It is a fairly widely known fact among fans of The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien created Middle Earth in part as a way to fulfill his desire for a mythology for England. He borrowed heavily from other sources (particularly the Nordic myths), but what he created was uniquely his and representative of English ideology.
In the past when I thought about this quest of Tolkien's I wondered if he was truly successful. Middle Earth, while having many parallels to our world, is clearly not our world. Isn't a myth supposed to enrich our cultural perception of place?
But now I think I've come to understand that Tolkien did create just such a thing. A few years ago I traveled to the UK, and one of the things I loved most about the five weeks I spent there was knowing that I was in the place where Tolkien's fantasy was still alive. Everywhere I looked I saw pieces of Middle Earth, pieces of the Shire, pieces of magic. For me the UK has become the place where magic lives. I can see now just how successful and relevant Tolkien's mythology really was.
However, as much as I love Middle Earth, I'm not British. Tolkien's mythology has been borrowed in America and widely used, but it is not an American mythology. I've heard of Americans searching for a mythology for our country, an analog to Middle Earth, but something that is unique to us.
This isn't a new idea, but it's one that has recently taken hold in my mind. While I was in Charlottesville for the VA Book Festival I spent some time talking with my dad about the idea. Together we came up with a few thoughts about what might influence an American mythology.
First, we both recognized that this is a bit of a challenge. For one thing, America is so incredibly diverse; how can we come up with a mythology that is relevant to all of us? Secondly, most of us come from families who have only been present in this land for a few generations, just a handful of centuries at most; if mythology is so much about place, how can we claim any mythology having to do with America?
I think the answer to both questions is to choose pieces from a variety of sources that can all fit into one world.
First, the place and its natural history. Though many of us don't have genetic history here, this land does have a very long, very rich history. I think Native American myths would be an excellent source for creating some of the foundation of our mythological world. It would be a world where nature was even more alive, where animals spoke and embodied archetypes such as the trickster, the sage and the warrior.
Doing this would also provide some opportunity to borrow from some of the other cultures that have been pulled into the American mixing pot. For example, the Native American myths about animals could be supplemented by some of the African animal myths. Perhaps we could also include Asian shape-shifters.
Second, the people in the world. Though we are diverse, we have still managed to create an American point of view. We value hard work, individualism and cunning. We value equality and freedom from oppression. We already have some stories that speak to these traits. Here are a few examples:
American folk tales. Paul Bunyan is our quintessential can-do man. Along with others such as Davy Crockett and Pecos Bill, he would be a prime example of a character type to include in an American mythology.
Similarly, cowboys embody this idea of individualism. I could see the people in our mythology being very rugged types. I think for some people cowboy stories already are the American myths. In fact, even though a lot of that cowboy culture is disappearing, we still love the idea so much that we have pushed it forward into futuristic space stories. Cowboys are American through-and-through.
But part of what makes cowboys possible is having lots of physical land area that is yet untamed. Therefore one of the requirements for an American mythology would be lots of land that is undiscovered. This would be a major deviation from a Tolkien-type mythology. In Middle Earth all things have boundaries and are well-defined. In an American mythology that would not be the case. There would be a few pockets of society and relative safety, surrounded by area that would be generally known but not fully tamed, and then further out would be the unknown.
So in sum we would have a wild world inhabited by archetypical animals and by humans, some larger than life, who have to fight for survival.
Of course there is still much to be determined and much that could be added (I've barely even made a beginning here), but I think these ideas serve well as a basis for creating our mythology. Anyone have other comments or arguments to the contrary?