“How real are the tales of Middle-Earth?” This question has been raised since the beginning of this course yet still not fully answered. In letter no. 183, Tolkien writes that Middle-Earth is “the objectively real world… The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary” (Letters 239). However, although he dubs his stories as merely “imaginary,” Tolkien himself seems very doubtful over the truthfulness of factual history—what most people take to be constitutive of our primary reality. As expressed by Jeremy in The Notion Club Papers, “You’re mixing up history in the sense of a story made up out of the intelligible surviving evidence (which is not necessarily truer to the facts than legend) and “the true story”, the real Past”(230). Here, he points out a discrepancy between the true Past, or the Reality, and what we know about it based on our limited evidence.
This kind of discrepancy is inherent in historical knowledge, for historians cannot experience the past directly and they could not go back to it. When Frankley questions whether one can go back to the past meetings of the Notion Club, as there is a difference between Nicholas’s record and what actually took place, Ramer relies:
“Yes and no…People of the future, if they only knew the records and studied them, and let their imagination work on them, till the Notion Club became a sort of secondary world set in the Past: they could” (228).
Historians do not actually see the Past as it is. What they do is to take remaining fragments of evidence to construct a system of logically sound stories to explain the origins of things of the Present. Those stories become accepted as history. Wait a minute. How is that different from Tolkien’s construction of mythology? For he is also offering an explanation of the things of a familiar Present, though a different one. For example, he suggests the nursery song of “man in the moon” is composed by Bilbo, the legendary character. Tolkien also gives an alternative “history” of Earth: it was once flat, until the downfall of Númenor/Atlantis, when the One made it round. Both Tolkien’s stories and the factual history draw from existent things of the Present, and both requires some degree of gap-filling using imagination. Which one is more real?
One may imagine the following conversation between a story-teller and a historian:
“How do you know the Earth is round?”
“Because we sailed all the way to the West came back to the same place where we started.”
“How do you know that it’s always round, that there isn’t a time when it was flat?”
“Because that no one has ever experienced otherwise. At least there’s no good evidence of such experience.”
Well, you may maintain that a flat earth is against physical laws, but aren’t those so-called “laws” also gathered from experience? How can you know the “laws” are not different in the past? The same kind of arguments will repeat without end.
Tolkien points out the weakness in the method of historians to approach the true Past, or the Reality, because all their reasoning of “facts” is based on and therefore limited by experience (or memory/records of experience), which is completely intersubjective, if not entirely subjective.
Essentially, factual history is no more than work of sub-creation—using (though a more restricted kind of) imagination to create a secondary world with inner consistency of reality—just as myth and legends are. Yet many people yield their primary beliefs to factual history without another thought, though it only has secondary degrees of reality. Tolkien did no more than pointing out that to believe in factual history is no more rational than to believe in myths and legends. Both reflect certain truths of the primary world, yet neither represents the true Past or the Reality itself. History does not possess more legitimacy to command our primary belief than Myth does.
But to push a little further, can Myth be more “real” than factual history? If so, in what way? Ramer mentions “the force, the daimonic force that the great myths and legends have. From the profundity of the emotions and perceptions that begot them and from the multiplication of them in many minds… [The many minds] might produce a disturbance in the real primary world”(228). What is this such powerful emotional force that it enters the primary reality?
Tolkien seems to hint upon an answer in his epilogue of “On Fairy Stories,” where he describes the “joy” of Eucatastrophe in Fantasy as having “the very taste of primary truth.” He deems the Christian myth to be the highest example of legends entering the primary reality. It “has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of creation… Legend and History have met and fused"(88-89). The Christian story is indeed the “myth” that has the greatest “disturbance” in primary world. It commands the primary belief of millions of minds; It has impacted on the course of history and continues to shape the present and the future, not because how much factual evidence supports it, but because the emotional message it contains. In the Notion Clubs Papers, Jeremy also mentions, when one looks back at the real Past, “the most difficult thing to see would be… the pattern, the significance, yes, the moral of it all”(230). Perhaps the Christian myth is truer because its Eucatastrophe renders the true “pattern” or “significance” of the primary world, which is often not embodied by the factual details of recorded history. And we perceive that significance not by empirical reasoning, but by emotion, or faith.
As a non-Christian, I nonetheless perceive a similar kind of emotional force in Tolkien’s stories. Many times I’ve been touched by that poignant joy in his book, and as I laughed and cried over it, I’ve come to accept the history of middle-earth as the true Past—or rather, I can’t possibly think of it as false. And I’m positive that I’m not the only mind who feels that way. We come to believe in middle-earth not just because of its elaborate historical and geographical system. Though these are very important to build an “inner consistency of reality” in a secondary degree, they could have been easily overcome by the alternative “factual history,” whose secondary reality is more relatable to our experience in the primary world. What ultimately commands our primary belief is the emotional power in those stories.
Admittedly, not everyone believes in middle-earth, and not everyone believes in the Christian myth, either. However, if history is no truer than legend, it should be left to one’s own choice to believe in whatever account of the past that one feels to be “true.”
If we go back to the Past, where would we land? In Eriador, in Beleriand, or in ancient European continent?
“It depends on what yourself are like, and on what you are looking for, I imagine,” Ramer answered, “if you were seeking the story that has most power and significance for human minds, then probably that is the version that you’d find”(229).
Myth becomes real History as we believe in it.
1. Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
2. Sauron Defeated, HME 9, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992)
3. The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966)