“I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler … Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to his son Michael, June 9, 1941
The recent kerfuffle over the depiction of a pioneer wagon on a City of Bend billboard, and a heavy session of reading and writing about the First Thanksgiving have set me to pondering the thorny question of heritage.
At this time of year — when the crags of the Three Sisters are blanketed in early snow, when the air grows chill and the sky an iron grey, and the forest slides into its long sleep — I feel a powerful connection to that “noble northern spirit.” My blood heritage is a mutt-mix of German, Scandinavian, Irish, Scots-Irish and English, and in the autumn and winter months my Celtic/Germanic/Norse spirit calls me out into the wind and rain and snow and the pale golden light of a waning sun.
It seems a natural human desire to connect with and celebrate one’s personal and cultural heritage — and yet doing so often means venturing out into a cultural minefield, where a misstep can lead to nasty outcomes. That’s because there also seems to be a powerful human impulse for dominant cultures to seek to repress and suppress those that deviate, to force assimilation and cultural erasure. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was common to punish Indian children for speaking their own language, and to forbid them from engaging in their culture’s spiritual practices.
For their own good, of course. They must assimilate or perish….
Those who, like Professor Tolkien, cherish “that noble northern spirit” walk dangerous ground. To express a love for that heritage can be interpreted as an assertion of racial superiority. That interpretation is not without foundation; European colonialism was, after all, rooted in white supremacy. In seeking to dismantle white supremacy, an increasingly dominant culture in education, media, and entertainment seems bent on suppressing any expression of pride in or celebration of northern European cultural heritage.
“White nationalists” of today who purport to defend this heritage are actually continuing the work of “that ruddy little ignoramus… ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed” the heritage they proclaim for themselves.
One must navigate the longship carefully through the shoals, and tread carefully in the Dead Marshes, taking care not to stare into the water or follow the lights. Those dedicated to a celebration and revival of ancient European folkways are often at pains to assert that they are “against hate” — that advancing their own cultural and spiritual heritage does not come at the expense of others.
For European neo-pagans and roots-seeking enthusiasts, explicitly rejecting white supremacy and white nationalism is both wise and necessary, since ruddy ignoarmouses will continue to pervert the northern spirit — and others with their own agendas will attack it, and impugn its adherents.
There is, at the moment, a movement afoot to repeal the use of the term “Anglo-Saxon”. The argument is that the term is tied too closely to triumphalist racial ideology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and that the old settlers of what became England didn’t think of themselves as Anglo-Saxons. The first point is valid, at least to a point. The second is hotly debated.
I am not opposed to shifting the use of terms to reflect deeper understanding. The changing of the name of the creek that runs through my town from Squaw Creek to Whychus Creek was historically valid and worthy. The 1882 railway map in my office, after all, referred to the creek as Why-chus (Sehaptin for “The Place Where We Cross The Water”) so the term Squaw Creek was a later colloquial graft. The jettisoning of the term “Dark Ages” for “Early Medieval” makes sense, since the societies of the so-called Dark Ages were much more sophisticated than was understood when the original term was coined. And there’s no arguing that the term “Anglo-Saxon” spilled haughtily from the lips of 19th and early 20th century white supremacists and avatars of Manifest Destiny, from Theodore Roosevelt to Frederick Russell Burnham to the arch Anglo-Saxonist Cecil Rhodes. They were not shy about asserting the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization. If someone has a better term that more accurately reflects the culture of early medieval Angleand or Englond, we should be open to it.
But the tenor of the discourse leads me to suspect that the attack on “Anglo-Saxon” has more to do with hacksawing at the foundations of (white, Eurocentric, Christian, patriarchal) Western Civilization than with overcoming the term’s very real legacy of racism. That pernicious kind of revisionism should be resisted as ardently as neo-Nazi faux “Nordicism or “Anglo-Saxonism.”
If, as Harvard medieval manuscript curator John Overholt, asserts,
“The term Anglo-Saxon is inextricably bound up with pseudohistorical accounts of white supremacy, and gives aid and comfort to contemporary white supremacists…”
…isn’t the correct course to storm their shield wall and reclaim it? That certainly seems the more — shall we say, manly — approach.
Five of my uncles shot and/or bombed actual, authentic Nazis in 1942–45; my wife’s uncle was killed by a kamikaze sacrificing himself for Imperial Japan. So I’m not inclined to surrender my sense of heritage to either those who would pervert it or to those who would denigrate it on an altar of an inclusive multiculturalism that includes everything but mine own. I will continue to thrill to the skirl of the pipes and the lore of the line of my people, back to the beginning…