The story of Adam and Even told in the Book of Genesis provides for Tolkien the ultimate myth. It tells of the Fall, giving to myth the meaning of a name for a story from before a fall.
Tolkien made use of the category of myth to define his own art, or at least some of it (the ‘Silmarillion’ stories are myths but the two hobbit stories became histories – technically: fairy stories). Yet the word also took its meaning from his reflections on the reach of philological science. Tolkien called myth, and thereby assigned to the category of art, a great swathe of the scholarly past of his discipline of comparative philology, a nineteenth-century science with an inbuilt obsession with origins.
In the nineteenth century, the three main language families identified in the world were associated with the three sons of Noah: Japheth (Indo-European), Shem (Semitic), Ham (‘Other’). Nevertheless, Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, Friedrich Max Müller, approached the first grouping (which he named ‘Aryan’) as constructed from scratch. He pictured a people who had only a few very basic names of things and then imagined how they made language.
Müller’s mid-Victorian ideas lost credibility in the decades after 1859, when human antiquity was confirmed from stone implements unearthed in the fields of the Somme. For it now began to become clear that people had lived for many thousands of years before the three main languages families of the modern world ever began to form.
In the accepted narrative of the secularization of the sciences, the discovery of human prehistory is another nail in the coffin in the credibility of the Bible. Yet Tolkien saw that the bottom falling out of history allowed for a better fit between the Book of Genesis and linguistic philosophy.
History is conventionally defined as the past as revealed by written records. Beyond history, the archaeologist investigates prehistory. The earliest written texts obviously echo words spoken in at least the last days of prehistory. So the philologist may peer into prehistory. Yet at a certain point the vision of the philologist reaches a limit (as when Tolkien peered at the native population of the British Isles). What is beyond this limit Tolkien defines as myth.
Myths, as defined, are not stories untrue but stories of a time before our own records begin. Identifying the story of the Fall as the original myth, and carefully reading the Book of Genesis, Tolkien sees that Adam named the animals before humans ever knew a Fall. This is why, when we discern a theory of naming in the late 1920s – his etymology of the name Nodens – and the early 1930s – The Hobbit – what we find is a theory of how already named things lost and found new names.
For Tolkien, the original naming of the nameless takes place in myth and the philologist or linguist who tries to imagine the origin of language is making a myth and calling it a science.
‘The Fall of Númenor’ (1936) gave Tolkien a definition of northern myth. This was retrospectively applied to the ‘Silmarillion’ stories he had been writing for two decades. From a wider perspective, northern myth comes into view as a series of stories punctuated by catastrophic falls.
From the perspective of the Beowulf poet, writing (believed Tolkien) in England in the time of Bede, the legendary past disclosed in stories still told of a lost homeland already had a mythical feel.
But behind each fall is another, until the Fall. The fall that began English history is the story of the terrible events that saw them load their possessions in boats and sail to a new British shore – a story of how a rising nation of warrior Danes took the lands of the ancient temple, made the old gods their own, and destroyed the tribe of the ancient priest-king.
Behind the stories of the ancient English is the much earlier, more terrible, and purely mythical tale of the fall of Númenor. In the most ancient northern legend recorded in history, the story of Scef glimpsed in the exordium to Beowulf, Tolkien heard the distant echo of Elendil who escaped from Númenor.