Monday, August 8, 2011
Mythopoeia and the Public Domain
I got it into my head that J. R. R. Tolkien's poem, "Mythopoeia," written in 1931 (after one of those BIG conversations that changes the life of intellectuals, in this case, Tollers, Jack, and Hugh Dyson) and dedicated to Lewis, was in the public domain. I'm not sure how I got that impression, perhaps because it was on Wikipedia at some point? Anyway, apparently it is not freely available. And thanks to Sonny Bono, the Walt Disney Co., and various other corporate lackeys in Congress, it will not be in the public domain in the US any time soon. Now, I'm all for the rights of creators, but at some point, it is reasonable that the creator and the family that she or he provided for have been taken care of, and the culture of which they are a part have a claim on their creation as something that now belongs to a people. You know, like all those stories that Grimm and Perrault and others published, but then were later available for Walt Disney to adapt in animations that made them tons of money? So yeah, I'm one of those disgruntled people that thinks that copyright was plenty long already and didn't need a greedy extend that keeps things out of the public domain even longer. Even if it was simply occasioned by the fact that I was going to republish "Mythopoeia" today until I discovered I was all wrong about its copyright status and that made my life more difficult this Mythopoeic Monday. Yet another reason to appreciate things like the OGL, Creative Commons, the sharers in the OSR community, and artists like Nina Paley. I might also mention Paizo's community use policy (found by scrolling down the page, right hand panel).
The problem with grumpiness is that it calls for connections. Like a connection to the fact that I love the Tolkien volume Tales from the Perilous Realm, illustrated by Alan Lee. It's an almost perfect collection of fairy stories together with Tolkien's seminal essay "On Fairy-Stories." Almost perfect, except that it left out the other major work on mythopoeia in Tolkien's corpus: the eponymous poem that is the subject of today's grumpiness! Ugh! Another link in the grumpiness chain. Truly, everything in this life is marked by dukkha.
So you will not be treated to a reproduction of "Mythopoiea" in today's post. For that matter, any lengthy quotation opens up the tricky question of how much of it I can quote under fair use. But if you haven't read it, I highly recommend that you seek it out (even though you can't find it in the book I'd love to point you towards buying). Aside from its literary quality and its historical importance (Lewis' corpus would be utterly different if he had not converted), it is a statement of the nature and value of myths.* There have been at least two attitudes towards myths other than they are literal statements of historical or natural realities. One is the view of Plato, that they are dangerous, foundational lies, only justifiable as a necessary evil in the maintenance of a good polis or society, but hence demanding careful and strong social control. The other is that they are the bearers of deep truths, hidden but of great importance to the cosmos and the individual. This attitude is at least as old as Plutarch and dominated the thought of ancient Alexandria. This was the perspective, broadly speaking, to which Tolkien and Dyson belonged and to which they hoped to win their friend, the atheistic Lewis. Hence its dedication:
"To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'."
I recommend it to your enjoyment, study, and contemplation. Finally, the anthropology of the poem sees sub-creation, or the building of secondary worlds, as a part of human nature by virtue of humans' being made in the image and likeness of God. So, did I setting out complaining about the distortion of human good that keeps people as a group from participating in certain pieces of mythic material so that I could arrive at the point that joining in mythopoesis was a participation in the divine nature? Yeah, let's say I planned that.
* For that matter, it is also full of keys to what Tolkien is up to in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.