Forum: Letters of JRRT

Discussing: The Mythic and the Mundane

The Mythic and the Mundane

I keep thinking about JRRT's statement:

"In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes 'storial' and not mythical, being in fact *human* literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men."

There is something right here about a distinction between the mythic and the 'storial' (or, as I shall call it, the mundane) mode of story telling. There is something captured in the mythic mode (and I would argue, also in the fantastic mode, as per writers like Garcia Marquez & Rushdie, and also in the poetic mode) that is not amenable to the mundane story type. Writing about the divine and about the work of a deity are the subjects that quickly come to mind for me. I read him as saying that the mundane mode occludes certain qualities of Elves from our apprehension, and emphasizes the ways in which they are human.

This should not be a surprise to us. In letter 153 (a fascinating answer to a Catholic objection to parts of his work), he specifically says "I suppose that actually the chief difficulties I have involved myself in are scientific and biological - which worry me just as much as the theological and metaphysical (though you do not seem to mind them so much). Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring - even as a rare event:...This is a biological dictum in my imaginary world." So, the problem is not that Elves are a separate order of being (certainly not in the way that Dwarves clearly are). Rather, it is that their life experience is qualitatively different due to a radically different perspective on time and mortality.

To the degree that we tell tales in a mundane mode, we are going to submerge or efface that perspective - for we can only represent it through the words, constructs and reference points of humans. We may make a fascinating, odd and compelling individual, but it will be a look at the human qualities of the Elf, not the Elven - which may only be represented through a screen, looked at askance, seen in reflection, as though viewing an eclipse - the mythical mode.

However, that is not my true interest. What concerns me is how the shift into a mundane narrative style humanizes things which might otherwise remain outside of comprehension, and creates the space for identification, compassion and pity. Think of Sam and his observation of the Ithilien Rangers' attack on the Haradrim. There are two moments where the mythical becomes the mundane - when Sam sees the body of "the enemy," of the slain Harad warrior:

"[Sam} was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and it he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace..." "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits", The Ring Goes East, TTT.

The incomprehensible and alien enemy is humanized, made approachable in the narrative shift that Sam performs. This stands in contrast to the faces in the Dead Marshes, which remained horrific and fantastical, even though Sam could see their expressions - he cannot tell himself a story about them.

The other transformative narrative moment is from poetical to mundane, as Sam sees the Mûmak. Here, the movement is not from incomprehensible to pitiable, but from whimsical to terrifyingly real. I love the way the poem guides his thoughts:

"To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope. Big as a house, much bigger than a house, it looked to him, a grey-clad moving hill. Fear and wonder, maybe, enlarged him in the Hobbit's eyes...On he came, straight towards the watchers, and then swerved aside in the nick of time, passing only a few yards away, rocking the ground beneath their feet: his great legs like trees, enormous sail-like ears spread out, long snout upraised like a serpent about to strike..." "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits", The Ring Goes East, TTT.

The move to the mundane - the believable and knowable - plucks the Oliphaunt from poetic whimsy (where it *is* known, it *is* represented, yet it is not real) and places him squarely within Sam's narrative. This reminds me of a (misremembered, most likely) quote of Isaak Dineson's): Anything can be borne if you can put it into a story or tell a story about it. The act of narration changes what is being perceived, and (to extend the thought) the mode of narration brings with it a necessary set of screens, filters and forms of knowledge.

The most dramatic of these moments is when Frodo can look at Gollum and say "But I am still afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him." That is the point at which Gollum can enter the story as something besides a haunt or a mythical demon. He is transformed, though he does not lose his despicable qualities. However, he becomes an object of compassion for Frodo, versus Sam's simple forbearance from killing the wretch. To Sam, he is still Slinker/Stinker - a fantastical creature outside the bounds of understanding. JRRT notes "In the sense that 'pity' to be a true virtue must be directed to the good of its object. It is empty if it is exercized *only* to keep oneself 'clean', free from hate or the actual doing of injustice, though this is also a good motive." [Letter 246]. Frodo makes the imaginative (narrative) leap and is capable of true pity, whiles Sam's relationship to Gollum remains in an instrumental and fundamentally inhuman mode.

So, quite aside from whether we can write about Elves (of course we *can*, but they will be converted into humans), the explanation of narrative opens up a window on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others, and in what ways we can bring the odd, the outcast and the obscured into a humane condition through what we can/will say to ourselves about what we have encountered in the uncanny other. I think this is why certain admirable characters (such as Aragorn) can be so difficult to like - there is so much mythos in the mundane that he doggedly remains obscure to us.

How often our writing is, like Sam's sudden wonder at the dead warrior, a shock of recognition - a character does something to leave behind myth and poetry, fantasy and whimsy, and becomes the object of our compassion.




Re: The Mythic and the Mundane

I take issue with the notion that Elves are beyond our comprehension.
As Tolkien noted, if Elf/Human parings can produce fertile offspring,
we are different subsets of the same species. We have much the same needs and desires. The highness of Elves is a thing of culture, much as a child a pair of Art and Literature professors will likely have higher ideals and tastes than the child illiterate migrant workers. The two children in this example, while filled with different culture will still have the same desires, needs and drives. They will just be expressed differently because of their cultural programming. The Elves have a culture that values nature, art in all its forms, self examination and inner awareness, discipline, personal honor, acheivement, generosity, compassion, some degree of of asceticism and hard work. Are these things all that alien to us? The wag could say yes, but are they not that which the best among us aspire to? Elves big advantage over us is the wisdom of great age, or in other words, a large data base of actions and results to use to test current situations against. Consider that were today III 3020, Arwen would have been born about the time the Etruscans were founding Rome, Elrond's birth would be at the beginnings of Egypt and Galadriel would have been alive to witness the invention of agriculture. Such creatures would have more life experience to call upon, and that is what I see as their biggest difference. We still have many things in common. Vanity, Elves do not wear sack cloth. Elves fall in love, sometimes unreturned love. They can be petty and cruel, as in Sareos' public taunting of Turin. They can be prejudiced as in
Celeborn's hatred of Dwarves. They can make noble and foolish gestures, such as Fingon calling out Morgoth. They can bring on calamity from false pride, and lack of circumspection as in Fëanor and Celebrimbor. I do not see what about them in incomprehensible to us, other that it would be hard to imagine how long their memories are. Although at nearly 53, I am already surprised at the changes I have seen, and wonder less at how the world looks to the old gaffer who remembers the Wright Brothers as a kid and later Apollo and the Shuttle, than I did 30 years ago. I have come to accept the changes in life as I know it as a part of life. I know Elves had a hard time with this. Perhaps it is part of the habit of the old to become set in one's ways.

Their lives are mythic in that they are presented as a morality play.
Yet our lives are no less mythic. In a thousand years as scholars look at our struggle with the rennesance and its ensuing literal rocket ride, replete with demons like genetic engineering, atomic weapons, big brother information systems and the negation of hard work as a
requirement for survival as an epic tale. People in the midst of epics
seldom realize it. They are just struggling to survive. Did the Elves
in the mythic tales realize they were living out a myth for the future,
or were they just mad as Hell about the dead Trees and King and stolen gems?




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