The making of Tolkien's Mythology
January 24, 2006
Tolkien and Lewis
Motives: Why did Tolkien decide to write the Silmarillion in the first place?
Tolkien thought that England didn't have a myth of its own. Beowulf, one of the myths
associated with Briton, was a Danish myth, not native to English soil. Another mythology
associated with England was the mater of Arthur. But although that had originated in England,
the French had taken it and changed it almost beyond recognition. It also had Christian themes
lacing through it, which he thought disqualified it as a mythology.
The Finnish had published the Kalevala by this time, which gave their land an identity.
He wanted to give England a mythic culture equal to Greece or Scandinavia. But because of the
way that England had settled, it was impossible for one to have grown naturally. So he decided
to write one to dedicate to England.
Models: What did he model it after?
Tolkien had read the Kalevala, Beowulf, and the mater of Arthur. He wanted to create
something that felt like it could have existed, such as these stories did.
Points of View: Who was telling the tales? What was their perspective?
Tolkien himself couldn't really decide who was telling the tales. In 1956 Tolkien wrote to
I do not think that even Power or Domination is the real center of my story. It
provides the theme of a War…but that is mainly a "setting" for characters to show
themselves. The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and
difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a
race "doomed" not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete. (Interrupted
But later around 1958 he wrote:
The mythology must actually be a "Mannish" affair…. What we have in the
Silmarillion ect. are traditions…handed on by Men in Numenor and later in Middle-earth
(Arnor and Gondor); but already far back-from the first association of the Dunedain and
Elf-friends with the Eldar in Beleriand-blended and confused with their own Mannish
myths and cosmic ideas. (Interrupted 47)
He even wrote a story that deals with the problem of whose perspective it really is. Athrabeth is
a story in which an Elf and a Human discuss life and why humans die and Elves don't. And what
we learn from this tale is that the perspective that the myth is in depends on who is telling the
tale. If an Elf is telling the tale, then the perspective is from the elfish perspective. If a human, it
is from a human perspective
The tradition: What was the traditional form that myths came in?
Myths are oral tales that were written down. And therein lies a problem for Tolkien. He
wanted to create a mythos that felt real, but because he was writing it down for the first time, he
had a disadvantage that the creators of the mythos he was copying didn't have. He needed to
create stories about the oral traditions and about the older manuscripts that scribes had copied the
stories down on to give it the same feel as the ones that he had read.
The artifice: How was he going to get it published, and get people to care about it?
The first idea he worked with was 'Eriol the Mariner,' who would journey to Numenor
(or england) and write down the stories of an ancient race before they died. But Eriol turned into
Aelfwine and Tolkien couldn't think of a way to sell his framed mythos. So when C. S. Lewis
proposed his sci-fi challenge, Tolkien was willing to take him up on it. C. S. Lewis was to write
a space travel story, and Tolkien a time travel one.
Tolkien decided that the way to go was to have his time travel happen between Avatars,
and he still was going to use the 'Eriol the Mariner' idea, but instead of having Numenor in
England, he was going to move it to Atlantis, and have the drowning of Atlantis be the reason for
the race dying. And to get the stories to the England of today, he decided to have the memories
of the earlier race locked in the racial memories of Englishmen. The way he was going to unlock
the memories was with cataclysmic events that occurred at the same time to both of the 'avatars'
etc. (And the way he was going to get from a flat earth to a round one was the disappearance of
Atlantis would cause the world to bend, except for one road that stayed straight.)
While in the midst of writing this story, his publisher requested a sequel to the Hobbit,
and he never truly picked up where he had left off.
Unfinished Symphony: He never finished it. Is it stronger or weaker because of that?
The way he created his mythos follows his creation story of Eru and the angels who sang
the world into existence. In the myth Eru is interrupted twice, and finally calls everything to a
halt, having never finished the song. While Tolkien never finished his mythos, it doesn't mean
it's any weaker for being unfinished. If anything it is stronger for its weaknesses because it gives
it more life, and it seems more realistic because of them. If anything, it is when Tolkien was
trying his hardest to make it seem real when he failed the most at what he was trying to