This article is by Dan Berger.
It’s strange to imagine today, but there was a time when the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was a matter very much in doubt.
There were two primary reasons for this near tragedy. One was the scarcity of paper that plagued the United Kingdom in the aftermath of World War II. The other was Tolkien’s initial insistence on releasing The Lord of the Rings to his publisher, Allen & Unwin, only on the condition that The Silmarilion be published in concert with it.
The price of printing the full text of a book the size of The Lord of the Rings posed significant challenges in and of itself; adding The Silmarilion to the mix, particularly given its sometimes tenuous connection to The Lord of the Rings’ narrative, was seen as potentially disastrous. In the spring of 1950, Sir Stanley Unwin wrote Tolkien with the bad news that Allen & Unwin were unable to accommodate his demands and The Lord of the Rings suddenly found itself without a publisher.
Undaunted, Tolkien approached Milton Waldman of Collins with the same offer. Waldman initially accepted, but production delays almost immediately began to raise doubts about the viability of printing both books. In need of reassurances that both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarilion were textually inseparable, Waldman received a letter from Tolkien late in 1951 attempting to demonstrate the interdependence of the two texts. The letter was approximately 10,000 words long and still stands as one of the defining commentaries by Tolkien on the conception and creation of Middle-earth. What has drawn me to it most over the years is one of Tolkien’s impetuses for creating Middle-earth, that he articulates in the initial paragraphs of his correspondence:
Also – and here I hope that I shall not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing in English, save the impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing (Carpenter, Humphery. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 144 Houghton Mifflin, 1981).
This sentiment of Tolkien’s resonated strongly with me as an American. If the mythological tradition of Britain is “impoverished,” it can only be described as mangled, confused, or non-existent in America. In a nation settled by succeeding waves of European immigrants that violently displaced the indigenous cultures, to whom exactly does a uniquely American mythology belong? The aboriginal peoples? The settlers? Can it be found in the narrative of how the whole nasty mess sorted itself out over the centuries?
The Purpose of Mythology within a Culture
All too frequently, readers of Tolkien glom onto his specific world building elements as inspiration for their own worlds. High fantasy is often (and often lazily) criticized as a genre overly attached to its own tropes, many of which were patterned after Tolkien’s admittedly unavoidable template. The litany of Dark Lords and elves, pseudo-medieval societies and ancient magic in high fantasy is as long as the exposition describing the invented histories that typically connects these elements together. All of these traditions begin with Tolkien, but for high fantasy to continue growing as a form it may be more instructive to draw inspiration – as Tolkien did – from the search for a mythological tradition that never was rather than to emulate the mythological tradition he invented.
Easy enough to say “All right, now go reinvent the wheel, and have a nice day.” Where does one begin searching for themes and lessons that might serve as inspiration for an invented mythological tradition that will resonate with modern traditions and ideas of nationhood, and still serve as the backdrop for a heightened literary world filled with magic, monsters, and larger than life heroes that feels somehow “ancient?”
There are really two different issues that need to be addressed:
- creating a fictional mythological tradition inspired by the circumstances of the writer’s native nationality
- creating a world that logically arises from the resulting traditions and history so inspired
The starting point, then, must be to define the purpose of mythology within a culture.
Briefly stated, the function of myth is to serve both as a guide for behavior within a culture and as a touchstone informing the essential elements of the human condition. Mythology is the lens through which humanity scrutinizes core concepts like Good and Evil, the value of honesty, and the relationship between Civilization and Nature as well as the relationship between various cultures and their roots in their native soil, right down to the origin of the universe itself. Frequently, mythic traditions will contain recurring thematic strands, such as the Greek notion of hubris and the sin of excessive pride or the Judeo-Christian exploration of worldly bondage and divine emancipation through faith.
Fortunately, the character and history of a nation tend to follow broad thematic channels as well, making history an ideal starting point for mythic inspiration. Tolkien drew from a variety of British historical sources for inspiration. There are numerous echoes of the stone circles and Neolithic sites dotting the United Kingdom found everywhere from the Barrow-Downs of The Fellowship of the Ring to the “…dreary hills, rising higher and higher…” topped by ”…castles with an evil look,” found in the Lone-lands of The Hobbit. Tolkien’s experience with the ugliness of World War I finds its way into the mythology of Middle-earth in the Dead Marshes of the Dagorlad in The Two Towers, while his experience with the industrialization of the English countryside colors the recurring theme of conflict between the accord with nature found among the Ents and the elves of Lothlorien in opposition to the grinding oppression of mechanized “progress” represented by Saruman and the works of Barad-dûr.
