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Old 04-12-2004, 01:19 PM   #1
Fordim Hedgethistle
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Pipe ‘Canonicity’: the Book or the Reader?

I’ve been noticing that most of the questions and debates that take place in this forum tend to turn on the idea of what Tolkien ‘intended’ when he wrote the books. That is, when it comes to something like the origin of orcs, or whether a particular character is a Maia or not, everyone goes scrambling to the various reference works to piece together the ‘truth’. More often than not, what happens is we find that Tolkien’s own writings are far from definitive and, even worse for those who desire absolute clarity, they sometimes are even contradictory (the origin of orcs being a good example; or, my personal fave and a perennial topic for heated discussion in these parts: do/can balrogs fly?).

It seems to me that this kind of an approach, while entertaining and extremely informative, tends to miss the point somewhat. Tolkien himself wrote in the Introduction to LotR that he “much prefers history, real or imagined.” Throughout his career as a creative writer, Tolkien saw himself as a historian who was ‘recovering’ these tales from a distant past. The historian can shape the narrative of history, but he or she cannot make that history. This only makes sense, I suppose, given that Tolkien was by training and temperament a philologist. He believed that the truth of any tale lies in its historical origins – more specifically, the historical origins of the words that have given rise to the tale.

Given this idea (which, again, was Tolkien’s own) of the writer-as-historian, then does this not mean that we – the readers – are not only able, but compelled, to seek always to reinterpret the tales from our own standpoint rather than continually try to figure out what the ‘first’ historian made of them? Tolkien can give us important clues and hints into the history and – more significantly – the moral fabric of Middle-Earth, as he was the world’s greatest expert on the material. But in the end, it’s up to the reader to really figure it out for him or herself. That’s, I think, the real strength of Middle-Earth over other imagined worlds: it’s open-ended and incomplete; it’s contradictory; it doesn’t make sense – it’s just like our own (primary) world.

The question that comes up out of all this (and if you’re still reading: thanks) is – how far can we go with our own re-interpretations of the works before we’re working ‘against’ them rather than ‘within’ them. I think it’s pretty fair to say that everyone here would agree that it’s at acceptable (even desirable) to interpret the women characters from a point of view that is more contemporary than Tolkien’s own. I think it’s also safe to say that we would all want to adopt an interpretation of the Dwarves that is radically different from Tolkien’s own (in a BBC broadcast recorded in 1971 he said that the Dwarves are “clearly the Jews”). But can we do something like criticize Gondor for maintaining an autocratic form of government (the King)? Are we allowed to re-interpret the Scouring of the Shire as the re-establishment of upper-class power (Frodo) after a successful revolution by the underclasses (albeit it supported by foreign insurgents)?

In a book that doesn’t really conclude, where does its truth end and our own begin?

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Old 04-12-2004, 01:28 PM   #2
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Fordim Hedgethistle,

Let me side with Treebeard here and not give you a hasty reply. I would like, however, to point to Tokien's preference of applicability over allegory in the Foreward to LOTR.

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I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
More later.

Fascinating and extremely valuable discussion, I think.

*curtsies*

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Old 04-12-2004, 06:18 PM   #3
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Yes -- thanks for that quote Bethberry: it's always been one of my very favourite by Tolkien as it links the very act of reading his works to the themes they convey. I think it's pretty safe to say that the "purposed domination of the author" that he dislikes about allegory is pretty close to what Sauron practices (in particular over the Nazgul); whereas the "freedom of the reader" that he associates with applicability is what the Free Peoples fight for!

The really brilliant thing that Tolkien himself points to is that if any one person attempts to claim that he or she has the one truth to 'explain' the novel, then this reader is no better than Sauron attempting to dominate all other opinions with his One Ring and overweening eye/I. Given this, if we are really to emulate Frodo, Aragorn, Sam (etc) we must resist the temptation to look to the author for the answers and struggle to find the freedom in the text that allows us to think/create for ourselves.

But this is where it gets sticky again: is our freedom to create wholly unrestricted? Can we 'make up' whatever we want about Middle-Earth or do we have to defer in some way to its 'Creator'? This is where the RPGs get so interesting, as we're always dancing on the edge of that particular knife! We have the freedom to do and say what we want with our characters. . .but only so much freedom, before a Mod will 'correct' us and bring us back in line with the 'rules' or 'truth' of Middle-Earth.

(Quick note to any and all Mods who may read this: love you guys all and the job that you do around here -- you present an interesting theoretical question, however, and are not being slagged in any way here! )
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Old 04-13-2004, 02:27 AM   #4
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It seems to me that the 'Legendarium' is pretty consistent up to the post LotR period. Then for some reason Tolkien adopts a more philosophical/theological approach - Osanwe Kenta, Athrabeth, Laws & Customs, 'Myths Transformed, etc. - at this point the real contradictions start to arise, because the earlier stories of the Sil tradition still retain many of the 'fairy story' elements from the Lost Tales. They cannot incorporate the later works - which Tolkien wants to fit into them - rather like trying to hammer a very large square peg into a tiny round hole. The whole thing starts to fracture.

This situation, as Tolkien moves from storyteller to philosopher/comentator on his Secondary world, from translator to theologian, is the real reason, IMO that he could never finish the Sil.

Interpreting the stories themselves according to our current values is probably inevitable.

BTW(The quote about the Dwarves being 'clearly the Jews' for anyone who has not heard it in context & is thinking it may be anti-Semitic, was made in reference to both races being disposessed of their lands & heritage & forced to wander the world, & adopt the languages of other lands, & face hatred & contempt from other races.)
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Old 04-13-2004, 08:07 AM   #5
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Actually, Tolkien's Dwarves-Jews analogy in that very interview is merely philological in nature: "The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic." (See here for a transscript of the interview). In one of his letters, Tolkien already presented the comparison with precisely the arguments davem mentioned.

But that's not the topic.
The problem with 'canon' is as far as I can see not just simply to be reduced to a single one. Rather, we have different grey and black spots in regard to the Legendarium.
Fordim's initial examples show this -- the origin and nature of orcs was at times uncertain, but quite clear later in the development of Middle-earth. However, the man still changed his mind on it several times. I believe that such a case provides us with the same problem as all texts which exist in diverging versions without a definite authority or definite solution to the complexity. Older mediaevalist science, for example, tried to construct an 'author's text' from the extant material, looking for sensible compromises and judging by their own ideas of taste and style. The result was of course a stab in the dark in regard to authencity. The more modern point of view is to take the conflicting versions for what they are, and rather ask why it says so in one copy and differently in another.
It appears to me that most discussions of such matters in the Legendarium however follow the old way, for better or worse. Nevertheless, while it is assumed that differences in medieaval Minnesang for example are there for a reason and presumably often intented by an author adapting his work to his audience, Tolkien discussion has a mixed blessing of its own: we can safely assume that the Professor had quite clear ideas about the 'truth' in his stories.
When asked about a matter such as Balrog wings, it is in fact most likely that he could give a simple and precise answer. Having that in mind, discussions of such grey areas are either confined to guessing Tolkien's mind or being content with little, none, or conflicting evidence.

I would like to think that all of that doesn't really have anything to do with interpretation, which is arguably wholly inadeqaute at answering questions within the Legendarium. Condemning Gondor's autocratic ruler from a modern point of view does not yield anything useful about the facts of the monarchy in the Legendarium. Calling the oligarchic Ruffianism a worker's class revolution is a perception noone in Middle-earth would likely have had either.

That being said, I do believe that there are very definite and easily recognizable boundaries of the canon. I see no point whatsoever, in any form of literary research, to question a 'fact' Tolkien gave us, within or without the fiction, since anything relating to the Legendarium is necessarily part of the fiction. What would be the point of denying the authority of a quote such as the one from the Letters, explaining that Sauron was of human form? One might get a different idea of Sauron when reading the books, and that in itself is interesting, but the fact is part of the whole. If a reader refuses to acknowledge certain parts of a work of fiction (or actual fact, for that matter), there's nothing I can do about it, but that person's position in a discussion forum is difficult to say the least. Conversely, I doubt someone with a clear idea of his own which one is unwilling to give up would ask such a question anyway.

Sub-creation in that context is definitely in accordance with the nature of the Legendarium, as long as the differentiation remains. I can't say much about the RPGs, but the canon rule there serves a very important purpose which is not primarily that of 'staying true to Tolkien', but rather to keep the games sensibly enjoyable.
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Old 04-13-2004, 08:45 AM   #6
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Fordgrim wrote: ... if we are really to emulate Frodo, Aragorn, Sam (etc) we must resist the temptation to look to the author for the answers and struggle to find the freedom in the text that allows us to think/create for ourselves.
Fordgrim, I'm with Sharku here: if the author hadn't intended us to know anything besides what was in the published stories only, then he didn't have to leave it around to be published later. But he *wanted* to publish the Silmarillion; he *wanted* to respond to (respectfully phrased) questions about Middle-Earth and its denizens. If he intended us not to know these extra-trilogy details, he didn't have to fuss at them to prepare them for publication, didn't have to answer the endless letters he received, didn't have to grant any interviews at all.

He didn't want to explain Tom Bombadil; so he refused to. Bombadil is a mystery; you figure it out. There, in my opinion, anyone is free to write a fanfiction and try to fill in Who Tom Really Is. And I think Tolkien would have been amused by the effort, and pleased to the degree that it was properly woven with the available information (limited as it is) that he had already provided.

There are places where Tolkien gave little-to-no-information (what happened in those Ered Luin, anyway? What was the culture like out there?...) And in those areas, we are free to let our imaginations run wild. Where he is mum, we may speak freely.

Of course, it's a free country, and if we want to re-arrange Tolkien's world, we may do so, but let's not call it Tolkien's 'canon' in the process.

Davem wrote:
Quote:
This situation, as Tolkien moves from storyteller to philosopher/comentator on his Secondary world, from translator to theologian, is the real reason, IMO that he could never finish the Sil.
davem, I'm hesitant to agree on this. While he says in Letters that he spent "too" much time playing solitaire, and accused himself of laziness, he *was* getting on in age. The evident change in priorities could be due to the weariness of age and the anticipation of his afterlife, which I believe helped motivate him into the philosophy and commentary.

But either way, I wouldn't prefer a finished Sil over the philosophy. I think I prefer having the philosophy. In the end, once HOME was published, we got more of a Sil than we would have from the Professor anyway.

I see the deepening as a growth and strength in Tolkien, and as something to look forward to in the aging process; not as weakness or negligence or lack of focus on his part.
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Old 04-13-2004, 03:21 PM   #7
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I would like to think that all of that doesn't really have anything to do with interpretation, which is arguably wholly inadeqaute at answering questions within the Legendarium. Condemning. Calling the oligarchic Ruffianism a worker's class revolution is a perception noone in Middle-earth would likely have had either.
This goes right to the heart of the questions I’m wrangling with Sharkű. I could not agree more that getting at the historical ‘facts’ of Middle-Earth has little to do with interpretation – for the factual evidence in the primary world you go to the source documents or the archaeological relics or whatever (although these, as any historian worth his or her salt will tell you, are never ‘purely’ objective and factual, but let’s leave that to one side as Too Much For Me To Get Into At The Moment…); for the facts of the secondary world we can and should go to what the sub-creator of that world has put down.

