Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Past Recedes

            Whatever JRR Tolkien might have said about the veracity of his invented history of Europe, it’s quite obvious that the Middle Earth of the Lord of the Rings is quite distinct from our own world - the War of the Ring did not, in fact, take place in a lost epoch of European history, and Bullroarer Took did not actually win the Battle of Greenfields and invent the game of golf at the same time. The world of Arda and the events that take place within its bounds are plainly an “imaginary world” (Letter 131). Still, I believe that Tolkien would argue that this imaginary history is, in many ways, no less “real” than our own.
            Or, as one might also say, our history isn’t quite as “real” as we sometimes imagine it to be. As he discusses in his Notion Club Papers, simply by virtue of the frailty of human memory, our conceptions of past events can never be wholly faithful to what truly transpired. “What do you know about “true past events?” asks Tolkien through the mouth of Ramer. “They are all stories or tales now, aren’t they, if you try to bring them back into the present?” Past events necessarily becomes “stories or tales” as the facts behind them are distorted by time, memory and continual retelling, until “history” becomes only “story”; its cease to be real, and living individuals become mythological characters (it’s no longer “his” story, get it? :). History is a narrative constructed out of disparate myths and clues passed down to us - and who can say that this invented story is any more real than Tolkien’s? As Tolkien says again (now through Jeremy), “What is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots.”
            And part of what makes the Lord of the Rings so compelling is that Tolkien uses the same “ingredients” that form our mythological conceptions of history to create his Arda, drawing parallels, grounding it in reality and making it even more difficult to separate his world from ours. Many Middle Earthian historical elements seem to mirror folk memories of real-world events; the “sea kings” are an apt analogy for the coming of the Romans to England; the  Drúedain reflect the Medieval “woses”, who, to Tolkien’s mind, are themselves mythological incarnations of post-Conquest, remnant native Britons. I believe that what Tolkien was trying to do here - by planting the roots of his invented world in our own history - was to create a sort of alternate, mythic history, one that could easily run alongside Arthur and Sigmund.
            That being the case, there remains the question of how much value one should place in this sort of legendary past over the real, concrete past of the learned historian (of which Tolkien was one). Again, Tolkien voices his opinions on the matter in the Notion Club Papers: “Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the Past.”  On a practical level, of course, folk tales can be of great value to philologists as repositories of words and place names, as Tolkien mockingly illustrates with Farmer Giles. But they also often contain within them seeds of truth, seeds which can help you get to the men and actions behind the legends. "There are real details, what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea shape, of individual men and their actions, that are caught up: the grains on which the stories crystallize like snowflakes. There was a man called Arthur at the centre of the cycle."
            T.H. White seems to have been of a similar mind to Tolkien on the value of myth vs history. In The Once and Future King, he calls “real” figures like King Richard the Lionhearted “imaginary”, and paints Arthur and his Court as having been real, living people. I see this as less of an assertion of the reality of Arthurian legend and more a commentary on the subjectivity of history, and the impossibility of fully delineating historical fact from myth. The lionized (no pun intended) Richard that we know today is a legendary figure, too, no more real than Lancelot or Guinevere. A king named Richard may have once ruled, but what we have now is a legendary man and a kingdom “glorified by the enchantment of distance in time.” (Letter 183).
            For a last note on what Tolkien believes separates reality from fantasy, I would look to his commentary on right and wrong within the confines of his story and history (183). The central conflict in the Lord of the Rings is not, what he calls, “political”; Frodo’s cause in destroying the ring is far-reaching, a struggle not of man against man but of all humanity against tyranny. This is the stuff of “wonder-tales”, Tolkien says, not of reality. “Of course in 'real life' causes are not clear cut — if only because human tyrants are seldom utterly corrupted into pure manifestations of evil will.” Still, history often turns these very political, “real life” causes into the kind of mythic struggle that we see in LOTR; war stories valorize the victor as the Good, and villainize the enemy so that he becomes Pure Evil, and not the ordinary man that he is. Lord of the Rings, as a saga of war, is fantasy - but then so are many of our ancient war stories.
            All of which is to say that Tolkien may not have seen a valuable distinction between supposedly “factual” history and “mythic” history - facts are distorted and become the seeds of myth, which we must parse these stories to get at the truth of it all. History becomes legend, legend becomes myth.                                 
                       - WD


  1. Dear WD,

    Thanks for your wide-ranging discussion of myth and history, including some intriquing, observed 'ingredients' from European past. I am quite intrigued about your view that Tolkien's history is distinct from the history of our own world. I think might have something there, but it is not so 'obvious' considering Tolkien in Notion Club Papers and Lost Road seems to be drawing Numenor into earth's history. How would we make these histories distinct in these cases?

