Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Stories can make better parables than Myths.

Quick Note:  While this post was inspired mainly by our discussion of Sayers' "Image of God" in Matters of the Mind, it has to do with the Music of Creation.  I have nevertheless tagged it for its day, which was Creativity and Free Will I, since that is the day on which Sayers was assigned.

We have torn away the mental fancies to get at the reality beneath, only to find that the reality of that which is beneath is bound up with its potentiality of awakening these fancies. It is because the mind, the weaver of illusion, is also the only guarantor of reality that reality is always to be sought at the base of illusion.-SIR ARTHUR EDDINGTON: Nature of the Physical World.

This is one of the quotes which Sayers includes at the beginning of The Image of God, and I think that it is a quite apt illustration of why fantasy is worth reading at all—and certainly as it applies to Tolkien!

In class, we discussed how Sayers in that same article argues that calling God “creator” is metaphorical, since we as humans have no true sense of how to make something from nothing, which is what creating is.  Any such term tries to capture a concept in a way that is understandable, based on another external experience.  The implication is that it is hardly possible to say anything meaningful without using metaphors of some kind, and even if one does say something which works in a completely literal way such as “Bob is a human”, these nouns carry with them nested impressions of what is and what can be understood from the statement.

But although we cannot fully comprehend what it means for God to be a “creator”, this may still be the most constructive, or easiest, way to picture God for us, since the reality of God is beyond our natural senses (Sayers 26-27, "The Image of God).  The metaphor involved is a tool to circumvent our lack of shared experience, not the constraint itself. 

It was pretty easy for us to connect this to Tolkien in a limited way, given that we had been discussing his creation story: Tolkien’s Ainur angels, or the ones who become Valar are like Gods; Morgoth is like Lucifer and the Trees are like creations of Hephaestus.  Parallels abound.  However, I don’t think that it’s particularly useful to draw those comparisons directly, at least beyond a certain point.  Yes, we can recognize already-written stories about our world in Tolkien:  the fall of the greatest of the angels/Ainur, the decision to keep or to share.  But it is a lot less meaningful to look at Tolkien’s creation myth as a metaphor for a Christian one, which in turn is only an abstract understanding of what we may believe actually happened, than to see it as an alternate metaphor for the same thing.

Because Tolkien has complete license to decide, in his world, what truly is and what is merely perceived to be true, the neat thing is that his metaphors may actually come closer to the “truth” in his world than our own creation myths ever will in the primary reality.  This has the advantage of being able to create more clear-cut cases of right and wrong, or of cause and effect, than the more ambiguous ones of our world.  The “literal metaphors” that we talked about are so powerful because they are trying to directly express an aspect of truth, instead of going through another understanding of something.  And in a fantasy realm of a better-defined God than we can ever have, those metaphors of song-writer, creator, etc. can become very potent because they’re just as easy to interpret as any other statement of ‘fact’. 

This is the neat thing about Tolien writing his myths in terms of the “music of creation”: Tolkien is “liberated” from using “the channels the creator is known to have used already” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien,  no. 153), because any metaphor he makes in his world to express how creation comes about is a metaphor relative to that truth, and not the real world’s.  So in a very real way, Tolkien’s creation myth of the Song  of Iluvatar can get closer to revealing a ‘real’ truth about our own world than if he just wrote an essay on Genesis…it reveals, in the sense of one of those literal metaphors, how Tolkien feels about Creation  without forcing him to work within the framework of a metaphor with which he could be less comfortable, at least in the particulars.  (It seems, for example, logical to me that writing about music and how complosing it grows in process may be easier for an artist than writing about snakes who can talk and persuade people to do evil).

Another example of how this structure of expression allows more freedom in making a point is reincarnation:  We know that Tolkien did not believe in reincarnation for humans in the sense that a Hindu might.  However, as one of those “new channels,” Tolkien could take the reincarnation of Elves and use it to emphasize its contrast with the mystery of an unknown death:  If he were talking about Christians after death in both ways, he might get a lot closer to heretical than he’d be comfortable.  In his world, however, he can both admire the lasting beauty and art of the elves while suggesting subtly that perhaps it is for the best that our life tracks (and mistakes) are not eternal.

To wrap this all up: Because we measure all perceived things in terms of appearance and its connection to reality, it is really no harder to take Tolkien’s stories and apply them to our own lives than it is for popular religious myths.  The advantage of Tokien’s stories is that he has a lot less invested in the details being right:  they are acknowledged as metaphor inherently.  This may actually allow him to focus more on getting the greater themes right--leaving him with a clearer message.  Perhaps this merits further discussion!

H. A. K. Stone


  1. I am particularly taken by your idea that Tolkien’s versions of creation come the closest to explaining “truth” in the way that Tolkien has formulated it for his legendarium, and you assert that this could come even closer than our own creation myths of the primary reality ever will. Could it be argued that Tolkien has bypassed the laws of creation? I mean by this, if creation is making something out of nothing, can Tolkien be justified in creating the world of Middle-earth and all its accompanying legends “out of nothing” since it was his very own idea? Well, I recognize that technically, no he can’t be considered a creator in that sense. He writes on many occasions of the countless foundations for his works from the languages to the style to the characters. However, he has also mentioned in the texts we have read that the Elvish languages’ immature origins were in his youth when he would make up words and languages for fun. Could this be considered something out of nothing? The idea that Tolkien is using literal metaphors to come so very close to the truths of creation for the worlds he has formulated, I believe, support the idea of him being a creator, if not at the same level as “something out of nothing,” then something along the lines of the Ainur. Then again, it is easy to come to truth when one has “complete license,” as you say, over one’s own world.

    K. Beach

  2. I would like to push back gently on the idea that there are two separate categories of truths: one for Tolkien’s world and one for “our world.” (For this seems to be one point of both post and comment). To do this I will go back to some of the things we talked about at the very beginning of class concerning the difference between myth and fiction. To say that Tolkien created a separate world with separate truths, even if they can help us to think about truths in our “real world” mythologies, like Genesis, is to reduce him to a writer of fiction. For novels can use symbolism to comment on reality without pretensions of being reality.
    Yet what sets myths apart is their pretension to reality. In a very important sense, Tolkien’s legendarium is supposed to be real, to take place on our earth. The truths he uses, his morals, his ideas of good and evil, death and immortality, were not custom made for his world. Rather, his world takes these ideas and presents them in a form which we are unaccustomed to seeing in our everyday life, but which nevertheless is a more real presentation (based on his language is disease of myth idea). Thus he did not have total freedom in his world construction; he did not bend and choose the truths he discusses to fit his presentation, rather he uses the most real way of presenting truths from our world.