Over the course of your profession, you develop a toolkit of ideas that you can use as interpretive guides in the world around you. I have, at work, a foolscap box filled to the brim with notes on design approaches and typical solutions for typical problems. For my literary stuff, the box is largely contained in my mind, unhelpfully informal and disorganized. I do notice a few of the tools I use a lot, the one that seems most obvious this morning is my constant analalogizing between Engineering and English. I like to think of this as maximizing the utility of existing knowledge rather than being too lazy to approach a new subject on wholy new terms.
It would be fair to say that there are several strands running through the musings I’ve posted here. Verbosity certainly, but also the desire to excise the author, and to search for common story patterns to use as interpretive tools. Key to pattern matching is understanding how the story is internally constructed, almost what it’s self-image is. Sometimes stories are misguided about their own natures however, and you must watch for that as well.
Well, recently and I had a small disagreement about Tolkien, which lead to a mutual de-friending. I suspect that I just got tired of her loud melodramatic obnoxiousness and she got tired of my cynically superior vituperation. I can’t really see this as much of a loss on either side.
The crux of the disagreement was how we should read Middle Earth: as a fantasy epic to be compared with similar works undoubtably influenced by it, or as a fragmentary re-telling of a mythological event. I put the case for the first, but Stephanie was unwilling to put the case for the second, instead slinging insults and putting on an air of condescension. So, let me now put that argument forward, bearing in mind my two common analysis tools.
Having used a touch over 300 words already, I’ll try to compress this as much as possible.
We must percieve Tolkien not as an author, but as a schizophrenic anthologist-cum-creator. An author has several jobs: they must create a sotry, populate it with characters, then orchestrate the revelatoin of these two things in a pleasing way. An anthologist merely preserves the main events and names of things in a capsule summary, while a creator is charged with building the events which an author might depict.
Tolkien, the ancient scribes who summarized the Epic Cycle for us, had a vast task in front of him. To relate the essential actions of the essential actors in LOTR is even more daunting, because the number of key actors is larger, and there are a greater number of theatres of conflict. The sheer volume of information obfuscates the work’s essential role as a summary. Regard the following passage, taken from ‘A Journey in the Dark’ in The Fellowship of the Ring:
For eight dark hours, not counting two brief halts, they marched on, and they met no danger, and heard nothing, and saw nothing but the flame of the wizard’s light, bobbing like a will-o-the-wisp in front of them.
The narrative voice is carefully withdrawn and neutral, we do not here get any sense of the urgency, the claustrophobia, or how interminably long eight hours is in such monotonous activity. Compare it with an equally brief excerpt from ‘Between Worlds’ in The Dragonbone Chair:
It was becoming colder, and the close-cramped walls of the passageway seemed to breathe with moisture.
Williams’ in contrast to Tolkien, is an author, and so takes care not to merely summarize the action, but to expansively focus on the details, and try and create an immersive mood, where the reader becomes the trapped Simon.
So, we can excuse the majority of Tolkien’s “faults” by realizing that his interest is not in a careful evocation of emotion, but in ensuring the survival of a legendary sequence of events which altered the shape of the world. In this kind of mindset, Williams’ quantity of plot in a novel, part one of three, just under a thousand pages long as somewhat inadequate. This is a just accusation: I have long argued that reading Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is not so much indulging in fantasy on an epic scale, so much as luxuriating in the vitality and careful detailing of the world’s construction.
Principally, this stance eliminates most of the logistical problems with Middle Earth. We are no more able to, or encouraged to, re-trace Frodo’s steps to Mt Doom than we can precisely map Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece or Gilgamesh’s entryway into the underworld. We are ironically fooled into searching for such minutae in LOTR by it’s very difference to the real world. We confusedly demand that Tolkien pay more attention to a fictional landscape than other mythological sources payed to real ones. For the same reasons we don’t ask what the Trojans ate for ten years, we don’t ask what supplies the citadel of Minas Tirith once Osgiliath has fallen.
We now turn and look at Tolkien as pseudo-God. When Homer performed the same service for Greece that Tolkien provided for Middle Earth, he was working with a larger body of material that already had a long tradition and elaboration. In Homer we see many inconcistencies over whether Oxen/women are the currency, or gold, and sometimes Iron is described as the material de rigeur and sometimes Bronze. Where these kinds of inconsistencies exist in Tolkien, are we to cut him any slack? For example, the Malor in the Silmarillion have quite a few differences to the Wizards that some people hypothesize are their continuation in LOTR proper. Beorn and his type of creature vanish entirely between the Hobbit and LOTR. In fact, even the re-tellings of old legends in LOTR do not quite correspond with the “originals” in the Silmarillion.
We might argue that Tolkien had an inconsistent and imperfect understanding of his own world, which can hardly be considered acceptable. Or can it? We have already in fact dealt with this question, above. The conclusion is that these “weaknesses” actually accrue to building the organic feel that real life has. Despite the distance between the narrator and the subjects throughout Middle Earth, we can easily recognise that the narrator is not truly omniscient because of these little problems. This has the great advantage of allowing us room to interpret and assimilate the source materials in different ways. Just as and I have our disputations about Iphigenia, two readers of LOTR can argue over the relative powers of Radaghast. This personal ownership of the material is critical in positioning your work as a mythology, rather than simply a story.
The conclusion therefore, is that the people who argue against Tolkien as a great author are unwilling to acknowledge LOTR as mythology rather than fiction. They are looking at the work with a debilitating pre-conception of what any literary work should be rather than trying to accept the work on its own terms.
(1157 words, 91 minutes)