Tolkien’s narrative voice

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)

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25 Responses to Tolkien’s narrative voice

  1. nishatalitha says:

    In fact, even the re-tellings of old legends in LOTR do not quite correspond with the “originals” in the Silmarillion.

    I would argue that if you need an in-story reason to explain the differences to put it down to the length of time passing between the actual event and the re-telling. You’ve given the external explanation for such differences already.

    Another point for you to think about. If the personal ownership and interpretation of the material is what is crucial for turning something into mythology, rather than just a story, where does the vast wealth of fanfiction fit into all this? Surely that is claiming personal ownership of material, and noting different interpretations in a story format?

    Probably the best example of it that I can think of would be the Harry Potter fandom, where there is so much room in the original for differences to be argued about.

    • mashugenah says:

      I would argue that if you need an in-story reason to explain the differences to put it down to the length of time passing between the actual event and the re-telling.

      The crux of my argument is that Tolkien’s re-telling isn’t careful and thorough enough to admit this kind of detail. πŸ™‚

      If the personal ownership and interpretation of the material is what is crucial for turning something into mythology, rather than just a story, where does the vast wealth of fanfiction fit into all this?

      Good point. I should point out that I am naturally inclined to the obverse position to the one I present above, so nothing occures off-hand to answer your question. I’ll have a think about it. I suspect though, that if we can regard Tolkien as a mythology-creator, we can see any mass-adoption of a story as mythology-adoption. A bigger example than fan fiction is the Star Wars universe, a point nicely picked up on in Reign of Fire where in the post-apocalyptic north of England, the tales they re-tell aren’t Arthur, but Luke Skywalker.

      James Bond is another powerful mythological figure: look at his legacy in terms of cultural penetration and ownership. People all have their favourite version of Bond, some based on books, some on movies.

      *le sigh*, the answer to your question is: I have no firm definition of “myth” within the framework defending Tolkien on that basis.

      • nishatalitha says:

        I would argue that if you need an in-story reason to explain the differences to put it down to the length of time passing between the actual event and the re-telling.

        The crux of my argument is that Tolkien’s re-telling isn’t careful and thorough enough to admit this kind of detail.

        Well, yes. That’s an external reason, a reason to do with the author. What I was saying is that if the characters in the story need an explanation for the differences, then time passing is a good one. Doylist or darwinist arguments, only I can’t remember which is which. External or internal explanations can coincide. πŸ™‚

      • mashugenah says:

        That’s the fundamental issue at hand: yes. Whether you can separate the input of the author from the work they have created. Well, it’s not absolutely relevant to this post, but it’s something I’m interested in.

        You see, it’s only possible to look at the internal mechanics of a world, be it physics, or oral traditions, or whatever, if you can accept that they exist in some kind of coherent framework that is somehow independant of the author. If you’re denying that: arguing that authorial fiat is the sole determinant of action in the novel, then you have no recourse to cause-and-effect within the narrative. If there appears to be cause-and-effect, it is only because the author wishes it within the limited confines of that particular sequence.

        My general view is that authors should be neglected to as large an extent as possible when drawing conclusions about a novel: in which case I heartily agree that since in real life stories change over the ages, such a thing should go on in the novel. However, if we are to judge LOTR in the light of a free-standing work, we’re going to see a whole bunch of cracks; so Stephanie bsaic position is that we must consider it as a mythology, which magically fills these cracks as I’ve, slightly cynically, described.

        Gah, what a mess. Yes, I understood what you were getting at, and I agree; I just didn’t explain well enough why I can’t take that as a valid line in the argument I present in the post itself.

        This whole messy framework comes up a lot when talking about Homer, especially because many of the myths he relates are told very incompletely by characters within the narrative. You can’t always argue that the characters would tell the story in that skewed way because there are numerous examples where there is a strong resonance between the changes in the myth and thematic elements in the work as a whole. Since the character doesn’t have access to this “omniscient” narrative perspective we have to realise that the characters exist and act by fiat, not in a strongly causal reality of their own.

        Am I just smoking crack, or does a little of that make sense?

      • nishatalitha says:

        I’m sorry, that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me. I can understand each paragraph individually (although the one about Homer is harder than the rest), but I’m having trouble putting it together as a whole.

