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.

American Mythology And The Era Of Gatsby

My wife and I went to see The Great Gatsby a couple weeks ago, and we loved it. It’s a spectacle that takes the hyperbolic and imaginative descriptions of the novel almost to unbelievable extremes. The book’s full of symbolic and poetic imagery, and the film captures that in an almost overwhelming, operatic portrayal. We both love the book too, and loved it first. But this post isn’t about all that.

Something hit my wife and me as we talked about the movie afterward, over some FroYo. The era of the “Roaring 20s” is quickly becoming “distant past” for us today. Think about it: in 7 years, the decade of the 1920s will have been a century ago. And it also hit us that we don’t have nearly as many folks with us today who remember that time period firsthand – who were alive during the 20s. So information we have about that time, we’ll have heard from those who were young then, or we’ll learn it from books and movies. And, those of us with grandparents born in the 1920s will be among the last people to hear about that era of our history from the folks who lived it. In 3o years, our kids will feel that way about anybody who lived through the 60s.

Which led me to think about how time periods become mythologized, which we see with Gatsby now. That film raises the Roaring 20s to an almost mythological status, with its larger-than-life heroes, anti-heroes, and villains. The opulence of the 20s is portrayed over-the-top, but many of us don’t give it a second thought, partly because we didn’t live any of it, and we’re fairly far removed from the time period. Watching Gatsby was like watching an opera, or reading an epic mythological tale, really. The settings feel distant and strange, but beautiful; the time and place seem at once ideal and fearful. The larger-than-life characters move through a fantastic environment, speeding toward mountainous joy and tragedy. The whole story embodies something both distant and present, full of glory and darkness almost beyond grasping. The novel is like this, and the Baz Luhrmann film brings it to life in a very interesting way.

The thing about all this that’s really poignant for me, is that this time period that’s quickly slipping into a past none of us will remember firsthand, is still near enough to carry a legacy for us who teach and train up our children. This is the era of many of our parents and grandparents, and it’s a time when our Western culture really started to forget God. A college professor of mine once defined Modernism (the era encompassing WWI and the 1920s and 30s) as the time when man was either rejecting God, or searching for Him desperately. We see this rejection and searching in literature and in films, like Gatsby, that portray this time period. And as the era gets mythologized, embodying our culture’s memory of a glorious and tragic past, may we have grace to learn from the tragedy of forgetting the God Who means to restore this broken world. May we establish our lives and hopes on God’s unmovable, unchanging mercy and grace, that He offers to us through His Son. And may our grandchildren remember our generation as those who loved God, and hoped also in Him and the redemption begun and completed in Jesus Christ.