The Professor and the Doctor: The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who as Mythology


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When I think of England, sometimes, I can’t help imagining dematerializing police boxes, hobbits in the Shire and busy owls obligingly burdened with letters and packages to be delivered at the Ministry of Magic. Others might picture Sherlock Holmes engaged in combat with Professor Moriarty or a single man in possession of a good fortune who is also in want of a wife. Both C.S. Lewis and his dear friend Charles Williams wrote of a real place that they called “Logres,” a higher, truer kingdom that existed within England, more England than England, itself. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, when the Doctor saves London every Christmas, he is in fact defending Logres but neither will I dismiss the reality of the England that lives in the imagination.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to Naomi Mitchison that, when he set out to write The Lord of the Rings and its associated legendarium, he desired to fill what he perceived as a gap by creating “a mythology for England.” After at least 38 translations, it is fair to say that what he succeeded in creating was an English mythology for the world. While both The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who are quintessentially English, they are also stories that can be claimed by any and everyone.

“If Frodo can get the Ring to Mordor, then you can get out of bed in the morning.” Even if you are not familiar with this internet meme, how many of you understood the reference? What if I said that human beings are “bigger on the inside?” This is what myth accomplishes. It gives us a common story, a common cushion for our feelings, a common metaphorical language. It expresses our values, our fears and our aspirations.

Lewis, who took some persuading to value myth in the way that Tolkien did, said that one of myth’s characteristics is that it is “extra-literary,” meaning that you can enjoy hearing the story told over and over again in different forms, even in summary. The literary talents of the storyteller are a bonus. As someone who first fell in love with the myth of the Doctor by watching the Baker-era episode, “The Horns of Nimon,” I can attest to this.

In his legendarium, Tolkien gave the world something that it usually takes generations of storytellers to produce, a story so complex, embedded in such a rich history that you would think it was created layer by layer by mind after mind after mind. In the last fifty years, there have been many writers for Doctor Who but they have also managed to do what Tolkien did, to tell one very long, very complicated story. A name familiar to long-time Whovians is David Agnew, who would seem to be one of the geniuses behind the Doctor’s adventures in time and space.

David Agnew was, in fact, a pen name used by the BBC when the writer originally hired to write an episode gave up on the project so that others, such as producers, script editors and directors, had to take over to crank out a filmable script. Sometimes, they accomplished this in long sessions without sleep. Sometimes it must have felt as if they were trying to tease a full-bodied story out of thin air. The beloved Doctor Who story “City of Death” is among those attributed to David Agnew.

If the nascent idea for the story could be attributed to the writer who was originally hired, the credit for the story that hit the airwaves went to David Agnew, which is to say to lots of people and to no one in particular. To whom does the story of Krishna and Arjuna belong, or of King Arthur and Lancelot? To everyone and to no one. Tolkien created the illusion of a history and legendarium that had been told many times by many people and now, through radio plays, film and fan fiction, this is coming true. As for the writers of Doctor Who, I hold them in great esteem, but I hope the Doctor outlives them all.

Myth is made of words but it cannot be “captured in a net of words.” It is not inanimate. It is alive and growing. A hero becomes a god; one god’s exploits are attributed to another; the pantheon of one culture absorbs members of the pantheon of another culture. The myth moves on like a widow who has grieved and is ready to love again.

In the contemporary world of fandom, we call this “retconning,” which comes from the phrase “retroactive continuity.”  Retconning happens when writers take unexplained or contradictory elements of an established story then combine and explain them in a way that suggests that this is the way the story has always gone. Didn’t you know that Star Trek’s Commander Data always appeared to age as a human ages, even though this wasn’t explained until the episode when he meets his “mother,” or that there have always been fixed points in time that even a Time Lord cannot change? Bilbo’s first meeting with Gollum always went the way it was recounted in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was Bilbo who took his time in telling the truth about it. Myth would be pretty dull without retcons. We want our stories to make sense but we also want them to grow and change, just as we grow and change.

None of us knows the future. None of us knows what personal dragons or private Daleks might be waiting to take us down. Life is an adventure. Myth is a mirror for our lives. We need it to understand ourselves and to communicate that understanding to others. There are days when I feel like I am scrabbling up the stairs of Cirith Ungol and others when I am in the midst of a regeneration crisis. How much more expressive that is than saying that I am exhausted and in despair or confused and unsure of who I am (though, I am probably still not a ginger).

never been ginger

If you have ever watched a Classic Who DVD, you are probably familiar with the cool info-text feature that gives background information on the episode in the form of subtitles. One of the info-text authors, Dr. Martin Wiggins, also happens to be a very well-respected Shakespeare scholar. He told Doctor Who Magazine that he does not “think in terms of high art and low art with Shakespeare at one end and popular television at the other.” Dr. Wiggins knows that we need to take our stories where we can find them, hold on to the ones that move and instruct us because, as the Doctor said, “we are all stories in the end.” Tolkien’s Sam and Frodo had a similar revelation when, drained of personal hope, they reflected on the stories that would one day be told of them, on the delight that comes out of hardship when that hardship has been woven into a tale. Time Lords and hobbits have helped me to write the story of my own life. I am doing my best to make it a good one.

4 thoughts on “The Professor and the Doctor: The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who as Mythology

  1. Fascinating thoughts, as always! I quite liked your description of the layered almost geographic or archeological nature of myth and retconning…both as an endeavor of intense work and creative energy and as the accretion of elements over vast periods of time. All myth in some sense is built this way: by both the quick burst and flash of light and the piecemeal revelations that build to the wide view from the tower’s top after much time.

    The reality is both were very much at work in Tolkien’s own legendarium, as is made very clear very quickly in HoME as well as his further scholarship. In some ways looking at it this way is a message of hope to all aspiring authors or mythmakers. We can make myth by conventional means, through pen to paper. Or it can be born and evolved through a process of discovery. In myth-making we are endeavoring in an act of both creation and discovery simultaneously. We wander the realm of fairy, and we wander through everyday life, and find glimmers of each in both. It is from that recognition of the mundane in the fantastic and the fantastic in the mundane that true myth is born…whether it is Hobbits and Elves or Daleks and Timelords.

  2. Yep. Whenever I wake up and don’t want to face the day I try to remember Bilbo. He taught me that the Call to Adventure comes every day. The important thing is answer it, even if you know it will make you late for dinner!

  3. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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