Saturday, March 15, 2014


Tolkien's next consideration is "origins."  Here he finally breaks down and uses the term "folklore" as a wider phylum that embraces his more restrictive category of "fairy stories."  However, he never defines this term adequately, either in his own terms or in those of some respected academic.  He also makes his first references to the academic concept of "myth," and for the same essential purpose:" to show that academics have attempted to restrict the raw material of both subjects too neatly.  But while Tolkien's invocation of folklore studies are too general, his invocation of myth-studies are both overly specific and overly limiting. 

Tolkien is entirely opposed to the folklorists' tendency to lump all tales together on the basis of shared patterns.  He names off several disparate tales that have been so confounded; for convenience, I'll use just one: the supposed identity of both "Eros and Psyche" and "Beauty and the Beast."  Tolkien asserts that the reductive approach steamrolls over important differences in the stories for the sake of stressing only the similarities.

There's some justice in this. While "Eros" and "Beauty" certainly share some important story-motifs, there's no doubt that the stories are very different in plot, character and theme. 

On the other hand, Tolkien goes a little too far later, when he claims that there's a similar gulf separating the RED RIDING HOOD of Charles Perrault (which has an unhappy ending, where the wolf simply eats Red) from later versions with happier denouements.  That the endings are different, and that they have an altering effect on the theme, one cannot doubt.  But in contrast to the "Eros/Beauty" pairing, these are more like variations on a common theme.  The fact that each tale-teller surely meant to represent his version of RRH as "the" version actually reinforces the position of the folklorists.  Disparate versions of a given folktale simply do not have the creative standing Tolkien applies to tales that simply share a few major motifs.

As if to dodge objections by academics steeped in their professional specialities, Tolkien confesses that he is too "unlearned" to dwell on the matter of origins. He merely provides a sketch of the methods by which traditional stories have been propagated: (1) "independent evolution," aka "invention," (2) "diffusion," and (3) "inheritance."  Tolkien broadly implies that scholars focus too much on the latter methods, all the better to defer what he considers the key consideration:

Of these three invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) also the most mysterious. To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back. Diffusion (borrowing in space) whether of an artefact or a story, only refers the problem of origin elsewhere. At the centre of the supposed diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor. While if we believe that sometimes there occurred the independent striking out of similar ideas and themes or devices, we simply multiply the ancestral inventor but do not in that way the more clearly understand his gift.

Tolkien, having marginalized the contributions of the folklorists, immediately turns to the complementary academic theorists of myth-- or one of them, at least.

Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Müller's view of mythology as a “disease of language” can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind.
 I certainly agree with these assertions.  Not only is Muller's theory worthless today, save as an indicator of early patterns in myth-analysis, the bloom was off that particular rose in 1939 as well.

However, what Tolkien omits in his quick dismissal of Muller is that the whole point of Muller's "disease of language" theory was to assert that myths originated because men had personified natural forces.  From Wikipedia:

For Müller, the culture of the Vedic peoples represented a form of nature worship, an idea clearly influenced by Romanticism. He saw the gods of the Rig-Veda as active forces of nature, only partly personified as imagined supernatural persons. From this claim Müller derived his theory that mythology is 'a disease of language'. By this he meant that myth transforms concepts into beings and stories. In Müller's view 'gods' began as words constructed in order to express abstract ideas, but were transformed into imagined personalities. Thus the Indo-European father-god appears under various names: Zeus, Jupiter, Dyaus Pita. For Müller all these names can be traced to the word 'Dyaus', which he understands to imply 'shining' or 'radiance'. This leads to the terms 'deva', 'deus', 'theos' as generic terms for a god, and to the names 'Zeus' and 'Jupiter' (derived from deus-pater). In this way a metaphor becomes personified and ossified. This aspect of Müller's thinking closely resembled the later ideas of Nietzsche

Tolkien, having said that Muller is yesterday's news, roundly contradicts himself by writing as if the only then-extant theory of mythology was the theory of "gods-as-incarnate-natural-forces"-- which is to imply that Muller was the dominant scholarly influence in myth-studies after all.  It's certainly possible that Tolkien may have been thinking of authors who advocated the "nature myth" theory without endorsing "the disease of lanugage," but he does not name any such authors.

One need not be an expert on the academic myth-studies scene of the period to know that non-nature-centered theories of myth existed. My own source is Ernst Cassirer's book MYTHICAL THOUGHT, which attests to such theories dating back to the late 1800s.  To be sure, Cassirer's 1925 book was not translated into an English edition until 1953, long after Tolkien penned this essay.  Still, it's one thing for an author to modestly claim that he is "unlearned," perhaps with the strategy of convincing readers that he really is not.  It's another thing for an author to give ample evidence that he hasn't done his homework.

 Even though Tolkien is manifestly incorrect to assume that all mythographers were guilty of (say) understanding "Thorr" as nothing but a nature-myth, he makes this generalization to support a greater point: that even myth-characters possess a characterization essential to their narrative nature; that Thorr can't simply be reduced to his allegorical aspects. 

As it happens, in many respects Tolkien's focus on the interrelatonship of language and stories very much resembles the German idealism of Cassirer.

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both.
 In other words, the ability to parcel out aspects of the creative order also carries with it the power to imagine transgressions of that order.  Though not until near the essay's end does Tolkien unfold the majority of his Christian concerns, one can certainly find mentions of them here, as when he alludes to "fallen man" in paragraph 28.  Thus for Tolkien man's ability to transgress the natural order can be turned to good or to evil.

 When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm.
 However, this mental capacity also gives man the power, as I mentioned in Part 2, to "imitate God" in a good way-- perhaps extending even to the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation.  It's in this section that Tolkien first links the idea of Faerie to this creative ability.

 Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
The remainder of the "Origins" section largely repeats Tolkien's anti-reductionist stance with variations.  Therefore in my next essay I'll proceed to his next heading, entitled "Children."

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