Imitative Desire in Tolkien's Mythology: A Girardian Perspective

By Head, Hayden | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Imitative Desire in Tolkien's Mythology: A Girardian Perspective


Head, Hayden, Mythlore


IN HIS BOOK THE EVERLASTING MAN, Chesterton cautions his readers about those students of mythology who claim to have discovered the key to unlocking the meaning of myths:

   There are too many keys to mythology, as there are too many
   cryptograms in Shakespeare. Everything is phallic; everything is
   totemistic; everything is seed-time and harvest; everything is
   ghosts and grave-offerings; everything is the golden bough of
   sacrifice; everything is the sun and moon; everything is
   everything. (103)

The problem, as Chesterton sees it, "comes from a man trying to look at these stories from the outside, as if they were scientific objects" (103). The solution Chesterton proposes is that the student of mythology ought to become a storyteller himself, or a poet, a maker of myth, for the only one who truly understands a myth is one who appreciates its aesthetics. Or as Chesterton writes, "He has only to look at them from the inside, and ask himself how he would begin a story" (103). Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien immediately comes to mind as a student of myth who is also a creator of myth. In creating Middle-earth, Tolkien is inside the myth; as a scholar, he is outside. Tolkien is not only concerned with the aesthetics of his mythology, but also with the truth it represents, and, while Tolkien consistently maintains that his mythology is not Christian allegory, nevertheless, the truth of Tolkien's mythos is given form and coherence by his Christian worldview.

Chesterton goes on to argue that classical mythology, guided by the laws of the imagination,

   did satisfy, or rather it partially satisfied, a thing very deep in
   humanity indeed; the idea of surrendering something as the portion
   of the unknown powers; of pouring of wine upon the ground, of
   throwing a ring into the sea; in a word, of sacrifice. It is the
   wise and worthy idea of not taking our advantage to the full; of
   putting something in the other balance to ballast our dubious
   pride, of paying tithes to nature for our land. This deep truth
   of the danger of insolence, or being too big for our boots, runs
   through all the great Greek tragedies and makes them great. (110)

That is, after warning us against the notion that there is a single key to mythology in general, Chesterton suggests that there is a key, or at least a fundamental theme that enables us to understand mythology, namely, the tempering of "o'erweening" pride, or hubris. Again, Tolkien comes to mind as a mythologizer in the Chestertonian vein, since the danger of hubris and the tempering of pride are persistent themes in the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Furthermore, I contend that the theories of Rene Girard are especially helpful in unpacking and understanding Tolkien's deepest designs, precisely because Girard, like Tolkien, operates within a Christian understanding of myth. That is not to say that Chesterton would entirely approve of Girard. Perhaps no critic is more single-minded in his approach to myth than Rene Girard--Girard insists that imitative desire and the "golden bough of sacrifice" underlie all mythology--and I, at least, would not describe Girard's writings as "poetic." Nevertheless, I find Girard valuable principally for two reasons: 1) to my lights, he conclusively demonstrates that mythology simultaneously evokes then conceals the role of imitative desire in religion and culture, and 2) he shows that myth properly understood, and particularly Scripture properly understood, unmasks the imitative nature of desire in the quotidian world. Girard's theory of imitative desire reveals the modus operandi of hubris, the overreaching pride that, according to Chesterton, is tempered in mythology. Finally, I contend that the mythology of Tolkien especially lends itself to a Girardian reading because both Tolkien and Girard operate within the same Christian framework, a framework that blurs the distinction between the mythic and the mundane by revealing the mechanics of human desire. …

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