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Minas Tirith Forums » The Ivy Bush » Did Tolkien succeed?
Author Topic: Did Tolkien succeed?
Madomir
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Most of us are aware that JRRT intended his legendarium to fill what he deemed as a void in own country’s mythology. But as we are also aware, intending something to happen doesn’t guarantee success. Baseball players strike out, soccer players score ‘own goals’, actors forget lines and doctors lose patients, none of these would generally qualify as intended results. So my question is, were Tolkien’s intentions realized?

Definition of mythology according to Wikipedia..

quote:
The word mythology (Greek: μυθολογία, from μυθος mythos, a story or legend, and λογος logos, an account or speech) literally means the (oral) retelling of myths – stories that a particular culture believes to be true and that use supernatural events or characters to explain the nature of the universe and humanity.

I’m sure others can find other definitions but for the time being I’m going to go with the Wikipedia version since it fits more or less what I feel a mythology should be. At first glance there would appear to be 2 items that present problems with Tolkien’s world fitting this definition.

  • stories that a particular culture believes to be true

    Virtually everyone I know who has read Tolkien has loved it, but I don’t know anyone who has believed it. The great mythologies that come to mind all had this feature. Statues and monuments were built in honor of Zeus and other gods. Cupid is still featured prominently in the ‘made for Hallmark’ Valentine’s holiday [] But there is no worship or believers in Eru.

    Arthurian legends even today have quite a following; many people believe much of what they’ve been told of King Arthur. King Aragorn on the other hand doesn’t even register on the believability scale. It’s been suggested to me that some Tolkien characters may have their roots in reality but if so, the source of those stories is so obscure that most readers (myself included) are oblivious to it.

    So if nobody believes, can it be mythology?

  • Mythology.. literally means the (oral) retelling of myths..

    The implication here is the retelling of the stories over generations, passed from father to son, mother to daughter, elders to the youth of a given society or culture. But with Middle Earth we don’t have that. We have one man, Tolkien, brilliantly creating an amazing world complete with languages and a history of it’s own, then presenting it to a society or culture and saying “Here, here is your mythology, your history, enjoy”.

    I’m not sure it works that way. It seems mythologies should be handed down, thus they get expanded upon and “improved” over time. Different people have a hand in their formation. In this way a society can embrace a set of legends, it’s part of them and they, and their ancestors, are part of the myth’s fabric. Identifying with the stories in that way also aids in the believability factor.

I don’t tend to be too keen on concrete definitions and labels for things that are conceptual in nature. I’m also not emotionally invested into what classification Tolkien’s works fit into; to me ‘fantasy and mythology’ are just aisles in the bookstore. So I hesitate to pass judgement myself on the mythological qualities of JRRT’s work because it just doesn’t matter much to me. All I’m doing is pointing out some inconsistencies that I believe exist. However, the passion that many others have for the legacy of Tolkien’s work is very interesting to me and entirely admirable. So I would welcome and enjoy reading any different angles on “mythology” and how it applies to Tolkien.

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Elora Starsong
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Hmmmmm.... I think he had partial sucess.

He shaped in many ways the form of myth telling in modern times, or fantasy writing. He set up iconic archetypes that have been adopted into cultural consciousness, and further developed older archetypes.

But I don't know if Tolkien or any writer could have formed a mythology for modern minds. We seem to be turning away from such things in favour of other sorts of answers to our worldly questions.

Perhaps, in a more trusting and less cynical and precocious time, he would have more thoroughly suceeded...

A most interesting question, Madomir! [] []

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Thingol of Doriath
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Interesting question Madman. []

First of all... I don't think Tolkien ever meant his stories to be something "that a particular culture believes to be true". Mythology, in the modern sense of the word, is part of a culture's history. Take Norse mythology... a vast majority of Scandinavians don't actually think that lightning is created by Thor's hammer these days. But it is part of Scandinavian cultural history.

I think this is what Tolkien was referring to... that England didn't have this. There is the Celtic mythology, but that isn't solely English. He wanted to create a mythology that would fill the vacuum. A Mythology that could have once been believed to be true, a substitute for something that isn't present in England's cultural history. Does that make sense?

Did he succeed? I would say that he was too successful... he overshot his mark. While one definitely associates Arthurian legend with England... one doesn't associate Tolkien's mythology with that country. His works have been translated in 100+ languages, read all over the world. Instead of creating a mythology-substitute for England, he jump started the fantasy genre world wide.

E: He was most successful, perhaps, with The Hobbit that has an decidedly English feel to it(though heavy in Norse elements). Hobbits, in general, do. Place names, homour, characteristics, etc; The Lord of the Rings and stories from the First Age do not... probably because Tolkien "borrowed" a lot from Scandinavian, Finnish and Greek mythology, making it less English and more international in appeal.

I would say that his friend C.S. Lewis was more successful in making a substitute English mythology...

[ 07-13-2006, 04:56 AM: Message edited by: Thingol of Doriath ]

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Arien the Maia
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Mythology cannot be born from a series of books. Not even if those come from a mind so bright as the one of the good professor.

Mythology a live thing. It is the marriage of fantasy and narration that changes forms , begginings, endings, versions as it is passed from one to another. In few words it is the sum of imagination of an entire nation, society and so forth, bearing alterations, big or small in each version you get to hear in different places and different people.

The geography also influences the mythos greatly, as well as it's teachings. Cause you see, most mythologies were created -at least in Greece- as a form of religious and philosophical education of the wide population. They weren't just stories, there were meanings hidden behind them, wisdom to be understood and discovered. There was the representation of the elements of nature, the balance between male and female, the path of the human being filled with agony and joy.

