 1:

“A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving.” (quoting the Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien)

“In the Tales are found the earliest accounts and original ideas…of the geography and cosmography of the invented worlds…Further books in this series are planned to extend the history of Middle-earhta s it was refined and enlarged in later years, and will include…the Ambarkanta or Shape of the World, the Lhammas or Account of Tongues, annals, maps, and many other unpublished writings of J.R.R.Tolkien.”

“Where The Silmarillion differs from Tolkien’s earlier works is in its refusal to accept novelistic convention. Most novels (including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) pick a character to put in the foreground, like Frodo and Bilbo, and then tell the story as it happens to him. The novelist of course is inventing the story, and so retains omniscience: he can explain, or show, what is ‘really’ happening and contrast it witht he limited perception of his character.” (quoted from The Road to Middle-earth by Professor T.A. Shippey.)

From the same source:

“One quality which [The Lord of the Rings] has in abundance is the Beowulfian ‘impression of depth,’ created just as in the old epic by songs and digressions like Aragorn’s lay of Tinuviel, Sam Gamgee’s allusions to the Silmaril and the Iron Crown, Elrond’s account of Celebrimbor, and dozens more. This, however, is a quality of The Lord of the Rings, not of the inset stories. To tell these in their own right and expect them to retain the charm they got from their larger setting would be a terrible error, an error to which Tolkien would be more sensitive than any man alive.”


  • Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil
  • Borges’ trick of writing reviews of fictional books
  • Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
  • The Book of Sand

up next

Read another Borges interview.

the Celts

Borges, selected non-fictions, p. 458 – 463
the concept of an academy and the celts

In no other part of the world has literary life been organized in such a rigorous manner as among the Celtic nations, which I shall attempt to prove, or more exactly, recall. I spoke of the literature of the Celts: the term is vague. They inhabited, in antiquity, the territories that a remote future would call Portugal, Spain, France, the British Isles, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Lombardy, Bohemia, Bulgaria, and Croatia, as well as Galicia on the coast of the Black Sea; the Germans and the Romans displaced or subjected them after arduous wars. Then a remarkable thing happened. The true culture of the Germans reached its maximum and final flowering in Iceland, in the Ultima Thule of Latin cosmography,

where the nostalgia of a small group of fugitives rescued the ancient mythology and enriched the ancient rhetoric.

Celtic culture took refuge on another lost island, Ireland. We know little about the arts and letters of the Celts in Iberia or in Wales. Thanks to Caesar, Pliny, Diogenes Laertius, and Diodorus Siculus, we know that the Welsh were ruled by a theocracy, the Druids, who administered and executed the laws, declared war or proclaimed peace, had the power to depose the king, annually appointed magistrates, and were in charge of the education of the young and the ritual celebrations. They practiced astrology and taught that the soul is immortal.

In the Middle Ages, the conversion of the Celts to Christianity reduced the Druids to the category of sorcerers.

Beyond the heroic centuries, the mythological centuries,

there is an aspect of Celtic literature that particularly interests us, and that is the sea voyages…

I should say something about the meaning of landscape in Celtic poetry. Matthew Arnold, in his remarkable study of Celtic literature, says that the sense of nature, which is one of the virtues of English poetry, is derived from the Celts. I would day that the Germans also felt nature. Their world is, of course, quite different, because in ancient Germanic poetry, what is felt above all is the horror of nature; the swamps and the forests and the twilights are populated by monsters. In contrast, the Celts also understood nature as a living thing, but they felt that these supernatural presences could also be benign. The fantastic world of the Celts is a world of both angels and demons.

history of Old Norse


The home of the oldest Norse culture and the oldest Norse traditions was Sweden, though these traditions had to be carried to distant Iceland before they were given an enduring form…From the beginning of history energetic warlike tribes issued from Sweden and passed to a career of conquest in the south; in the phrase kid the Gothic historian Jordanes, Sweden was a ‘factory of nations’ (officina gentian)…the later expansion of the Scandinavian nations in the Viking age may be regarded as the final wave of North Germanic migration; but the process was probably not the same, and the results were essentially different. When the Goths and the Burgundians migrated from Scandinavia, the North Germanic people’s spoke a language nearly identical with that of the other Germanic nations. After their departure came a period of great linguistic change, when Germanic broke up into distinct groups of dialects; the language of the Goths then became rapidly differentiated Fromm the Norse, and their national traditions and culture also took divergent lines of development…the differences between the oldest surviving Gothic (in manuscripts of the sixth century) and Norse of the same period are too great for Gothic to be included in the Norse group of tongues.

