There is something about stories… their eternal appeal, their ability to transport, to enlighten, to convey conviction and pose questions. Myth is story in one of its purest forms. About myth so much has been said it would take years to read it all, and there is so much more to say. All opportunities, even with the brevity imposed by the acceptable length of a foreword, are welcome opportunities.
The following text was written last August in Wellington, for Gary Raymond’s “3-Minute J.R.R. Tolkien: A Visual Biography of The World’s Most Revered Fantasy Writer”, published by Ivy Press. It is reproduced here with their permission.
MYTH-MAKING FOR THE MODERN MAN
Clearly, we humans need myths. Every age of humanity has created them, to recount, to remind us of those things which carry meanings so crucial to our survival as a species. But, as we progress, we leave myths by the wayside and we find others that contain new versions of the truths we require. In our scientific age, we no longer “believe” in myths, we have other explanations that suffice. Science and technology, reason and psychology; we have many explanations and much knowledge to tell us who and where we are in the universe.
But we still carry myths with us. We create them ceaselessly – from historic concepts of noble savages to last week’s urban legends. Ideologies are mythologized, we bust myths, we refute them, we dissect and collate them, we consign them to scholarly seminars and children’s books. We dutifully display them, as truthful “untruths”, in the non-fiction section of our libraries.
Mythical tales are never untruthful, they reflect the irrepressible desire for things as they should be, they are stories that allow us to be reconciled with the human condition, with death, with our forever-lost origins and other unanswered questions. (Science and religion adamantly provide explanations, but they demand the rejection or qualification of other answers.)
But we don’t tell myths any more. We feel we’ve grown out of them in a way, and that meaning must be explicit to be understood. Naturally, we are wrong, because the “truth” of myth is never signposted. It is cloaked and encrypted in symbol and allegory, it is linked to etymology and history, it is not an itemized set of reminders or a simple cautionary tale.
A century ago, T. E. Hulme qualified Romanticism as “spilt religion”. Today, he might well have said the same of modern fantasy and our appetite for it. Much fantasy is more form than substance, but occasionally an author redefines the genre with an enduring and personal revisiting of those themes that have been ever-present in myth since they began being told.
Myths are stories from which time has stripped much meaning. If we are dutiful readers, we know the symbolism of each character, who personifies the seasons, how earth-diving creation myths came about, which pagan gods have become saints. We can follow the threads from culture to culture, but while it does inform us, it does not necessarily take us on a journey. But it is undoubtedly on a journey through myth that J. R. R. Tolkien invites us. The underlying density of his tales is built on those things he did not invent but which he spent a lifetime diligently mapping. And, as with all true myths, we are caught up in the story, swept along by the narrative, and reach the end with the odd sentiment that we have understood something, although we cannot put our fingers on it. And nor should we.
Our grasp of the meaning of Middle-Earth should be intuitive, as instinctive as the author’s need to weave those meanings into his narrative. But our connection with the mythology of this fantasy landscape need not stop there. Tolkien’s work can be seen as an open door into an invigorating and eternally relevant world vision; it can help us understand the worlds of those who created the myth cycles we all know in far drier and more scholarly or comparative forms, to make them magic again. Tolkien invites us to imagine being swept away in the depth and breadth of a telling and to blink at the sudden making of sense that has come unawares.
Enchantment is not simply entertainment, it is an opportunity for deeper understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it.
We need myths. We would do well to listen attentively when they are told so well.
3-Minute J.R.R. Tolkien: A Visual Biography of The World’s Most Revered Fantasy Writer
by Gary Raymond
- Hardcover: 160 pages
- Publisher: Ivy Press
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1908005831
- ISBN-13: 978-1908005830
A visual biography of the world’s most revered fantasy writer. As Peter Jackson’s cinematic hobbits set forth, 3-Minute J.R.R. Tolkien celebrates the enduring influence of the world’s most revered fantasy writer. It offers a readable, absorbing structure, dividing J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and cultural contribution into 60 neat portions, every one digestible in a mere three minutes: 20 mini-sections each on Life, Work and Influence. From a childhood inventing new languages in the sylvan landscape of the Severn valley, through a First World War that saw him witness the horrors of the Somme, to academic success founded on a passion for Old English tales, we trace Tolkien’s life and look at the way in which it informs his creation of imaginary worlds so intricately mapped that modern readers, writers and artists continue to explore them in a quest for their myths, monsters and meaning.
The book will be published December 15, 2012. More about it here.
The latest issue of ImagineFX is out, with a very good article on a couple of concept artists… It’s available from all good newsagents, or directly from the publisher via download.You can also see more of the artwork here.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
Well, there isn’t a lot of other news, to tell the truth. The last few months have been so very busy that I look back and wonder how on earth everyone involved managed to get everything done… I had thought that the production had been busy – scrambling to keep ahead of the set builders and the two film units – but it turns out that post-production made that period feel like something of a vacation. But, three years and eight months to the day after stepping off a plane in Wellington airport, the movie is finally out. One down, two to go…
Right now, having a bit of a break, and a change of pace and subject, writing a little, working on other illustrations and projects. While I’m not entirely sure that there will be a newsletter in January (though it never pays to say never), I will do my best to continue on with them as regularly as possible from February on.
All the very very best and most heartfelt wishes to you all, and see you next year!