Before Scotland and Lord of the Rings

When I was a member of the curriculum committee at the high school where I taught history, it was suggested to me that ancient history should be dropped from the program or reserved as an elective for the final year, and the reason given was that the younger grades could not relate to the “very old stuff.”  I shared with the committee my observation that the kids were very keen on the very old stuff, more so than the history of much later eras.  There was a mystery to the subject that they were drawn to and showed an active interest in finding out about.  At some level, it seemed to matter to most of them – and to certain students, even personally so.

Maybe it had something to do with them being teenagers, searching out their own identity in unfamiliar places, though as I found later on, this human drive to explore origins is not limited to teens in school.  A brief survey of popular books, movies, and TV programs of the past fifteen years will show many titles that have to do with solving ancient mysteries.  Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is only one of those titles, but I mention it here because it has some bearing on a book I have read more than once over the past decade, called Before Scotland by Alistair Moffat, being the story of the land long before it was ever called Scotland.

What drew me to Moffat’s book, when I first flipped through its pages, was a fairly detailed map of “Doggerland,” the large swampy and hilly territory between the British Isles and Denmark which gradually sank beneath the waves of the North Sea.  Remarkably, Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth looks much like the map of primeval north-western Europe with its extended coasts and Doggerland in the centre.  I could almost see Frodo and Sam slogging their way through the Dogger marshes as they travel toward Mordor, though probably Frodo’s “Dead Marshes” beyond the “Entwash” (or “The Wash” as it is known in modern U.K. geography) are a bit further south, taking in also the wet lowlands of old Holland and Belgium.   On the one hand, Before Scotland is picking up a readership that goes well beyond history scholars, while on the other many people have repeatedly viewed the Lord of the Rings films and are continuing to reread Tolkien’s story in its book form, going beyond the mere entertainment of it.   I wonder what that says about both books.

Mysterious ancient origins seem to attract all sorts of people.  The topic is certainly connected to a sense of “home” within us, a specific thirst in our psychological make-up to know our origins better.  Not everyone thinks of that in “historical” terms, for it is often more like a wistful or romantic feeling, and it can even be said to be a spiritual longing to know where we came from.

One of my former clients had a strong urge to see the inside of the old above-store apartment where she had lived as a child, though she passed by it almost daily, having never moved from the town.  Her significant physical and mental health issues had prevented the desired visit from happening for many years.  Finally, after a friend arranged it, she was helped up the long, dirty flight of stairs to the very dingy, almost windowless apartment.  She was in awe as she stood there, giving her friend enthralled instructions to draw the various furniture pieces in her memory as she pointed to their former location in the rooms.

For all the grunge, the dark apartment gave her a deeply meaningful experience of home, reminding her of who she once was and something of the influences in her life.  It strengthened her identity, her sense of self, after losing much of it through many painful and confusing years.  Without a doubt, the old stuff was important – and personally so.

(To be continued)

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