The Wyvern Universe: Tolkien & the denormanisation of Wessex

See the map of the kingdoms


This article serves as an introduction to the Wyvern Universe, my own personal subcreation. Why the Wyvern Universe? Well, the word 'universe' suggests a set of interlinked characters and stories, rather like the Marvel or DC universes (although I'm focusing on one particular corner of this 'universe', believing that good writers need to be rooted in a particular place. I'm hoping other writers will augment my efforts). And Wyvern well, I'll come to that.

This will only be a vague overview to give you a basic idea of where I'm coming from and where I'm going. In the latter case I can't give you any more than that because I don't know myself yet! But the title of this article sums up the key concepts involved. Put simply, where Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for the English, my wish is to create a mythology for Wessex.

To this end, my idea has similarities to and differences from New Middle-earth [see New Middle-earth: Exploring Beyond The Mountains, in Reunion: the Journal of Middle-earth Studies issue 1]. Like NM-e, the stories will take place in a world where the Red Book of Westmarch is a work of history rather than fiction. Unlike NM-e, this won't be the only difference between my fictional world and reality. There are two other major differences. Firstly, when Ælfwine asked the Elves for help in defeating the Normans, instead of refusing they said yes. Consequently, the Norman Conquest never happened.

Secondly, there is no such thing as the United Kingdom. The Celtic League nations (Wales, Scotland, Cornwall etc) still have their independence, whilst England is still a heptarchy. I have enclosed a map of my kingdoms (in my fictional world, they are nations and not regions - I've no reason to be constrained by whether something is politically feasible or not).

Beyond that, things get a little bit hazy. When it comes to working out the finer points, I've hardly even begun. I'll tell you how far I've got later on, but first it might be helpful to give you a bit of background.

Culture and religion

I can't remember which came first, my interest in Tolkien or my interest in Anglo-Saxon England. To a certain extent, the two feed off each other. But why should this be? I think there are two distinct but interlinked reasons, the cultural and the religious. Religion is a bit of a hot potato, so I'll get it out of the way quickly. I am an Orthodox Christian. This is probably the most important fact you need to know about me, at least in relation to my writing. There's a famous Orthodox pamphlet entitled A Man Is His Faith and, notwithstanding the sexism of the language, I think that's doubly true for artists of any sort. But what has that got to do with Anglo-Saxon England, you ask?

Simply this. The Orthodox interpretation of English history (see Orthodox Christianity And The Old English Church by Fr Andrew Phillips, for example) is that England was an implacably Orthodox country even after the split between Rome and Constantinople in 1054. The English even went so far as to reject the Pope's choice of Archbishop of Canterbury in favour of a more Orthodox candidate. The Norman Conquest is seen by some English Orthodox (including myself) as part of a Popish plot to bring England into line with the Church of Rome's reinvention of herself as a secular superpower (as documented in another context in Terry Jones' recent documentary series about the Crusades). Some historians have even suggested that England's defeat was not caused by her military inferiority but by soldiers becoming demoralised when they saw that the Norman invaders carried the Papal banner.

The cultural reason is allied to this. I am half-Greek and half-English. This means that whichever of the countries I'm in, I'm always homesick for the other - not a very nice state of affairs. Like Tolkien, I want to create a place where I can feel at home. I had tried bridging the gap between the two cultures before. Greek style is very much influenced by Italian, so when I saw Quadrophenia, I thought I had the answer. I became a mod.

Not only did mods like all the music I liked, but they coupled Italian style (sharp suits, scooters and cappuccino) with the quintessential Englishness of The Kinks, The Avengers and Blur. For a while I believed I'd found my spiritual home. And, on a superficial level, I had. But scratch below the surface ... well, mod philosophy is that you don't scratch below the surface. The surface is all there is. I needed something more.

So imagine my delight when I read the Phillips book mentioned above. In it, he tells how many Englishmen after the Norman defeat fled to Greek Byzantium, and of the strong links that existed between the two places. He also spoke of the 'denormanisation' of England, a word I'd only heard once before.

