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J. R. R. Tolkien´s "The Lord of The rings" - Mythology, Philosophy, Allegory
"Facharbeit" - Essay by Manuel Steiner, written ´00 p.r.i.

V. The mythology of Middle-earth

The creation of mythology
What becomes evident from the above chapters, is that Tolkien would not have been satisfied writing normal mainstream-literature. He wanted to reawaken old traditions through another medium, involving myths; and facing criticism for being odd to the common unwritten laws of writing. Indeed, "Tolkien was not setting out to write ´literature´, [...]though he may, with growing certainty have been setting out to write mythology." (Moseley, 52; my italics). This included realigning the focus away from individual characters, as in cosmical myths people have to step behind and give the universal aspect the lead. It is like W. H. Auden said of Tolkien; that Shakespeare created characters and developments, whereas Tolkien created worlds and myths (comp. Murray, A. : Das Tolkien Quizbuch, 67. Klett-Cotta, o.J.,o.O.)

There were three main reasons for Tolkien doing so: his philological interest which drew him towards myth, his wish for expressing his poetry in an appropriate medium, and, not to the least extent, his intention of giving England, "the most demythologised country in Europe" (Shippey, 268), a mythology it never had over the past centuries, as a result of the Norman invasion in 1066 and the Industrial Revolution.

One aspect of The Lord of the Rings is what nowadays can be simply called Fantasy, the fiction of peoples, places, and circumstances unreal in the normal world. Most of this cosmology is found in folk- and fairy tales of older times, and also in the higher form of folk tradition, the Sagas, ballads and epics. Some of these sources which inspired Tolkien were undoubtedly the poem Pearl and Sir Orfeo, to a high degree Beowulf, the Icelandic Elder Edda, and also the Nibelungenlied (though not the Wagner version). In them, and in old folk ballads, the belief people had in creatures like dragons, elves and dwarves was reflected, and since Tolkien was a lore-master in this field, "the inconsistencies of those traditions may only have made Tolkien itch to create a Zusammenhang" (Shippey, 211).

Mythological resonances
He combined aspects of the respective creatures or phenomena to form the inhabitants and conditions of Middle-earth, sometimes developing something "from scrap", from a single word or idea - like the mentioning of orcs in Beowulf, a Mirkwood in the Lokasenna and Hlodhskvidha of the Poetic Edda, or the idea of a forest coming to life and attacking in Shakespeare´s MacBeth; which Tolkien brought to real movement, literally speaking, as he disliked the idea that the forest in the drama did not really charge. Elves are a blending of several sources, leaving out a bit from this one, for example the ´changeling´ idea, and adding a bit from that one, like the characteristics of the Celtic dwellers in the otherworld, the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Similarly, the dwarves are almost entirely inspired by those from the Edda, but passed their habit of turning to stone in the sun, which is a central trait of them there, on to the Trolls, and in turn got the Rumpelstiltskin-aspect of not telling anyone their real names, which can be found in Grimm´s fairy tales. (comp. Shippey, 106).

The human peoples were modelled after legends, too; but they also show - after all, they are men - traits common in reality and history. For example, the Rohirrim, of which Tolkien said they resembled the ancient English only in language and in the circumstances they are put in intransitively, are actually at least very close to those Anglo-Saxons of legend and poetry (comp. Shippey, 112). A certain aspect of them is their native ferocity, which led Shippey to claim "They behave like mail-shirted Red Indians." (Shippey, 115). One reason for this, as Shippey points out, may be the way a land shapes its inhabitants; as the real Anglo-Saxons, and also those of legend, were typically Germanic in not being a horse-people (Caesar already mentions their habit of dismounting from their horses in battle in his De Bello Gallico). In response, Gondor seems like a parallel to Ancient Rome - more powerful, more civilised and advanced, but also more decadent in virtue.

