Is myth more real than history? Our discussion in class did not come to a conclusion. Nor indeed did we really come to an understanding of what that question means. From a solely intuitive understanding of that question, the answer can only be a definitive “no”—if the myth did not happen, how can it be real at all, let alone more real than history? Of course, this is neither satisfying as answer, nor useful in interpreting Tolkien’s writings. The difficulty in approaching this questions lies in the way that complex ways Tolkien defined and employed the words “myth,” “real,” and “history”—as well as “true,” “past,” “facts,” and others. It is first necessary to examine Tolkien’s framework of understanding in order to approach the question within the context of Tolkien’s work.
The key starting point for an examination of how Tolkien conceptualized the relationship between history and myth is in the Notion Club Papers. Tolkien’s characters, especially Jeremy, Ramer, and Frankley, debate the relationship, offering insight into several different perspectives with which Tolkien was working. The initial claim of the debate is made by Jeremy, who states that he feels 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.” Jeremy is countering the idea we discussed in class that myth is only an incomplete record of history, from which a more detailed past can be reconstructed. Instead, as Jeremy would have it, “real history” would closely resemble myth. Importantly, this is predicated on the viewer “going back,” so while it is a claim about the past and about history, it is rooted in the present. (The Notion Club Papers, 227)
Jeremy acknowledges that myth may be less “real” in one sense, but that it can nonetheless be more “true.” Legends can be symbolical, “arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine,” and be “not at all realistic or photographic.” Nonetheless, legends can relate truth about the “Past.” (The Notion Club Papers, 227) Frankley argues that myths are not real in the same sense the “true past events are real.” Jeremy agrees that they are not real “in the same way” but that there are “secondary planes or degrees.” (The Notional Club Papers, 228) Both history and myth exist in the present, and neither can or should be confused with the past. Jeremy admonishes the others for mixing up history “in the sense of a story made up out of the intelligible surviving evidence” with history in the sense of the “the true story, the real Past.” There may be a “real Past,” containing all that has ever happened, but the difficulty is divining “the pattern, the significance, yes, the moral of it all, if you like.” (The Notion Club Papers, 230) Here, Tolkien complicates our understanding of “real,” and questions how the “Past” can be brought into the present.
Myth has a power of its own, not merely a poor record of history, that in Tolkien’s conception can make it more “real” than history. Ramer describes the “daimonic force” of great myths: “From the profundity of the emotions and perceptions that begot them, and from the multiplication of them in many minds—and each mind, mark you, an engine of obscured but unmeasured energy.” (The Notional Club Papers, 228) Myths somehow take on a life of their own through transmission between people and change over time. In this way, myths powerfully shape our understanding of the past. Myth is a liminal space in recalling the past: seeing back in the past is not the same thing as “re-viewing what you’ld call Fifth century Britain” but neither is it like making a “dream-drama” of one’s own. Seeing back, Ramer suggests, depends on the viewer: “If you were seeking the story that has most power and significance for the human minds, then probably that is the version that you’d find.” (The Notional Club Papers, 229) That version could be myth just as well as history. This understanding does not contest that myth is what really happened, but that myth is what can be seen from the present, viewing back in time.
The significance of myth is that it is a function of viewing the past from the present, which is yet still grounded in “reality.” Ramer interjects in order to question the idea of “true past events”: “Have you ever seen one, when once it was past? They are all stories or tales now, aren’t they, if you try to bring them back into the present?...Unless, of course, you can go back, or at least see back.” (The Notional Club Papers, 228) Unlike pure fiction, myth is “rooted” in the past, through “what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea-shape”—myths have roots “in Being,” and are not “wholly inventions.” This rootedness of myth, its existence of “construction,” is achieved through the “springs of History and in the designs of Geography.” (The Notional Club Papers, 227)
Tolkien employs this understanding of myth as rooted through history and geography within his own works. Though the historical time period was fictional, Middle-earth was meant to be the “objectively real world,” an intention accomplished through the names and geographic layout of Middle-earth. (Letters, 183) In Farmer Giles of Ham, the setting setting is unmistakably England: Ham corresponds to Thame, which is nearby the towns Worminghall and Oakley, with the dragons coming from far-away Wales. (Shippey, Road to Middle-Earth, 98) Tolkien’s use of geography to connect of fantasy with reality can also be seen through his account of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings, where the history, culture, and geography of the hobbits and the Shire are analogues to those of the English and England. (Shippey, Road to Middle-Earth, 101-103) In a letter to Hugh Brogan, Tolkien echoes Jeremy’s claim in The Notion Club Papers that in a “great story-cycle” there would be “uncompleted passages, weak joints, gaps.” (The Notion Club Papers, 230), explaining that the “fascination” with The Lord of the Rings likes in the existence of “vistas of yet more legend and history, to which this work does not contain a full clue.” (Letters, 151) Tolkien’s use of history and geography to anchor his work within the “objectively real world” fits within his understanding of myth as a method of looking back into history and discerning its significance in the present.
As was mentioned in class, the discipline of history has evolved a good deal since the mid-twentieth century when Tolkien was writing, making his implicit critique perhaps less relevant now. Historiography has increasingly recognized the impossibility of reconstructing a neutral history. Instead, history is always influenced by authorial bias and perspective—it is a matter of creating a narrative and putting it into conflict with others. All history is based on the “surviving evidence” surely, but colored by gaps in the record, by selection, by the placement of the evidence within the narrative. Is myth more real than history? Perhaps not, but history has become more like myth.
Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000; first published 1981)
Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Notion Club Papers.” Sauron Defeated, HME 9, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992)