Readers, I am so excited about The Lord of The Rings movie coming out!
I was talking to a friend at work, and I mentioned some of the background mythology for this story. He wanted more information about it. Well, I started to write an email, and I couldn’t stop. It’s more of a blog post. Here you are:
Beowulf is one of the oldest books in ancient English (Anglo Saxon) still around. Originally, literacy in the British Isles was concentrated in Latin, since Latin was the language of their ruling elite, the Romans.
Although the Brits had their own language and writing (known as runes), they mostly relayed their cultural stories through word of mouth (oral tradition). Beowulf is only one of these stories, and it is highly treasured because it is one of the very few peeks we have into the culture of the Anglo-Saxons (MY people-transparently white child that I am).
I know of two main reasons why more stories didn’t survive:
one, the advent of Christianity created an unfavorable environment for stories about pagan deities. The British Isles, and especially Ireland, really embraced Christianity when it arrived. Some of the stories were christianized, and deities and legendary heroes got cleaned up into “saints.”
Beowulf has some christianizing in it too.
But the second reason is because of the Norman invasion.In the 11th century, I think, the French came in and enslaved (enserfed?) all the Anglo-Saxons. The Roman empire had long been dead, although Latin was still the Lingua Franca. But Anglo-Saxon writing and speech was what ordinary people used to communicate. When the French took over, they insisted that everyone speak French. Servants only spoke English to each other. And naturally, they had limited time to chew the fat. The complicated grammatical structure of Anglo-Saxon got mushed into a quicker, less nuanced speech. Anglo-Saxon wasn’t really taught; if a person went to be educated, they learned Latin or French. The Anglo-Saxon words that survive in English today are servants words. Swine for a live pig, but the Norman Pork for the meat (the only part that the Lord of the manor would see). Interestingly, all the cuss words survive.
Some of that Norman/Anglo-Saxon antagonism is played on in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. You’ve seen it, I imagine.
But English was saved, as a language, when Chaucer decided to write his “Canterbury Tales” in English. His patrons were Norman nobility, and there was a current of thought at the time which said that nothing poetic could come from this servant language. But the Canterbury Tales were written entirely in English, and this bold statement on the part of Chaucer encouraged many others to attempt the same. Shakespeare would never have written the way he did if not for Chaucer.
Of course, after Shakespeare all kinds of things happened. He was part of the renaissance, then the Age of Reason (aka the age of revolutions: American, French) happened. Then the Romantic period followed that, reacting to the cold idealization of reason. The Romantic period focused on the beauty of nature, and the transformative power of love and higher emotions. Nature elicited those emotions, so nature (with or without the concept of the Christian God, which had suffered some blows during that “reason” period), nature was raised as a saving mercy. The beauty of nature was a place of refuge and a reminder of the beauty of life, a sort of reassurance that good things endure. Thoreau, who wrote Walden, was on the tail end of the American Romantic period.
But then the INDUSTRIAL AGE began. English and American capitalists started raping and pillaging NATURE for fun and profit. Actually, all kinds of capitalists were doing it, not just the English-speaking ones.
Also, around this time, Darwin and other naturalists starting coming up with plausible theories that did away with the need for a benevolent deity. “Survival of the Fittest” was a philosophy that knocked the stuffing out of the idea of nature as a beautiful restorative refuge. Nature wanted to kill you, so that it could eat you. And if you couldn’t thrive, it was probably just as well that you died. One less weak genetic contributor.
How horrifying! You can imagine the slow, sick realization of all these things. The Victorian English ended up focusing primarily on appearances. Keeping a stiff upper lip, doing your duty for your country, and not upsetting society. America also had strong middle-class bourgeois tendencies. Certainly, we were happy to keep any new immigrant class “in their proper place”, often using the new Darwinistic philosophies to justify the mistreatment of other nationalities and the prejudicial racist treatment of African-Americans. “Nature” had made things hard, and the dominant culture took their dominant status as their natural (god-given?) right.
It was the “enlightened” and “modern” way of thinking. Do your duty, do the right thing for no other reason that that it was right. Until World War one happened. Then the “right thing” led to all kinds of wrong things. Thousands and thousands of good people, young upstanding soldiers died fighting for the meaningless cause of a few miles, a few feet of dirt.
The soldiers got really close to nature then. Sitting for months in their foxholes, seeing nothing but dirt, mud, excrement and the bodies of their mates decomposing nearby.
