Category Archives: Mythology

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

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Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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Love’s dangerous power in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

apollo__daphne_september_2aThis morning I finished reading A.D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The power and danger of love are a main theme running throughout this 15-book epic of transformations. That amore, love, should be a main feature of Ovid’s epic is no surprise — he is one of Latin poetry’s great love poets (arguably the greatest, although popular opinion would probably grant that to Catullus). Before turning to epic, after all, Ovid wrote elegiac verse. His first production was a series of love poems, the Amores. He also wrote the Ars Amatoria — the art of love (really, the art of seduction) and the Remedia amoris — the remedy of love. His first extended foray into mythological poetry was the Heroides, a series of letters written in elegiac couplets betwen famous heroines of myth.

So — no grand surprise that love is one of the most powerful driving factors when Ovid turns his mind to epic verse.

Part of the dangerous power of love in the Metamorphoses lies in the rejected lover. This struck me today particularly in Book 14, when Picus rejects the witch Circe’s advances, since he’s already in love with his wife, Canens. Circe responds:

‘non inpune feres, neque’ ait ‘reddere Canenti,
laesaque quid faciat, quid amans, quid femina, disces
rebus; at est et amans et laesa et femina Circe!’ (Met. 14.383-385)

‘You shall not act without punishment, nor,’ she said, ‘return to Canens,
and what a wounded, what a loving, what a woman may do, you shall learn —
indeed both the one loving and the wounded and the woman is Circe!’ (my trans of the top of my head)

*spoiler*

Picus gets turned into a woodpecker.

For marital faithfulness.

Throughout the Metamorphoses, people are slain or transformed because they reject the love of some powerful being. Perhaps, as in Apollo and Daphne, the transformation is salvation. Perhaps, as in Picus and Circe, the transformation is punishment.

It’s been about nine years since I read Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue all about eros — love — but I do wonder what a good Platonist would make of Ovid’s amor. Elsewhere, Ovid refers to himself as tenerorum lusor amorum — the player of tender loves.

But the loves of the Metamorphoses are not tender. They can be violent. Rape is a disturbiningly common reality for the females of Graeco-Roman mythology. The raptus of Proserpina may, in context, refer to her being snatched away to the Underworld by Pluto — but its etymological descendant is uncomfortably near the surface of the whole tale. And even the willing suffer for their love in this poem — Semele, the human mother of Bacchus, is fried to a crisp by the lightning flash of Jupiter’s godhead, to give one example.

Love is a powerful force. Amor, eros, desire — driving people, pulling them in one direction or another. The poet knows it and exposes it here, often at its grimmest — murder, deception, incest, intrigue, suicide, starvation. I guess this is why Plato has Socrates discoursing about seeking the good and the beautiful, and that our powerful desires will ultimately only be satisfied by to kallisto, the most beautiful.

Otherwise, we risk being turned into trees, springs, rivers, rocks, and birds.

Thor & Plato: Mythology and Philosophy

I recently finished reading Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Vol. 1. Amongst the excellent tales gathered together in this volume, we are introduced to Malekith the Dark Elf. Most of us undoubtedly know Malekith best as performed by Christopher Eccleston in the film, Thor: The Dark World. Simonson’s Malekith is an excellent supervillain who blends together a bit of Norse, a bit of ‘Celtic’ fairy lore, and a bit of implication from the very name ‘dark elf’ (svart alf). In his return from exile in Simonson’s comic, Malekith — a capricious Dark Elf of Faerie — is seeking the Casket of Ancient Winters to unleash a new Ice Age and free the fiery being Surtur (adapted from the name Surtr) from Muspell to destroy the universe.

The film’s Malekith is an elemental being who has existed before the world, whose own element is darkness. Darkness, in Thor: The Dark World, pre-exists the universe. The goal of the Dark Elves is the unleashing of a substance called Aether that will turn the Nine Realms (the known universe in Thor cosmology) back into the darkness whence they came.

I was thinking about this, about Malekith, and the origins of the universe in mythology and philosophy. In the mythology of the Thor films, we see a universe born out of darkness. Or rather, in opposition to darkness. Darkness itself is pre-existent; it has its own substance, in fact. My first thought was that our modern conception of the universe tends towards seeing ‘nothing’ as darkness. But what we actually live in a universe replete with light? This is the implication of the medieval mind as described by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image. Looking up at the rolling spheres of night, rather than seeing the black between, the medieval mind saw a universe filled with light.

