In class on Wednesday, we explored the question of how “real” Middle-Earth is. Although we didn’t formally define the term, we treated “real” as essentially a property of the material world. For our purposes, history was a linear sequencing of events in the physical world, and something was real insofar as it could be fitted into that linear sequencing. Tolkien’s stories are real in the sense they can be vaguely archaeologically situated in our past, in an earlier Earth. They’re “unreal” in the sense that their events didn’t occur in the “reality” we inhabit.
It’s my contention that this lens onto the world isn’t necessarily useless, but it may be unhelpful and counterproductive for our understanding of the myths we’re reading and their location in our world. It’s a kind of reverse Gnosticism, which suggests that the most central aspects of our experience are the most peripheral to the world. Love, hatred, family, quests, dreams are all foregrounded in our experience: we see the world as a stage where our narratives play out. The historical view demands that these take a back seat in favor of structural, materially existing things like architecture and artifacts. We default to the physical “real” because it’s natural to our 21st century selves, when in fact it has very little to do with how we experience the world. No one, looking back on their past, sees their story as history; everyone experiences it as myth.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t ground narratives in history, or draw on history explicitly in constructing narratives. Tolkien says as much in Letter 183 to W.H. Auden: “I am historically minded. Middle-Earth is not an imaginary world… The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” For Tolkien, tying the myth to a place and time, and grounding it in context with other events, is both helpful to the storyteller (in that it creates a framework for the reader) and enjoyable for the author.
Moreover, in Letter 151 Tolkien argues, “a part of the fascination of The Lord of the Rings consists in the vistas of yet more legend and history, to which this work does not contain a full clue.” Clearly history in a narrative exerts some pull over the reader in Tolkien’s framework.
But this doesn’t tell us about the “reality” of the story. When we read about Sam and Frodo, they are explicitly aware of the mythical quality of their adventure, and often discuss how it’ll be told back home. It’s notable that when Frodo compiles his story, he writes it from back home in the Shire, and then hands off the last portion of the book for Sam to tell. To give a good accounting of the story, it’s not necessary for them to be at the locations where it occurred, or to do reconstructive, investigative work to make sure their memories aren’t flawed. The book describes “The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King, as seen by the Little People.” The fact that it comes from a specific perspective doesn’t take away from its “reality”: to Frodo, telling the story this way is just natural and obvious. It’s hard to picture a sense in which telling their story according to a more modern “historical” framework, by removing the personal voice etc., would be more “real” or accurate to the characters’ experiences than telling it as a myth, the way Frodo (and Tolkien) does.
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King also addresses this, from a different angle. His method of describing the age Lancelot and Guenever look out over isn’t to cite historical trends, or to analyze it through an economic lens. Instead, he describes it as a time when “everybody was essentially himself – was riotously busy fulfilling the vagaries of human nature,” and then proceeds to describe those stories in miniature. To White, this snapshot picture of individual, true myths gives readers a better, more “real” account of the age than any procedural textbook approach to history could. His view accepts personal stories as the building blocks of worlds.
We as readers and thinkers are continuously trained to think of self-mythologizing as a bad thing, a foible of human nature. According to the line of thinking popular in modern pop psychology, myth is for weak people unable to come to grips with an objective universe uninterested in their lives. To think of one’s experience as part of a grand narrative is merely a coping mechanism for a scary world. But this worldview assumes the point to be proven: that ultimate reality is the physical and day-to-day. If what’s “real” takes into account our experiences, then in fact our tendency to self-mythologize is a human feature, not a bug.
If, as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and other thinkers surmise (the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes a similar argument from a non-Christian perspective), individual experience is actually an essential part of our reality, then it makes sense to tackle narratives the way Tolkien does Lord of the Rings: embedding it in a dense historical framework, but then focusing on individuals, and allowing their personal journeys to inform the reader about the world, rather than relying on an objective authorial perspective throughout.
Moreover, if the Christians are right and there is an Author behind the work that is the world, and if he reveals himself through Narrative, through Lewis’ “true myth,” then it’s all the more true that there is no intrinsic split between the real and the mythological. The personal narrative of each individual is woven into the fabric of the universe, and to perceive reality as the litany of historical data is to misunderstand that fact. Tolkien’s genius is in creating a marvelously rich historical universe for his stories, while letting the reader immerse himself fully in the myth.