Verlyn Flieger’s Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology is a brilliant study of Tolkien’s mythic creation, with particular emphasis on the role of the lesser known works behind Lord of the Rings. Flieger follows the creation of Tolkien’s mythology from inception to final flowering, relying heavily on the twelve volume History of Middle Earth. Flieger, very appropriately, compares the History to a musical score (Tolkein’s creation myth described the creator Eru singing creation into existance), and describes the present book as her attempt to examine the structures underlying Tolkien’s mythology.
In a 1951 letter to Milton Wadman, Tolkien refers to his discovery as a young man that while there was Norse, Celtic, Germanic and even Finnish mythology in plenty, England had no uniquely English mythology of her own. He explicitly refers to his own resulting desire to create “a body of more or less connected legend” (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Letter 144). It is Tolkien’s desire to create a “mythology for England,” as Tolkien scholars call Tolkien’s vision, that gave birth first to the languages of what became Middle Earth, and then to the myths, and, eventually, in what is really a minor off-shoot of Tolkien’s greater mythic creation, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Flieger begins by examining the kinds of exposure Tolkien would have had as a young man to folklore and mythology, and his early responses to the stories and landscapes that produced them. She looks at the early history of folklore and myth studies as an academic discipline, and the scholarly shift from a reliance on philology (Tolkien’s bent) to a purely anthropological approach, the sort favored by Andrew Lang and others. Much of Tolkien’s personal views and his scholarly approach to myth and myth creation is embodied in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” and Flieger does an admirable job of discussing and illuminating the issues, and the points, Tolkien raises.
Flieger carefully looks at the mythic models Tolkien used in his own myth creation, making connections between that creation and Tolkien’s philological studies of Old English, Old Norse, Finnish, and medieval English and Celtic literatures, including a solid analysis of Tolkien’s sometimes hostile views of the Arthurian corpus. She places Tolkien’s views of the nature of myth and myth creation in a context that is both academic and traditional. In the second half of her book, Flieger engages in close analysis of specific myths from Tolkien’s corpus, looking at their evolution and the way they fit into his overall creation. She spends a fair amount of attention on an early and never finished story of Tolkien’s, “The Lost Road,” written in response to a challenge by C. S. Lewis to write a time-travel story, and its evolution in the unpublished The Notion Club Papers. The Notion Club papers include many familiar references, including names and sub-myths, that later became very much part of the greater Silmarillion, which for Tolkien meant not the posthumously published distillation The Silmarillion, but the entire corpus of his creation.
After looking at the creation process, and closely looking at the way Tolkien employs familiar themes and motifs, several of which emerge in later works, like his recurring use of the Atlantis/Ynis island myth, Flieger discusses the role of the otherworld in Tolkien’s mythos. She looks in particular at Tolkien’s use of the island of Númenor, an island which, like Celtic Ys or Lyonesse, or Atlantis, eventually drowns. She connects Tolkien’s creation and use of motifs about Númenor to the medieval Irish genre of the imramm, the otherworld voyage, and the use of time in both Tolkien’s works, and in Celtic tales (see Flieger’s earlier book A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie for a thorough and worthwhile discussion of time and the otherworld in Tolkien’s work). Flieger concludes her study by drawing connections between Tolkien’s early myth-making and stories, particularly The Notion Club Papers, and the Lord of the Rings.
Flieger is one of the best of the Tolkien scholars, one who loves and understands story, and appreciates Tolien as a teller of tales and a scholar. She has a keen understanding of myth and a fine scholarly understanding without the unfortunate tendency to be pedantic. Verlyn Flieger has a website at mythus.com.
(Kent State University Press, 2005)