RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS TOLKIEN
TOLKIEN'S 'MYTHOPOEIA' and ESSAY ON FAIRY TALE LITERATURE
The Epic Process:
One of the foremost investigators of epic composition, Albert Lord, noted:
An oral poet who is asked to dictate a song for someone to write finds himself in an unusual and abnormal position. He is accustomed to composing rapidly to the accompaniment of a musical instrument which sets the rhythm and tempo of his performance. For the first time he is without this rhythmic assistance, and at the beginning he finds it difficult to make his lines. He can easily learn to do this, however, and he sets up a certain rhythm in his mind. He is also some what annoyed by having to wait between lines for the scribe to write. His mind moves ahead more rapidly than does the writer's pen. This technique he can also learn, particularly if the scribe is alert and helpful. The singer is accustomed to the stimulus of an audience, but again an intelligent scribe and a small group of onlookers can provide this stimulus.... The chief advantage to the singer or this manner of composition [oral dictation] is that it affords him time to think of his lines and of his song. His small audience is stable. This is an opportunity for the singer to show his best, not as a performer, but as a storyteller and poet.
Lord also spoke of the "return song"-based on the vegetation myths-if to a tribal the culture, the growing season fades and winter comes, the key question is will the growing season ever return, and how can we be sure it will...
Elements of the return song according to Lord:
5--marriage (reconciliation of opposites--Coleridge)
We will observe the Tolkien's compositions accomplish in prose what Lord describes, and this page will examine his own poetry and prose criticism on the subject.
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are 'trees,' and growing is 'to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o'erwritten without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petrous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain's contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not 'trees,' until so named and seen --
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech's involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh,
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seeds of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.
Yes! 'wish-fulfilment dreams' we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise -- for pain is pain
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.
Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.
Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have turned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends --
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein o part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden scepter down.
* * *
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil will not see, for evil lies
not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they no more look awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
(The poem Tolkien wrote to C. S. Lewis after their long conversation in 1929, explaining to him why myths are not "lies breathed through silver" but deep theological revelations, indeed anticipations of the one story which became history, the one myth which became fact)(Text and note from Procris.)
Tolkien wrote this poem in 1929 to C. S. Lewis while discussing the latter's conversion to Christianity and hostility to myth, and as such the poem outlines what an epic poet ought to do as Lord observes. We might also recall the effect on Odysseus of the bard's recitations, Book VIII:
* These things the famous singer sang for them, but Odysseus,
taking in his ponderous hands the great mantle died in
sea-purple, drew it in his ponderous hands and veiled his fine features
shamed for tears running down his face before the Phaiakians;
and every time the divine singer would pause in his singing,
he would take the mantle away from his head, and wipe the tears off...
(ll. 83-88 / Lattimore translation)
Probably most readers have a favorite place in Tolkien that occasions similar emotions.
Discussion questions / comments for MYTHOPOEIA:
1-In general, does the poem describe in precis the origin of Tolkien's universe? Be aware of at least the following influences:
* Sacred Scripture, and the dogma of the Catholic Church
* Anglo-Saxon culture
* The Odyssey
* Coleridge and Keats and Shelley
* the creative process in the macrocosm and microcosm
2-from Stanza one "You look at trees..."
a. what does LABEL mean? (See also Carpenter's Biography plus my link to the C.S. Lewis page).
b. What does COMPELLED mean? REGIMENTED?
3-from Stanza two "At bidding of a will..."
a. To whom or what does WILL refer? There is an important allusion to Coleridge's Biographia.
b. This stanza suggests "reconciliation of opposites" from Coleridge
c. What does ORIGO connote?
d. Note the use of color imagery which will foreshadow a later motif
e. Romantics value as does Plato the senses as transcending gateways to a knowledge of the forms. How is this in evidence
f. What is the epistemology of the stanza?
4- from Stanza three "Yet trees are not trees..."
a. What makes a tree a tree? How do humans participate in the creative act?
b. Tolkien shares the romantic conviction that all share the same world spirit or soul; the romantics have different terms for it from Wordsworth's 'presence' in Tintern Abbey to Shelley's "...unseen power" in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.
c. There are strong allusions to Wordsworth's Intimations Ode--see stanza V. The Allegory of the Cave is the philosophical premise.
