Much has been remarked about Tolkien's Catholicism and how this plays out in Lord of the Rings. Much less known, or more precisely much less tolerated are his earlier efforts to create the myths of Middle Earth, later packed by his son into The Silmarillion.
These stories are for the most part told at a high level of summary, which sucks a lot of the potential drama out of them, though to me at least they still hold some appeal. What interests me at the moment is their status and value qua intentionally created myths.
This is an area that's fairly new to me; I'm familiar with Joseph Campbell and get the idea that certain hero-types and other tropes reoccur through disparate mythologies, but the value of myths and their relation to religion and to modern entertainment is not yet clear to me.
Karen Armstrong argues that "mythos" is the important aspect of mythology, as opposed to "logos," or actual doctrine that you're supposed to believe. Religion deals with what is by definition beyond rational expression, and since we can't accurately say anything literal about it, we deal with it through stories. Hence, the best way to read, say, the Bible is allegorically. But as Dawkins points out, the lessons of some of the Biblical stories taken as allegories seem pretty horrible: Abraham being lauded for (almost) sacrificing his son is supposed to teach us what? That blind obedience is good? No, thanks; I'll pass.
So what do we see in Tolkien's world? Well, much of the same. Elves, the first-created children of Ilúvatar (the big god who's deist at best; his assistant gods whom he created are the ones actively interfering with things a la the Olympians) are summoned for their protection to come to the home-continent of the Valar (the assistant gods), and most do so, but eventually their pride--assisted by the lies of the bad god (Morgoth, i.e. Sauron's boss) which their pride opened them to--caused them to leave, back out into Middle Earth where crappy things happened to them for thousands of years until they eventually all slunk back to the Blessed Realm (during the Lord of the Rings). So, the moral is "stop being such ungrateful bastards who feel you have to think for yourselves and take control of your own lives!"
Maybe the most interesting element to me in Tolkien's setup is the place of humans: We're Ilúvatar's second attempt to create children (oddly, one of the lesser gods tries to make some of his own, i.e. the dwarves, and Ilúvatar gives him a conditional smack-down and says that his creations have to go to sleep for many years until after Ilúvatar's own creations are all active, and only then can they wake up and join the party), and the innovation is that we humans have been given "the gift of death." So whereas the elves (and Ents and some other things) have to just keep on going and going until they're all weary of existing for thousands and thousands of years, though they can maybe drop off to sleep or hang out in the halls of Mandos (like Valhalla), we get to die off, which gives us an existential challenge of getting out there and making something of ourselves before that happens. Yay!
And sure enough, in a later part of the story (the Akallabêth), the men that the gods love best, who get to live a few hundred years, be extra tall, and hang on their own island close to the Blessed Realm... they too get all prideful (and filled with lies, this time from Sauron in a less ugly guise than a big armored goon or a vaginal-looking eye on a tower), and resent the fact that the gods didn't give them immortality, so they violate the gods' commandment not to sail to the Blessed Realm, at which point their island gets sunk and the portion of Middle Earth where most of the story takes place also gets all flooded (so the Entwives, for you LOTR fans, are most likely all seaweed at this point. Sorry!), showing that once again, you bastards better all remember your places and not get too high and mighty, or the gods will smack you down.
In conclusion: I think these manufactured myths are an improvement over the myths of the Old Testament, with a lot less filler and commandments about stoning, and I find his blending of monotheism and polytheism opens up a lot of story options, with overt conflicts between gods yet a secret plan by the big god behind even those. Still, with Tolkien being so thoroughly Catholic, his myths retain a lot of the downers of his religion, i.e. man is a punk that needs to be kept in his place.
This leaves open the question of whether Tolkien has done us a great favor by providing something to engage our need for mythology that is less damaging than traditional religion, and beyond that, whether a good chunk of our popular entertainment is doing the same thing. In the Middle Ages, people's need for drama may not have had many more outlets than Biblical stories, but now we've got Spider-Man and teenage vampires and Dexter and all the rest of it. Does that fill the spiritual vacuum?
