Tuesday, 08 May 2018 16:31

Bringing Ragnarok and My Debt to Tolkien

It's pretty much old hat for a writer of genre fiction to acknowledge a debt to J.R.R. Tolkien. Few works of science fiction or fantasy have or will continue to endure as well as The Lord of the Rings. But the very reason why Tolkien's work endures, I am convinced, is the fact that he wasn't, in point of fact, writing genre fiction. He was writing mythology.

These days, mythology has a bit of a bad name. A "myth", in common use, is a bad thing. A mistaken belief. A distraction from truth, which in our age of uncritical scientism is mistakenly defined as the primary object of scientific inquiry (it isn't, but that's for another blogpost).

But there is another way to look at mythology. For most of human history, the only way we could reliably transmit information about the past to future generations was to tell stories about how the past (supposedly) was. And by telling stories, I mean actual oral transmission: someone puts together a story, and tells it to listeners. Before the invention of writing, this is all you've got to work with if you have any interest in remembering the past.

And remembering the past is one of humanity's most basic activities. It is only through obtaining information about what was that allows us to examine what is and try to estimate what will be. Which is a rather important survival skill, if you think about it. A form of basic, innate, heuristic science, that helps humans make (one hopes) reasonably better decisions about where to expend energy in order to improve odds of survival. 

There is a powerful view, most potently expressed in the field of comparative mythology, that humans telling stories about their ancestors is essentially the earliest form of history. Witzel's fascinating book, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, actually argues that all humans appear to share a set of story components, mythemes, that repeat across cultural and lingustic groups throughout history. This isn't to say that we all share the same mythology, but that there are commonalities between different cultures' myths that imply some common origin deep in our collective past, going all the way back to our origins as a species in East Africa. And like language, there are markers that can be used to trace how we got from a hypothetical original world-myth to the diversity of manifestations of myth that persist throughout the world today.

In this view, any culture's oral histories start with a set of basic stories, that individual groups tell and re-tell, adding and shifting and altering to suit present circumstances. It is only with the advent of writing that the pressure to develop and maintain a fixed canon begins, and the idea that stories are fixed and unchangeable becomes viable. But before that, what you have is each generation of story-tellers inheriting a set of stories, then adapting them to maintain their relevance.

In most cultures, this naturally takes the form of people telling stories about the supposed exploits of their great-great grandparents. The Icelandic Sagas offer a case in point. Iceland, like Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Madagascar, was only relatively recently settled by humans, circa 1000 AD. In Europe, this was a unique time in history: writing was spreading through the continent as Christians sought to convert the pagans and establish rule over them. For the first time, the old Norse had the opportunity to write down their oral histories, and one particular Icelander, Snorri Sturleson, decided to write down the oral histories (thus providing us with most of what we know about Norse mythology). Both the Norse Mythology (I really like this website, Norse Mythology for Smart Peopleand many of the more narrowly-focused Sagas that tell the stories of... yep, the ancestors (and original colonizers) of people living in Iceland when Snorri was writing his books.

The Icelandic Sagas, though you obviously have to parse much of what is said, given that Snorri was a Christian and wrote from a Christian perspective, basically present the original founders of Icelandic society as semi-legendary people, generally tougher and more noble than anyone living in the present. And they, in their turn, were said to be descended from people who were semi-divine, that is, children of a union (lost in the deeps of time) between a human and a god or other deity. If that sounds familiar, it should: many mythological systems do the same thing. Hell, in Japan, where they still have an Emperor, the royal family is explicitly said to trace its heritage back to deities of myth. In Japan, you had better respect the Emperor, because the guy is literally a descendent of a god.

Sturleson, Christianized as he was, actually laid out a scholarly theory on why the Norse myths and legends he was writing down seemed similar, in may respects, to the Greek and Roman myths and legends that accompanied Christianity as it spread north to Scandinavia. He argued that the oral histories of the Norse were actually themselves derived from the Greeks, with the mythological figures Odin, Freyja, Thor, Idunn, and all the rest being refugees from the downfall of Troy, and thus identical with many figures familiar from Homer's Iliad. He was wrong, of course, but there's no way he could have known: only the efforts of generations of mythologists, looking at linguistic and archaelogical evidence accumulated over centuries, have shown that, in fact, the Greek and Norse mythologies themselves are merely individual branches of a far older and deeper mythological tradition associated with the migration of the Indo-European peoples, who also ended up making it into Northern India thousands of years ago, linking the Vedic mythology and Hindu pantheon to the Norse and Greek traditions (in the way way back).

But to get back on point: mythology is best seen as a sort of first draft of history. It tells half-remembered stories from the past, with the express purpose of having relevance to people living in the present time.

That relevance hinges on something else, very fundamental, that mythology does (has probably always done): it assigns certain traits and behaviors to certain characters within the myth or legend, creating archetypes that move through the story saying and doing things that are supposed to serve as guides for proper behavior in all times, past, present, and future. Mythology isn't about simple transmission of stale facts through time, it is inherently about laying out moral and ethical codes for the community that is associated with the mythology.

And there is where the miscategorization of Tolkien's work as mere genre fiction does a serious disservice to the author's achievements and intent. Tolkien was explicitly writing a mythology for his tribe, the English people. He did that because he perceived in English culture a lack of rootedness, an inability to know who they were and what they stood for as a people.

The Lord of the Rings in particular, because it is a narrative (unlike the Silmarillion, which is straight-up myth in the Homeric mode), expressly describes a group of people with near-legendary abilities who are faced with fundamental moral choices. Throughout the story, we see characters making pronouncements about what is right in terms of behavior and belief. In many ways, the story itself is a carrier for a deeper philosophical discussion about how to be in a diverse world fundamentally endangered by the fact that humans are always at risk of pursuing power, which in the end destroys them body, mind, and soul.

There's actually a far deeper philosophy at work in Tolkien's legendarium. He hints at it in his letters, where at one point he tells his son Christopher Tolkien that he, in fact, sees himself as a sort of anarchist: he believes in monarchy, but elected monarchy, which is reflected in Aragorn's election by popular acclaim to become King of Gondor at the end of the Lord of the Rings. This isn't the sort of anarchy most of us living today have been trained to see as the only form of anarchy in existence (bewhiskered bomb-throwers, as Tolkien described those of this mode), but the more traditional form of anarchy, that simply rejects the presumption that anyone deserves power, or that being granted rule by a people also implies that the ruler then obtains permanent authority over them, and has the right to demand obedience. Tolkien believed very strongly in right and wrong (he was a firm Catholic, after all), but not that those in power had any special authority to determine such matters. Kingship is fundamentally limited in Middle Earth, and he goes through great pains to show exactly how those with power usually end up abusing it, and those they are supposed to serve.

I could go on (and on, and on, as Tolkien and I are akin from afar in many ways, not least in that we're both members of the Anglo-Saxon tribe, and believe it to be just one tribe among many with no inherent claim to being special), but for now suffice to say that as someone who is also writing mythology (merged with science fiction, for fun) I am also writing a story about semi-legendary beings who have to make hard moral choices about their actions. And I am also writing a story that deeply engages with philosophy, and embeds anarchist thinking throughout the narrative.

Most people don't realize the true depth of Tolkien's work at first glance. It has only been re-reading most of his work every couple years that has given me insight into the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish. Because, thankfully, he appreciated subtlety. Making art that doesn't have to scream I'm art! Pay attention to ME! I can only hope to be half as subtle when it comes to my own attempt to discuss morality and philosophy in the context of a grand adventure. Because in the end, a story has to be fun. And should be.