Tolkien, Mythology, and Today’s Myths

I have been inspired. I have been going through the Mythology course at Liberty Classroom and came to a realization I have never fully understood until now. I have realized that mythology has become warped, and perhaps this is why I love so much of Tolkien’s work. He was the last true torch bearer of mythology and its pure spirit. As Professor Birzer points out, the term “myth” has been corrupted in our modern language to mean “lie” or “falsehood”. In reality, we need to understand the term in a deeper way; a way in which it means “conveying a truth through a story that may or may not be true”.  I like this idea. I like the idea that “myths” may not be true in the literal sense of the story they are telling, but true in ethical principles, beauty, and philosophy. Jesus tells many “parables” to convey a deeper truth within Christian theology. Stories are told to children about pigs, wolves, girls in red hoods, and mermaids in order to convey a larger message and teach the child something. But mythology is starting to change in our modern world and with our modern myths. We have modern epics like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Walking Dead that are reshaping the method through which we tell stories. They are turning the concept of “hero” on its head and seem to teach a completely different set of ethics and morals alongside, or as a replacement of, the traditional concepts that have existed through out history in myths. I want to focus on these “modern myths” and compare them to Tolkien to illustrate this point. A spoiler alert needs to be given here, so proceed at your own discretion.

What these “modern myths” are doing.

I love the world George RR Martin is crafting. It’s gritty and full of fantasy and magic; all of the things I love. It has a rich history and lore that one can easily get lost in. Recently though I have been reading the Lord of the Rings (for the one millionth time) and noticed something different that Professor Birzer points out. Tolkien never really shows us the motives of evil beyond that of “domination” of the “free peoples of Middle-Earth”. We are never given explicit details about how the orcs raped and pillage a village in Rohan or Gondor. But Martin does. He vividly describes for us the heinous acts of villainous characters. Not only does he describe it, but he then gives us the perspective of these “evil” characters and this causes us to have conflicting feelings for them. We realize that someone like Jaime Lannister is complex. He’s imperfect but he also has redeeming qualities that traditional myths attach to “heroes”. He is loyal (in his own weird way) and has a sense of duty and honor for those he cares about. I would like to note that these things do not come to the surface for us until he meets Brienne of Tarth, but never the less, Martin somehow gets us to care about a man that has sex with his sister, pushes children out of windows in order to protect the unholy relationship he has with his sister, and generally displays narcissistic behaviors. He is loyal to his family, which we all admire in people, it’s just that his family is terrible and has no problems with crushing anyone in order to achieve more wealth and power for themselves. His family does this even to the point of destabilizing the realm and making life hell for the “small folk”. It’s like Martin is getting us to root for Hillary Clinton (or Trump) because we have met Hillary personally and have humanized her in our minds. Yes, she’s caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands and displays narcissistic behaviors, but we have inside knowledge that it’s because of her warped sense of duty to country and family that she does it.

Now I want to pause here and say that I’m not trying to argue that Martin’s mythology is necessarily inferior to Tolkien’s because of this. I only want to highlight what Martin is doing. He is crafting a “realistic” mythology. He is melding the real world with the fantastical one and it creates a truly fascinating and interesting place. But it has the side effect of causing us to excuse great evil because of the “complexity” of people. We see this with The Walking Dead as well. Rick Grimes starts out as an honest man trying to do the right thing in a crazy world. But the message of The Walking Dead becomes clear as Rick becomes more unhinged and less “human”. The ethics of the “old world” are gone and actively cause people to die in The Walking Dead. Pragmatic utilitarianism becomes the only guiding feature and theoretical principles regarding ethics and morality must be thrown aside in the name of survival. This is the basic argument for statists today! The ends justify the means! We have to endure some ugly things so that the greater good can be saved. We must abandon first principles sometimes so that first principles can be “saved” and “protected”. The Walking Dead seems to have a terrible trope where anyone that starts to want to bring things back to first principles and away from pragmatic utilitarianism is killed off because of their “idealism” (Hershel Greene, Dale Hovarth, Tyreese, Beth Greene, and Eastman are perfect examples of this). Within A Song of Ice and Fire, we have Ned Stark. An honest and loyal man that want’s to do things on the up and up and remain true to his idealistic morals. He loses his head for this because he was unwilling to play Cercei’s games.

Again, I’m not trying to be puritanical in my views here. I’m not saying that there are no values to be had or that these stories are “bad”. They are certainly entertaining. When you expect Ned Stark to be the hero of the story only to have him die at the end of the first book, you are either angered or sucked into the story further because you want to see what happens. And to be fair, Jon Snow fits a lot of the characteristics typical of traditional “heroes” in mythology (but as far as the books are concerned, has paid the ultimate price for his ideals). The funny thing about Jon Snow is that because he falls into this traditional mold of mythological hero, many readers find him “boring”. The message that people are complex is an important message though. The idea that your enemy is human has many great implications that are not prevalent in Tolkien’s work where the enemy is something outside of “man”. But at the same time, we run the risk of swinging too far in the other direction and forgiving evil because we have humanized it so much. We are willing to abandoned first principles for the sake of the “greater good”. Again, I’m not trying to be puritanical and say that we should not enjoy these modern myths. I only want to highlight this shift so that we can be made aware of it.

What Tolkien did was amazing.

Tolkien did something amazing with his work though. People find Jon Snow “boring” because he fits this archetype of a classical mythological hero. Thus, Martin gives us a whole range of characters with varying levels of morality to keep us interested. Tolkien gave us the classical mythological heroes in Aragorn, Gimili, Legolas, Frodo, and Sam (and others too of course) and found a way to make them interesting while also giving us the classical vision of evil. The journey of Frodo and Sam is interesting despite the fact that they are “goody-two-shoes”. All of the other characters like Aragorn are interesting as well despite their “goodness”. We have no need for a “Jaime Lannister” or “Dario” or “Shane Walsh”. We don’t need to get inside the mind of Sauron or the Orcs. Tolkien does not give us any reason to sympathize with evil. The characters that adopt a pragmatic utilitarian view meet tragic ends (Boromir and Denethor) while those that keep first principles see victory (Faramir). This was the original “truth” of mythology. Mythology was there to point us towards that path of “goodness” through sound first principles and those first principles were the truths within the myths. They told us a story to teach us to value these principles and hold fast to them and they gave us examples to emulate in our own lives.

As an anarcho-capitalist and lover of the individual, I am always trying to point people towards first principles. I’m trying to get people to understand the Non-Aggression Principle and to have that replace pragmatic utilitarianism. I read myths like the Lord of the Rings and see that staying true to first principles is not a fools errand and I want more people to see that as well. Because if we must abandon first principles in order to save them, then there is no ethical or reasonable reason to keep them. I do, however, believe in the beauty of these first principles and what they mean for humanity which means that along with others like me, I will continue to fight for them and I will not abandon them.

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