- Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle-earth
Of the various arguments aimed at discrediting Tolkien's work a priori, one of the hardest to refute runs something like this. "Tolkien imagined himself to be creating a comprehensive body of myth and legend, fashioning the mythology that England lacked. But such an enterprise can only lead to inauthentic results. All genuine myths and legends are the slowly-evolving product of a primitive community, emerging from its contest with nature, its terrors of the unknown and unexplained, its gradual growth in self-consciousness. They cannot be created, in the manner of the modern novel, by a solitary, highly-educated individual scribbling away in an attic or study. And Tolkien, himself a scholar of ancient writings, really should have known this better than most of us."
There are, broadly speaking, two ways of responding to this indictment. One response is to give some ground to it: to admit that individuals cannot literally create new myths, and to insist that Tolkien's narratives should be read as if they were indeed modern novels: that is, expressions through fiction of a personal, if in some ways representative, twentieth-century sensibility. Their "mythological" and "primitive" elements are, on this view, just part of the expressive symbolism, the objective correlative of emotion: what streetlamps were to T. S. Eliot, one might say, Silmarils were to Tolkien. As John Garth remarks in his recent biographical study, by drawing for artistic inspiration on the exotic language and remote legends of Finland, Tolkien was conforming to "the contemporary vogue for primitivism that attracted Picasso to African masks" (60). And Garth uses a further analogy from modern art to explain the aesthetic power of Tolkien's invented languages: "Tolkien tried to match sound and sense much as an expressionist painter might use colour, form and shade to evoke a mood. Derivation aside, only taste dictated that… eressea means 'lonely' or morwen 'daughter of the dark'" (62). Tolkien, on this theory, falls into place alongside his sophisticated contemporaries of the modern movement.
The second response attacks the critique head-on, denying, or at least minimizing, the alleged distance between Tolkien's creativity and the "genuine" myths and legends of pre-modern peoples. It points out that our received versions of the latter owe far more to their learned reconstructors (Lönnrot and the Grimms, or for that matter Virgil and the Beowulf-poet) than the general reader imagines, while Tolkien's own inventions can often be explained as reconstructions of pre-modern myths-that-might-have-been, or as the product of a kind of hermeneutic [End Page 268] dialogue between the moral, aesthetic and semantic norms of twentieth-century discourse and those of the remote past. Though The Silmarillion can never have the status of national epic for England that the Aeneid had for Rome, Tolkien does, in this view, take his place in a long series of patriotic artists who, preserving "the ancient pietas towards the past," and "using the materials … preserved from a day already changing and passing" (MC 33), create a redemptive vision for the present—the main difference between Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet being the far less "plentiful" (or at least, more remote and dispersed) materials at Tolkien's disposal.
One of the strengths of Garth's book is that, by examining in close focus the formative years of Tolkien's great literary project, he reinforces and clarifies this second defense, without (as we have seen) entirely neglecting the first. From the acquisition of Chambers's Etymological Dictionary at the age of eleven to the completion of "The Book of Lost Tales" in 1920, Garth follows Tolkien's creative development, interweaving it, and suggesting its connections, with his wartime experiences. The course of Tolkien's long philological-creative meditation on Cynewulf's enigmatic Earendel line—the most telling piece of evidence for the second defense—has never been more patiently and illuminatingly charted...