On Tolkien’s Birthday

You can’t understand science fiction without understanding Tolkien

Damien Walter
2 min readJan 5, 2024

You can’t understand science fiction without understanding Tolkien.

As it’s The Old Tolk’s birthday, let’s think about why that is.

The thesis that science fiction is myth really begins with JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and a third Inkling, Owen Barfield.

Barfield was an important philosopher of what is today called the “meaning crisis”. Society had abandonded it’s old myths and in their wake came nihilism and despair. Living through WW1 helped concrete this idea for all three men.

Tolkien’s answer was to create a new mythos for the modern world synthesised from the old Anglo-Saxon myths. Given the vast popularity of Lord of the Rings, it’s fair to say he succeeded. He coined the term “mythopoeia” to describe the art of making new myths.

Lewis’ major attempt at mythopoeia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was initially more successful than Tolkien. But his decision to make an allegory of Christian values has always limited the work. Many young readers feel a little betrayed when they find Aslan was Jesus Smuggling.

In retrospect Out of the Silent Planet and the Space Trilogy were Lewis’s geat works of myth making. Lewis was horrified by the atheist universe of Olaf Stapledon, presented in Star Maker. So Lewis became one of the first writers to use “space” as a backdrop for theological debate, an idea made famous in movies like 2001 and Interstellar.

The risk in the Inklings strategy of reviving the myths of older times is that they open the door to fascism. Every fascist regieme of the 20th century used a synthetic myth, the Third Reich for example, to create it’s vision of ultra-nationalism. I explored the complex relationship between LotR and Fascist Fantasy in a podcast episode last year.

Listen to the full podcast episode on YouTube



Damien Walter

I tell stories about the future, technology and culture. Published by The Guardian, WIRED, BBC etc.