Tolkien and Myth: Are We Missing The Point?

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).

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia

Last week I drove to Mecosta, Michigan for an ISI leadership retreat at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.  Twenty-one students gathered in that venerable place for a unique time of thoughtful lectures and lively conversations.  Despite my car’s spontaneous breakdown at the end, I had a delightful week.

Two of the retreat’s lectures were given by Dr. Bradley Birzer of Hillsdale College, with an emphasis on Tolkien and myth in contemporary culture.  Being an ISI event, we naturally received free copies of Dr. Birzer’s book on the topic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth.  In the book, Birzer articulates Tolkien’s deep conviction that myth is a critical element of culture, a lens through which the poet reveals transcendent truths to his audience.

Myth, Tolkien thought, can convey the sort of profound truth that was intransigent to description or analysis in terms of facts and figures, and is therefore a more powerful weapon for cultural renewal than is modern rationalist science and technology.  Myth can emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as well as the sacramental nature of life.

Myths, in the best sense, can thus “give us a glimpse of the truth, beauty, and excellence that lies beyond and behind our tangible world,” says Birzer.  However, Tolkien proved cautious about the use of myths and the mediums by which they are transmitted.

Tolkien concluded [that] one should leave fantasy to the mental imagination and to the written word.  To take fantasy to the animated visual arts, such as with motion pictures or the theater, must result in either ‘silliness or morbidity.’

Does Tolkien’s critique hold true today?  One could argue that more people are being exposed to myths through film and television than ever before; audiences who never pick up 400-page-novels now know the journeys of dwarves and elves, of hobbits and a ring.  Unfortunately, such exposure does not always ensure the transmission of underlying meanings and messages.  Instead, rather than imparting transcendent truths, have such stories been abused for simple entertainment and mass profit?  Judging by the “silliness or morbidity” found in most modern entertainment, Tolkien may have a fair point.