Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Elf-friends, Journeys, and Bent Roads

“Roads are bent: you come back in the end. No escape by ship.”
(Tolkien, The Lost Road, p. 88).

Reading over the sources and reflections on the origins of Tolkien’s stories, I kept thinking of how someone (and I wish I could recall who) once said that there are no new stories: every tale ever told can be condensed to one of two essential plots, either “I set off on a journey” or “A stranger came to town.” I think it was something about the endless framing of the stories by the fictional elf-friends, Christopher Tolkien and J. R. R. himself, and the scholarly commentators that put me in this “nothing new under the sun” mindset. I’m tempted to say Tolkien would agree, given the way he described his creative process as one of “recording what was already ‘there’” in his letters and his very notion of sub-creation. But what really struck me is the parallels we can draw (without descending too far into allegory, of course) between the experiences of Tolkien’s characters and the experience of reading his works.
That said, I have a hard time explaining exactly what this relationship is. There are themes in common: the journey, the fall, the return, but it goes deeper than mere repetition. I have a feeling, however, that, well, fragments of the answer lie in the concept of the elf-friend. I agree with the idea that these characters are bridges, that they extend to us the faery world just enough so that we can participate, but not so much that they explain away all the magic. Though at first I was tempted to chalk up their role in stories as merely a very subtle embodiment of exposition, a handy way to get in all the details without stating them dryly in the author’s voice, I realized that is just scratching the surface. Elf-friends go deeper because they are part of the primary world just as much as they are part of their “own,” the secondary world. But for both the elf-friend and the reader, the journey is the catalyst: the elf-friend’s living and telling the tale and the reader’s taking it in.
    It’s confusing, and I find it difficult even now to organize what I think this continual storytelling does to link us to both story and author. What fascinates me is just how well the elf-friend figure applies to different parts of the storytelling process. There is the pure narrative of the tale we read, there is the teller of the tale in the story, and then there is the storyteller of the storyteller’s story: Tolkien himself, to be less roundabout. The author is inextricably knit up in the fabric of his world, and, knowing this, we as readers feel a similar desire to do more than observe, but to participate. Flieger says it so well: “His vision is not perfect; it is just unforgettable. It tugs insistently at our imaginations, it completely engages our sensibilities.” This is the hallmark of a story by a true elf-friend: it encourages us, it strengthens us, it changes us. It presses beyond a happy ending, as Sam says, it “goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it.”
Class discussion caused a scene from the children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to pop into my head, where Claudia Kincaid, the protagonist who has run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, complains to Jamie, her little brother and accomplice, that she only wants to leave if she can “come back different.” Jamie smartly replies that she could go back on the bus if she didn’t want to take the train again, and Claudia explains, with exasperation, that different is not the same as differently. She wants to be different. And that’s what I think happens when we participate in Tolkien’s world. We don’t read these books so that we can take an alternate route to a place we’ve already been. Just as his characters do, we set off on these adventures and come back different. Our changes may not be as fantastic, but I see no reason why they aren’t just as real. After all, the end result is the same: we approach our world with the “awareness of the limitless world” granted us by our foray into the realm of faery.
This all circles, rather fittingly, back to Tolkien’s life and our participation in his stories. Just as the characters in the stories cannot reach the West, so are we also hard pressed to find the “something wonderful and mysterious and deeply significant [that] lies just beyond our rational perception” in Tolkien’s work. His heroes, “the wanderer, the restless, unquiet human traveler between the worlds” as Flieger describes them, leave and return to their own worlds changed, able to see everything anew. Even as Flieger suggests that “much of what he wrote suggests Tolkien felt himself to be such a one,” I would say further that we all feel like this wanderer at some point, even that so wandering is part of the human condition.
In the end, I think, we could amend the theory of the two Ur-plots in the context of Tolkien by condensing it even further: the “I” who sets off on the journey and the “stranger” who comes to town are one and the same. Someone leaves (a traveler, a reader) on a road (a journey, a story) and eventually comes back (home or to her “primary world”) changed. It’s “There and Back Again,” the neat turn of phrase which describes so well both the stories’ very content and our experience in reading them. So, it’s no wonder the elf-friend, the essential bridge in all its forms of authorship, looms so large in our journey from home to faery and back. We cannot reach the Western lands, but we can come back different along the bent road. 



  1. I don't have much of substantive 'critique' to make here, but I felt that since 'liking' is an appropriate form of comment I should at least do that. I had never thought of the reader's journey as a parallel journey to that of the characters in the way that you describe it here. Nor, in fact, had I thought of all stories as those two archetypes (the closest I had come was the seven standard plots of Westerns).

    However, linking the dual nature of those stories with the experience of reading really brought to my attention the importance of the storytelling process in a way that I had never considered it. Thanks.


