C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien had an argument once, about myths. Initially C.S.Lewis dismissed myths because they were made up and so were untrue. Not so, said Tolkien. Yes they were made up, but that didn’t stop them reflecting the truth. What did he mean?
It is quite a subtle point. God made Man in his own image. So everyone, no matter what they believe, carries with them some reflection of God himself. This truth can be weak or distorted, but nonetheless the stories that men tell can still carry in them an echo of the divine being and therefore have some kind of truth in them. Myths can be true, even if they are made up. Tolkien was a Catholic, and in the case of Catholics they had an advantage in seeing the truth not shared by others. The actual God had revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The Church was founded by people who had met the living God and had passed his truth on from person to person in an unbroken succession. So Catholics are closest to the truth and everyone ought really to sign up to get in on it. But others could and do see enough of the truth to offer a valuable insight.
It is a neat formulation, and quite a useful one for a Catholic living in England. Catholics are a large minority, but still a minority so Tolkien would have had to spend a lot of time working with non-Catholics – like his friend Lewis for instance – so it would be handy to have a frame of reference that enabled respect to be shown to other faiths. I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea if more religious people thought that way. Although they have stopped actually killing each other in Europe, the is still plenty of religious strife around the globe and this concept might reduce it a bit.
But I digress. The basic idea of people being predisposed towards a concept even if they haven’t heard of it because it is deeply programmed inside them is an interesting one. In fact, it does sound a bit like the way we all inherit certain characteristics as part of our evolutionary history. Some attitudes are really deeply ingrained in us, almost as if they are a part of our being. A good example of this is the taboo against incest. Incest is universally regarded as wrong and siblings are rarely actually attracted to each other. But there are cases where siblings brought up separately have found that they do find themselves attracted if they do meet as adults.
So the idea that we have inbuilt notions of what is right and how we should behave doesn’t seem to much of a stretch. Replace God with evolution and Christianity with socialism, and you can use the Tolkien’s idea to explain why so many people end up as socialists even when there is no obvious point at which they ‘convert’ to the idea. If you are a socialist you may well think like I do. It isn’t something that I consciously chose from a menu of available options. It was just the one that chimed with the way I thought.
(If you are reading in America, I am well aware that socialist sounds a lot more negative in the US than it does in Europe for some reason. I hope this doesn’t put you off too much. Just to be clear, just as there are many variations on Christianity, there are many strands to socialism. Indeed Christians and socialists both share several characteristics and there is a reasonably big overlap of people who are both. Not all socialists are Lenin any more than all Christians are Saint Ignatius de Loyola. )
So armed with Tolkien’s own intellectual trick, we can now reinterpret Tolkien. He may not have overtly been a socialist, but he still inherited the trend towards socialism and so we can pick up socialist threads in his work. In fact I suggest that he is one of the most socialist writers of the twentieth century. You just need to look carefully to see what is really going on under the bonnet.
Postscript – Tolkien expresses the idea I have discussed here at some length in his poem Mythopoeia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeia_%28poem%29 . It is unusual amongst Tolkien’s work for a number of reasons. For a start it is almost unreadable. Nobody will complain that it is too short. I have read it twice, the second time purely to check that I had it right for writing this blog post. I don’t have any plans for a third go. It is a bit of a shock after the beautifully written stuff we are used to from Tolkien. It is also very negative – again a rare trait for Tolkien. And it is also a very direct statement of his beliefs and how he sees things. As you see, I don’t recommend it. But given what I am doing with it, I though it necessary to give a reference so people can make their own minds up.