span class=”et-dropcap”>I‘ve always been drawn to myths, especially Arthurian, Greek, and Norse. For instance, the story of Echo, the nymph who fell in love with Narcissus but was doomed to waste away until nothing was left but her voice. Even if early story-tellers were just trying to come up with an explanation for a phenomenon they didn’t understand, I’m drawn to the idea of creating a story for it; the scientific explanation for echos may be interesting, but the story brings them to life.
C.S. Lewis once said that “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.” Tolkien disagreed and wrote his poem “Mythopoeia” as a response. I’ll offer a brief explanation here, but I would recommend reading the poem for yourself.
“Mythopoeia” is Tolkien’s case for the value of myth and story-making; it is an argument from “Philomythus to Misomythus,” which means “Myth-lover to Myth-hater,” and the title itself means “myth-making.” Something I’ve encountered in Christian circles is a general distrust of myth, which I think echos Lewis’s statement; there is no truth in anything not in the Bible. Tolkien disagrees and argues that, in fact, there is truth in myth, and that it is actually our right to make up stories. Our proclivity for myth-making is something that comes from God—“Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues…”—and when we create, we catch a glimpse of God himself.
Tolkien uses my favourite poetic device in this poem: the caesura, which is a break in the middle of the line that causes the reader to slow down. The purpose of a caesura is to emphasize something for the reader; it’s like a sign that says “Stop and pay attention to this next bit.” This poem contains many, many lines that are broken up with commas, so I want to focus on a couple caesuras that are caused by a period or semi colon.
The beginning of the fourth stanza says:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
(bold emphasis added)
Tolkien is saying that we are more than just biology. Before we knew that stars were balls of gas, we saw them as living silver and gave them names. In the same way, firmament, the dome of the sky, is only a void of water and air until we have the imagination to make it something more beautiful. The caesura right before “there is no firmament” emphasizes that importance.
He also says in the ninth stanza:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire.
Tolkien recognized that there is evil in this world; there is suffering and despair. He argues that legend-makers create stories to help us find some comfort in that pain. How many of us can remember a great story or lyric of music that helped us through a tough time? We cling to stories when we have nothing left because they give us hope. I am reminded of Sam looking up through the clouds of Mordor, seeing the stars and remembering there is beauty that cannot be touched by darkness. I imagine a good story is like that.
I think “Mythopoeia” is a good argument for what we do in geek culture. We write our own stories, make up our own myths. Something I’ve also encountered in Christian and other circles is that my geeky interests are too fanciful to waste my time with. But if myth-making is in fact our right, even if you don’t believe it is God-given, we’re doing what humans have always done: creating stories to bring some beauty to this world. ♦