The idea that Tolkien wanted to create a ‘mythology for England’ is still a popular notion among fans, and it needs to be clarified (and, to be frank, popularized) that this is no longer the prevailing opinion among scholars.
As Jason Fisher points out in his entry for “Mythology for England” in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: “This must surely be the most-often cited quotation that Tolkien never actually said” (445).
To find the source of the phrase, one must turn to the biography of Tolkien, written by Humphrey Carpenter. The idea of a ‘mythology for England’ is prevalent in two sections. First, Carpenter describes how Tolkien “read a paper on the Kalevala to a college society, and in it began to talk about the importance of the type of mythology found in the Finnish poems. ‘These mythological ballads,’ he said, ‘are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries with different and earlier completeness among different people.’ And he added: ‘I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English.’ An exciting notion; and perhaps he was already thinking of creating that mythology for England himself” (Carpenter, 59).
The second occurs a bit later, when Carpenter quotes the now infamous letter to Milton Waldman, which I will quote later. For context here, just know that Carpenter prefaces his excerpt from the letter with “And there was a third element playing a part: his desire to create a mythology for England. He had hinted at this during his undergraduate days when he wrote of the Finnish Kalevala: ‘I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English.’ This idea grew until it reached grand proportions. Here is how Tolkien expressed it, when recollecting it many years later” (Carpenter, 89-90).
So, Let’s dig into the text of the letter to Milton Waldman. Here is the pertinent excerpt:
“Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.’ (Letters, 144-145)
The initial part of this excerpt makes it sound as if Tolkien would indeed approve of the phrase ‘Mythology for England’, which has been applied to his work. However, the entire idea is couched in language that undermines the proposal: “Don’t laugh!…Absurd!” Suggesting that Tolkien no longer wished to create such a mythology, or at the very least no longer saw the mythology he was creating as connected with England.
To be fair, Verlyn Flieger always warns that one must pay attention to who Tolkien is writing to in the letters. In this case, Milton Waldman was a publisher who Tolkien wished to convince to publish both LotR and The Silmarillion.
It is also worth noting that a close reader of Letters will also find the unsent letter from 1956 to Mr. Thompson where Tolkien also references this desire, and his desire does not seem as dormant there as it does in the letter to Waldman. This is less valuable evidence because we do not know who the recipient was to be and Tolkien never actually sent the letter, meaning he could have been in the process of considering his opinion.
In her own discussion of this letter in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, Verlyn Flieger discusses this letter in her introduction. She reads the beginning and end remarks as indicating “a sensibility braced for ridicule” and that readers should still see that Tolkien “did not think his dream was nonsense or that his ambition was absurd, but that he took both very seriously indeed” (Flieger, xiv). Many other scholars have made similar claims and observations.
Perhaps the most notable scholar to promote this notion of the ‘mythology for England’ was Jane Chance. In her book Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, she claims that the first point made by her text is that “Tolkien wished to construct an overarching mythology that was embedded in all his published fiction except for the fairy-stories and his medieval parodies” (Chance, vii). Her entire venture in her text is aligned with this conception of Tolkien’s work.
Literary scholarship, however is both an art and a science. It is an art because we are always dealing with inexactitudes and uncertainties. We can never know what an author ‘truly meant’, because we always have to rely on words, an imperfect medium, to communicate meaning. It is a science because it addresses and considers new information as it comes along in order to update and improve our understanding.
Recently, scholars have begun questioning this perspective on Tolkien’s work.
The first to question Carpenter’s use of the phrase ‘mythology for England was Anders Stenström. In his article “A Mythology? For England?”, Stenström diagnoses how Tolkien never used the phrase “mythology for England” in his own writing. Instead, this phrase was first used by Carpenter in his biography of Tolkien. Unfortunately, because the phrase was indexed in quotation marks it made the phrase seem as though it was originally from Tolkien.
I would like to point especially to the work of Dimitra Fimi. Her text Tolkien, Race and Cultural History is an essential text for any aspiring Tolkien scholar because it is a linchpin of modern Tolkien scholarship.
