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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (12) Medieval Literature & Epic Fantasy Monomyth (Tolkien, Campbell, & W.H. Auden)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: W.H. Auden's comment that Tolkien's World-Building included Flora & Fauna ("Old Man Willow," from Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring"; art by the Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: W.H. Auden’s comment that Tolkien’s World-Building included Flora & Fauna (“Old Man Willow,” from Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”; art by the Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (12) Medieval Literature & Epic Fantasy Monomyth (Tolkien, Campbell, & W.H. Auden)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

In this blog-series on “medieval literature and epic fantasy,” I’ve been sketching a template for a new kind of epic fantasy that builds upon and then departs from works of the most popular 20th Century creators of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Last time I ended on a note that wondered if the kind of “mythopoetic” achievement of Tolkien could be repeated in our own day, and that’s a difficult question to answer.

Does the often-cynical (i.e., 24/7 news cycle) nature of our modern society even allow for new myth-making, and will it recognize it when it sees it?  I would, of course, argue “yes, we can!” — else why spend almost half a month on this subject? — but I also acknowledge that myth-making takes time, and, ultimately, just as with the Greco-Roman or Norse mythologies (see scene from Homer’s The Odyssey below), such stories need to be persuasive to a large enough part of the population that they can develop lives of their own and become self-sustaining. To achieve that status, such stories need to be original, entertaining, and have a constant relevance to the human condition.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Campbell's "Heroic Quest" ("Ulysses and the Sirens," John William Waterhouse, 1891)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Campbell’s “Heroic Quest” (“Ulysses and the Sirens,” John William Waterhouse, 1891)

Tolkien’s The Hobbit appeared in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the mid-1950s, but in the 1960s the works started becoming very popular in the United States and fifty years later essential aspects of Middle Earth are well-known to the world thanks to the Peter Jackson films of the 21st century.  Does that literary and cultural popularity endow the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo with the status of “myth?” If we follow the definition of Joseph Campbell‘s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, then, yes:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man…” [Campbell, p. 23]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Fragments" of a Medieval Past as "Figurae" into the Present, "Le Morte D'Arthur' (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Fragments” of a Medieval Past as “Figurae” into the Present, “Le Morte D’Arthur’ (John Mulcaster Carrick, 1862)

Given that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partake of that same “monomyth” — that is, Campbell’s belief that the entirety of humanity shares in the “unfolding of a single great story,” aspects of which we recognize and identify with when we read, see, or hear a truly persuasive story in literature or poetry — I’ve been arguing that the new generation of would-be 21st Century epic fantasists need to tap the same wellsprings of inspiration that Tolkien and Lewis spent their lifetimes studying:  medieval and Renaissance literature, Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, & Scandinavian sagas and epic poetry.

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (New Line Cinema, 2001)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (New Line Cinema, 2001)

These different kinds of literature had a profound impact on Tolkien & Lewis and, particularly for Tolkien, the attempt to “subcreate” (his term) a completely new mythology with an invented language, history, and cosmology resonated deeply with a mass audience from the 1960s through the present.  The Peter Jackson films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit thus far have been inarguably successful, and I believe that — for many people — the cinematic versions of Tolkien’s works will be the primary or sole introductions to his world.  Oh, some may read The Hobbit from cover to cover, but the entirety of the The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices might pose more of a challenge.  I hope that I’m wrong (and perhaps it says more about the company I keep than any reflection of reality!), but I’ve yet to meet a majority of Tolkien readers who have read the entirety of the works, including Appendices and The Silmarillion.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Nordic Lands in Tolkien's "The Silmarillion" ("Beleriand," by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Nordic Lands in Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” (“Beleriand,” by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit"   (New Line Cinema, 2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”
(New Line Cinema, 2013)

The literary aspect of Tolkien needs to be addressed, because for all his expressed intentions that The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Books of Lost Tales, etc were all “subcreated” mythologies or “recaptured” languages & mythologies of a distant past, the texts are explicitly literary works, published for a modern audience.  That that audience has embraced Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems inarguable from the billions of dollars that the films have made, but in these concluding blogs on the importance of “medieval language & literature,” I think its important to see how Tolkien’s books themselves were viewed by the literati of the 20th Century.

J.R.R. Tolkien (in 1955; Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

J.R.R. Tolkien (in 1955; Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

First up, then, the review of the concluding book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by one of Tolkien’s former students, the Anglo-American poet, W.H. Auden, who himself later became (like Tolkien) a professor at Oxford, and considered by some to be one of the greatest 20th century poets (he was also the Chancellor of American Poets from 1954 to 1973).  In the review, you’ll note that Auden praises Tolkien’s work, and also touches upon many of the matters we’ve been assessing with respect to medieval language & literature — Auerbach, philology, mythology, philosophy, theology, existentialism, folklore, etc.

Next time, I’ll present some contrary/negative views from literary critics, and then wrap up this series on medieval literature with some concluding thoughts.

Thanks for visiting!

Best,
A.J.

W.H. Auden, c. 1956 (pic by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

W.H. Auden, c. 1956 (pic by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

W.H. AUDEN’S BOOK REVIEW: ” ‘The Return of the King’: At the End of the Quest, Victory” (The New York Times, 1956)

‘In The Return of the King, Frodo Baggins fulfills his Quest, the realm of Sauron is ended forever, the Third Age is over and J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings complete. I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte.

