Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Between Reality and History in Time, Mythology

This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats mountains down.
- Gollum, to Bilbo Baggins, a riddle whose answer is “time”

There is a crucial gap between our perceptions of the present and the past. The past is, of course, only defined in relation to the present (the past must have taken place before the current moment). In another sense, the past is only the collection of all previous presents; it is the present, only displaced in time. This displacement, however, prevents us from actually being able to understand the reality of the past. History, then, is just an interpretation of the surviving records of the past. Even with a complete record, recreating the reality of the past is an impossibility.

Tolkien was aware of the yawning gap between past and present. It was what allowed him to create his mythology of England. “And what do you know about ‘true past events’,” Ramer asks of Frankley in The Notion Club Papers. “Have you ever seen one, when once it was past? They are all stories or tales now, aren’t they, if you try to bring them back into the present?” If all history is stories of the past, then mythology or fantasy may just be another way to tell a story of the past. Ramer continues a little later, “People of the future, if they only knew the records and studied them, and let their imagination work on them, till the Notion Club became a sort of secondary world set in the Past,” they were able to read the Club minutes and understand it in the present. But only as a story, as a “secondary world” – putting it on the same plane as The Lord of the Rings.  It is possible, Tolkien thus seems to be suggesting, that LotR could have taken place in some form within the history of this world. At the very least, he considered Middle-Earth to be a real place. In a letter to Hugh Brogan, he wrote, “Middle-earth is just archaic English for… the inhabited world of men. It lay then as it does [now]… round and inescapable.”

But, of course, the specifics of the history within LotR do not match any recorded history; it is fantasy, closer to Arthurian legend than to Hamlet or Macbeth. In a response to a review of LotR, Tolkien explains his thinking a little further: “The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” Though Middle-Earth may be a form of Europe, it has a more nebulous relationship with the history of Europe. This contrasts with the setting of “Farmer Giles of Ham”, which is not only explicitly in southern England, but also in a distinct time. It is not a specific time – the narrator states that the story place after King Coel but before Arthur and the Seven Kingdoms of the English,[1] yet the title character has a blunderbuss (and there are giants and dragons) – but it can be fit within a specific period of history. The stories of Middle-Earth cannot be fit into history in the same way. One might say that “Farmer Giles” is a false history form of fantasy, while LotR is a mythology form of fantasy; the latter is in a separate level of [something missing here?]

It cannot be dated in the same way that “Farmer Giles” can; Tolkien only states that, “The new situation, established at the end of the Third Age, leads on eventually inevitably to ordinary History,” placing the events more properly in a prehistory or legendary history. But such as it is with all mythology or legend: how long did Zeus reign on Mount Olympus? Or, to take an example a little bit closer to the topic, how long ago did knights and dragons fight in “Farmer Giles”? Within LotR, Tolkien created a detailed timeline that explains the specific relationship of events, but it only exists within that secondary reality, not within our primary reality like the ‘legends’ of dragons in “Farmer Giles” might. The latter’s direct link to our history makes it different in kind from LotR.

To return to the point, Tolkien’s stories exploit the gap between the past we can perceive and the past as it really happened. There would be no room for mythology without it. Tolkien is thus able to create a ‘reality’ that exists within the ‘history’ of Europe; an imagined time in a real place. But this is not to say that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is set in Europe. Continuing from his quote about an imaginary period in history, Tolkien says, “The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar.” [My emphasis] This feeling of familiarity was obviously an important part of Tolkien’s work, but it is just that, a feeling. The Shire is not meant as a stand-in for England; it only evokes it or acts as its analogue. To set a story in a real place is to set it in a specific real time, much as “Farmer Giles” takes place in England during the Medieval Period. But LotR is meant to be mythological, a separate secondary reality with respect to our primary reality.

P.S. I want to take a moment to try to rescue my comment from the beginning of class about the rivers of Middle-Earth. My point, which I articulated very… confusingly, was that Tolkien would not have wanted a Middle-Earth to be set in a specific Europe. He could have done so, certainly; the geography plays a less central role than does his languages in generating the story. He wants to use Europe as a setting, but only in a general sense; it is a Europe of legend, not of historical or geographic fact. Attempting to map Middle-Earth directly onto Europe is thus, not only futile, but in some ways goes directly against his project in a fundamental way. It would then have a concreteness within history that Tolkien does not intend it to have. It is a secondary reality, not an attempt to create an alternate primary reality. I seized on the rivers to make this point, perhaps, to emphasize the fact that the geography is not that of Europe; it is an analogous translation of the latter into legend.

- Matthew Neer

[1] Coel is, obviously, not a real king (and Arthur may not have been either), but the stories about them are specifically set in early Medieval England.


