First, some business: The Best Picture Project is temporarily on hold, thanks to library patrons abusing the few copies of THE DEER HUNTER held by the Vancouver Public Library. I’m second in line on hold for the single remaining (and hopefully functional) copy, so it could be a couple weeks before I pick this up again. Have no fear – I’m not giving up! The 1970s are almost over and the grand epics of the 1980s beckon temptingly. And I’d just like to say here, as a little PSA: Be nice to library materials! If something doesn’t work or is damaged, take it to the desk and have it pulled from circulation.
So, for the moment, I must come up with other ideas of things to write about. *strikes tragic pose*
Actually, it’s not so hard. There’s a topic that’s been buzzing around my head for about two months now, prompted by a paper I wrote about BEOWULF and the BEOWULF manuscript for my History of the Book class last term.
I’ve heard some remark that England has no distinctively English folklore. While I find that unlikely – it seems more probable that the folklore either vanished from the record or has been conflated with other European lore – it is true that I know of no English mythology that is distinctively and purely English in the way other story sets clearly belong to the Irish, Native American/First Nations tribes, or areas of China (to select examples out of the air).
During my undergraduate degree, I did an independent study course on the development of English-language folklore, mythology, and fairy tales. Half of the course focused on the most famous fairy tale cycles, such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Cupid and Psyche, and so forth. The idea there was to look at lots of different versions of a given story, from all over the world and many time periods, to look at how the stories change to reflect changing social norms. That’s a whole other set of blog posts.
The first half of the course looked at what some see as the consciously fabricated English mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS and some associated texts, from C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA to BEOWULF. Tolkien himself reportedly felt rather frustrated by his audience reading too much into LOTR. I’m in agreement with him to some extent, but I can also see how the book can be read to communicate different messages. Perhaps the difference lies in how the interpretation is phrased – if one says that Tolkien “meant” one set of symbols over another, I take issue with that, because it seems like a pretty arrogant way to approach a book. We can’t know what he meant to do, other than what he said he meant or did not mean to do. On the other hand, if one phrases the interpretation as just that, an interpretation based on one’s own interests and context, then I’m interested.
LOTR can be read as an environmental treatise lamenting the industrialization and consequent destruction of the idyllic English countryside represented by the Shire. It can be read as a disturbing premonition of WWII and the following nuclear age. It can be read as a bittersweet portrayal about how an older and perhaps wiser generation (Elves) must eventually let go of the younger folk (Men), departing from the area of action to let the new generation make and solve its own mistakes.
Given Tolkien’s personal background as a specialist in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon literature like BEOWULF, LOTR can take on another hue. Middle-Earth becomes a map of Europe, with the different kingdoms and races perhaps representing different areas of that continent. The Rohirrim are clearly Scandinavian. And of course, the hobbits become the plain, simple English country folk. Furthermore, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is meant to tell the story of the end of the Third Age of Middle-Earth. It’s the end of the age of the Elves, who depart for the Grey Havens and return to Valinor along with the Ring-Bearers and remaining Wizards (Istari). Tolkien gives us a reason to understand why magic no longer exists in our world – for he shows how our world IS Middle-Earth. Going by his timeline, we are living in the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, the Age of Men.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS is about the end of the Elves, the rise of Men, and so on, but it’s a hobbit-driven book. In some ways, the book is about the three hobbits left behind at the end of the story, especially Sam. So it’s a story of an Everyman as represented by Samwise the Hobbit, who in turn is a representative of a certain stereotype of the English peasantry. LOTR, therefore, can be read as an entirely fabricated English mythology.
There are, of course, myths associated with England. The most famous mythological figure has to be Arthur, closely followed by his compatriots – Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Percival, and all the rest. There is also Beowulf himself, and Lear. And, of course, the mythologized stories of long-ago kings – Alfred and the cakes, Canute and the incoming tide, Lady Godiva. The fascinating thing about these myths is that while they are almost certainly not true stories, there seems to be insufficient information to disprove them.
Arthur, Beowulf, Lear, Alfred, Godiva – they all play important roles in determining what it means to be English. Mythology is an important factor in determining national identity, and even though these stories are not necessarily factual, they are true in other ways. The stories change as the nation changes and re-evaluates its identity, and the stories also rise and fall in popularity in conjunction with the nation’s history. Henry VII of England named his eldest son Arthur, “in honor of the English race” and in acknowledgement of his own Welsh heritage. It was a symbolic way of indicating that the (arguably usurping) Tudor house would re-establish an English golden age. Which it did, under Elizabeth I – not really what Henry VII would have intended. Anglo-Saxon studies experienced a revival of popularity in the seventeenth century, just as England was struggling with the roles of kings and people, convulsing with civil war, and solidifying its domination of the seas.
If you’ll bear with me in the next few weeks, I’d like to go into this a bit. I’d like to post my BEOWULF paper (in sections, of course), partly because I’m proud of it, and partly because it’s relevant to these thoughts buzzing around my head.