And last but not least, mythology isn't concrete. Blood lines may or may not be important, as in mythology it is the person that is of interest and rarely -if ever- the family or generaly the backround. There is the protagonist and those few surounding him/her but not reference to the protagonist's origings or noble blood.

None of the above discribed qualities of actual mythology can be seen in Tolkien's attempt. The fact alone that his creation can't be characterised anything but litterature, deprives him of the chance of creating an actual mythology. Tolkien gave birth to an artificial mythology, one bottled up and air tight. Things are as Tolkien meant them to be and there's no free imput of imagination.
For instance I cannot got about and speak of Arien as she is discribed but add a little something to it. It will be disrespect to the author and the way he meant that heroe of his to be.

So I guess that when we have the issue of author's intent we cannot talk of actual english mythology. Mythology is free, offered to all and subjected to anyone's imagination.

On the other hand, Tolkien did present the world with an altogether different achievement, the one man mythology. Equaly breath taking, if not more, unique in it's conception and something to keep you thinking day in and out. I believe that the Professor got as close as any mortal could reach in concieving a mythology for England. But an entire nation's imagination is always richer and stronger than one man's however gifted that one man may be.

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Roll of Honor Varnafindë
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As Tolkien was partly inspired by the Kalevala, I'm interested to hear what position Kalevala has in Finnish mythology. Is it the Finnish mythology, is it the most important version of Finnish mythology, or is it another one-man mythology? Did Lönnrot edit old sources, or perhaps turn prose into poetry?
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Madomir
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quote:
But I don't know if Tolkien or any writer could have formed a mythology for modern minds. We seem to be turning away from such things in favour of other sorts of answers to our worldly questions.

Excellent point Elora, modern folk have a tough enough time maintaining faith in established myths, legends, and religon. Anything new would certainly be in for a tough uphill climb towards acceptance on that level.

quote:
While one definitely associates Arthurian legend with England... one doesn't associate Tolkien's mythology with that country.
I can see your point Thingy, some of this may have been cleared up had Tolkien finished The Book of Lost Tales project. Some very clear connections to modern England were to be made there.

quote:
Mythology cannot be born from a series of books... Mythology a live thing... And last but not least, mythology isn't concrete... Mythology is free, offered to all and subjected to anyone's imagination.

All good points Goddess, presenting a mythology in written form comes with some inherent problems. It can create an almost stagnant feel, as if there's little if any room for growth, like reading a history book. I recently finished reading BoLT and at the end, it felt as if I had read a story about a mythology as opposed to reading a mythology.. if that makes any sense []

[ 07-13-2006, 04:34 PM: Message edited by: Madomir ]

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Elora Starsong
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I wonder if Tolkien intended his work to become The English Mythology, or an addition to mythological tales held in the Western European collective consciousness...


Thingol, you make a good point.... but then perhaps Tolkien suffered from the same English idiosyncratic belief that anything English is of course preeminant and that other nations take it up is only natural and sensible of them.

No that is not criticism of Tolkien or English people, merely an observation. I mean, what else could prompt the english collective of librarians to name themselves The Society of Librianians.... not the English Society, nor the British Society, but THE Society... []

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Eluchil
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quote:
I wonder if Tolkien intended his work to become The English Mythology, or an addition to mythological tales held in the Western European collective consciousness...

Well, Tolkien dropped that goal (English mythology), didn't he ?
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Roll of Honor Silmahtar
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I don't believe Tolkien ever stated that he sought out to create a mythology for England, but rather a mythology dedicated to England. One that in his mind was more to his literary and cultural tastes (Check the Milton Waldman Letter -- I believe it's the one that prefaces The Silmarillion.)

I'm sure he fully understood how mythology is created and nurtured and that, like Arien mentioned, could not come from the imagination of just one person.

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Eluchil
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Silmahtar, your first remark reminds me of Verlyn Flieger's last book (Interrupted Music). Have you read it ?
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Roll of Honor Silmahtar
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No, I haven't. I've read parts of Splintered Light and I really need to get back to it. How does it compare with the book you mentioned?. I like Flieger, but in small doses. She can be a little abstruse at times...

Regarding Tolkien's relative success, I believe that when it came to his literary work he was quite humble about his efforts. I don't think he would have ever presumed to create a working mythology. I get the sense that for the most part, his writings were for himself more than anyone else. In that regard the satisfaction he may have derived from his life's work possibly was success enough for him.

What distinguishes his work from other fantasy sources is that it does seem to be highly personal, more than a flight of fancy, if I can be so glib. Here was a learned man delving very deeply into all sorts of inspirations and devices that appealed to him the most -- if anything Tolkien's work is a matter as much of the heart (his heart) as well as the mind. In that regard, I'd say he was very successful.

[ 07-14-2006, 11:50 AM: Message edited by: Silmahtar ]

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Eluchil
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Well, that's one of the themes of her book ... I should re-read it; as you said, she can be a little abstruse at times []
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The Dread Pirate Roberts
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I think I much prefer the sort of success Tolkien has acheived to some of the other possibilities. No offense to our Scientologist friends but with the beauty and majesty of his creation and first age myths, Tolkien could have become another L. Ron Hubbard. Can you imagine Tom Cruise hopping on Oprah's sofa praising Manwe for the winds that blew Katie into his life? Or John Travolta as Feanor in Battlefield Middle Earth?

This could have gotten ugly.

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Roll of Honor pi
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Well, when I first read LOTR as a 9 year old, it seemed too real and complex for one person to have written it, with all it's interconnectivity and all the languages and such. I almost half-believed it was true, so as a mythology, I kind of believed in it. Now over 30 years later, I'm pretty sure it is not true... []

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