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).
11 thoughts on “Why Calling Tolkien’s Work “A Mythology for England” is Wrong and Misleading”
I’ll look forward to seeing that “another blog post even longer than this one” you mention, to be sure. And I think you point to something important in that paragraph and the one that precedes it, the disjunction between fandom and scholarship rising from a lack of access to more recent work. Kavita Mudan Finn opines on the issue in relation to George RR Martin (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/thrones-outdated-history/); I’d imagine that, given the overlap in the reading communities, much the same is true for Tolkien.
I think there’s also an issue of intransigence at work. A lot of fandom obsesses over minutiae and “accurate” recall of that minutiae (https://elliottrwi.com/2018/01/25/a-rumination-on-having-been-a-fan/); changing scholarly perspectives threaten the ability to demonstrate mastery of material by recalling “facts,” and since many fans invest their identities into being able to rattle off quotations and the like, the changing scholarly perspectives become threats to the fans’ self-concepts, therefore to be decried. (The thought occurs that since much popular conception of intelligence, generally, works from similar assumptions, shifting understandings more generally threaten more people’s self-concepts, provoking reactionary responses. But that’s another thing for “another blog post,” I think.)
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I have really enjoyed Finn’s work (what I have seen of it)! I don’t think you are entirely wrong about self-identity for some fans.
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I would somewhat disagree. Although Tolkien started out as wanting to create a mythology for England, and ended up deciding that what he did create was not a mythology for England, or at least that part of this motivation was less important after the War as Fimi says, what he ended up creating was a sort of mythology if not for England than for the Anglosphere. Because what, after all, has actually happened since his death especially with the posthumous publications of CRRT but that of a large number of stories linked to “a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”? And while Tolkien has been translated into numerous languages and has numerous fans in the non-Anglospehere (just as Don Giovanni, Don Quixote, and The Seven Samurai have a lot of fans in the Anglosphere) Tolkien’s works is bound up with the English language as mightily as The Ring of the Niebelungs is bound with the German language. Tolkien’s works are crucially English in language, setting, themes, and the idea of individualist heroism. So while his works don’t explain Hengest and Horsa or other creation mythology for England, they, along with all the art, movies, and now (hopefully) TV shows are in fact a mythology for the English-Speaking Peoples.
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I somewhat disagree with your assessment here. My feeling is that regardless of Tolkien’s own intentions it did become a mythology for England. This coming from a proud Brit myself and lifelong Tolkien fan. Christopher Tolkien and Tom Shippey obviously believed this whole heartedly as you can hear them both discuss this at length on video. I forget the name of the documentary but Christopher reads the exact letter you discuss here as a matter of fact. How do you dismiss this? Why should I as a fan of Tolkien’s work care where modern Tolkien scholarship resides? This doesn’t exactly trump hearing it directly from the horses mouth. Do you know if Tom Shippey changed his opinion on this matter? I still view Tom as the foremost Tolkien scholar not only because of his great books but because he actually knew the Tolkiens. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll admit I have not read Dimitra Fimi’s book but I plan to change that after reading this. All the best- Evelyn
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Hi Evelyn, thanks for commenting!
To my knowledge, Tom has not written about this topic in the last twenty years, that is why I did not include any mention of him here. I would contend tat Verlyn Flieger is on a par with Tom Shippey in her scholarship of Tolkien, and I included her analysis here to show how scholars have been generous in interpreting letter 131 in the past.
Fimi’s work explores this idea much more than either of those scholars have, and honestly I would consider her opinion more relevant to this conversation because it is her area of expertise. (We are arriving at this wonderful point where Tolkien scholarship is moving beyond all scholars being generalists in Tolkien, and a lot of people specialize in different things, which I think is great!)
Personally, I find the analysis of the letter excerpt utterly ridiculous. Just because the idea was couched in such self-effacing language does not mean that he did not take it very seriously; to the contrary, it was more likely worded that way because he expected to face ridicule for undertaking such an idea with absolute seriousness.
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I suppose I should add that calling LotR a mythology for Britain instead of for England is fine with me & does seem more accurate given the Celtic influence (even if for most of the world the distinction between English & British is one too fine to be much difference). What is NOT fine with me is injecting current year ideology into Tolkien’s mythology, which definitely did not include African-American elves with fades. I suspect that this is the real cause of the backlash against the idea that calling it English is now outdated.
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This is a summary of the current scholarship on Tolkien and all of it was published prior to Amazon purchasing the rights to adapt part of Tolkien’s work.
Given that context, it was not influenced by the idea of ‘African-America elves’.
Also, this piece does not inject ‘current year ideology’, but summarizes how a leading scholar in the field was able to demonstrate Tolkien’s seeming change of mind when publishing LotR.
Thank you for the response! Very interesting and I believe you. I actually have a copy of Verlyns Splintered Light book but haven’t opened it in probably 20 years. This is very good to know about Shippey. I’m less up to date on Tolkien Scholarship today. I never imagined while at university that many people would still be studying Tolkien to this extent in 2022. Back then it appeared to be a new wave of temporary interest due to the films in production.