literature of early medieval europe – fragments

“In every instance, poetry comes before prose. It seems that man sings before he speaks. But there are other very important reasons for this.” A verse follows a pattern and becomes a formula. Prose is shapeless and messy, much more complicated, in a way. (p4)

In Germanic verse, lines run together without breaks or punctuation. The key to finding structure is alliteration in each line. (see Bellairs. The Face in the Frost.)

“But a revolution takes place in the 9th century. We don’t know if those who made it were even aware of it. We don’t know if the pieces that have been preserved were even the first. But something very important takes place, perhaps the most important thing that can take place in poetry: the discovery of a new inflection. Often, when journalists talk about a new poet, they say ‘a new voice.’ Here the phrase would have that meaning exactly: there is a new voice, a new inflection, a new use of the language. And this must have been rather difficult, for the Anglo-Saxon language – Old English – was by its very harshness destined for epic poetry, in other words, to celebrate courage and loyalty…In the ninth century, there appear what have come to be called the ‘Anglo-Saxon elegies.’ This poetry is not the poetry of the battlefield. These are personal poems. Moreover, solitary poems, poems by men expressing their solitude and their melancholy. And this is something totally new in the ninth century, when poetry was generic, when the poet sang of the triumph and defeats of his clan, of his king. Here, on the contrary, the poet speaks personally, anticipating the romantic movement.” (p48)

history of early medieval europe – fragments

A.D. 449 – Rome falls and its legions withdraw from Britain.”This was an extremely important event because the country was left withouth the defenses it had counted on and was vulnerable to attacks by the Picts from the north and the Saxons from the east.” (Professor Borges, p1)

“English literature starts to develop at the end of the 7th or beginning of the 8th century.” (P.B. p1)

“The British Isles were Rome’s remotest colony, the one farthest to the north, and it had been conquered all the way to Caledonia, part of present-day Scotland, which was inhabited by the Picts, a people of Celtic origin separated from the rest of Britain by Hadrian’s Wall. To the south lived the Celts, who had converted to Christianity, and the Romans. In the cities, educated people spoke Latin; the lower classes spoke various Gaelic dialects. The Celts were a people who lived in the regions of Iberia, Switzerland, Tirol, Belgium, France – and Britain. Their mythology was wiped out by the Romans and the barbarian invasions, except in Wales and Ireland, where some remnants of it were preserved.” (p1)

“The Saxons were thought of as a confederation of marauding tribes, for Tacitus does not refer to them as a ‘people’ in his Germania. They were ‘of North-Sea Germanic stock,’ and were related to the Vikings, who came later. They inhabited the Lower Rhine region and the Low Coundtries.” (P.B. p2)

The Anglos inhabited southern Denmark, the Jutes lived in Jutland, the peninsula that forms northern Denmark. (p2)

“‘Germanic,’ then, is the generic designation of a group of tribes, each with a different ruler, who spoke similar dialects,…they shared some of the same mythologies, though only the Norse one has survived, and then only in the remotest parts of Europe: Iceland. We know of certain connections between them from the mythology preserved in the Eddas: for example, that hte Norse god Odin was the German Wotan and the English Woden.” (p2)

see Borges. the Witness

Anglo Saxon mythology: the Norse worshiped Valkyries – this was a practice in England as well – there are records of a 9th century English trial of a woman accused of being a Valkyrie. Did Christianity transform these carriers of dead souls, these warrior women, into witches? Quite possibly. (p2)

Non-Germans, foreigners, were called wealh, which turned into “Welsh” in England.

“The Vikings were individual adventurers. This is one reason there was never a Norse empire. The Norsemen had no consciousness of race. Each person pledged his loyalty to his tribe and his chief.” (p28)

books to buy

Borges & Vazquez. Medieval Germanic Literatures (literaturas germanicas medievales)

Borges. The Last Interview

Padilla, Ignacio. Antipodes: Stories

Tacitus. Germania


biographies to study






wynne jones