Our Own Dear John Ronald: Myth and Truth

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme / of things not found within recorded time.

But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.
No, said Tolkien, they are not.

And indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out a different line of argument.

You call a tree a tree, and you think nothing more of the word.  But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name.  You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course.  But that is merely ho YOU see it.  By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them.  And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect God.  Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.  Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

In expounding this belief in the inherent TRUTH of mythology, Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of ‘The Silmarillion’.


The account of this conversation is based on Tolkiens poem Mythopoeia, to which he also gave the titles ‘Misomythos’ and ‘Philomythos and Misomythos’.  One manuscript is marked ‘for C.S.L.’.

~ Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien.  A Biography.

Cultured Wednesday: The Flying Dutchman

This was a sight to chill a seaman’s heart: the Flying Dutchman, speeding before her own ghost wind and crewed by a company of the dead.  She augured death to those who spied her.

The story of the Flying Dutchman is quite well known, I should say, and has certainly been the object of many a painting.  I picked two of them for your kind perusal.

Charles Temple DixFlying Dutchman concentrates on the ship itself for effect, and light seems to be the most prominent means to convey ghostliness.  Everything in the picture flees from the source of light, however:  It is not a promise of salvation, but portends doom and destruction.

The Flying Dutchman by Charles Temple Dix

Howard Pyle‘s Flying Dutchman betrays the writer and illustrator: Much like a story often relies on contrast for effect, his central character stands out in his posture – defying wind, defying danger – as well as in color – the red sash, recurring in his eyes and, to a lesser degree, in his ghostly crew.  The waves behind him could just as well be mountains.  Not the kind of fellow you wish to meet on a regular basis, this Captain Vanderdecken, or at all, Pyle stresses.

Howard Pyle The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman by Howard Pyle

Just in case the story is unfamiliar, here is what the the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica have to say on the matter:

Flying Dutchman, in European maritime legend, spectre ship doomed to sail forever; its appearance to seamen is believed to signal imminent disaster. In the most common version, the captain, Vanderdecken, gambles his salvation on a rash pledge to round the Cape of Good Hope during a storm and so is condemned to that course for eternity; it is this rendering which forms the basis of the opera Der fliegende Holländer (1843) by the German composer Richard Wagner.

Another legend depicts a Captain Falkenberg sailing forever through the North Sea, playing at dice for his soul with the devil. The dice-game motif recurs in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the mariner sights a phantom ship on which Death and Life in Death play dice to win him. The Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott adapted the legend in his narrative poem Rokeby (1813); murder is committed on shipboard, and plague breaks out among the crew, closing all ports to the ship.

howard pyle flying hutchman closeup
Captain Vanderdecken

Forever lashed by wind and rain, forever braced on a rolling deck, the spectral captain of the Flying Dutchman sailed his ship wherever sea roads led.

Quote: On the Present Tendency to Destroy All Tradition

From “Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self”

Two from Uncle Carl…

“Naturally the present tendency to destroy all tradition or render it unconscious could interrupt the normal process of development for several hundred years and substitute an interlude of barbarism. Wherever the Marxist utopia prevails, this has already happened. But a predominately scientific and technological education, such as is the usual thing nowadays, can also bring about a spiritual regression and a considerable increase of psychic dissociation.”

And so…

“Myths and fairy tales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes the process to come alive again and be recollected, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious.”

~C.G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self

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