J.R.R. Tolkien discussion

Criticism & Interpretation > Creating a "mythology"

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message 1: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:14PM) (new)

Mark Putnam I have read and heard that in creating Middle Earth Tolkien was aiming to create a mythology for Anglo-Saxons. This, apparently, was something he felt quite strongly about. What do you think is meant by this in relation to LOTR and The Hobbit, and how are the characters and settings in these books mythological?

I ask out of a general interest, but I'm also doing research for my own fantasy series. I'd like to know what you think.


message 2: by Carl (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:16PM) (new)

Carl | 11 comments I thought I posted a really long response here (probably too long), but I don't see it-- it might have exceeded the word count or something, but usually it warns me. Any one else see a really long post by me under this topic?

message 3: by Carl (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:16PM) (new)

Carl | 11 comments Okay, I'm going to try again-- I'll just paste part of my earlier response here, and then the rest in another post so it doesn't get deleted this time:
He began writing what was to become the Silmarillion as a "mythology" for England (originally the Anglo-Saxons would probably have had something similar to Old Norse mythology, but that is lost, and Tolkien didn't actually try to reconstruct what that would have been), but that began back during WWI. When he wrote the Hobbit he borrowed some bits and peices from his mythology of Middle Earth, and when he wrote LOTR as a sequel to the Hobbit the mythology got drawn in much more thoroughly as background to the characters-- for example Aragorn's relationship to Elrond, and Galadriel is also straight out of the Silmarillion-- though I have to confess that I can't remember if she was added to the mythology after LOTR or if she really was original to it. As for how LOTR is "mythological", that's a hard question to answer. What do you mean by mythological? I'm a grad student in Norse mythology, so I guess I get a little worked up about the topic. While Tolkien, being a professor in the subject himself, was certainly mining ON myth, as well as ON sagas, Anglo-saxon poetry, Arthurian lit, Germanic heroic legend, etc, I don't think we can consider LOTR or the Hobbit to be mythological in a strict sense, even as a proper imitation-- The Hobbit is a children's novel which draws on mythology (both mythology proper and the Romantic/Victorian idea(l?) of mythology) for its "matter" or content, and LOTR is a novel with the same thing going on for its matter-- though I admit that the structure and the style of each have been significantly affected by Tolkien's love for mythology, saga style, etc (for example, being a philologist Tolkien was able to pull off the archaic dialogue of the Rohirrim and others, while most people who try "Old English", by which they usually mean vaguely Shakespearean English, fail miserably-- I might too, actually-- but while that is in imitation of ON prose or the rhetoric of the characters in Beowulf, those sources are not necessarily mythic). But as for the Silmarillion, that is certainly in imitation of myth as a genre, though of course it is also shaped by Tolkien's own milieu-- witness the strong Christian themes in the Silmarillion as well as the rest of his work.

message 4: by Carl (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:16PM) (new)

Carl | 11 comments And here's the rest:
The stories in the Silmarillion range from what I would call "mythic", meaning stories about the gods and the "prehistory" that led to things being the way they are (etiological is one way to describe them, though I'm using that term very broadly-- I think that some definitions of myth insist that they be etiological in some sense), to stories about heroes (heroic legend)-- this is roughly the same way that the Poetic Edda, one of the sources for Norse Mythology, is organized. But the writing of each "myth" or "legend" in Silmarillion is of course also influenced by modern short story or "fairy-tale" writing, since Tolkien is from the 20th century and writing in prose-- after all, he grew up on Andrew Lang's fairy tales and William Morris' romantic retellings of Norse myth and legend, and there were certainly some modern authors he liked, even if he and Lewis disliked so much of modern literature.
I could go on forever, so I better reign myself in. I think my basic point is that Tolkien's work could be considered "mythological" both in terms of the influence of the medieval records of Norse Mythology on Tolkien, as well as mythological in the sense that the term has for Western culture from the Romantic period through the 20th century-- and those aren't the same thing, though I admit that the boundaries are a bit hard to define at times. Certainly the stories in Silmarillion are more properly called imitations of myths than Lewis' Til We Have Faces (which I love, incidentally), which is subtitled "A Myth Retold"-- the latter is a novel retelling a myth, while the Silmarillion is in imitation of "actual" mythic "style" and form (though maybe a close analysis would tell otherwise), etc-- though I would still contend that there is quite a bit of the modern romanticisation of myth in there. Which is fine with me! Sorry for the long post-- there are plenty of books, popular and scholarly, about the connections of Tolkien's work to mythology. I'm sure Shippey has done something on that, though I haven't read much of his stuff-- but he ended up with Tolkien's position at Oxford, so he is a good place to start!

message 5: by Mark (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:17PM) (new)

Mark Putnam Carl,

Thanks for the extensive response!

I suppose by "myth" I have two meanings. Of course there's the creation story, beginning with nothing, progressing through the cosmological to the Earth's beginning and running up to the Earth's last days. I assume the Voluspa would be an example of this from your area?

