Can Fantasy be Myth? Mythopoeia and “The Lord of the Rings”

I’ve got a new article up on Medium. Here’s a preview, and I’d love your thoughts. Now that Raven Wakes the World is out, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of myth in storytelling.

In June of 1999, I traveled to England for the first time. After a few days in London, my friend 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 (and cash) 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 some magnificent gothic 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 to have an experience like that. 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. 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 written a novel of my own. I may well have, but I don’t think it would be as myth-infused as Raven Wakes the World.

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.” 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.”

To me, the question is of profound importance, since all of my work, including ,my new Christmas book, Raven Wakes the World, explores the role of sacred story in healing a broken world. More, myth doesn’t have to be taken literally to do so. In fact, when reduced to mere history, the deeper truths in myths, then, are trivialized.

I can’t help thinking that myth largely comes down to us without context. The role of fantasy, then, is to create a context wherein the symbolic truths in myth take on an entirely new relevance.

Continue reading on Medium

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