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by Ken Myers


Sound thinking

Mythopoeic power


Stratford Caldecott on Tolkien’s literary achievement

by Ken Myers


by Ken Myers


Mythopoeic power

“Tolkien’s importance as a postwar writer who used fantasy to explore profound moral and spiritual themes was not recognized when The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950s. Back in 1936, the subtitle of Tolkien’s academic paper on Beowulf, ‘The Monsters and the Critics,’ had half jokingly implied that the literary critics of the Old English poem which Tolkien loved were adversaries of the hero, perhaps even akin to monsters themselves. And so, when The Lord of the Rings did appear in print, Tolkien knew pretty well what to expect. In fact, it was derided by a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic, Edmund Wilson famously describing it as ‘juvenile trash.’

“The reason often given for despising the novel was that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were so clearly delineated that the plot was simplistic and childish. But . . . Tolkien was well aware of the complexity and muddle of real life — and yet held his writing to be ‘realistic,’ indeed truer to the inner life than most of the supposedly ‘grown up’ novels the critics had in mind. . . .

Tolkien drew upon a much older tradition of storytelling than the modern novel, with its typically materialistic assumptions. He was retrieving the art of mythological or mythopoeic thinking, which is as old as mankind itself and deeply entwined with our religious sense. The book appeals to universal constants in human nature, constants that are reflected in traditional mythology and folklore the world over. Mythological thinking does not provide an ‘escape’ from reality so much as an ‘intensification’ of it, as another fantasy writer (Alan Garner) once rightly said. It is this that in part explains the novel’s wide appeal — and also the contempt it aroused among those whose world-view and mindset are closed in advance against all such uses of the imagination.

“The Lord of the Rings may be read, therefore, as an exciting story that spectacularly revives an almost-extinct literary genre. But it can also be enjoyed in other ways: as an extended meditation on what it means to be English, or as an imaginative response to the experience of modern warfare, or as a moving evocation of the intimate relationship between love and heroism. . . . [I]t can be read, too, as an exploration of the roots of human language and consciousness. Most strangely of all, perhaps, it can be read as a deliberate experiment in a kind of time travel using dreams and ‘linguistic ghosts’ to overcome the limitations of individual memory and experience.”

— from Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit (Crossroad, 2003 and 2012)