E.C. Gach says
It’s a shame that the realm of myth-making has been relegated only to the comic book creators and scifi/fantasy writers. There seems to be something about the fantastical that “legitimate” writers feel the need to avoid. I could be wrong not having a full grasp on recent literature, but I wonder how many nobel winners wrote something that could be considered to have created new myths or reworked old ones?
Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights are more than respected, despite their use of the supernatural and classical mythologies. However, a present day superhero movie gets barely an Oscar nod, not to mention the general distaste with which elites would discuss the merit of anything related to comic or video game subcultures.
With regard to the Silmarilion, I doubt I could continue to enjoy the trilogy without its richness.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I’m a fan of Haruki Murakami, who has supernatural elements in a lot of his books and is still a “literary” author. Also Paul Auster. (Maybe I’ll write about one of them here at some point.)
What’s missing in both of those guys is any sense of a total system. I don’t know; to me, there’s something satisfying in a richly developed, multi-layered created world, which you get in some authors (e.g. most of the connected works of Stephen King) and franchises (Marvel, Star Wars), but I recall reading somewhere that it’s a hallmark of good, evocative mystery-fiction to leave the mysteries unexplained, so, e.g. you DON’T give a bullshit pseudo-science description of what the Force really is. So, strangely, stories that work well on this level of pointing to the unknown (the main aspect of what we are supposed to need out of myth according to Armstrong) don’t lend themselves to system-building (one traditional aspect of myth which certainly affords some aesthetic satisfaction).
Other literary authors like Cormac McCarthy (The Road) and Jose Saramago (Blindness) take extreme, sci-fi like situations and try to see how people would act in them with relentless realism, so that certainly wouldn’t qualify as “myth-making.”
I have read the Silmarillion twice. However, my reading style generally means I have missed most of the mythos. My undergraduate studies were in history and it is interesting how this shapes my interaction with the texts. What I have seemingly been trained to do is attempt to tease out what might be ‘factually’ relevant information.
I believe (ie, I think I may have read it somewhere) that the Silmarilllion deliberately takes its style from the epic mode like the Illiad, Beowulf and such. At the time, I read it in that way. Or at least, in the same way in which I read the Icelandic sagas: respecting the mythical inclinations of it authors but at the same time trying to establish what might be useful historically. So the Silmarillion for me was about adding depth of understanding to the ‘history’ of middle earth. Apparently, I was into the trees and not the forest.
However, I do love the fanatstic, the strange and the mythic in literature, though I am not a great fan of the fanatsy genre per se. I find a lot of fantasy is just both so poorly written and so morally black and white as to be boring and repellent. I like Neil Gaiman whose background wasin the graphic novel; Sussana Clarke’s debut Strange and Norrell was magnificent; I enjoyed Murakami’s Wind up Bird Chronicle, and I am quite partial to Marquez. I don’t mind the absence of system so much. I find I have a personal preference for ‘little truths’ as they are much easier to incorporate into my rather incoherent world view. (Heaven forbid that I should be forced to tally re-examine my world view!) I like the process of discovery through contemplation which this encourages, as opposed to distasteful didacticism.
E.C. Gach says
I definitely agree about fantasy’s lack of quality writers. Neil Gaiman helped revitalize my interest in the genre for a while, in part I think, because of his rich use of ancient mythology for developing characters and tropes in his stories.
Thanks for the author suggestions.
Have you read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun – 4 novellas. Some genuinely strange and imaginative Sci Fi/Fantasy. The 4 titles in the series won, and were nominated, for multiple awards.
Daniel Horne says
Some minor fight-picking:
1. A problem with critiquing the meaning of allegories from ancient texts like the Old Testament (or the Odyssey, for that matter) is that we are completely de-contextualized from the cultural context of the original audience. Take, for example, Odysseus, who remains a heroic character suitable for children’s renditions of the Odyssey. (Just check Amazon.com.) But part of the “message” of the myth of Odyssey was to appreciate O.’s guile. But this is the same character who, in the Iliad, engineered the sack of Troy via the Trojan Horse. That’s an act which — if for no other grounds than martial chivalry — we would find deplorable today. (Think, for example, of our collective revulsion and resentment at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.) In fact, the Romans (see, e.g., Virgil’s Aeneid) took a much more jaundiced view of Odysseus for just this reason. But do we blame the Odyssey as flawed for transmitting a moral we find unacceptable today? Or do we accept that the Odyssey reflects the times in which it was created?
