The Effect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythopoeia

THE HOBBIT: UNEXPECTED JOURNEYI am often asked what brought me into the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While I do love the books, it wasn’t Narnia that first captured my imagination as a thinker. It wasn’t even the world of Middle Earth and Peter Jackson’s treatment of it–though I love both. It was actually a poem–and a rather obscure one–with a clumsy title, “Philomythus to Misomythus.”

For writers and academics that sit at the feet of the Inklings, the poem is well known. In the Fall of 1931, the theist C.S. Lewis was moving steadily toward a conversion to Christianity. On Sept 19, Lewis and Tolkien had a legendary conversation with another colleague and future Inkling, Hugo Dyson. They spoke late into the night, arguing about faith and theology and history. When the topic turned to “myth,” Lewis evidently made the comment that myths were “lies breathed through silver.”

While you or I may respond with a counter-argument, Tolkien went home and wrote 148 lines of heroic couplet from the Myth-Lover (Philomythus) to the Myth-Hater J R R Tolkien - Smoking Pipe Outdoors(Misomythus). The poem came to be known as “Mythopoiea” (Myth-Maker), and is an apology for the value of myths to tell the deepest truths of human experience.

I first encountered the poem trying to find a way to help students understand the value of fiction, fantasy, and myth. I stumbled upon this poem and was transformed from the very first lines:

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical               
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

I felt like I had found a poem that captured the things I believed: that we are more than our biology, that our human goings-on are more than the rusty hinges of history moving forward by the irresistible movement of atoms in their endless chain of cause and effect. In “Mythopoeia” Tolkien says “No!” to the reductionism of our age, to the popular myth that we are “just this” or “just that.” In doing so, he also resists Lewis’ claim that myths are silver-tinged lies:

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.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Tumnus & Lucy with Christmas packagesIn this apology we find that Tolkien also writes a manifesto. He moves past the subtle prejudices of Lewis’ myth-claim to the dreadful consequences behind them. In “Mythopoiea” Tolkien gives a generation of fantasy writers the impetus to tell great stories with great art. But he also stakes a claim against the vast wasteland of surging “progress.”

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

While we don’t have Lewis’ response to this particular poem, we do know that it worked. A week later Lewis converted to Christianity, believing that God did, indeed, use myth to tell truths about the world.

pipeThis conversation took place when Lewis and Tolkien were relatively obscure Oxford dons. History will remember them, though, for having attempted to be mythmakers themselves–to practice mythopoiea, to tell stories of deep truth in deeply creative ways. They did it quite differently–Lewis’ science fiction and Narnia and Till We Have Faces are quite different from the tales of Middle Earth–but it is difficult not to see the effect of this poem on the lives of these two men and on the history of English literature.

And on my life. “Mythopoeia” shaped my teaching, my scholarship, and my fantasy writing. I am hooked. I’ve included the entire poem here with the hope that others will find it equally transformative.

Philomythus to Misomythus aka Mythopoeia

by J.R.R. Tolkien, To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and   sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

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.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
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,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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54 Responses to The Effect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mythopoeia

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  5. jubilare says:

    Ohhh… this I love!

    Like

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  7. Amber Apple says:

    Wow. I’m speechless.

    Thanks for posting this, and all your work here!

    Like

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  11. Thank the Lord we are not fully changed. Such mercy even when betrayed.

    Like

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  22. I would love to share your thoughts with our literature students who are studying myth this year. How could I go about getting permission to reprint your article in a handout for them?

    Like

    • Hi Vicki. Anything I write is open to be used for education–just drop me a line if you use something @BrentonDana or at junkola [at] gmail [dot] com. I just like to keep track.
      I’m an educator, and love resources I bump into.

      Like

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  41. Ben Bishop says:

    Reblogged this on Breathed Through Silver and commented:
    This is an amazing post on the power of Myth. Check it out!

    Like

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