Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How Can History Be Real If Our Myths Aren't Real

Tolkien is quite insistent on maintaining that his world of Middle Earth is not an imaginary world, but rather that his tale is on of this Earth, but the time period in which he crafts this tale is imaginary (Letters, 183). This concept can be a bit difficult to grasp-the lands and names and events bear no resemblance to the world we currently inhabit at first look. As was said in class, if the Shire is supposed to be located where Oxford currently resides in England, and if Mordor is somewhere off in Eastern Europe, the whole thing doesn't make any sense-one does not simply walk over the English Channel to Mordor. Of course, such a perspective is too literal, and not very fun, but it still shows why it's difficult to grasp the connection between the two worlds being one. The fact that we obviously have no history of great battles of elves and orcs and hobbits and men in the great plains of Eurasia also make it a somewhat difficult task to grasp that this Earth is our Earth. Comparing it to King Arthur makes it a lot more understandable.

The myth of King Arthur is known to almost all, and has been endlessly replicated in stories and tales ranging from the silly (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to the science fantasy (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court). Most people (I hope) understand that his tales are the work of fantasy, but there may be a small grain of truth to some of the legend. Whether or not this is true is up for debate, but his tales come from a time where it is impossible to disentangle the mythical and the historic. If we are to discard the tales because they are just myths, we risk losing what could be some valuable insight about an era in English history. On the other hand, we can't take these myths at face value-we know that Merlin did not construct Stonehenge with wizardry magic, but we also don't know what else is purely myth. The time of Arthur is one that is imaginary-but they take place in an England that is very real.

To apply this to Tolkien, we can start to get a clearer picture of what he was attempting to do. We can see now that this era in Earth's history never happened, but it did happen on Earth. It is a time between times-like finding a whole number between 3 and 4. It doesn't exist, but yet it does exist in a certain place and period. What Tolkien is doing is taking the traditional idea of moving back in time to an era where myth and history intertwine-and then keeping on moving back. The facts begin to fade away and leave just the myth-and Tolkien takes this myth, and adds onto it. He is building a new history from the basis of myth, but still placing it in the same world, but one of a completely imaginary time. It really should not be held up to the same light as our own timeline.

To say that the tales of Tolkien take place in a "lost" time is a harder preposition to state. Time has a fairly logical progression. Event A happens, Event B happens, Event C happens, so on and so forth. To say that this was a time that was lost to the ages and recorded history is a little crazy-it's hard to lose 8000 years of human history. Or to say that there would be no trace of any of the impact of this history left on this Earth. Tolkien runs into some trouble when he starts to make this claim-that it is a "lost" epoch, rather than one that never happened at all. For terms of pure fantasy, this is fine, but he put so much work and effort into trying to stress that the world was real, but the events and people and times were not-and yet they are still our world. And it weakens the point he is trying to make. He is trying to create a history of pure myth, and trying to latch it onto real history at some point is a dangerous thing. In fact, it's better to claim that the world of Middle-Earth is our Earth, but not the Earth we live in. The planet is the same. The universe is not. There are parallels, yes. But to bring the myths of Earth-with Numenor standing in as the mythical cataclysm of Atlantis and so on-is dangerous. Like Arthur, Atlantis has an imaginary time, but this time does exist within our chronology (to an extent), whereas Middle Earth should exist outside our chronology. There is no reason why the myths of our world cannot be a part of the myths of Tolkien's Middle Earth-but it is hard to hold your grip on reality when a myth happens twice.

The imaginary time of Tolkien is at time where our myths are real. But to try attaching this history of myth to our history of...well, history, you once again blend myth and reality, and you cannot know what is real-but one history is real, and one is imaginary. Sometimes reading his works, it's hard to tell if he ever made that difference. A time on our world outside time, yet still connected to our world (Tolkien), versus a world just like our world, with it's own myths and histories, but one outside of separate (a parallel world). I don't know, it makes me feel saner imagining a parallel world just like ours-even a world people like Tolkien can reach, versus imagining a time that is both real and not real at the same time. Hopefully that made sense.