But where interpretation is not only adequate (I like your turn of phrase) but necessary comes to the non-factual questions that are really important – questions like our view of the governmental structure of Gondor. I concede your point that “condemning Gondor's autocratic ruler from a modern point of view does not yield anything useful about the facts of the monarchy in the Legendarium”, but this does not get us off the difficult hook raised by the fact that most of us are not big fans of autocratic forms of government, and that given our druthers we would rather not have a King thank you very much. And yet, we are induced by the magic (and I use that word carefully and in its fullest sense) of Tolkien’s story-telling art to celebrate and even long for the Return of the King. By this I mean to say that while we may not get a better understanding of the “facts” by “condemning” the text, we must still – as responsible readers – evaluate (rather than condemn) this form of government in order to better understand the applicability (Tolkien’s word, via Bęthberry) of that form of government to a world that has replaced/outgrown kings.

Quote:
There are places where Tolkien gave little-to-no-information (what happened in those Ered Luin, anyway? What was the culture like out there?...) And in those areas, we are free to let our imaginations run wild. Where he is mum, we may speak freely.
I’m not so sure I can accept this without comment Mark – am I really “free to let my imagination run wild?” Can I ‘make’ the people of Ered Luin into creatures with six arms and wings, who eat nothing but the bark of oak trees and kill their enemies by bombarding them with sea-shells…just by imagining them as such? Interestingly, as soon as you say this, you seem to back away from such an absolute freedom of the reader by insisting that “if we want to re-arrange Tolkien's world, we may do so, but let's not call it Tolkien's 'canon' in the process.” So you would seem to be suggesting that the “freedom” you talk of is a lot more complicated than it would appear: I can “re-arrange” the world, but without having any kind of ‘real’ effect on it? How much freedom is that? It sounds more like the freedom of the deranged man to say what he wants about the world, since, as everybody knows, he’s mad and therefore harmless: we already know what the ‘truth’ is so let him have his little say.

Frankly, I’d like to think that there’s a bit more room for me in the sub-creation of Middle-Earth than that!
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Old 04-14-2004, 03:18 AM   #8
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Fordim,

As to the governmental structure of Gondor, Aragorn at least is a kind of elected Monarch - Faramir asks if the people will have him as King, which is not simply a rhetorical or ritual question - they could refuse. He has no legal claim to the Kingship, he comes from a royal line who messed up big time, & lost their own Kingdom. It is at least a kind of democracy. They could have chosen Faramir to continue as ruling steward, but they actually wanted a King, & felt Aragorn had proven himself.

'Mark'

I too wouldn't be without the 'philosophy'. My point was simply that those later writings don't fit into the pre LotR Sil which Tolkien had gone back to after LotR was published. They eventually necessitated the attempted re writing of the Sil ('Myths Transformed'). The pre LotR Sil was virtually complete, & the publishers wanted it. So why didn't he just devote the year or two necessary & hand it over? My own feeling is that with LotR he had grown as a writer, & as a thinker. What he found when he re-read the Sil wasn't what he wanted or needed. He needed to progress creatively. And he did. I said in another thread that i consider those later works, the Athrabeth, Laws & Customs, & Osanwe Kenta (what I've read of it - I've been waiting 5 months for the relevant issue of Vinyar Tengwar to turn up!) to contain some of his most beautiful prose & most profound thought. But the point is, they are in no way consistent with the Sil as it existed when he went back to it after LotR. Either they would have to be rejected, or the Sil would need to be re-written. He eventually chose the latter course, but found it too much, & that it would require too much to be lost from the original.

That said, i also hold to another expressed statement that ideas like the Dome of Varda are bordering on silliness, where Elbereth is transformed from creator of the stars of Heaven to a kind of lighting technician.

In this instance, we have two totally conflicting stories, from different periods. The Dome of Varda is not a 'Balrog's Wings' question. It either existed or it didn't. Personally, like Christopher Tolkien, who rejected it for the published Sil, i think it was a mistake - though i understand Tolkien's motivations & what he was attempting to do.

I just feel that when he realised the scale of rewriting required, he gave up on completing the Sil, & set to work on the philosophical pieces & longer versions of the individual stories (Narn, Tuor, Hurin). But I also feel that it was this realisation that he would never be able to produce a complete, perfect Sil, that lead to him not being able really to complete any of the later stories.

I think that his later 'philosophical/theological' works will come in time to be seen as among the greatest things he wrote. Although set in ME, I feel that they rank alongside both LotR & the Beowulf & Fairy Stories essays as the work of a writer & thinker of genius. But I also feel that they are responsible for him not finishing another work of genius -The Silmarillion.
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Old 04-14-2004, 04:09 AM   #9
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Shield Canon: Grey as a Sinda

Quote:
if the author hadn't intended us to know anything besides what was in the published stories only, then he didn't have to leave it around to be published later. But he *wanted* to publish the Silmarillion; he *wanted* to respond to (respectfully phrased) questions about Middle-Earth and its denizens.
Fordim, your first post is an excellent and refreshing train of thought, not to mention very well written. On the whole, however, I agree with Mark 12:30. Tolkien's rigid insistence on continuity and almost pedantic ability to fill in minor details do not leave us a lot of elbow room. I can't help but feel that the more we carelessly speculate about Orcs and Balrogs, the more likely we are to come up with ideas that run contrary to those of the Professor, who is ultimately the author of his own works.

Does Tolkien's authorship give him absolute control over those works? No; once they were published and widely read, they began to take on a life of their own, in the minds of others, apart from Tolkien. This is an incredible thing, especially in the case of Tolkien, since his works struck a chord with so many of us. But it is not always a good thing. Without entering into a discussion about them here, I'd like to bring up the Movies. The filmmakers had the daunting task of filling in many, many gaps in detail, without the collaboration of the author. While the cast and crew did a bang-up job overall, many glaring... differences... (for the sake of this discussion I won't call them errors!) between the text and the script have been noticed.
Quote:
Given this idea (which, again, was Tolkien’s own) of the writer-as-historian, then does this not mean that we – the readers – are not only able, but compelled, to seek always to reinterpret the tales from our own standpoint rather than continually try to figure out what the ‘first’ historian made of them?
Well, we now have a large-scale modern reinterpretation to judge by. My question is, can the original intentions of an author be subverted by those of a later interpreter? At what point do we say, "this is no longer a faithful representation of the original", or "this is only loosely based on the original", or cry "SACRILEGE!"? And if the material as reinterpreted comes up greatly different from the original, shouldn't the reinterpreter (great word) just come up with their own vessel for telling a new story?

I agree wholeheartedly that we have not only the ability, but the obligation to examine the works of Tolkien, and well, everybody to the depth that they deserve. I also feel that during the course of our reading it may be possible to discover things in Middle Earth that Tolkien himself may not have consciously put there. Fordim's description of the class struggle in the Shire is a possible example of this. However I feel that if he were able today, JRRT would like to have the last say on such reinterpretations. Judging by many of the negative comments contained in Letters, the last say would not always be pleasant.
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Old 04-14-2004, 09:13 AM   #10
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White-Hand canon, canon-consistent, canon-friendly, and ruh-roh...

Fordim wrote:
Quote:
am I really “free to let my imagination run wild?” Can I ‘make’ the people of Ered Luin into creatures with six arms and wings, who eat nothing but the bark of oak trees and kill their enemies by bombarding them with sea-shells…just by imagining them as such?
Sure. You just can't call it 'canon'. It's now your own imagination.

Once I would have been horrified by your six-armed, winged, shell-throwing bark-eaters; but then I reread the Sil, and re-discovered (to my horror) that Luthien by her arts had changed Beren into a werewolf, and herself into... a bat. Horrors! How undignified! Professor, you can't be serious.

(EDIT: I realize on rereading that was hazy... I say this because I think Tolkien had a very adventurous side. I would never turn an elf into a bat, would you? So how do you know he'd be horrified by your new creatures? He might be, but who knows? He'd be far, far more horrified if you married Frodo off or described Aragorn cheating on Arwen. ...end edit)

Once you begin creating new creatures that aren't in Tolkien's writings, you're doing your own subcreation now. If you were writing fanfiction, you'd put in the copyright part, "Tolkiens' creations belong to him, and mine belong to me" or some legalese version of that (I'm no lawyer.)

The professor's reaction might have been, put them in somebody else's mountains, not mine. But I don't think he would have told you to stop sub-creating.

Quote:
Interestingly, as soon as you say this, you seem to back away from such an absolute freedom of the reader by insisting that “if we want to re-arrange Tolkien's world, we may do so, but let's not call it Tolkien's 'canon' in the process.”
And I stand by that. Perhaps it seems contradictory. But then, Tolkien both hoped/wished/expected his mythology to be added to by others, and, jealously guarded it to be his own. THere's a contradiction there too.

Quote:
So you would seem to be suggesting that the “freedom” you talk of is a lot more complicated than it would appear: I can “re-arrange” the world, but without having any kind of ‘real’ effect on it?
Just like Jackson did; he rearraged many things; but the books are still there, on my shelf, unabridged, unedited and reliable.

Quote:
How much freedom is that? It sounds more like the freedom of the deranged man to say what he wants about the world, since, as everybody knows, he’s mad and therefore harmless: we already know what the ‘truth’ is so let him have his little say.

Frankly, I’d like to think that there’s a bit more room for me in the sub-creation of Middle-Earth than that!
It depends on whether you are trying to write something which might make Tolkien happy (some writers do) or whether you're trying to do something original using Tolkien as a starting place. Or to put it another way, it depends on whether you want to write "Gap fillers" which should be strictly canonical by definition, or, take some liberties and go off on a tangent. What would an elf have to say about your winged-six-armed-bark-eaters, anyway? It's a free country; you can write a story about a canonical elf encountering something very, very strange and 'non-canonical'. Just don't make it a "gap filler."

Maybe we need a table of applications for the word "canonical". It's been discussed before. Pio made the point in this thread that as soon as somebody else starts writing/ inventing other than the professor, it's no longer canon. I'd agree. SO I suggested (allow me the conceit of quoting myself) the following categories for RPGs or fanfics (they'd apply to any TOlkien-related creativity) :

Quote:
Canon-Consistent: no deviations allowed. Pure Tolkien. If it's not in, alluded to, or clearly allowed (erring strictly on the side of safety) by one of his (later??) books, you can't do it. Or perhaps, you would have to argue your case before the moderator.

Canon-Friendly: Not quite so strict. If it's close, with pretty much Tolkien's style and grace and flavor, we'll go with it, and hope he wouldn't frown too hard.

Alternate Universe-- the What-Ifs. What if Frodo got married, what if Boromir didn't die...

and... Other.
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Old 04-14-2004, 11:56 AM   #11
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Just like Jackson did; he rearranged many things; but the books are still there, on my shelf, unabridged, unedited and reliable.
Ah, but this is the point I’m working through here…the text itself is unedited by anyone else’s interpretation, but how “reliable” is it, really? We’ve moved away a bit from where we started, I think, insofar as we’re talking more and more about the kinds of ‘adding’ that come about through rewriting the text in whatever way (e.g. fanfiction, rpg-ing, speculation). This is really my fault, I know, as I simply could not resist those six-armed bark eaters! But to return to the point that I really wanted to address…

Interpretation of the text in the sense that I’m working with as it pertains to the meaning and not just the factual accounts of the narrative – how much freedom do we have in this act? I accept that I cannot willy-nilly make up new elements of Middle-Earth (and that list you’ve provided Mark 12:30 from Pio is remarkably useful and concise in this), but I do enjoy a certain latitude in interpreting what is already on the page, even if that interpretation goes against Tolkien’s own, do I not?

