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J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inheritance of Myth

May 14, 2016

In 1939, as the Nazi shadow stretched across Europe, a linguist named J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a lecture at the University of St. Andrews about fairy tales. One could hardly imagine a less relevant subject for the time. Who was this fumbling professor, talking about children’s stories with Hitler on the way?

Yet reading the speech more closely, along with Tolkien’s other works and the fantasy genre he championed, reveals that it could not have been timelier. Nor is the message of the speech restricted to that one dangerous age: of all the genres of art being created today, the one most equipped to deal with the modern world’s endemic ills is fantasy.

The Banishment of Myth

J.R.R. Tolkien is best remembered today as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as the creator of some of the world’s best-known fabricated languages. Before he began writing, the genre of fantasy literature looked markedly different from it does today. Though he did not found the genre, as people have been creating dream-visions for thousands of years, his work had a remarkable influence on fantasy’s future: a critical milepost along the road from the allegorical fairy tales of previous centuries to the sweeping myth-inspired histories readers would recognize from today’s bookshelves.

Indeed, at the beginning of Western literature, it would have been absurd to write something called a fantasy: the Iliad and Odyssey are full of magic, monsters, and epic battles, but can’t be called fantasies because there was no “reality” to separate them from. Carl Jung, visiting the Pueblo people of New Mexico, found they had “no distinction between the literal phenomenon of the sun rising and the religious meaning of the phenomenon.” (i) The sun god was the sun, and a sea monster in the Odyssey is the sea.

But as Western civilization progressed, Enlightenment arose to take the place of myth, feeding humanity’s growing hunger for the destruction of illusions. (ii) It achieved its goal by the twentieth century, with a world in which everyone knows what is real. Atoms, planets, and humans are real; elves, sea monsters, spirits, intelligent animals, and magic are not. This manifested itself in a gradual separation of literature from fantasy, a continuum that begins with medieval hermeneuticsthe monastic idea that scripture was a garment for spirit. (iii) Symbolic readings opened the door for allegory, which fueled perception that the fantasies were not “real”they were just clothing for the sensory world, the only one which had any value. Western society became strongly concerned with fact, and other truths fell by the wayside. People still enjoyed fantasy, but it was just that: an escapist dream one could wake from without having achieved any personal or intellectual growth. I propose that these fantasies offer far morethat they have the same existence value as the real world, because they are the representations of modern desire.

When Tolkien published On Fairy-Stories, Europe was reeling from the most destructive war in history, the aftermath of which was about to plunge the world into another war many times as deadly. Man’s technology and his ambition had surged far beyond his power to control it. The Enlightenment had gone dark. “Reason…turned exclusively into an instrument for satisfying individual interest,” (iv) and art was reflecting it.

Even after the war, in our modern age, the fatalistic residue lingers in western literature. In our current age, it can seem the only purpose of artists to sit and dare each other to edge closer to the abyss, that hole wherein dwell our darkest fears: that our lives will be forgotten, that death is nothingness, that humans have no purpose and a gleeful overabundance of cruelty. Like children on a playground, they receive prestige based on how near to the abyss they come. It is conversely unfashionable to ask why the abyss is there or to suggest ways that it might be filled in. It is even less fashionable to claim it relates directly to the Enlightenment having turned Earth into a dead thing to extract resources from, affirming a relentless march of progress with no destination.

Writing a book about hobbits and orcs while his son Christopher faced death on the European front, Tolkien had determined that tragedies would occur one after the other unless the world had its myths restored. His writings reveal how he goes about connecting the loss of stories to the despair of modernity.

A Body of Myth

Why should a man be scorned,” Tolkien writes in On Fairy-Stories, ”if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?” (v) He is describing the essential reason fantasy exists: a planet strictly confined by rational notions of what is real leaves its inhabitants hungry. With nowhere to turn in its own landscape, a mind creates, or consumes stories of, new lands. The genre’s enormous popularity among modern audiences testifies to people’s need for these new lands, but what exactly does the reader of fantasy find in a book that he doesn’t find in reality?

The first answer speaks to Tolkien’s timesthe reader finds history. Recall that Tolkien’s son was fighting a war directly related to the legacy of the one Tolkien himself had fought in. Europe was being ravaged by people who had forgotten the past. He set out to reach people who couldn’t see past old slights against their countries and remind them of the costs of pitting murderous technologies against each other without considering the aftermath. If the constructed world expresses what the primary world has forgotten, one would expect Middle-Earth to have a rich history. Someone, these books argue, must break the cycle of victory and revenge.

This is absolutely present, and expressed through the saga’s characters. Aragorn derives his power from the legacy of Numenor, Gandalf from that of the Valar, Frodo from the adventures of his uncle Bilbo and his Took heritage—each without a trace of irony. Myth, for them, is entirely alive, in worshipful fashion. Aragorn, at the moment he is crowned king, even takes the time to chronicle the genealogy of a tree sapling. (vi)

Second, the picture of an entire constructed world allows for a strong portrait of cause and effect. The Lord of the Rings concerns a ring of extreme power that the heroes attempt to destroy before it falls into the wrong hands. Along their journey, several characters on both sides of the conflict desire to use the ring for their own ends. Most significantly, Boromir, a human hero, questions why the Fellowship should destroy the ring when they could instead use it to defeat the dark lord who forged it. (vii)

In a letter to Christopher written late in World War II, Tolkien describes his fears of where the atomic bombing of Japan will lead: “We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is…to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” (viii) Myth, both the naturally arising stories of civilization and Tolkien’s artificial mythology, rejects easy allegory, so we must avoid a statement as bold and absolute as “the Ring of Power is a nuclear bomb.” Instead, if it represents anything, the ring represents an ethos: it is a powerful hammer, and even to wise old Bilbo, everything looks like a nail.

Destroying it, therefore, is an abdication of power. This paramount act of rebellion offers an alternative to the mentality of might sweeping the world: if we step down, step away instead of endlessly fighting to be stronger, we may yet heal our wounds. Frodo and Samwise decide they would prefer to live within nature rather than attempt to rule it. It is a hard road they choose–they must fight a battle on their own doorstep to secure peace. Yet in Tolkien’s worldview, and the views of all the constructed-world quest narratives he inspired, the easy road pollutes. The hard road heals.

The Escape of the Prisoner

Combined, these two points–fantasy’s senses of history and consequences–would be enough to understand why Tolkien was studying folklore a year before the Blitz. But they are also merely two aspects of an even greater whole that represents the actual modern role of the fantasy genre.

Returning to the lecture, Tolkien famously complains of fairy-stories being “relegated to the nursery,” condemned by their natural idealism to never be taken seriously. Why grant fairy tales and fantasies to children, though, if we don’t think they contain any knowledge worth sharing? As harmless entertainment? Hardlywe do it because, so says modernity, idealism is the child’s province. Children are seeing the world with new eyes, and have not had time to discover the abyss. Everything is new and exciting to them. Thus, the reasoning goes, they gain more benefit from works that agree with them.

This argument is backwards. Fantasy like The Lord of the Rings does not offer heroes, hope, and happy endings because it mirrors the child’s perspective, but because it seeks to create that perspective. Tolkien states that “the appetite for marvels is not at once or at first differentiated by a growing human mind from its general appetite.” An adult reader of fantasy seeks out wonder in its pages, but a child naturally turns that same eye on the world they live in. This is the project of constructed-world literature: to let adults see the world in the same way as an ancient, or a child. To supplement the mathematics with meaning.

Within the pages of The Lord of the Rings, a character undergoes an experience that mirrors the one Tolkien attempts to induce in his reader: “Out of the shadows of legend I begin a little to understand the marvel of the trees, I think. I have lived to see strange days. Long we have tended our beasts and our fields, built our houses, wrought our tools, or ridden away to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world.” (ix) It is clear that many lives lack marvels, but with the aid of myth, we see them everywhere.

To Find the Colors Again

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.

George R.R. Martin, The Faces of Fantasy

The above quote from George R.R. Martin, the veritable pontiff of modern fantasy thanks to his A Song of Ice and Fire series, describes how the reflections we create of our primary world are not perfect mirror images. They are naturally lovelier, and their colors brighter, because we see them for the first time. Living in this world since coming into awareness inures us to it. We mature out of the natural wonderment of childhood to a jaded age in which we laugh off the ancient Norse sightings of dragons.

The construction of fantastic worlds is a crack in that social armor. The fact that works imprinted as “fantasy” form one of the largest publishing markets of 2015 proves how hungry people are for alternatives to the dominant narrative. Nor does this vast profit blunt the medium’s message–just because a book plays a part in a capitalist system by retailing for money, does not mean the text itself, or its reader, are in favor of that system. People look at reflections of the primary world to recall what a world of color is like so that they can see color here. They know what was taken from them, and they want it back.

None of this is to say that the modern world is an enemy of our well-beingjust that certain narratives within it that have supplanted other narratives. In the end, the problem with the modern world is the dominance of myths few of us chose, without the chance to make new ones. Secondary worlds give us the chance to choose.

Why would this kind of creativity fail to earn respect? Why might its message be scorned and feared as social decline? Certainly, reading works of fantasy fiction does not solve the problems of the primary world on its own; rather, books like Tolkien’s are alarms, meant not to satisfy us but to awaken us. What change is coming to our society must begin with the individual, or it will never take hold; for that, the individual must learn through art what he is missing, and then decide with his newfound vision how to affect change.

Perhaps the “relegation to the nursery” occurs because fantasy suggests the primary world is not providing everything it promises. Perhaps because claiming our culture can still correct its course seems childish, ignorant of the way things work. Perhaps for that very childishness, since believing that the fairy tales we loved growing up are the key to saving us as adults appears inconsistent with maturity. Storytelling, however, is the hallmark of a mature mind, since it is now able to construct meaning for itself.

Or, perhaps, there is the legitimate objection that myth cannot be the sole foundation of society any more than sensory rationalism can. Nazism, for example, was strongly inspired by its own misplaced mythology, which played upon irrational fears. I take rationalism to task because it is today’s dominant mode of thought, but reaching too far in either direction means catastrophe: excessive reason leads to a cold and dead world, while excess of myth makes the world violent and mercurial. The two must instead mix, braided strands strengthening a rope.

Constructed worlds cannot be overlooked by intellectual discourse any longer. The primary world has lost its color, bowled over by a thundering economy that treats its wondrous environments as grazing grounds. We need the fantasies, the colors in the mirror, to remind us what the way out is. We must apply continuous awareness of a world in which meaning will rarely be obvious. Dreaming of the forests of the night, and of feasts beneath the hollow hills, is the polar opposite of modern malaise. And so, we must go hunting.


i Heller, Sophia. The Absence of Myth. Albany, NY: State U of New York, 2006. Print.

ii Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests: The Shadows of Civilization. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1992. Print.

iii Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame, In.: Notre Dame UP, 1964. Print.

iv Burger, Peter. The Decline of Modernism. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992. Print.

v Tolkien, J.R.R. On Fairy-Stories. 1947. Brainstorm Services. Web. 16 Feb 2015.

vi Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. Turtleback Books ed. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2012. Print.

vii Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. Turtleback Books ed. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2012. Print.

viii Tolkien, J.R.R., and Humphrey Carpenter. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.

ix Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. Turtleback Books ed. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2012. Print.

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