2. The same may be true for modern critiques of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s virtually impossible for modern society to comprehend the culture and mindset in which this myth was first created. And yet we do know that child sacrifice (and other abhorrent practices) was a fairly common practice among the early Canaanites, Israelites, etc. (In fact, child sacrifice appears to have been a fairly common practice in many different prehistoric, and even early historic, Mediterranean societies – see, e.g., Carthage.)
In other words, the drama of the Binding of Isaac would have resonated very differently to a Mark Linsenmayer who grew up in a Bronze Age society that accepted the normality, if not the necessity, of child sacrifice. It would have been an unpleasant duty for Abraham (i.e., “OK, let’s sacrifice a child, sure, but why _my_ kid?”). But not unthinkable in the way we currently judge infanticide.
So, we make an anachronistic critique when we abhor God for playing “chicken” with Abraham over Isaac. (Though some rabbis argue that it was in fact Abraham playing “chicken” with God, but that’s another matter.)
I may be confusing Karen Armstrong with another writer (and I don’t much care to defend her), but I think her point was that mythos is meant to resonate with its intended audience at the time. Thus, we shouldn’t critique the myth simply because ancient storytellers had more limited imaginations (see the Genesis myth) or more savage social practices (see the Binding of Isaac). If you agree with Armstrong’s point that it’s silly to critique the Bible over the empirical details of the Genesis myth, then it’s equally silly to critique the Bible over the moral details of the Isaac myth.
If you strip the Bronze Age worldview from Genesis or the Binding of Isaac, then you can arrive at debatable — but not insane or depraved — messages useful for religious thought. To wit,
(1) the origin of somethingness from nothingness must have had a prime mover, and
(2) it therefore follows that you owe a certain loyalty to God as your creator, ‘cos Father/Mother Knows Best.
(N.B., I do not buy into either of these propositions. I’m just saying that they’re no more silly than Plato’s Theory of Forms or his Ideal State.)
If the story of Abraham’s sacrifice were being created today, we would necessarily read a tale more apropos to our times. Say, for example, God demanding that Abraham take his _own_ life, and not that of his son. (I say “apropos” in that suicide would strike most people today as unpleasant, but not unthinkable.)
3. I don’t think it’s appropriate to describe Tolkein’s project as “myth”. The Bible, Norse sagas, and Greek mythology are all myths in that they were sincere attempts to explain a people’s origins, moral codes, etc. That is, myths are meant to be taken as essentially true. Tolkein obviously never meant his stories to be taken as true. He was just having a bit of fun mining and revivifying Norse and Germanic mythology, and even then, he did so largely to satisfy his predilection for playing with and reinventing dead Anglo-Saxon languages. It made for good storytelling, sure. But LOTR was not a myth; the Völsungasaga — upon which LOTR was partly based — was. This is important to the point I think you were trying to make, because if Tolkein’s stories were not meant to be taken seriously, then they could never fill the void you describe.
4. Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories might make a stronger case for “void-filling”, but even that connection is pretty attenuated, and perhaps doesn’t speak to your point, which is how to satisfy a need for mythology without the “destructiveness” of religion. I would refute your premises.
First, religion per se is no more destructive than is science – it’s all in how you choose to apply it. Late Heidegger argued that modern technology has been a positively damaging force. I disagree, but I disagree for the same reason that I don’t think religion is inherently damaging. It is our reptilian brain stem and monkey aggression that is inherently damaging. Both science and religion, if properly understood and applied, just might help us overcome our baser instincts. But if they fail to help us overcome them, that’s not the fault of science and/or religion, any more than my car is at fault if I run someone over while drunk driving. Don’t blame the vehicle, blame the driver.