In the Hall of the King

Backtrack a few years to when I was at school at Edgarley Hall in Somerset. History was never my favourite subject, but I remember my imagination being caught by a map in one of the textbooks that showed England divided into kingdoms with unfamiliar names such as Wessex and Mercia. I later discovered that Edgarley Hall itself used to be the palace of King Edgar of Wessex. The two years I spent there were the most miserable of my life, but I'd like to think that all that time spent in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor awakened something in me.

Wessex and Middle England

Whatever it was, though, quickly went back to sleep once I'd deserted Edgarley for the less expensive shores of my local Comprehensive. The next time I heard the name of Wessex was in a local news programme at election time in June 1983. The regular 'let's patronise one of the smaller parties' slot had turned its smirking attention to the 'Wessex Nationalist' Party. 'That's stupid!' I thought. I'd heard of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, but Wessex wasn't a nation! I later discovered, purely by chance, that nobody was claiming otherwise. Someone had left an old copy of The Regionalist magazine lying around at a Green Party conference, so I picked it up and had a look. Well, to cut a long story short, this led to me joining the Wessex Regionalists, to give them their correct title (as an associate member, because I was already a fully paid-up Green).

But imagine my dismay when I found that the regionalised map of Britain produced by the Movement For Middle England (more on them in a minute) included Bristol (where I live) in Mercia and not Wessex. This was based on the standard map of the heptarchy drawn by Tudor antiquary John Speed and later adopted by both Thomas Hardy and the Wessex Journal to determine the extent of Wessex. This places the border between Wessex and Mercia at the River Avon, which bisects Bristol and currently acts as the border between Bristol City and Bristol Rovers territories.

As someone who lives north of the river (and supports Rovers), I would be a Mercian and not a Wessaxen, something I didn't want. Luckily, The Regionalist came to my rescue by publishing a slightly more sophisticated map, showing areas of overlap between the different regions. One of these covered Bristol, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. With one bound, I was free!

So why am I so keen to be a Wessaxen and not a Mercian? Well, to be honest, I'm not so sure. I think it's just that Wessex cast a spell on me, whereas Mercia didn't (sorry, Mercians!) Besides, I'd much rather be involved with the Wessex Regionalists (emblem: a gold wyvern on a green background, hence the Wyvern Universe) than their Mercian equivalent, the aforementioned Movement For Middle England. Whilst I'd been attracted by the commitment to denormanisation expressed in the MFME's literature, I've heard repeated rumours that they're just a cover for the far Right. This isn't too implausible. One of the covers that fascists use in order to woo those who wouldn't be taken in by crude racist arguments is the Trans-Europa Federation, which publishes the notorious Perspectives magazine, advocating a 'Europe of a hundred flags'. A Europe of the regions is also Green Party policy, but for Trans-Europa the model for these regions is the ethnically cleansed and authoritarian Croatia. There has to be a better role model, I thought, and there is.

Less noise and more green

The MFME weren't the first people to advocate denormanisation. The Levellers and Diggers used the concept of the Norman yoke in their propaganda, painting an idealised picture of Anglo-Saxon democracy and blaming Britain's democratic deficit and rigid class structure on Norman feudalism (see the article on the Levellers in issue 106 of Withoswinde, the journal of The English Companions). Fr Phillips concurs with this, and the vision he has of a denormanised England strongly suggests that if the Norman conquest had never happened, England (I cannot speak for any other country) would be much more like Orthodox Greece. When I mentioned this to him in a letter, he said that this was no coincidence, as he had spent a year in Thessaloniki.

Anyway, back to the Levellers. Meredith Veldman was inspired to write her book on English romantic protest (which covered both Tolkien and the Green Party) by reading The Lord Of The Rings and EP Thompson's The Making Of The English Working Classes (which covers Levellers, Diggers, Luddites and the like) and realising that they were effectively the same story.

Given Tolkien's love of Old England and desire for 'less noise and more green', it's quite possible that he was influenced by this propaganda. So there is a better model for a European region-state than Croatia - the open-bordered and vaguely anarchistic Shire (I was struck by Tolkien's reproach to the producer of the abortive 50's attempt to film LotR when he had the Fellowship register in the inn at Bree. 'There is no police and no government in The Shire', so why would they need to register?)

