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John Adcox: Complete

Can fantasy be myth? Mythopoeia and The Lord of the Rings

In June of 1999, I traveled to England for the first time. After a few days in London, my friend Carol Bales (who later became my wife — and illustrator!) and I rented a car and toured around the countryside, visiting sites of mythological importance like Stonehenge, Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, Cadbury, and Tintagel. For us, the history and mythic significance of these sites made the journey more than a vacation; it was a sort of pilgrimage. We approached them with a sense of awe and reverence.

Our last stop was Oxford. Our plan was to tour the colleges and the town, of course, and to spend some serious quality time in those fabulous bookstores. But for me, Oxford, or more specifically, an Oxford pub called the Eagle and Child, was also a place of pilgrimage.

The Eagle and Child, affectionately known as the Bird and Baby, was the place where a group of Oxford scholars once met each week to talk and read from their works. The group was called the Inklings, and it included, among others, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. In that dark and time-stained pub, chapters from the Narnia stories, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion were read for the very first time.

No matter how charming the ambiance (or how tasty the ale) it’s hard to think of a tiny pub as having the same feeling of significance as a magnificent cathedral or a prehistoric stone monument, but in a strange way, the feeling was actually similar. This is a place where something significant happened, I remember thinking. Something important was born here. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself overcome with almost the same feeling of numinous reverence.

Chatting with the bartender, I learned that I wasn’t the first. Indeed, he said, people from all walks of life, from every corner of the globe, regularly visit the Bird and Baby for much the same reason. Both the UK newspaper The Guardian and Time magazine called The Lord of the Rings the most-read novel in the world.1 Lewis’ Narnia books have been perennial bestsellers in every single year since their original publication. Stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings touch readers on a level that seems, somehow, to transcend mere entertainment.

Speaking for myself, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call reading The Lord of the Rings for the first-time way back in the fifth grade a life-changing experience. Tolkien’s trilogy led directly to my own life-long love of stories and mythology. I can’t help wondering if, without that experience in my childhood, I would have ever written novels of my own.

In short, my experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, like that of so very many other readers through the decades, was the kind that changes a person for all time, or at least inspires a life direction — and for me at least, even a sort of pilgrimage. That’s the type of response that one usually has only to the most significant, the most sacred stories — the cultural heritage of truth disguised as narrative that serves as a guide through the dark forests of life. In short, myth.

To me, and to so many others, Tolkien’s works seem to carry significance greater than the (certainly considerable) merits of the work itself warrant. To generations of readers growing up over the past half-century, and to new audiences discovering the tales after the release of the films, The Lord of the Rings has taken on the weight of myth.

Indeed, Tolkien stated that the Middle-earth tales were a deliberate attempt to create a mythology for England. He might well have been quick to attribute the phenomenal success of the work to its mythic structure and archetypal elements rather than to his own (amazing) power as a storyteller and master of words. “I believe that legends and myth are largely made of truth,” he wrote in one of his letters, “and indeed present aspects of it that can only be perceived in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”2 Tolkien agreed that the significance of myth goes deeper than the skill of the artist. This is an idea that Joseph Campbell echoed when he declared in The Power of Myth that, “the people who can keep (myth) alive are the artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”3

The noted folklorist and author Alan Dundes disagrees, however. Dundes argues that The Lord of the Rings cannot be called myth, saying that this or any novel cannot meet the cultural criteria of myth. A work or art, or artifice, cannot be said to be the narrative of a culture’s sacred tradition. While planning the Mythic Journeys conference, I talked to Dr. Dundes about Tolkien’s works. Although he admires Tolkien’s books, he told me that they are “at most, artificial myth.”4 If Dundes is right, what is it that resonates with such a vast audience on so profound a level?

The obvious answer, of course, is the quality of the work itself. In short, Tolkien wrote a ripping good yarn. The complexities of language and structure are perhaps rivaled only by Joyce in the canon of Western literature. It can be argued that the publication of The Lord of the Rings quite literally began a genre — counting the vast numbers of “epic fantasy” trilogies weighing down bookstore shelves, it’s hard to disagree. But hundreds, if not thousands, of books can claim to match or even surpass the literary quality of the work itself.

The question remains as to why is The Lord of the Rings, like select other works, a cultural phenomenon and is there any way that these works can be considered myth. I believe that Tolkien would have said (his natural modesty not withstanding) that, indeed, the Middle-earth books are more than "artificial" or counterfeit myth—a supposition that may seem surprising given that Tolkien, and ultimately Lewis, were devout Christians. The answer is found in a concept that Tolkien and his fellow Inklings called "mythopoeia" – literally, making myth.

However, in his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and, a then atheist, C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.”5

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” 6 Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence