Tolkien & Golding: The Importance of Myth in the Literature of a Civilization.   Leave a comment

There is a built-in resistance to myth among many students of the Bible and Theology. This is because they have not been taught, or had not taken in, the importance of myth in the literature of a civilization. No doubt they have in mind the creation myths in the book of Genesis, and probably the best way to demolish this particular ‘language block’ is to embark upon a short course of study about the myths of the world, both ancient and modern. These stories offer diverse ways of approaching fundamental issues at so many different levels; allegorical, symbolic, representational, satirical and literal. They have been used to come to terms with, explain and convey information about all aspects of life. Some deal with the great mysteries of the universe, the origins of life and death; some teach about the natural world, the environment and the animal kingdom; many examine the world of mankind, reflecting different cultures, histories, beliefs and customs but ultimately centring on many of the same basic concerns about human experiences, relationships, aspirations and defects. They can teach students of all ages to respect and appreciate differences between cultures at the same time as developing an understanding of how much is common to all mankind.

Many older students reject these stories as childish fairy tales or treat them as ‘fake’ history, primitive chronicles of real happenings. But this is to miss the true significance of myths. They are not legends like the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, though these may contain mythological elements. The subject of the great myths of the world is always a fundamental and intractable human problem. The stories deal with the most fundamental questions of morality and conscience because they work indirectly, rather than through direct confrontation. The myth is a distinct form of literature, which states and analyses that problem not by means of a philosophical or ethical argument, but in the form of a story which captures the reader’s imagination and stimulates their emotions. As Margaret Leona and Margaret Marshall have written, respectively, they speak to our feeling in an unforgettable way; they evoke response, recognition, identification. They enable us to enter a process of self-discovery.

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It is significant that many of the finest myths are concerned with the problem of power; the peril of allowing all power to be gathered into one man’s hands. Daedalus and Icarus and the myth of Faust in its various forms are two examples. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, though not perhaps a myth in the technical sense, is also about the problem of power. Before the film versions of these stories, they were beloved by a small group of readers who were fascinated by Tolkien’s mythology more than by their dramatic effect. Many others regarded the stories as childish nonsense or denigrated Tolkien’s literary style as too descriptive, using too many adjectives. Nevertheless, the mythological element of The Return of the King, with its echo of the Arthurian legends has continued to illuminate Lord Acton’s phrase, Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

The myth of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden seems to have had several interpretations put upon it in the course of its literary history. One of these meanings, perhaps the original one, is precisely the danger of unrestricted power. Eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree and your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3: 5). It is the temptation to seize the power which rightly belongs only to deity.

There is a modern version of the myth of Eden in William Golding’s well-known story, The Lord of the Flies which, as it happens, my fifteen-year-old son is reading at the moment. It tells of a number of schoolboys who, being evacuated by air in a future war, find themselves on an uninhabited island after their plane crashes. The only survivors, the boys assemble on the beach and wait to be rescued. By day they inhabit a land of bright fantastic birds and dark blue seas, but at night their dreams are haunted by the image of a terrifying beast. As the boys’ delicate sense of order fades, so their childish dreams are transformed into something more primitive, and their behaviour starts to take on a murderous, savage significance.

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The story revolves around the struggle for leadership between two of the boys. One is Ralph, twelve years old, strongly built, with a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil. The other is Jack, a boy with hunter’s instincts, and eyes turning, or ready to turn, to anger. The parallels between the myth of Eden and The Lord of the Flies Jack’s gang sets fire to the island by mistake as they try to smoke Ralph out of his hiding place: when Adam and Eve are driven from the garden, cherubim with flaming swords guard the way to the tree of life.

In his introduction to the ‘Golding Centenary’ (2011) edition of the book (originally published in 1954), the New England novelist Stephen King quotes Golding’s introduction to his own reading on the audio version of the book:

One day I was sitting one side of the fireplace, and my wife was sitting on the other, and I suddenly said to her, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys, and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” And she said, “That’s a first-class idea! You write it!” So I went ahead and wrote it. 

Stephen King commented that he was unprepared for what he had found between the covers of the copy of Lord of the Flies he borrowed from the ‘Adult Fiction’ section of the mobile library in the 1960s:

… a perfect understanding of the sort of beings I and my friends were at twelve or thirteen, untouched by the usual soft soap and deodorant. Could we be good? Yes. Could we be kind? Yes again. Could we, at the turn of a moment, become little monsters? Indeed we could. And did. At least twice a day and far more frequently on summer vacations, when we were left to our own devices.

Golding harnessed his unsentimental view of boyhood to a story of adventure and swiftly mounting suspense. To the twelve-year-old boy I was, the idea of roaming an uninhabited tropical island without parental supervision at first seemed liberating, almost heavenly. By the time the boy with the birthmark on his face (the first little un to raise the possibility of a beast on the island) disappeared, my sense of liberation had become tinged with unease. And by the time the badly ill – and perhaps visionary – Simon confronts the severed and fly blown head of the sow, which has been stuck on a pole, I was in terror. ‘The half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life,’ Golding writes … That line resonated with me then, and continues to resonate all these years later…

By the time I reached the last seventy pages … I understood not only that some of the boys might die, but some would die. It was inevitable. I only hoped it wouldn’t be Ralph, with whom I identified so passionately that I was in a cold sweat as I turned the pages. No teacher needed to tell me that Ralph embodied the values of civilization and that Jack’s embrace of savagery and sacrifice represented the ease with which those values could be swept away; it was evident even to a child. Especially to a child, who had witnessed (and participated in) many acts of casual schoolyard bully-ragging…

If the novel is strictly about emotion and imagination … then analysis is swept away … I agree that ‘This blew me away’ is pretty much a non-starter when it comes to class discussion of a novel (or a short story, or a poem), but I would argue it’s still the beating heart of fiction … Nor does a visceral, emotional reaction to a novel preclude analysis. I finished the last half of ‘Lord of the Flies’ in a single afternoon, … not thinking. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since, for fifty years and more. …

What I keep coming back to is Golding saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys … showing how they would really behave.”

It was a good idea. A very good idea that produced a very good novel, one as exciting, relevant and thought-provoking now as it was when Golding published it in 1954.

I was a similar age to my son when I first read the book, aged fifteen. I think it was a set text for my English Literature ‘O’ Level in 1973. I remember it making a similar impact on me, and reading the second half rapidly. But then I had to analyse it, and I remember that I had been baptised the year before in my father’s Baptist Church. So I got the references to the Garden of Eden Myth and Golding’s belief in original sin. This theme was also a dominant element in another of Golding’s novels, The Spire, which I studied for ‘A’ Level two years later. It is based ‘loosely’ on the building of Salisbury Cathedral’s spire. In the story, Dean Jocelin has a vision: that God has chosen him to erect a great spire on his cathedral. His mason anxiously advises against it, for the old cathedral was built without foundations. Nevertheless, the spire rises octagon upon octagon, pinnacle by pinnacle, until the stone pillars shriek and the ground beneath it swims. Its shadow falls ever darker on the world below, and on Dean Jocelin in particular. These stories and themes have stayed with me over the last five decades in a way which much of the theology studied since has not. That is because Golding’s re-telling of the Eden Myth connects immediately with the emotions, challenging the intellect and convicting the soul.

Sources:

William Golding (1954, 2011), Lord of the Flies. London: Faber & Faber.

Robert C Walton (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.     

      

 

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