Second, referring back to 3., Tolkein, Lewis, and other fantasy writers can _never_ engage our need for mythology, because fantasies are not mythologies. Fantasies do not attempt to provide serious (misguided or otherwise) metaphysical explanations for who we are, why we are, or how we got here. This is exactly what myth, religion, and science all attempt to do, with varying degrees of success. Fantasies, by contrast, try to distract us from the tedium of our humdrum existence. That’s fun, too, of course, but it’s like trying to compare love to sex; one’s an emotional experience, the other purely sensual.
Third, fantasies and folklore are not necessarily harmless to culture. All of the world’s most popular fantasies and folklore (interestingly, in both Asia and Europe) share the following elements: they praise egoistic heroism (at the expense of teamwork), martial combat (at the expense of negotiation), elitism (at the expense of social justice), demonization of the other (at the expense of empathy), and conquest (at the expense of cultivation). Societies unduly obsessed with such tales are capable of doing plenty of damage to themselves and others. Now, is that the fault of our fantasy/folklore tradition? Or is that the fault of how we, the monkey-brained, allow such fantasies to shape our cultural sensibilities to justify damaging others? And if it’s the latter, then why blame religion (or technology) for the same behavior?
Mark Linsenmayer says
Damn, D.H., you da man.
When I raised on one of the recent podcast episodes the point that what I saw as the uncontroversial idea that myths were developed as proto-science to explain natural phenomena, Seth and Wes dismissed that as bizarre nonsense, so this post was my feeble attempt to explore Armstrong’s division between logos (i.e. reason/science, which provides rational explanations) and mythos (which in some way provides an emotional relationship to the unknown). The danger, for Armstrong, with mythos is that we take the images used too literally, which leads us to idolatry. Instead of seeing, e.g. the statue of a golden calf as a symbol for something essentially unknowable, we worship the literal figurine, investing it with magical powers and personality.
On this view, religion qua mythos is never about making factual claims about the world, even “philosopher god” ones like saying there’s a prime mover or making Kant-friendly unprovable (but also unfalsifiable) metaphysical statements. So what is it about? What’s left? I’m still trying to figure out if there is anything left, or whether mythos on this view inevitably requires cheating, i.e. making allegedly factual statements.
Yes, I am implicitly asserting in my account above that religious claims, i.e. unproven metaphysical assertions taken on faith, are not good for us. Obviously I’m fine with toying with such things, and trying to evaluate their relative probability, but I follow the Humean line that skepticism is the only intellectually honest option towards them, as opposed to the Kantian line that since we can’t know either way, we can (and should) adopt them (and cling tightly!) for practical/moral reasons. I don’t think the attempt to make a definite line between things that can and can’t be investigated by science works in practice. You can argue that the origin of the universe is unknowable, but that doesn’t stop science from pushing and pushing back further and further with grounded speculations, and I find the argument against a prime mover that the mover would have to himself be complex and thus require explanation pretty convincing.
Religion is harmful (only) insofar as it makes us stop thinking. Of course, we always have to stop thinking at some point (thus the PARTIALLY examined life), but I would prefer to stop thinking on a provisional and pragmatic basis, such that if we’re challenged by something (e.g. if my worldview runs into someone else’s or my own apparent interest or new information arises), then we start thinking again. I think there are approaches w/in most religions that go some way in meeting this requirement.
If you buy this, i.e. that mythos is psychologically valuable yet shouldn’t be making serious metaphysical assertions, then it follows that self-consciously fictional mythos is better than real attempts to explain nature through myths (i.e. bad proto-science). I’ve heard it said that by pre-Christian Roman times, sophisticated Roman citizens didn’t really believe in their gods, but they served a function as part of the culture: a teaching tool, a way to make ethical points and spur more serious discussion about cosmological matters, and this is a function that’s still available to us today re. those very same stories, though as you rightly say, our different social context will limit their utility substantially. But if they’re just serving their function as literature, and if their fantastical character gives them some advantage in this realm over realistic fiction (i.e. it’s easier to act out cosmic dramas if you’re not limited a la Philip Roth or Russell Banks or some other modern literary author to realistic situations), then the purpose would be better served by fantasy stories consciously constructed to channel a current, usable moral zeitgeist.