The example I can use here is the climactic moment of LotR as Gollum goes into the fire. This moment has been clearly interpreted for us by Tolkien himself in the Letters (and elsewhere); he says that the struggle and moral choices of Frodo and the other heroes have lead to this moment, and brought about the right circumstances in which God’s finger ‘intrudes’ into the story and ‘pushes’ Gollum into the fire. (I don’t have my books with me at the moment so I can’t check his exact wording.) But there are at least two other ways I can interpret this same moment, without questioning/rewriting the ‘facts’ of it:

1. Gollum falls in by pure chance. There is no ‘push’ from outside the event by Providence, Eru or Anyone else. It’s just dumb luck that saves the day.

2. Gollum jumps in himself – the last bit of him that is Smeagol realises that he cannot hope to keep the Ring for his own, so he chooses to end his life in possession of the Ring rather than face having it taken from him again, OR perhaps he even does it with his last shred of goodness to save the world, OR perhaps he does it in response to Frodo’s earlier ‘command’ in the Emyn Muil (“If I should command you to throw yourself into the fire when I had it [the Ring] on, you would be compelled to do so” – again, I’m not sure this is exactly right).

I’m not actually trying to argue for any of these interpretations, I only give them to point out that they are all at least possible: they are all supported by the facts of the book, and each one of them makes sense. The only grounds we have to reject these interpretations in favour of Tolkien’s own is that Tolkien, as the sub-creator of this world, has more ‘right’ than the reader to declare what’s ‘true’.

And here we go back to the quote that Bęthberry has wonderfully provided us with:

Quote:
I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
As soon as we declare that Tolkien’s interpretation is ‘right’ and all others ‘wrong’ we are, in effect, becoming Nazgűl to Tolkien’s Sauron! We are claiming that the only source of truth in Middle-Earth is Tolkien’s and giving way, gleefully, to the “purposed domination of the author”. We get to be ‘right’ about the work and everyone else is ‘wrong’ because we’ve read the Letters and know what’s what, while others not so enlightened are out there crazily and wrongly coming up with what they want to about the world.

But it gets even more complicated!!! To declare that my interpretation number one (above) is right, is to call into question the whole moral fabric of Middle-Earth, as it was conceived by its sub-creator. Just because a particular reader does not believe in Providence, does not mean that he can make the history of Middle-Earth non-providential, for that history is not of the primary world, but of Tolkien’s secondary world. Eru is as ‘real’ as Frodo or the Silmarils, so we can’t question Him or His plan. But then where is the “applicability” of the text for a reader who interprets Gollum’s fall in manner number one?

So we get stuck, I think, between some hard choices. On the one hand, we want to accept Tolkien’s authority on how to interpret this moment, since it is his world after all (Eru/Providence pushed Gollum) – but to do this is to give way to the “purposed domination of the author”. On the other hand, we want to interpret this moment for ourselves, since we are the ones reading it after all (it’s possible to read Gollum’s fall as blind luck) – but to do this we put in jeopardy the “applicability” of the tale by questioning, or overthrowing outright, the ‘rules’ of Tolkien’s secondary world in favour of our own understanding of the primary world.

I do hope that this overly long post makes sense – if anyone gets to the end of it, let me know and I will throw a few reputation points your way as a thank you.
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Old 04-14-2004, 12:22 PM   #12
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Here is a former thread for perusal which might have a small bearing on this:

Canon and Fanfiction

And one other, for those readers wondering what 'canon' might refer to, as I did when I first found the Downs:

Questions of Canon
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Old 04-14-2004, 01:23 PM   #13
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Tolkien

I don't have time to read the links that Pio so kindly offered, but I would like to say something.

In a book, the writer doesn't "do" everything. The writer and reader have to meet half way. I think it's like the writer is pointing the way from point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end of the book) for the reader to follow. How the reader gets to point B depends on himself to a certain extent. Hopefully he won't come up with some wild theory that is definitely anti Tolkien.

In life, there is more than one way to do things, so there is more than one way to interpret a story. Take your example of Gollum and the Ring. I think we can all agree that because of Gollum's pride (his gleeful dancing about instead of putting the Ring on and disappearing) was his fall (Pride cometh before a fall). However, specific ideas such as Eru pushed him in, he merely fell in, or Smeagol took over for a bit and decided to save the world, etc, are merely details that fit a person's world view. That's one of the reasons why, I think, Tolkien touches so many people. He left those details (religious details if you would) out, letting the reader decide for himself.

Of course, a reader can't deny that Eru didn't exist because he obviously did. However, they don't have to accept Tolkien's definition of it.

Those are my amateur thoughts on the subject.
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Old 04-14-2004, 06:20 PM   #14
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Tolkien First impressions

Excellent thread, Mr Hedgethistle. It raises issues which lurk just under the surface of many threads (in the Books forum at least), but which are rarely discussed directly.


Quote:
Interpretation of the text in the sense that I’m working with as it pertains to the meaning and not just the factual accounts of the narrative – how much freedom do we have in this act? I accept that I cannot willy-nilly make up new elements of Middle-Earth ... but I do enjoy a certain latitude in interpreting what is already on the page, even if that interpretation goes against Tolkien’s own, do I not?
Of course you do. Everyone is free to interpret the meaning of the events portrayed in the book in whichever way they choose. The way that they choose will, however, depend upon the manner in which they approach the story. A reader who enjoys it as a cracking good yarn, but without any inclination to explore further the world which Tolkien created, will not be bound by (and most likely will be unaware of) the author's intentions. Those who are interested in learning more about Tolkien and his works (such as most, I should think, who post here) will be more inclined to accept such meaning as Tolkien himself attributed to his works. It is, I think, beholden upon those posting seriously here to at least acknowledge, if not accept, Tolkien's own thoughts on what he wrote.

An interesting point does arise, however, when a person crosses from one stage to another. Until I joined this site just over a year ago, the only works which I had read were the Hobbit and LotR (having made one failed attempt to read the Silmarillion aged 14). I have since read the Silm and Unfinished Tales, and I am currently working my way through Tolkien's Letters. And much of what I have learned in doing so has been a great revelation. As you would expect, it has added greatly to my knowledge and understanding of Tolkien's conception of Middle-earth and the events and characters portrayed in the first two books that I read. But I have also come across things which are at odds with the impressions which I originally formed when reading those two books. For example, when I first read LotR, I had no knowledge of the existence (within the imaginary world) of Eru, and so I had no conception of Gollum being pushed over the edge of the Crack of Doom by "God's finger" (as you so delightfully put it). I saw it as a fortuitous accident.

Now many of these "alternative views" I find relatively easy to accept, and I am able to adjust my understanding of the story without too much difficulty. The explanation of Gollum's fall is one such matter. But there are still one or two areas where I find Tolkien's own views on what he wrote difficult to reconcile with my own impressions, initially formed some 25 years ago. For example (staying on the Gollum theme), I find it difficult to accept that Gollum (in my conception of him) would, in any circumstances, voluntarily have thrown himself into the fires of Orodruin to destroy the Ring, as I think Tolkien suggests in one of his Letters that he might have done in different circumstances.

This is, I would have thought, an issue which affects most (if not all of us) since most people's first experience of Tolkien's writings will be the Hobbit and LotR, and they will inevitably form their own impressions of the characters and events portrayed. As serious Tolkien enthusiasts, are we justified in clinging to those first impressions, even when they may be at variance with Tolkien's own views, as subsequently discovered?
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Old 04-14-2004, 08:08 PM   #15
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This thread is such a marvelous read. Thanks to all parties involved, discussions such as this seem few and far between nowadays (for me, at least).
Quote:
As serious Tolkien enthusiasts, are we justified in clinging to those first impressions, even when they may be at variance with Tolkien's own views, as subsequently discovered?(Saucepan Man)
This is certainly an interesting point; should we as readers feel compelled, or even responsible or obligated, to dispossess any "first impressions" if they are found to conflict with or vary from the views and ideals of the author put forth in the piece we are reading? I am conflicted. To an extent I would like to say that yes, we are or should be obliged to keep in mind the author's views as we read a piece of literature, since otherwise how can we possibly do said piece the justice that its creator feels it deserves? At the same time, though, I think the reader should cling to some of those initial impressions, if it enhances their reading experience. I will never forget the first time I read the Lord of the Rings, and the impressions I had of certain places, things and events in the book that stuck with me even after multiple readings and delving deeper into the Tolkien Legendarium, even though I now know many of those impressions to be incorrect or slightly "off" from what I reasonably feel the Professor would have liked. The Tolkien enthusiast as a reader, I believe, should err on the side of his/her own personal enjoyment of the experience of reading Tolkien's works. The Tolkien enthusiast as a discusser, however, should not be obliged to use his/her own theories about unresolved Middle-earth issues as anything more than theories - however well-educated on the subject the theorists might be.
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Old 04-14-2004, 09:02 PM   #16
Fordim Hedgethistle
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All right, I swore that I would not post to this thread above once a day, but I simply cannot help myself. Saucepan Man you wrote:

Quote:
A reader who enjoys it as a cracking good yarn, but without any inclination to explore further the world which Tolkien created, will not be bound by (and most likely will be unaware of) the author's intentions. Those who are interested in learning more about Tolkien and his works (such as most, I should think, who post here) will be more inclined to accept such meaning as Tolkien himself attributed to his works. (emphasis added by me, F.H.)
There is a wonderfully subtle shift in your language here that proves my point (ha!). At the beginning you say that the “unaware” reader is not “bound” by the author’s intention, implying that the relationship between reader and text is one of imprisonment or possibly possession. You then state that a reader who is “interested in learning” will be “inclined to accept” the author’s interpretation of the work (“the meaning…attributed” ). Both of these relationships are wonderfully evocative of the way that the Ring works on its ‘victims’.

If I may force the metaphor a bit: a reader like Gollum, wholly unaware of the power of the Ring – or, rather, wholly unaware of the intention of the Ring’s Maker – is easily captured and subdued by the Ring: “bound” to it. A more aware reader, one who is “interested in learning”, like Frodo (whose name, as I’m sure many already know, is Old Germanic for “wise by experience” ) is not so easily ensnared, and must therefore instead be lead by the magic/illusion/enchantment/power of the Ring to become “inclined to accept” it – or, rather, to accept the intention of the Ring’s Maker for the Ring (power/domination/self/evil).

The more I think about this, the more I think that this is an extremely fruitful way to regard the Ring: as itself a mirror of the text of Middle-Earth, of the subcreation that Tolkien undertook. The reader of Tolkien’s works is, in a sense, being subjected to enormous pressure by the power of the book(s) to “accept” their reality – to turn our back on what we ‘know’ (the Primary World, or, our own individual versions of it) and to embrace instead an illusion (the Secondary World). And this is a disturbing thing to happen. First, in our turn to the Secondary World, we are forced to become complicit in things that we are not perhaps particularly fond of (autocratic kings, rigid class distinctions, a fairly clear-cut hierarchy of racial superiority, inequal social relations between men and women, etc). Second, as soon as we submit to the power of the Secondary World we, in a sense, must give way to the power of that world’s maker: like all those who give in to the Ring, we have to allow someone else to become the arbiter of our “truth” – or, the definer of our desire.