  1. I'd like to raise some complaints with the assertion that "The stories of Middle-Earth cannot be fit into the history in the same way [as Farmer Giles]." Is that entirely true? First off, Farmer Giles is full of anachronisms, the most notable being the titular characters' blunderbuss. The time period in which Farmer Giles is posited to take place in by this essay (late antiquity to the early middle ages) would make a blunderbuss a completely foreign (in both a time and space sense) item. Furthermore, the appearance of dragons and giants means Farmer Giles is solidly grounded in Faerie, not a "historical" period. This being said, the essay does allow for these anachronisms to be deemed "historical." By stating, quite eloquently, that "History, then, is just an interpretation of the records of the past," Farmer Giles can be asserted to be an interpretation of the past. By allowing that, the tales of Middle-Earth must also be admitted to be "historical" in that they are in some way an interpretation of past events (Tolkien drawing from the historical aura of England and drawing inspiration, however indirect, from previous writers). Of course, saying this raises the question of where history starts and mythology begins. It seems that the two concepts are on the same variable scale, with mythology relying more heavily on interpretation and history relying on...what? I suppose this is my ultimate question to be asked here. Not to go into too much detail but it is inarguable that history per se is inalterably tinged by interpretation (thus "the winner's write the history books" and the occurrence of "revisionist" histories). So really, is there any way to separate mythology from history? Both are interpretive analyses of events that have already happened; can so-called mythology really be said to be more true than historical accounts or even fundamentally different for that matter?

  2. I think, that part of your post has vanished somewhere into the ether, it would be good to know how you intended to end your third paragraph.

    Beyond that, there seems to be something in what you say about the connection between setting a story in a definite place and a definite time. However, I do want to push back a little about your claim, "[the Shire] only evokes [England] or acts as its analogue." Might it be more proper to say that the Shire is England's ancestor? At least as a sort of mythic ancestor in the same sense that many royal dynasties fade into mythic figures [and eventually to Trojan heroes, themselves figures from myth, if we believe many medieval historians] if we trace them back far enough. This, I think, nuances your distinction between Farmer Giles as occurring withing a mythologized primary reality and LotR, occurring within a secondary reality. You're correct that there is a distinction, Giles is certainly more definitively situated - anachronisms notwithstanding - in "our" world, but Tolkien seems to be deliberately blurring the lines a bit, drawing the secondary reality of Middle Earth into our own reality through tantalizing hints and mythic resemblances. I also appreciated your clarification of the "rivers" point you brought up in class, I think it does make your point much more clear.

  3. If you have a chance, you might want to read this It talks about Middle Earth's location in Europe and what time Lord of the Rings was set relative to us. I'm not sure if mapping Middle Earth on to Europe is "futile" as you say because there are clearly parallels between Middle Earth and Europe and we could learn some pretty interesting things about Middle Earth by looking further into this. Time is another thing that I've been very interested in recently as it pertains to my paper. It seems to me that the inhabitants of Middle Earth fit into a variety of different times in history. Men seem rather Medieval in dress, style of living, and technology. Hobbits, however, seem to fit more into the 17th or 18th century. Other races are harder, if not impossible, to place into a specific time. It seems odd, though, that Medieval and 17th/18th century characters can coexist and the reader not even pick up on the differences (or at least I didn't when I first read the books). In fact, Tolkien's work is probably full of anachronisms if we try to put a specific time on the books (some of the foods alone would put the book at the mid-nineteenth century at the latest). I suppose it's a testament to Tolkien's skill that you don't even notice these things when you read!


  4. I agree with you to an extent that trying to place Middle-Earth over Europe is in a way futile. While one reading his text must recognize his intention of creating a set of Myths for England and thus much of Middle Earth is influenced by Europe and England, it is not like we are going to find Middle Earth, or that Tolkien intended for Middle-Earth to fit on our modern day maps. That being said, Middle-Earth is influenced by Europe, as Tolkien would hope that we realize that Europe has been shaped by Middle Earth. You say the past is the present but displaced in time, Middle Earth is Europe, but displaced in space. The realms of the Greek Gods existed in Greece. Their mythologies were set in the area that they governed. Tolkien is creating a mythology for a country, and thus these myths must be rooted in the land that they tell the story about.

  5. I think this topic is very interesting and significant, but there are a few things that are worth further consideration. For example, is it accurate, or helpful, to distinguish between “a false history form of fantasy” and “a mythology form of fantasy” (“One might say that Farmer Giles is a false history form of fantasy, while LotR is a mythology form of fantasy”)? Similarly, is there really “a gap between the past we can perceive and the past as it really happened”? It seems to me that the notion that history dissolves into myth speaks about precisely the opposite. It says, when you go back far enough in history, there is no “real” or “unreal.” How would we know the past as it really happened? We have records, but history is often written by the victors, and moreover those records are far from adequate in completely documenting the past as it was lived and breathed. How can we be sure that the past really played out according to the records, if they only ever captured a tiny percentage of the entire picture? Or think about dinosaurs -- we have fossils, and we have theories, but since no one was around when they were around, can our theories ever be more than myths? Even in human history, which is very short compared to the history of the planet, there were periods where very little record remains of the period. Thus the concept of history dissolving into myth: there is no “history” as a concept of “what really happened” if you go back in time far enough.