Friday, May 27, 2011

The Form of Myth: Re-reading Tolkien as both Scripture and a Product of the Modern Age

In Wednesday’s discussion, Dr. Fulton asked us why we re-read the legendarium. If we all already know what will happen in the stories, what changes for us when we return to them? Several reasons abound. Some people claimed that different words and phrases become important when refocused by class discussions and course readings. Others, myself included, find that stories have different meanings when read in different contexts. Because I am a much different person now than the first and most recent times in which I read the legendarium in earnest (eleven and nineteen years-old, respectively), I respond to elements and themes of the story most relevant to my primary reality as a graduating fourth-year preparing for medical school: uncertainty about what lies beyond Arda/campus and hoping [for admittances] without any guarantees. Yet, to other students, they re-read the legendarium with a greater focus on Tolkien himself as a main character. They abstract the stories’ events and characters to question or analyze what Tolkien thought in the creative process.

Although I practice each of these reasons for re-reading the legendarium, I am most invested in re-reading the Silmarillion and the Histories of Middle Earth, specifically, because their biblical forms provide me with more than merely stories or histories. Much like how I find different meanings to long-familiar passages from Jewish sacred texts, like the  Torah, Talmud, Tanakh, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim, the Silmarillion and other Histories of Middle Earth react on me in ways unique from other books. Because Jewish texts and ‘Tolkien scripture’ feature stories heavy with implicit meaning, they resonate with me differently and different times of my life. The stories are archetypes that different people can access at diff parts of their lives. The stories’ simplicity allow readers a level of interaction in which they able to read the stories into their lives and their lives into the stories. Each reader interprets the stories into her own lens. Because the stories provide a form rather than content, the reader projects himself into them when he wants to accept that form.

The form of the myth often deals in absolutes, even when it seems like the actor is taking the middle-ground. These force us to pick a side and then force us to align our fortunes with it because they are so absolute. I find that with modern novels, there is a type of moral ambiguity or general ambiguity that allows us a distance from the actor. However, myths force readers to put themselves into characters in ways unlike different genres. At some point it does seem like there is ambiguity or conflict, but ambiguity and potentiality for conflict forces the religious/ Tolkien scripture reader to justify, apologize, or defend them in ways that draw the reader closer to the text.  For instance, those same commentators are well within the framework of traditional Judaism. Although we are given a framework and parameters of understanding the torah, it is still left to the interpretation of the scholar; everyone understands the stories differently. By definition, the Torah is meant to be understood in multiple ways and multiple levels. In the Midrash, one finds that there are 70 "faces" or facets to the Torah (in Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15). This statement reveals the myriad ways of interpreting the text…and the wealth of rabbinical commentary on it. In composing those volumes of commentary on the same stories, the rabbis bring both themselves and their readers closer to the scripture.

In Tolkien scripture, I am most fascinated by the Ainulindalë. This genesis story gives me more than merely a conceptual outline for my final project in this class. Reading it now as a graduating student, I understand it as a cautionary tale about over-ambition and impatience with creation that one has yet to achieve.  In the story, Melkor grew upset and impatient with the persisting Void (and then sought in vain for the Sacred Fire with which to convert more of the Void into creation). Believing that Eru took little interest in creating more non-Void, Melkor ultimately thought he could better manage or perfect that process because of his powers and the independent thoughts he gained from his time in searching for the Sacred Fire in the Void. To me, this archetype is a shadowy reflection of my personal issues with the creative process. Be it a piece of music, an academic paper, or (and most especially) a blog post for this class, I struggle with perfectionism. As those tendencies drive me to find some new, creative point hitherto unmentioned on the blog—which is absurd since everyone’s posts are both amazing and humbling—I get mired in a vicious circle of self-sabotage.

