Tolkien And An English Mythology

Painting of Rivendell by Tolkien (some of his earliest book jacket art was painted by Tolkien himself).

January 3 was J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday. He would’ve been 121. Tolkien has, and continues to shape me profoundly with his stories. I think I can safely say that at this point of my life, The Lord Of The Rings is my favorite book (originally intended to be one volume and not a trilogy, in case you didn’t know that). I feel similar to Tim Keller, who’s says that he’s “always in it.” Tolkien’s stuff is really that rich, lending itself to lots of great re-reading. His contribution to literature, and to storytelling, is immeasurably great.

I was really impressed with Tolkien’s vision for his stories of Middle-earth, that he talks about in a letter to Milton Waldman, that’s included in my edition of The Silmarillion. I’m including it below for your reading pleasure. His love of mythology, and desire for English folk to have one for their own, is pretty intriguing. All’s I can say is, I’m glad he wrote it for us.

From a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951:

“[H]ere I hope I will not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.”

And so Tolkien wrote us stories that, before the Peter Jackson films, were fairly high literature. They were rich, epic stories that sprung out of the history of the English folk, but sought to speak to all human experience. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of the films; but Tolkien’s stories are so much more than a pop culture phenomenon, and it’s worth getting to know a little of what he really set out to do. His stories are for us to learn from – to learn what wickedness is, what goodness is, what it is to have courage. Really, his stories were intended to be imbibed and told as a part of the cultural heritage of English-speakers (though you can absolutely enjoy another translation of his works). They’re our mythology. They’re Christian. They’re so darned good. We can, and should be very thankful for the richness of Tolkien’s work.


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