12.1.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.5: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (Proceeding with Caution Past the Dilemma of Restoring Germanic Myths; or, How to Write Epic Fantasy and Utterly Reject the Nazi Appropriation of Norse Mythology!)
A larger, more complicated problem, however, was the fact that in the early to mid-20th Century, Norse mythology had to be used carefully in fantasy literature.
That’s because before and during World War II (1939-1945), Nazi Party ideology enthusiastically praised certain aspects of a German culture that had end-of-the-world and supernatural roots. That is, the Nazis promoted beliefs and practices that embraced “Aryan racial supremacy,” the veneration of an idealized Germanic past that demanded militarism, & a Nazi misinterpretation & misuse of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch (“Overman,” “Superman”).
For Tolkien and Lewis, in the 1930s through 1940s, Hitler’s appropriation of the myths they loved was dismaying and appalling. Lewis gave public lectures on the dangers that the totalitarian impulses of the Nazis (and Communists) presented to western democracies. (Lewis’s written criticism of the Nazis is most apparent in his philosophical writings, such as his discussion of “Real Morality” in Mere Christianity.)
But, as it relates to epic fantasy, Tolkien was more explicit about the danger Nazi ideology posed to the Scandinavian and Germanic traditions he so loved. Sometimes I get a bit lost in Lewis’s philosophical approach to what, for me, is a very clear-cut dividing line: Nazis = Evil, Norse myths = Creative wellspring. Likewise, I find Tolkien’s views crystal clear and easy to follow.
In Tolkien’s rejection of the Nazi appropriation of the northern European mythologies, he himself repeatedly stated his disgust in a variety of letters about the subject before, during, and after World War II. The Wikipedia entry on Tolkien’s opposition to Nazism offers a concise synopsis of his views : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R._Tolkien
[Tolkien’s Opposition to Nazism]:
Tolkien vocally opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party prior to the Second World War. In 1938, the publishing house Rütten & Loening Verlag was preparing to release The Hobbit in Nazi Germany. To Tolkien’s outrage, he was asked beforehand whether he was of Aryan origin. In a letter to his British publisher Stanley Unwin, he condemned Nazi “race-doctrine” as “wholly pernicious and unscientific”. He added that he had many Jewish friends and was considering “letting a German translation go hang”. He provided two letters to Rütten & Loening and instructed Unwin to send whichever he preferred. The more tactful letter was sent and was lost during the later bombing of Germany. In the unsent letter, Tolkien makes the point that “Aryan” is a linguistic term, denoting speakers of Indo-Iranian languages. He continued,
But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject—which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.[Letters, no. 30]
In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, he expressed his resentment at the distortion of Germanic history in “Nordicism”:
You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. But no one ever calls on me to ‘broadcast’ or do a postscript. Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense. Anyway, I have in this war a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler … Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized. [Letters, no. 45]
Whatever these authors’ conscious or subconscious intentions in creating Middle Earth and Narnia were, the fact remains that Tolkien and Lewis used Norse types of characters. In their works you see all kinds of variations of dwarves, elves, dragons, centaurs, etc. Within Middle-Earth and Narnia are explicitly Germanic regions (forests, mountains, rivers, etc) featured in Norse and Scandinavian mythologies. The essential element that Lewis and Tolkien changed was this: they recast those Norse mythology-based peoples and places into a definitively new kind of fantasy.
In my opinion, many of the 20th Century fantasy authors I’ve discussed in previous blogs continued on Lewis and Tolkien’s trajectory. That is, the new epic and high fantasy authors distanced themselves from the sources of the true Norse myths. These fantasy authors preferred to invent fantastic landscapes, peoples, and languages that evoked Scandinavian mythological tropes. However, in doing so, eventually much of the original connection to the original Norse myths was lost (Eddic poetry, sagas, etc.).
[For beginning treatment on subject, I believe that the only scholarly work on the subject is Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (New York University Press, 1993).]
Next time: Charting A New Course for Epic Fantasy: A Blend of Christian, Judaic, and Islamic Peoples against a Threat from Norse Mythology!