- Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader
This volume is the second in a series of three essay collections with the first Tolkien the Medievalist (2003) and the third Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages (2005). This second collection is divided into five sections and contains eighteen essays, Jane Chance's introduction (1–16), together with a bibliography (305–319), a contributor's list (321–325), and an index (327–340). Four contributions originally appearing in journals during the 1980s and early 1990s have been newly revised for this collection. Ten others emerged from papers delivered in 2002 in sessions devoted to "Tolkien and the Emergence of Myth" at the 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. John R. Holmes's essay grew out of a paper delivered the following year at the Medieval Congress at which five sessions were devoted to "Tolkien and the Discourses of Medieval Culture." Tom Shippey presented an earlier incarnation of [End Page 205] his essay in a lecture at Rice University in 1996; as did Michael D. C. Drout at Bucknell University in 2003.
The first section "Backgrounds: Folklore, Religion, Magic and Language" opens with Michaela Baltasar's "J. R. R. Tolkien: A Rediscovery of Myth." In her essay, Baltasar stresses a theme treated by other contributors to this collection—Tolkien's belief in the creative, generative potency of language. Citing both Tolkien's "Beowulf" lecture and his essay "On Fairy-stories" she considers The Lord of the Rings in the context of competing theories of myth held by two of Tolkien's distinguished predecessors—Friedrich Max Müller and Andrew Lang. Tolkien opposed both the methodologies and goals of these scholars, taking issue with their understanding of myth's fundamental nature and its function. He objected to treating myth as a means to an end, valuable only to the extent that it illuminated something other than itself. For Müller the philologist, a myth's value resided in its power to explain surviving linguistic elements now bereft of their original cultural contexts. For Lang the folklorist, a myth's value lay in the insights it offered into ancient, remote cultures. Baltasar believes Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to demonstrate myth's true nature and proper function. Within his fictive world myth is alive and present, something characters can experience directly. It is as Baltasar asserts "born of language." Further, a spiritual yearning catalyzes myth-making, especially the human desire to recover the wholeness and felicity enjoyed before man's fall from grace. Tolkien's assertion that spiritual needs impelled the creation of myth was at odds with the view of Andrew Lang who held that religious meaning is seldom detected in mythology.
In her essay "Light from an Invisible Lamp: Natural Religion in The Lord of the Rings," Catherine Madsen seeks to account for the power of The Lord of the Rings to evoke what she calls "religious feeling" while it resists explicitly referencing Roman Catholic teaching and traditional practices to do so. Insofar as the Free Peoples of Middle-earth follow a religion, Madsen suggests that they practice a form of "natural religion," a faith by which men can attain a knowledge of God, and moral standards for themselves through the exercise of reason and close contemplation of their world without the aid of divine revelation. As characters contemplate the landscape and inhabitants of Middle-earth in these special "moments of attention" they gain spiritual strength and renewed hope and, she argues, perform what Tolkien describes as the activity of "Recovery" in his essay "On Fairy-stories." Further, she discovers a parallel between the characters' work of Recovery in these "moments" and the philosophy of "Elementalism" developed by the novelist, poet and essayist John Cowper Powys. In his A Philosophy of Solitude (1933), Powys argues that the solitary individual's meditation on natural landscape features can [End Page 206] reveal spiritual truths, opening his/her capacity for pity and kindness, virtues of the greatest importance to both...