I have gone further than this. Given that the Barrow-Downs were modelled on the Berkshire Downs, where the majority of Britain's barrows are found and Tom Bombadil was 'the spirit of the vanishing Berkshire and Oxfordshire countryside', and that Hobbiton was supposed to have been geographically consonant with Oxford, I have been presumptuous enough to claim that The Shire actually was Wessex in an earlier age.

So there you have it. Everything I like - everything I am - seems to be coalescing around the twin epicentres of mod and my denormanised Wessex. If I can find a way to combine the two, I'll have created a home for myself, but every attempt I've come up with so far has been horribly contrived. I'm haunted by an image of a (bone dry) mod riding out of the waves at Weston-Super-Mare in 1996 on one of those great customised scooters like Sting's in Quadrophenia, having spent thirty years in the True West (where he hasn't aged a day, naturally) learning from the Elves, but have utterly failed to flesh out the bones. No matter, I'll put it in my mental filing cabinet to use at a later date, or not, as the case may be. I rather suspect that mods will end up fulfilling the role that the hobbits do in Tolkien's work - representing rational, somewhat hedonistic modern man, with little time for the numinous.

Scratching the surface

Even putting mod aside, this vision of Wessex is my personal utopia, but I've hardly scratched the surface when it comes to realising it. I'm going to spend the rest of this article explaining how far I've got.

First, a confession. It's been a long time since I read The Lord Of The Rings, even longer since I attempted The Silmarillion, and I haven't even touched The History Of Middle-earth at all. This is the first thing that needs to be remedied, particularly as I'm more interested in the Ælfwine / Ing / Luthany stuff in History: it seems to be much closer to Tolkien's original stated aim of creating

a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story which I could dedicate simply to: to England, to my country.

Well, that's more or less what I want to do for Wessex, except that I don't actually want to create anything. In line with Orthodox mistrust of novelty and respect for tradition (and my own laziness!), my desire is to codify what has already been created by others. I want to create the missing links between Tolkien's mythology, Old English heroic legend (as featured in the Spellcraft book I've been raving about in Amon Hen and elsewhere), Alfred Duggan's entertaining and plausible novel of the foundation of Wessex, The Conscience Of The King and Wessex folklore.

Ah yes, folklore. Those of you who mainly know my name from my letter in Amon Hen a couple of issues ago were probably wondering when I'd get onto that subject. Needless to say, my desire to know more about the relationship between Tolkienian myth and folklore was motivated by my subcreation. I regard folklore as the localisation of myth, and read the relevant volumes in the Folklore Of The British Isles series accordingly. Sad to say, this series fizzled out before it could cover the whole of Wessex. There are no volumes covering Dorset, Berkshire, East Oxfordshire or my own native Bristol. Even sadder to report, saying that folklore is to myth what The Hobbit is to The Silmarillion would be an insult to The Hobbit.

Elves, Dwarves and Wayland

I did find some interesting snippets, however. Devon folkore tells of a war between fairies and pixies that drove the latter into Devon while the former remained in Somerset. Given that fairies were named by Tolkien as the debased form of elves, whilst pixies closely resemble the dwarves of Teutonic legend (thought the description given in Rhalph Whitlock's The Folklore Of Devon makes them sound more like hobbits), this raises an interesting story possibility. The war of the elves and dwarves is a tale that I really wish Tolkien had told.

Couple this with the story of Wayland's Smithy and things get even more interesting. Wayland was the smith god of the Anglo-Saxons, corresponding to Tolkien's Aulë, creator of the Dwarves. Wayland's Smithy is a place in Oxfordshire where it's said that if you leave a horse together with a silver coin, the horse will be shod by the ghostly Wayland. It stands to reason (to me, anyway) that this would be a sacred site to the Dwarves, and that being confined to Devon, well away from their birthplace, would be a major source of despair for them. This has parallels with the Jews before the creation of the State of Israel and (more pertinently to me) with the Greek refugees from Asia Minor following the Turkish occupation (including my grandfather). But why would the high and noble elves behave in this way?

Folklore offers a possible solution to both this and the vexed question of the size of elves (in Tolkien's works they appear human-sized whereas in folklore they're almost always tiny). One story has a man relating how he was given some brown powder to snort, which shrank him to the size of the fairies. If the elves themselves were using this powder, it would explain why they came in two sizes. If it had the same properties as a certain white powder that rich and stupid people shove up their noses, it would also explain why the elves had become so paranoid and bellicose, cutting the Dwarves off from their homeland like that.

