Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tolkien the Historian

The concept of history within Tolkien's pseudo-historical, fantastic legendarium is one of the more crucial elements of understanding Tolkien.  Last week, we spent a lot of time discussing the creation of Tolkien's world, trying to decide exactly how real it really is.  The question of history can help us shed more light on the grey area of Tolkien reality, helping us to figure out both how real he thought it was and how real we're supposed to think it is.
                Tolkien uses a number of techniques to suggest that these stories are more than just fictitious fantasy, and more often than not, these techniques have a solid, historical root, complicating our image of the books as purely works of fiction.  Tolkien often treats his stories not as tales with journeys, climaxes and character growth, but as works of historical record that happen to include some entertaining dialogue.  To enhance this historical feeling, he frames his works with characters not wholly in the story, often conveying the stories to the reader not from his own narrative voice but from someone like an elf-friend's perspective, thus connecting the reader with a character who might be easier to relate to than the more fantastic characters of the stories, someone who can act as a go-between or a gateway from the world of the reader to the world of the story.  Most importantly, however, Tolkien litters his tales with--and often derives them from--genuine historical references. and linguistic connections.  Many of his tales and characters are derived from words or stories of Northern European Medieval myths and legends, confusing the idea that his created world sprang directly out of his own head and suggesting to the reader that, like some of the Welsh or Norse myths, there might be a significant historical value to Tolkien's writings, despite their status as works of fiction.  These three techniques--the framing of stories as historical chronicles, the usage of gateway characters like elf-friends to guide the reader and the rooting of many stories in other historical works--lends Tolkien's writing a legitimacy that both enhances it and has the ability to confuse a reader's analysis of the works as historical or fictitious.
                The Lord of the Rings presents what is possibly the best example of Tolkien's technique of framing stories as historical chronicles and not works of fiction.  The reader is immediately thrown into what appears to be a work of scholarship and not storytelling; the first line of the prologue states that the work "is largely concerned with hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history" (Lord of the Rings, p. 19).  Additionally, much of the work includes small footnotes explaining the history and some potentially unclear terms of Middle-earth.  These elements, which are more common to historical texts than fictitious ones, give the reader a sense that the story stems from years of diligent research, not years of diligent creation.
                In a way, however, the story does stem from research, almost as much as it stems from the mind of Tolkien.  His fascination with old English--both history and language--gave birth to many of the characters and plots of his legendarium.  Tolkien was very conscious about the historical implications of his work; in Letter 131, he explains that he "was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own" (Letters, p. 144).  He sought to develop an ancient justification for England's culture, in the same way that Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland and the classical civilizations relied on myth and legend to provide a foundation for their national identity.  Tolkien, though many of his stories stemmed from his head, attempted to give them the feel and legitimacy of history long forgotten, of stories that, long ago, could have occurred and produced the England.  He thus attempts, with language and other familiar themes of historical texts, to develop his stories in a way in which their fantastic, fiction nature was tempered by their scholastic rigor, allowing the reader to become more accepting and welcoming of his mythical world.
                Linguistics play an important role in his effort to give his legendarium a more historical feel.  He uses his training as a philologist to emphasize, through language, that the tales he writes are not merely random works of literature in a similar style, but are in fact a fully connected, coherent body of legendary writing.  We spoke at length in class about some of Tolkien's interest in deriving stories from old words, and Flieger's In the Footsteps of Aelfwine gives an excellent example of how Tolkien uses linguistics to construct and unite his various stories in a way that, because of its linguistic consistency, makes his fantasy world appear somewhat more historical than we might initially expect.  Tolkien is able to use language as a literary device, in fact, to continually bring back the elf-friend character in different ways, setting up the reader with a kind of comfortable guide for each story that one can always depend on, in a way that reminded me--at least to a certain degree--of how one can often depend on medieval monks to guide you through the various stages of the Christianization of Europe or the great conflicts of the middle ages.
                This role lends elf-friends an exceptional level of importance to Tolkien's world.  They are not only important to the stories, often serving as important protagonists, but they also often serve as storytellers.  Bilbo and Frodo theoretically tell their own stories as authors of the Red Book of Westmarch, and other Elf-friends, like Sam or Aragorn, educate the reader about the history of Middle-earth through the stories they tell within the book.  The use of Elf-friends to tell tales, as opposed to merely throwing the reader into the world, gives the stories a mildly academic preface in a style similar to many other legendary works.  The Vulgate cycle, for instance, is prefaced by the mysterious Walter Map's explanation of the stories, and the Welsh Mabinogian, though it does not have a consistent narrator, is very clearly aware of its status as a coherent collection of stories, informing the reader where he or she is  in the progression of writings at the end of each tale.  Other legendary works, like the Norse myths of Snorri or Beowulf (at least in Tolkien's opinion), were compiled by lone figures working to preserve their national legends.  Tolkien's world shares many characteristic with these examples, and one way Tolkien tries to promote those influences is through the use of Elf-friends to make the stories self-aware, or act as a kind of guiding, Walter Map figure, a hybrid between a historian and a fictional character who the reader can depend on to provide an accurate version of events.  Tolkien's guides, because they frame the stories in a way that both recalls the traditions of older legends and act as pseudo-historians, help the reader imagine that the writings are much more fact than fiction.
                Tolkien uses figures like the Elf-friends, historical and linguistic references and a style that suggests history over fiction to help enhance the idea that the tales he tells did, long ago, occur.  In his effort to set up a legendarium for England, a somewhat historical perception of his stories is absolutely essential to the reader's understanding of what he is trying to do.  The historical nature of his world and his writings suggests that he is not merely dabbling in factitious, fantastic escapism, but is attempting to perform something of a critical analysis of the world of myths and legends, while simultaneously attempting to contribute a real, coherent cycle to that world, which maybe, in the back of his mind, he might have hoped will gain similar stature to the legends of Arthur, Beowulf, Ulster and others, with the help of time and history.  This more historical understanding of Tolkien helps us answer the question about reality in Tolkien that bothered us during first week; though the stories are not real, they come with a real historical basis, and seek to set up a new one.  Maybe, if we continue to study Tolkien for hundreds of years, he will become real, in a sense--or at least as real and a part of the middle ages as Arthur was--and will act as an historical document, fulfilling Tolkien's dream, despite the works' fictitious beginnings.



