historical grey areas – history into myth, Myth into weapon.
“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.”
― Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings
It should be plainly evident to anyone after 15 minutes of conversation that i love me some tolkien.
But why? Am i hot on feudalism? Do i enjoy the punishment of archaic prose and stiff oddly tempoed poetry? Perhaps i just need an elaborate excuse to stare at Elijah wood?
Not entirely. The reason i continue to love tolkiens work in spite of it’s seeming conflict with my other convictions ( the lord of the rings is numbingly english at best and outwardly luddite at worst) is because of what the books actually are. Rather than stories about elves and wizards, the lord of the rings and it’s surrounding mythology represent an academic exploration of the nature of myth and historical narrative, and the ways in which these two forces shape national identity.
Tolkiens writing was born out of the late arts and crafts movement. While he may have been born towards the very end of the victorian era, he was clearly familiar with the works and ideas of the movement .(The name gandalf for example is clearly an homage to william morris’ fantasy novel The sundering flood, which tolkien is known to have read) Tolkiens interests in fantasy and myth run parallel to those of the victorian medieval revivalists and classicists who sought to reframe the present though the stylistic and artistic trappings of a romanticised past. Both tolkien and the victorian romantic fantasists recreated the past , took from it , and built new mythology from it. The arthurian legends of today owe far much to victorian reconstruction than they do to any real knowledge of post roman britain for example.
But where his predecessors either turned to fantasy as a means of escaping the uncomfortable present (as the pre raphaelites chose to when confronted by the rise of early modernists) or used it as a means of rejecting social change in favour of pastoral feudalist nostalgia (as with the victorian middle and upper classes) tolkien looked at his work as a means of understanding the formation of the present as the end result of the past.
Tolkien’s work is wagnerian , seeking to create a national origin story from dissonant elements of british folklore and history , to act as a counter to classical history and biblical origin myths.
Where wagner and tolkien might differ is that the latter never sought to have his mythology implemented.
Tolkiens work is dry and academic, anachronistic and a bit boring, But it is so because it is meant to be. It apes the mannerisms of history as it was presented at the time, appropriates the styles of legends to lend credence to new fantasies. The lord of the rings examines how history, when presented over time, becomes mythology,And how mythology , when presented as immutable to the academic revisions of historical discovery, can shape national identity.
Looking at it in such a way, Tolkien’s writing provides an excellent toolset with which to examine recent history. We can use his examination of the myth in progress to explore how our own now is being influenced by the myths of the past, and how mythology is already growing like a patina on the very recent past.
So what is a historical grey area ? these are those periods of time in which the recent past is allowed to develop from history (here being an event accepted to have happened but open to academic alteration as our understanding changes) into myth (here being an event said to have happened and immune to change regardless of evidence, due to its having been absorbed into the cultural psyche.)
To show this, I have two examples.
One is the sex pistols, The other is winston churchill.
Both of these things can be seen as existing in a historical grey area, neither disputable history nor concrete mythology.
In the case of the sex pistols, the myth is thus :the sex pistols were a major influence of british punk and counterculture and epitomised the movement of the time.
The history is that the sex pistols were formed by a much producer to benefit from the rise of the punk movement , being pushed to false prominence and working counter to the evolution of an organic counter culture movement.
While you’ll probably find alot of punks who don’t care about the sex pistols, the myth of them has shaped the way in which english, and in particular london, culture is projected around the world. Their history has, through branding , been mythologised.
Winston churchill is the far more insidious example.
The history is that of an upper class imperialist , a near genocidal incompetent given power at the last minute as a last measure , considered too dangerous to keep in control and ousted in order to stop him carrying on the second world war ad infinitum and trying to reassert british imperial rule over India and Africa.
But the myth of the man is now near impenetrable. It’s almost impossible to imagine him as anything other than a looming figure, cast in bronze and wreathed in smoke.
The effects of the myth are best seen in churchill. There have recently been calls for a proper assessment of the reality of the man. Many have pointed out his rampant imperialism, his unrepentant racism and many other factors that should come into play in our understanding of a national figure. The problem these calls have faced is that the historical fact of winston churchill is all but erased. Trying to convince those who see winston churchill as a figure of praise of the truth would be like trying to change the contemporary image of king Arthur to match his Romano British origin.
Too little is left of the reality. Churchills name is evoked at every opportunity by those who glorify him, from Brexit to council tax to TV licencing.
All history moves through this process at different rates, but Churchill is a figure just leaving the grey area. The last attempts to bring fact to bear on him seem destined to bounce off the bronze and fall flat.
Increasingly these myths are being shaped by the far right as a means of perpetuating division or protecting the legacy of tyrants.
We can see the process as the events of the 20th century fall further away from the present, holocaust denial grows. The desire to render history fallible as it passes through the grey area is insidious, driven by a desire to bend history to a particular narrative.
But we can do something. Tolkien used myths as tools. He chopped them up, mashed them together, and recreated new myths from the mixture.
We can beat them to the punch. As Boromir once said “Give Gondor the weapon of the enemy. Let us use it against him.”
To deconstruct modern myths in the making, we shouldn’t try to disarm them with fact. It will never work. Those who can be convinced, already are. The Brexit debate proved that you can’t beat emotional conviction purely by appealing to fact. Instead we should render myths inert by countering them with themselves. If we stay grounded in our historical understanding, we can use the evolving myths of the recent past to counter attempts to shape the mythological narrative.
We should strive to reclaim the evolving mythology in order to stop it becoming a mask for nationalism. Once we have reclaimed it, we can turn it back into history.
Churchill may have been a monster, but saying so won’t help to denounce those invoke him. but if we invoke him back, we force them to either abandon hid words as nothing but a mythical platitude , Or to try and defeat our misuse of his words through appeal to fact. Once either of these is done, the myth is broken.