Friday, April 14, 2017

The Fragmentation of Myth

In a letter to Hugh Brogan dated September 18, 1954, Tolkien writes, “If you want my opinion, 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. For the present we had better leave it at that.”
This sense of fragmentation is clearly something that deeply fascinated Tolkien himself: throughout what we have read for this class, there is a recurring theme of half-remembered myths, partially lost to history or as of yet untranslated from some archaic other language. He seems to find this critical to the process of myth-making: as we discussed in class, myths can be considered the events or people that the general populace remembers, rather than a more formalized historical establishment. In both his letters and his fiction, Tolkien argues that there is something truer, as it were, about myth rather than history. History is merely what we make out of surviving evidence, leaving it vulnerable to the influence of the moment of the historian.
However well myth may stack up to history, Tolkien’s pseudo-myths almost exclusively take the form of fragments. See, for example, his foreword to “Farmer Giles of Ham”:

Of the history of the Little Kingdom few fragments have survived; but by chance an account of its origin has been preserved: a legend, perhaps, rather than an account; for it is evidently a late compilation, full of marvels, derived not from sober annals, but from the popular lays to which its author frequently refers.

Once again, Tolkien argues for the preference of popular myth and legend over “sober annals” of history as a source for learning about the past, in this case an imaginary “Little Kingdom.” He foregrounds the fragmentary nature of the ensuing text, which creates the sense of a larger body of legends surrounding the events and people he describes. To use the language from the letter quoted above, Tolkien creates the sense of “vistas of yet more history and lore” by explicitly telling his readers that more does in fact exist, but has been lost to the ages.
            Tolkien invents a long and arduous process that his story must go through in order to reach the reader. It begins life as a celebrated part of a large and vibrant body of myth-history. As the years progress, more and more of this canon falls out of telling and is lost, unremembered for future generations. Eventually, it comes down to Tolkien, or any invented contemporary teller, who translates it from the old into the new, “vulgar” language to make it accessible to the wider audience of a modern public—or at least a public contemporary with the telling. This is a process that is inherent in “Farmer Giles” just as much as in The Lord of the Rings when characters sing old songs that have their roots in long past days.
            Another important point of this process is that the ways stories are lost is that they are forgotten. Tolkien insists time and again in his letters and elsewhere that the myth-creating work he does in his fiction is in fact an act of memory, and that rather than pulling these stories and creatures out of his own head, he is engaging critically with a real past by drawing out through the process of memory these stories. Obviously, this is not truly the case. However, thinking about his words regarding memory and myth-creation in light of his understanding of the loss of historical myths as a communal forgetting clarifies his statements considerably. If myths die out because they are forgotten, myths would necessarily come back into existence—or even come into existence for the first time—by being remembered. Rather than a real artistic event, the remembering of the myths of the Tolkien legendarium is a nod to the genre as a whole, an acknowledgement and reversal of the process by which myths are lost.
            If Tolkien is in fact engaging in a critical conversation with mythology as a genre in describing his creative process through the language of memory, it stands to reason that this dialogue would continue regarding the often-fragmentary nature of the mythology that we still know. Tolkien, as in the foreword of “Farmer Giles,” asserts this fragmentation, and even in the letter to Hugh Brogan, he seems to acknowledge the positive effects it can have upon his work: without such an effect, there would be no additional lore that is still forgotten or yet to be uncovered. Because it is at its core a genre that deals with the stories the past told about themselves or about a still more distant past, mythology must always be fragmented because it is impossible for everything to survive. Even on the most basic level, myths survive as the stories of the past, while the actual moment of their setting passes out of view. In order to be successful, a myth must necessarily be something that suggests the former existence of a larger canon of stories than we may have today.
Tolkien seems to acknowledge this in his letter, although he immediately undermines this process:

If there is a fault in the work which I myself clearly perceive, it is that I have perhaps overweighted Part I too much with attempts to depict the setting and historical background in the course of the narrative. Of course, in actual fact, this background already ‘exists’, that is, is written, and was written first. But I could not get it published, in chronological order, until and unless a public could be found for the mixture of Elvish and Numenorean legend with the Hobbits.

Successful myth comes with a certain degree of the unknown, because it describes a time that we do not personally particularly know because we have never experienced it. Too much detail makes it difficult for a story to be successful as myth because it undermines the fragmented quality inherent to the genre. However, Tolkien’s entire artistic project could be classified as singular burning desire to return to the time of myth. He explores this actively and overtly through The Lost Road, where exceedingly autobiographical characters are given the opportunity to travel back in time to the days of legend. This effect is one that he attempts to recreate through his writing: by writing as much as he does about all aspects of his legendarium, Tolkien recreates a world that was lost, piecing together the whole rather than presenting a series of fragments. I would argue that this in fact has the effect of lessening the success of his work: the more that Tolkien writes, the less expansive his “vistas of yet more legend and history” must become. Even though he replaces the unknown with a huge amount of material, anything quantified must always necessarily be smaller than the unquantified. No matter how much Tolkien writes, a complete legendarium is more limiting than a fragmented one, which leaves room for untold forgotten things.

Ultimately, this undermines his myth-making process because it rids the narrative of a critical part of the satisfaction that a mythological world can provide. The presence of as-yet undiscovered mythology is enticing because it invites the reader to engage in the same creative process of “remembering” that Tolkien himself enacts through his world-building. Clearly, the presence of Tolkien’s extended additions to the legendarium have not stopped this process: there are scores of fanfiction and other creations that do this very work. However, I maintain that the more Tolkien departs from the fragmented nature of myth, the further away he becomes from the genre in its truest form, as understood by the very words that he himself uses to describe what it means for a story to be myth.


1 comment:

  1. I think you are onto something about the appeal of myth for Tolkien: that it comes in fragments and through memory. I also agree that the more Tolkien tries to fill in the gaps between the fragments, somehow the less satisfying it becomes. He hints at this phenomenon at the end of "Leaf by Niggle," where the Tree and the Mountain seem more real the more one senses that there is more to discover about them. But is it the fact that myths (as opposed to mythologies) are necessarily incomplete? What is myth as opposed to mythology? (Thinking out loud a bit here...) RLFB