Daily Thought: Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy as Pagan Myth

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as pagan myth:

I know as a child when I first read this work, before I became an adult and discovered the critics appraisal, or the fact of Tolkien’s personal religion that what struck me was a tendency toward that ancient sense of doom and fatalism which is the main theme within those ancient myths of the Norse, Germanic legends, Icelandic Sagas, and the in poetry and prose of the Welsh  lays, Scottish ballads, and Irish-Gaels’ tales.

Many of my generation growing up in the 50’s and 60’s came upon Tolkien through those early paperback days when books were cheap and the world of war and protest and civil rights were in the streets. Rebellion back then seemed more about love-in’s and rock concerts, traveling round the country to the next love-fest or march on this or that protest. Love and War seemed to play in-between strange bouts of magickal New Age and the very real world of the draft. Tolkien seemed to play to this strange amalgam of idealism and revolt against the staid gray world of our elders. Of course as we all know hippiedom turned yippie in the 70’s and the long-hairs went to work or wandered off into communes to play house and farm like a bunch of happy pagans. Of course most of that failed when people realized it was not utopia but a lot of hard work and grind. Needless to say the life of Hobbiton was not our life, and that was probably the problem many felt who sought the nostalgia of the past not realizing the truth of those times was a harsh ugly world full of slavery, work, and endless war among various tribes and clans century after century.

Tolkien’s world seemed a sort of long distant picture of a former world where adventure and the embroiled conflicts were of a higher order than our mundane earthly endeavors. But of course it was all fantasy wasn’t it? This past never happened, right? This was just an imaginative recreation of a world that never happened, a realm full of make-believe creatures: elves, dwarves, dragons… and, hobbits. So why did we read and reread this work? What was it about the Lord of the Rings that grabbed us? Why did I feel like there was something speaking to me from these pages even if they were full of so much unbelievable reactionary dialogue that seemed at best stilted and strangely reminiscent not of those realistic sagas of Iceland, but closer to the unreal romances of those Arthurian works of chivalrous age?

Rereading many of Tolkien’s letters to his editors and publishers, along with essays, etc. this same tendency to differentiate and distance himself from his personal religious commitments while at the same time allowing the underlying mythos of his tale to come through comes out in one of his specific letters to Milton Waldman his publisher (here he is speaking of a need to discover a myth and story form that was missing in his native England – by which he meant his Anglo-Saxon heritage, etc.):

Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal.

This sense that the intermingling of Christianity and the ancient pagan tales is not lonely a fatal flaw in those works from the early romances of Chretien de Troyes to Sir Thomas Malory, etc. is obvious, and his point is that what kills such works is their explicit allegorizing of symbol and motif. Rather than allowing the story have its own way, these early Arthurian romances were constructed to make explicit the Christian revelation. For Tolkien this was anathema and detrimental to any work that might pretend to bring back an awareness of pre-historical myth, legend, saga, and poetry from the ancient realms of Iceland, Scandinavia, Finland, and Germany not to leave out the world of the Celtic and Germanic worldview steeped not in Christianity but in the ancestral vision of Pagandom. So that as Tolkien himself states it: “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reject and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” In other words to impose a Christian message on a work like this would not only ruin it but turn it into allegory rather than myth which for Tolkien was mistake his friend C.S. Lewis made in his Chronicles of Narnia (which are explicit Christian allegory).

I know many people have castigated Tolkien as a Christian, and even Michael Moorcock would attack Tolkien both as a Tory and a Christian reactionary:

He [Tolkien] claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish Hitlerism.

And, yet, as Moorcock suggests Tolkien saw otherwise, and in fact would’ve seen this alliance of his work with the fascist tendencies of Wagner’s Anti-Semitic world view as a horror to be despised rather than emulated. Moorcock was obviously swayed by leftist politics, and saw in Tolkien’s work a modern allegory of reactionary politics (as have many progressive critics). But if you have read Tolkien’s essays and letters with even a minimal amount of effort one realizes that Tolkien throughout his life despised such an imposition and explicit marshalling of politics into his work. Instead one must look back at the ancient tales that survived the Dark Ages, etc., such as Ragnars saga loðbrókar, Yngvars saga víðförla and Völsunga saga. In the case of Hervarar saga; along with the Prose Edda and an older collection of poems without an original title now known as the Poetic Edda; and, the more modern rendition of the Kalevala a 19th-century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology.

In fact Tolkien makes explicit his vision in this letter to Waldman, saying,

I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and it for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.

For a progressive critic such a statement would be politicized and Tolkien made to seem a fascist blood and soil reactionary whose Toryism and patriotism were bent on a racist and elite political design. But to me that is pure hogwash, and such critical appraisal seems to look for anything that will fit the allegory of political post-colonialism. I’m sick and tired of this sort of critical politics imposed on every piece of literature as if every work of Europe from the early Romances to the present day realists were hiding a fascist tendency deep within its White Anglo-Saxon heritage. This present school of literary politics is itself bound to a tyranny of blindness in that it sees fascists hiding everywhere in American and European culture and its heritage. To make literature the whipping boy of progressive politics has left western culture in ruins, allowing a single vision and tyranny of politics to override the aesthetic systems of value that have existed for hundreds of years. This generation sees demons everywhere and in many ways like to burn the library of western culture. This sort of Stalinist progressive world view would turn a blind eye to every aspect of the White Anglo-Saxon past as if it were some ultimate evil and enemy. And Tolkien has of late become a whipping boy for such malcontents who would see in his work an allegory of modern capitalism. What a laugh… whose the allegorist in this picture? It’s certainly not Tolkien, rather its the current crop of literary and philosophical critics who impose their vision of progressive culture onto every aspect of life, finding evil under every aspect of Western Culture.