Because Melkor is an archetype of my own creative struggles, I agree with Fleiger’s claim that while Tolkien’s work “may draw on ancient myths for its truths…it speaks directly to the modern age, an age acutely concerned with the workings of its own unconscious, a society familiar with psychology." (152) Much like how the “journey, the battle, and the monster are both within and without” for the Lord of the Rings, the same is true for the Silmarillion and its meaning to me. In my earlier readings of the Ainulindalë, I did not see Melkor as my shadow incarnate nor as some monster within the mythical frame. However, as I now struggle to manage those irrational tendencies listed above, I find solace in venturing into Faerie to encounter the shadow and see how other primary authors like Eru integrate or harmonize the shadow. Despite Melkor’s best efforts to mar and overthrow Eru’s third theme, Melkor’s discordant theme’s "most triumphant notes were taken by [Eru’s] and woven into its own solemn pattern." To me, the outcome of this struggle is a meaningful reframing of a Jungian concept: “The integration of the shadow, or the realisation of the personal unconscious, marks the first stage of the analytic process...without it a recognition of anima and animus is impossible.”

Lastly, because of this modern framing of the legendarium, I have also found meaning in other long-familiar stories, like the two Númenórean chapters on Elendil and his son Herendil in the Lost Road. Like Frodo at the Sammath Naur, the young Herendil is “pinioned between light and dark both outside and inside…and tormented by the equal stress exerted by positive and negative forces.” (Flieger 153) He is caught between the corrupting, albeit attractive, revisionist history from by the King’s Men and the warnings from his father. Although Herendil fears Sauron’s dungeons, he also fears the internal shadows of not simply death but sameness: “Death comes here slow and seldom; yet it cometh. The land is only cage gilded to look like paradise.” Because “every road is trodden hard…and every tree and grass blade counted,” Herendil fears that he will not “escape the shadow of sameness, and of ending” without following the will of mighty Sauron. However, even after this sentiment upsets Elendil, Herendil, much like Frodo, “becomes aware of himself again as an independent being with a will of his own. He is free to choose.” (Ibid.) When Elendil presents his son with a choice “between thy father and Sauron” or to “even to report as may seem good to thee all that I have said,” Herendil chooses love: “‘Atarinya tye-melane (my father, I love thee)…I stay, father.’”

Until I learned to appreciate the modern framing of this story, I simply read the account of the father and son as an interesting narrative on the corrupting of Númenor before the fateful invasion of Valinor. I learned about the nature of the propaganda created by Sauron and his servants as well as how they manipulated Númenórean discontent with the ‘over-known’ nature of the Isle to “futher the policy of ‘imperial’ expansion and ambition…” However, I find new meaning in Herendil’s choice for love. Because Tolkien “was concerned above all with the relation between the father and the son [in these chapters],” he releases Herendil from the forces striving in the character, thus allowing Herendil to demonstrate the power of love and free will over ambition, if not evil.



  1. I find several interesting things about your post in light of having taken this class and rereading the Lord of the Rings. First off, I’d like to agree that rereading the Lord of the Rings this second time before the beginning of the course was definitely not what I had expected. It seemed that the story was much more vivid by building on my memories of having read the book as a middle school student. It is entirely possible that this could be in part due to an increase in reading level, but I agree that you certainly see the stories through a different lens of meaning the second time through. At first, I didn’t get the fact that passages were reassigned from Lord of the Rings. I had thought that it was a directive to remember having read them, but I saw later that it was an invitation to reinterpret them both immediately before class and during class when reading those passages was still fresh.

    However, I think there might be more, I suspect that in the minds memory there may be a reinforcement effect much like how thinking about something will strengthen memory of it with the strengthening of neuron connections in the human brain. The frequent rereading binds us to our experience and to the story.

    I’ve been told that there is a quality versus quantity in terms of reading. You can read quicker and read once, or you can read slowly and multiple times. It seems to be the fashion to read things once, but one of the first things I was struck by in this course was that in one reading, it seems like a wealth of insight is missed. Apparently, there isn’t the push to perfectionism in reading that there is in writing. For instance, I deleted and reposted this comment for a typo.

  2. Great post, and I agree wholeheartedly that readers interpret texts, or get different things out of them, when they read at different times in life. The first time people read Lord of the Rings, it's easy to just think of it as an 'adventure story,' but with each subsequent reading, we add new layers of meaning as different parts of the story stand out to us.