But I am also referring to something like the extensive Greek mythologies that describe where specific human psychological and sociological traits come from, such as pride and greed and envy. These stories typically involve specific characters, and occassionally intervention by the Gods. I'm not sure that anything like this exists in the Norse.

So I guess my question is where in the Middle Earth stories are these kinds of things included. Yes, obviously the mythology is mostly contained in the Silmarillion. So what you're saying is that The Hobbit and LOTR are simply stories using the mythology as a background, not the actual mythology itself?


message 6: by Carl (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:17PM) (new)

Carl | 11 comments I'm not so familiar with Greek myth (I'd like to be more so, if anyone has recommendation for introductions to the material), but from what I've heard there is an interesting similarity, in terms of historical context, to the Norse material-- from my training in folklore I tend to think of the "real" mythology as that which belonged to the living oral tradition of those who believed in the gods, but in Old Norse we primarily know of the gods only through the writings of Christians from 200 years after the conversion-- and with the Greek mythology I've heard (correct me if I'm wrong!) that much of what we have is actually written by philosophers who don't believe in the gods but use them in stories for their own purposes, illustrating their ideas, whatever-- you classics people, please correct me! I'm wallowing in my ignorance at the moment.
In any case, as for myths describing where personality traits, etc, come from, I don't think we have anything corresponding directly to that in ON mythology-- though there are stories which tell where earthquakes come from, where the fishing net comes from, (both connected to Ragnarok, incidentally) etc. As for stories about human heroes with occasional intervention from the gods, we do have those (for example, the Volsung cycle, meaning the stories about Sigurd, Sigmund, Gudrun, and Brynhild, among others), but with some of the later and more complete versions of these stories it is possible that there is some influence from Greek mythology, as some classical authors where known in Medieval Europe, including Iceland.
And yes, I think I would say that I consider the Hobbit and LOTR to be novels with a mythological background-- but that's because of how I define mythology. On a more subjective note, one reason is just that the characters in those books are too human, too real-- we put ourselves in their shoes when we read, rather than standing back in awe as bystanders.
Well, I'm sure I'm about to run out of room again, so I'll sign off now. Anyone else have an opinion on all this? Or related observations?

message 7: by Lucinda (new)

Lucinda | 130 comments How anyone can attempt to create an entire new mythology is just beyond comprehension; he certainly was an increadible visionary & creative writer/ scholar. well, what more can i say?! His creation is genius. breathtaking...it puts ones own dedication into perspective.

message 8: by Scott (new)

Scott Howard (howardsd) | 6 comments Mark wrote: "I have read and heard that in creating Middle Earth Tolkien was aiming to create a mythology for Anglo-Saxons. This, apparently, was something he felt quite strongly about. What do you think is mea..."

Mark, it's funny thaty you should ask. I basically wrote my masters thesis on that very question. My theis ended up being on LOTR and Beowulf, focusing on their connections to pagan mythology, dark age apocalyptic ides, and medieval history. In case you're interested, it's on the University of Montana webpage at: http://etd.lib.umt.edu/theses/availab...

Howard, Scott, M.A., May 2008 English

Recreating Beowulf’s “Pregnant Moment of Poise”: Pagan Doom and Christian Eucatastrophe Made Incarnate in the Dark Age Setting of The Lord of the Rings

Chairperson: John Hunt

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien recreates the “pregnant moment of poise” that inspired him in his study of Beowulf. Tolkien believed that this moment was a brief period of “fusion” which occurred in the Dark Ages as paganism was in decline and Christianity on the rise, when the dueling notions of Doom and salvation briefly coexisted in the hearts and minds of the Anglo-Saxon people. Derived from a careful study of Tolkien’s fiction, lectures, letters, and the writings of his contemporaries, instructors, and friends, in combination with many Dark Age texts, the works of various Tolkien critics, historians, and specialists in the fields of Christian and Norse apocalypse,this thesis will consider the ways that Tolkien’s study of Beowulf inspired him in the creation of The Lord of the Rings.

Following the template that he outlined in his lecture, Tolkien integrated history, Christianity, and pagan myth to create a literary epic steeped in Christian and Norse apocalyptic images, in which incarnate religious figures walk abroad in a past that
reflects the era in which Beowulf was set. The recreation of the “pregnant moment of poise” in this setting allows Tolkien to simultaneously enact the paradoxical outcomes of pagan Doom and Christian salvation at the novel’s climatic moments. When Doom and salvation collide, Tolkien’s heroes become martyrs without the necessity of death.

Because they are mortals faced by powerfully magical enemies and are bereft of hope in victory, they are endowed with all of the rhetorical power that Doom elicits, but their miraculous deliverance enacts divine eucatastrophe, the moment of supreme joy that, to Tolkien, can only be fully appreciated when Doom gives birth to salvation.

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