On Tolkien as mythos (or not).
Note: The following is a sketchy first-draft excerpt from a manuscript in progress. –w.
It makes little sense to speak of a ‘Tolkien mythos’ — his ‘legendarium’ lacks the quality of mystery, of uncertain and seemingly unknowable depth, which characterizes the Lovecraft mythos (‘Yog-Sothothery’), the Silver John stories of Many Wade Wellman, or the Discworld books (q.v. all three). There’s rather a domestic quality to Tolkien; he doesn’t give the feeling of having received or discovered the Middle-Earth stories, and as we read there’s a pervasive deflating sense that every detail of his world-story is Fully Worked Out somewhere. (His son/literary executor Christopher Tolkien’s periodic exhumation of ‘new’ JRRT works deepens this sense, unfortunately but perhaps not unintentionally.)
Tolkien obsessives love this, of course; the idea of a fantastic encyclopedia of all things is certainly a locus of ‘adventurous expectancy’ for many readers, and the idea that Tolkien himself became such an encyclopedia does have a strange charm and charge. But while Tolkien’s characters occupy a world shot through with myth-history, in which the relics of the ancient past regularly irrupt through the earth itself (think of the Balrog, the colossi at Rauros, the White Tree), Tolkien didn’t write in such a way as to extend that sense to the reader. Tolkien’s mythic past is a known unknown.
Put another way: if you’re a fan of Middle-Earth, what could you possibly write fanfic about? Frodo’s day off? Mary Sue Pandolfin, who romances Isildur and charms Legolas? There’s a whole bookshelf of knockoff Cthulhu stories and games, a vast Star Wars Extended Universe (look up the ‘Corporate Sector’)…but if Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser came to Gondor, what could they possibly fill their time with? Tolkien created a world-story, a world built for one story; there’s nothing left to happen once The line of tales has been drawn, and anyone else who turns up is just there to watch the Chosen do their heroic thing.
Put another other way: there’s a reason Lord of the Rings-themed board games have done reasonably well, while Middle-Earth roleplaying games have never worked. Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Role Playing, which I owned and loved as a kid, is remembered — if at all — as a valiant but doomed attempt to carve out a space for ‘noncanonical’ stories in a bespoke paracosm where everything is built to feel canonical. Like the beloved (and successful!) West End Games take on Star Wars roleplaying, MERP worked as a source of fan-supplements for nerds, but unlike George Lucas, Tolkien gives no sense of a busy world in which something else is about to happen.
Partly that’s down to story-form: Lucas created serial/episodic tales, Tolkien set out to make a unified ‘legendarium.’ The edges of the Star Wars universe remain ragged in order to accommodate Upcoming Episodes, and that has imaginative consequences — for one thing, what’s Lucas’s storyworld called? Who knows? The Star Wars tales are named after a kind of thing that happens in them, ‘star wars,’ while Middle-Earth is actually explicitly called ‘Middle-Earth’ by its inhabitants; of course this is presented as a translation of Hobbit-speak, or Wizard-speak, or the ‘common tongue’ or whatever, but the sense remains that the world, the tale, is bounded by the manner of its telling — the words themselves constrain it. And they constrain anyone who’d follow. ‘Pulp Tolkien’ and ‘frontier Tolkien’ and ‘Gimli goes into politics’ are ludicrous contradictions on face, but ‘Star Wars romance’ and ‘Star Wars detective story’ and ‘Jedi schoolkids’ aren’t, and that’s as much down to the exclusivity of Tolkien’s storytelling approach as to Lucas(film)’s inclusivity.
(I feel comfortable predicting that the forthcoming ‘Second Age of Middle-Earth’ TV series will be terrible and feel nothing at all like Tolkien — like Petter Jackson’s horribly ill-advised Hobbit movies, for what it’s worth.)
To be clear, none of this criticism indicts Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has provided me with two of the peak aesthetic experiences of my life, more than 20 years apart, and I look forward to revisiting that tale some other autumn. It’s one of the great achievements in all of English literature, not a perfect novel but perfect of its kind, and Middle-Earth has continued to enrapture readers because of the nature of its imagining. You don’t go to Middle-Earth to brainstorm fanfic topics or project yourself into some corner of the tale, you go to feel what the hobbits feel on their journey through mythic geography, to get Tolkien’s vivid sense of walking through a sort of fictionalized Lancashire studded with broken ruins of millennia-old empires. To feel small in a particular way, connected to an immensity of Time, over the extent of a thousand-page novel: of course control is required.
Whatever Tolkien’s obsessive ‘legendarium’ meant to him, it’s Lord of the Rings that matters to the human species, and its value depends on its completeness, its cohesiveness. The closest it comes to admitting something wholly alien to its own cosmos is the fairytale episode at Tom Bombadil’s house, easily the most widely derided (and indeed disregarded) piece of the story, which Jackson simply cut from his (disastrously superseding) movie translation altogether. Bombadil is the story’s most Lovecraftian element, you might say: he steps in and out of the tale without quite feeling of it — something (a literary device, a demigod) vast, warm, and sympathetic, but palpably Other. The story closes around him as he goes.
You know what I’d love to read, though? A story about a team of modern archaeologists recovering cursed artifacts in the remains of Middle-Earth, trying to figure out who built the cyclopean ruins, colossal tiered cities, creepy subterranean delvings, and odd fairy-rings that dot the landscape of what they’d always suspected was just England. What ritual was performed at this burial mound in the field amongst standing stones? How did a gold ring come to rest in this river?
There’s room for a weird tale, for dark strange myth — ‘in the deep places’ — but I fear Middle-Earth must pass away entirely for us to find it.