What if before everything else, there was light?

Darkness, in such a world, has no substance of its own.

Either way — whether darkness is pre-existent or light — it is still something with substance, still a thing. Substance is, as a result, co-eternal with the universe and, one imagines, its Artificer.

The pre-existence of the matter, the stuff, the substance of the universe as raw material to be worked upon by the Maker is not restricted to the cinematic imagination. In the issues of The Mighty Thor that follow the tale of Malekith, wherein Surtur tries to destroy the universe and bring about Ragnarok, Simonson has Odin tell the tale of his encounter with Surtur at the origins of the universe, with references to the story as we know it best from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, such as using Ymir’s skull to form the heavens.

In the Poetic Edda, the universe is born out of a void, as in the Voluspá:

3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.

In the Prose Edda, we learn of Surtr — the inspiration for Simonson’s comics:

Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to such as are outlanders and have not their holdings there. He who sits there at the land’s-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire

As the Prose Edda makes its way to the creation of the universe as we know it, we encounter a chasm of ice, Ginnungagap, from which Ymir is born. What we do not meet in Norse mythology, whether in Snorri’s Prose Edda or the anonymous Voluspá of the Poetic Edda, is creatio ex nihilo — just as in Thor: The Dark World, something was there. Substance already was.

Greek cosmology is similar. Chaos is where Hesiod’s universe originates — self-generating deities emerge from it on their own. From these, as well as Earth, Tartarus, and Eros, all other deities of his Theogony are born. Chaos is, according the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddel and Scott, infinite space, a chasm, the nether abyss, infinite darkness, the air, any vast gulf or chasm; obviously not all of these at once. It is a nothing with substance. For a chasm cannot be defined without the substances it divides.

The difficulty with the Prose Edda, Voluspá, and Hesiod’s Theogony is that they are richly symbolic and potent expressions of something in the poetic and mythic mode. But not science; not meant to be. Not philosophy; not an attempt to look at the chaos and sort out, using reason and experience, what the cosmos (order) is and how it came to be.

The most influential Classical text that does that is Plato’s Timaeus. In this dialogue, Timaeus says:

This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the others. (30a-b, trans. Jowett,Vol. 3,  p. 717)

Earlier, Timaeus had said that the created universe was made as an image of the eternal, rational one that the Artificer had access to. Plato has no chaos; nor does he have creatio ex nihilo. Lucretius the Epicurean Latin poet-philosopher writes:

when we shall perceive that nothing can be created from nothing [nil posse creari de nilo], then we shall at once more correctly understand from that principle what we are seeking, both the source from which each thing can be made and the manner in which everything is done without the working of gods.

For if things came out of nothing [si de nilo fierent], all kinds of things could be produced from all things, nothing would want a seed. (De Rerum Natura 1.155-160; trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith – Loeb)

I have passed the 1000-word mark, so shall now descend to commenting and skip Ovid. Although the film Thor: The Dark World does not seem to follow either Simonson nor the medieval Norse mythological texts, it is consonant with them in envisioning a universe where some sort of substance was coeval with all that is, even with the Artificer-God(s) — and Norse mythology, in turn, resonates with Hesiod in particular, but also Plato’s Timaeus and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

The material mind in a material world has difficulty conceptualising nothing, nihil. Indeed, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ of much scientific enquiry seems to have been a ‘something’ all along — that is, the ‘nothing’ of balanced equations. The ‘nothing’ of philosophy and theology remains literally ‘nothing’, no existence, neither darkness nor light, neither chasm nor sphere, without form or substance. Void.

But what if we turn back to hints in the Timaeus?

Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. … But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. (28a, 29a)

What if the uncreated Artificer, in fact, created the matter ex nihilo? A universe with no chasm of ice, no chaos, no sphere of unformed matter. Rather,

In the beginning, God created …

(Quick note for the trolls: The above has nothing [ha!] to do with a literal seven-day creation, so save yourselves time and effort by moving on. Thanks.)

Mythology through (ancient) literature

Mythology through art - Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Mythology through art – Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

I have stolen the title ‘Mythology Through Literature’ from an undergraduate course my wife had the good fortune of taking — I did not have enough room for that particular course due to an overload of Latin and Greek. However, as an undergraduate I had the opportunity not only to take ‘Greek Mythology’, but ‘Homer and Virgil’ and ‘Greek Tragedy’ besides courses on Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad in the original languages. When I reflect on this, as well as my graduate education, the reality comes home to me time and again that our knowledge of Greek mythology comes to us through literature, and not simply compendia such as the Library of ‘Apollodorus’ — itself the greatest compendium of Greek myths. (I’d link to it, but WordPress has lost its mind.)

