From Times Higher Education Supplement

Wizard guides out of our Middle-earth

Verlyn Flieger
03 August 2001

Fantasy worlds of good and evil, black and white, provide a balance lacking in life. Hence our insatiable appetite for Harry Potter, TheLord of the Rings, Star Wars et al, says Verlyn Flieger.
In an age of impoverished belief, emphatic materialism, cultural fragmentation and erosion of assumed values, the increasing popularity of mythic fantasy in books and films should come as no surprise. Myth is what connects us to the world around us. It shows us our place in the scheme of things. Even though (or perhaps because) it now comes more often packaged as fantastic fiction than as creed, it seems we still reach out for myth. The fantastic mode, in the past more often employed in books for children than for adults, seems to free authors from the constraints of observable reality precisely to comment on that reality and enable us to see afresh. Four decades or so ago J. R. R. Tolkien found it expedient to declare that his books were not intended for children; but that if he had not written them in the style of children’s books, people would have thought he was “loony”.

That some 40 years later the perceived problem no longer exists is almost certainly due in large measure to Tolkien himself and to the readers who found in his work something they had been looking for without realising it. Paradoxically, Tolkien satisfied a hunger that no one knew existed and at the same time created an appetite for more. That hunger is for mystery and magic in a world where virtual reality has become an IOU for real enchantment. Our ever-accelerating, technology-oriented, computer-chip culture has created a need for its opposite, something intangible but not imperceptible, an element missing from modern life and sought in a certain kind of literature. This is what fuels the inter-galactic special-effects films, the ever-more fantastic role-playing games, the endlessly proliferating fantasy trilogies.

The enormous popularity and commensurately profitable sales of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, together with the undeniable, enduring popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, might cause one to ponder how what used to be called fantasy became mainstream fiction and whether the mainstream has changed direction or fantasy has been charted inaccurately all along. Authors such as Tolkien and Rowling – and C. S. Lewis and Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner and E. Nesbit among others – once categorised as writers of “children’s” or “young adult” literature, easily cross the line into “adult” literature. Or perhaps they demonstrate the obvious fact that there is no longer (or perhaps never was) a line. The platitude that “we are all children at heart” will not do. The desire for fantasy is no more typical of children than of adults. The audience for the above-cited writers and others like them is not characterised by age but by taste, and the taste is shared by more – and more disparate – readers than might have been supposed.

When the super-sophisticated Noël Coward died in 1973, he had The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit’s classic “children’s” book, open on his bedside table. Likewise, the extraordinary, largely unpromoted success of The Lord of the Rings was not just a 1960s phenomenon, but a continuing trend, one that those who confuse fantasy with escapism may not have caught up with. The fact that at the century’s end numerous polls in the United Kingdom found Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to be the top choice as the greatest book of the century produced cries of outrage from the literati. They either had not been paying attention to what ordinary people read and why, or they did not care.

Fantasy literature and the huge appetite for it are signs of the times, indications of a deeply felt need for the assurance that the world is more than random chaos, that it has a transcendent meaning, albeit not a wholly optimistic one – perhaps its being not a wholly optimistic one is one of the attractions. Fantasy’s darker side seems to be what draws many readers. In the ongoing Harry Potter series, it is embodied in the evil wizard Voldemort who, after years of impotent lying-low, is poised to take over the world. Tolkien’s Dark Lord, Sauron, his design for the subjugation and domination of Middle-earth frustrated by a yard-high Hobbit from the provinces, is vanquished for the Third Age, but not forever. It is part of Tolkien’s point that Sauron has been defeated before, but keeps coming back. He was beaten in the Second Age, and will need to be fought again in ages to come. Evil never completely disappears, and has a tendency to pop up just when good seems to have the upper hand. For all its Hobbit jollity, Tolkien’s book is more sombre than many readers may at first perceive. Much that is beautiful and treasurable is lost forever in the War of the Ring. The book’s hero, Frodo, pays for his efforts to destroy Sauron’s Ring of Power not with his life but very nearly with his soul, and is saved only by grace and Gollum. Even saved, he is wounded, sick and maimed. He finds that he cannot go home again, but must leave his beloved Shire and indeed sail away from Middle-earth altogether if he is to be healed.

This is not a happy ending, not even upbeat. But Frodo’s Middle-earth, like our world, is not an upbeat world. It is, however, a world with meaning, even if that meaning is sometimes cruel. It is a world in which ordinary individuals can affect not just the future of human events but the balance of the natural world that surrounds those events, and have the secure knowledge that they are a part of and contribute to that balance. We need that knowledge.

This is what keeps us coming back to The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, to Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. With unparalleled affluence rubbing elbows with abysmal poverty, with technological improvement making it less and less necessary for us to speak to one another face to face, we have lost a sense of who we are and where we belong in a world we no longer know very well. The function of myth is to give us that sense. And a function of fantasy fiction is to give us myth in a myth-impoverished world.

Verlyn Flieger is a professor in the department of English at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Defenders of The Ring up in arms at myth in the making

Bill Welden and Jo Alida Wilcox
03 August 2001

The film of Tolkien’s classic is courting controversy but creating a mythology, say Bill Welden and Jo Alida Wilcox.
Once upon a time, in the rash boldness of his youth, J. R. R. Tolkien set out to create a mythology. As he said later, this cycle of myths would range “from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama”.

Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, due to be released in December, is already making cinematic history. With a budget of more than 5,000 times Tolkien’s annual salary at the height of his career, there is plenty of wielding going on; and not just of paint and music and drama. Photo-realistic computer animation, only ever a dream during Tolkien’s lifetime, has finally put realisation of his vision within reach.

For Tolkien, a mythology was a collection of stories unique to a culture: stories about creation, about gods, about history and about heroes. His stories, although not mythology in this sense, are now as well-known as those from ancient Greece to which the word “myth” was first applied. There is even a broader definition where The Lord of the Rings may eventually fit if it continues to grow in popularity. Jackson’s films could contribute, if they are as successful as all the signs indicate.

Tolkien was inspired by the epic poetry of the Scandinavians, the Finnish Kalevala and the Norse Eddas, and hoped to create something of the same sort for England. But it is doubtful that a cycle of stories with these ancient motifs could ever serve as a mythology for our times. The world has changed since the 13th century, and is now changing so fast that a mythology that speaks to our generation might not even serve for our children.

We have, in fact, become a culture in search of a mythology; and in this quest we seem to come back, repeatedly, to the movies. The most successful, just like the ancient myths, are the ones that nourish us in a way our daily routine does not. When Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth, asked why his son had gone to see Star Wars so many times, he replied: “For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life.”

Star Wars is certainly not a myth in the traditional sense. It is not about our heroes or gods, and it is not ancient. It does have a mythic power, reflected in its popularity; but, at this point, it is no more than a proto-myth: if it continues to appeal to new generations, in 100 or 500 years, it may eventually pass into the realm of mythology.

There have been several attempts recently to relax the definition of myth so that Star Wars fits inside; but if “myth” comes to mean simply a widely popular story with fantastic elements, it will have lost its special value for illuminating the cultural psyche. Even if we allow that a myth does not have to be ancient, it must still belong to, and be a product of, its culture. Star Wars does not, and is not. To be the product of a culture, it is not enough for a story simply to be told: it must be re-told, again and again. With each re-telling the story changes, emphasising what is important to the storyteller and discarding what is not. If the changes resonate with other storytellers, they will be taken up and passed on. Eventually, only what is important to the culture will remain.

Contemporary film is the most powerful vehicle yet devised for taking a story to many people, and there is a strong incentive to produce films with mythic appeal in order to recoup the necessary huge investments; but the medium of film discourages the sort of re-telling required to create a myth.

For one thing, film-making is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. For another, visual presentation of stories leaves less to the imagination, which is the spark that fires the process of storytelling. The power of the film image may itself discourage would-be storytellers from taking the story, making it their own, and passing it on.

Finally, the relatively new concept of intellectual property rights means that re-telling a story without the agreement of the owner is not just difficult, but illegal. And film-makers, who have huge investments in their properties, are aggressive in discouraging others from trying their hand at the same story.

Yet despite all these obstacles, The Lord of the Rings is now being re-told as a film; and Peter Jackson is doing just what needs to be done if the story is to become myth: he is telling his version and not Tolkien’s version of the story, which has led to controversy.

At the centre of the furor is the character of Arwen, an elvish princess who plays a minor role in the story as Tolkien wrote it. Jackson has decided that the film will have broader appeal if Arwen is a romantic lead, and has given her a bigger role in the film. This broader appeal does not, however, seem to include many of Tolkien’s existing fans, who would like the story left as it is, and have written extended angry essays, sent petitions with thousands of signatures, and in many cases refused to see the film when it comes out.

Changes such as this, and their judgement in the court of cultural opinion, are at the heart of the process of mythopoeia, the creation of myth. Tolkien describes this process as a cauldron where individual stories are added as ingredients to the soup of mythology. As he wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories, “this pot has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty”. Though some do not approve, The Lord of the Rings has now, in fact, been added to the pot.

It is worth mentioning that, in Tolkien’s opinion, to be added to this cauldron was “a considerable honour, for in that soup were many things older, more potent, more beautiful, comic, or terrible”. It remains to be seen how much Tolkien’s story will change as it boils. If the fans are right and his work is the stuff of myth, most of the experimental changes will, in the end, evaporate.

Tolkien eventually gave up his ambition of creating a mythology for England, and turned for much of his life to the more humble task of writing a long story “that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them”. In fact, this lesser ambition is closer to the true heart of mythology; and, in achieving it, Tolkien may have taken a first step forward on the path to realising his earlier and higher goal.

If The Lord of the Rings does achieve mythic status, it will owe something to Jackson’s film: this December millions of people will get a glimpse of Tolkien’s world for the first time. Many will buy and read the book, and many again will read it to their children. The story will continue to be re-told.

For now, we can do only what we would have done in any event: read (or go to the movies) and share, as we are moved, the stories that amuse and delight us. It is not ours to decide what will be mythology for our children’s children. Only time will tell.

Bill Welden and Jo Alida Wilcox have been studying and writing about the works of J. R. R. Tolkien for 20 years. Welden is one of several Tolkien language experts consulted in the making of New Line Cinema’s film of The Lord of the Rings. Welden and Verlyn Flieger are taking part in the 32nd Annual Mythopoeic Society Conference at the University of California, Berkeley, August 3-6.