How does one go about separating history from myth? The logical answer would be to define each term and then use these definitions to categorize stories and events as either history or myth. Unfortunately, as one might expect, this is a strategy that quickly falls apart. The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary defines history as “a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events.” Myth is defined as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” Herein lies the problem: history is contained within the definition of myth. How do we know if an event recorded as history actually happened? Inversely, how do we know that the events recorded in mythology didn’t? At what point does romanticized history become myth? While I have no definitive answers, I hope that the thoughts I articulate here will nevertheless still be of value to the reader.
The first question to consider is that of the boundary between romanticized history and myth. The Luttrell Psalter is considered one of the most striking illuminated manuscripts to survive from the Middle Ages, and is notable for its numerous depictions of everyday tasks, as well as for the elaborate “grotesques” (fantastical hybrid creatures) that line its upper page borders. How much of these illuminations is fact and how much is fiction? The grotesques are obviously mythical creatures, but while the scenes of rustic life depict actual events, they are also highly romanticized to present an idealized vision of peasant life, so it would be unwise to take these illustrations without a grain of salt. For an example, view the illustration on the bottom of page 23 of the Luttrell Psalter: plowing is not a clean or easy task, and purple cloth during the Middle Ages was prohibitively expensive for all but the upper classes. One other thing to consider though is just how intentional this romanticization was. Certainly some of it was due to the illustrator’s need to fulfill the desires of Geoffrey Luttrell (who commissioned the psalter), but I wonder how familiar the illustrator would have been with the tasks they were depicting. If the illustrator was basing their work solely on observations made from afar or from preconceived notions of what rustic life was, then the illustrator may well have believed that what they were depicting was accurate. Without more information, it is impossible to determine how much of the portrayed “merry rustic life” is a fantasy and how much of it is embellished fact, and so it exists as both.
Tolkien plays with the concept of entwining history and myth in The Notion Club Papers. During a discussion about legends and myths, Jeremy comments that “Sometimes 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 - more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical, and less prosaic, if you like” (NCP 231). One potential interpretation of this is that society and the standards and practices of living have changed so much over the centuries that to go back in time would result in placing oneself in an environment so foreign as to seem mythical. It is hard to judge what is real and what is not when the standards one usually uses for dividing fact from fiction have become unreliable. We write science fiction to explore the unknown of the future and write historical fiction to explore the unknown of the past. In both cases, the more we deviate from the present, the more we must rely on imagination to fill in the missing details and the closer we come to fantasy and myth.
Another potential interpretation of Jeremy’s comment in The Notion Club Papers is based on the fact that due to the fact that humans are the recorders, history is rarely objective. When you learn about a historical event, you are seeing it through multiple lenses: the historian’s perspective of the event, the historian’s portrayal of the event, and your interpretation of the record of the event, which results in the creation of radically different versions of the same event in history, and over time it becomes difficult to impossible to distinguish which version is the “true” one, especially if each version contains some portion of the factual event. If one was somehow able to go back in time to an event that one already had a preconceived notion of, any deviations or contradictions to those notions might very well seem like myth. In addition, no written record, no matter how detailed, is able to capture the experience of actually being physically present at an event. To claim to do so would be like claiming that reading about being at the beach is equivalent to actually standing at the beach, immersed in sensory experience. Historical record can convey the prose of the main points but when evidence-based conclusions reach their limit, myth gives us the poetry of the details needed to fully flesh out the past world. As for the question of if myth is any less influential because it is not “real,” in answer I direct you to the multibillion dollar empire that is Greek mythology inspired movies and books. Ramer claims that “I don't think you realize, I don't think any of us realize, the force, the daimonic force that the great myths and legends have” (NCP 232). There is a fascination with completely fantastical myth because it allows us to escape reality, but on the other end of the mythical spectrum, myth that is almost indistinguishable from “real” history is equally tantalizing because it allows us to imagine and hope that such legendary people and events truly did exist.
Tolkien uses the blurred boundaries between myth and history to add to the epic experience of The Lord of the Rings (LotR). In the Appendices, he writes as a chronicler, not as a creator. Rather than portraying himself as or inventing a Geoffrey of Monmouth-esque character to dictate the Appendices, Tolkien cites the characters of LotR. The primary and secondary sources he draws from are believable as credible sources originating from Middle Earth precisely because they were written by characters the reader has already encountered and come to understand as unique individuals. With LotR, Tolkien puts into effect the concept he proposed in The Notion Club Papers: if you go far enough back in history, history seems like myth. While Tolkien is not intentionally trying to match the history of Middle Earth to the history of humanity, there are enough references to events in known history for you to question just how much of the history of Middle Earth is myth. History and myth cannot be wholly separated – they exist on a continuum, and it is this that makes Tolkien’s entanglement of fantasy and reality so impressive and intriguing.
The Luttrell Psalter. Lincolnshire, c.1320-40, British Library.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Notion Club Papers, part 2, Nights 62-65, HME 9.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.