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Old 07-10-2021, 02:02 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Aiwendil View Post

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!

I will have to disagree with you about what "unreliable narrative" means, particularly in connection with postmodernism.

The revision or editing of the "Riddles in the Dark" does not represent unreliable narrative. It more closely resembles the kind of niggling and endless changes that Tolkien submitted his Legendarium to, in his attempts to create a reliably consistent narrative. The fact that the chapter was changed after initial publication does not demonstrate unreliability but in fact a determined effort to provide consistency. Even more significantly, there is nothing in the revised chapter which points to any changes, which identifies any unreliablity. Contemporary readers only know about the change by reading material extraneous to the actual story of TH, epitextual devices that can mediate for the reader, to use Gerard Genette's term.

Nor does the suggestion that the
Silmarillion's provenance was not Elvish but Numenorean
really fit postmodern ideas about the inability of language at all to reflect reality or truth. Differences of interpretation have long been part of literary texts and characters galore are known for their lies, their loss of memory, their misrepresentation and fairy otherworlds are part of European literature for centuries.

Perhaps the best way I can try to explain how Tolkien's work differs from the postmodern idea that language cannot represent the external world is to follow through a theme from LotR, that of pity.

The theme begins with Bilbo's decision not to kill Gollem once he suddenly feels pity for the creature. This becomes a central discussion between Gandalf and Frodo early in LotR and the pity shown to Gollem is rehearsed by other characters. Gandalf and Aragorn bring Gollem to Mirkwood, hoping for a cure. Faramir shows restraint by not immediately slaying Gollem and shows mercy by accepting Frodo's pleas for him. Sam spares Gollem. Had anyone of these characters not spared Gollem, the Guest to destroy the Ring would not have been fulfilled. This lesson of pity, mercy, and compassion, where unselfish decisions overcome selfish urges and where nonetheless the amazing quest is fulfilled, would not, I would argue, be possible in a postmodern novel where the pity would be meaningless and just a random act.

I hope this makes sense!
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