  1. I like the way you have thought about Tolkien's intermingling of his scholarly methods with his imaginative creations. I wonder, after our discussion this afternoon, what you would say to the suggestion that I have been making that he thought that his creative work really was somehow grounded in the kinds of work that he did as a philologist so that it is not just the form that he is imitating, but the methods themselves.


  2. I think you've elucidated the methods Tolkien's used to make his world a historical reality very aptly. I thought the point about using footnotes to delve further into the history was particularly interesting and something I hadn't thought about before. There is something implicitly factual about a footnote, its mere specificity makes it a truth. Just expanding upon what you've pointed out, I wonder how much of this use of footnotes was a deliberate attempt by Tolkien to create this very historicity and how much it was him just using it as an explanatory device.
    It is also extremely interesting to note that this method filters into Christopher Tolkien's work too. Perhaps that is one of the reasons his work seems equally historical. His chronicling of Tolkien's work serves more to explain the nuances and missing pieces of Middle Earth rather than being a biographical tribute. We see this quite evidently in works such as The Lost Road which is more like a compilation of the 'history' Tolkien was unearthing, as he presents Tolkien's works as an historian would present primary documents.

  3. We come back to a familiar question in class… how serious is this? Does he really expect us to believe that there was a Redbook of Westmarch that preserved stories from a distant past? The Redbook is the only alleged object that truly anchors his stories in our world (archaeological evidence if you will). Few people would doubt that Tolkien wrote all of this. But, he is not the alleged translator. Without a lot of suspension of disbelief, how can one take Tolkien as historical in the modern sense of the word, assuming that it was ever meant to be? As developed as it is, Middle Earth will have a hard time holding up to modern historical scrutiny.

    If we go back to be beginning of the class and role of faery stories, the point was not to deceive the reader/audience into believing that it is real or to past itself off as co-equal to primary reality. Being exercises in sub-creation, faery stories are not co-equal with primary reality. Myth has a similar place in the modern world. We can look at Tolkien’s legendarium as a created body of myth and legend that is uniquely English. Yes, England and Wales have Arthur, but Tolkien was aiming for something far older and remote. Greeks have Chronos (not Kronos) and Tolkien gives Eru Iluvatar to the English. One is no more literally true than the other. The play of history and linguistics is used as a literary device, narrative conceits if you will, to both draw the reader in and to identify the tales with the remote past of England rather than anywhere else real or imagined.

    I think Tolkien would be far happier if, centuries from now, fragments of his stories were told by English grandparents to their grandchildren because they became a part of English story-telling traditions than if the Silmarillon was ever used as required reading for the history of ancient Europe.

    -Jason A Banks

  4. Do you ever think of Tolkien as a historical figure, an iconic figure, a famous figure, whose logic and whose stories can be untangled only through research? Does he seem larger than life?

    The myth of Tolkien, the philologist who wrote every word for a reason and who outsmarted all of his critics, has grown since his death. Which is exactly the point. We lose a lot of the real man. What Tolkien seems to be doing is searching for the Real Story, using bits of the myth to try to figure out what happened back-when. He is doing the work of a historian, a historian who uses fiction as his primary sources.

    But we wouldn’t have any information about these myths if we didn’t have them written, and if we didn’t have people to tell us the stories. In this way, we have a link to Tolkien in his son Christopher - a real life Elf-friend, the son of The Man Himself, relaying to us what he saw of his father’s now-mythic Work.

    Elf-friends are part of the story, at least peripherally, but they tell the story for us. It’s like Eye-Patch-Guy in the movie 300. In 300, we think we’re watching the real story, but we’re not -- not exactly. We’re hearing the story that Eye-Patch-Guy tells. Just as with LOTR, we’re hearing the story Frodo tells, and Sam tells, and Bilbo tells.

    And the story Tolkien tells.