When it was all over, not much had changed but their attitudes. The “modern” way of thinking now meant utter disillusionment. It is no accident that the era was called “The Depression.” God was irrelevant, nature meaningless, and hope was scarce.
It was during this period of time that J.R.R. Tolkien conceived the story of Middle Earth.
You thought I was never gonna take it back around, didn’t you?
Now, most of what _I_ know about concerns the cultures that speak English–America and England. To have the full picture, I will eventually have to learn more about Germany. Because the Germans were REALLY the ones who pursued heroic legends and folks tales. They started it much sooner than the English did. Remember the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales? Now that people have started to study fairy tales more extensively, we have found that they are STUNNINGLY similar across cultures. I think I read that almost every culture has a Cinderella story, which is my personal favorite.
But the German stories were very close to English stories. We actually are a Germanic people, sharing a culture with the folks over there in what’s now called Germany. Wagner also took a well-known Norse legend and made it into his Ring Cycle.
Did I say “ring”? Why, yes I did! It’s the same ring from essentially the same story that Tolkien was ripping off of.
But let me focus on Tolkien again. He was a Medieval scholar at Oxford, and he was probably one of the weirdest guys there. He hung out with C.S. Lewis, of Narnia fame, while he was there. I”ve been to the pub in Oxford where they all hung out. They would have a pint and read their writing to each other. Tolkien was obsessed with the Medieval legends; he has also published a version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated for the Middle English. He knew all the stories live he was living in them.
I think he tried to live in them. I have read that he wrote the Lord of The Rings series in a made-up langauge (elfin, maybe?) and then TRANSLATED it into modern English.
But it is my opinion that he was trying to escape into another world. This one wasn’t offering much, and he wanted to retreat into a place where heroism and courage and honor still counted.
You notice, I”m sure, that one of the characteristics of a “fantasy novel” is that it takes place before any industrialism. About the most technological they get is a windmill.
And Tolkien was the one in the English language that created the foundation of a complicated fantasy world.His universe is extremely fleshed out. He is as obsessed as you want to be. And many of his fans today are quite obsessed.
But see, he wrote these books in a particular place in time.They were moderately popular in his time, because people felt an affinity for the world that he had created. The novels are complicated. They begin in the middle, the way life does. The characters do something that will have an effect beyond the scope of the novel. They have done something lasting and meaningful. Their heroism is not wasted or twisted into evil ends, as was the heroism of the WWI soldiers.
Basically, Tolkien was calling on the power of myth, the myths that had evolved and been honed through generations of wise and intuitive storytellers. He knew the myths of his culture forward and back; and he dramatized them anew for modern sensibilities.
Society was sick and needed to hear a story. The story they needed was essentially the one we needed all along. Moses, Homer, and wise clan leaders told the stories. Tolkien put it in the language modern readers could understand, with the structure we were used to now. We didn’t use poetic chants…We use dialogue and description.
We don’t use campfires so much. We use ink and paper.
As I said, the Lord of the Ring was moderately popular when Tolkien first published it. But it wasn’t until the hippies rediscovered it that it went platinum, so to speak.
The hippies were sick of the old ways, and they BELIEVED in a new order. Frodo’s heroism was possible for them, they knew it! Hope was everywhere, and so were the Hobbit books.
This is also when the fantasy book market opened up.
NOW, with all that intro
(I am nothing if not thorough)
I would like to propose some of the original myth stories to be read by a fan of fantasy.
Sigurd the Dragon Slayer
Tales of King Arthur
All fairy tales
the Grimm fairy tales
fairy tales of any culture, particularly of the culture you are from
(if you are an American mutt like me, go for ALL the cultures that are in your mix)
The Iliad & The Odyssey
the Aenid (although, that’s an artificial myth, just like Tolkien’s)
Greek Drama (yeah, like Oedipus Rex)
All these are a little difficult to engage, because they are not told in the way we are used to. We are accustomed to being entertained in certain set ways, for plots to move in certain patterns. These stories pre-date those templates.
But they are worth the trouble of reading. You will find that they stay on your mind in ways you didn’t expect. And they don’t go away. The images stay, working as metaphors that give you handles on life’s confusing moments.
That’s what they are supposed to do.
And for learning more about myths, as a topic, I cannot more highly recommend Joseph Campbell.