    Your probing into the veracity of 'past events' is also quite interesting. But some questions occur. First, you are quite right to see the descent of past event into stories. But should we qualify a folk story as "only 'story'; it ceases to be real..."? As you point out later, it is the old stories that contain the truth of things, though they be almost forgotten and half-remembered. How can we tell the story of how past events were told without (as is usual) depicting only a process of increasing inaccuracy and adulteration?

    Puzzlingly, you finally reject that Tolkien would hold to a real distinction between "factual history and mythical history." All well and good. But then wouldn't that undermine your initial statement that the mythical history of Middle-Earth cannot be the factual history of Europe?


  2. I think Tolkein was extremely cognizant of folk stories' truth value. Remember Aragorn's healing of Pippin and Eowyn at Minas Tirith, which only succeeds because of an old woman's folk song. However, I do not think that studying the process of remembering history will only be a depiction of "increasing inaccuracy and adulteration." I think this unfairly implies a lack of fact checking and concerted effort to understand what occurred.

    I think Gandalf's research into Bilbo's ring is a good example of this. The the as yet unrevealed Ring is a mysterious item in Bilbo's possession. Gandalf suspects its origins and history, but does not know its identity for sure. So he scurries all over Middle Earth digging up documents and doing his homework. I am sure at least some of his leads came from almost forgotten and half-remembered sources: clouded memories of elves, old rhymes and the like. These in turn might indicate a muddy and forgotten past, but also provide him the road signs for future research and truth.

    I think this is a critical consideration when studying mythical and factual history, one which WD touched on by mentioning Richard, Lancelot and Guinevere. The two types of history are not the same, since myth and fact are different. However, they are inextricably linked and bound together, as myth points to fact, and fact gave rise to myth. To make a clumsy metaphor, myth and fact are two strings in the single braid of history, separate entities, but still integral to the whole.

  3. WD,

    Thanks for the post. I very much appreciate your grappling with some of the hardest and most fundamental questions about the nature of Tolkien’s project. Clearly he thought that myth and history share in some way in our provisional knowledge of the world.

    Doubtless he (like all us historians) would admit to the limits of our craft (feel free to check out Prof. Fasolt’s last book, The Limits of History, just to pick an example not entirely at random…). But I don’t know if the Notion Club quote carries quite the freight you attribute to it. Knowing that myths may have kernels of truth isn’t quite the same as putting the legendary past “over the real.” Conversely, I think White may actually be (with tremendous deadpan archness) winking at and laughing with us in a way that Tolkien never does.

    I think Tolkien could (and did) articulate a distinction between factual and mythic history, though I think he felt the former to be shaped and haunted by the latter in ways at which he creatively guessed. You’re absolutely right that Tolkien believed in Absolute Truth, in which the truths of history and myth participate, but I’m not sure I’d follow you quite as far into saying he wouldn’t may not have seen a difference in those troublesome, flawed participants.

    Thanks again,

    Bill the Heliotrope

  4. I find this post particularly interesting because a large part of what I study is the evolution of history. For those who aren’t historians, they are often rather puzzled when I mention that as many believe that history is a rather rigid fact. But it certainly isn’t. Yes, there is something that certainly happened in the past. But it’s impossible to know the truth about it. You could have been there and still you would not truly know the truth of the event. We all only see facets of events. When we write history, we place our own biases upon what we write. When we read history, we read the author’s bias mixed in with facts, and we read it through our own bias. We may look back at other sources for the time and decide that from our perspective something entirely different happened. We become so far removed from the history that we don’t see it as fact, but simply as another story. And I think Tolkien was quite cognizant of this, of the ability of history to morph and change depending on who wrote it and who read it. In that way, history is just like any other story.
    -N Lurquin