5-from Stanza four "He sees no stars..."
a. What is the paradox in lines one and two--what kinds of sight are there?
b. Note the reference to fire and nature (flowers).
c. In this stanza, Tolkien's mythos becomes more specifically defined.
i. the existence of the void has Greek echoes.
ii. myths are woven--strands of oral recitations (Lord) making a mosaic.
iii. the process is "elf-patterned" as we will see in The Silmarillion.
iv. the womb is a standard romantic metaphor--from internal to external-see The Mirror and the Lamp by Abrams.
6-from Stanza five "The heart of man..."
a. Who is the only wise?
b. The creation myths have an explanation for evil as we have noted. What is it here?
c. Tolkien accepts the fall of man, but certainly sees redemptive potential-which is what?
d. The stanza contains one of Tolkien's most famous phrases also repeated in the Fairy Tale Essay. What is it that redeems man?
e. Note that light imagery is also used that has the same function as music in Kubla Khan (Coleridge)
f. Tolkien dramatizes a dialectic between the right to create and daring to. Recall what we said regarding The Theogony and Genesis. Can we create evil? Do we always need permission?
7-from Stanza six "Yes! 'wish-fulfillment dreams'..."
a. Romantic writers use dreams as metaphors for the creative process. Keats is especially important here--what does Tolkien believe?
b. What does CHEAT? mean. As a parallel, early in Eve of St. Agnes, Keats warns of being "hoodwinked by faerie fantasy."
c. Why are FACTS ugly?
d. The reference to Pain and striving recall Of Works and Days. What did Hesiod say about strife?
e. This stanza makes it quite clear that Tolkien embraces traditional Catholic teaching. How?
8- Stanzas seven, eight, and nine "Blessed are the timid..." / "Blessed are the men..." / "Blessed are the legend-makers..."
a. Obviously paralleling the Beatitudes of Jesus, Tolkien in turn lauds the timid who hate evil, the Noahs who have the faith to confront evil (There is a parallel here to an Anglo-Saxon poem called The Seafarer, and of course the "legend-makers", the bards, the scops, the shapers who recite stories of who we are.
b. The pedagogy of myth (recall Campbell) is important here. Myth does not require we become ensnared in realities so other to our own that we forget or life's mission. Odysseus, we recall, knew that when he rejected Calypso's offer. In the secondary world of myth, though, we are given clues to our essence and those of the universe, the sense of wonder Campbell and Tolkien both endorse.
c. What does Tolkien mean by MACHINE-PRODUCED and SEDUCED?d4. The power of myth is evident here: the confrontations with the man made horror of World War I, technology, or going to Mordor require song. More than once in the trilogy, Frodo and Sam wonder what future generations will sing of their adventures.
9- Stanza 10 "Such Isles they saw afar"
a. The "isles they saw afar" echo geographical changes made to the cosmos following Melkor and Feanor's treachery.
b. Tolkien is often seen as pessimistic; yet does this stanza offer hope? If so, from whence?
c. The allusions to fire recall Romantic period imagery dramatizing Tolkien's sub-creation. See the opening chapters of The Silmarillion and Coleridge and Shelley's poetry and prose.
10-Stanza eleven "I would that I might..."
a. This stanza echoes Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, wherein the poet hopes to become identified with the wind's power to scatter his thoughts over the cosmos.
b. As with Shelley but for different biographical reasons, Tolkien longs for acceptance of his ideas, his mythos. As he said, the realm is perilous.
11- Stanza twelve "I will not walk..."
a. Here Tolkien strong repudiates technological Darwinism. He loathes progress that destroys the ENTS, and begs God to end that kind of progress.
b. He will reject IRON for the "small golden scepter." (Recall Hesiod).
12-Stanza thirteen "In Paradise perchance..."
a. Tolkien endorses the objectiveness of salvation history. How?
b. What does MIRRORED TRUTH mean?
c. Salvation for Tolkien is predicated on what?
d. The allusions to Genesis are obvious.
e. Tolkien concludes by lauding the myth-makers who guide us on the quest to complete the RETURN SONG noted by Lord. In so doing, as Tolkien told Lewis, they do not lie; rather they (to quote Wordsworth) "...see into the heart of things."
