Tolkien’s Mythic History: How Middle Earth Launched the Fantasy Genre
Few stories have become cultural icons the way J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has. I remember reading my dad’s copy of The Hobbit when I was seven, and then purchasing a big, black, 2nd Edition omnibus from a book warehouse sale when I was ten. In high school, in homage to the then-recently released movie of The Two Towers, my friends and I created our own independent fantasy film. The beauty of the films and our love for the books inspired us to try our own hand at cinematic storytelling. The current hype over Peter Jackon’s recently released installment of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies makes this celebrity status seem new. But in reality, Tolkien was a huge hit when his books were first printed in the mid-1950s.
Before the movies, before the Pez dispensers and Extended Editions and reproduction swords, the tale of Frodo’s journey found and touched people around the world. It marked the beginning of fantasy’s admittance to the mainstream (and resulted in many Middle-Earth knock-offs before finding more original footing.) It solidified the appearance of and cultural expectations for many fantasy races, most notably elves and dwarves. (Before Tolkien, elves were tiny, mischievous enchanted folk more akin to Tinkerbell than the grave and beautiful immortals we now know and love.) The Lord of the Rings also saw the rise of modern fandom, of costumes and conventions, filksongs and fanzines, and will probably remain a classic tale for decades to come. The response to Tolkien’s work over the years has been enormous, although being a cult figure was something he was never quite comfortable with. In his own Forward to the 2nd Edition, Tolkien admitted, “I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues.”
This is interesting to me because, as much as I enjoy The Lord of the Rings, I never responded to the books with the fervor that some felt or continue to feel. In fact, I found the movies a much more entertaining and exciting way to experience the story, changes notwithstanding. I remember enjoying The Hobbit more, perhaps because it was a more straightforward children’s adventure story rather than a more sinister foray into the struggle between good and evil that is present in its sequel. The Lord of the Rings was never meant to be a children’s story. In fact, the entire world was created so that Tolkien could play around with the Elvish language he invented. Tolkien was a linguist and historian, not a fantasy novelist, and I don’t feel like he ever pretended otherwise. The story of The Lord of the Rings is very simple and archetypal. That isn’t a bad thing; archetypes are vital to our never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the world around us and our place in it. Stories are an integral part of our search for meaning. A relatively simple story is often more true and effective than a complex one.
Tolkien was very insistent that The Lord of the Rings not be read as an allegory, a desire I find commendable. He said, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical…I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I must prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” There are few things more annoying than having people read all sorts of meaning into your work well all you wanted to do was “to try [your] hand at a really long story.”
But regardless of the intentions of the author, readers will still find all kinds of meaning that were never consciously intended to be there. That’s part of the wonder of reading; as we each bring our own experiences and values to the work, the work can reflect, refute, or reform our own beliefs and biases. It is unavoidable. As Tolkien was shaped by his experiences while writing, our reading is influenced by our lives. Some will read Christian imagery into The Lord of the Rings, others will find parallels to the World Wars, and others will just find a straightforward fantasy romp. At the same time, some will find The Lord of the Rings the most inspiring and influential book they have ever read. Others will like it, enjoy it, but will not be deeply moved by it. Others despise it and can’t see what the fuss is about. All of these interpretations are correct…depending on the reader. The perspectives are endless.
My own view of The Lord of the Rings regards it as a mythic history. A legend, if you will. For me, The Lord of the Rings reads like a history book of another world. The language is very formal, almost archaic, giving it a feeling of depth and age without being very immediate or exciting. The language of modern novels facilitates a deeper emotional connection between reader and character, but The Lord of the Rings is a historical milieu story. My overall response to the story was interest, but I felt very little connection to the characters. It seemed like they had been real people and I was reading their exploits, like George Washington or one of Rome’s emperors, but I never got a sense of who they actually were. For me, it’s more about exploring the history and myth of the world rather than the people living in it. I feel like an observer, not a participant.
And there is nothing wrong with that because that’s the kind of story I believe Tolkien was trying to tell. The Hobbit was written as a gift for his children, which is why it reads like an elaborate fairy tale. The Lord of the Rings was made to expand on Middle-Earth to give his Elves a place to live and practice their language. I personally believe the work that he cared about the most and invested the most care was The Simarillion, the history of his beloved Elves. That is a book I have not yet explored, since I will need to be in a more educational and historical mindset rather than looking for escape or entertainment, which is what I’m usually doing when I read.
As a lover of fantasy, I am forever in Tolkien’s debt for bringing the genre out of the childish realm of fairy tales to a receptive readership as a legitimate form of storytelling. I can deeply appreciate the craftsmanship and detail present in Tolkien’s work. As a writer, I am impressed and thrilled by it, and wish to emulate that kind of care with my own novels. Unfortunately, as a reader, I cannot become immersed in Middle-Earth. The presentation of the characters is too flat, the plot too black-and-white, the language too formal for me to form the kind of bond that I seek with fictional characters. For me, the movies provided the emotional connection that I needed, and now I actually enjoy the books more for it. The strength of The Lord of the Rings lies in its use of classic mythology, fairytales, legends, and language in previously unseen manner to create a seminal fantasy novel. And I believe that strength will allow The Lord of the Rings to live on with its readers for generations to come.
By Hikari Katana