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Opening the Heart of Modern Myth
Now we embark on the imposing History of Middle-Earth...
I’ve put off reading the 12-volume behemoth The History of Middle-Earth for decades. I have flashed through bits of it in the past, beginning with a special studies project in my junior year of high school, but never have I read it. THOME* is one of those mountains that even few Tolkien fans scale. It is beyond immense, and its pages are not only the various manuscripts and early explorations by J.R.R. Tolkien of his legendarium, but it contains extensive commentary by his son Christopher Tolkien, who edited and compiled the series.
In previous decades, it seemed to the literati that it was the self-indulgence of a literary legacy that some tried to criticize out of existence. But Tolkien’s mythic achievements have endured. And with Peter Jackson’s pop culture schadenfreude of The Lord of the Rings films, recognized with top honors by various film organizations, his oeuvre has only grown in significance.
A little background on my own journey to the base of this mountain…
I’m one of those sincere admirers of Tolkien who read his books religiously, rereading The Lord of the Rings every year from 4th grade until college, when I was no longer able to find the time or mental space to return with the same regularity. A family tragedy turned life upside down when I was 18 — my brother developed a severe illness that tore through the everyday and would change my own trajectory permanently — and in the fires and confusions of a new millennium, I shifted my focus to current events and the convulsions of history in our own time: the rise of the Internet, the drug-fueled spiritualism of rave culture, 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 Meltdown, the election of the first Black U.S. president, inflamed political divisions, tsunamis, school shootings, and finally coming full circle, a career in interactive experiences.
My “detour” into nonfiction in fact came in part from Tolkien. I was animated by a strong conviction about finding the deeper truths in history, which I attribute to the curiosity his stories awakened in me. Combined with an itinerant childhood and the influence of parents who made a virtue out of adventure and reflection, my pursuit of journalism, where I worked at Voice of America, PBS, and Yahoo! News, was as much about expanding my own imagination as it was documenting facts and the strange murmurs, flashes, blindsides and all-too-predictable cycles of human behavior. I wanted to help clarify what was happening, especially in a highly dynamic and hyper-cyber machine age.
At one point, I felt I had my finger on the pulse — which I had sharpened my ear by way of techno and its rave wave, a sonic precognition, or “echo from the future” of what was to come — but then I lost it. For one, the prophets of techno-utopia were way off. Sadly, Silicon Valley lacked the moral compass to steer us through this shift. They seemed only to know how to shovel more coal into the engine. Where the engineer was taking us, once predetermined by optimistic Steve Jobsian coordinates, seemed to vanish as the train tracks led to a hardcore maximalist capitalistic cynicism.
Secondly, as I moved on from my editorial work in news and took on new challenges in the fusion of technology and storytelling, I realized from a further vantage point that the train was indeed hurling into madness. As an experience and game designer, and as a creative director and producer of AR components of what we now call the “Metaverse,” it became my daily business to inspire and “tell” magical fictions through innovation and design. However, I was deeply troubled by what was happening in the “real world.”
It was at this time that I was also asked to write the biographical story of Pasquale Rotella, the CEO of Insomniac, and the “king of rave.” I was not brought on as a ghost writer, but more as a consultant to help reimagine the manuscript. Suffice to say, this brought me even closer to questions about mythology and technology. I had been moonlighting for the LA Weekly, and now I came to a crossroads about whether I would dedicate the next ten years to writing a history of the global electronic art movement — penultimate in the form of rave culture — or recommit myself to “creative” storytelling i.e. fantasy.
This juncture came because of the election of Donald Trump, but even more so because of arguments I had with those in my own personal circle about what was real and what was not, about what was the pragmatic thing to do versus holding to a binary algorithmically driven winner-takes-all worldview — one that had been inflamed and now entrenched by speculative fictions on the web i.e. conspiracy theories. Already in 2015, I was experiencing how this was tearing families and friendships apart. That was when I knew that the ground had not just shifted, it had opened up like the fissures of an earthquake swallowing us whole.
Doom, is what Tolkien called this. And he put it in the form of righteous tsunamis and fire-breathing dragons, and whiplashing demons, and the boomerang effect of misdeeds by both heroes and villains — that point or that force, by which we get in over our heads, when darkness envelops us, when despair becomes us, when it seems all hope is lost. To me, we had entered the heart of Myth with a capital M.
