Tolkien’s Mythology for England and King Arthur

Cover of "The Silmarillion"
Cover of The Silmarillion

I recently listened to the audiobook of Michael White’s Tolkien: A Biography, and I was struck by the fact that he was motivated to write The Silmarrillion as he believed that the English did not have a proper mythology in the same way as perhaps the Celts, Finns or the Norse have with works such as the Mabinogion, Kelevala and the Sagas and Edda.

Beowulf was also mentioned, but I guess that most of the Anglo-Saxon literature only alludes to a pre-Christian past and we are left to guess that they had a similar mythology to the Norse, but that is all. But Tolkien either wishes that such a mythology existed, or perhaps realised that the English were such a disparate culture in many ways – with confusion over Englishness and Britishness, the input of Norman culture etc, that we were left with no unified national mythology in the same way as these other Northern European cultures.

That left me thinking about King Arthur. Surely the Arthurian legends are a pretty strong mythology aren’t they? They tell of a powerful leader who unites the country and makes it great. What more could you ask for?

Well I suspect that Tolkien had a few problems with the Arthur legend. Firstly the legend was probably not English enough for him – the sources being primarily Welsh or Romano-British, with the main opponents being the Anglo-Saxon’s, the very English that Tolkien wanted to mythologize. And the second issue I think was that Arthur was really a Christian King and although there are some allusions to magic and folklore there is very little of the pagan past in the Arthurian legend.

Quite ironic really that Tolkien was so interested in creating an English mythology that relied on paganism, when he was actually a very devout Catholic.

But apart from Tolkien, I would say that the Arthurian legend has been pretty wholeheartedly accepted by the English and the British as a sort of national myth and legend – the Plantagenets and the Tudors were happy to use the legend for its unifying power and the implication that Britain was the source of true chivalry, and of course the Victorians with their Pre-Raphaelite art adored it. And perhaps Arthur is a healthier legend than trying to recreate an Anglo-Saxon myth based on Norse paganism, it certainly allows for a more unified image of a varied British culture, and gets rid of the depressing violence and doom of Germanic myth.

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