- The Evidence of Things Not Seen:Critical Mythology and The Lord of the Rings
Having set myself a task, the arrogance of which I fully recognized and trembled at: being precisely to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own: it is a wonderful thing to be told that I have succeeded, at least with those who still have the undarkened heart and mind.—J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter from 1956 (Letters 231)
The mythic nimbus around The Lord of the Rings has been strongly insisted upon by its author, many critics, and thousands of ordinary readers. Together with the novel's mass appeal and the many-headed culture industry it has begotten, this would seem to make it a useful site for an analysis of what the "mythic" signifies in contemporary culture, especially given its historical appearance after the monuments of high modernism such as Ulysses but before "Magic Realism" and full postmodernity. With the exception of comparative religious studies, however, the question of how the mythic can be accommodated to the other categories of contemporary theory has never been satisfactorily addressed, at least partly because of lack of interest. From the high-water mark of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), we have reached a point where at least one eminent scholar of religion can ask "Is Myth Obsolete?" (Ellwood). Any analysis of the mythic has to acknowledge that it is nowadays most often used as a means to mark the distance of a given text or phenomenon from its cultural context rather than any useful connections to it. Because it is "mythic," therefore, sympathetic critics can locate The Lord [End Page 129] of the Rings outside the familiar frameworks of post-war fiction. Because it is "mythic," its immense popularity can be read as a sign that it gives its readers access to something that contemporary culture usually represses. To study this novel in these terms is to analyze one of the most widely-articulated responses to it and, simultaneously, to leave the orthodox terms of critical analysis behind. This seems odd in a postmodern critical environment which is neither shy about commercial success nor subject to a restrictive hierarchy of critical methods, especially given that this disruptive power of the mythic was harnessed by many mid-century artists and intellectuals. Just a few years before The Lord of the Rings was published, Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment appeared with the thesis that turning points in the intellectual history of the West often coincide with a futile repression of the mythic (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic 24, 1–25). Though it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar texts, they both share a fascination with myth and the historical forces that try to replace it with rational discourse. Read in this context, it becomes clear that The Lord of the Rings' tremendous staying power in mythic terms is derived from the way it appears to resist the repression of the mythic in modern life while actually embodying it. The seductive appeal of a naïvely "timeless" form of myth is very present in the text but, as all too few critics have realized, only as a temptation that we must either voluntarily or forcibly forgo.
The main problem with the term "mythic" in general is its diffuseness. More than most categories, its definition is reinvented with each application. There is no general consensus about the limits of its signification and very little regret about this state of affairs. The term is applied to everything from the religious narratives of archaic societies to the ideological justifications for contemporary social arrangements to deliberate lies, and the contradictions inherent in this multiplicity do not seem to interfere with each specific use.1 There have been several unheeded calls to establish some terminological common ground but, for this issue, rigorously identifying the problem does not suggest any workable approaches to solving it. In any case, as Ivan Strenski has observed, too many scholars are content to remain "intentionally innocent of theory and satisfied to employ 'myth' [. . .] without necessarily having to probe conceptual foundations" (2...