TOLKIEN' S ESSAY ON FAIRY TALE LITERATURE
The Essay on Fairy Tales expands and analyzes the poetry of Mythopoeia. Herein, Tolkien articulates how myths originate, and what they ought to do:
The following ideas will lead us to The Silmarillion and LOTR:
I. ADVENTURES OF MEN IN THE PERILOUS REALM
* What does Perilous mean?
* Note the romantic idea of transcendence and magic--why is are the terms important? Transcendence from what to what? In what sense is magic used and not used?
II. CAMPBELL--MYTH ATTEMPTS TO PLACE THE SEEN WORLD INTO CONTACT WITH THE UNSEEN, MUCH LARGER WORLD, ON WHICH IT IS DEPENDENT.
* This is fundamental to Christian philosophy. How do we come into contact with the Divine?
* This contact, for example, is fundamental to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, wherein the rule of law (reason) symbolized by the Duke's Athens, gives way to the passions of the forest where in these laws give way. The Duke's analysis of the imagination (V,i) suggests what myth does...
...as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination...
III. FOR TOLKIEN, MYTH (UNLIKE GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, FOR EXAMPLE) MUST, PROVIDE THE FOLLOWING:
* Satisfaction of human desire
* process (leading to transcendence--recall Campbell)
* The presence of Wordsworth
IV. REJECTS DREAMS AS THE SUBSTANCE OF MYTH. --FOR JRRT, FAERIE HAS...
* An objective distance.
* He observes the heart of faerie is, "To hold communion with other living things."
V. THE ORIGINS OF FAIRY TALE LITERATURE:
* For Tolkien, myth begins with language--recall the naming of the TREES
* What does he mean by the metaphor of the soup?
* The evolution of myth depends on:
1. independent evolution of the similar?
3. inheritance from a common ancestry?
4. diffusion from a central focal point?
VI. TOLKIENS EXAMPLE OF GREEN GRASS: THE MIND SEES BOTH GREEN AND GRASS:
* The writer of faerie seeks new combinations
* See Coleridge on the secondary imagination--It "dissolves, diffuses and dissipates in order to recreate."
* The writer of faerie uses language to create, but the question becomes:
WHAT KIND OF WORLD WOULD ALLOW FOR BLUE OR YELLOW
OR RED GRASS?
* Tolkien called this process SUB-CREATION (Recall Wordsworth's HALF-CREATE)
VII. SUB--CREATION AND MYTH
* Tolkien as a revisionist of tradition: Pre-Tolkien: "Myths developed as personifications of natural occurrences."
* Tolkien: The approach is inductive; we see a man (Personality comes from a person) and derive stories of his behavior that are diffused in three phrases:
1. mystical toward the supernatural
2. magical toward nature
3. scorn and pity toward man
* The metaphor of the SOUP..
1. new bits are added, and the soup boils
2. so History and Myth blend (monsters ARE at the center of BEOWULF)
3. composites emerge
4. Myths are ways of expressing what was once forbidden
5. [Frye's comment that as a society matures, myths evolve from the literal to the metaphoric as in the Iliad]
VIII. FAIRY TALE LITERATURE & CHILDREN
* Why do we select children as audience?
* Romantic view---"CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN"
IX. COLERIDGE'S 'WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF' IS REJECTED:
* Tolkien prefers "sub-creation"--what is the difference
* What makes his "secondary world" work?--what do we see when we look inside?
* See the paragraph that begins, "Children are of course..."
* Suspension should be unnecessary
1. the filming of LOTR--listen to the EXTENDED DVD--Jackson's comments
2. historical fact
X. WHAT DO FAIRY TALES ACHIEVE?
* Truth--poetic and literal truth (Recall Homer and General Sir John Hackett during the North African Campaign in World War II.
* Must enjoyment be contingent on the reality happening in the nominalist world?
* The awakening of desire:
1. The desiring of dragons
2. Making of other worlds (sub-creation) is at the heart of desire
3. The Hobbits
XI. FAIRY TALES AND LOTR:
* Children must grow up?
* Does this mean to leave the garden: i.e., Campbell's perspective . Study the picutre:
* What about the loss of innocence?