It’s funny, because for many years I had not read much Tolkien. I was fascinated by the mythological that was happening in real time in the “primary world,” as he would put it. Yet faster and faster it all went. And as I felt that I could no longer grasp it without it burning my own hands, like fire water spilling out of screens and over minds, I realized the slower and slower things must bend. Taking my own breath, it was time to put on the brakes. And what was left was Tolkien.
In many ways, because of the films — which I had enthusiastically and nervously awaited — starting in 2001 with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, I instead would occasionally “watch” Tolkien’s great myth rather than read it and sit with it, preoccupied with my work, my rave journalism, and starting a family. I lapsed in a way to a less anchored state, one taken with the winds and rhythms and currents of today’s exhilarations. Having moved on average every three years growing up, Tolkien had been my compass. Middle-earth was my home, so to speak.
Yes, there was Los Angeles, and Memphis and Boulder, and Los Angeles a second time, then Paris, then Virginia and Los Angeles again, then the Bay Area, and Los Angeles at last. And yet the world has kept moving, fusing and fracturing. New genres of music. New genres of intellect. New genres of genres, and so forth. Internet vertigo it seems is what we have. Resplendent. Recombinant.
How does one make sense of all of it? To me, it seems today more and more people are turning to myth. From fans to fanaticisms. This is why I have finally opened THOME. I have decided after 30 years it is time that I return to a project I started when I was 15: my own mythic universe. I want to discover in a deeper way what makes myths tick, and why some endure and some fade, why some enlighten and others darken.
As I mapped out in Wraith Land’s maiden post, I am no longer focused on extending what is already out there. I am interested in helping transform this precarious moment into something that I believe needs a new consciousness. So in the coming weeks, as we continue to appraise Amazon’s upcoming LOTR series and explore the power of myth, I will be sharing my thoughts on the very bones of Tolkien’s works as preserved and captured in THOME — “in real time” — and with an eye on what his vast experimentation can tell us about finding the way.
I will also start to publish my own fantastical stories and “daydreams” in the form of short stories, some of them for paying subscribers, but others for all members of Wraith Land. These sketches will begin to form the “secondary world” to a fantasy manuscript that I have already begun (five chapters), titled Low Owl.
But for now, what will we find in the historical record, in the pebbles on the shores of what Tolkien called Faerie, just under the gentle tides of the sea?
And so a mariner sailed west to the Lonely Island…
The first fully formed tale in Tolkien’s grand mythology comes in the form of a visitation to a magical isle that is a prehistoric vision of England in the vein of Avalon. On that island, a mariner named Eriol meets elfin beings who share tales and secrets of the ancient past. This first foray into what would become Tolkien’s fantasy universe — his “legendarium” as he would later call it — was contained in a manuscript called The Book of Lost Tales.
Comprising the first two volumes of THOME, it begins with Eriol’s introduction to this lost world in a chapter called The Cottage of Lost Play.
One of the most remarkable things about The Cottage of Lost Play is its name, which is fairly bizarre, even for Tolkien. It’s the “Lost Play” part that is open-ended and never fully explained, only to contrast the Cottage of Lost Play with the Cottage of the Children, also known as the Cottage of the Play of Sleep. These peculiar names are set forth within a meta-structure that deepens the readers sense of time: already the story is taking place in an early Dark Ages timeline. Eriol has traveled from Angeln, the cliff-faced “Angle” or peninsula that peaks with Denmark, and hence the homeland of the Angles — one branch of the peoples who would later settle England, the Anglo-Saxons — and yet on the Lonely Isle, he meets beings and learns of a history that is far far older.
In many ways, The Cottage of Lost Play exhibits Tolkien’s transition from more strictly poetic thinking to an embedded poetic voice within a prose surface. Prior and during his service in World War I, he had primarily written poetry in terms of his fantastical explorations. Many of the first concepts and narrative arcs of The Book of Lost Tales were created in the form of verse. The Cottage of Lost Play in its prose form was “finished” Feb. 12th, 1917, whereas its verse versions were written in late April, 1915, before he shipped off to France for the Western Front. The story then continued to evolve at least into the 1930s.
To me, the “cottage” of “lost play” is a poetic statement, unlike the more monumental titles of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or The Book of Lost Tales. Granted, each title is mysterious in its own right. But I think “Lost Play” tells us something different in my opinion. There is something melancholic about it, and yet almost child-like, as indeed the Cottage of the Children and the Cottage of the Play of Sleep also intone.