Of course, there are huge differences between the Ring and Tolkien’s texts that I need not go into here (first and foremost being that the Ring’s creator wants to supplant Eru; the maker of Middle-Earth wants only to supplement the Primary Creator) – but the similarity of the relation (individual to Ring; reader to Middle-Earth) is quite striking.

(Or have I simply stayed up too late?)
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Old 04-15-2004, 12:38 AM   #17
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Silmaril

Fordim,

My post addresses an earlier question you raised. The italics are my own....

Quote:
This is, I would have thought, an issue which affects most (if not all of us) since most people's first experience of Tolkien's writings will be the Hobbit and LotR, and they will inevitably form their own impressions of the characters and events portrayed. As serious Tolkien enthusiasts, are we justified in clinging to those first impressions, even when they may be at variance with Tolkien's own views, as subsequently discovered? This is, I would have thought, an issue which affects most (if not all of us) since most people's first experience of Tolkien's writings will be the Hobbit and LotR, and they will inevitably form their own impressions of the characters and events portrayed. As serious Tolkien enthusiasts, are we justified in clinging to those first impressions, even when they may be at variance with Tolkien's own views, as subsequently discovered?
Live and learn....! I have been posting at the Downs for a number of years, yet not until I saw your paragraph did I suddenly realize that my initial exposure to Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was probably quite different from that of most people here. Most newbies introduced to the writings are at least somewhat aware that there is a host of material out there that helps us to define 'canon': biographies of Tolkien, his published Letters, other writings such as the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, and the published interpretations put forward by a whole host of scholars. Whether or not they actually read these works or can define 'canon' in a technical sense, they at least know such studies exist. Morever, they're aware some interpretations are regarded as "correct" because that's what the Professor told us. You reference to Gollum and Providence is a case in point.

My own experience was very different. I first read the Hobbit in 1963; and LotR in 1965. At that time, there was virtually no supplementary material readily available to throw any light on Tolkien or his writings. There was very little discussion of the "rights or wrongs" of various interpretations, and certainly no internet boards. I did attend an early meeting or two of either Mythopoeia or the Tolkien Society (I don't remember which), but that was it. I remember sitting in my college dorm with Barbara Remington's hallucinogenic poster plastered on the wall discussing with my roomates how Tolkien loved trees and the land, and what it meant to say "Frodo Lives."

What does this have to do with your query? Only this....I did not have the intellectual framework or tools that are now available to all of us. In many ways, I was wholly ignorant! But what I did have was complete freedom to use my imagination and interpret the book any way I chose without anyone telling me I was wrong. A year or two later, when I was in college, I spent a considerable chunk of time in England as an au pair girl and also in Wales as a university student. I tramped around the countryside imagining hobbit holes in every other hillside and even studied Welsh. Yes, I had some very sound academic reasons but deep down I probably thought the language sounded a bit Elvish to my ear.

My exposure to Tolkien came through that creative process as much as anything else. It was a process rooted in imagination rather than in knowledge of text and canon, since the latter for the most part did not even exist yet.

As years rolled by, I was busy with my life, but I also picked up a Tolkien study to read here and there. Gradually, I learned more and more about what the Professor actually intended and also read some of his own works that were first published after his death or became more widely available at that time. I discovered some of my earlier guesses and interpretations had been right; others had been way off center. The real "shocker" came in the late seventies with the publication of the Silmarillion, the Letters, and Carpenter's biography, all in the space of two years. I remember my jaw dropping open in surprise when I realized that there was a whole Legendarium, thousands of years of history to back up those tantalizing references in LotR. I grinned with delight to realize that I had "gotten" Tolkien's interpretation of Frodo pretty much as he had wanted it, just by reading the book itself.

Yet, with all this learning, there was a price. I could no longer rove quite as freely with my imagination as before. It was clear that some interpretations were right and some were wrong. At heart, I did not question that: if Professor Tolkien said the ending was Providence, then it was Providence---not chance or jumping in.

And yet.....I will admit there were impressions I gleaned from my year of tramping around Britain and imagining hobbits in holes that I will never shake off. In my head, the Elves will forever speak a strictly Welsh derivative rather than a tongue influenced by Finnish. Parts of Middle-earth leapt straight out of the Middle Ages, even though I know intellectually that it isn't so. And I am totally convinced that the thatched roofed cottage I rented in the Midlands for a month was definitely modelled on Bag-end!

Perhaps this is a cop out, but I guess I have two answers. When I discuss topics on a public board, I will honestly try to stick to canon as closely as I can. What I see in my own head when I read the books may be a little different, but that's my private prerogative as a reader!

In regard to the related question of fanfiction and RPGs.... This is near and dear to me since I spend considerable time writing on this site. I actually think it's in this realm that I can again exercise that freewheeling imagination that so attracted me to Middle-earth way back when. Only hopefully now I have a bit more knowledge to fill in the holes. It really is a trade-off. I may accept the Professor's definitive word on Gollum's fate but if you read through the Silm, the LotR appendices, and UT, there are so many huge holes just inviting the reader to step inside and imagine what might have been.....
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Old 04-15-2004, 04:32 AM   #18
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Amendation

Welcome to the discussion Child, nice to have you around it.

But there's one thing: the question you quote above and respond to (so eloquently and touchingly) was not posed by me, but by Saucepan Man.

I don't have time to respond at length but I would like to raise one point: you write


Quote:
It was clear that some interpretations were right and some were wrong.
I couldn't disagree more with the absoluteness of this statement -- at least, not in the context you give it. Sure there are wrong interpretations (LotR is not a fascist text in support of genocidal murder, for example), but that does not mean that there are a set of absolutely "right" interpretations to be gleaned from the Legendarium. For all the reasons I've already ranted about above, I don't think we can start to think this way ("Tolkien is a privileged source for the 'truth' or 'meaning' of the book") without both making Tolkien into a Sauron-like figure (the 'eye/I' is the only source of vision into the text) and, ironically, forsaking the ethical obligations that Tolkien has put on us to interpret for ourselves.

The different interpretations that are possible, the different 'ways' of taking the text are there, to allow us as readers the freedom to develop our own responses and generate our own meaning(s). It just gets tricky because that freedom is not unrestrained -- we can't just overlay whatever interpretation we want, because there are things we can get wrong (another popular wrong example: LotR is a pro-war novel).
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Old 04-15-2004, 04:40 AM   #19
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Man, you guys make it hard for us Shepherds of the trees, er, pourers over paper books. I will have a very long reply here ready later this morning.

In other words, my first SAVE in Books. Oh to what bad habits do RPGs lead me.

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Old 04-15-2004, 05:41 AM   #20
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Pipe The reader's freedom

Quote:
There is a wonderfully subtle shift in your language here that proves my point (ha!).
The shift is a logical one and does not, I think, imply that I view the relartionship between the reader and the author as akin to prisoner and jailor or Ringbearer and Ring. My primary position (one which it seems that you would agree with, Fordim) is that everyone is free to interpret Tolkien's works in any way that seems appropriate to them. In that sense, no one is bound to accept Tolkien's own views and opinions on what he wrote, whether they are casual readers or serious Tolkienologists. It is up to them whether they do or not.

But those who take a deeper interest in the Professor's works will surely be more likely to accept his intended meaning than will the casual reader. I am not saying that they are obliged to do so. I am simply acknowledging that they will naturally be more inclined to do so (and possibly adjust any inconsistent preconceptions) because of their more serious interest.

And to take it one stage further, I do think that anyone participating in any serious discussion of Tolkien's works is obliged at least to acknowledge the author's views (assuming that they are aware of them). Again, there is no one forcing them to agree with those views, but they will have to acknowledge that their own views are at odds with those of the author and that they will therefore be of limited value in any serious discussion of Middle-earth.

Child, I was in much the same boat as you when I first started reading Tolkien's works (and btw, yes it was my paragraph you were commenting on ). LotR and the Hobbit were the only published texts at the time. Although the Silm was published shortly after, as I said, I gave up on it. But I do not think that the position is that much different for the modern first-time reader. After all, only a proportion of those who read LotR will be aware of the wealth of background material, and even those who are aware of it will inevitably read the book itself first before going on to review it. And, as Angmar suggests, it is in that first reading that the longest-lasting and most vivid impressions are, I think, formed.

I do agree with you, however, that there is scope for the serious Tolkien enthusiast to retain initial impressions even when they are at odds with the meaning intended by the author. You put it as follows:


Quote:
When I discuss topics on a public board, I will honestly try to stick to canon as closely as I can. What I see in my own head when I read the books may be a little different, but that's my private prerogative as a reader!
But I think that I would put it slightly differently. I see nothing wrong with any of us setting out on a site such as this our own private impressions of the book in the full knowledge that they are inconsistent with the author's intentions, provided that we acknowledge that inconsistency. Indeed, it may be necessary to do so for illustrative purposes on a thread such as this one. Or it may simply be that we feel that they may be of interest to others. But, as I indicated above, we must also recognise that they will be of limited value in any serious discussion of the legendarium.
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Old 04-15-2004, 09:16 AM   #21
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Quote:
My primary position (one which it seems that you would agree with, Fordim) is that everyone is free to interpret Tolkien's works in any way that seems appropriate to them. In that sense, no one is bound to accept Tolkien's own views and opinions on what he wrote, whether they are casual readers or serious Tolkienologists. It is up to them whether they do or not.

But those who take a deeper interest in the Professor's works will surely be more likely to accept his intended meaning than will the casual reader. I am not saying that they are obliged to do so. I am simply acknowledging that they will naturally be more inclined to do so (and possibly adjust any inconsistent preconceptions) because of their more serious interest.
Nicely put, Saucepan Man, and your point is well-taken (and you are right, I do agree with this). But once more, I have a question about your response. I couldn’t agree more that “anyone participating in any serious discussion of Tolkien's works is obliged at least to acknowledge the author's views” – but where I pull away from your point somewhat is at the odd claim that if my views “are at odds with those of the author…they will be of limited value in any serious discussion of Middle-earth.”

Why? What do you mean by “value” that my interpretation will have less of it than Tolkien’s interpretation? Are you suggesting that his interpretation is more true or right or useful? If so, by what basis can we make this claim?

To go back to my Gollum example: Tolkien’s interpretation of Gollum’s fall is an explicitly Catholic one (he explains in the Letters, in fact, that his ‘take’ on LotR is entirely and “consciously” Catholic throughout); my own interpretation of that moment (which I shan’t get into here) is not. If his interpretation is of greater “value” (and please do address what you mean by that loaded word) than mine – where does that leave me? It would seem to be cutting me off from the text (that is, I’m not “really getting it” because I'm not giving it a Catholic interpretation), even as I am most directly engaged with it (that is, I am developing a meaning that has resonance for me -- and probably for many others -- in my non-Catholic interpretation).