Of course, actually sitting down and saying “I want to write stories that convey this modern moral lesson” would probably produce pedantic, depressing awfulness… it still needs to be done artistically, which means by necessity (I think) not fully articulating all the messages involved (i.e. they need to be FOUND by the author in the story, not preconceived and self-consciously and artificially stuffed in there).
I thought it interesting that Tolkien referred to his project as myth-making, not making up stories that are ripped off of past myths just to be fun stories and indulge his love of inventing languages, and if we take Armstrong’s account seriously, then I think we can take him at his word.
You are correct, also, in saying, of course, that fantasy stories can be harmful, in that they promote crummy ideals (see my recent David Brin posting and linked article here), but if the stories are not taken as dogma, or as “the greatest story ever told!”, doesn’t that make their damage easier to counter with other stories and explicit moral discussion? (I’m going to put together a post w/in the next day or two on “Dexter,” i.e. serial killer as super hero, to explore this a bit.)
Daniel Horne says
1. Re: the beginning of your post. Both Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster definitions support the notion that myths are (or at some point in history, were) by their very nature, meant to be taken as historical, and usually sacred.
M-W’s definition of myth:
“a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon”
My working definition of myth:
“a religion people have stopped taking seriously”
2. Re: Tolkien, the Inklings, and their self-described myth-making. You are correct, of course, that T. described his project as “myth-making”. When I say that LOTR was just Tolkien wonking around to have fun with languages, I was perhaps too flip. (And anyway, I think I stole the idea from some half-forgotten essay.) We may be having a quibble over the definition of myth.
I assert that what Tolkien described as his “mythopoeia” is not the same thing as “mythology,” precisely because his never demanded belief. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on mythopoeia describes it being criticized as “artificial mythology.” But Tolkien never believed LOTR could satisfy a human need for understanding our world in the same way that Christianity did, or even that Norse mythology once did for his Scandinavian ancestors.
Sure, Tolkien wanted to tell moral stories using elements from the myths he so enjoyed. But that’s certainly not what the ancient Nordics and Germans were doing with their religion/mythology. Human sacrifices to Norse gods were common – people died over this stuff. When medieval Sweden’s King Inge tried to end his countrymen’s blót sacrifices to Thor in favor of Christian practice, he was basically deposed and exiled. This was serious business at the time.
Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans took their religion (now-myth) as seriously as could be. They expected all others in their society to conform in worshipping Zeus, etc. The Greeks executed Socrates in part for “not believing the gods of the state,” as did the Romans with the early Christians.
Of course, no one really believes in Zeus or Odin anymore, so now we call it mythology instead of religion. But that’s nothing like Tolkien’s project. As you said, T. was a devout Roman Catholic of the old school, so much so that he was genuinely upset after learning that CS Lewis joined the Anglican Church. So I don’t think T. considered his myth-making to be myth-as-such; and if he did, he’d be wrong.
3. You state that “Religion is harmful (only) insofar as it makes us stop thinking.” I wonder if that’s so. See Bertrand Russell on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
“[Wittgenstein] has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.”
The older I get, the more I can relate to this. Religion, or mythology, or mysticism — however you describe it — meets a human need that fantasy just can’t. To some degree, that solace precisely is that of halting the vertigo created by endless thought.
I have moved beyond the need for myth – I now own an xbox. If you want to stop thinking I find it works a treat.
Seriously though, I can relate with the desire at times to end the vertigo.
I looked at the conversion of the Scandinavians to Christianity in my final year of history. Interesting stuff. A major concept within the northern concept of kingship was that the King was the ‘luck of the people’, and was responsible for maintaining the favour of the Gods. If he was deemed to have lost the favour of the gods – such as losing a battle, crops failing or general Ill fortune – he could be rightfully deposed, I think even sacrificed. But I am not 100% on that last point.
So, while the kings of Scandinavia were keen to introduce Christianity for a variety of pragmatic reasons – including a more exalted notion of kingship to stop that kind of thing happening – the people were not similarly keen on abandoning the gods – an act viewed as tantamount to wishing destruction on the people.