    Quick question for clarification: when you wrote, "Because the stories provide a form rather than content, the reader projects himself into them when he wants to accept that form," was that referring to Lord of the Rings, or to the Jewish texts? I can't speak about the scripture, but I'd disagree if you meant this about Lord of the Rings. These stories are rich in detail and "content," and it is the task of the keen reader to pick up as much as possible. This is why these stories are still rewarding with each re-reading.

    I also love your (and Flieger's) reading of Tolkien's work as a sort of modernization of the myth, involving moral ambiguity that wasn't always present in myths of old. I think it is yet another example of what a careful and thoughtful author Tolkien was. Although he was writing in an "archaic" voice, as we discussed the week we read the Council of Elrond chapter, he is sure to include "modern" elements - awareness of characters' psyches, moral ambiguity - as a connection to the primary reality.

    - Jen Th.

  3. An excellent meditation on the way in which our reading changes as we reread and on how stories like Tolkien's can work on us and for us as ways of thinking through our own creative struggles! I am particularly moved by your reading of Melkor as a lens through which to understand your own struggles with perfectionism--I have been there myself many times, but I had not associated this particular marring with Melkor until you pointed it out.


  4. I really liked your comparison of this text to the 70 "faces" to the Torah, because it is a really interesting idea, especially for stories. One reason I think that these, and any story worth rereading is so accessible multiple times is that there are many ways to understand them, and as we grow and experience life we find new meaning in the words. For example, I read the Lord of the Rings, long before I knew anything about Catholicism and still enjoyed. However rereading now with a better understanding of Tolkien’s religion I can see where he’s drawing on for certain ideas, or themes. Often times though it is even more mundane. A lot of the reason I can appreciate these stories more fully is just through living life, experiencing new things, and maturing. In many ways a good story is like Niggle’s forest. You can keep looking at it and find new things. Because we find new meaning the story doesn’t grow old. We keep adding on to it, letting the story change us, and in putting ourselves in the story. Stories become a part of our lives, we share them with our friends, and we even mix stories with each other. Especially in the case of Tolkien’s works, which are for many, the standard of fantasy writing.

  5. I liked this post a lot, especially the part when you talked about how you now read the Ainulindale as "a cautionary tale about over-ambition and impatience with creation that one has yet to achieve." I too, am a graduating fourth year and the way you talk about the Ainulindale particularly strikes me as very appropriate to understanding our lives after graduation.

    I would even venture to go further with that reading of the Ainulindale. In the beginning of the Ainulindale, the Ainur can only sing the part of the mind of Iluvatar that has been revealed to them. But after a while, Iluvatar reveals to them the first theme, and then they are able to sing a music that was more beautiful and unlike any other music that has been. All because they “hearkened” to Iluvatar.

    For us, as fourth years about to go into the wide world of uncertainty, we should draw from the examples not of Melkor, but of the Ainur: those who listened to Iluvatar and made music according to his will. I feel as if this comment is more of me blogging to remind and comfort myself that it is all right to not have a complete life plan laid before me, but anyway, thanks for the post! Very thought-provoking indeed.


  6. I very much enjoyed your post. However, a couple of assertions you made struck me as strange.
    You say, "The stories’ simplicity allow readers a level of interaction in which they able to read the stories into their lives and their lives into the stories. Each reader interprets the stories into her own lens. Because the stories provide a form rather than content, the reader projects himself into them when he wants to accept that form."

    I don't quite agree with this. Is it the simplicity of certain stories that draw us back to them or their complexity? This assertion seemed inconsistent with the rest of your assertions regarding the multiple levels the Torah can be read on etc. Furthermore, does form really supersede content? Is it not its content that makes it scriptural? I don't think that Tolkien is looking for us to map these stories onto our own lives in a way as simple as, "I'm similar to Melkor in my search for perfection." That is a completely valid reading but to suggest that myths are essentially simple may be invalid.

    R Rao

  7. I thought that it was very interesting that you considered the story of Melkor as a cautionary tale of striving for perfection to the point of it becoming detrimental. I always thought that it had more to do with a sense of not letting others strive for perfection--something more along the lines of jealousy than vanity. However, after reading what you wrote, I can see it in a different light, which speaks to your broader point about the importance of differing interpretive perspectives. I thought this was a very interesting post and am excited to see what you final project ended up--it takes its inspiration from a pretty big moment!