Elves and Gypsies

Still on the subject of elves, a major question mark hangs over their relationship with humans. It's clear that they'd have to co-exist with us, but if you make them too commonplace you lose the sense of wonder upon which fantasy fiction depends. The chapter on gypsies in The Folklore Of Hampshire and The Isle Of Wight by Wendy Boase opened up some possibilities.

Most of us are aware that gypsies exist but have very little contact with them, and it could be the same way with elves. There are similarities. Both groups are held in a mixture of fear and awe by 'normal folk' because of supposed magical powers. Both groups are said to be descendants of Cain by hostile critics. I fell in love with the romantic image of gypsies, travelling the New Forest in their gaily coloured wagons, and I'd love to adapt that image for my own use.

Ponies and the Uruk-Hai

New Forest folklore raises interesting questions about different levels of reality - folklore within folklore, if you like. The motif index at the back of Boase's book gives the motif 'troublesome hobgoblin', relating to the story of the colt-pixy, which supposedly lives in the New Forest and lures ponies away by turning into a beautiful female pony. Now, the 'real' reality, of course, is that these ponies simply get lost: the colt-pixy is just a way of explaining away their disappearance.

But, 'hobgoblin' is the name given to the Uruk-Hai in Tolkien's works, and Uruk-Hai are not shapeshifters as far as I know. This suggests that in a world where Tolkien's subcreation represents reality, the colt-pixy would be a prettified folklore explanation of a colony of Uruk-Hai living in the New Forest and preying on ponies. After all, a misty wraith leading these ponies to an uncertain fate would be a less upsetting image for horse-lovers than an orc ripping the hapless beast's throat out with its bare teeth.

Gaerlhug the Green

Hampshire and Devon seem to be where the action is, folklore-wise. Hampshire has a beast not found in Tolkien, the cockatrice, and a flood myth that calls to mind Tolkien's 'green wave' dream, whereas Devon is the home of two Maiar. Old Crocken is the spirit of Dartmoor, described as being 'as grey as granite'. The second Maia is actually an Istar.

Tolkien didn't say that there were other Istari besides the five mentioned in his works, but he didn't, as far as I know, say there weren't. This Istar would be an emissary of Ulmo the Ocean Lord. I'm no expert on languages, either real or Tolkienian, but I think his name in Sindarin would be Gaerlhug the Green. Blue is the colour most associated with the sea, but there are already two blue wizards (did they argue about that in Aman, I wonder: 'Why do I have to be Mr Blue as well? Why can't I be Mr Purple?' 'Mr Purple is on another job'), so I'll have to settle on my second choice. Sea-green is the colour of Ulmo, anyway, according to ICE's Valar and Maiar. Gaerlhug means 'sea-dragon', I think. I hope some Tolkien linguist out there can confirm or deny this, and also tell me what 'sea-dragon' would be in Tolkien's other invented languages.

The reason I want his name to mean this is because of his close association with the sea, and because his most famous avatar, or fana, was nicknamed El Draco by the Spanish, and has a surname taken from an old English word for dragon.

If you haven't guessed yet, I'm speaking of Sir Francis Drake, but not the real Drake, who was little more than a state-sponsored pirate. No, I'm talking about the Drake of folklore, who was widely regarded as a wizard. The Drake who could fire a cannonball halfway round the world to signal to his bride-to-be that he hadn't been killed in action: who could chop logs and throw into Plymouth Sound, where they turn into fireships. The concept of Drake as an Istar seems to me to be the perfect combination of English history, English legend and Tolkienian mythology, and I expect Gaerlhug (or whatever his name becomes) to be a key player in my work.


That's about is as regards Tolkien's myth in my own work. If the above seems like a disjointed series of random thoughts, that's precisely what it is. I've no idea how I'm going to go about organising this stuff into stories. I've got even less far with the alternate history part of the Wyvern Universe, but this article has gone on long enough already, and I fear that these aspects may fall outside the scope of Reunion, though I'd be willing to write a separate article if there's any demand. Suffice it to say, I've worked out some of the important details, like what the football league would look like!