Wednesday, April 23, 2014

History as Myth and a Few Other Things As Well

One topic touched upon was the relationship between history and myth, primarily with regards to The Notion Club Papers (Part Two).  Of particular interest was Jeremy’s statement that “I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical…”  Obviously, this passage may be interpreted in a number of different ways, each saying something different about the topic at hand.

 One proposed angle was that any description of the past is itself a creation; a fabrication based on what the person believes to be true but inherently colored by the individual.  Given that the teller was not present at the “true past events” he or she claims to describe, there is no way to know with certainty whether or not the story is accurate.  And, as Ramer points out, even if the teller was physically present, they can clearly not describe with perfect clarity and objectivity all things that happened.  Therefore, every account of history is a myth, and the further back one goes the more blanks must be filled in with creation.

I think this interpretation raises an entirely valid and important point, but does not grasp the sense of myth used in the text.  The term myth in The Notion Club Papers, and in Tolkien’s writing more generally, has a much more specific application than simply a creative telling of the past who’s actual events (to the extent that such a phrase has meaning in this discussion) are unknown.  Certainly such a creation may in some cases be included under the heading of myth, but it is by no means the only such possibility or even the most important one.  As evidenced by Ramer’s later statements about the “daimonic force” of myth, there must be something beyond a simple story concerning an unknown past.  To ascend to the level of a great myth, the story must be rooted emotion rather than solely in events.  The myth must have a presence in the primary reality beyond its role as a story.  By virtue of its existence within the collective minds of a people, myth has the power to shape action and thought giving it enormous relevance, perhaps even more so than a record of the “real past events” could because of the emotional force conveyed.

The relationship between history and myth in The Notion Club Papers is further complicated by Ramer’s description of what would happen if one tried to apply his mind travel technique to looking at the historical past.  Ramer responds to a query about whether he would see Camelot by saying “It depends on what you yourself are like, and on what you are looking for, I imagine.  If you were seeking the story that has the most power and significance for human minds, then that is the version that you’d find.”  Evidently, Ramer’s method is not intended to be interpreted as a literal mode of time travel (a fact which, in my mind at least, was never in doubt but there did appear to be some debate over this point) but rather a kind of observance of the collective image of the past (or perhaps present or future).  Said image could take one of many forms: historically plausible, mythic, Norman Keeps style public interpretation.  It does not appear limited by any sense of accuracy or reality, just as the power of a myth is only distantly so, if at all.

This discussion of the relationship between myth and history is also relevant to a reading of the chapter selected from The Once and Future King.  If we take the perspective of Lancelot and Guinevere looking out the window, we can imagine them seeing an English countryside similar to one that may have been seen by any person looking out a window around the time period these characters are supposed to have lived.  Even though the observers are fictional, the landscape is in some ways every bit as real as the landscape that a historical figure actually saw.  Both exist within the same reality, connected by the location, despite the lack of the former’s physical existence.  Location is a fundamental principle for both drawing the divide and linking myth and history.  A mythic story that takes place within the same world as the primary reality becomes linked to said reality, thereby allowing a legitimate discussion over the boundary between myth and history in a way that would seem inappropriate or absurd if the myth took place in a parallel universe or the land of the dead or any such setting clearly apart from our own.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth straddles the border between the two possibilities for the setting of a myth.  From looking at the maps provided (and I love maps so I spent quite some time doing so), it immediately appears alien and remote: a different world or purely fabricated land.  But upon reading the stories themselves, the places become familiar.  The Shire is reminiscent of the English countryside; the Misty Mountains feel similar to those in the world we know.  Even without recognizing that “Middle Earth” (and permutations thereof) is used in Germanic mythology to refer to the world of humans, and without reading Tolkien explicitly state that his world is meant to be a long past version of our own, the setting is never so foreign to us that we can’t draw the same sort of connections as if we were explicitly told the one-to-one correlations Tolkien claims he never made.  There is really no need to map Middle Earth over modern Europe because the sense is already present in the text, but the exercise in some ways sharpens the experience and helps us to clear our view by blurring the line between myth and history.

For anyone else who likes maps, geology, or meteorology, I came across this a while ago and it seemed fun.  It is also available in “Elvish,” Quenya or Sindarin I do not know, and “Dwarfish.”  I’m a little disappointed that the maps in the Dwarvish version haven’t been turned so that East is on top but it’s cool enough that I’ll cut them some slack.



  1. Pretty sure that's just the same English article written in Tengwar and Cirth (Khuzdul doesn't even exist in any sort of developed form, and not even Quenya has the vocabulary to allow for any real translation of a technical article). Funny as all get out though.

    Your definition of myth is interesting, but is the effect on the primary reality really the only thing that defines a myth? I think that Tolkien would push back against a strictly relativist understanding of history--the "time travel" in the Notion Club Papers is definitely complicated by the issues you're talking about here, but I think you go too far in saying that a myth has to be rooted in the emotional consciousness of the contemporary world. What are the Papers themselves if not a story about a more or less completely forgotten (but fundamentally factual) myth intruding into the "primary" reality, where it had had no effect before? Are you proposing that Númenor still loomed large in the "collective minds" of the Anglo-Saxon people--when it showed itself after thousands of years as nothing more than a dream about a great wave? (Also, how does your collective consciousness bit in paragraph 3 contradict the history as myth stuff from paragraph 2?)

    Good stuff man,

    --Charlie Bullock

  2. Ian,

    Thanks for the post. You make a very good point that for Tolkien (as the Notion Club characters), myth is a particular kind of story, one that participates in Truth in some way outside our ability to define, which is why it can change the world in a way that, I think, Tolkien (though perhaps not we tired, third-millennium cynics) would consider impossible for mere fictions.

    I’m not sure that Ramer’s mental time travel isn’t intended by Tolkien to actually have a more literal effect of moving the dreamer’s consciousness to a different locus in space-time, though. He may not having some sort of race-memory, but be actually there, having an personal, first-hand view in some uncanny sense or other.

    Your points about Tolkien’s ellision of Third Age geography and topography and ours—and the concomittant joining of myth and history—are well-taken, too.

    Bill the Heliotrope