Titles are important to most writers and authors, and Tolkien was no different. The key word in this puzzle, I believe, is the word “Lost.” It is a key concept and attitude in all of Tolkien’s works, the idea that something precious has been lost or fades by way of time or circumstance. Biographically speaking, this is the nugget, if not the core, to his mythology. One can easily see that he had a “lost childhood”: his father died when he was three and his mother when he was twelve. It’s not surprising that words, legends, his Catholic faith, and the love of his life, Edith Tolkien — who was also an orphan — in many ways replaced the losses and absences he experienced.
When he composed the The Cottage of Lost Play, and The Fall of Gondolin — which was his first Middle-earth kernel and also part of The Book of Lost Tales — he had just survived the Battle of the Somme where he lost two of his best friends from childhood and had an arduous recovery from debilitating trench fever. Tolkien once said that The Lord of the Rings is ultimately about death, and hence loss, so one can trace that concern to his fascination with the world before recorded human history and with his magical designs, from the angelic Valar to the immortal Elves.
“Lost play” speaks more specifically to the loss of some sort of joy or magical state of play — that interaction with the dynamism of the universe. Play happens in the world of games, theater and inquiry. Our mind plays tricks. And Tolkien’s mind excelled at tricks, at fantasy. He began this at the roadside where most esteemed European poets and writers had brought old world mythology — to fairy tales.
This is why his grand project to create a modern mythology in the “mode of faerie” angered so many in the literary class. Because unlike Yeats or Blake, or even Shakespeare, Tolkien was moving fairies out of the child’s cupboard to the grandest of stages — the deepest and highest regions of the human spirit. He was going to make them literal, i.e. experiential. And unlike Shelley, who had cracked the ground somewhat with Frankenstein in 1818, Tolkien’s ambition, a hundred years later, was to create a whole “secondary” world that we are meant to enter, walk, dream within, and indeed sleep and play.
All of it is here in a highly compact form of eight pages: this meta trick of an avatar from the world we know, or at least can associate with history — Eriol would in other conceptions also become Ælfwine (“elf friend” in Old English) — in the person of a mariner from mainland Europe traveling across seas and time. By coming to the Lost Isle, Tolkien bridges us to the fantastic by giving the imaginative frame of the reader an even deeper background, a dimensional horizon that opens the senses and asks us to contemplate time itself.
The Cottage of Lost Play takes an almost first-person perspective, immersing us in Eriol’s perceptions as he walks up to a city on a green hill and finds a little cottage that when he crosses the threshold, expands his consciousness. This is essentially Tolkien himself walking into his own imagination, and one that shifts the world we know into a world of profound mystery, enchanting both sides of our experience — the present and the past — at the same time.
This cottage is by the elvish city of Kortirion, and once inside, Eriol is welcomed by Lindo and his wife Vairë, who let him stay for as long as he wants to hear tales of old. Over the course of his lodging with the elves, he also meets Rúmil, a loremaster who tells him the story of the Creation of the world. This would become later The Music of the Ainur, also known as the Ainulindalë (the next chapter we’ll cover from THOME).
It is an easy read all things considered, once one strips away the rich history behind the story itself. One can’t fault Christopher Tolkien for wanting to put The Cottage of Lost Play in its full literary context, but in a way all of the exposition surrounding it has intimidated and discouraged most readers, including me.
In fact, I find the utter strangeness of this early work endearing. As a piece of fiction, it works quite well. It is hallucinatory, and rough in some places, but only because it lacks the more masterful “literalness” of Tolkien’s later compositions — Sindarin and Quenya place names that he invented with such inspired intricacy and beauty, rendered as if they were as real as the ground, or a Mozart concerto. What one can clearly recognize throughout his works, however, is conviction, combined with his natural and empathetic posture concerning loss.
All of the elves that Eriol meets speak English to him, but have their own language, which Tolkien sprinkles in the form of names. As we’ve noted in our second entry about Middle-earth, this aspect of his naming and “art-language” is essential to the power of Tolkien’s modern myth-making. Case in point: the Old English name of Earendel, which he refashioned as Eärendil, is another critical coordinate in The Cottage of Lost Play, because in the final version of this story, Eärendel (notice the slight difference in spelling between “del” and “dil” and the use of the umlaut above the “a” in Tolkien’s alterations) is associated with Eriol, who is called a “son of Eärendel” by the narrator, while Eriol is also told a little about Eärendel himself by Vairë.
