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Tolkien wrote Mythopoeia following a discussion on the night of 19 September 1931 at Magdalen College, Oxford with C. S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson. Lewis said that myths were "lies breathed through silver". Tolkien's poem explained and defended creative myth-making. The discussion was recorded in the book The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter.
The poem is addressed from "Philomythos" (myth-lover) to "Misomythos" (myth-hater) and takes a position defending mythology and myth-making as a creative art about "fundamental things". The poem begins by addressing C. S. Lewis as the Misomythos, who at the time was sceptical of any truth in mythology:
- "To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'".
Tolkien chose to compose the poem in heroic couplets, the preferred metre of British Enlightenment poets, as it was attacking the proponents of materialist progress ("progressive apes") on their own turf:
- "I will not walk with your progressive apes,
- erect and sapient. Before them gapes
- the dark abyss to which their progress tends --..."
- "Your world immutable wherein no part
- the little maker has with maker's art.
- I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
- nor cast my own small golden sceptre down..."
The reference to not bowing before "the Iron Crown", and later reference rejecting "the great Artefact" have been interpreted as Tolkien's opposition and resistance to accept what he perceived to be modern man's misplaced "faith" or "worship" of a kind of rationalism, and "progress" when defined by science and technology. Tolkien further built upon this theme in The Silmarillion, in which the Luciferian figure of Morgoth is said to have embedded the stolen silmarils – the last source of unsullied light in Arda – within his iron crown. It is through coerced worship of Morgoth that his servant Sauron is later able to bring about the destruction by Ilúvatar of the Númenorean people, an event analogous with the fall of Atlantis (and The Fall at large). Tolkien continues:
- "man ...keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
- his world-dominion by creative act:
- not his to worship the great Artefact."
Mythopoeia takes the position that mythology contains spiritual and foundational truths, while myth-making is a "creative act" that helps narrate and disclose those truths:
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf; Mythopoeia; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son (London: HarperCollins, 2001) [first published 1964] ISBN 9780007105045.
- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
- Dundes, quoted by Adcox, 2003.
- Menion, 2003/2004 citing essays by Tolkien using the words "fundamental things".
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (2012-02-15). The Silmarillion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 10. ISBN 9780547951980.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (2014-02-21). The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 361, 147. ISBN 9780544363793.