The Shadow of Sauron (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King; art by Ted Nasmith

The Shadow of Sauron (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King; art by Ted Nasmith

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

The difficulty in presenting a complete picture of reality lies in the gulf between the subjectively real, a man’s experience of his own existence, and the objectively real, his experience of the lives of others and the world about him. Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives, made for a short-term or long-term purpose; the actions I take, that is to say, are less significant to me than the conflicts of motives, temptations, doubts in which they originate. Further, my subjective experience of time is not of a cyclical motion outside myself but of an irreversible history of unique moments which are made by my decisions.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Quest Motif in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2001)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Quest Motif in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, 2001)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
For objectifying this experience, the natural image is that of a journey with a purpose, beset by dangerous hazards and obstacles, some merely difficult, others actively hostile. But when I observe my fellow-men, such an image seems false. I can see, for example, that only the rich and those on vacation can take journeys; most men, most of the time must work in one place.

I cannot observe them making choices, only the actions they take and, if I know someone well, I can usually predict correctly how he will act in a given situation. I observe, all too often, men in conflict with each other, wars and hatreds, but seldom, if ever, a clear-cut issue between Good on the one side and Evil on the other, though I also observe that both sides usually describe it as such. If then, I try to describe what I see as if I were an impersonal camera, I shall produce not a Quest, but a “naturalistic” document.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest ("Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King," Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Arthurian Grail Quest (“Carbonek, Castle of the Fisher King,” Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Knightly Ethos of "Romantic Chivalry" (Frank Dicksee, 1885)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Knightly Ethos of “Romantic Chivalry” (Frank Dicksee, 1885)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
Both extremes, of course, falsify life. There are medieval Quests which deserve the criticism made by Erich Auerbach in his book Mimesis:

“The world of knightly proving is a world of adventure. It not only contains a practically uninterrupted series of adventures; more specifically, it contains nothing but the requisites of adventure… Except feats of arms and love, nothing occurs in the courtly world-and even these two are of a special sort: they are not occurrences or emotions which can be absent for a time; they are permanently connected with the person of the perfect knight, they are part of his definition, so that he cannot for one moment be without adventure in arms nor for one moment without amorous entanglement… His exploits are feats of arms, not ‘war,’ for they are feats accomplished at random which do not fit into any politically purposive pattern.”

And there are contemporary “thrillers” in which the identification of hero and villain with contemporary politics is depressingly obvious. On the other hand, there are naturalistic novels in which the characters are the mere puppets of Fate, or rather, of the author who, from some mysterious point of freedom, contemplates the workings of Fate.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Shelob's Retreat," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Shelob’s Retreat,” by Ted Nasmith)

Tolkien's "Lothlorien "(The Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

Tolkien’s “Lothlorien “(The Brothers Hildebrandt, 1977)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
If, as I believe, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded more completely than any previous writer in this genre in using the traditional properties of the Quest, the heroic journey, the Numinous Object, the conflict between Good and Evil while at the same time satisfying our sense of historical and social reality, it should be possible to show how he has succeeded. To begin with, no previous writer has, to my knowledge, created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail.  By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices to this last volume, he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world.

Mr. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own: it includes, for example, elves, beings who know good and evil but have not fallen, and, though not physically indestructible, do not suffer natural death. It is afflicted by Sauron, an incarnate of absolute evil, and creatures like Shelob, the monster spider, or the orcs who are corrupt past hope of redemption. But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader’s sense of the credible is never violated.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auden's Talismans of Good & Evil ("Frodo in Mt. Doom with the One Ring," Tolkien's RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Auden’s Talismans of Good & Evil (“Frodo in Mt. Doom with the One Ring,” Tolkien’s RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
Even the One Ring, the absolute physical and psychological weapon which must corrupt any who dares to use it, is a perfectly plausible hypothesis from which the political duty to destroy it which motivates Frodo’s quest logically follows.

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Themes of Good vs. Evil in John Milton's "Paradise Lost" ("Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell," William Blake, 1808)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Themes of Good vs. Evil in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (“Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell,” William Blake, 1808)

Milton's Paradise Lost ("Satan Presiding at Council," Gustave Doré)

Milton’s Paradise Lost (“Satan Presiding at Council,” Gustave Doré)

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) "Return of the King" (New Line, 2003)

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) “Return of the King” (New Line, 2003)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation in the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Good vs. Evil in Tolkien's RotK ("The Witch King of Angmar & MInas Tirith," John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language and Literature: Good vs. Evil in Tolkien’s RotK (“The Witch King of Angmar & MInas Tirith,” John Howe)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head, and his eye is kept toward Gondor and away from Mordor and the Mount of Doom.

Billy Boyd as Pippin and "The Palantir of Orthanc" (from Tolkien's RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Billy Boyd as Pippin and “The Palantir of Orthanc” (from Tolkien’s RotK, New Line Cinema, 2003)

Further, his worship of power is accompanied, as it must be, by anger and a lust for cruelty: learning of Saruman’s attempt to steal the Ring for himself, Sauron is so preoccupied with wrath that for two crucial days he pays no attention to a report of spies on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, and when Pippin is foolish enough to look in the palantir of Orthanc, Sauron could have learned all about the Quest. His wish to capture Pippin and torture the truth from him makes him miss his precious opportunity.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("The Wrath of the Ents," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“The Wrath of the Ents,” Ted Nasmith)

[W.H. Auden’s Book Review, continued]:
The demands made on the writer’s powers in an epic as long as The Lord of the Rings are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds — the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling — but I can only say that Mr. Tolkien has proved equal to them. From the appendices readers will get tantalizing glimpses of the First and Second Ages. The legends of these are, I understand, already written and I hope that, as soon as the publishers have seen The Lord of the Rings into a paper-back edition, they will not keep Mr. Tolkien’s growing army of fans waiting too long.

Mr. Auden is the author of “Nones” and “The Shield of Achilles” among other volumes of verse.’— W.H. Auden, January 22, 1956 [End of Auden review]

For more information on W.H. Auden, here’s the Wikipedia link:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._H._Auden

Next time:  Negative Literary Critiques of Tolkien’s Works (Wilson, Bloom, & Moorcock)

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