Here Tolkien, as early as 1915-17, is laying down the architecture for his whole mythos, which would reach its apotheosis in 1954, forty years later, with the publishing of The Lord of the Rings, when the star and the hero of Eärendil is weaved into its telling, lifting the spirits of Frodo and Sam at key intervals.
Eärendil is literally the jewel in that crown, because he is the hero that takes one of the Silmarils, the three Great Jewels at the core of The Silmarillion, and carries it with him into the heavens in the form of Venus — the Morning Star. So it is through “Earendel” that Tolkien makes another connection to England, and combined with the “Lost Isle” is carefully constructing multiple layers of suspension of disbelief.
Even if most readers are not aware of these obscure references to history and echoes in the form of Old English names, the very look and sound of these lost “signs” may unconsciously pull us closer to the land of Faerie — both a place and state of mind that Tolkien associates with the art of fantasy. In Tolkien’s notes, he also outlines that Eriol is the father of Hengest and Horsa, mythological figures from Anglo-Saxon legend who allegedly infiltrated England in the 5th century A.D., and are perhaps tied to Beowulf.
Further, Tolkien also wrote in his notes even more obscure connections with Germanic legend: Eriol’s original name was Ottor, the Anglo-Saxon name for otter, which the scholars Dimitri Fimi and Andrew Higgins propose was a nickname that Tolkien was perhaps given in childhood or later adopted.
So “son of Eärendel” can mean many things. Earendel is a name of unknown origin referring to an angel in a 10th century text, the “brightest of angels” who was sent to “middangeard,” i.e. Middle-earth. In Tolkien’s notes, in his mythos, he writes that those who are struck by the light or star beams of Eärendel are filled with a wandering spirit, so that we get in The Fellowship of the Ring what I might call a kind of “philosophy of longing and adventure,” articulated in Tolkien’s famous phrase “not all who wander are lost,” and so forth.
The subject of Eärendil is of great discussion among Tolkien scholars, but the matter of The Cottage of Lost Play and Eriol is less so, because they do not appear in any of the self-contained fictional works like The Silmarillion, but within the daunting THOME. For myself, I find this “lost work” absolutely compelling, not simply because of what Tolkien’s mythology would later become, but because within its short “play” is contained the secret formula of his formidable mythopoeic process.
Also here is some of his geographic formulation, what one might call a “mytho-graphic” orientation. Here he talks of the Room of the Log Fire, the Hall of Play Regained (i.e. the recovery of magic and knowledge), the Shadowy Seas, Twilit Isles, the Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl, the Resting of the Exiles of Kôr, the Place of Flowers, the Path of Dreams, the Land of Release, and the Rekindling of the Magic Sun. It’s here that Tolkien also introduces Tol Eressëa, the Quenya or High Elvish name for the Lonely Island that means “island lonely.” He would later shift this island from England to another island further out West near Eldamar, with its eastern-facing sea port called Avallonë, an oblique connection to Avalon of Welsh and Arthurian myth. Here is a cosmology that interconnects the earth, the sea, the heavens, older fairy tales and even human history.
Not to be lost in this reverie, “Eldamar” also comprises the lands where the Elves reside with the gods in Aman, the Undying Lands and Ancient West. Eldamar, the Valar, and their divine realm, Valinor, are mentioned in The Cottage of Lost Play. As are the “Eldar,” one of Tolkien’s other names for his Elves, which he rescued from the childish “ghetto” of gnomes and fairies, an enlargement of cultural perception from the cozy space of a cottage to the Citadel of the Island, and the World itself.
All of this speaks to the complexity yet relatability of Tolkien’s opening gesture, one that invites self-discovery. From the playful Ottor to the poetic Rekindling of the Magic Sun to the shores and “rocks of Eldamar in those old days,” it’s an auspicious beginning.
*THOME is an acronym that stands for The History of Middle-Earth. It is now available in a handsome and reasonable price as a complete set in three volumes.
Our History of Middle Earth Journal Index - The Book of Lost Tales, Part One:
The Cottage of Lost Play / Opening the Heart of Modern Myth
The Music of the Ainur / Tolkien’s Creation and the Creator
The Coming of the Valar / The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder, Part One
The Building of Valinor / The Valar, Gods of Wisdom and Wonder, Part Two
The Chaining of Melko / Who the Hell is Tinfang Warble?
The Chaining of Melko / The Convolution of Evil in Middle-earth
The Coming of the Elves / Tolkien’s Elves: Dark Seas, Bright Gems, Part One
The Making of Kôr / Tolkien’s Elves: Dark Seas, Bright Gems, Part Two