In her text, one of Fimi’s brilliant analyses follows the development of Tolkien’s framing devices in his works. She carefully demonstrates how Tolkien tried multiple framing devices in different narratives, including time travel in The Notion Club Papers, etc. These earlier framing devices could allow Tolkien to make Middle-earth into a mythology for England: “This ‘framework’ [time travel] would still make the mythology ‘belong’ to England, since the underlying idea was that time travelling through dreams accessed the collective unconscious of modern Englishmen’s ancestors. Through the use of this narrative device, the legendarium would still be a ‘mythology for England’” (Fimi, 129).
She goes on to talk about how Tolkien moved away from time travel as a framing device. She ultimately discusses his use of the Red Book as the framing device for LotR instead of these other framing methods. She concludes with this brilliant summation: “Tolkien did not choose to use this framework [time travel] in the end and the link of the legendarium with England practically disappeared’ (Fimi, 129). Instead, ‘the ‘Silmarillion’ would be the mythic and legendary history of the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth – a semi-fictional world loosely associated with northern Europe – not the long-lost tradition of England as The Book of Lost Tales or even the Notion Club Papers had been envisaged” (Fimi, 129).
Fimi goes on to discuss the potential reasons why Tolkien decided to make this change:
“Tolkien’s nationalism had waned, for one thing…in The Book of Lost Tales the emphasis was on England’s Anglo-Saxon past, in contrast with ‘Britain’ and the ‘Celtic’ tradition of Wales and Ireland. By the 1950s this opposition had lost its significance. I have explored elsewhere (2006b, 2007) Tolkien’s complicated relationship with ‘things Celtic’: how they crept into his legendarium right from the beginning, how they were later consciously inter-linked with the Anglo-Saxon tradition and how eventually Tolkien’s project ended up being a ‘mythology for Britain’ rather than ‘a mythology for England’. The Anglo-Saxonism movement also practically disappeared after World War I. The moment of English nationalism, which emerged at a time when the rest of Europe was searching for the soul of the ‘Volk’, had passed and in the inter-war period Englishness came to be associated with the simple ways of the English countryside, rather than with England’s glorified Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Tolkien’s hobbits and their provincial Englishness can be read as a move towards this alternative portrayal of England.” (Fimi, 129)
In other words, Tolkien tried several framing devices for The Lord of the Rings that would allow him to continue to position it as a ‘mythology for England’. Instead of using any of these, however, he developed the framing device of the Red Book and uses that instead. This choice severs the connection and creates a self-contained mythological cycle which is separate from England and its history.
Again, this small excerpt does not do justice to the breadth and depth of Fimi’s masterful and convincing analysis. Since her book was published (and I should mention that it received the 2010 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award from the Mythopoeic Society), it has revolutionized the way that scholars characterize Tolkien’s work. Most have abandoned the phrase ‘mythology for England,’ and those who still use it do so advisedly or with an allusion to earlier literature to contextualize that they are talking about an outdated concept for a specific purpose.
Unfortunately, Fimi’s analysis has not received the same popular attention as books by other notable scholars, like John Garth or Tom Shippey. This has led to perhaps one of the largest disconnects between parts of Tolkien fandom and scholarship.
Many fans still believe the concept of the ‘mythology for England’ was a driving force for Tolkien, and it is largely because they are unaware that there is newer scholarship. The reasons for this disconnect are varied and complicated and, quite frankly, would require another blog post even longer than this one to expound upon.
For now, then, I will conclude by encouraging people to stop saying that Tolkien wrote his stories as a ‘mythology for England.’ I would also encourage those who read this post and feel like they need a further explanation to read Dimitra Fimi’s book. It really is some of the best scholarship currently available on Tolkien’s work.
Carpenter, Humphrey. 2000. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. (New York: Houghton Mifflin).
Chance, Jane. 2001. Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, rev. edn. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky).
Fimi, Dimitra. 2010. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).
Fisher, Jason. 2013. “Mythology for England.” in Drout, Michael D.C. 2013. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. pp. 45-447.
Flieger, Verlyn. 2002. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, rev. edn. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press).
Stenström, Anders. 1992. “A Mythology? For England?” in Patricia Reynolds and Glenn H. GoodKnight.1992. Proceedings of the Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992. pp. 310-314.
Tolkien, J.R.R. 2000. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin).