Wednesday, April 6, 2011

True Myth

In class on Monday, Professor Fulton-Brown asked us how we ought (and how Tolkien would have liked us) to look at the stories of Middle-Earth.  Are they fiction? Or perhaps fantasy?  Or something else? In attempting to answer this question, I referred to a section from Tolkien's landmark essay on the poem "Beowulf," "The Monsters and the Critics."  Unfortunately, my answer did not come out quite the way I had intended, and I thought I should clear up any confusion I may have caused.

The section of "The Monsters and the Critics" to which I was referring is the following, which I have taken from page 115 of the Norton Critical Edition of "Beowulf" (2002):

"...we perceive that he who wrote hæleth under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsecg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof... that even this 'geography,' once held as a material fact, could now be classed as a mere folk-tale affects its value very little.  It transcends astronomy."

What I meant by referring to this passage was not that Tolkien resents the dissection of "literature" in search of a factual origin or meaning.  That he feels this way is of course abundantly clear elsewhere in the essay.  But these words seem to me to convey more than what the antiquarian or scholar's relation to "literature" (or to folk-tales, or to fairy-stories) ought to be: they signify what the reader's relation to such stories ought to be.  The quote is, I think, particularly applicable to Monday's lecture because it deals with a change in conception of the shape of the Earth and its position in relation to the other spheres of existence, a change that separates a modern reader from the poem.  The comparable event in Arda, the creation of the Straight Road, must have had a similar effect on someone born in the Third Age who hears the story of Beren and Luthien.  And yet Frodo and Sam, though they know they live in a different world, can still immerse themselves in the story, can still regard it as a true story (and a continuing one).

When we set aside our copies of The Lord of the Rings, we undergo our own "geographical" shift.  The world we have occupied for several hours is changed into a fundamentally different (but yet vaguely similar) place.  We are dividing ourselves from the historicity of the story, as we do when we remember that garsecg does not in fact exist.  For Sam and Frodo, of course, the tale of Beren and Luthien was History as well as Myth, while "Beowulf" and The Lord of the Rings cannot be both for us.  But knowing that "Beowulf" takes place in what is essentially another world (or more correctly a fundamentally different version of our world) has no effect on the poem itself, internally or externally.  The character and importance of the heroic-mythical North and the stories that are told of it transcend our knowing that Beowulf did not actually kill Grendel  and that our world is not the world of garsecg  and eormengrund.  Tolkien, I think (and this is my answer to Prof. Fulton-Brown's question), would want us to regard his works as a true myth, in much the same way that he wants us to regard "Beowulf" as a true myth.  The subtle links between the Primary World and Arda (like Frodo's song at the Prancing Pony) or Beowulf's world (knowing that Hygelac and Hroðgar were real people) make the myth true, and our knowledge of the Primary World makes the truth mythical.  Without the "historical" links, we are too distant from the Secondary World, and without knowledge of the separation of the Primary and Secondary Worlds, we are not distant enough, at which point Myth becomes too much like History.  If fairy-stories are an escape, then the Fairy-world must be far enough away from our own that we wish to travel to it.  But since we are escaping, not fleeing, we cannot enter a wholly foreign world. It must be an alternate version of our own world, one in which we are free from our bonds: an older version, perhaps, encompassed by the Great Sea and trodden by the feet of men half-real or long dead, or one inhabited by Elves and Ents and by West-midlanders who smoke tobacco and chat about dragons. 



  1. I very much like how you’ve underlined that Tolkien wants us to be able to distinguish between myth and truth in LotR. I agree that it is critical for us to make this distincintion in order to fully experience his work. Unlike the general trend of class discussions, I’ve never had any particular trouble distinguishing between the historical and fantastical elements in Tolkien’s story. For me, magical rings and evil incarnate are things that clearly originated from the author’s imagination—and which furthermore are commonly found in the genre of fantasy itself.

    Admittedly, our discussions have shown me that there is a lot more fact mixed up in Tolkien’s myth than what I originally perceived. However, I don’t think that Tolkien literally intended to have his readers believe that his book was anything like an elaborated historical record. As you so aptly pointed out, in order to truly enjoy his fantasy we must recognize that it is just that—fantasy. This recognition does not have to occur while one is actually in the secondary world—in fact, it shouldn’t—but when we re-enter our primary world by putting our books down. The fantasy of LotR is where the magic of Tolkien’s work derives from, and readers should recognize that the historical elements and complexity of the tale serve mainly to make the transition into that world easier.

    -Jessica Adepoju

  2. "When we set aside our copies of The Lord of the Rings, we undergo our own "geographical" shift." So claims our post author. While readers may come from all over the world, as soon as we begin to read about Frodo and his adventures, we are transported across time and space to inhabit Middle Earth together. Perhaps this is what Tolkien meant by calling his story one of "time travel"- we travel into a past created through collective memory. Every reader contributes what knowledge of geography, history, epic, and fantasy into building a vision of Middle Earth. Tolkien knows this better than anyone, learning not only various languages, but their cultures as well. The author of this post also claims, "If fairy-stories are an escape, then the Fairy-world must be far enough away from our own that we wish to travel to it. But since we are escaping, not fleeing, we cannot enter a wholly foreign world." To this I mostly agree. The world of Middle Earth needs to feel at once strange and unusual and hauntingly familiar. I believe that when we read fantasy, what we actually want is heightened reality. We don't want to feel cheated but we want to be fooled; good fantasy needs to feel real. You don't want to see the man behind the curtain; you assume he's lurking somewhere, but you're content to listen to his booming voice. Tolkien's blend of history with myth and original fantasy is really what makes LOTR stand out from being just another story. We believe the story COULD have happened. That small shred of belief that readers are willing to give to the story makes all the difference. Again, this isn't a parlor trick, it's real magic.

    A. Demma

  3. I like your analogy of Frodo and Sam regarding the ancient tales as true, even though they are so far removed from them. You make an excellent point that, while these tales are part of the Hobbits literal history, but fiction in our Primary Reality, the ‘points of connection,’ let us say, with our reality connect us to the stories and make them “true myths.” It is also very perceptive of you to note that there is a correct distance we have to maintain from these “true myths” in order for them to function as they are supposed to; that if we are too close to them, they become history, but if we are too far from them, they fail to draw us in, we can too easily see the ‘man behind the curtain.’ This is a point I had not fully considered before!

    Courtney Jacobson

  4. I think you raise some interesting points at the end of your post. You wrote that “without the historical links, we are too distant from the Secondary World, and without knowledge of the separation of the Primary and Secondary Worlds, we are not distant enough.” In other words, you’re implying that a fairy-story is good and has done its job when it has struck the right balance between primary and secondary reality and between myth and history.

    However, I do question your claim that it’s possible for the Secondary World to be “too distant” from us, in primary reality. Is it possible for someone to write a fantasy story, which has no “historical” links whatsoever, and is so unconnected from the Primary World that it seems absolutely foreign? In my opinion, any story we write will be somehow based on our experience of the primary reality—even when, we’re not consciously referring to primary reality, we are at least subconsciously affected by it. I think that any sub-creative process, simply by virtue of being sub-creation, necessarily seeks a model in the primary creation. Even the most farfetched myth will have to have some sort of basis in our historical experience: myth cannot escape history. Sub-creation cannot escape creation.