Book Review: “Travels Through Middle Earth” by Alaric Albertsson
Travels Through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan
2009, Llewellyn Publications
8 out of 10
I am not a Saxon Pagan. I am not a Pagan at all (though some people like to apply the title to me, and pretty well any other non-traditional religious person). Still, I have an active interest in various forms of religion as they have appeared in the past, and as they continue to arise, and most especially those forms of religious expression which connect with me somewhere in my ancestry. I picked up a copy of Albertsson’s book because I wanted to learn more about Germanic paganisms outside of the strictly Norse tradition most commonly found and, being a native English-speaker, the Anglo-Saxon traditions seemed to be a good place to look. Also, while there are other books on the topic, Alaric Albertsson lives right in my back yard; I met him a couple of times a few years ago and, though we didn’t really get on well personally (probably mostly my fault, as I was quite a jerk back then), I’ve always respected him for his expert-level knowledge of his own religion and its cultural background.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Travels Through Middle Earth. It was entertaining and informative, and the information was all immediately applicable for somebody interested in entering a modern Angl0-Saxon religious practice as an individual or in the context of a small group. I would unhesitatingly suggest Travels to anybody wanting a grounding in those traditions.
You’ll note that I use the phrase “modern Anglo-Saxon religious practice”; Albertsson is also intelligent and honest enough to let the reader know that what is being discussed is not the religion as it was practiced many centuries ago, but rather his own vision of how the religion might be practiced today, had the Anglo-Saxon culture survived unChristianized into the present. Though hardly an expert on the Anglo-Saxons myself, I believe that the author has done a great job of it. As an example, Albertsson points out that the Christmas tree is not the “ancient pre-Christian tradition” that many Neopagans try to make out; in fact, it can only be traced back a couple of centuries at most. That does not, however, make it inappropriate for Pagan Yule celebrations. A Pagan is free to adapt the traditions of other religions and cultures for their own religion, as long as they do so in a manner which respects both the source of the traditions and the gods of one’s own home. In other words, an evergreen tree decorated in a manner appropriate to the season can easily be adapted to many different European Pagan religious traditions, but you wouldn’t want a crucifix to represent Woden even if he and Christ share some common interests.
Albertsson’s approach to the adaptation of his religion to a modern context as illustrated above is an admirable example of modern Pagan innovation. It has become altogether too common among Neopagans, New Agers, and occultists of all kinds to just grab anything that looks interesting and try to shove it uncritically into the unframed lack-of-context of their spiritual practice. Albertsson and his ilk in groups like the ADF (of which he is himself a member) first generate context by way of history, linguistics, folklore and archaeology, and then reconstruct and borrow as necessary to fill in the gaps of theology, practice and liturgy. Once you have an overall context in place, the borrowings from elsewhere may be fitted in whole, or reshaped a bit to fit the mold of necessity.
For as much as I enjoyed Travels, I have only one complaint, though it is a big one: the book was not nearly as detailed or as complete as I would have liked. Though Albertsson did cover a multitude of topics, there is very little depth to any one. A short blurb of each of the major gods and goddesses, a little bit about elves and dwarves, a small chapter on magic, and so on for each topic. I think that the book could easily have been another 100 pages longer; the book sits at 240 pages (including contents, bibliography and glossary), so a 340 page book would not be intimidating to most interested beginners, and a lot more important details could have been included.
Even with that complaint, the book is very good. Even if you do have some knowledge and experience concerning Saxon Paganism, Albertsson’s perspective is itself valuable. Travels Through Middle Earth stands as among the better introductions I’ve read to various forms of modern Paganism in practice.