        What you appear to be saying is that you generally agree with what I was saying, but you were making a completely different argument in the post, and thus don’t. Is that right?

        I tend to vacillitate between which position I hold. If I’m thinking about the story, rather than the external structure, a the basic argument, such as the one I put forward, is good enough to paste over the cracks as I read; an internal mythology, if you will. But if I’m thinking about the author (and generally, I prefer to ignore authors, just as I prefer to ignore actors in favour of their characters), I am quite happy to assume that it was done deliberately so that the story would work better.

        In one of the fics I’ve written, there are deliberate internal inconsistancies. Internal reason is because the characters had had memory changes from another character. External reason is sometimes I forgot what I was writing, and then I decided the internal reason would be easier to write in than going back and fixing everything. Something like that, anyhow.

        Does that make sense?

      • nishatalitha says:

        To continue, because this might make sense after all. I’m going to have to rephrase some of this to help me make sense of it, though.

        I tend to assume that the internal mechanics of a world exist in some kind of coherent framework. If it doesn’t make sense to me, surely it makes sense to someone. However, what you appear to be saying is that if there is no internal coherent framework, then it’s all done by the author, all the inconsistencies and everything. If there are mistakes, they’re there because the author wished them to be.

        I was under the impression, that if we’re judging LOTR as a free-standing work, that means we’re looking at the internal framework and events, rather than from an outside perspective, analysing the author as well as the story, and of course there are cracks in LOTR. Tolkein couldn’t catch everything.

        Of course everything happens in a story by authorial fiat. They’re the ones writing it, after all. I’ll leave aside anything about inspiration and muses for now, since that would make things more complicated. If an author has a point they want to make, then they can use characters to do so, and even if characters don’t have access to the overall omniscience of the story, there should really be an internally coherent reason for their behaviour and the stories; stay in character.

        I’m sorry, this is frustrating, but I don’t think I get what you’re saying.

      • mashugenah says:

        I’m sorry, that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to me.

        Well, in your defence, it probably doesn’t actually make sense. πŸ™‚

        What you appear to be saying is that you generally agree with what I was saying, but you were making a completely different argument in the post, and thus don’t. Is that right?

        Yes. Actually this illustrates the exact problem of “author intent”, because the actualy author (me) and the implied author (the person you interpret exists from what the post says) do not agree. One is a construction of the other, but often when deconstructing literature they are conflated by the analyst.

        I am comfortable attacking and vivisecting the implied author, which is a mainstay of Feminist literary criticism. Essentially the argument is that whatever the opinion of the real author, the implied author is often implicitly sexist.

        In essence, we have several layers. At the core we have the real world/fictional world. This is understood to some extent by an author. We then have the implied author which you can think of as a persona or fragmentary reflection of the real author. Below this we have the narrator; in the case of a third person/omniscient narrator, this is usually part-and-parcel of the implied author. Below this we have the world as depicted by the narrator/implied author (the narrative).

        What is depicted by the narrator/implied author is a sub-set of the world that they interact with. So, if writing an omniscient narrator describing my working day, I will naturally omit many many details. As the author, I select what information is available to the narrator/implied author, who then tells you, the reader. In a fictional narrative, the world that exists may be limited pretty closely to what is actually shown, or it may be as small a fragment as if describing a real world.

        In the case of an anthologist, we have an “alternate” layer to the author: we essentially start with the narrative that is the bottom layer of the creation process, then work our way back up the layers to get to the world understood by the author, with all its complexities. The anthologist then formulates an implied anthologist, and so on, back down to a narrative.

        We are, in other words, adding another whole set of layers between us and the “real world”. The argument is that Tolkien sets out to be an anthologist, rather than an author. So we don’t have access in our analysis to the real anthologist, only the implied anthologist. This is still several layers away from the implied author, who executes the decisions on continuity and so on.

        By this stage it should be apparent just how tenuous and shaky this whole analysis construct is, which is why I don’t adhere to its conclusions. But the implied author of my post does.

      • mashugenah says:

        Of course everything happens in a story by authorial fiat.

