Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 2

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1916

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he first created Middle Earth in the trenches of WWI.

In my last post, I discussed the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, which was written to C.S. Lewis when he had been dismissive of myth and escapist fantasy as “wish-fulfillment.” In the poem, named after a term Tolkien coined with uses the Greek roots “mythos” and “poeia” to mean “myth-making”, Tolkien not only defends, but celebrates the concept of myth as something real, alive, and vital to human existence. In the section I’m going to discuss here, Tolkien defends it as our divine right.

“Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.”

“Yes trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen…” This phrase fairly well sums up the layers of meaning that I discussed in my previous entry in this series. Trees exist without us, and without the mythic layers we add in our understanding, but all that we know about them and all that we feel about them requires us to name them. Naming is a decidedly mythic thing to do, and is a part of many myths and religions as a thing that is given to gods and heroes.

“Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.”

And of course, because it’s Tolkien, there are going to be elves. Elves are the archetype of a mythic race for many, masters of poetry and the forging of great things. Even as we now consider dwarves to be master craftsmen today, that honor was once given to elves. In fact, what we know of as fantasy dwarves, with thanks due to Tolkien, evolved out of the svartalfr of Nordic lore, a name that means “dark elf.”

As for the rest of this portion, Tolkien is saying that mythmakers created their myths out of looking backward in time and culture. An ancient time, now lost to empirical understanding, is a place of legend, emotion, and myth. There may be some imagination built in, but imagination has its place, and when it’s honest, it makes the story more real, thus making it mythic.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Tolkien doesn’t just ask the question, “Can we know of something without imagining mythically?” He flat out gives the answer: no, we can’t. To Tolkien, nothing exists and nothing is seen except through the mythic, legendary, and poetic meaning that we give to it. Yes, stars exist, and we can see the burning balls of gas far above us, but without a frame of reference, what is it that we see but specks of light? Myth is the frame of reference by which we see.

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

And here Tolkien exhibits three ideals. First, is his Christian worldview, in that he believes that “the only Wise” is a singular, male deity, and that “gods and their houses out of dark and light” are creations of Man. At the same time, he believes that, in the second point I want to mention and unlike many who have spoken and written through the centuries within Christianity, that mankind is “not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” No matter our origin, whether you are a Christian, atheist, or pagan, there is no denying the creative power of humanity, which is the third point I want to bring up here. We have the creative power, and not only that, but it is our right to do so, to create fill “the crannies of the world” with elves, goblins, and other beings, to be like Theseus and Cadmus in sowing the seed of the dragon’s teeth.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

As if in answer to a previous accusation by Lewis, Tolkien admits to creating dreams of wish fulfillment and avoid harsh reality. In this stanza, he admits to and celebrates the fact that myth, particularly myth creation, is escapist by nature. In the end, he answers why it must be, because “of Evil this alone is deadly certain: Evil is.”

The very fact that there is such a thing as evil gives us the need to do something about it, and often, we feel powerless in the face of it. Mythopoeia, or the creation of myths, is just that. In our escapism, we can create the ideal, and by creating the ideal heroes, we give them monsters to fight. Our heroes are the ideal, and the monsters we create are the embodiment of evil.

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One thought on “Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 2

  1. Interesting stuff! I’ve been wanting to learn more about Lewis and Tolkien’s relationship for my Lewis project, but no idea where to start. I’ll probably be linking to this somewhere, maybe just putting it on the Interesting Carictars page…

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