* The quest bestows wisdom as Frodo and Sam know...
XII. THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF FANTASY
* Forming mental images of things not present by the imagination
* Giving to ideas the consistency of reality
* For Tolkien, the inner consistency is the power of art--shaped by reason to make the secondary world--it is the link between imagination and sub-creation.
* The result is FANTASTIC--IMAGES THAT DO NOT EXIST IN THE PRIMARY WORLD, HOBBITS, ELVES ETC. BUT OBEY RULES DERIVED FROM THE CREATION MYTH.
* So the "trick" is to make a world with a GREEN SUN and have it believable
* [Spock's ears]
TO MAKE A SECONDARY WORLD WITH A GREEN SUN
XIII. DO YOU AGREE WITH TOLKIENS REASON FOR SAYING LOTR COULD NOT BE FILMED:
* Problems with the dramatic
* The difficulty with direct experience
* The need for enchantment
* Is FAERIE a lie?--is the notion of escape implicit from the ugliness of life?
* Tolkien sees it as a human right in which we attempt to recover what is lost, so could we film Genesis?
XIV. TOLKIEN'S LAUDING OF FAERIE IS DERIVED FROM ITS ABILITY TO CONSOLE:--
* He speaks of the EUCATASTROPHE--the joy of the happy ending which in the Romantic sense means the reconciliation of opposites, [but not without paradox.] This is the GOOD CATASTROPHE.
1. As we know, this means Christianity
2. The Gospels are the greatest fairy tales in history
3. They enter the primary world--The birth of Christ is the euchastrophe of man's history.
4. The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus define human history. [How does Gandalf come to be known as "the White?"
THE MORALITY OF FAIRY TALE LITERATURE
1. The epic hero's adventures is the focus of the poet's recital:
2. Additionally, the epic hero learns humility, suffers alone, (splendid isolation--Frodo and Sam on Mt. Doom), and brings the story back to beginning,
3. God reveals his favor to the just, evil is defeated, and
4. The Nordic perspective...
According to Edith Hamilton's- Mythology, the Nordic myths embody the following:
(link: see also a good web site for Greek and Nordic Mythology compared: click here)
1--a grave and somber tone
2--the good will fight against evil, but the inevitable doom is always present
3--those who die bravely go to Valhalla (Hall of the slain-like a gigantic "mead" hall-540 doors) where the dishonored go to "Niflheim" a bitterly cold region where a monster gnaws at them for ever. (See the third fight in Beowulf)
4-the hero cannot ultimately defeat evil, but can sustain glory by continuously resisting it.
5-Odin (Woden) was the chief god-god of war and death but also wisdom- his chief tasks are to:
a-pass his wisdom on to man,
b-prevent Ragnorak-the day of doom that is ("Doom of the Gods").
6- Gotterdammerung. It means the end of the cosmos in Norse mythology. It will be preceded by the winter of winters. (Note that the Scop tells that Grendel had attacked for12 winters) Three such winters will follow each other with no summers in between.
7-Conflicts and feuds will break out, even between families. (Beowulf is filled with digressions of feuding families, many of which are historically accurate). This is the beginning of the end.
8-Earthquakes will shudder the earth, and every bond and fetter will burst, freeing the terrible wolf Fenrir. The sea will rear up because Jormungand, the Nlidgard Serpent, is twisting and writhing in fury, making his way toward the land. With every breath, Jormungand will stain the sky with his poison. (Note the third fight of Beowulf). From all the corners of the world, gods, giants, dwarves, demons and elves will ride towards the huge plain of Vigrid ("battle shaker") were the last battle will be fought. Odin will engage Fenrir in battle, and Thor will attack Jormungand. Thor will be victorious, but the serpent's poison will gradually kill the god of thunder. (Note the third fight of Beowulf). The fight between Odin and Fenrir will rage for a long time, but finally Fenrir will seize Odin, and swallow him. Odin's son Vidar will at once leap towards the wolf, and kill him with his bear hands, ripping the wolf's jaws apart. The earth will sink into the sea.
9-After the destruction, a new and idyllic world will filled with abundant supplies will arise. Some of the gods will survive, others will be reborn. Wickedness and misery will no longer exist, and gods and men will live happily together.