some beginning thoughts on myth & fantasy; or, a classicist’s foray into tolkien

I am a latecomer to the genre of high fantasy. I come to it not as a fan of fictional worlds (although that is a consequence), but primarily as a classicist trained in studying mythological texts. It is only in the past few years that I have become increasingly interested in classical reception; that is, how successive audiences have received, reinterpreted and reused Graeco-Roman mythology. This has led to my growing interest in how classical mythology is adopted and adapted into popular modern art and literature.

My academic training has certainly equipped me with a theoretical framework for approaching mythological texts. As an MA candidate in Classics writing a thesis, I had to not only understand and use theory, but also defend my use of it. I became comfortable using Foucauldian discourse analysis, feminist theory, gender theories, and, of course, Lévi-Strausse’s structuralism to understand classical texts. This, I believe, is one of the enduring legacies of my MA degree: As I read any work of fiction, watch a movie (which, alas, I do all too infrequently) or even a TV show, a part of my brain is always churning away at some point asking questions. What genders are being constructed and how? What kinds of power dynamics are happening, and how does this relate to gender roles? How are women’s roles constructed? What type of thinking is happening here? What is the underlying invariant that this work explores? And, most importantly, WHY is this happening the way it is?

I began my venture into high fantasy accidentally, reading the first four books of Martin’s GoT series during the last spring of my MA. I binged on them between writing drafts of thesis chapters. They were an escape, but they also enthralled me as I began to apply my thinking skills–at first unwittingly, but then more consciously. As my ideas of how I could apply my theoretical toolkit to these texts increased, so did the questions I wanted to investigate, and thus my interest in epic fantasy grew. As a late comer to the epic fantasy party, I have a lot of catching up to do. Thus far I have only read the first five books of GoT (that’s all that’s out) and The Hobbit; I am currently a third of the way through Silmarillion with the rest of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy lined up next. Forays into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Pratchett’s Discworld and Riordon’s Percy Jackson series are also planned, as is a re-reading of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I might even be convinced to finally dip a toe into Rowling’s Harry Potter. Plus, of course, reading some academic writing about these works. My goal in all this venture is not to become a know-it-all of fantasy literature; I am not interested in memorizing endless trivia as I have already burned up too many precious brain cells memorizing Greek conjugations, which I no longer use. Rather, I am interested in seeing how these works connect with Graeco-Roman mythology, whether it be openly, as in the Percy Jackson series, or through structuralist analysis.

The problem is, of course, the more I read the more ideas I get and the more questions I come up with to answer. That’s where my blog comes in. I want to use this space to sift out ideas, see what works, piece things together bit by bit. My goal isn’t to determine which work is best, or list characters or facts or argue about movie interpretations (although I plan to address that), but to look at how these works engage mythological ideas. The focus isn’t on facts, but ideas. (I’ve always been a big-picture thinker.) A warning that this will not be a series of neatly-written essays, but a rambling monologue!

Is it right to approach these texts as mythology and to relate them to classical mythology in particular? We are, after all, talking about multi-volume epics written by a single author and, in the case of Tolkien especially, influenced primarily by Norse mythology, not Graeco-Roman.  Graeco-Roman mythology, on the other hand, was a result of oral tradition. There is (and was) no one defined canon of Greek mythology; rather, there were as many variations to a story as there were tellers. The versions of myth with which you as an ancient Greek might be familiar depended on where you lived; when you lived; and whose version you heard, liked, and remembered. Myths were in constant creative reuse, and only a fraction of the art and literature which records them has survived to our day. I find students, when first approaching Greek mythology, want to pin down the “correct” version of a myth and to fit multiple myths into a single timeline (I was guilty of that desire myself, way back in the day), but myth simply doesn’t work this way. Multiple versions co-exist simultaneously and cannot be logically reconciled with one another. It’s a challenge to our linear, western way of thinking, but once we move past that we find a remarkable field of study.

To come back to the question, then, can works written by a single author be compared to works composed anonymously by many poets in many versions be compared? Yes. When we study Greek mythology we use a text that, at some point in time, has been set down by someone. The difference, I think, will be that a work by one author, such as Tolkien, will have a greater degree of internal consistency than a work created over many centuries by multiple authors, such as the Homeric epics. Homer, whoever and how ever many he was, set down the Iliad and Odyssey after centuries of oral composition and thus it contains an odd mixture of both Bronze Age and Dark Age society which leads to what could be considered inconsistencies in description (I am thinking here particularly of the difference between the Phaeacians’ Bronze-Age palace and Odysseus’ hovel with a manure pile out front– both these men are kings (basilei), but one’s palace is from the Bronze Age and the other’s is from the Dark Age.) Tolkien, on the other hand, went back to The Hobbit after writing LOTR to make slight adjustments to the story to ensure consistency. But my point is really this: at some point, we have written texts for Greek mythology and we also have written texts for epic fantasy. We have texts with which we can do a textual comparison.

And we can compare mythologies across culture and time. Structuralism allows for this; indeed, I would say structuralism demands this. A key aspect of structuralism is the search for the invariant; that is, the underlying ‘thing’ that a myth is about once you strip off the decoration. Lévi-Strauss describes it several ways in his English work Myth and Meaning; The image that works best for me is that of a landscape. Structuralism strips away the plants and trees and soils and looks at the underlying features of the landscape/myth and finds similarities here across mythologies. These are the invariants, and include explanations of good and evil, death and life, how to live, how to relate to the gods, and why we can’t see the gods. While mythological invariants are found across genres and forms of art, they are perhaps the most easily seen in myths proper and the fantasy genre.

Structuralism also includes the idea of pre-literate thought. It feels odd to discuss pre-literate thought when we are dealing with a work written by a very literate man in the 1950s, but that is the term we have so let’s use it. Pre-literate thought seeks to provide a total, global explanation for the world. Rather than addressing particular phenomenon and being content in not knowing the rest (which is what Lévi-Struass calls scientific thought), pre-literate thought seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation. I think this might be most easily seen in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which I am reading now, although it is certainly evident in The HobbitThe Silmarillion attempts to provide a global understanding of the world of Middle Earth (and includes all the invariants I listed above– but more on that in another post). Comparable mythological texts for easy comparison would be Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Finally, Greek mythology gives us epic and we are talking about epic fantasy. Now the epic is not unique to Greek mythology (think of the Old English epic Beowulf, which is also on my reading list), but we have the Iliad and Odyssey where we see the idea of the hero developed and the hero on a quest. Heroes on a quest…. sounds a bit like Bilbo, doesn’t it?

To summarize, then: A work does not have to make direct reference to Graeco-Roman mythology to be compared to it. We can use structuralism to compare myths across time and culture by looking at the invariants. Graeco-Roman mythology provides us with texts for comparisons, as well as the heroic epic cycle. Building on this, my ideas for further inquiry include:

  • more consideration of fantasy as myth;
  • construction of gender in The Hobbit;
  • relation between Tolkien’s books and the movies;
  • searching for the invariant in Tolkien;
  • evidence of the heroic epic cycle in The Hobbit and LOTR;
  • depictions of women;
  • depictions of monsters;
  • discussion of the nature of epic; and
  • comparison of origin myths.

But I know this list will grow much longer the more I read. Clearly, you can take the girl out of academics, but you can’t take the academics out of the girl!

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