My usual, gut-level, teeth-grinding reaction to certain referential allusions that occasionally come up during discussion is as follows:
Tolkien. Is. Not. A. Reference.
While Tolkien was, to be sure, a scholar with a great deal of research on the mythos and legends of Europe under his belt, he did not write, nor did he intend to, a book of pure histories (as pure as such things can be); his works were not intended as a straight catalog of those myths. He combined those myths with his own personal vision and created a functionally fictional world, with its own specific flavor of races and beings.
Yes, the ‘elves’ in Tolkien’s fictional world were in some part inspired by creatures referred to in ‘actual mythos’, such as the LiosAlfar, and the nobler strains of ‘Sidhe’ (re: W. Y. Evans-Wentz; A.E.’s tale). Yes, the Ainur and the Valar have enough similarities to the mythos regarding the hierarchies of the Judeo-Islamic heavens and the beings therein to be considered derivative of those myth systems.
That Tolkien modified those systems and shaped them into his own narrative, his own myth system; into a work intended to be fiction, discounts him as a serious reference in such discussion.
Unless you come specifically from the fictional world that Tolkien created, you cannot refer to his works as being valid references for the history of your people.
Tolkien is not history.
Neither are those myth systems from which he took so much of his inspiration. From one perspective, Tolkien’s body of work could be viewed along the lines of a modern Aeneid or Odyssey. It is an epic narrative, a heroic tale; a prose poem exploring the beauty of language for its own sake, of tale-telling for its own sake. It twines older tales together and makes of them a new storyline. How different is this from what Homer and Virgil did?
How much less viability is Tolkien given because his works were published in a modern era wherein belief in those particular myths is functionally obsolete? How much more likely would Tolkien’s works be to take their place in the folklore of Europe if they had been published without the fictional, alter-world veneer; if they had been published in an era in which there was still enough belief in the fee creatures of Europe to make additions to that line of legend possible?
There seems a tendency, indeed more than seems, as one has heard it said explicitly by various people, to discount any reference to the fee that comes published after a certain century; as if all true possibility of knowledge of those peoples ceased to exist after they ceased to be such a presence in this world. Modern works on the subject are hopelessly derivative and tangled, tainted by too much separation in time from the events, separated too much by modern life and long centuries of human influence to contain Truth. Bull. The fee have not ceased to exist. People who can see through the separation, whether it be time, distance, or some immeasurable barrier, have not ceased to exist. The tales that were told in the era from which such tales are considered viable were just as much influenced by the human society that existed then as tales that are told now are. They are no less, and no more, pure. They are no less, and no more, filtered through human perspective – the old tales, when recounted afresh during the last century or so, are only filtered through a longer timespan spent in that perspective and the shifts which have occurred therein. The works of Tolkien and other authors who further fictionalize and alter mythos do not contain The Whole Truth. The myths and legends upon which their works are based also do not contain The Whole Truth. Yet myth – The Tain, The Eddas, The Mabonigion – sometimes seem to be given a higher degree of credibility than they can rationally be owed; and are sometimes referred to in favorable contrast to modern fictionalizations to such an extraordinary extent that it seems reactionist: a knee-jerk ‘We are Not Fictional. We will not be taken seriously if We include Tolkien and other modern fictional sources among possibly viable sources of inspiration/fragments of truth/etc. We are referred to in Real â„¢ Mythology, therefore Our ideas about Our existences are valid and should be taken seriously.’
What is mythology but an established system of supposition and fiction based in some part upon observed Truths? What is most fiction but the process of creating a fanciful narrative based upon observed Truths? Why the vast divergence in opinion on the possible legitimacies of Myth as opposed to the possible legitimacies of Fiction? What is it about the existence of a spiritual reliance upon certain things that somehow brings them closer to Truth in people’s minds?
To what degree does the story of Etain and Midhir contain Truth? To what degree, at the time when it first came into being, was that story believed to be an accounting of actual events? To what degree did the populace believe in the existence of the Sidhe mounds, in the feats of Cu Cuchulainn? To what degree were such figures – the hero-men, the demi-gods – seen as real? Were they ideals; were they archetypal figures; were they, like Gandalf, Sauron, and Bilbo, designed mainly as vehicles to carry the narrative principle? (There are, of course, those exceptions to this, much as there are in Greek mythos; those figures who were known as deities, and given credence outside fictional narrative – in this case, for example; Brigit, the Dagda, Danu, etc.)
An example: It can be accepted that the peoples of that land at that time believed in the notion of shapeshifting – believed that among them, there were people who had that ability. The story of the Children of Lir includes in it this concept.
One can well imagine the common folk of the time listening to the story for the first, or the thirtieth, time, and seeing in their minds-eye the cruel sorceress Aoife cursing the children, seeing in their minds-eye the long, cold winters the children, now swans, spent struggling to survive on a frozen lake; much as folk today hear the stories of Tolkien or other fictional authors, and see Smaug sailing over the town of Dale, or see the elves sailing away from the Grey Havens.
Only here, today, our belief system is not inherently tied in to that narrative, and even we who believe in creatures such as elves, such as dragons, sometimes discount what threads of truth there may be in such works simply because by acknowledging that the separation between fiction and myth, when it comes to works classified only as fiction, is mutable and untraceable, we feel we invalidate our ideas about ourselves. This is not to say that we need give more credence to fiction, or that Tolkien and those of his ilk are a valid reference source when it comes to our histories or our people, but merely that it appears overly defensive to readily admit that myth does not contain pure fact, while refusing to acknowledge that sometimes, recently published works of fantasy, differentiated only from some myth by the changing standard of genre categorization and belief, may not always be pure fiction.