Do you remember the Quickbeam’s (from TORn) interview with Richard Armitage? I was intrigued when Armitage replied: "Tolkien did not create myths, he created legends." What is the difference, I thought. What’s more, several times I have read the expression "Tolkien’s mythology." So get to work. I must investigate it!
First step: Find out the exact meaning of both terms. Let’s see what Wikipedia says.
A myth (ancient Greek μυθος, translit. "Mithos") is a symbolic narrative, related to a given culture. The myth tries to explain reality, natural phenomena, the origins of the world and man by gods, demigods and heroes. The myth is associated with the rite. The rite is the way to put into action the myth in human life – in ceremonies, dances, prayers and sacrifices.
Legend is a fantasy narrative transmitted by oral tradition through the ages. With fantastic character and / or fictitious, legends and historical facts combine with facts that are merely unreal product of human imagination adventurous. With well-defined examples in all countries of the world, the legends often provide plausible explanations, and to some extent acceptable to things that have no proven scientific explanation, as mysterious or supernatural events. We understand that legend is a degeneration of Myth.
Right, got it. But why Richard Armitage says are legends, not myths ?
That was one of Tolkien’s great achievements. He didn’t really create myths, he created legends. And that’s what his full intention was, to create something that felt like it was of this earth, not somewhere else in the same way C.S. Lewis did. If you read any of the early histories of the evolution series it comes through, you realize that you’re looking for something much deeper, much more English actually.
Second step: Discover what the Tolkien Professor says about Myths and Legends.
I was with this in my mind as I reread Tolkien’s Letters, and there was the explanation in the voice of Professor:
Letter 131 (undated probably 1951)
“(…) I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. (…) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.”
Letter 257 (1964)
“The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion) (…)”
“In Oxford I wrote a cosmogonical myth, ‘The Music of the Ainur’,
defining the relation of The One, the transcendental Creator, to the Valar (…)”
“ The Hobbit (…) had no necessary connexion with the ‘mythology’ (…)”
“The magic ring was the one obvious thing in The Hobbit that could be connected with my mythology.”
Not satisfied, Tolkien was still using the term legendarium in reference to his work in four letters written between 1951 and 1955.
On The Silmarillion: "This legendarium ends with a vision of the end of the world, its breaking and remaking, and the recovery of the Silmarilli and the ‘light before the Sun’ …." (Letter to Milton Waldman, written c.1951)
On both texts "… my legendarium, especially the ‘Downfall of Númenor‘ which lies immediately behind The Lord of the Rings, is based on my view: that Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become ‘immortal’ in the flesh." (Letter written in 1954)
On The Silmarillion: "Actually in the imagination of this story we are now living on a physically round Earth. But the whole ‘legendarium’ contains a transition from a flat world … to a globe …." (Letter written in 1954)
And what is the conclusion I’ve come? The two terms are used almost interchangeably, but have important differences. Tolkien himself used both to refer to all of his work. But the definition of words, I believe that Richard Armitage is correct to use the term legends in reference to Tolkien’s work, with the exception of the creation myth of the world, present in the Silmarillion.
But how can Myths and Legends help us? With the J.R.R. Tolkien’s word:
I believe that legends and myth are largely made of truth, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be perceived in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.
Letter 131 To Milton Waldman