Megan B. Abrahamson, Part-time instructor of communication, humanities, & social sciences, Central New Mexico Community College; Bethany Abrahamson; Nyssa Gilkey; and Caitlin Rottler
Ever since Tolkien’s “Hobbit Burglar” became the off-brand “Halfling Rogue” of roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, D&D has been indebted to Tolkien and other fantasy literature, and much fantasy media has indeed since modeled itself on D&D. For this roundtable, our panelists (themselves a D&D party of 9 years) wish to invite audience discussion of the mythopoeia of D&D: its influences, its inventions, and its impact. Is D&D the “Mythology for England” Tolkien talked about creating, specifically the part about leaving “scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (and dice)? Or can D&D grow beyond its pseudo-medieval, Eurocentric, and Tolkienian fantasy roots?
Robin Anne Reid, independent scholar
In “On Fairy-stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defined and defended the genre of fantasy by quoting and then explicating his poem, “Mythopoeia.” Tolkien’s theory of mythopoeic literature can be applied to his own fiction, but, increasingly, scholars are applying it to other texts including superhero films and contemporary fantasy novels (Holdier, Kane). In this presentation, I argue that three of Kingfisher’s series, the Clocktaur War, Saint of Steel, and Paladin, set in and around Anuket City, fit some of the characteristics of mythopoeic fantasy identified by Tolkien while swerving notably from others. Thus, Kingfisher’s fantasy is similar to work by the writers Faye Ringel interviewed for her essay, “Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring.” Performing her own feminist swerve on Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, Ringel concludes that while the “women fantasists accept some of Tolkien’s premises, they differ strongly with him on the subject of women’s roles” (165). Tolkien’s necessary characteristics for a mythopoeic text involve textual elements and reader response. A mythopoeic fantasy is set in a secondary world that is internally consistent; the “magic” must “be taken seriously,” and the best of the genre involves “the Consolation of the Happy Ending” (32 – 33;75). Tolkien makes it clear that this genre is for readers who appreciate it, no matter what their age, challenging the assumption at the time that fairy stories were only suitable for children. Recovery, escape, and consolation are how mythopoeic fantasies impact readers. Tolkien makes it clear that fairies (elves) are not required while his epilogue places the genre firmly in his Christian belief system. Some of the elements in Kingfisher’s series that are mythopoeic are: the coherence of the secondary world, across three series with different characters; a version of Faërie, called the Vagrant Lands; the presence of magic, called “wonderworking.” Elements which swerve decisively from Tolkien’s criteria are the lack of kings and heroes; the presence of religious institutions and their orders; polytheism; the widespread distribution of wonderworking along with the lack of wizards; the focus on female protagonists. powerful male characters. Since Kingfisher is writing fantasy romance rather than epic fantasy, the protagonists include a forger, a perfumer, and a widowed housekeeper who inherits a magic sword. These swerves from Tolkien’s definition strengthen my experience of recovery, escape, and consolation as a reader, responses that grew stronger during my re-reading of her work during the first year of the pandemic.
Matthew Gidney, Instructor in rhetoric and composition, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
In this paper, adapted from the second chapter of my Master’s thesis, I will argue that Tolkien was not interested in mimicking Norse mythology nor endorsing the Nordic worldview, but rather re-writing Norse mythology in accord with its true light. This concept of “true light” is drawn from a letter by Tolkien to his son Michael in which he laments the corruption of “that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light” (Carpenter, Letters 56). Tolkien had an Augustinian conception of evil, believing that good is primary, evil secondary. Therefore, a good thing like Northern courage, in Tolkien’s view, could be corrupted, yet beneath that corruption, it still retained its true light. The true light of Northern Courage was, in Tolkien’s view, something worthwhile which he desired to see redeemed.
This project is clearly demonstrated in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, where Tolkien tampers with the saga at such a foundational level that it is hardly appropriate to still refer to the poem as Norse. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun follows the familiar character of Sigurd along his well-documented quest, led on his way by a god named Odin, but Tolkien’s poem takes liberties with the story that shake it — thematically — to its core. The Nordic worldview, characterized by its distinct theory of courage, was a worldview entirely built around the idea that the earth and everyone in it was doomed to ultimate defeat along with their gods, and their response, as modeled by Odin and the rest of the Aesir, was to defiantly fight on to the bitter end. The Nordic worldview was one that acknowledged that the world was a cold, brutal place full of cruel and violent people, all predestined for suffering and destruction without even the hope that their gods might save them: a bleak and demoralizing prospect to say the least. Yet, the ancient Norse were known as hardy, relentlessly courageous people, despite their gloomy worldview. Though they acknowledged the bleakness of their position, they were determined to go down to the grave laughing defiantly, with heads held high until the very last. This, in a nutshell, is Northern courage. Yet, in Tolkien’s “New Lay of the Volsungs,” he inserts a messianic promise of redemption and suggests that death in fact will be overcome, even if it is not entirely clear how. On the surface, this insertion may seem a small detail considering how few lines are actually dedicated to it, but it is a detail which undermines the entire tapestry of Norse mythology, a move which cannot be mistaken as a mere mistake or misunderstanding coming from a student of Norse language and literature such as Tolkien. Tolkien’s subversive addition was a calculated move and part of his project to rewrite Norse mythology in order to present Northern courage in its true light.