Daniel Horne says
1. Yes, I may have overstated my point. I don’t consider myth and religion and mysticism to all be the same thing, or equally satisfactory. I have no need or desire for myth, because it attempts to provide definite explanations for reality where none can be had (or where science does a better job).
But the concepts can sometimes overlap one another, like a Venn diagram. W.’s Tractatus has mystical elements without being mythical, in that it tries to describe how some things can’t be known, or at least be sensibly spoken of. Same with certain religious traditions (aspects of Sufism come to mind), or certain philosophical attempts (Jaspers’ concept of Existenz.) Or take the reception of Hawking’s & Mlodinow’s book, which, while absolutely worth reading, is ultimately a set of (highly intelligent and educated) conjectures being treated by some in the media as a grand explanation for our origin. When the media attempts to characterize elegant, but unfalsifiable, conjecture as truth, that’s myth-making, too.
2. There’s nothing you said about old Scandinavia that’s incorrect, but I think your last paragraph supports my point – what we now call myth and allegory was treated by its original believers as religion, and accepted as face value. That makes a world of difference. King Inge’s story is about as reliable and verifiable a history as any from medieval Europe. He wasn’t deposed due to crop failure (though, yes, that kind of thing happened) – he was deposed because he tried to get his own people to exchange one set of religious practices and beliefs for another. They weren’t having it. In other words, Tolkien’s and/or Armstrong’s genteel view on the value and power of myth misrepresent, I think, what those myths were, and what they represented. And therefore, to Mark’s point, I don’t think whatever power they held can be replicated in modern works of fantasy like LOTR.
3. And hey, I have an Xbox too. And a bottle of whiskey. They both serve useful and enjoyable functions, but yeah, the endless pursuit of physical experience no longer does it for me. Your point, if you meant it as such, is valid in that religion or mysticism or whatever is never going to be useful for everyone (I’m not sure it’s for me), or even for the same person at all times.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Just a bit more here from me:
Going to the dictionary re. a definition of myth is not going to help when what’s at question is a theory (Armstrong’s; that was my starting point for this question) of what myth’s predominant role was historically.
From what I understand, yes, myths were developed in part to explain natural phenomena, but when we hear that we interpret it according to our modern scientific perspective and think then that myths are just proto-science, when they played a much larger role than that, just as now children who are brought up in a religion think of the elements of their religion in ways that are not primarily explanatory.
Myths and legends served as their religion (which of course played a different role in their lives than religion does in modern lives), their literature, their history, their entertainment, and the fact that leaders were often considered gods or representatives of the gods and past heroes morphed into demi-gods or ancestor gods or whatnot complicated all of this.
So Armstrong’s point is to try to bring out these not-as-well-recognized or understood functions of myth, and she very much conceives as mythology as primary and overtly symbolic and hence mystical, pointing at, like Wittgenstein, what can’t be spoken of. Moreover, this is what I understand to be the position of modern liberal Christianity (according to Geoff, I believe): Take Biblical stories like the resurrection or Job or whatnot and read them as allegories for the human condition, pointing at the unspoken but at the same time providing some food for metaphysical contemplation and/or ethical action.
In this way, I do think Tolkien was channeling the great tropes of myth, with moral stories intact, about the role of evil in the world and our chances regarding it, about paths that a people set themselves (Feanor’s oath, I have in mind, for those that have read it) in defining their cultural goals that can lead to ruin, of honor and bravery and pride and temptation and all that. Despite my critical words in my original post here about some of the lessons, Tolkien really gives us a thick and juicy hunk of meat to tear at here, and I could easily see one of those philosophical compilations going into the lessons to be learned from it (crazily enough, if I search philosophy Silmarillion in google, my own post comes up as the #2 hit, with this short article as #1: http://www.xamuel.com/silmarillion-analysis/).
