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on 18 February 2003
This is a superb book. Vividly written, it explores the magical and spiritual beliefs of people who lived in the 'real' Middle-earth. This was the Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures of a thousand years ago and more, which so inspired Tolkien. The author Brian Bates is well-known for previous books on this subject (especially his best-selling novel The Way of Wyrd). It is different from other books purporting to compare Tolkien with ancient mythology, because the world it reveals is one in which people saw their EVERYDAY LIVES as being charged with a mysterious power they called Wyrd. It was manifested by a magical landscape, in which trees, plants and animals all had powerful symbolic presences. Elves, dragons, giants and dwarves were encountered in reality as well as in dreams and stories. Shapeshifting, spellcasting and healing are explored as they happened in real life.
Bates also explains really well how such a magical outlook on life relates to our own perspectives. In a time where The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter confirms the potency of magic for our lives, we see how we once had a wisdom lost over the centuries as first Christianity and then science became dominant world views. But Bates does not paint a utopia - he makes clear that life was hard in Anglo-Saxon times. Yet he shows how we can still learn from these ancestors.
The book is refreshingly written, free from academic pomposity and dry argument. He offers vivid anecdotes, examples, and beautiful descriptions which make the reader feel present in those times. And for those readers who want to follow up topics in more detail, there is an excellent list of sources, with guidance for the specialist academic books that cover the material best.
'The Real Middle-earth' is a deserving bestseller, and I recommend it very highly.
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on 2 July 2008
This is a fascinating book which is a compelling delight to read, but, like others, I have some serious reservations about the author's accuracy.

For a start, I'd love to know what route he took to the Ankerwycke yew at Wraysbury. I just got off at the railway station, walked straight through the village and beyond it - along the well worn tarmac road - until I saw a road sign to my right bearing the legend "Runnymede." Curious about the name, I turned right and, once among the nearby fields, it only took ten minutes by foot to find the tree (to which people are still tying their offerings, by the way). So much for walking: "for an hour across ancient fields, along trackways and over wooden bridges linking ancient islands once separated by the estuary of the River Thames" (page 42). In any case, you'd have to go back a darned sight further than the Iron Age - when this grand old dear is supposed to have first seen the light of day - to find any part of Berkshire any where near the sea. Estuary? Berkshire and Surrey are nowhere near any river mouths or ocean tides. And it isn't a "small sign from English Heritage," (page 50) it's a small sign from the National Trust. But above all is the really idiotic way he has comes up with a spurious assertion regarding the origins of the place name Runnymede - waffling on that it was coined by ancient Saxons in the deep mists of time to denote an association with runes - and in so doing, completely missed the opportunity to make a far more pertinent observation. In point of fact, evidence relating to the use of the name Runnymede dates no further back than the signing of the Magna Carta. According to the editor of the "Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names" (which you can pick off the shelf of any half-decent reference library) it actually means the meadow in council island, "runieg" being a reference to a council or assembly place. As Eilert Ekwall points out: "Runnymede was evidently an ancient meeting place." Now, the irony here is that his dubious assertion has prevented him picking up on the fact that the parties to the Magna Carta may have recognised Runnymede as a suitable place to assemble and sign a solemn charter based on their knowledge of local traditions which could - indeed - have dated back to those very same deep mists of time.

Equally bogus is the way he sets the Romans up as the rational, polar opposites to their more "mystical" successors who - alone among the peoples of the ancient world - forged the idea of "connectivity." In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and it may be the case that Bates is guilty here of tendentiously projecting modern concerns onto the past. This idea of "connection," which is such a buzz idea in some circles these days, was by no means exclusive to the Germanic tribes beyond the Danube. Bates obviously hasn't bothered to read Marcus Aurelius: "All things are linked with another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else" (ed. Mark Forstater, Chapter 4). And then there's: "the thread of causes was from the beginning of time spinning the fabric of your existence...." (chapter 7). The concept of "connection," and being in harmony with Nature, were integral parts of Stoic philosophy and the Romans were just as familiar with these ideas as their Teutonic contemporaries. And, who knows, perhaps the Romans and the Germanic tribes exchanged more than just gold and goodies over the centuries they were trading with each other on the shores of the River Danube. And to top it all, I'm sure that Sir Frank Stenton, in his history of Anglo-Saxon England, actually remarked that Bates's beloved and "connective" ivy-scroll design actually originated in 5th or 6th century Italy!