Of course, epic in the tradition of Hesiod can feel like a compendium, whether Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Such epics, however, are more than compendia (one might argue, in fact, that compendia are not ‘mere’ compendia, either). They, themselves, have all the artistry of more extended literary tellings of the ancient stories, whether Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. They are, themselves, literature, written in dactylic hexameters with their own beauty and structure and use of metaphor, simile, allusion.

I love Hesiod and Ovid. Nonetheless, there is a different kind of pleasure that comes from discovering myths in other poets. When I was studying Greek and Latin poetry, mythology felt as if it were hiding behind every corner. For example, reading The Iliad you encounter not even the whole tale of Troy (or Ilium), but along the way (in Book 6) you encounter the tale of Bellerophon, as recounted by characters on the battlefield. In Virgil’s Aeneid book 8, we meet what may be an Italic folktale in the story of Cacus vs Hercules. Or you sit down to read a victory ode written by Pindar for Arcesilas, King of Cyrene, for the victory of Arcesilas’ chariot in the Pythian Games (Fourth Pythian Ode), and find yourself reading about Jason and the Argonauts and the founding of Cyrene.

Another lyric poet who wrote mythological victory odes was Simonides of Ceos, who was once refused half of his pay on the grounds that Castor and Pollux should pay the other half, given how much they featured in the poem!

The most famous mythological literature of the ancients is, of course, the epics — Homer, Hesiod, and Apollonius in Greek, then Virgil, Ovid, and Statius in Latin (but also Claudian) — and the tragedies. Indeed, who can not be moved by the power and force of Aeschylus Oresteia? It is Sophocles’ telling of Oedipus that we all know, and the finish to the tale of Jason comes through Euripides’ Medea. Yet alongside the poetry, we meet mythology in an unlikely place — Plato, who barred poets from his Republic, is our main source for the myth of Atlantis in the Critias.

Ancient Greek and Latin literature is vast, spanning many centuries, from Homer in the 700s BC to Claudian in AD 400. The result of learning mythology through literature is that your Greek mythology storybook from when you were a kid is sometimes at variance with what you find. I remember one of my professors in university having given a particular version of a myth (really sorry, I forget which!!), and a friend was bent out of shape that he had ‘got it wrong.’ However, later on I discovered that he had, in fact, ‘got it right’ — there was more than one telling.

For example, how was Aphrodite born? Hesiod tells us that she was born from the foam that built up in the sea around Ouranos’ castrated genitals (Theogony 188). Homer refers to Dione as her mother (Iliad 5.370). Who is ‘right’? Hesiod even gives us conflicting accounts of Athena — daughter of Zeus and Metis, although born out of Zeus’ belly (line 887), or self-generated from Zeus’ head (line 924)?

According to ‘Apollodorus’, Athena blinded Teiresias for seeing her naked while bathing (Library 3.6.7). But another version (I forget the source!) says that Teiresias was blinded because he revealed that women enjoy sex more than men (having spent part of his life as a woman, part as a man), and Hera was angry with him for giving away her secret. Which is ‘right’?

Did Aphrodite offer Paris the most beautiful woman on earth or irresistible sexiness?

Such a list could go on.

There is much appeal to reading mythology through ancient literature — the literature itself is pleasant to enjoy. The drama of a tragedy, the glory of an epic, the terseness of a lyric poem. The beauty of it all. And, alongside it, there comes the pleasure of encountering new versions of old stories, revealing a textual and narrative playfulness with the ‘canon’ that we have difficulty grasping ourselves. Once you’ve read a book about Greek myths, there’s no better place to turn next than the ancient literature itself.

The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake

Tolkien’s mythology

As I mentioned here once recently, I am reading the letters of JRR Tolkien right. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man — mostly, so far, into the long labour that went into The Lord of the Rings, although some highly Roman Catholic epistles and ones of more literary and philological concern have made their way through the editors’ net.

