King Sheave

The "legend of KingSheave" and its connection to real history and existing myths is one of the rather puzzling issues in Tolkiens writings. This is an attempt to gather as much material as possible in form of a joint venture project. Everyone is welcome to contribute. When we are done collecting material we can put up the page in its final form, until then it can remain a "worksheet". -- ChW


This is a list of source material. Please add what you see fit. If you know a website where the material is published please add a link. If the material is not available on the web and you have it (or have access to it) in printed form please add your name behind the title.

Primary Sources

Beowulf [1], [2]

The Chronicle of Ęthelweard, English translation, ed. Alistair Campbell (London, etc., 1962)

Gesta Regum Anglorum, William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings (1998) edited and translated by R. A. B. Mynors

Widsith [3], [4]

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [5]

Saxo Grammaticus: Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes [6]

Historia Langobardorum Paulus Diaconus [7]

Paulus Diaconus: Historia Langobardorum: The History of the Langobards [8]

The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson [9]


Secondary Sources

Deutsche Mythology, Jakob Grimm, Berlin 1875-8 (Walter)

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology English translation of Deutsche Mythologie at Northvegr [10]

Teutonic Mythology Viktor Rydberg, transl. by Rasmus B. Anderson [11]

The Heroic Legends of Denmark Axel Olrik, transl. Lee M. Hollander (1919), (Walter: pp. 380 - 400)

Beowulf - An Introduction... R.W. Chambers


Tolkien's texts

These are the fragments of Tolkien's texts regarding the KingSheave issue. The texts provided here are for analytical, comparative and educational purposes only and will be removed when the final survey/essay is published at the Wiki.




I very much hope more people show interest towards this topic! We can exchange opinions, info found, links to references on the net etc. right here in the present space of the Forum and then out of all, we can draw up a whole essay or.... whatever you call it.

One of the first thing that I can't figure out and I would like to figure out is the direction he came from. I, for one, will most probably do some research about this detail. --LR

In days of yore out of deep Ocean
to the Longobards, in the land dwelling
that of old they held amid the isles of the North,
a ship came sailing, shining-timbered
without oar and mast, eastward floating.
The sun behind it sinking westward
with flame kindled the fallow water.

Well... all right, but ... this is precisely what is puzzling, isn't it! The coming of Sheave, as in the tales, brought prosperity and long years of well-being and development to the people of the Longobards while they still lived on the coast up in North Europe (Scandinavian isles and peninsulas).... But it is known from real history that in fact the tribe of the Lgbds had to leave the "land they held amid the isles of the North" = obviously somewhere in Scandinavia, because of poverty and lack of enough land and they went South, inland into the territory of the continent in order to find prosperity and well-being ... Quite a long way they had to go until reaching the territories of Northern Italy (nowadays) where they could finally live the life they wanted (at least until the Bulgarians came ).

So, how could the mysterious Sheave appear in the life of the Lgbds from the North Seas?! But.... Wait!!! His ship was sailing from West to East!!! *** scratching her head*** I am trying to figure out the real geographical location of the people Sheave came to - where did these people live in our today's Europe?

Another interesting detail:

...a ship came sailing, shining-timbered
without oar and mast...

The detail of ships without oars and masts and very often gliding as if in the air, as those of the Elves, and later this idea coming up even to the flying ships of the Numenoreans! .... What is this? The influence of C.S. Lewis? --LR

I think we will have to be careful to distinguish between historical facts (however the degree of their reliability), heroic myths and Tolkien's fiction when trying to examine KingSheave a little closer. Also we will have to compare the Danish, Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon versions of the myth. Tolkien's fiction is leaning towards the Anglo-Saxon version, this is the only one where Sceaf comes to his - later - kingdom alone as a babe on a boat. Furthermore the connexion between Sceaf and the Lombards which Tolkien draws is interesting, the only source I have found to support this is Widsith 33, it almost appears as if he was in favour of this because he wanted to establish the connexion with Alboin.

The historical - Anglo-Saxon - sources referring to Sceaf mentioned by Christopher, Ęthelward and William of Malmesbury, have both lived at least a Millenium later than the Lombards are said to have moved on from Scandinavia to the Elbe, in fact at that time their Italian kingdoms had had perished a few Centennia ago. And Beowulf cannot be considered a - historically - reliable account for Sceaf either.

So, what I think we can do here, is to gather as much information from the Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic sources as available and present it as such. Eventually we could add some speculation as to when we think that happened - if at all, where we think the boat came from, why it was abandoned, etc., etc... -- Walter

Walt, but this man must have existed! It's not by chance that whole Western/Northern and even Central Europe has kept the legend about him! I wonder why! Who is he? Is he a summed-up character from those times ... or was he a real person whose deeds must have been so impressive as to be remembered through the ages. In case of the former, it will be an easier task to track down the origin of the legend. But....If the latter is true, then it will be tough, I suppose, for we shall have to screen the myth off in order to get the real historical individual and the real historical event.

And what about the ship??? --LR

The same goes for dragons, legends about them exist almost worldwide, but it's usually hard to find out what's behind such a legend or myth. The ship comes only in the Anglo-saxon versions, if I'm not mistaken.... -- Walter

Note that all early agricultural societies explain how they came by agriculture via a myth of self-sacrifice. A divine being offers themselves, brings the first seeds, and plants them. --PhlIp

Very much so, but from its earliest beginnings in the neolithic period the "vegetation deities" where either female goddesses or - later - divine couples. Why Tolkien would take an entirely different approach if he wanted Sheave to represent the "corn-god" is still puzzling me. I have read of a Mayans myth of a corn god - without a matching goddess - who is helping people to retrieve the corn from under the mountain, but that's an entirely different approach. Maybe Tolkien is following Frazer - who appears to put some more emphasis on Osiris than on Isis - and eventually omitting Isis' part, I don't know... -- Walter

Supplement: The "corn-gods" or "barley-gods" like Greek Linos or Sabazios (occasionally Kronos crow-beak), Hbrew and Akkadian Tammuz, Celtic John Barleycorn probably (GimbLangGod? 182) are "desendants" of the vegetation goddess and the divine couples. Thus Tolkien was maybe alluding to the Celtic folk-tales of John Barleycorn ("There were three men come out of the west, their fortunes for to try.")...

Seek the Lord, the beloved of the Great Goddess.
When he is borne ashore, you shall find him.
When he performs great feats, you shall wonder.
When he reigns, you shall share his glory.
When he rests, you shall have repose.
When he departs, you shall go with him
To the Western Isle, paradise of the blest.


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