Myth, by Tolkien

© Joe Mandala 1999

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had an unremarkable birth. He was born in South Africa, and lived his first few uneventful years there. He then took an unexciting trip back to England where he was to stay. As a man, Tolkien was quite unremarkable in appearance, wore generally unremarkable clothes, and led what some would suspect was an unremarkable life. He in fact seemed to be the archtypical Oxford don - gazing off into nothingness and mumbling about this or that. There are a few things about this man, however, that are quite remarkable. Somewhere along the way he developed an intense sense of perfectionism. This was perhaps the single most important trait that Tolkien held in relation to his work and writing.

It would not be right to say that Tolkien led an uneventful life. His mother and father died when he was quite young, his mother's death being quite a blow. He served in the Great War, and many of his friends were killed. He saw much of what is wrong with us during the war. He married and had children, certainly an important aspect in Tolkien's life. And, of course, he wrote one of the most popular and acclaimed series of books that has ever been written.

It was Tolkien's perfectionism that whittled and worked at a great mass of manuscript to produce The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, though this perfectionism also showed in his exhaustive treatises on philology that was his chosen life's work. His avowed love, however, lay with what became published as The Silmarillion. So why did not Tolkien work first and foremost on this great volume? It seems that his perfectionism would not allow it to go to press with any misconceptions, mistakes, or malapropisms.

It is easier to understand Tolkien's obsession with perfecting this body of myth (for myth it is) when one considers his goal. He wanted a mythology "for England;" one with the scope of human emotion and thought that would rival and surpass the fragments of any earlier mythology such as the Kalevala or the Eddas. Tolkien felt that mythology is very much tied up in the identity of a culture, and that the loss of such a cultural trait can only bring disillusionment and a kind of cultural identity crisis that would result in the loss of any "national spirit." He saw myth as a way to defend, perhaps, his beloved trees and countryside, for if everyone read myth and knew myth as he did, would they not grow to love the countryside as reminiscent of the great stories?

The Silmarillion was an attempt to create a secondary world in which truths Tolkien believed and lived by could be couched in a universal manner. That is to say, Tolkien believed that his myths must be imbued with a Christian ethic, though any obvious or direct intrusion from this world would destroy the "willing suspension of disbelief" that was necessary for the effect. The Myth, then, must be comprehensive in its morals and very, very internally consistent. This is what held up the creation of this volume. Tolkien reworked it, rewrote it, rephrased it, and did everything he could, constantly, to perfect his epic. He was such a perfectionist that it never was published in his lifetime (though he thought he would live longer than he did).

The Silmarillion became a fluid, changing group of stories that represented the core ideals of Tolkien's mythology. Perhaps this is the crux of the matter. The earlier fragments of the ancient mythologies Tolkien used as references to a more complete one were simply written down forms of an oral tradition. A tradition that changed constantly as one poet would interpret the same story in his own unique way. So Tolkien constantly changed his own stories, never satisfied with any one "version" as the "correct" one, for in truth there could not be a single "correct" version. Rather, the ideals and morals involved were what was central, and any "fixing" of the stories into one form would take something from this - for then you leave it open to examination on baser levels.

Like his own literary creation Mr. Niggle, Tolkien started by creating a story around a moral - a myth, his "leaf." He then began to trace this myth back to imaginary origins and created a few more on the way. As this work continued, the myths grew into a mythology, but a static one, without the motion and verve that was desired, without the bending limbs and rustling leaves. So he kept at it, changing and amending so that in his own mind the stories had some motion - a changing from earlier to later and back again. The mythology evolved within his own creative aura. It could not, however, be written down this way, and so the work of choosing the best of a line of stories began, but was not finished by him. This is the perfectionism that stalled The Silmarillion and kept The Lord of the Rings for seventeen years in the making. The written word cannot convey, perhaps, the spoken and translated myth.

Luckily for us, our Niggle had a son that could complete his work. The entire vision, of course, is left for Tolkien to contemplate in heaven as his creation Mr. Niggle does, and for us to yearn toward as we catch our glimpses here and there.

"Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. 'It's a gift!' he said."

Editor's Note

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