Sunday 13 February 2011

Depth in Tolkien


The main reason that the Lord of the Rings has such depth - so that it feels like real life - is not that it is internally-consistent (plenty of fantasy is that), nor even that it is immensely detailed (although in that respect it is indeed unsurpassed); but that LotR has a sense of depth: of vistas glimpsed, and sometimes opening-out but never quite sufficient to satisfy curiosity.

To put it another way, LotR has a magnificent back-story, which is 'complete', but of which we seldom get more than tantalizing glances.

In a nutshell, Tolkien had a ready made back-story by using the vast and mostly-worked-out Silmarillion Legendarium as the glimpsed background.

Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle Earth, spelled-out how this effect was attained and why Tolkien valued this so much.


But Shippey also describes that this created a big problem when it came to preparing the Silmarillion for publication - since there was no background (because the Silamrillion gave an objective account of everything, right back to the beginning of the world).

Tolkien himself was perfectly aware of the problem, and discussed it explicitly, sought various answers - but never answered the problem to his satisfaction - and the Simarillion was not published during his lifetime.


The result was that - in my opinion - when the single volume Silmarillion of 1977 was published, it was an artistic failure.

It was just dull; a great disappointment. It was consistent and it was complex - but, as well as having no characters with whom the reader could identify (no Hobbits, nor even Men from whose perspective we could perceive things), and as well as the problem of having no 'frame' to define what exactly it purported to be; it was just too consistent.

However, almost by accident, the problem of depth was later solved for the Silmarillion Legendarium over the next couple of decades by the publication of first Unfinished Tales then another twelve volumes of the History of Middle Earth.


What we have now is multiple versions of Silmarillion legends in the form of unfinished drafts and proposed versions, free-standing and finished but inconsistent segments, editorial discussions from both JRR and Christopher Tolkien, prose and poems, notes and appendices... and much else. 

We have, in other words, a vast and implicit depth - so long as we take the stance that these are fragmentary and distorted Annals of lost real history.

In this case depth comes not from a back-story, but from the (spontaneous human) tendency to infer a back-story - or a true and complete version - of which the thirteen volumes (or, perhaps more accurately, the nine-or-so volumes of material which refer to pre-LotR history) are the remaining evidence.

Like 19th century philologists, we must struggle to recover the lost truth behind these 'records' - and it is an endless and fascinating task - tantalizing in just the same kind of way as the scattered references to ancient Silmarillion history embedded in LotR.


Paradoxically, Tolkien's failure to finish the Silmarillion, followed by the indispensable and irreplaceable labours of his son Christopher, has given us exactly what JRRT would have wanted us to have.

(Ignoring the false start of the one volume 1977 Silmarillion - which we might choose to regard from this perspective as merely a 'forgery' by later hands - rather like Macpherson's Ossian!)



Troels said...

Good and interesting post, thank you!

Looking at the material published in The History of Middle-earth as the ‘fragmentary and distorted Annals of lost real history’ is an interesting idea. Gergely Nagy suggests the same — or something very similar — in his essay ‘The Great Chain of Reading: (Inter-)Textual Relations and the Technique of Mythopoesis in the Túrin story.’ in Tolkien the Medievalist by Jane Chance (ed.), where his discussion treats the many versions of the Túrin story in precisely this way.

I suppose that, in this perspective, we might see the published Silmarillion as a modern attempt to collect and harmonize the myths in order to make them accessible to a modern reader — Christopher Tolkien as the Lönnrot of his father's legendarium ;-)

For my own sake, I am not so sure that this approach will work. It is, I believe, clear that Tolkien generally considered the later versions of his myths to replace the earlier — he was not in general creating an expanding textual tradition, but was rather writing what he would, at the time of writing, see as the truth within his Secondary World.

With this in mind, I am more inclined to look again to the metafictional levels. The Lord of the Rings stands roughly in the middle: the distance between the story and the legends that are retold therein (such as e.g. the story of Lúthien and Beren) is about the same as the distance from the story to the reader. The Silmarillion has to cover the same total distance, but now it is all between the story and the reader, and so the story needs an even more carefully crafted framing narrative. This is what I, personally, lack most in the published version. There are some strong hints that Tolkien meant the Silmarillion to be in Bilbo's translations from the Elvish, but if this framing narrative was to work, I think it would have required more work to descibe the transmission from story to Bilbo and from Bilbo to reader. Done right, however, I think this would have given a feeling a depth no less (though different in kind) than the depth in The Lord of the Rings

Bruce Charlton said...

Troels - I see from your other comment that you have read Verlyn Flieger - have you seen her Interrupted Music? It is all about Tolkien's long series of attempts to frame the Silmarillion legends.

If you look elsewhere on this blog you can find my own attempts to imagine how The Notion Club Papers (which were intended as a frame) might possibly have evolved to serve both as a frame and also a compelling novel in its own right.

I remain amazed how, by sheer chance - and for me although clearly not for many other people - the History of Middle Earth can serve as a frame - especially if one imagines JRR Tolkien himself as a seer with a supernatural and God-given ability to dream (sometimes literally) these legends.

Troels said...

Now that you mention it, I realize that I never did finish Interrupted Music — I started it, but had to move on to something else and for some reason I never got back to it; I really have to get back to it: Verlyn Flieger is one of my favourite Tolkien scholars.

I don't think you're alone in seeing this vast collection of myths and legends with its different narrative modes, conflicting versions, fragmentary stories etc. as its own frame. This inconsistent legendarium probably has a greater degree of verisimilitude than anything that Tolkien might have finished.

There are, I think, two reasons why it nonetheless doesn't work for me. For one thing it was not Tolkien's intention that it should be viewed in that way, and for the other it treats his legendarium as ‘real’ in a way that I, personally, am not ready for.

Bruce Charlton said...

"There are, I think, two reasons why it nonetheless doesn't work for me. For one thing it was not Tolkien's intention that it should be viewed in that way, and for the other it treats his legendarium as ‘real’ in a way that I, personally, am not ready for"

Perhaps it is arguable about Tolkien's intention - this was pretty-much his intention early in his writing career. The only frame needed was a story about how these (inconsistent, partial) Annals (by many hands, from many periods) came down through history.

I do regard Tolkien's legendarium as 'real' - in the sense that my 'subconscious' regards Tolkien's world as much more real than *most* other things in my life.

For example, I actually lived in Glasgow, Scotland for 3 1/2 years - yet my memories of that period feel much less real (vivid, solid, affecting) than my memories of Lord of the Rings...