Friday, April 14, 2017

Personal Myth as a Fundamental Piece of Reality

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.

--Santi Ruiz


  1. I agree! I did not mean to suggest that Tolkien took only the physical world as real--quite the reverse! What I did want you to think about (as you have) is why he tied his story-world so closely to the physical world. Tolkien is constantly worrying about the incarnation of myth, thus his use of geography and archeological sites to ground his fantasy in the present world, but his purpose is always to make the mythological touch the historical. Both are real. RLFB

  2. To be fair, writing LoTR as an objective history and not through the lens of personal experience would also make for a much less readable story, but I also agree that there's much to be gained by telling the story as a myth rather than as a history. This not only makes it much more intuitive to follow (as we can relate the perspective of the hobbits to our own personal perspectives, even if our lives are nowhere near as fantastical), but also tells more about the sorts of characters we're interacting with and their relations to one another. This is of course on top of the difficulty of situating LoTR in our world from a historical perspective. We've seen Tolkien try to do roughly this through a lot of his letters, and I don't think I'm alone in thinking that these attempts have been really difficult to decipher at times. The stories simply are much more easily situated as myth rather than history. Tying them culturally to an analogous period in our world, even though they of course share many facets of prior ages in our world, starts to lose sight of a lot of the wonder of the stories, which comes as much from Middle Earth as how it's invoked in the reader's mind by its narrators.

  3. I hadn't thought of the story in light of our tendency to "self-mythologize", as you point out. As many people have pointed out, part of the wonder of Tolkien's Middle-earth is its vivid complexity which allows the reader to immerse him or herself in a new world. Given the way that we mythologize our pasts, our immersion in our own pasts is similar to the way that we live within Middle-earth when we consider Tolkien's works. You note that, "No one, looking back on their past, sees their story as history; everyone experiences it as myth." While I don't necessarily agree that we focus mostly on subjective, mythical experiences in our pasts and less on objective, grounded experiences, I think that viewing our pasts as stories makes it easier to fathom Tolkien's mission: to create a collective mythological framework for not just one person to relate to but for everyone. In the same way that we, as single people, mythologize our pasts, Tolkien's stories have the same effect on our collective past. We see ourselves in stories that are not strictly allegorical but relatable in our humanity all the same.