Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Joanne Rock: In Search of a British Mythology
I love to read British history. Or more specifically, history of the British Isles. It's got something for everyone-- drama, scandal, excess during some regimes, reserve during others. History, in some ways, led me to romance. I had a college history teacher who likened the happenings in various European courts to a centuries-old soap opera and I'll admit my ears perked up. Don't you appreciate teachers who make you sit up and take notice during your lessons?
Because I have an admittedly romanticized view of Britain's history-- the misty magic of the Druids to the clear-sighted machinations of Eleanor of Aquitaine-- I guess I was surprised last fall when I prepared a few classes on J.R.R. Tolkien as an end-of-the-semester treat for a writing course I'd been teaching at a local university. I'd read Tolkien before and I'd read about Tolkien before. But in this particular trip through the bio materials I came across the idea that some of his mission in creating his body of work was to fill the void of British mythology.
There is a void?
This concept had not resonated for me in my earlier reads about Tolkien and this time, it stuck. The notion crawled around my head and made me think a little more. Specifically, Tolkien mourned the fact that there was so little mythology that was distinctly British. The Arthurian cycle came close, but lacked a definitive mythological feel that he saw in other cultures. I guess I can see that.
But perhaps what I'd always envisioned the blurry lines of British history as sort of mythical in their own right. The Venerable Bede kept a historical record with so much character and writerly voice, that aspects can be seen as allegory. And the lack of written stories from the Druidic period or even Celtic times leave us with vast open pages where maybe my writerly mind has filled in the blanks. There is no void when you have a vivid imagination.
The palimpsest culture of the British Isles has left the impression of so many peoples that-- to me-- the mythology is in its constant reinvention through legends passed down in an oral tradition. Saxon and Viking, Dane and Gaul... the layers overlap to form a history that is so rich and multiple that mere pages couldn't possibly contain it. Maybe that mythic feel is part of why it's such a wonderful setting for romance.