I apologize if I came across as hostile in my original comment. I don’t know why I took such offense to the idea of it not being a mythology for England.
I did some digging and actually found the interview with Christopher and Tom Shippey that I had seen on one of the BBC channels I think. I remembered it was narrated by Dame Judi Dench. https://youtu.be/HkmNHP58OhU?t=1219 Here you see Christopher immediately followed by Tom talking about the “mythology for England”. Interestingly the way its cut, its actually Judi that says the line ” which I could dedicate simply to England, to my country”. It seems obvious that both Christopher and Tom at least when this was filmed did believe that his fathers work was intended as mythology for England. The part “Don’t laugh!…Absurd!” is also annoyingly absent. Your arguments are sound though and I find myself asking how can this be!? How could these two get something so important so wrong? Is it possible they knew something we don’t from other conversations with Tolkien perhaps? Best,
We had a brief back and forth on Twitter and I thought I’d leave a message here, less contained by the character limit. I come off better here I swear!
I think other commentators above have said a lot of solid points. For example, this idea as far as I know what not actively pushed back by Christopher who had ample opportunity to say ‘No, this is not right’. He was not averse to making himself clear. In fact as far as I know the Silmarillion comes with the Milton Waldman letter as a preface to it. At least my edition did. You would think if it presented a false perception that wouldn’t be the case.
As I said on Twitter. Tolkien is using self-deprecating language. ‘Don’t Laugh’ ‘Absurd’. But we have to look at what we got in the end. We got a collection of stories, some large, some small’. Even if we assert that Tolkien was moving away from the idea presented here, the Silmarillion is the earlier writing in the main. It’s a very grand task he set for himself. Think of the context of it, Tolkien was born in an era of mythology painting and opera and verse. To think you, one person, could create a story that would stand up with the Classics is a tall order. One he didn’t seem to feel himself the measure of. We are very lucky to have such a rich stream of writing about his writing from Tolkien,
As for your citation of Femi. She notes that previously she had considered that Tolkien wrote mythology for Britain and not England. This presumes ‘English’ equals ‘Anglo Saxon’ and that Tolkien would have understood it that way. In fact, if we look in his letters he discusses Arthur and Beowulf. Arthur is of the soil but not the tongue. Beowulf is of the tongue but not the soil. Arthur being Celtic and Beowulf being Germanic. He saw both as having a place in Englishness. His ‘Fall of Arthur’ sought to reconcile the two. You could argue most of Tolkien’s work was a study of proto-Englishness, ASNAC.
As for Fimi’s assertion that Anglo-Saxonism lost vogue after the first World War and that somehow influenced Tolkien’s influences. Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo Saxon for 20 years between 1925-45, that is not the passion of changing tide. The references to Beowulf in Lord of the Rings are well noted.
You talk about framing methods and claim that upon choosing Bilbo as the source for the tale he severs any link to a ‘mythology’ for England. However, it was Christopher who cut Aelfwine from The Silmarillion texts. We know in early conceptions of the Silmarillion Tolkien was interested in showing a range of texts that would make up the history of his world. Like the Quenta Silmarillion and the Annals. This desire for historical plurality didn’t seem to disappear when he streamlined his tale into one singular narrative. Christopher thought it was too complicated.
What I think we do see is that the physical realities of creating our world from Middle Earth were abandoned. We see this in his talk with the BBC. He explicitly said the maps don’t match up in response to the interviewer comparing his world to the history of our world. He does not say there is no connection intended or that a connection had been abandoned. You argue that the lack of ability to make a solid physical connection to our real world meant he abandoned the connection. I don’t think Tolkien thought the Englishness of his stories was predicated on a physical connection, as you can see with his exploration of the collective unconscious.
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A friend of mine wanted to reply to you with the following, but couldn’t log in. I will copy/paste their response:
“@QuentaLume: “Anglo-Saxonism” is not limited to the academic field of Anglo Saxon Studies–it also refers to a racist ideology that held sway in England (less so in other parts of Britain like Scotland, Wales, etc. — you know, the places colonized by the English) and that led to significant sympathy with the other “Aryans” (like Hitler’s Nazi movement–the claim to pure Aryan blood, superior race, etc.). Anglo Saxon as a field of study was connected to that ideology (Dimitra Fimi covers that in her book which one of the many reasons Luke and I recommend it to people). The racist roots of Anglo Saxon studies still manifest these days — there’s a push to rename it Old English studies or something similar because of the activated racism of the last few years which is claiming a lot of medievalist imagery and language for their imagined pure white middle ages. Here is a source on what Anglo-Saxonism means (compared to Anglo-Saxon studieS) and how it influended the US as well (here the term WASP, White Anglo Saxon Protestant, is used to denote the truly superior pure higher elite WHITES tracking their ancestry back to those Anglo Saxons). https://racism.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1504:manifest-destiny&showall=&limitstart=3 Another link: