Friday, April 15, 2011

Some musings on history, myth, language, religion, (life, the universe, and everything...) etc.

I think we can all agree that Tolkien’s genius goes far beyond the imagination he is generally credited with; the critical element of the soup, if you will, is not the ham-bone but the spices and hidden flavors which give it a texture far deeper than ham broth, regardless of whether our uncultured tongues can taste the difference. The problem with this analogy, fun as it is, is that to Tolkien the plot, the ham bone, was secondary if not completely immaterial to the overall act of subcreation. It is, to be fair, exactly how we all wish we could cook; adding everything we want to eat to a pot and somehow making it into a coherent whole. These desired ingredients, for Tolkien particularly language, which necessarily incorporated the places and things and people which it described, were being shaped in his mind long before the barest hint to a plot for the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings surfaced.

For me the most interesting aspects of Tolkien’s creation has always been this depth of consciousness, the awareness that not only is the Lord of the Rings a culmination of a long history, but that that history was in existence, somewhere, and that maybe it wasn’t quite so far away. I confess to no knowledge of the North-Western tongues of Anglo-Saxon or Welsh, or any of the other languages which lend their textures, and often their sounds and syllables, to the languages of Arda, so I can’t give an opinion on whether they ‘match’ the lands and the people in the way Tolkien obviously believed they did. The depth of detail, however, makes the story and the *universe incredibly compelling. The hints of languages and back-stories and peoples that are unexplained in Lord of the Rings are what drew me into the mythology to begin with. Tolkien’s idea of Middle Earth as a lost time, not a lost world, is strengthened by this attention to the details of the history or mythology. To those more aware than I, the Rohirrim are blatantly referencing Anglo-Saxons, Hobbits live in England, and the Hidden Island is concurrent with mythological references of a mysterious land far in the West.

I particularly find the exercise of mapping Middle Earth onto Europe, or vice versa, to be a fascinating endeavor. I remember when I first heard that Tolkien claimed to have been writing a ‘mythology for England,’ since it was lacking; I spent a very long time with the map from the Fellowship trying to see how Middle Earth could be made to go around such difficulties as the Mediterranean Sea, which just doesn’t work unless I played God with things like sea-level and cardinal directions, which defeats most of the purpose. Some things are apparently analogous… England and the Shire, the Sundering Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the far South of Harad, where men go not, with Africa. There is the sense that each region, each kingdom in Middle Earth is somewhere in Europe, somehow they all could be fit together to make a whole, only they don’t. The question is, how important is it that they don’t? I would argue that it isn’t particularly important to have a direct correlation. If anything, that would have spoiled the faery element of the story, for a Middle Earth which too closely resembles our world would bring it into a similar realm to science fiction, which Tolkien disliked because it is still rooted in the ‘real’ regardless of the technical innovations. Likewise, a Middle Earth in which the Havens are in Ireland, Rivendell is in Denmark and the Hobbits live along the banks of the Thames rather than next to The Water is making claims on both the geography and to some extent the time that we inhabit, and in the same breath completely discounts their attempt at validity. By not grounding his mythos in a known geography Tolkien allows his subcreation to inhabit the area of the ‘what if’ or *universe. This area still lays claim to potentiality and relevance to our world, but does not enter into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is, in my opinion, not the only mythology to inhabit the ‘what if’ area.

Through most of the discussion over how seriously we, and Tolkien, believe the claim that Middle Earth is our Middle Earth, I found my thoughts drawn to the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Forgive my insufficient knowledge of the subject, not to mention my skepticism, in advance, and consider the claims made in the Old Testament. It suggests a geography and pattern of civilization that is both there (or suggested) and not there in our current geography, not to mention has been largely if not completely scientifically disproven. Geological and paleontological evidence would definitely not suggest that the world was made in 7 days, or that Adam was created from mud (or a blood clot, in the Qur’an). However, Egypt and the Promised Land exist, even if Eden and Babel seem to be unplottable. Does this evidence make any believer back away from their faith? No. Despite the evidence to the contrary, millions of people throughout the world firmly believe in the meaning of the Scripture, and take the lessons written there and apply them to their daily lives. That the actual facts of the story cannot be determined and likely never will be proven does not detract from the role of the Old Testament history/mythology in the Abrahamic traditions and thus the faith and lives of millions of worshippers. Did Tolkien in any way equate his creation with the Bible? Almost certainly not, and not in any way that would deligitimize it. Does that make it invalid to do so? No. Tolkien believed faery stories should allow us to come back and look at the ‘real’ world in a different, sharper way, and I would argue that Scripture does the same. The stories in the Bible are supposed to impact the way the reader/believer things and interacts with their world. I would say that the space, in history and place, that Middle Earth inhabits is in a world that is supposed to fill a similar area, familiar enough that we relate to it, that the lessons learnt and the problems confronted are applicable, that we look upon our land and fellow men with a new eye, but far enough from the reality we inhabit that there are new things to look on with a new wonder, things that before maybe weren’t so interesting or were simply unexplained. Mythology was a teaching force in ancient civilizations, a ‘why things are the way they are.’ Tolkien’s mythos doesn’t claim to be ‘the way things are’ but rather ‘the way things could have been,’ and makes us examine things we see every day, like maps of Europe or names like ‘Thames,’ or ‘Windsor’ or the countless other details he drew out of daily life, and look at them from a new perspective.



  1. I agree: to map Middle Earth onto Europe (whatever Tolkien says) would be effectively to reinscribe it in a frame of reality that we’ve seen Tolkien himself resist. It would reduce the realm of possibility that we’ve talked about, it would tend very closely towards allegory, and it would assume that a world so autonomously self-contained as Tolkien’s should describe Earth. I would state it more strongly: not only is such a correspondence unimportant, but it is also theoretically untenable. A few other points:
    a. On the distinction of lost time and lost/imaginary world: For a medievalist (i.e., me) lost time (the Middle Ages) is tantamount to saying lost world. I wonder if Tolkien simply decried the pejorative sense of imaginary/fictive (its association with falsehood), and so refuted it whenever it came by.
    b. I’m not sure that ‘what if’ = *universe. The former is posited hypothetically; the latter really. I tend to see the former as about possibility, and the latter as about significance.
    c. Following on this, mythology, even in the ancient world, was not strictly about why things are the way they are. It was a function of some myths, but often myths give a lot of details that are not explanatory (what does the Odyssey explain?). Reality and possibility are one aspect of narrative meaning. Reality and significance are another.

  2. Nice comparison with the problems that we encounter in reading Scripture and looking for exact geographical correlations with Eden and Babel. There is a(n imaginative) continuity and yet no exact correlation with our contemporary understanding of geographical reality: surely this is a great part of the appeal of Tolkien's mapping of Middle-earth, the "what if" Beleriand were actually submerged under the Atlantic or "what if" thousands of years ago, Hobbits lived in what is now England?


  3. I have always wondered about the maps that Tolkien presents us. I think that we have to accept them as fallible. Tolkien presenting us with these maps is akin to a book in a library containing 13th century maps and we, for lack of more up to date maps, accept them as satellite images. That Tolkien's maps may not be cartographically perfect would make perfect sense when we view Tolkien in the role of historian or documenter instead of creator. Furthermore, it would further prevent us from engaging in the exercise of mapping Middle Earth directly on to Europe and hoping for some sort of consistency.
    Look at the maps that people from the Middle Ages had (I sincerely encourage this. It is simultaneously hilarious and illuminating). Somewhat counter-intuitively the fallibility of Tolkien's maps give his proposed mythology more credibility instead of less.

    R Rao