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Old 04-15-2004, 09:17 AM   #22
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Posted by Fordim Hedgethistle:
Quote:
Of course, there are huge differences between the Ring and Tolkien’s texts that I need not go into here (first and foremost being that the Ring’s creator wants to supplant Eru; the maker of Middle-Earth wants only to supplement the Primary Creator) – but the similarity of the relation (individual to Ring; reader to Middle-Earth) is quite striking.
Have you reflected what you did write here? "Supplement the Primary Creator" is really the last think of all Tolkien would have intended. The "only" before this phrase makes it nearly a blasphemous statement for people deeply believing in a Primary Creator (as Tolkien had clearly done), even without considering the action it self.
Without a question the analogy is good, since the action of Sauron was clearly blasphemous in the same way. But it fails entirely if once the background of Author of Middle-Earth is taken into account.
And thus we come nicely bake to the subject under discussion: Your interpretation of Tolkiens writing was as freely made, as you wanted it all over this thread. But it can be proved as clearly wrong by considering the additional information available as can be the interpretation of The Lord of the Ring as pre-war-novel or as supporting fascistic ideas. If you demand freedom in one direction, you can't deny it in the other one. The book as a stand-alone allows a lot of interpretations, and since a book is meant as a stand-alone publication, we are free to read and interpret it as a single item.
What makes the book so attractive is in my view the glimpses of underlying stories, which are at once recognised as the holes left by the author to be filled with our own imagination. Thus the book does at once fire up our own imagination and waking our interest for more information on the subjects of our imagination.
By providing the information the imaginations is more and more restricted. What is the art of Tolkien, which even the extensive editing of his son could not destroy, is that with each new information given or found new holes for your imagination will be discovered. And Tolkien was really aware of this, as is shown in his story Tree and Leaf. And being less sure in his craftsmanship in writing than his son is, JRR Tolkien would have restricted the publication much more than Chritopher Tolkien did.
What is now the bearing of this to the topic? Well, even Fordim Hedgethistle in his first post had admitted that the approach of scholarly research is "entertaining and extremely informative". None of us would discuss here if it were not for this entertaining. And I think many have come here in the first place for exactly that informativeness of such approaches.
Thus it isn't suppressing at all that the scholarly approach get the majority of posts in this thread. Asking the same question in a forum, which would discuss literature and not just the story given in it, would probably turn the table.

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Old 04-15-2004, 09:41 AM   #23
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Why? What do you mean by “value” that my interpretation will have less of it than Tolkien’s interpretation? Are you suggesting that his interpretation is more true or right or useful?
No, not at all. Your interpretation is certainly of value to you (assuming that you do not prefer the author's interpretation when you hear of it). And it may well be of value to others in discussions of the book as a "stand-alone" publication (as Findegil put it). But it will be of little value in discussions of the "truth" of Middle-earth, as handed to us by the author (ie what the author intended). And I would concur with Findegil that most serious discussions here fall into the latter category.

You may argue that the discussions here should allow people more scope for arguing in favour of their personal interpretation, even though it may be inconsistent with that of the author. But it seems to me that the primary purpose of the serious discussion threads is to determine (where we can) what the author's intentions were. As I said, many here will be inclined to accept these and adjust their own interpretation accordingly (as I have done on a number of issues). But, having established the author's intentions, people are free to reject them and retain (on a personal level) their own interpretation, which will remain of greater value to them.

And you can always start up a new thread to discuss personal interpretations of the events and characters portrayed and how these might differ from the those of the author.
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Old 04-15-2004, 09:59 AM   #24
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But it seems to me that the primary purpose of the serious discussion threads is to determine (where we can) what the author's intentions were.
Thank you so much for clearing this up so succinctly Saucepan Man. This is the core issue upon which we disagree, for I believe that the practice of critical interpretation is emphatically not to seek the “author’s intention” but, rather, to develop our own interpretations and to subject those interpretations to the corrective of reasoned dialogue with other people who may or may not share our interpretations (and Findegil’s corrective post about the “blasphemous” practice that I inaccurately attributed to Tolkien is an object lesson in this – indeed, “supplement” is entirely the wrong word there).

The reasons I reject this search for the author’s intent are many. First, we need look no further than the fact he wrote the book for his primary intention – he intended for the book to be read and enjoyed. Beyond that, we can read in the Letters that his intention was that the book be Catholic (but Tolkien only arrived at this intention after the first draft had been written) – are non-Catholic interpretations wrong then? Of course not. Or, at least, not necessarily. Finally, seeking the “intention” of anyone for anything is doomed to failure – if nothing else, sociology, psychology, history, molecular biology, theology all tell us (in their own ways) that human action (like writing a book) is governed by a lot of things other than the “intention” of our conscious minds/wills/selves. In other words, there is always going to be lots of stuff in a book that the author never “intended” to put there.

This next bit may sound like I’m slagging you Sauce (if I can call you Sauce), but I truly and honestly am not. To be entirely honest, I can’t think of a more boring way to approach a text than the one you’ve put forward. Tolkien’s intentions are useful to know, maybe even required, but if to know them is to know the book – well, that way lies the death of all discussion and debate. The answer to every question becomes precisely the same, “What does Tolkien say?” and if we can find the answer, then conversation is resolved with one person being right, and the other being wrong. If we can’t find the answer, then the conversation simply dies.
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Old 04-15-2004, 10:32 AM   #25
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Hmm. Perhaps "primary purpose" was the wrong word to use in describing the nature of serious discussion threads here. Determining the author's intention is rather, I think, the natural inclination of the majority of those who post in such threads (myself included). The natural response of many to most of the questions raised in the Books forum is to quote from the text itself, or from associated materials such as the Letters.


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To be entirely honest, I can’t think of a more boring way to approach a text than the one you’ve put forward.
Yes, I see your point. But, then again, I see the author's intention as just the starting point in any discussion. Having determined this as best we can, from both the primary source (the book itself) and the secondary source (biographical materials, unpublished and draft writings etc), I believe that there is still considerable scope for interpretation and discussion. The source material will not cover every single aspect raised on a particular issue and there will often be scope for interpretation of the author's intentions themselves, and therein lies fertile material for discussion and debate. It seems to me that there are, and always have been, in this forum fascinating discussion threads involving quite considerable differences of opinion, even though each of the participants may be approaching the issue from the perspective that the author's intentions represent the underlying "truth".

But I also agree that this is not the only way of approaching Tolkien's published material. While it happens to be (as I see it) the most prevalent approach to discussions on this forum, there is nothing to prevent you or anyone else tackling themes within Tolkien's works on the basis that you have outlined. Of course, you might get told that your thoughts are "wrong" where they conflict with those of the author, although I would have thought that this could easily be addressed by acknowledging the conflict at the outset and making clear the purpose of the discussion.
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Old 04-15-2004, 10:59 AM   #26
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I think SaucepanMan was right that this question of canonicity and intentionality lurks unexamined in many Books threads. If I may, let me backtrack from the many fine posts here a bit to present what the topic of canonicity suggests to me. And, since I am a literary scholar by training, I should warn you that I am going to bring some of my professional life's dealing into the mix here. So, put your feet up and set a spell. Or skip on to the next post.

It's probably fairly safe to say that for many if not most readers, the assumption is that an author owns a story because she created it. Kind of like an owner of the property which readers use or rent. However, this concept of the writer as the owner of meaning, controlling interpretation behind a text, is a recent one--recent meaning one derived from the last couple of centuries. It was not, of course, a concept that Tolkien worked with. As Fordim points outs, Tolkien

Quote:
. . . believed that the truth of any tale lies in its historical origins -- more specifically, the historical origins of the words that have given rise to the tale.
Tolkien, of course, worked with literary texts for which authorship was unknown. It has been a conceit of scholarship to go back as Sharkey says, to attempt to retrieve an authoritative text:

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Older mediaevalist science, for example, tried to construct an 'author's text' from the extant material, looking for sensible compromises and judging by their own ideas of taste and style. The result was of course a stab in the dark in regard to authencity
I think, however, it is very important to acknowledge that this is not what Tolkien did. He placed his significance necessarily in the tale itself. This is one reason why I am so tremendously impressed by his scholarly essays on Beowulf and On Fairy-Stories. They are remarkable evidences of his incredible feel for story.

Quote:
If we pause, not merely to note that such old elements have been preserved, but to think [i]how]/i] they have been preserved, we must conclude, I think, that it has happened, often if not always, precisely because of this literary effect....The ancient elements can be knocked out, or forgotten and dropped out, or replaced by other ingredients with the greatest ease: as any comparison of a story with closely related variants will show. The things that are there must often have been retained (or inserted) because the oral narrators, instinctively or consciously, felt their literary 'significance'. Even where a prohibition in a fairy-story is guessed to be derived from some taboo once practiced long ago, it has probably been preserved in the later stages of tahe tale's history because of [b]the great mythical significance of prohibition. Source: On Fairy-Stories
I will return to this point that the story's the thing wherein we catch the conscience of the creation--sorry Hamlet--but for now let me ramble on about the significance of authorial intention. Here's where I get to bore you with a bit of scholarly stuff, my own little thread in the great tapestry of literary understanding, not any complete history of literary theory,and I tell it here merely to explain how I view authorial authority more circumspectly than many.

My scholarly research dealt with how, in the nineteenth century, the questions about the authority of the Bible led to questions about the authority of any kind of exegesis. Big word--it means critical explanation or interpretation. I won't name-check any people in the controversies here; my point is simply that as the errors and inaccuracies in the transcriptions of the Bible became known and as the understanding of plenary inspiration itself came to be questioned, this scepticism spread to underlining fundamental assumptions about the traditional response to language. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, is particularly important here in assigning an active participation to the reader; his thought is consistent with St. Augustine's defense of figurative language (a particular bone of contention in the rising empirical tradition) as a test of intelligence. What does this all mean? It means that, for a variety of reasons, the role of the reader was being brought to the forefront of thought about interpretation. More and more, attention was being given to something like a fiduciary approach to language, where language was seen as "a living organism whose function is to reconcile the past and present experience of a community" (John Coulson, Newman and The Common Tradition).

Still with me? Never fear; this will come back 'round to Tolkien.

Authors themselves have long played with notions about where the authority of a book lies: with the author, the book, the reader, with sources. That naughty cleric Laurence Sterne justified his scurrility by recourse to his reader's imagination on more than one occasion: "No one who knows what he is about in good company would venture to talk all ... so no author... would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself." (That's from the notorious novel, Tristram Shandy.)

Sterne is having a bit of sport here because he was specifically talking about the naughty bits. But my point is that there is a tradition of interpretation which grants to readers active participation in the generation of meaning. Charlotte Bronte's "Reader, I married him" is the last in a significant number of addresses to the Reader that in fact, when attended to closely, produce a warning to readers not to take the romance of Jane Eyre at 'face' value.

Okay, let me move on. Sharkey points out that, unlike medieval scholars, we have an author identified and an author who was quite willing thank you very much to tell us what his books meant. Well, yes and no. Literary criticism is full of examples where authors proved to be unreliable narrators of their own creative lives. They never got their own stories about how they wrote and what they meant 'right.' Or they were writing their explications years after writing the story and in the process were creating intentions and meanings that had not been 'there' in the stories at the time of creation. Or they were working backwards to discover motives and ideas which were consciously part of the initial plan. Sometimes, too, authors wrote certain explanations to certain recipients, explanations which were couched for the benefit of the letter's recipient rather than as a formal bit of literary explication. Entire professional careers have been launched by demonstrating spectacularly that Author so and so was wrong in his Letters. (I exaggerate for effect, but not much.) At the very best, an author's literary remains need to be examined sceptically and evaluated for their applicability rather than being automatically accepted as authoritative evidence in a body of work. This is not to disparage Tolkien as unreliable or dishonest in any way, but to suggest a cautionary way of proceeding with any and all authors, to suggest that an author's thoughts should not automatically by fiat supercede other innterpretations.