The mythical role of Gandalf is also composed of different aspects obvious from different points of view: his resurrection in splendour on the hill in Fangorn forest reminds as well of Jesus as it does of Balder, the Teutonic god of justice, mercy and light, whose death marks the beginning of the world´s end and whose resurrection starts a new age. Gandalf´s self-sacrifice in Moria is similarly ambivalent: like Jesus, who died for his people; but also like Odin, who hung himself on the top of the world-tree Yggdrasil, and gained the knowledge of the Runes afterwards, and who sacrificed one eye to gain insight into fate, like Gandalf returns from death with new power. The central item of the novel, the Ring, can be seen as having its idol in Draupnir, Odin´s Ring of Power; though that would include contributing allegorical character to The Lord of the Rings; even though there are actually quite many other magic rings in myths and tales.

Middle-earth has a mythology itself, too, which mainly appears in the various songs; such as the Fall of Gil-Galad, a promethean character like an elven Icarus, or the Story of Beren and Luthien.

Another blending of existing cultures and their myths is found in the often overlooked field of numerical symbolism. Many figures, from important issues to small details, are composed of one of the two most common "sacred" numbers: 7 in the Jewish-Christian, i.e. biblical, tradition, and 3, and its products, the important figure in Norse and Christian tradition alike. As Tolkien explained, the elves themselves preferred to reckon in 6´s and 12´s, which are 2 X 3 and 4 X 3 (comp. LOTR, 1080). In the novel, symbolic numbers are frequent, as one would expect for a mythical tale: there are three elven rings, nine (three times three) rings of the mortal, and, thus, Ringwraiths; nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring which departs from Rivendell; 27 (nine times three, three times three times three) steps up to the tower of Orthanc; and Denethor is the 27th ruling steward of Gondor. Concerning the number of seven, there are seven rings of the dwarves; seven Palantíri, the seeing stones of old; seven stars of Elendil, which are also found in Aragorn´s standard; and seven walls and towers of Minas Tirith. A combination of three and seven is the number of orcs slain by Gimli in the battle at Helm´s Deep: 42, two times three times seven, or six times seven. There are assuredly more examples of such kind, but in no way can one number or field of numbers actually be associated with a specific culture in Middle-earth alone.

The novel as a myth
The fact, which I hopefully have already made clear, that some topoi exist on certain mythological aspects among different perceptions, and between Tolkien´s Roman Catholic point of view and that of others; that there are "narrative elements in the Gospel which have analogues in other myths and other cultures" (Moseley, 27) which Tolkien was aware of, this fact is acknowledged by Tolkien through his belief that "myth, and structures of narrative[...]are essentially true, grounded in a greater Truth"(Moseley,27).

Tolkien said, "The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning." (Moseley, 25). Indeed, this is absolutely true to the fact that the mythology of The Lord of the Rings can never be grasped as a whole, because it is still distant from us, and we can simply never live in Middle-earth. What the novel has in it regarding myth and mythology, is but the "uncertainty and the glimpses of an alien world that defies understanding." (Shippey, 100; my italics). What one thinks to understand is thus mostly what seems familiar to him: most readers see resonances in myths they know (comp. Shippey, 102). It is the reader´s perception, too, which decides the level and style of a myth, or if and what mythical meaning something has. For some scenes and settings, different levels of suggestion are possible, from myth, behind which one suspects a greater meaning; low mimesis, when there is a faint air of a higher, yet unreachable concept; and irony, if you take things with uncertain background cum grano salis, with a bit of wit (comp. Shippey, 198).

In what way then is The Lord of the Rings as a whole a myth, for certainly it has its mythology? If you take Northrop Frye´s definition "the hero is a divine being and the story about him will be a myth" (Shippey, 190), then you can justify the mythic status of the novel when taking into account the divine aspects of Gandalf, as a Maia, a lesser kind of a god; the elves, who are immortal, and Frodo, who has traits fashioned after Jesus Christ: mercy and pity. Another criterion provided by Shippey is The Lord of the Rings as "a story embodying the deepest feelings of a particular society at a particular time" (Shippey, 184); and, defining the novel with a single expression, it would be a "myth against discouragement" or a "myth of the Deconversion" (Shippey, 184).

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