Myth and Tolkien

“Conversation with Smaug” by J.R.R. Tolkien

As we know, J.R.R. Tolkien attempted to write a mythology for the English people, rooted in the traditions and atmosphere of England and the British Isles. We know the Greek and Roman mythologies stand apart from other literature as a genre, with a grandeur unique to them. They stand like titans above most other literature. What is it about mythologies that sets them apart, and makes them so grand? And why do human cultures develop them? Why did Tolkien feel we needed one for English folk?

I love Tolkien’s stories, and what he tried to do with an English mythology. And as I’ve been reading my way through The Lord of the Rings for the third time in my life, I’ve been grappling with why this story is so moving, exactly. There are lots of reasons, but here’s a quote I recently stumbled upon, that gets at some of intangible stuff that makes myth so important to literature, and to human experience:

“Myths are neither true nor untrue, but the product and process of man’s yearning. As such, they’re the most primal thing bonding us to other people. Yet the phenomenon is much more than a snake feeding on its own tail. Myths gather momentum because they provide hope.”

Cynthia Buchanan (Quoted in The Searchers, by Glenn Frankel)

This is why, in Tolkien’s stories we don’t find a one-to-one allegorical relationship between the story and real life, or the story and Christianity as many try their darndest to uncover there. But because his stories are crafted in the tradition of myth, there’s much of God, Christianity, and real life and human emotion that actually run much deeper then allegory can provide. Tolkien didn’t care much for allegory himself as we know, and that might be because he had an eye and a feel for a deeper kind of literary magic. The mythology is “neither true nor untrue,” but resonates very, very deeply in the human heart with the stuff of sorrow, hope, joy, and glory, and sends us back into our own world with a very real experience of these things. And the glory of Tolkien’s mythology is that it does what Buchanan mentions above: it provides, and points us toward the one real source of hope.

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