I think that the Old English love of riddles captures something of the way they approached life: life is a puzzle, but one to be encountered with joy and wit rather than despair. A lot of art is mimetic, but the relationship between riddles and reality is ironic, playful, tricky. Something similar can be said of the two modes of art, ‘realism’ (mimetic) and Fantasy (ironic).
The Anglo-Saxon world from which Tolkien took so much inspiration saw the universe as a riddle, and prized an ironic stance with respect to it. Not that courage and loyalty and strength were unimportant (of course, they were vitally important), but that a warrior hold his strength lightly, that he face death with a smile, that he fight more fiercely in the teeth of certain defeat. I am not talking about flippancy, or a more clumsy disrespectful. I am talking about accepting that there is a mismatch between our human abilities to understand and the brute fact of the cosmos.–Adam Roberts, via i09