So, being engagingly readable is all very well, but it helps if you're accurate in all respects too.
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on 10 January 2013
I'm interested in this era. so much is written about the Romans, the Early Christians and the Tudors with the assumption that nothing good happened else before 1600. Not only is this Middle Earth culture interesting but calls into question whether our present culture's emphasis on seeing ourselves as distinct from and superior to the rest of the natural world, valuing material wealth above all other and subscribing to the cult of the individual is the better option or even if this is at all sustainable. There is much to learn from this book, hopefully changing our view of the natural world to see ourselves as a part and not apart.
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on 10 February 2003
Bates is, according to the dustjacket, a professor of psychology, not of history. There is a virtual absence of critical source-analysis in this book, and a tendency to fall into what some might term mystical hokum; he appears to be a Jungian psychologist with interests in shamanic practices.
The bibliography is extensive, mixing the solidly academic with a few smaller works by antiquarians.
Those familiar with the subject-area may feel that too many well-known primary source quotes are being wheeled out again without evaluation.
As someone who's done a Masters in a related field of history, I think footnotes would have been welcome, especially for some of the more sweeping generalisations. However, I can see that not all general readers would like these.
Frequent referral to Anglo-Saxon society as 'Middle-Earth' does grate a bit, though many will surely find a comparison of Tolkien's stories with known history interesting. What irritated me most of all were basic errors of grammar and vocabulary that a good editor should have corrected.
I got the distinct impression that Bates is trying to set up the Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures of the first millennium to be viewed in the same way as Native Americans are all too often seen these days: as virtually irreproachable guardians of the land and ancient knowledge, with too little close examination applied to this impression.
Not a bad introduction for the general reader, I suppose - especially if followed up by some of the better stuff in the bibliography.
Now, if only Ronald Hutton had written a book on the religion of this period - he's a historian who can balance sympathy towards pagan beliefs with a good historical analysis, and is highly recommended.
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on 24 April 2012
Even though the book is a pleasure to read, its' contents are less than accurate. Its' primarily a rehash of popular myth concerning the past. I am an avid enthusiast of scholarly 'pagan books', but - despite fond memories for The Way of Wyrd - I recently chucked Bates' books out due to irritation over their high fantasy percentage. Bates' "The Real Middle-Earth" isn't the real Middle-Earth, but a romantic, stereotyped fantasy written to sell. Try The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England by Stephen Pollington, that's a much better book.
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on 9 February 2012
An incredibly detailed, inspiring, imaginative and eye opening insight not only into the every day lives of people growing and living through the so called Dark Ages but also why they believed what they did, how they practiced it, how it related them to the wider world or their local surroundings. Full of facts and snippets from ancient manuscripts covering ancient Germanic Tribes, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Celtic and many other cultural beliefs.
I enjoyed it so much, it really was a pleasure to read and I was saddened when it ended.
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on 14 July 2006
I am a Tolkien fan rather than a `historian' and the book gave me some really fascinating insights and snippets of information into that world: `Ah! I see' moments. The author has the ability to draw very vivid descriptions and images for the reader which made the history far more real than a dry history book would have done. Too often when I am interested in a subject I pick up a weighty tome and find that by the 4th page of referenced, footnoted pages I've fallen asleep. The Real Middle Earth by contrast kept me engaged and turning the page from first till last. Loved it and highly recommend it to all!
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on 9 August 2004
Bates spins a good yarn, and creates a rich, organic picture of life in pagan Northern Europe. As others have noted, he is a psychologist moreso than a historian, and he definitely comes across as being in the Jung/Campbell school of broad generalizations and somewhat unsupported claims. Those looking for hard scholarship, rather than convenient groupings of facts and supposition, will probably find that Bates tends toward didacticism and proof-texting here, but it is nevertheless an enjoyable read full of fun bits of Saxon, Norse and Celtic culture. Bates does much to recreate for the reader the worldview of the old pagan everyman, and his efforts make for an enchanting read.
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on 6 May 2006
This is quite fun, the author's good on mythology and shamanism. However, when he's writing about the history of the Germanic tribes, there seems to be a regular inaccuracy or spurious assertion per page. History is often polemical but this is just ignorant - did he really read the books in his own bibliography?
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on 16 October 2008
Yes, one can level fair criticisms at the scholarship of this book, as some reviews have done. In the acknowledgements, Brian Bates thanks one colleague for sharing with him "her visions of the Celtic Otherworld, and also her sensitive insights into King Redwald". Obviously, "visions" and "sensitive insights" are not redolent of academic objectivity. Bates takes us on journeys through his own emotions and imagination - finding the ancient yew or contemplating the mounds at Sutton Hoo. He plunders Tolkien's writings to back up his account, as though this work of 20th century fiction is on a par with original documentary sources. The Tolkien stuff, along with discussion of Celtic, Norse and high/late-medieval material, could be regarded as so much padding, compensating for the limited sources for his real, central concern, namely the imaginative world of the 5-7th century Anglo-Saxons.

But if we process all that, and accept what kind of book we are dealing with, Bates offers us an original, powerful and highly credible insight into the mindset of the people who occupied England after the withdrawal of Roman rule. He conjures up a sort of post-apocalyptic scenario, with the Anglo-Saxons living a very simple life in small villages of wooden huts close to the forest edge, while surrounded by the decaying monuments of a superior but failed civilization - the abandoned Roman towns, crumbling, increasingly overgrown and the haunt of ghosts and wild animals. He is interesting about the way the Anglo-Saxons saw their 'greener' kind of society not as a regression but as a deliberate rejection of the arrogance of Roman civilization, which had, after all, proved unsustainable.

Bates has a talent for getting us into the thoughts and attitudes of people in this highly obscure period, and making their outlook seem quite logical and understandable. His discussion of the Anglo-Saxon poem, 'The Ruin', brings out very well the sense of loss and resignation. And I have always found Beowulf absurd and rather boring, but Bates makes it so vivid and visual that it is almost like watching a film (which has now been made).

I would not recommend anyone to quote this book in their PhD thesis. But I would still think even academic historians could gain a lot from it. It may not be how the Anglo-Saxons actually thought, but it is a very coherent interpretation of how they might have thought, and, in this respect, it allows a person to look at the period with new eyes.
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