        Well, that’s not necessarily true. There are lots and lots of authors who “story” themselves into corners, because the narrative is not tightly controlled. There is quite a bit of critical thinking about to what extent an author really does have automatic and unquestionable fiat.

      • A bit like, hmm, Tolkien maybe πŸ™‚

        (who has written that, when the Black Rider first turned up, he had NFI who it was, and who had planned LotR as a shorter sequel to TH, completely unconnected with his work on what eventually became _The Silmarilion_)

      • mashugenah says:

        Have you read through Christopher Tolkien’s reconstruction of the writing process? I’ve always been tempted, because I think it’d be fascinating in and of itself to see how someone went about doing it… but I’ve just never had the spare time. 😦

      • When I was 12 or so, I was particularly into Tolkien. I read _Unfinished Tales_, and then made my way through most of the _Book of Lost Tales_ parts 1 and 2. I read a bit of the _Shaping of Middle Earth_ because I was keen on maps (like Bilbo πŸ™‚ ). But I didn’t read any of the rest, really.

        I remember that Strider was originally a hobbit named Trotter, who had wooden feet because his feet had been chopped off in Mordor. And Frodo was going to be Bingo Bulger-Baggins. But I wan’t quite obsessed enough to plow my way through the whole lot..

  2. What about this, from the next chapter:

    ‘It is grim reading,’ he said. ‘I fear their end was cruel. Listen! We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and second hall. Frar and Loni and Nali fell there. Then there are four lines smeared so that I can only read went 5 days ago. The last lines run the pool is up to the wall at Westgate. The Watcher in the Water took Oin. We cannot get out. The end comes, and then drums, drums in the deep. I wonder what that means. The last thing written is in a trailing scrawl of elf-letters: they are coming. There is nothing more.’ Gandalf paused and stood in silent thought.
    […]
    Gandalf had hardly spoken these words, when there came a great noise: a rolling Boom that seemed to come from depths far below, and to tremble in the stone at their feet. They sprang towards the door in alarm. Doom, doom it rolled again, as if huge hands were turning the very caverns of Moria into a vast drum. Then there came an echoing blast: a great horn was blown in the hall, and answering horns and harsh cries were heard further off. There was a hurrying sound of many feet.
    ‘They are coming!’ cried Legolas.
    ‘We cannot get out,’ said Gimli.
    ‘Trapped!’ cried Gandalf. ‘Why did I delay? Here we are, caught, just as they were before. But I was not here then. We will see what -‘
    Doom, doom came the drum-beat and the walls shook.
    [etc]

    I remember being disappointed by that scene in the movie — I thought there was more tension in the book..

    We are no more able to, or encouraged to, re-trace Frodo’s steps to Mt Doom

    If you like, I can lend you _The Atlas of Middle-Earth_, which (amongst other things) retraces Frodo’s steps to Mount Doom πŸ™‚

    • mashugenah says:

      What about this, from the next chapter:

      We can play that game for quite a while. There are lots of awkward segues and scenes where he’s describing things only because he must in order to get past them in the timeline. Most of his battle scenes, for example, are very flat. Why? Because the details of the combat do not have a real narrative impact, only the results, and so our summarizing assumed author doesn’t need to focus on them. That’s if you’re taking the line in my post.

      You’re right though, that not all of the novel is like that. There is a lot of care lavished on some of the narrative passages. For example, not much happens in the Frodo/Sam trek through Mordor, but it’s largely rendered with sympathy and delicacy. Even as a child I recongised that the real interest there was not “plot” but the narrative. Peter Jackson had to “sex it up” for the movie, because if you’re not encountering/liking the language, it is very dull going.

      If you like, I can lend you _The Atlas of Middle-Earth_, which (amongst other things) retraces Frodo’s steps to Mount Doom πŸ™‚

      Thanks, but I’m not finished with The Flight of Dragons yet, and I don’t like to have too many books from one person at once. πŸ™‚ I stand by my statement though: watching their progress via a red line on a map a la Indiana Jones, adds nothing. The journey itself is important only to access the reactions of the characters. At leat, IMHO. πŸ™‚

  3. adrexia says:

    Wow you had a falling out over Tolkien?