Tolkien himself never saw his work as ‘invention’, never saw it as hiding some Christian or Reactionary message, rather for him “the mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”

This sense that he was “recording” what was already there rather than creating something out of thin air, bringing together the stories of ancient Europe and its Celtic and Germanic culture. Not twisting it for some political aesthetic like Hitler, but seeking to release the powers of thought and feeling lying already there in those ancient tales scattered like lost light in the hinterlands of our pagan past. Rome tried to destroy both the Celtic and Germanic world. It succeeded in destroying the ancient culture and religious hold of the Druids and their Groves, which were central hubs of learning, education, and myth, saga, and poetic memory of these people language and mores. With the destruction of the ancient groves of the Druids the ruination of the Celtic people as a culture was assured, and yet there were fragments of the light that survived among the traveling bards, fairy lore, and myths, legends, and sagas that were later written down and passed on from generation to generation.

Rome never complete defeated Germania, and even Tacitus would see in these northern barbarians something tenacious and to be admired. Tacitus would write of the great Celtic Queen, Boudica, who would lead her people the Iceni against Roman rule. And even though she was defeated the Roman suffered a severe set back, and such tenacity and bravery of a people would mark the world and become a part of the resistance movements of the Isles. One must remember hat Rome was the fascist State of its era, an Empire that sought to enslave and carry away the loot of its subjugated people. Truth is these ancient barbarians were the original freedom fighters and resistance against tyranny in the West. Oh, of course, one could as well look back into that deep history of Eurasia, wander through the archaeological time-table from 700,000 BCE to 1000 CE. As Barry Cunliff in the Prehistory of Old Europe charts this human involvement across time and space, the migrations out of Africa, the waves of people out of the Steppes into the West during the warm and cold cycles of glaciation and interglaciation, along with the various specious of human like beings that mixed and intermixed their DNA/RNA in process to culminate in our own historical records. History is like a fragment of a lost world, a world buried in stone tools, pottery, and ancient artifacts that crisscross across the whole gamut of Eurasia from Ireland to China. We assume too much in our disparagement of this process, belittling the temporal distortions and traces of this fierce world that has left its mark on current humanity. To turn a blind eye, to bury this past in the moment when were just beginning to truly understand aspects of it is allow momentary political malfeasance to hold sway over seven hundred thousand years of evolutionary effort. But that’s about what current progressive thinking and world view consists of in their denigration of the European West and its peoples (i.e., the white Anglo-Saxon and Celtic remainder). And, lets not forget the Alaman, Sarmatians, Mongols, etc. etc.. The actual DNA of the peoples of Europe holds the whole history of Eurasia, and not just this remnant. Two thousand years of this culture is minuscule compared to the temporal worlds of this ancient heritage.

So against the political imposition of allegory on Tolkien’s reconstruction of this ancient world in mythic form I leave you this master’s words: “I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.” So what is the difference? The difference is one of meaning in which the difference between an explicit allegorical work such as Dante’s trilogy of Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise are written to make explicit the dogmas of the Catholic Church in design and execution. Dante’s work can be read according to a four-fold scheme as natural story, political, symbolic, and mythic overlays of various aspects of the Church’s belief system. And, the critics of Dante’s work use allegorical language to unpack this meaning hidden in the different layers of his religious allegory.

Tolkien himself will use allegorical language in describing and interpreting the meaning of his own work for Waldman. In fact for Tolkien every critical act of interpretation uses allegorical language in one form or another and is therefore suspect, so that even his own Christian view of his work is not the only one. As he says his work is based on a sense of fate and freedom, this interplay of doom, mortality, and the destiny of us all:

The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full power with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning – and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world.

If I have one qualm with Tolkien it is his humanist vision which still seeks to see in humans an exception to the Doom of all things natural. Being a Christian he believed humans would escape the Doom of the world and universe. He forgot that the ancient Celts and Germans had no such belief and in the ancient cycles of tales that have come down to us in both cultures we get a sense of absolute doom in which in the end even the gods are mortal and will die as the universe itself dies along with everything natural within it under the forces of entropy and decay. Yet, the battle and war between Doom and Freedom goes on to the end…

All things being said I admit that Tolkien failed in his quest to bring back the ancient tales, and if one reads his own commentary and use of allegorical language one does see how his theological stance influenced almost every aspect of this work, infusing it with his Christian mythos of Fall and Redemption. And, yet, under this overt message one still sees the glimmering lights of ancient pagan worlds shining through with their keen sense of the mortality of gods and men and the universe. It’s this ancient fatalism and naturalism we seek, rather than the humanist vision of escape and redemption which for us is but a pure fantasy of those who hope to survive the Doom. There will be no survival, all things are doomed to die.

2 thoughts on “Daily Thought: Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy as Pagan Myth

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