• Keith Mathison

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythopoeia

In my class on the Great Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the works I have students read for the first day is Tolkien's poem "Mythopoeia"in the book Tree and Leaf (the word "mythopoeia" means myth-making). The poem was written following an evening conversation involving Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson.

According to Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, this conversation took place on the evening of September 19, 1931 (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, pp. 150). Lewis had already moved from atheism to theism at this point, but he had not yet been converted to Christianity. At one point, the conversation moved to the topic of myths at which point Lewis said, "But myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver" (p. 151). Tolkien proceeded to explain his own understanding of the nature of myth and how myths can reflect truth. Lewis began to grasp what Tolkien was saying and responded, "You mean that the story of Christ is simply a true myth. a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened?" (p. 151). According to Tolkien, that discussion led to his writing of the poem "Mythopoeia" as a letter to Lewis (Tree and Leaf, pp. 54–5). Twelve days after the late-night discussion, Lewis wrote a letter to a friend saying that he had been converted to Christianity, and that his discussion with Tolkien and Dyson had a lot to do with his conversion (p. 152).

The poem Mythopoeia, also called "Philomythus to Misomythus" (myth lover to myth hater) is a poetic version of what Tolkien expressed to Lewis in that late night conversation. The poem begins with a rejection of a reductionistic materialism that views all of nature as the movement of atoms. For example, materialists look at stars in one way:

A star's a star, some matter in a ball

compelled to courses mathematical

amid the regimented, cold, inane,

where destined atoms are each moment slain.

Tolkien argues, on the other hand, that nature is a grand creation and that nature, knowledge, and language are intertwined. Such a view of the world reshapes how we look at things such as stars:

He sees no stars who does not see them first

of living silver made that sudden burst

to flame like flowers bencath 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 then addresses a topic that he explores much more thoroughly in his essay "On Fairy Stories," namely the idea of man as a sub-creator. Tolkien believes that one way in which man fulfills the dominion mandate is to image the Creator by being a sub-creator.

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.

Tolkien then proceeds to list a series of 'beatitudes' that express one of the purposes of such sub-creations:

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate

that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate . . .

Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build

their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,

and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,

a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things not found within recorded time.

It is not they that have forgot the Night,

or bid us flee to organized delight,

in lotus-isles of economic bliss

forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss

(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,

bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

Tolkien is pointing out that the makers of myth are not the ones who are escapists. The makers of myth are the ones who remind us that evil is real and must be fought. The true escapists are the ones who are constantly distracted by machine-made consumer goods. The works of the myth-makers actually inspire resistance to evil.

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,

and those that hear them yet may yet beware.

They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,

and yet they would not in despair retreat,

but oft to victory have tuned the lyre

and kindled hearts with legendary fire,

illuminating Now and dark Hath-been

with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

Tolkien wants to be among those whose works inspire courage and faith.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing

and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.

I would be with the mariners of the deep

that cut their slender planks on mountains steep

and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,

for some have passed beyond the fabled West.

I would with the beleaguered fools be told,

that keep an inner fastness where their gold,

impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring

to mint in image blurred of distant king,

or in fantastic banners weave the sheen

heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

This reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's famous words about fairy tales. Responding to a letter saying that fairy tales should not be read to children because fairy tales can frighten them, Chesterton responds: "Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear."

Having been inspired by such tales, Tolkien refuses to give in to the darkness:

I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,

nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

The last lines of the poem express Tolkien's conviction that in Paradise, the work of human sub-creators, the work of poets, will not end, but it will no longer be hampered by evil. Instead, it will perfectly reflect the truth.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

Then looking on the Blessed Land 'twill see

that all is as it is, and yet made free:

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,

garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

not in God's picture but in crooked eyes,

not in the source but in malicious choice,

and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.

In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.

I think this short poem is a helpful introduction into the mind of Tolkien. It expresses his antipathy toward purely materialistic views of the world. He reminds us that there is something more than matter and energy. In this sense, he believes that myths can help re-enchant our view of the world. They do so because they help us look at the world through different (non-materialistic) eyes. In this way, he believes that we can be reminded that the world and all that is in it was created by God.

Image by Couleur from Pixabay