    That’s a bit… well… lame really. But if you believe it’s no loss, then I guess a lame excuse is better than no excuse.

    Anyway…

    Iphigenia? I don’t remember that conversation… what exactly was our point of difference?

    • mashugenah says:

      It was the catalyst rather than the cause. From my POV, the conversation went something like this:

      SR: *drools*
      AS: ewwww
      SR: *bitch-slap*
      AS: owww

      We had a discussion about whether Iphigenia was rescued by Artemis before the blow fell. πŸ™‚

      • adrexia says:

        I see… Euripides using artistic license vs. Euripides relaying an already known myth.

        Well there are reasons Euripdides was known as a hater of women. He did his best to portray them in the worst possible light. Having Iphigenia rescued makes a mockery of any excuses Clytemnestra might justifiably have for killing her husband. *shrugs*

        SR: *drools*
        AS: ewwww
        SR: *bitch-slap*
        AS: owww

        Wow, straw-man and ad-hominem in one. I’m impressed.

      • mashugenah says:

        I have the 100% opposite impression of Euripides on women, but that can wait until I’m finished work.

        Wow, straw-man and ad-hominem in one. I’m impressed.

        Well, it was mostly intended as comic, but I’ll take what I can get. πŸ™‚

      • adrexia says:

        I have the 100% opposite impression of Euripides on women

        So do I, but the Greeks didn’t. The question then is, why did the Greeks call him a hater of women? What do they know that we don’t? I doubt he would have been called that for faithfully retelling myths. Apparently his version of the myths were quite shocking to his intended audience… There is a theory around, for instance, about the story of Medea. The theory says she didn’t kill her children in the original myth, and that her children were instead killed by the townspeople.

        But anyway…this is a little way off topic. πŸ˜‰

      • mashugenah says:

        *mod hat on*Don’t care*mod hat off*

        The question then is, why did the Greeks call him a hater of women?

        Yeah, I’m not too sure. Care to advance a theory?

      • We had a discussion about whether Iphigenia was rescued by Artemis before the blow fell. πŸ™‚
        According to Sherri Tepper’s analysis, no, she wasn’t rescued, that was a story made up by men so they could feel better about having done something really nasty. πŸ˜‰
        The Gate to Women’s Country is a fine book, but very feminist in its reading of Greek myths.

      • mashugenah says:

        Iphigenia always struck me as a very incongruous part of the myth, because the Greeks were not big on human sacrifice. Achilleus sacrifices a bunch of Trojans in book 23 of the Iliad, but that doesn’t appease his anger; and is generally seen as uncouth by the other Greeks. Iphigenia doesn’t appear at all in Homer, nor does Elektra. So there could be an argument that she was inserted to justify Clytaemestra’s murder, except that references to them appear in the summaries of the epic cycle… which are all classical or later in date, so open to question.

        Isn’t classics fun? πŸ™‚

      • Er, I know you’ve studied Classics a lot more than I have, but didn’t the Classical cycle include things like Tantalus serving his kids up to the gods for dinner?

      • mashugenah says:

        And what happenned to Tantalus? πŸ™‚ To be honest though, I’d forgotten about him, and one or two other incidents. Most of the human sacrifice bits are pre-Trojan war. There are a lot of occasions where someone kills children or whatever for some other nefarious purpose, but not usually as part of a religious ceremony. I’ll have to look into it more later. πŸ™‚

        The “epic cycle” is the name of the works that surrounded the Iliad and Odyssey only, not a general account of all myth.

      • Er, I know you’ve studied Classics a lot more than I have, but didn’t the Classical cycle include things like Tantalus serving his kids up to the gods for dinner?

      • mashugenah says:

        Iphigenia always struck me as a very incongruous part of the myth, because the Greeks were not big on human sacrifice. Achilleus sacrifices a bunch of Trojans in book 23 of the Iliad, but that doesn’t appease his anger; and is generally seen as uncouth by the other Greeks. Iphigenia doesn’t appear at all in Homer, nor does Elektra. So there could be an argument that she was inserted to justify Clytaemestra’s murder, except that references to them appear in the summaries of the epic cycle… which are all classical or later in date, so open to question.

        Isn’t classics fun? πŸ™‚

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