Now, does this self-conscious myth-making serves the mystical purpose of gesturing to the unknown? That I’m not sure about. Certainly it can, and Tolkien’s system in particular leaves enough unsaid (Ilúvatar, the original big god, gets out of the explicit picture quickly but is clearly omniscient and running the show in some way, whereas his creation and assistant Manwё the Zeus-type sky god has to get his news of the word from eagles and from sitting on a high throne.) to lead one to contemplate God in a way that I guess is quite compatible with Catholicism.
Daniel Horne says
I may be missing your point, or perhaps I’m talking past you. I don’t think we can have a meaningful discussion about what myth’s predominant role was historically, unless we agree about what a myth is, and what its characteristics are and were. I (perhaps incorrectly?) understand Armstrong (and to a lesser degree Tolkien) to conceive of myths as essentially metaphor, allegory…in other words, not to be taken literally, not to be taken at face value.
Further, I understand Armstrong to argue that this is not simply a way we can view myths today, so as to salvage some value from them. She thinks this is how they were also viewed _at the time_. If this is essentially her argument, then I don’t think the history supports her. I think history supports the idea that many, if not most, people took these myths _literally_ at the time, just as many, if not most, people take Christianity “literally” today.
This is what I mean when I mentioned earlier that Armstrong is a polemicist. She takes a good point about how ancient myth and current religion can and should be read metaphorically. But she goes too far to suggest that this is how most (or all?) people understood these myths at the time. Or, at least, I think history provides ample anecdotes demonstrating that most people took this stuff literally at the time, just as most organized religion is taken as literally true today. I’m sure she could provide anecdotes showing that there were ancients who took a more philosophical / theological bent toward mythology at the time. (Xenophanes? Or was he just a skeptic?) But does that really help her argument? And is her history convincing?
W/r/t Tolkien, I’m sure he found his stories (and the old myths) compatible with his Catholicism – and in fact his arguments re: myth seem to have helped CS Lewis reconsider Christianity. (Though — reading CS Lewis’ apologies — seems more than willing to take much of the Bible at its word, and not simply allegorically.)
Anyway, I guess my point is that there’s a world of difference between Tolkien’s LOTR, and Hesiod’s Theogony. No one really believes the stories of LOTR as representing truth in any meaningful sense. (Or at least, no more than any work of sincere fiction does.) But many hundreds of thousands (millions?) of ancient Greeks and Romans built expensive temples to, and actively sought the favor of, the Greek gods described (invented?) by Hesiod. You just don’t do that unless you’re taking the gods with utmost seriousness, and you can’t do _that_ without a literal belief in some form of salvation, whether in this world, or some other one.
I think Ross Douthat’s review of “The Case for God” makes the critique of Armstrong better than I can:
“[I]t’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.”
Not that I share Ross Douthat’s sensibilities on religion, either. But I agree with him that Armstrong pushes a good point too far.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Daniel, I started a new post on this: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/09/24/karen-amstrong-russ-douthat-and-the-functions-of-religion/.
I agree with most of what you’re saying here but still think we shouldn’t take the bundling disparate elements in ancient religion at face value, not so much because the attribution of literal beliefs in ancient myths is inaccurate as not the whole picture. You’re right, she is a polemicist, in that she has something specific she’s trying to pull out a historical analysis, but I will be charitable and say that it’s still a trend she found in the historical readings (e.g. she talks about St. Denis a lot as particularly representative of what she has in mind) and not just something she’s imposing on the data.
But as I have now spent way too much time this morning thinking on this, I need to cool it.
Just watched an interesting Documentary on the construction of the myth of Merlin. Covers origins, development and uses of the Myth down the centuries, including a section on C.S. Lewis and Tolkein’s Gandalf as Merlin.
SBS has full episodes on its web pages, generally after first run I believe if anyone is interested
gavin gee-clough says
where does myth end and history begin? its a somewhat arbitrary line, as tolkien himself indicates: middle earth being europe around 10 000 years ago.
tolkien believed in atlantis (he had visions of being there) and he was a mystical monarchist (return of the king). tolkien did not dig the idea of secular democracy.
as far as abraham, and the book of job also, what these stories are meant to indicate is the dimension of experience known as faith – see kierkegaard’s ‘knight of faith’ concept.