Tag Archives: mythology

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.

Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.

Right?

I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

The fun of Norse myths

Me and my new bag.

Me and my new bag.

My first morning in Tübingen, I was breakfasting with the Akiyamas. They had hospitably allowed me to stay with them my first night because I couldn’t move into my room yet. Kengo asked me, ‘What book are you reading?’ — having undoubtedly seen it before I slipped it into my fantastic new leather briefcase/shoulder bag.

The Prose Edda,’ I replied (a book featured in THIS POST). ‘It’s a … erm … 13th-century telling of “Viking Age” mythology.’

‘Aya would probably like that,’ Kengo answered, ‘she’s into mythology.’

‘It’s pretty interesting stuff,’ I affirmed.

‘Does it show influence from other mythologies?’

‘Not a lot. According to The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, only Graeco-Roman mythology and Norse mythology are our complete pre-Christian or pagan mythologies from Europe.’

‘What happens in it?’ queried one or both Akiyamas.

‘Well, the universe was born out of this icy chasm called “Ginnungagap”. Somehow it started melting or something and this giant called Ymir was born.’

‘From it melting?’ asked Kengo.

‘Yes. And then there was this cow that was licking the ice. Ymir was fed by the cow, and from the saliva and melting ice of the cow or something these people were born.’

‘So the cow is god?’ asked Aya.

‘No, the cow is just this cow,’ I said, eating my Müsli. ‘And the people born of the cow saliva had kids, who were Odin and his brothers. They killed Ymir and built the world out of his corpse. The blood from Ymir killed all the other giants except for one family, and so there is war between the giants and gods evermore as a result.’

‘Sounds pleasant,’ noted Aya.

‘Yeah, it’s pretty … great,’ I said. ‘Odin and his brothers used Ymir’s skull for the sky and his other body parts for other bits of the earth.’

And then Kengo and I had to get ready to go so I wouldn’t be too late for my German class.

Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!

Mesopotamia

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.