“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.