Thursday 28 October 2010

Real history becoming more mythical


[Jeremy] ..."Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernably significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like."

"In any case, these ancient accounts, legends, myths, about the far past, about the origins of kings, laws, and the fundamental crafts, are not all made of the same ingredients.

They're not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots."

"Roots in what?" said Frankley.

"In Being, I think I should say," Jeremy answered; "and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and the designs of Geography - I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance.

"A sort of parallel to the fact that from far away the Earth would be seen as a revolving sunlit globe; and that is a remote truth of enormous effect on us and all we do, though not immediately discernable on earth, where practical men are quite right in regarding the surface as flat and immovable for practical purposes.

"Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the Past.

"And mind you, there are real details, what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea shape, of individual men and their actions, that are caught up: the grains on which the stories crystallize like snowflakes.

There was a man called Arthur at the centre of the cycle."

The Notion Club Papers - page 227.



At the end, I think Tolkien is alluding to the small, and unpredictable, 'facts' around which myth grows.

There was a man called Arthur at the centre of the cycle - the idea is that someone of this name triggered the myth-making.

Somehow, once a myth has grown, it is impossible to discern these specific facts, and their relevance is either limited or non-existent (because it is the myth which matters) - yet it is also a fact that the myth grew here and nowhere else, around these seeds and not others.

This may simply be a case of human knowledge being very limited.


I saw this process at work when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash, under sordid circumstances.

Immediately beforehand she had been unpopular; immediately after she was killed a vast mythic edifice mushroomed and pushed aside everything which had been before.

There was a grain of truth, or a few grains, at the centre of this myth - but mostly it was an archetypal construction of a beautiful princess and devoted young mother, filled with compassion for the suffering world - there seemed to be elements of Mary - Mother of God, Galadriel and Cinderella.

It did not last, The oral process stripped it away because - well who really knows why.

Probably because the Diana myth did not fulfill a need or serve a purpose; but then, who really knows - explicitly - what specific purpose individual myths are serving?


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