Tag Archives: the lion the witch and the wardrobe

Myths and Middle Earth

I have a habit–whether bad or good, I don’t know–of completely reading everything I decide to read completely. That might sound like an obvious thing to do, but sometimes doing it can be less than helpful. For example, I read C.S. Lewis’s Medieval and Renaissance Literature in its entirety–including the parts of which I could make little sense, as I am not an English professor and do not speak Italian. “Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s ‘Comedy'” wasn’te very helpful, particularly since the Italian parts were not translated. But I had requested the book as a gift and wanted to say I’d read all of it, even if I did not understand what I read.

I did a similar thing after being given J.R.R. Tolkien’s most recently published book (courtesy of his son Christopher)–The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. The focus of the book is Tolkien’s poetic retellings of the Norse legends about Sigurd, Brynhild, Gudrun, Gunnar, and others who interacted with them. But to thoroughly explain some of the unfamiliar details of the legends, the book includes extensive commentary sections (longer than the poems themselves). Needless to say, I read the commentaries. I doubt that I’ll read them again in their entirety, but they were certainly helpful–much more so than skimming Dante’s untranslated Italian.

Not only do the commentaries give mythological details, they also adddress how certain portions of the mythologies became part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And even without the commentary sections, it is difficult not to hear the echoes of Middle Earth. The portion about Sigmund, who lived as a smith in the woods, and his evil son Sinfjötli brings to mind Eöl the Dark Elf and his son Maeglin in The Silmarillion. And when Gunnar, Högni and the other Niflungs are trapped while fighting the Huns, it calls up thoughts of the Mines of Moria. Sigurd & Gudrun offers a brief look into the just what myths were refashioned into the stories about Middle Earth.

The first poem of the book starts at the very beginning of Norse mythology–the creation of the world.

The Great Gods then
began their toil,
the wondrous world
they well builded.
From South the Sun
from seas rising
gleamed down on grass
green at morning.

Poems then describe Sigurd’s birth, his slaying of Fafnir the dragon, and his meeting Brynhild the Valkyrie for the first time. But soon Sigurd’s life begins to go wrong. He marries Gudrun by accident, and Brynhild, wed to Gudrun’s brother because of an unwise oath, jealously orchestrates Sigurd’s death. Gudrun’s world collapses–she is married to Atli (modeled after Attila the Hun), and she kills him and their sons after he kills her brothers. Put like that, the story sounds like a bad soap opera, but Tolkien preserves the grim tone of the original Norse myths. Tolkien elicits some pity for Gudrun, but the main emotions are anger and a harsh laughter. The story is deadly serious, not melodramatic. This is a world where women do not cry. (They prefer killing their husbands.)

The resemblance between Tolkien’s Norse world and Middle Earth is fascinating. It usually is difficult to trace the development of a story in the writer’s mind. Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote in Of Other Worlds that his fiction was based largely on pictures that had appeared in his head. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe began with a picture of a faun in a snowy forest, umbrella in hand, that he had first thought of when he was sixteen. Tracing the development of Tolkien’s personal mythology, while complicated, is at least possible, while tracing the development of pictures in Lewis’s head is not. People do not generally talk or write a great deal about the pictures in their heads. But people do talk and write about mythology, especially if it is closely tied to their career, as it was to Tolkien’s.

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun is yet another reason for me to appreciate Christopher Tolkien. Without him, these wonderful pieces would never have been published. Tolkien’s poems are fascinating in their own right, and the commentary sections, however long, are helpful. But anyone interested in Tolkien’s fantasy writings should, for their own sake, be familiar with this book. Reading Sigurd & Gudrun is a good introduction to the mythological part of Tolkien’s mind, without which there would have been no Middle Earth.


Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Mythology


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Fantasy, Realism, and Missing the Point

My first real exposure to fantasy came when I was seven years old, and my mother was trying to expand my literary horizons. I vaguely remember her reading Charlotte’s Web, The Silver Skates, and at least three of the Little House books aloud. And then, one day, she brought home The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I really don’t understand what made her pick that particular book; I can only guess that she saw it on a list of recommended children’s books, or that someone suggested it to her. It wasn’t until years later that I learned just how little she likes fantasy novels. I read the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit to my younger brother, and she repeatedly declared that I was corrupting him. (How she stood reading LWW the whole way through, I’ll never know.)

“I like realistic fiction,” she told me, in a calmer moment (that is, one in which she wasn’t accusing me of child ruination). “I don’t like stories that have nothing to do with the real world.” Dislike of fantasy, in her cases, was partly preference, and partly an upbringing that included little exposure to fantasy or fairy stories.

My mother was speaking about her personal preferences. There are those, however, who take their dislike of fantasy more seriously. Such as the academic who said any boy that disliked The Lord of the Rings lacked heart, but that if the boy remained a fan by the time he reached adult hood, he probably lacked a brain. But by responding in such a way, the academic revealed that he did not understand what fantasy is about. To call fantasy “childish” or “unrealistic” or “escapist” entirely misses the point.

All literature communicates value, but in the fantasy genre, the communication of value is absolutely vital to the story. As a result, most fantasies focus on a struggle between good and evil. Those that lose this focus–whether by muting the difference between good and evil, or by using the fantasy genre to tell a normal love story, detective story, etc.–often fail to meet the demands of the genre. Sometimes the good-vs.-evil struggle is very obvious, as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings. In other stories the struggle isn’t as obvious. For example, in George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example, there is no single evil opponent. MacDonald includes villains in his writing, but none with the singular power of a Dark Lord or White Witch. The story’s central conflict occurs within Anodos himself: “Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my shadow.”

In his book Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith writes of fantasy’s moral focus, “Such momentous truths are in the realm of the unseen, but fantasy can express them in symbolic form.” He goes on to note that fantasy’s “spiritual orientation” can be abused, but that it has resulted in many great works of fantasy embodying Christian truth, with most of the groundbreaking stories in that genre being written by Christians. By bringing readers outside of our world, fantasy writers have more room to communicate value symbolically, something that presents more challenges for writers of realistic fiction. That does not mean that fantasy is allegory–it usually isn’t–but rather that it has an otherworldly focus.

As a result of its otherworldly focus, fantasy by nature stands in opposition to materialism. Materialist attempts at fantasy do exist, but most fantasy does not fall into that category. At the same time, fantasy can help us better appreciate the material world in that it encourages a sense of wonder toward the natural world–something not easily learned from a science textbook, however “practical.”

Perhaps it’s time that we redefine “practicality.” If a book helps us to focus in a wholesome way on the eminently real spiritual world, and inspires a sense of wonder toward the physical world, its results are far from impractical. Rather, fantasy develops aspects of the human personality that a diet of strictly realistic fiction may leave undernourished.

C. S. Lewis once described a woman who struggled with this very sort of undernourishment:

A lady (and, what makes the story more piquant, she herself was a Jungian psychologist) had been talking about a dreariness which seemed to be creeping over her life, the drying up in her of the power to feel pleasure, the aridity of her mental landscape. Drawing a bow at a venture, I asked, “Have you any taste for fantasies and fairy tales?” I shall never forget how her muscles tightened, her hands clenched themselves, her eyes started as if in horror, and her voice changed, as she hissed out, “I loathe them.”

I don’t expect people who, like my mother and the psychologist with whom Lewis spoke, to read this post and immediately develop a love for fantasy. But I suggest that we reject the accusation that fantasy is unrealistic. Of course it is unrealistic in that it doesn’t deal with the earth as we know it. That is precisely the point. There are certain things that strict realism will find more difficult to accomplish, and these are the very things at which fantasy excels.

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Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Fantasy


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