  2. I've been struggling with much the same concept as you express here—I definitely agree there's a relationship between the journey-as-reader and the journey of the characters, but elucidating it has been difficult for me. Largely because I think Faerie requires a door, a threshold, some sort of dividing line. There has to be some degree of separation between a Primary Reality and a subcreation—it wouldn’t be escapism if there wasn’t the possibility of fully removing oneself. Wide seas, deep forests, blank spaces on the map…all these serve to remove Faerie from whatever Primary Reality one is engaged in.

    Here, I think, is where the Elf-friends come in. They do not unlock the door so much as show us it was an archway the whole time. Instead of creating frame stories, they set up infinity mirrors, every level of reflection adding depth and echoing the whole.

    I think that our journey-as-reader mimics the infinity mirrors. The Primary Reality is not a frame; our “real” lives are not a lens for viewing stories through. Rather, we are meant to engage fully in Primary Reality, sub-created reality, and at every deeper level of reflection. You say it perfectly in suggesting that this infinite mirror of Faerie gives us in turn an “awareness of the limitless world”.

    S. Gregory

  3. Ditto what HLLG and S. Gregory said! The journey is very important--thank you for helping us think about this. And "coming back different": we want more from fairy-stories than simply "diversion" or "escape"; we want them to change us in some way. I like this!


  4. I don’t know the critic you mean either. But others have spoken similarly, and whole schools of literary criticism may be invested in counting these basic plots. One great literary critic, Northrop Frye, thought that, if we wanted to reduce all myths from their great variety, we’d find at bottom a story of the loss and regaining of identity - which seems to be much the point you conclude on, about change, returning different not differently. (Frye adds that not all stories thereby have the same meaning.)

    You make so many points I want to comment on. Just a few, all touching on the idea of creation:
    1. Imagination. All literature requires imagination, even the most naturalistic or reporter-like work (here I think of something like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Our exploration into Tolkien’s theory of art may well not be confined to his creations alone. It will be important to exercise a kind of literary ecumenism if we are to avoid arguments over taste. At least that seems to me a beginning point.

    2. Inspiration. In light of a general theory of poetic creation (here poetic in a wide sense), I am also reminded that all throughout the ages artists, even the Romantic poets, talk about their work as coming from somewhere else. Homer got his poems from the Muses; Hesiod is even clearer that he is reporting what the Muses tell him (even if it’s lies!). The artist has a fidelity to his or her art, a fidelity to revealing the art. After all, according to its etymology, invention means discovery (from Latin invenio, ‘to find, discover,’ later ‘to invent’). A provocative ambiguity!

    3. Transmission. In Plato’s Ion, Socrates presents a picture of a chain of bards reaching from the present back to the original bard, Homer. They are transmitters of stories, and their degree of inspiration weakens as they become more distant from the beginning. (This does not necessarily account for all the features of the Homeric poems, but is one theory about traditional stories.) If you are interested in the scientific understanding of oral transmission (i.e., elf-friends), you might read The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord, one of the landmark books of literary theory in the twentieth century. During the 1930s, Lord and his teacher Milman Parry interviewed and recorded the singers of an actual oral tradition, then still alive in the countries of former Yugoslavia. On several occasions, they heard from the singers that they (the singers) took their stories from another singer (whose name I forget), but none of them actually met this singer. They all heard about him secondhand, e.g., “When I was young, my father told me that when he was quite young he heard this story from a very old singer”. Whenever Parry and Lord thought they might find the original poet, they always found that they were just a few degrees away, as if in pursuit of a shadow just a few steps ahead. What is fascinating is how Tolkien seems to have intuited many of the insights from such research. (I do not know anything about his actual familiarity with this work). It may not surprise readers of Tolkien that much of the very creative scholarship that is working out the implications of Lord’s book is being done by linguists. In any case, the point is that invention may not be a useful way of understanding stories at all, unless invention means ‘discovery’ like it should mean.


  5. Okay, I love the idea of nested narration – I think it is one of the best tools in literature for engaging a reader as an active participant. The reason I believe Tolkien (and many other authors) use this scheme is to create the cycle of repetition that demands the reader to retell the story. By presenting a story from another character's perspective, without using first-person pronouns, the reader is thrust into the role of the audience. This is a tool used in books like Heart of Darkness or The Sand-man, and it's used to make the reader feel an eerie sort of intimacy with the narrator of the story, and not necessarily the narrator of the work. After being a participant in the story's telling, the listener is then the next narrator. Tolkien makes his readers become Elf-friends themselves, as they are know educated on the method of storytelling. The lore becomes a possession inside AND outside the story – this is crucial for a process of subcreation. There is no escape from the road, because you are already a vessel for the story, and you have no choice but to pass it on and cause the road to ever expand.