Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The History Within Myths

In class, we talked a lot about the importance of history versus myths.  In his notes of Auden’s review, Tolkien states that “mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’-which is our habitation” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 244).  Tolkien also uses this idea of an imaginary set of events within our own primary world in his story, Farmer Giles of Ham.  The story is set in Ham, which would eventually become Thame, a real town near to present day Oxford.  Furthermore, in his forward, Tolkien talks about how the story is really a translation of a fragmentary tale that has been passed down throughout history.  Not only that, the reader is given hints of events that occurred after the story through Tolkien’s “discovery” of the geography of the land.  Tolkien states, “There are indications in a fragmentary legend of Georgius son of Giles and his page Suovetaurilius (Suet) that at one time an outpost against the Middle Kingdom was maintained at Farthingho” (The Tolkien Reader, 124).  This indication of the continuation of Farmer Giles’ family and his kingdom adds another layer of believability to the story, and roots the story more firmly in our own world.
However, within these events that relate to our own world, Tolkien throws in some facts and ideas that could not be historically possible.  For example, the story is apparently set sometime between the time of King Coel and King Arthur, two fictitious kings.  If we were to take this idea for granted, then the time period directly conflicts with the discovery and presence of gunpowder for Farmer Giles’ blunderbuss.  Gunpowder, according to history, would not be discovered for hundreds of years after this point in time.
These examples raise the question that was mentioned in class: why would Tolkien insist that these events occurred in our primary world and not a secondary universe?  The story would certainly still be a very entertaining and enjoyable read if the setting were imaginary.  I think that Tolkien intentionally decided to add a layer of depth to the story by insisting on its existence in our own world.  He combines historical facts with ideas that are clearly myth or even incorrect, in order to change our conception of the past.  He also adds a history to the story, such as with the legend of Farmer Giles’ son or the origin of the name of Thame from Ham.  These fragments of a new history show how Farmer Giles’ story continues on even after the central tale has ended.  It is not just a story, but also a piece of a family and kingdom’s history.
Maybe it is not only historical facts that are fundamental to our understanding of the past, but also myths and stories.  This interweaving of myth and history is also present in the events that occur in the story.  For example, the knights of the king’s court have not seen a dragon in many years, and none of them believe in their existence anymore.  They are only seen as mythical creatures that have no place in history.  In a surprising twist, the reader also gets a glimpse into the dragon’s view on knights when one of the younger dragons says, “So knights are mythical!...We always thought so” (The Tolkien Reader, 139).  Even younger dragons see knights as mythical creatures, and not as a historical fact.  History alone cannot be trusted because both myths and history have the potential to change, yet both can have some truth hidden in them as well.  Maybe if myths are looked at from a different angle (from the point of view of a dragon versus a man), they might not appear as such outlandish stories anymore. 
Myths are forever changing and evolving, but there can be a seed of truth within them, that people love to believe and cling on to.  What people believe can be more important to our understanding and interpretation of the past, rather than the absolute truth.  This is just like Farmer Giles, and the way that the villagers of the town view him.  When Farmer Giles enters into his first adventure with the giant, the reader can see that Farmer Giles is merely trying to defend his land from intruders, and accidentally shoots the giant, and luckily manages to deter the giant from further destroying the town.  Farmer Giles is no hero, but because of the word of Garm and the giant’s departure swiftly after the episode, the entire town believes the heroic tale of Farmer Giles.  The historical facts are swiftly turned into an exaggeration of the truth that becomes a tale and eventually a myth that the entire kingdom learns.  The adventure of Farmer Giles is set into motion with a combination of history and myth.  Not only does Tolkien combine historical facts and myth together in the story, but also actually initiates the tale with this same combination.
Tolkien shows through Farmer Giles that myths and history are entirely entwined.  Not only is history needed to understand the truth, but myths are equally important because both myths and history can be modified with time.  The point of view of a story can very quickly change the truth, and as a translator, Tolkien is very aware of this characteristic of stories and history.  Not only do the adventures of Farmer Giles begin with an exaggeration of the truth, but Tolkien continually inserts jokes that play off of this idea.  In the end, history and myths can both be viewed as combinations both of what people wish to believe, and what has actually occurred in the past.

-S. P.


  1. The points you make here are quite good, and as I muse on them more, I find myself more and more convinced that you're on to something. I especially like how you connect Tolkien's use of anachronism, myth, and history intertwined to say something profound disguised in a manner that at first seems like a simple joke. It's also interesting how what you take Tolkien to be doing in Farmer Giles is made manifest both within the story itself and on the meta-level of Tolkien's works as a whole. It would be very interesting to connect this back to LotR and Middle Earth. Does Tolkien play with our expectations regarding myth and history in a similar way here? Not in as much of an explicitly humorous manner surely, but I have a strong suspicion that we can find similar tactics throughout Tolkien's writings. An in depth examination of these might make for a fascinating final project, or, at the very least, the grounds for a deeper appreciation of his work.

  2. I like the perspective that both history and myths are products of what actually happened and also the things people currently believe about them. However, the process Tolkien is involved in is really subcreation, which means the secondary world he's fashioning didn't completely exist before he penned it (at least parts of it). This is the crux of the important question you pose - I think the answer stems in part from some of the later readings we've been doing about Tolkien's belief that the world (as created primarily) deserves respect, even reverence. The role of the subcreator isn't to create something that he endeavours will surpass the greatness of the original thing but illuminate one aspect of it. This is why I believe Tolkien focused his subcreation on a semi-historical but wholly anachronistic history in which the blunderbuss and gunpowder exist alongside dragons and kinghts. It is the place of the subcreator to carve out his piece of the world, whether its in time or place. Tolkien, seeking to illuminate the rich past of England is forced to situate his narratives in that environment, so it is natural that he carve out his canvas for subcreation in time instead.