Yet what I have to say next will most likely surprise many of you--or appall you. These currents of thought, the nature of readerly participation and the need for cautionary acceptance of authorial claims (coupled with several other currents of thought which I overlook here), took a jump to light speed in the late twentieth century. But bear with me because this, too, will lead to Tolkien. Structuralist critics such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault claimed not simply that authors could be wrong, and not merely that they were dead wrong. But that they were dead. Period.

And, well, after all, why should that be any great shock? Nietzche had claimed that God was dead, so why should authors escape a similar fate? (And, yes, I know that joke about the washroom graffiti: Nietzche: 'God is dead.' God: 'Nietzche is dead.') Okay, I'll get back to the topic.

No, honestly, this is not another Barrow Downs joke. The death of the author became a ringing challenge of discussion and debate. Both Barthes and Foucault sought to overcome the stranglehold of appropriation which the concept of authorship held over meaning and understanding in the empirical tradition (that same tradition which was shaking up the biblical criticism I mentioned earlier).

What Barthes sought to recover was a sense of the performative excitement of reading when the reader engages with the text. He wanted, in The Pleasure of the Text, to do away with this notion that there was somehow an active writer behind the text and a passive reader in front of the text. The text can only be reached by itself, by its own words rather than by talk about it. Foucault went farther in considering how we have created a concept of 'author-function' which allows us to assign significance.

Quote:
At the same time, however, "literary" discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author's name; every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing. The meaning and value attributed to the text depended upon this information. If by accident or design a text was presented anonymously, every effort was made to locate its author. Literary anonymity was of interest only as a puzzle to be solved as, in our day, literary works are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author. (Undoubtedly, these remarks are far too categorical. Criticism has been concerned for some time now with aspects of a text not fully dependent upon the notion of an individual creator; studies of genre or the analysis of recurring textual motifs and their variations from a norm ther than author. From "The Author Function" 1970.
And, again,

Quote:
The third point concerning this "author-function" is that it is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author. Undoubtedly, this construction is assigned a "realistic" dimension as we speak of an individual's "profundity" or "creative" power, his intentions or the original inspiration manifested in writing. Nevertheless, these aspect of an individual, which we designate as an author (or which comprise an individual as an author), are projections, in terms always more or less psychological, of our way of handling texts: in the comparisons we make, the traits we extract as pertinent, the continuities we assign, or the exclusions we practice. In addition, all these operations vary according to the period and the form of discourse concerned. A "philosopher" and a "poet" are not constructed in the same manner; and the author of an eighteenth-century novel was formed differently from the modern novelist.
Even if critics hate Barthes and Foucault, their work still must be acknowledged. What I find particularly fascinating about all of this is that Barthes and Foucault came from Catholic cultures. In fact, Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text is even structured after a Catholic prayer formula. And we all know that Tolkien's Catholic faith was profound (unlike that of Barthes and Foucault, but that does not concern me here.)

You see, I think, in obviously very different ways and means, these three men were responding to that old traditional assumption about language as fiduciary, a creation of meaning which pertains not in the words themselves on the page but in that special space which exists between the story and the reader's imagination, a meaning which comes about through inference and assent, "a living organism whose function is to reconcile the past and present experience of a community" (Coulson, again). Well, maybe Barthes was more into orgasm than organism, but ...

The 'truth' about understanding lies in the tale and its life beyond the author. A tale, once published, is like a child who has grown up and moved away from Mum and Dad. It is responsible for itself.

It seems to me that literary theory of the last several decades represents a serious effort to get back to that situation which Tolkien faced: how to understand how a text speaks to us without the parental voice always telling us what to think. Here I take us back to the lecture "On Fairy-Stories?"

Quote:
But when we have done all that research?collection and comparison of the tales of many lands?can do? when we have explained many of the elements commonly found embedded in fairy-stories (such as step-mothers, enchanted bears and bulls, cannibal witches, taboos on names, and the like) as relics of ancient customs once practiced in daily life, or of beliefs once held as beliefs and not as 'fancies'[b] there remains still a point too often forgotten: that is the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are. . . . Such stories have now a mythical or total (unanalysable) effect, an effect quite independent of the findings of Comparative Folk-lore; they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.
.

I am making many jumps here. But let me provide one final quotation, from a critic who is closer in many ways to my own way of thinking than Foucault et al. George Steiner is no trendy post-modernist, but he, too, is working in this way I have of thinking about Tolkien and canonicity.

Quote:
'Interpretation' as that whick give language life beyond the moment and place of immediate utterance or transcription is what I am concerned with. The French word interprčte concentrates all the relevant values. An actor is interprčte of Racine; a pianist gives une interpretation of a Beethoven sonata. Through engagement of his own identity, a critic becomes un interprčte--a life-giving performer--of Montaigne or Mallarmé. As it does not include the world of the actor, and includes that of the musician only by analogy, the English term interpreter is less strong. But it is congruent withthe French when reaching out in another crucial direction. Interprčte/ interpreter are commonly used to mean translator... When we read or hear any language-statement from the past, be it Leviticus or last year's best seller, we translate. Reader, actor, editor are translators of language out of time.
.

No, I did not include this last quotation simply so that Mallarmé reference might please a certain English interprčte of French Radicalism who sometimes haunts our threads.

I included it as a final statement of what I believe was important to Tolkien and what I think is vital in discussing Middle-earth, that we respect the extraordinary experience of reading his texts and engaging with his stories rather than demanding that there is any one particular way of reading him. This is my way of understanding sub-creation and it is one which will respect any fair and honest readingof Tolkien as the experience of the reader. Like Tolkien, I believe that meaning is not imposed by fiat but created by the web of words. In our acts of discussing Tolkien lie the essence of sub-creation, not in a reductive archeology.
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Old 04-15-2004, 01:26 PM   #27
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Difficult to follow Bethberry!

Obviously, we all enter ME in ignorance, are either enchanted or appalled. Germaine Greer has had an animus against all things Tolkien related since the sixties - but has admitted that she has only read the first chapter of LotR.

Those of us who do become 'enchanted' are not enchanted by the Legendarium as a whole. We may, if the enchantment is sufficiently powerful, go on to look into it - at which point the enchantment may become stronger or weaker. I think it was Shippey who mentioned meeting a woman on a train who claimed she loved everything Tolkien had written. On being asked what she thought of the Silmarillion she said she had no interest in it - she considered 'everything' he had written to comprise the Hobbit & LotR.

For people like that, Hobbit & LotR are sufficient to enchant, & anything more breaks the spell.

In other words, the 'spell' is cast for most of us without the background history. If we choose to move beyond the 'unexplained vistas' we have to risk the loss of enchantment. The more we discover, the more 'fixed' Middle Earth becomes, the less room for manouvre imaginatively - would Tolkien have approved? Which did he place the greater value on?

Moving into ME, is at once fascinating & restricting. One often has to suspend not only disbelief, but also disapproval, & accept what Tolkien has given, in order to understand his vision. When one comes out of ME one can then make a decision on what one likes & what one dislikes. But we then risk disenchantment - breaking a thing to find out what it is made of.

Increasingly, as anyone who has read any of my recent posts on the 'Nebulous it' thread will have come to realise, I take ideas from the books as starting points in my attempts to explore & understand my own feelings on 'life, the universe & everything'. So, in the same way as a writer of fanfiction, I am taking Tolkien's creation as raw material for my own exploration of his world - specifically the moral/philosophical dimension. The results are as 'mad' & extreme & 'uncanonical' as anything a writer of fanfic could produce. Would Tolkien approve of my use of his intellectual property? I have no idea. But as someone who didn't attend college, has never haunted the Halls of Academe, but was inspired by my discover of him to study Myth, Jungian psychology, ancient literature & then to branch out into the study of religion, I hope he would be pleased to have instilled a desire for learning in an ignorant oik such as I was.

In short, I feel that what we find in Tolkien's works, the inspiration we bring out from Middle Earth, is Tolkien's gift to us, the real enchantment that he works. I also wonder whether he would have approved of the obsessive desire to know every detail of his invented world. I doubt he would have approved of his near 'deification' by some 'fans'.

We shouldn't confuse our values with his - If he has stated a 'fact' about ME, it should be accepted as a 'fact' - but we can put that fact on one side & concentrate on other facts which appeal more. Or on enjoying being enchanted - even if a large part of that enchantment is contary to the author's own intention. If the 'facts' destroy the enchantment lets ignore them, & do it proudly. Why should the facts get in the way of a good story? And as the reporter in the movie The Man who Shot Liberty Valence said: 'When the Legend becomes a fact, print the Legend'.

If we must choose between the 'facts' of an author's creation & the 'enchantment' it provides, the facts must come a poor second. Is 'understanding' Tolkien's invented world, or 'understanding' the man himself, really of such great value?

As I stated in my earlier post here - I reject the 'Dome of Varda' & related ideas & prefer the earlier 'primitive' (in Tolkien's word) version of the story. I said it was 'silly' - what I meant was it was not 'enchanting' - not to me - & is like choosing to print the fact. It neither enchants nor inspires, so I choose the earlier account. I mean no offence to the author, but we have to choose, & judge. If one version enchants me & the other doesn't, I think I know which choice Tolkien would approve.
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Old 04-15-2004, 01:51 PM   #28
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Question

The discussion has moved from :

Canon -- The Original Works Themselves (does it include Author's supporting documentation? Open to debate. (EDIT: then again, see bottom of post.))

Through

Interpretation -- Reader's perspective

also through

Application -- Reader's actions/response based on interpretation

...and now to

Enchantment -- ...wild stab at definition Encounter with Faerie which brings sense of wonder, mystery, longing, possibly including Eucatastrophe.

~*~*~

....And just because I was wondering: from dictionary.com.... 5b, no?

canon: NOUN:
1. An ecclesiastical law or code of laws established by a church council.
2. A secular law, rule, or code of law.
3a. An established principle: the canons of polite society. b. A basis for judgment; a standard or criterion.
4. The books of the Bible officially accepted as Holy Scripture.
5a. A group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field: “the durable canon of American short fiction” (William Styron).
b. The works of a writer that have been accepted as authentic: the entire Shakespeare canon.
6. Canon The part of the Mass beginning after the Preface and Sanctus and ending just before the Lord's Prayer.
7. The calendar of saints accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.
8. Music A composition or passage in which a melody is imitated by one or more voices at fixed intervals of pitch and time.
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English canoun, from Old English canon and from Old French, both from Latin can n, rule, from Greek kan n, measuring rod, rule.
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Old 04-15-2004, 02:41 PM   #29
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The question of what is canon seems to have a different nuance for this discussion than generally when applied to Tolkien’s Legendarium – it is think most widely agreed that everything published by Tolkien in his lifetime is canon. What this definition is missing is a differentiation between ‘facts’ and the interpretation thereof. In this regard, I think Tolkien’s case may not be unique, but rare and special, since the professor not only added to the imagined truth of his fantasy world, but also gave his own interpretations of it. Furthermore, he always imagined the account of the Ring War only to be one part of the Legendarium as a whole, and rightly so. A structuralistic approach to Middle-earth would therefore demand that one has to take into account all relevant texts if the matter of contemplation is affected by them.
One may be able to enjoy the LR as immanent and independent in itself, maybe even more so (as has been explained above). But when it comes to discussion and interpretation, concentrating on it solely and ignoring the ‘facts’ of the other writings -- canon or not -- can, while perhaps being prefectly right, still only be incomplete. Since the Legendarium definitely has a syntagmatic structure, one should not purposefully choose to ignore it and expect comprehensive results.

