[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning: https://randallfcurtis.com/2016/01/02/the-dangers-of-fantasy/).
It has now become common knowledge that Tolkien explained a major motivation for his forays into Middle Earth. He loved the mythologies of other cultures, and he believed that England was lacking in a mythology of its own. He was exploring the possibility of providing England with a mythology of his creation.
I am far from being an expert on English culture in Tolkien’s lifetime, but I wonder if Tolkien’s assessment was entirely accurate. The British Isles were home to a collage of various mythologies from its various constituent peoples, and the British Isles were the incubator for the great myth of King Arthur. However, even more foundational than these was the prevalence of Greco-Roman mythology and the Bible – as was the case in the much of the Western world. Any casual student of Shakespeare knows that it is impossible to understand much of the allusions of the Bard without an extensive knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology. Especially after the translation of the King James Bible, allusions to the Bible also become commonplace in English literature.
It is hard for many Christians to see the Bible as mythology. Tolkien himself said that the story of Jesus is the greatest True Myth. However, the mythology of the Bible extends beyond the overarching story of Jesus. I suggest to anyone that they read the Prose Edda and some of the Viking Sagas as well as Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and then go back and read the Old Testament. There are broad similarities between such mythologies and the content of the Old Testament. The Old Testament has a creation story, and it has sagas of heroes (the patriarchs, the exodus, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and the other kings).
It is odd to me that Tolkien, a self-professed Christian, would suggest that England needed a mythology when the Bible was so readily available and generally familiar. What role was a mythology supposed to play that the Bible could not? I would challenge anyone to come up with some benefit of mythology that is not properly the role of Scripture. As believers we are grafted onto the tree of a Jewish faith sprung from a Jewish mythology, and we just have to be OK with that. According to Paul, we are to be cultural chameleons who find our true core identity in the truth of Scripture and the person of Christ. We need no other mythology.
What worries me most is that Tolkien’s project has succeeded too well. It is beyond my knowledge and wisdom to weigh how much of the blame to lay at the feet of Tolkien, but Tolkien’s end goal has been achieved to an extent that he would probably find distasteful. Not only is Tolkien credited with spawning a revival of the fantasy genre, but much of fantasy borrows heavily from Tolkien’s creations. It is difficult to escape elves, halflings (the non-copyrighted term for hobbits), etc. when reading fantasy, and I do not think Tolkien would approve of much of the contemporary fantasy that steals his ideas.
Beyond just the fantasy genre, our culture has taken the creation of mythology very seriously. Now most people base their cultural identity and worldviews on TV shows and movies. Instead of quoting the King James Bible or alluding to the labors of Hercules, we now quote Star Wars and Monty Python. Our heroes are not just Aragorn and Faramir, but also Batman, James Bond, William Wallace, etc. We even take the myths of the past and continuously rework them (incidentally, this is how mythology has always developed). Think of how Little Red Riding Hood is now generally told as a story about a werewolf. We have taken on the project of creating our own mythology and have carried it to the extreme. And we have made it one of the essential components of our culture.
Is this cultural situation what Tolkien wanted? Doubtful. Is it the logical outcome of Tolkien’s project to create a mythology? I think so. Is it healthy or beneficial? I think not. Is creating a mythology a properly Christian endeavor? Again, I don’t think so. We have our mythology. We have our heroes. With the help of the Spirit we need to take hold of the mythology of Scripture, rather than inventing a mythology that is more to our liking.