In the letter to Milton [Waldman], Tolkien describes his composition of fairy stories, “They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labor…: yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (Letters 145).
This unconventional explication of story-making sounds extremely puzzling. Why does Tolkien insist that he is a mere recorder rather than a skillful, ingenious inventor? How can stories be “already there”? Aren’t they something people make up?
A possible answer to these questions has to do with his objective: to dedicate a myth that is uniquely English to his country. The Lord of the Rings is not a work of fiction; it is only a piece of the entire mythology. Unlike fiction, mythology is not something a person can simply “make up.” As Verlyn Flieger mentions in Tolkien’s Legendarium, “An entire primary mythology cannot be written, it can only be written down or written about.” Charles Noad also writes, “Tolkien’s mythology had to reflect the form of ancient epic transmitted over long periods of time. This typically involves a fixed text transmitted through time by being repeatedly copied; and it was such a text or texts that Tolkien wanted to present his mythology.”
Indeed, everywhere in his stories Tolkien has attempted to deemphasize his role as the “author.” To create a “real” mythology, he needs to present its origin in a way that is similar to how all mythologies come about: recorded, copied, compiled, and disseminated by various hands over a long course of time. From his “Note on the Shire Records,” readers could learn that the tale of The Lord of the Rings comes from Bilbo’s personal diary that is later inherited and completed by Frodo and Sam, added by various other characters, transmitted and preserved over many years. This winding process implies that these remote records got passed down over many generations and somehow managed to come to the knowledge of Tolkien, who in turn presented them to us. Similar effort is also shown in LotR Book 1 chapter 9, where he traces the origin of a popular nursery song to one of his mythical characters, Bilbo. These intricate treatments give a touch of authenticity to Tolkien’s myth by subtly fusing it with our history, by connecting the faery with our primary world. And of course, to admit that he himself all these stories are invented would destroy this sense of reality in his mythology.
Yet the methodological aspect of composition does not fully answer my previous questions. Not admitting to have invented the narrative is probably necessary to present it as credible to his readers, but why did Tolkien tell the same thing to the editor? He could have said, “Look how ingenious I am — I’ve made up all this complicated system of fictional stories while at the same time I’m able to trick the readers to believe they are real myths.” It seems Tolkien intends to do more than adopting the form of authentic mythology as a mere literary device to just make his stories seem real. I believe he attempts to convince his readers of the actual connection he perceives between myth with real history. But what is this connection? What links faery and our primary reality? A fictional connection as part of the framing of his work seems too weak an explanation — after all it suggests that everything is still invented. Ultimately, the question becomes, what makes the myth not invented, but actually real?
My understanding on this problem relates back to the concept of sub-creation, and I’d like to bring up story of the making of the Silmarils by Fëanor, an example of sub-creation that I find parallel to Tolkien’s. The making of these precious jewels demands just as much as Tolkien’s making of myth: “he summoned all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill” (Silmarillion chap. 7). Yet ultimately the jewels are no more his creation than are the Valar’s, for they contain the light of the Trees of Valinor that are the works of the Valar. What ultimately gives life to the Silmarils is not Feanor’s craftsmanship but the sacred light contained in it. Feanor does no more than using his elvish skills to sub-create by drawing from what is “already there.” Tolkien’s myth are not his invention for the same reason why the Silmarils are not Feanor’s invention. Sub-creators take what is already there and each mold it into his unique form based on their own perspective. Tolkien’s mythology is like the jewels, which is made true not by his intricate story-telling techniques but by the light it contains — the underlying, universal truth that is “already there.” The recurrent themes (e.g. Fall, Mortality, etc.) that Tolkien recognizes to be present in all true myths are refractions of this “light.”
An quote from Sam (LotR Bk. 4 Chapter 8) will further illuminate my point:
“Beren now, how never though he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it— and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got — you’ve got some of the light of it that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
The light of the Silmarils is what links the reality of Sam to the myth of Beren and make them him realize they are all in the same great tale. What links our primary reality to the tale of Sam and that of Beren? The answer is the underlying truth, the same light that is reflected by all those tales and in turn connects them, that “Courage is found in unlikely places,” for instance. The truth we perceive in our world that also echoes in faery makes us recognize that we are in the same tale after all. Myth is not something invented: it is not lies breathed through silver, but a record of real history shed in a different hue of light, while all hues are originally “splintered from a single White” through the sub-creator (“Mythopoeia”).
This way of understanding Tolkien may help clear up some other confusions. In class there is much debate on whether Tolkien’s myth is nationalistic in a sense that it belongs to England, as it is inherently very “English.” I understand Tolkien’s myth to be “English” in the same way that the Silmarils are “elvish” and the Red Book is “hobbit,” for it is the light of Valinor reflected through the lenses of an Englishman. But it is not to say it belongs to either Tolkien or England, since the sub-creator does not own his work. If it has to belong, it belongs to God, the ultimate Creator to whom all sub-creators owe their credit.
- K. Liao