The way Middle-earth appears to us is like a myriad of ‘facts’ trickling down from a vast vessel which is Fantasy (or rather ‘Fairie’?). The only nexus point from which it enters our world was, however, its author. All Middle-earth-relevant facts derive from Tolkien. Semantically, the writings of the Legendarium would be the formal side of a meaning which anyone can interpret upon reading. The referential side of it is however not affected by the individually conceived meanings.

Discussions of Tolkien naturally have different ways and directions of asking and of contemplation. When one of the ‘trickled down facts’ makes us wonder about another ‘fact’, is it not best to look among the other ‘facts’? If the answer does not satisfy the reader, he can always choose to ignore it; but that isn’t helpful to discussion.
If, however, the matter cannot be answered by the other extant writings, we have to project an image gained from clues and evidence. Whether this is boring or not may not be very important, since noone is forced to guess what lies in the vast vessel, or beyond the far, enchanting mountains which we cannot reach.

Matters become more difficult when entering the area of pure ‘interpretation’. I do not think the terms “right” or “wrong” apply at all here, because of their mutual exclusiveness. The catholic intention of the LR may or may not have been prevalent when it was written, but I’d say that the book can be enjoyed just as well, perhaps even more, if one does not know about its intentions, or has ever heard about Christianity at all. The Legendarium’s ‘impact’ is arguably not dependent on its meaning, conceived or intented.
Now, we have the Letters where Tolkien addresses the book’s catholic undertones at length. The existence of these explanations doesn’t make them binding in my view; but it does make them necessary to consider. I doubt a discussion would be comprehensive if it argued for the LR being an atheistic book if it ignored the Letters. A very ‘incomplete’ discussion or contemplation would likely be considered ‘wrong’ more often than ‘right’.
The example of Gollum being pushed by providence is well chosen; but I actually considered Tolkien’s comments on this aspect more an interpreation than a presentation of ‘fact’, which would make it important, but not necessarily ‘true’ or ‘canonical’.

The very nature of Tolkien’s methods of expanding the Legendarium, including its textual material and therewith its ‘facts’ is interesting, but might actually fall in a doubtful area: “working backwards to discover motives and ideas which were consciously part of the initial plan”, as Bęth put it; in Tolkien’s case of course rather unconsciously. Most of us, including myself, seem perfectly content and probably grateful that Tolkien did expand the Legendarium after a part of it was published as far as it concerned ‘facts’. Perhaps it is this sense of ‘taking what you can get’ which inherently makes us accept the ‘truth’ of the appendices, or the Sauron=humanoid quotes and similar ones. Other authors have always been trying to explain what they had written, but when Tolkien did so, he added to the greater whole of Middle-earth, and this might make it more acceptable than an author trying to cover a logical flaw only with a far-fetched explanation and a authorative sense of ‘that’s how it was’.

This only adds to a sense of vastness one cannot help to feel when looking at Middle-earth. It would seem only natural that one looks at its author as a guide, especially since he has already succeeded in making clear some ‘factual’ points. Those who do not need a guide are free to wander at will.
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Old 04-15-2004, 08:44 PM   #30
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The way Middle-earth appears to us is like a myriad of ‘facts’ trickling down from a vast vessel which is Fantasy (or rather ‘Fairie’?). The only nexus point from which it enters our world was, however, its author. All Middle-earth-relevant facts derive from Tolkien.
This is an excruciatingly important point Sharkű, as it puts Bęthberry’s comments about Foucault and Barthes into a context that I doubt either of them ever really considered. For Barthes the author ‘dies’ (to the reader, at the moment the text is ‘completed’ ) and for Foucault the author ‘disappears’ (into the discursive structures that penetrate the moment of textual ‘creation’ ). In each case, the author recedes and the text is ‘absorbed’ into the world of power-relations that encompass the text’s new locus: the reader. But what of a work of fantasy like Tolkien’s? The point that has been made again and again in this thread is that for this work to survive as an interpretable object (that is, for it to survive as a text at all) we must include in the web of relations that come to replace the author the mythic/philosophical/moral world that the author has created – and thus the author, at the very moment of his death, is magically brought back to life (is this the “enchantment” of the text about which Davem writes so movingly?).

There is, so far as I can tell, a huge difference between the process of authorial death as described by Barthes and what we experience with Tolkien. The author dies for Barthes, because the text’s ‘real’ existence is in the world that the author and the reader ‘share’; they may have totally different interpretations of that world, and hence of the text (this is why the author dies), but the world they share is the same one (our Primary world). But with Tolkien, the text’s ‘real’ existence is in the world that the author has subcreated – the only way the reader can thus ‘share’ the same world as the text is to revive the author in some fashion by becoming “inclined to accept” (quoting Saucepan Man now) the author’s interpretation of that world (without necessarily becoming bound to or by it).

Barthes and Foucault I am sure would argue that the author is still dead and/or absent, and that the reader is merely projecting onto the text his or her own subjectivity in order to create a ghost-impression of the author to fill the void left by the subcreator’s absence – thus making the author even more dead or more absent by erasing the death with a golem of one’s own.

But I don’t think I buy that line of thought…the enchantment of the text is too real.
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Old 04-15-2004, 11:23 PM   #31
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My apologies, davem, for an overly long post difficult to follow.

I must say I did not write out of any desire to flaunt my particular small area of training. We all come to Tolkien from our own perspectives and values and, I think, our relationship to/with him and his work is not necessarily uniform or unchanging. I first devoured The Hobbit and then LotR as a teenage infatuation with all things fantasy and then had the great pleasure of discovering Tolkien's 'serious' side when I studied Old English. An unexpected bonus!

I really felt that there was a very strong conflict developing between the issue of the freedom of the reader and the authority of the author and what I had hoped to do was provide some clear and extensive points in favour of the reader's experience--points made not simply as personal preference and opinion but as evidenced in a critical perspective which traditionally had ignored Tolkien but in which I hoped to suggest he could be included.

I think Germaine Greer has an animus with more issues than just Tolkien.
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Old 04-16-2004, 05:55 AM   #32
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Shield Tolkien: Ultimate Truth or Reliable Source?

I'd like to expand on something I said in my first post: during the course of our reading it is possible to discover things in Middle Earth that Tolkien did not consciously put there. Bęthberry described several good reasons why an author who examines their work at a later date may not analyse it correctly, despite the fact that it was their own. Each of us is a different person now to what we were five years ago. Try looking back at your earliest posts on the Barrow Downs, and it may seem like reading the words of a very familiar stranger. You may need to read the text and try to step into the shoes of this stranger to understand what they were getting at.

Orcs as hideously altered Eldar was an idea that Tolkien did not favour later in his life. This is a strong example of the problems of canon: should the views of the older Tolkien be considered superior to those of the Tolkien who originally concocted the idea? In my opinion, not necessarily. My own view is that it is sometimes foolish to attempt to rewrite your own words many years after they have been written. The meaning or reason that was obvious when you first wrote them may not be apparent to your future self. Discussion over which Orcish Genesis should be accepted as the "objective truth" has never, to my knowledge, decided one way or the other. Even Tolkien does not have absolute veto power over Tolkien.

Clearly, then, a broader definition of what is acceptable as canon is required. As Sharkű pointed out, this website has already gone past the dictionary.com definition of this term (thank goodness!!). I think that what Fordim is driving towards (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is a treatment of Middle Earth lore as real history, with Professor Tolkien as the most reliable source, but not the ultimate truth. A canon-friendly world, but not one which relies on the words of Tolkien alone. This scenario would see works of Middle Earth history by from Mark 12:30, Bęthberry, Child of the 7th Age and others considered and debated with an eye critical not only to the story, but to its historical accuracy. I don't know if so-called fanfics are regarded in this way at present, but they certainly could be.

Many threads on the Downs have ended with a crushing Deus ex Machina in the form of a quote from Tolkien. No doubt this is one of the things that raised Fordim's pugly hackles to the point where this thread was born. Perhaps it is more worthwhile to continue discussions even after this killing blow has been administered. Tolkien's commentary on his own works have varying degrees of reliability, if you believe in what I was saying earlier in this post. For example, his assertion that nobody could have resisted the One Ring in the Sammath Naur was absolute, and could justifiably be used to end a debate (unless the stubborn among us mentioned the words What, If and Ilúvatar). But Tolkien's decision that Orcs were not corrupted Elves seems less certain. So nobody should be told they are irrefutably "wrong" when they say that Orcs were created in this fashion. They should simply be advised that the evidence is heavily against them. Small distinction, but quite important.
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Old 04-16-2004, 07:33 AM   #33
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A very brief reply, Fordim before I dash out the door. I wonder if what you and Sharkey have hit upon could be termed a referential fallacy. Here we have the situation in which the only texts for which we could plausibly posit a Creator are those which were inextricably created solely by a Creator in a realm of fantasy, or faerie ouside our real world. Fascinating. A golem indeed.
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Old 04-16-2004, 08:40 AM   #34
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terminology

Dear Doug,

You wrote:

Quote:
Clearly, then, a broader definition of what is acceptable as canon is required. As Sharkű pointed out, this website has already gone past the dictionary.com definition of this term (thank goodness!!).
I have real heartache with this as some may have noticed. "Canon" is a perfectly good word as it stands, and re-defining it only makes things harder on all of us. Those who haven't read this thread willl think it means one thing, and confusion will abound (it already does, why make it worse?)

I have no problem with the heart of what Fordim is suggesting; I have a problem with calling in "canon". "Canon" isn't what I write, unless you call it "Helen's canon", in which case I doubt it would interest this board.

Certainly good fanfic/ RPGs are worth writing-- and worth enjoying, and worth exploring, and the better they are the more we enjoy them; but I think if you asked some of the most successful writers here (I hold up Mithadan as a stellar example) who have written fanfic considered very "canonically friendly" (Tales from Tol Eressea!), he would be the first to protest: "My work isn't canon." He's said so in the past. Also, Piosenniel has stated in the above-linked thread that she feels the same way. I believe Child would also (Sharon, correct me if I'm wrong.)

Tolkien, as I understand him, set the precedent of inventing new words such as "eucatastrophe" when he was forging into new territory. Can't we follow in his path? Or can we differentiate between "Tolkien's canon" and "Middle-Earth (something)canon(something)? Help, please, linguists. Let's invent a new word. We need one.

Quote:
I think that what Fordim is driving towards (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is a treatment of Middle Earth lore as real history, with Professor Tolkien as the most reliable source, but not the ultimate truth. A canon-friendly world, but not one which relies on the words of Tolkien alone. This scenario would see works of Middle Earth history by from Mark 12:30, Bęthberry, Child of the 7th Age and others considered and debated with an eye critical not only to the story, but to its historical accuracy. I don't know if so-called fanfics are regarded in this way at present, but they certainly could be.
This sounds all fine and good, and I'm all for it-- and intensely honored and flattered and pleased to be included in your list--- just please, please, don't call it "Canon" plain and simple. That crown belongs to Tolkien alone, and I for one would lose so much sleep.
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Old 04-16-2004, 08:53 AM   #35
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Doug, I would like to think that, when Tolkien has put forward conflicting theories in his writings, there remains considerable scope for debate. Indeed, the origins of Orcs has occupied considerable thread-space on this forum. It's really up there with Bombadillo and Balrog's Wings. Questions arise such as how can Orcs have been derived from men when they were around before men awoke; how can they be mere beasts and still have conversations like those we witness between Shagrat and Gorbag; if they were derived from Elves, are they immortal; if they have feä, is redemption available to them? All these discussions have taken place, with many different opinions expressed, and I am sure that there are many more potential discussions which have yet to occur.

