I Introduction: Myth and The Silmarillion

In her Master's thesis of 1974, "The Lord of the Rings as Myth," Roxane Farrell Murray writes,

Fate . . . figures prominently in The Lord of the Rings. In a sense, Fate is the One's overriding plan in Middle-earth, the continuing struggle between Good and Evil, in which neither side achieves complete
victory. Frequently, characters are aware that they are participating in a larger plan without being aware
of the One, whose plan it is. . . . Although characters who are accounted wise, such as Gandalf, Elrond,
and Tom Bombadil, often hint that they do not believe these events to be purely chance, they do not look to
the One through the workings of Fate. (26)
Thirteen years after Ms. Murray wrote her thesis, though, readers of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings have many sources
to read that present more information about Tolkien's characters, and this information allows us to see that some
of the characters "who are accounted wise" are, in fact, quite aware that they are subject to the omniscient power of
the One rather than a power that may be designated "Fate." That is, these characters do appear to "look to the One" to
explain what other characters might call "fate" or "chance."

It is only after Christopher Tolkien published his father's first collection of tales, The Silmarillion (1977), and Humphrey Carpenter published The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981) that those who are interested in all of Tolkien's work are able finally to understand (as much as one can) the larger universe in which the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings belongs. In The Silmarillion we find an account of what one may call the "myth" of the universe Tolkien has "sub-created" (the term Tolkien uses to describe the act of writing). And in The Letters we can find, in the author's own words, what he intends to be the connection between the larger "myth" of The Silmarillion and the "history" as presented in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Through an understanding of that connection we can discover that many of the characters to whom Ms. Murray refers in the above quotation are aware of their parts in the purpose which the One has for all those who exist in his creation. In this essay, then, I will look at both the myth and the history and try to come to some understanding about how Tolkien successfully brings together the two.

Tolkien began forming the myth of Middle-earth in The Silmarillion. In the first chapter, "Ainulindale," he
writes,

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were
the offspring of his first thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. (3)
To the Ainur, Eru introduces a musical theme upon which the Ainur then elaborate. Eru takes these enlarged themes and
creates a vision from them for the Ainur to see:
"Behold your music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design
that I have set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added." (6)
The Ainur are aware that all they do has been foreseen by Eru and clearly is a part of his own mind and of his
purpose. Despite the fact that the Ainur "know much of what was,"
Yet some things there are that they cannot see, neither alone nor taking counsel together; for to none but
himself has Iluvatar revealed all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new
and have no foretelling, for they do not proceed from the past. (7)
We can see, then, that this universe is conceived by Eru, an omniscient and omnipotent god.

The next stage in Eru's plan is the creation of the Children of Iluvatar, the Elves and Men, and of a place where they may dwell, the Earth. In order to do so, Eru allows the Ainur to see this part of his plan:

And so it was that as this vision of the World was played before them, the Ainur saw that it contained
things which they had not thought. And they saw with amazement the coming of the Children of Iluvatar; and
the habitation that was prepared for them; and they perceived that they themselves in the labour of their
music had been busy with the preparation of this dwelling, and yet knew not that it had any purpose
beyond its beauty. For the Children of Iluvatar were conceived by him alone . . . . (7)
After realizing that what they have seen is a vision of what is to come, the Ainur desire to go to the World:
Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Iluvatar beyond the confines of the World;
but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Iluvatar and descended
into it. But this condition Iluvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should
thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever [sic.], until it is complete, so
that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.  (10)
But when they come to Ea, the World that Is, the Valar discover that they have seen only a vision and that they are
now to make real what has so far been a vision so that it may be ready for the coming of the Children:
For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the
Vision only of a foreshadowing; but now they had entered into the beginning of Time, and the Valar
perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their
great labours in waste unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of
Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Ea there came to be that hour and that place where was made the
habitation of the Children of Iluvatar. (10)
And once Time actually begins, so too does history.

To say, though, that the beginning of the history means that myth must end is, for Tolkien's mind, quite inaccurate.
Rather, one of the unique factors in his sub-creation is his outstanding ability to allow both to exist concurrently.
For Tolkien the existence of one without the other is impossible because each depends on the other for its
existence. That is, without the pre-existence of the myth, the history would never have been achieved. Similarly,
without the history, no one would have existed to remember or record the myth. As Tolkien writes,

. . . I had in mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic
to the level of romantic fairy story--that larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the
lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths . . . (Letters 144)
Before I can examine the ways Tolkien has melded myth and history in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I have
to define the categories into which I may separate the two. To do so, I use C. S. Lewis' chapter "On Myth" from his
Experiment on Criticism, in which he gives a list of criteria to define what he considers to be myth. Lewis
himself seems to recognize that Tolkien has brought myth into a work that is most often considered a story:
. . . certain stories which are not myths in the anthropological sense, having been invented by individuals in fully civilised periods, have what I should call the `mythical quality' . . . . Such is the conception . . . of the Ents and Lothlorien in Professor Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. (42-43)
To determine what precisely constitutes myth in his own terminology, Lewis proposes "the following characteristics":
1. It is, in a sense, that I have already indicated, extra-literary. Those who have got at the same myth through Natalis Comes, Lempriere, Kingsley, Hawthorne, Robert Graves, or Roger Green, have a mythical experience in common; and it is important, not merely an H. C. F. [highest common factor]. In contrast to this, those who have got the same story from Brook's Romeus and Shakespeare's Romeo share a mere H. C. F., in itself valueless.

2. The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it [the myth] is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing us to a permanent object of contemplation--more like a thing than a narration--which works upon us by its peculiar flavour or quality, rather as a smell or a chord does.  Sometimes, even from the first, there is hardly any
narrative element. . . .

3. Human sympathy is at a minimum. We do not project ourselves at all strongly into the characters.  They are like shapes moving in another world. We feel indeed that the pattern of their movements has a profound relevance to our own life, but we do not imaginatively transport ourselves into theirs. . . .

4. Myth is always, in one sense, of that word, `fantastic'. It deals with impossibles and preter-naturals.

5. The experience may be sad or joyful but it is always grave. Comic myth (in my sense) is impossible.

6. The experience is not only grave but awe-inspiring. We feel it to be numinous. It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to us.  (43-44)

Considering the close relationship between Lewis and Tolkien during the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings,
particularly seen in their sharing and developing in on-going discussion about ideas of literary, philosophical, and theological matters, it is not at all surprising to see how well these criteria do in fact fit the myth Tolkien has implanted in the novel.

If the above criteria are enough to determine what is myth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it will suffice to say that what does not fit the criteria can be called history. Only two additional stipulations need to be made: First, the pronoun "we" that Lewis uses in his list of criteria to refer to those who read or hear the myths refers, in this essay, to those characters in Middle-earth who can be called "natural": Tolkien has set up natural laws that govern his world; all that is natural in that world need only be consistent with those natural laws.  And second, Middle-earth is, in fact, a viable world in which time and nature behave in essentially the same way as they do in our "real" world. History, then, encompasses all that happens within the confines of nature of Middle-earth.

Because the history of Middle-earth spans a very long time and a large amount of writing on Tolkien's part, to discuss it all is clearly beyond the scope of this essay. I intend, rather, to take only a small portion of the history and to see how that part reflects and is a part of the larger myth from which it originates: the part of the history, that is, that comes in the Third Age of Middle-earth, the Age that is related in the two books Tolkien published about Middle-earth, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.



Go to History, Myth, and The Hobbit

Last revised November 11, 2000