I have to confess that I have never read The Silmarillion. I tried twice, maybe a third time. I will try again — it took three tries to get me into Paradise Lost, and then I gobbled it up! (My review of Milton’s epic here.) One reason why I think I will survive my next reading of The Silmarillion is the fact that I have now read Letter 131 of late 1951, which runs pp. 143-161, to Milton Waldman of Collins, whom Tolkien hoped would publish The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings since things seemed not to be progressing with Allen & Unwin at the time. This letter is a long description of Tolkien’s mythology as represented by The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

I think it is important to think of this series of tales of Elves as mythology and not as the history of Middle Earth. First of all, Elves do not originate in Middle Earth but Valinor. Second, history to our mind is a different sort of thing from myth — even if the etymology and use of mythos by ancient Greeks was not clearly delineated from ‘historical truth’ as we think it. Tolkien wished to produce a mythology as grand, as big, as cosmic as the unified myths of the Greeks and the Norse.

Furthermore, myths are often told in a different mode from histories or modern novels. One of the things I found offputting in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is that the power of Sophocles’ mythos was stripped away by the cynical, post-War Frenchman. There is no good and evil, not law of heaven or nature vs law of man. There is just … raw humanity? Pain and ambiguity. We certainly live our lives in a world of pain and ambiguity — but romance and mythos are not genres intended to relate that world; that is the job of historia or political science/philosophy.

Tolkien knew full well, as his letters to Christopher attest, that in real wars there are orcs on both sides, and noble men on both sides as well. This is a man who fought in WWI; one of his sons suffered PTSD because of WWII. He is not unaware of the murkiness of real humans and real human motivations.

But the good and the beautiful — to kaló. These are still real, substantial realities — and these, alongside the depths of evil in Morgoth and Sauron, are what Tolkien relates in the mythology of The Silmarillion and the romance of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is worth remembering the creative force of the good; it is worth remembering that is a better way to live; it is worth remembering that some things are worth fighting for — things like trees and architecture and gardens and friendship and beership.

I have suddenly moved from what makes Tolkien’s work like other mythologies to what sets it apart. Greek mythology comes to us in a vast myriad of sources written over a millennium by a combination of both Greeks and Romans. It is not a thematically united body of work, and it frequently contradicts itself. This is no surprise; it was not made to convey scientific realities, after all.

Tolkien’s work, on the other hand, as this letter shows us, is tightly controlled by a single author, auctor, creator, a single mind, a single man. As a result, he has particular themes that he explores. He has precise ideas of what makes the Valar, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Men, the Orcs, the villains what they are; he grasps their substance, their essence, in a unified way that we do not get from natural-born mythologies that arise out of the chance of cultural circumstance and hundreds of authors.

These thematic unities are, I imagine, what make The Silmarillion readable? I’ve not succeeded yet, of course. But still. They are also what make Tolkien’s work Catholic — they draw out themes such as sub-creation, the tendency of humanity towards misuse of power, the allure of power, the need to protect the simple and beautiful, the unrelenting drive towards the good. Certainly not themes exclusive to Roman Catholics; but certainly typically Catholic themes!

And because Tolkien was crafting a mythology and not a world, his work takes on a different feel. His goal is twofold: To create histories and stories that correspond to his imaginary languages and to craft a united, substantial mythology. This is similar to yet different from Robert E Howard’s pseudo-historical essay, ‘The Hyborian Age.’ This essay exists to provide a grand backdrop for Howard’s adventure stories; this is a necessary thing for the good fantasy writer — it gives verisimilitude, and a clear idea of what Hyperborea is, who Picts are, and where Cimmerians live, as well as all of this in relation to Atlantis, helps the author maintain consistency in references.

Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote The Hobbit, an adventure story ‘for boys’ (and girls!!). And as he wrote, his pre-existing mythological world invaded the story quite outside of his own intention. He did not, that is, take The Silmarillion and decide to flesh out a story from it, or to write a story set in that mythological world. In fact, there is no room for hobbits in that work, anyway! But Tolkien’s mythology invaded, anyway.

When it came time to write a sequel — something that lasted from 1937 until 1951, with revisions until 1954 (I think?) — Tolkien could not help weaving the story more and more tightly into the mythology had had already crafted. The result is a world already old, not only with its own history but with its own songs, its own divine beings, its own demons, its own magic, its own cultures, its own topography. The ruins of The Silmarillion dot the landscape of The Lord of the Rings the way acqueducts and the Villa of the Quintilii dot the landscape on the bus ride to Ciampino airport in Rome.

These facts do not make Tolkien’s mythology and fantasy novels better, necessarily (although I still think The Lord of the Rings is the perfectly-crafted example of its genre), but they do set Tolkien’s storycraft apart, both from ‘real’ mythologies and from other fantasy stories.