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.


Michelle Styles said...

JRR Tolkien (as did Wagner) drew heavily on the Icelandic Sagas for his inspiration, but I think he is wrong about there not being British folklore.
The Eddas, in particular the Elder Edda is about Norse or Germanic myth. There is a large body of evidence to suggest that the saxons may have originally come from Sweden. It is only because the sagas were preserved in Iceland...rather than elsewhere. Tristan and Isolde may have been inspired by events in Cornwall, for example
And yes, the pre-Romans were not literate, but it does not mean the echoes of their stories were not handed down.
An absolutely brilliant new book looking at English folklore and legend is The Lore of the Land -- A guide to England's Legends from Spring Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys by Westwood and Simpson ISBN: 0141007117

Read that and you will know Britain is alive with myths. Wonderfully fascinating stuff...

Minna said...

Hey, don't forget Kalevala! Not to mention that one of the languages in his book was based on Finnish!
Just take a look at these sites:
Tolkien actually learnt enough Finnish in order to be able read Kalevala in Finnish.