Abstract: National Myth in Fantasy Literature

In a letter to a publisher in 1956, J.J.R. Tolkien claims that in writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion he hoped to create a national mythology for England, rooted in Anglo-Saxon and Norse lore. Even though later in the very same letter the creator of Middle-Earth acknowledges this urge as “absurd,” the sentiment remains important to interpreting his fantasy. While mythopoeia—myth creation—is entirely natural in writing fantasy literature, what does this desire to create a system of legends and folklore reflective of the true English experience say about Tolkien’s attitude towards nationalism? How are his views regarding national identity reflected in his fantasy?

I hope to answer these questions through close analysis of Tolkien’s work, particularly The Lord of the Rings, in conjunction with a comparative reading of Neil Gaiman’s contemporary fantasy novel American Gods. These two British fantasists are similar in several ways; for one, both Tolkien and Gaiman depend heavily on inspiration from extant mythologies to build their fantasy worlds. Yet the former draws from mainly Northern European traditions while the latter references traditions from across the world. Figures from Hindu, African, Slavic, Irish, Egyptian, and Norse mythologies, carried to America by faithful immigrants, all make an appearance in American Gods. Tolkien incorporates existing myth to give depth, stability, and authenticity to his fantasy world. Gaiman, on the other hand, uses mythological allusions in the act of undermining stability, or the illusion of stability, and to fracture the idea of unified national identity in America, his adopted home.

What I plan to investigate is how and why Tolkien and Gaiman draw on the mythologies that they do. Specifically I want to look at how their uses of myth in the portrayal of a nation or community differ, and what those differences may suggest about modern and postmodern fantasy. I will also ask who claims the fantasy worlds and nations they build as home, and what metanarratives determine belonging in these worlds. By comparing The Lord of the Rings and American Gods, two works separated by nearly fifty years yet sharing a preoccupation with the importance of myth and storytelling in defining and redefining national identity, my research explores construction and subversion of national identity in Tolkienesque and post-Tolkien fantasy literature.