-Nathaniel Rossum


  1. I’m not exactly sure what you mean when you say that Tolkien is “trying to create a history out of pure myth.” Do you just mean that he is creating a fictional history? I think Tolkien was trying to create a myth, which is a certain kind of history. And I think his tying of the myth into some real history actually makes it more believable or at least more relevant to the reader than if there were no relation between our world and his. Although the timeline and geography can get pretty confusing if you think about them a lot, elements like creating a back story for the “Hey Diddle Diddle” nursery rhyme made the story more believable (perhaps because I have no idea what the real origin of “Hey Diddle Diddle” is). This is just my opinion, but I think that the fact that Tolkien’s world ties into our own makes it more interesting than if it were just a parallel universe. ECB

  2. I wholly agree that Tolkien’s assertion that Middle Earth and our own world are one and the same is a fascinating and often baffling concept to grasp, but I want to pay particular attention to your use of Arthur as an example of this similar idea: alternate timelines or places contributing to a certain degree of reality in stories. I agree with your assessment of the Arthurian legend, as it is taking place in a very location but an alternate timeline. My question is this: why is it that myths clearly grounded in a tangible place yet occupying an unreal timeline are more palpable or believeable that those which make the same assertions, as in the case of Tolkien, yet have less concrete evidentiary support that the location and our own time are synonymous. Logically, it is probably that Arthurian legend gives us far more concrete representations of geographic landmarks to strengthen its tie to our Earth. The similarities of the Welsh countryside to some of the locations in Middle Earth may be somewhat more abstract in Tolkien’s works. I wonder what then Tolkien believes to be most substantial proof that the two worlds are one and the same.

    - Megan Porter

  3. I have to admit to a little confusion when reading your post. Sometimes it feels as if you're offering us your conclusions, without establishing how we reach them. For instance, why and in what sense is situating Middle Earth in a lost age "dangerous"?

    Beyond that, I wonder if you're trading on a firm distinction between history and myth that Tolkien himself is actively fighting against. Tolkien believes that myths are fundamentally *true*, perhaps in a way that history itself can never be. This seems especially true when dealing with the deep past. Even within my own specialty, the Middle Ages -- far more recent than Tolkien's ages, there are huge swathes of time, place, and people that we simply know nothing about beyond stories related second and third hand (Arthur, of course, being perhaps the most famous example of this). Those things that we do know are also largely based on accounts from people for whom "accurately representing the past" was not exactly a priority. How distinct then can we say our history is from myth and legend?

    One final point I'd make is that Tolkien doesn't see the Fall of Numenor and Atlantis as a case of a myth recurring. Numenor *is* Atlantis, in the same way that one might say that the flood found in the Epic of Gilgamesh is the same as that found in Genesis, simply told from a different perspective.

  4. You claim that Tolkien was trying to create a time outside of time, or a history outside of history, and yet I'm not so sure I believe that. While the system of keeping track of years is rather different than ours, Tolkien states that he believes we are probably in the end of the Sixth Age or beginning of the Seventh. It takes place before our "real" written record, but in the time of perhaps some structures' construction, as depicted in class.
    As to the history aspect, these tales Tolkien publishes are meant to be fragments of "real" documents that he has simply "translated", so his intention is to extend the written record back quite a ways. His tales are meant to exist in history, but in the realm of mythical history in the vein of the Odyssey, or (dare I say it) the Bible/Torah, or the Atlantis myth, or the Epic of Gilgamesh.
    If you must, it exists in a Faerie realm in the past, that if only we could "sidestep" and travel backwards, we would find ourselves enmeshed in. But this I think takes away from the aspect of Tolkien's tales as simply an alternate viewpoint of other mythical histories we already have, which are themselves simply an alternate viewpoint of "real" history (though Tolkien probably would never use the term). Tolkien wrote them as a myth for England, just as real as modern religious tales.