Fortunately, even a nation as young as the United States possesses a history rich in thematic strands of national character ripe for exploration and reinterpretation as fictional mythology and fantasy world building. Below are three examples based on my own American origins. The same principals of adaptation should apply regardless of national origin.
Example 1: Manifest Destiny
Thematic Grist: During the beginning part of the 19th century, much of the United States was unexplored and undeveloped wilderness…as far as the Anglo-Saxon population was concerned. An attitude rose they were not only able, but obliged by destiny to push westward through this untamed land and build a nation stretching from coast to coast. This idea was given the name “manifest destiny” by columnist and Editor John L. O’Sullivan in an 1845 article promoting the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Country to the still fledgling United States.
Manifest destiny represents both the best and the worst impulses championed by the American people of the time. The idea spurred everything from pioneer settlement of the western states to the rise of the canal systems linking the nation’s interior to the Atlantic Ocean, the transcontinental railroad, and, eventually, the Interstate Highway System. It also encouraged the destruction and displacement of aboriginal peoples and incited war with Mexico.
World Building Possibilities: Manifest Destiny comes with the built-in conflict of an overwhelming alien culture at odds with a beleaguered aboriginal culture. Exploring its themes depends largely on which perspective you choose to adopt in the conflict. There are stories to be told based on the forced removal and displacement of entire peoples from their native lands onto reservations, essentially turning them into foreigners in their own country. Perhaps a magic-poor sea power “discovers” a new continent where one of the greatest natural resources is a mineral capable of amplifying magical effects, a mineral that just happens to be held sacred by the indigenous “primitive” cultures.
Example 2: The Birth of the Modern Republic
Thematic Grist: One of the great themes in American culture is revolution against the tyranny of monarchy and the desire for freedom. These ideas led to the United States creating the first modern Republic based on government by the people, for the people where all citizens are created equal. The “created equal” portion of the sentiment is still a work in progress as notions of fairness and equality evolve over time, but the idea that personal freedom, rather than the authority of a sovereign monarch, is a matter of “divine right” is a powerfully American notion with interesting mythological implications.
World Building Possibilities: Introducing the idea of a Republic as the standard form of government rather than the more common use of kingdoms and feudalities automatically changes the dynamic of a fantasy world. For the most part, high fantasy functions under the social and political assumptions seen in monarchies, an idea that still lingers in our own times through institutions such as Christian tradition, with the idea of the Lord God reigning in the Kingdom of Heaven. Imagine how different such a theological model would be if it were based on the idea that humanity has a say in the rule of heaven. There are literally dozens of conventions in high fantasy that would disappear with the rule of Republics, from the princeling spirited away and hidden from evil usurpers to one day return and regain the crown to the idea of a “Dark Lord” as a villain.
Example 3: Immigration and the “American Dream”
Thematic Grist: The history of America and the complexion of the American people are built on multiple waves of immigrants leaving their homelands to seek their fortune in the promise of a “New World” where a person could climb beyond the circumstances of their birth to gain status and prosperity through hard work. This belief was first formalized by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
World Building Possibilities: The American Dream is another theme that offers interesting options in changing up the conventions of high fantasy. How would a hero’s motivations change if they were approaching an adventure from the position of a poor immigrant starting their life over in a new land rather than a poor farm boy ripped away from his pastures by some mad quest? How would a protagonist’s journey be effected by the barriers of language, culture, and differences between expectations and reality when the legend of the promised Dream doesn’t measure up to its substance?
Exploring New Possibilities
There are many impulses driving writers to create fantastical worlds. For Tolkien, the desire to create Middle-earth began with his love of language and his compulsion to create languages for imaginary peoples. The natural extension of that desire was to create a world capable of sustaining those languages and dedicate it to his native land as an honorary national epic.
Many writers today still look to Tolkien’s Middle-earth and their desire to duplicate its brilliance as the compulsion informing their own world building efforts. It is an urge that should be resisted. The brilliance of new worlds is not in the sum of their parts, but in the exploration of ideas and the places they take us. In order for high fantasy to continue growing, it may be advisable to turn away from Middle-earth and look to the world around us.
What are some of the tropes of high fantasy that you feel need to be either retired or reinvented? Where do you look for inspiration in keeping high fantasy fresh and vital?
About the Author:
Dan Berger is a self-avowed Tolkien nut and co-founder of the science fiction and fantasy website Foes of Reality. His Tolkien-related posts include an interview with Hobbit illustrator Jemima Catlin, as well as musings on the transformation of The Hobbit from modest-length children’s book to massive three-part film epic which you can find here and here.