Tolkien’s Bad Mythology

As a younger man, I was captivated by The Lord of the Rings and the fantasy world of Tolkien. The author began his work prior to WW1, but the bulk of it was published around the time I was born (which was 1956). It’s the kind of legendary stuff that remains popular even today, though it’s now less about the books and more about the movies and epic computer games.

To be honest, I now find the whole thing overly wrought, with too much detail and lacking coherence. There’s simply too much free form magic with no rules, no way to predict how a fresh branch of the tale will go. There are too many holes in the canon, and it’s too easy to sprout discontinuity when people try to add fresh material. I’m not fond of storytelling that invites the storyteller to be an arrogant smart-ass, throwing out curve-balls that no one can predict. You can’t be a nit-picking purist with Tolkien’s world. Thus, nobody notices much when the movies and games depart from the original story line.

But at least we can trace to some degree the underlying mythology. It’s obvious Tolkien was heavily influenced by European Medieval History and mythology, but wanted something not too far from English Christianity. Having lived through the horrors of WW1, he found industrial technology repulsive. Fair enough, since that first world war was a horrifying mismatch between primitive tactics and modern weapons. Troops were required to play by the rules and die in massive numbers. When smart people tried to introduce better tactics, they were treated worse than the enemies. So if the generals were determined to conduct war by their bogus fantasies, why should we not entertain ourselves with more human fantasies?

I’m not sure how conscious on intentional it was, but Tolkien’s work does a marvelous job of supporting the doctrine of the Fall. Despite the whole thing being a thinly disguised representation of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, he does get one thing right: No matter how hard and heroically you try, the Devil (AKA Sauron) will always come back again and again.

Oddly enough, the character of Sauron does a great job of warning us about the evils of scientism as a religion. The myth is that Sauron loved order and was rather patient about imposing his particular brand of order. He was exceedingly intelligent about what it would take to bring others under his control. It was all about the efficiency and effectiveness of things, and he could not imagine a better world than one that adhered to his sense of order and stability. This depicts quite nicely the world of globalist and imperialist dreams, ruled by a technocratic regime. But in Tolkien’s world, it just happens to include a certain amount of magic in place of technology.

So, on the one hand, you are supposed to absorb the virtue of heroism. On the other hand, it won’t make that much difference in the long-term outcomes. I suppose if you are really smart, you’ll see that it promotes moral virtue as an end in itself, simply because it is a part of goodness to oppose what is clearly evil. You’ll notice how it seems every manifestation of magical power carries a huge risk of evil, so that power is to be shunned by most. It’s almost a Luddite view of magic. It’s not a bad thing if a precious few specialists with immense moral strength can keep track of this knowledge, if for no other reason than to resist outbreaks of evil, but it’s best if we keep a lid on such knowledge. So Tolkien seems to pine for the days when math and technology were the domain of a very few wizards and priests and seldom used. The world is better and safer with only the power of heroism.

But if we break away from the Anglo-centric outlook, then it changes everything. Anglo-Saxon Christianity is a radical departure from the Bible. Scripture says the only real heroism is internal. That is, while you might spend some time swinging that sword against literal enemies, real heroes are much more concerned with fighting the enemies, Orcs and dragons inside their own souls. The one thing Tolkien gets right is identifying the temptation to compromise for the sake of some practical advantage. It’s better to die doing the right thing than to survive and bring evil to power. But then the Tolkien mythology stops there and doesn’t carry the image to its conclusion.

The Wraith Realm is not the sum total of what’s beyond death. This is the fatal flaw in European mythology: There is no sweet Heaven. There is no God directly active in His Creation from His bright courts above. There is no real motive for trying to be a good guy aside from a certain pride in leaving your name as a legend. Everything beyond death is dark and gloomy; the Other Realm is spooky and unpredictable.

The Bible says this realm is the big lie. It’s bathed in deception; it’s not ultimate reality at all. The whole point in digging into the moral powers of goodness is to catch glimpses of that sweet ultimate reality our God created in the first place. It helps us to tear away the veil of deception and see Eden. We must die to get there, but we get to sample it’s joys if we strive to defeat the deception within ourselves. And it’s altogether predictable, because the whole lore of moral power here is derived directly from moral power in Eden. Thus, our daily effort of life is peeling back the lies so we can discern the real truth of things. The mighty miracles here are simply the rather mundane reality in Eden.

About Ed Hurst

Avid cyclist, Disabled Veteran, Bible History teacher, and wannabe writer; retired.
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