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Old 07-08-2021, 11:11 PM   #5
Late Istar
Join Date: Mar 2001
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Originally Posted by Zigur
In "A Postmodern Medievalist" in Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages Verlyn Flieger makes a similar argument to this, so you're definitely not alone in observing the similarities.
Interesting! I'll have to try to get my hands on Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages.

Originally Posted by Bethberry
First of all, I think we can differentiate between post modern narrative techniques and postmodern philosophical perspective. The narrative techniques have been around as long as narrative has and individually are nothing new. I don't know what authors Flieger names, but I can add Charlotte Bronte to the list of those who used "post modern techniques". However, I'm not sure we can say that textually Tolkien's work demonstrates narrative unreliability or language unreliability.
I certainly agree with the first part of this, and as Zigur points out, postmodern techniques have been around a lot longer than the name would suggest. And, as I said, I would not seriously suggest that Tolkien be classified as a postmodern author!

However, I will point out that Tolkien did on at least one or two occasions dip into the realm of narrative unreliability. I'm thinking mainly of the way he treated "Riddles in the Dark" from The Hobbit when he was writing LotR. The first edition of The Hobbit, of course, portrayed Gollum rather differently, and had him intend to give the Ring to Bilbo as a condition of losing the riddle contest. Tolkien decided that this was an instance of Bilbo twisting the truth to justify his ownership of the Ring, though of course in the event, the publisher allowed him to substitute a revised chapter for later editions of The Hobbit. Now, I grant that this example of an unreliable narrator was a practical solution to a practical problem and not something Tolkien set out to do from the start, but it's also a solution he readily arrived at, and one he was willing to let stand as part of his published work.

The other place where unreliable narrative comes up is in his idea that the Silmarillion's provenance was not Elvish but Numenorean, with the suggestion that, therefore, it may not at all points tell the "true" story. When, and to what degree, he entertained thoughts along these lines is a complex issue, but the most notable place where they emerge is in "The Drowning of Anadune", which is explicitly a "mannish" history of the fall of Numenor and gets things "wrong" as compared to the rest of Tolkien's writings (e.g. it confuses the Elves and the Ainur). Perhaps it's not entirely beside the point to note that the composition of this text was closely associated with that of "The Notion Club Papers".

But, of course, it would be a great stretch to make any real connection between these examples and the work of authors generally classed as postmodernist. I think, rather, that they stem from Tolkien's philological consciousness of texts as texts - that is, as things that were written in the past and have come down to us, rather than as narratives that float free of any connection to the world. If one is conscious of the fact that a book is just a body of writing that is being presented to the reader, one needn't be a postmodernist to come up with the idea of an unreliable narrative!

Originally Posted by mhagain
This kind of framing device is a common enough trope, at least in my own personal reading experience. Moorcock used it as well, for example the "Opium eater of Rowe Island" introduction to "Warlord of the Air". It's an interesting narrative conceit but I don't view it as significant.

We all know that Tolkien liked a good framing device, put significant work into them, and - in common with his main narratives - went back, revised, expanded, discarded or completely changed them.

So Lord of the Rings is feigned to be an editorial translation of the Red Book, and there is a great deal of framework and structure around that feigning, including translators notes, but absolutely none of it intrudes into the main narrative. The Silmarillion has it's own history here, where the framing device almost becomes as much a story as the tales embedded in it.
This is fair, and again, I was being deliberately provocative with the threat title. But allow me to push back on this just a tiny bit. I think that the frame for The Notion Club Papers is actually rather a different beast from that for LotR. The "translator conceit" of the latter is intended to position the story as if it were a real legend that had come down to us out of the past. It puts the work on similar footing to, say, "Beowulf", or the sagas. Its elaboration seems to be primarily to achieve verisimilitude, and in that way I'd say its effect on the reader is actually to make the story seem more real, rather than less - to weave a kind of scholarly spell that almost allows the reader to believe that the Red Book of Westmarch really exists.

The frame for The Notion Club Papers, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to cast doubt on the narrative. First of all, it places the whole thing decades in the future (from when Tolkien was writing it), which drives home to the reader the point that it is fictional. And then, it adds the implication that the narrative itself is a fiction within the already fictional frame. Now, I don't think this is anything unprecedented or revolutionary, but it is a different and stranger sort of thing than the transmission stories Tolkien came up with for LotR or the various versions of the Silmarillion.

I don't know that I'm making any real point here; just find it interesting to think about this kind of thing and analyze it at greater length than it perhaps deserves!
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