Many who have posted here have quite rightly made the distinction between matters of fact and matters of interpretation (although the distinction is not always an easy one to make, as I consider further below). But the question of the nature and origin of Orcs is quite clearly an issue of fact. Within the Legendarium, Orcs existed and so they had to have come into existence somehow. Because we have no clear answer on this from the author, I would say that the reader is entitled to choose the theory which best suits his or her Middle-earth world-view (or perhaps even come up with a different theory), or to try to reconcile the conflicting theories, or even to reject the issue as unimportant. (It is, I suppose, a perfectly respectable argument to say that, because the only theory set down in a published and completed work is that given in the Silmarillion, namely that Orcs were derived from Elves captured by Morgoth, then that must be the "truth" of the matter. But the reader still has freedom to make his or her own choice and the scholar still has freedom to debate the point.)

Quite clearly, as a general proposition, we have to accept, if we are taking a book seriously, what is actually said in the text. We cannot very well choose to believe, for example, that Boromir never attempted to seize the Ring, or that the Hobbits met Aragorn at Rivendell rather than Bree. But even in this area, the issue is not clear-cut. For example, Tolkien himself tells us not to take everything that Treebeard says at face value, since he is "not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand" (Letter 153). And there are those who assert that some of the "facts" presented in the Hobbit were mere fanciful elaborations by Bilbo, the Stone Giants for example (although I do not hold with this theory myself). So it would seem that there is some (albeit limited) scope for rejecting some of what we are told in the text itself.

As for the secondary material, we all seem to agree that the reader has the freedom to accept or reject "facts" which are presented there. But is this because (at least with regard to what Tolkien says in his Letters) they are actually not matters of fact at all, but rather matters of interpretation? Sharkey, you categorise Tolkien's comment that Gollum was pushed into the fires of Orodruin as a matter of interpretation, rather than fact. But is that really the case? If Tolkien had told us in LotR itself that this was what happened, we would surely have to accept it as fact. Does it take on a different characterisation, simply because he wrote about it in a letter rather than inserting it in the primary text? And does this apply to other matters which are quite clearly more factual in nature? Should we take it as an issue of fact, for example, that the Rohirrim spoke with a slower tempo and more sonorous articulation (Letter 193), or is this a matter of interpretation because it is not said in the primary text? (I am assuming that it is not, but I have not checked and stand to be corrected.) Is it an issue of fact or interpretation that no one (Bombadil excepted) could willingly have destroyed the Ring? Perhaps it does not matter since the reader is entitled to reject anything which is not said in the primary text in any event. But, if we are to take issues of fact stated in the secondary material as being of greater weight in establishing the "truth" of the Legendarium than issues of interpretation, the point assumes greater significance. Presumably it depends upon how the point is expressed. Obviously, if the author says that his interpretation of X is Y, then that is a matter of interpretation. And the texts presented in Unfinished Tales and the HoME series are perhaps more likely to be factual than interpretational. But it will not always be clear. Which, I suppose, provides yet more scope for debate.
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Old 04-16-2004, 01:20 PM   #36
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Bethberry I didn't mean that what you were saying was difficult to understand. I meant it was difficult to be in the position of having my ramblings follow your beautifully reasoned & argued post!

If I can put my understanding of Tolkien's stated position in the Fairy stories essay, It seems he was saying that sub creation involves the reader as well as the writer or hearer of the story. He says that when the story speaks of a hill, river or tree, then the reader will suppply the image from their own experience - the 'hill' the reader pictures will be made up from all the hills the reader has known, & specifically from the first hill the reader ever knew - the one that will always mean 'hill' to them.

So, the reader is creating the imaginary landscape, & to an extent the characters. The writer gives the story, the events, & the reader provides their imaginative form. So we have a kind of 'co-creation' going on. So, the 'primary' world (or the reader's memories & experience of it) is taken up into the 'secondary' world, giving it a sense of reality, which a movie, for instance, cannot, because the personal dimension is lacking. Then, on emerging from the 'secondary' world, we see the 'primary' world in a new light, as the 'secondary' world now 'overlays' it in our imagination. The 'primary world makes the 'secondary' world seem more 'real' & the 'secondary' world makes the 'primary' world seem more 'magical'.

So in this sense we are as much creators of Middle Earth as Tolkien, because the specific form it has for us imaginatively is our own unique creation. Hence, some things in the secondary world will have more impact on us than others. Some 'facts' will seem to be of the utmost relevance, others will barely register. So, in terms of relevance, we will all make our own decisions as regards what is valuable & what is not. This will apply also to what stories speak to us & what we have absolutely no time for. It will also, perhaps, lead us to feel that some aspects/events/stories of the secondary world are 'wrong' or out of place (as the Dome of Varda, or orcs having their origins in men rather than Elves).

We cannot separate our own feelings & responses from the facts - because as I said, many 'facts' will not even register - at least on early readings (or even on later readings).

It is the effect of the story on the individual reader which will matter to that person, & that effect cannot be affected (unless completely destroyed) by the intrusion of 'said facts'. So, all the facts will not 'move' a reader who finds no relevance in them. A tonne of facts is not worth a gramme of enchantment. And the power of a secondary world to enchant is in no way dependent on background information - though that background information may for some readers enhance the 'reality' of the world. The secondary world must be internally consistent & coherent if the 'spell' is to work.

Enchantment is the point. If the secondary world does not enchant, it will not work, the reader will put down the book & seek enchantment elsewhere. So, the 'facts' are secondary, & their value can only be determined by whether they increase or decrease the enchantment. Some of the most powerful fairy tales are short, stark, & contain very little background information. In a way they work because the reader must supply most of that background from their own imagination.

Returning to Middle Earth. An intimate knowledge of every 'fact' Tolkien produced may not produce enchantment in a reader.But some readers who only know the Hobbit & LotR, & nothing else may be swept into Middle Earth & completely enchanted by those two works, & neither need nor desire any more. I think Tolkien would have felt they were his real audience - what author wouldn't?
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Old 04-16-2004, 02:16 PM   #37
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From Helen.....

Quote:
Certainly good fanfic/ RPGs are worth writing-- and worth enjoying, and worth exploring, and the better they are the more we enjoy them; but I think if you asked some of the most successful writers here (I hold up Mithadan as a stellar example) who have written fanfic considered very "canonically friendly" (Tales from Tol Eressea!), he would be the first to protest: "My work isn't canon." He's said so in the past. Also, Piosenniel has stated in the above-linked thread that she feels the same way. I believe Child would also (Sharon, correct me if I'm wrong.)
Definitely!

I am running out the door, but have quickly scanned over the thread and wanted to add this. I agree with Helen that the word "canon" should be limited in its application. Those things we dream up -- RPG, fanfiction, interesting theories on the origin of wyrms or Orcs -- have nothing to do with "canon", even when and if we choose to keep things as consistent as we can with Tolkien. The thread Helen made a link to was written when we were discussing setting up the current RPG structure and forums. If I had to do it over again, I would forever erase that word "canon" from the thread!

There is a body of Tolkien's writing which can be called canon (of varying degrees of authority) and I would include the Letters somewhere within that group (and hence Tolkien's views on a matter such as what happened to Gollum.) We can argue about what writings fall into that category and point out the many inconsistencies and contradictions. Canon is the starting point from which many discussions of Tolkien evolve. It is not necessarily the ending point, but I do think a public discussion is richer for at least acknowledging the existence of such. The fact that I'm an historian and archivist means that I naturally put a lot of emphasis on textual studies. And I don't find such things boring or meaningless.

However, Davem's post points to the core of the thing. Left by itself, canon has no life. It is enchantment that draws us back again and gives life to discussions, even those which supposedly focus on "canon". I find discussions of canon interesting precisely because I have read the text and responded to it on another level. If that had never occurred, I would never give the writings a second look.

In that primary confrontation that occurs with the text, canon has only tangential meaning. My primary response when I read the books in the sixties remains just as valid today as my later readings, probably more valid, because I can never recapture that freshness again, even though I may be able to see layers of meaning that I had no idea existed before.

I have long been curious about something that relates to this question at least loosely. Many have said that Tolkien could never finish the Silm not because of lack of time but because he did not want to take away the mystery of the distant vistas (as well as problems of coordinating all the different ideas in such a vast body of material). Yet, it almost sounds as if he was afraid the details of canon would obscure the enchantment.

For similar reasons, I sometimes wonder whether JRRT would ever have condoned the publication of HoMe, or at least those parts of it that deal with the actual process of writing LotR and the various drafts. Does it take away too much of the mystery by exposing the bones that lie underneath? We are obviously gaining something in knowledge, but have we lost something as well? Not that I don't like speculating about Bingo and hobbit rangers and such, or realizing the vastness of the Legendarium.

Is there a trade-off between canon and enchantment, or is "more" canon and information always a positive thing, perhaps serving as an underground spring that enriches enchantment for the reader who may return to the text years later?
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Old 04-16-2004, 02:33 PM   #38
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Attempts at new name...

"Second Generation mythology"
"mythical derivative"
"legendarium extension"

..bleah... awkward as heck.

Come on, somebody, find the right word or phrase to do justice to the concept of this thread...? Maybe something in Sindarin, or something.
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Old 04-16-2004, 03:22 PM   #39
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A valiant effort, mark12_30. I rather like "mythical derivative."

How about "substantiated woolgathering?"
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Old 04-16-2004, 04:27 PM   #40
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While I would hate to see this wonderful discussion become an endless search for a ‘good term’ (nothing kills intellectual inquiry faster than terminology) the idea of refining our language at this point might be a good one – particularly since the term “Canonicity” with which this thread (unfortunately) began, is terribly inadequate.

In deference to Tolkien, I would suggest that we could recover the meaning of a word near and dear to his heart: historia. The Latin root for “history” it comes from the Greek word istor which meant something close to “wisdom” or “knowledge”. The Latin word, however, comes closest to capturing what we are on about. Historia means more than a collection of historical events or ‘facts’ (annals or a chronicle would be the correct words for that); instead it means the rendering of historical fact into a narrative that gives those facts meaning.

I would submit, that this is what Tolkien sought to do in all of his writings on Middle-Earth. He ‘knew’ what happened in his subcreated world, and on these facts we cannot question him – but he made sense of these events, he gave them meaning, through his historia about them (that is, his meaningful stories).

This is more accurate than it might sound, insofar as for Tolkien the act of subcreating Middle-Earth began with the words and the languages he invented. He came up with the words themselves and the languages (the historical ‘facts’ ) then sought out the stories that would give these languages the context that all languages need (i.e. speakers). In effect, in order for his subcreated names and languages to come to life, he had to generate a meaningful story to explain them. I would suggest that while we cannot question, add to or alter those foundational facts (names, languages, peoples) we have the right to generate our own historia to explain those facts as well.

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