Friday, June 3, 2011

P2C2E, Narrative Causality, and "The End"

After our discussion in class on narrative causality I began to consider how this truly comes into play in the LOTR as well as many other favorite works of fiction. I've always been fascinated by the process of writing. There is an intriguing, though sometimes frustrating aspect to a work of fiction because how probable is it that so much would happen to these characters? How is it possible that everything always falls into place just so, that million to one chances happen more often than not, and that eventually the protagonist wins out in some way or other? Terry Pratchett has been quoted to say, "...the proliferation of luminous fungi or iridescent crystals in deep caves where the torchlessly improvident hero needs to see is one of the most obvious intrusions of narrative causality into the physical universe." This goes to show how strange the narrative creation process can be. Doesn't anyone ever question it? Is this all too easy?

I've seen these kinds of "easy way outs" in many of my favorite works. In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you often have to suspend your own concept of how everything should work in reality and accept that anything absurd and insanely coincidental or otherwise lucky will occur. Adams needs to explain how its possible that the characters will easily be able to understand all the various languages they encounter throughout the whole universe so he creates the "Babel Fish," which naturally you just pop in your ear and as it eats incoming brainwaves it excretes them in a coherent manner. Or how about the "Infinite Improbability Drive" on the starship The Heart of Gold. Naturally by just pressing a button an obscenely improbable act can occur and it is justified based on this fictional device. The same has been true of Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories where anything that occurs relating to Earth's fictional 2nd moon, (Kahani) such as its ability to orbit so fast it is never seen, is simply attributed to "Processes Too Complicated Too Explain" or "P2C2E" for short.

Do we too often forget and never question the strange ways in which narrative causality permeates the LOTR? Such as Gandalf always showing up at just the right moment? Lembas bread existing to keep them strong when they otherwise would have no food or energy normally? That mithril keeps Frodo alive more than once when he should be dead? The list could go on and on describing the truly incredible circumstances of Tolkien's work. The quest itself, so improbable, so often challenged by anything that could possibly happen, is in and of itself following a line of narrative causality that is both incredible and sometimes wholly unrealistic. I know that sounds like a redundant thing to say, its fantasy so of course its unrealistic, but I mean on that deeper level in which the characters follow their path as dictated by Tolkien, circumstances play out exactly as they need to in order to make a good story.

Of course the abnormality of the circumstances which surround a character are what end up making a story worth reading though so how can we question them? I'll note that even stories meant to highlight the mundane are good stories because of they offer a window of perspective that makes them interesting in a creative way.(Something like James Joyce's Ulysses is what I'm thinking of here.) The LOTR would not be epic or memorable were it not for the grand and fantastic scale of its story. One thing I can attribute to Tolkien is although he must fall prey to narrative causality as all stories must, he does not seem to cut corners, and he never really takes an easy way out to explain how everything happened as it did thanks to wonderful layers of back story.

After reading C.S. Lewis' "Meditation in a Toolshed" I began to also think about the way characters are developed around their extreme circumstances in stories and how we are to approach them as a result. The difference between looking "at" and looking "along" a circumstance seemed to make a lot of sense. Of course the actual experience in the beam would be focused and different from that of those looking at it from the outside. What I couldn't get over however was whether or not an author is ever capable of looking along that beam really. They can describe the feelings and emotions of a character but especially when it comes to the fantasy genre, they don't really know what it feels like, they couldn't possibly. Perhaps good writing is simply getting as close as possible to presenting that concept of looking along the beam when all you can really do is look at it.

To look across the whole spectrum of a story as broad and wide as the LOTR is truly a fantastic feat though and the development of characters with the possibility of bending the laws of nature as we know them are what make fantasy novels so interesting--everything in LOTR would not be nearly as worth reading if there wasn't magic and fantastical settings and creatures. One has to allow ones self to accept them as they are and as they come. Fighting with the realities of a story seems rather futile. And perhaps in that act of acceptance we allow the story to take us where it will. This is why so often there are analogies of stories connected with water. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories Rushdie describes the Sea of Stories as consisting of infinite stories taking the form of different currents of colors which ebb and flow together to create new ones and defy the spectrum of color and the concept of a story as we know it. A.S.Byatt also spoke of a narrative as a stream which follows certain paths but the grooves left grow deeper with the infinite run of its streams. Stories will always mean different things to different people and this is why we can make a whole major out of interpreting the creative processes of authors.

Thus, when stories seem to always perpetuate a cult of interpretation without end, how important is "The End"? Its amazing how we can always count on traditional stories to be wrapped up neatly and tied up perfectly at the end of the story. Again, narrative causality at work. Frodo at the moment his journey is over cannot complete it so of course, luckily, Gollum attacks him and ends up hurling himself with the ring headlong into Mount Doom. Text book narrative causality. In A.S. Byatt's the Whistling Woman, the story is ended without conclusion and the characters have a hard time processing this because of its abnormality. I had a friend once who always used to make up stories about us meeting various celebrities or having interesting adventures but as soon as she got bored of writing them she would stop and write in huge letters, "ABRUPT ENDING." It could be very frustrating not knowing where to go from there. I've always been a fan of purposeful cliffhanger endings however, and perhaps this is the one way in which narrative causality can be challenged if not totally circumvented since it persists throughout the story still.

Perhaps at this point though I've really lost myself and come to no conclusion either. Perhaps all one can do is muse away on what it means to end and how you can get where you got. However I've truly taken away a lot of from the LOTR, as we all have, and though I continue to pick apart what I think helps to create it as it is, I think there can be no denying its cult and the importance of the journey through its interpretation...




  1. With respect to Lewis' "Meditation in a Toolshed", if one describes another person's perspective on their life as a beam that they look along, then I am inclined to think that two of the things we struggle most with as human beings are 1) putting ourselves inside other people's beams and 2) looking at (rather than along) our own beam. I definitely agree that authors are put in an extremely complex situation when it comes to developing their characters. In a way, authors are inside the beams of these characters, as they are the ones who created them and therein know them better than anyone. And yet, they also look at them: authors often describe the experience of 'discovering' their characters or what happens to them, as if the ownership for their actions did not entirely belong to the author. As such, I think I see what you mean when you say that "good writing is simply getting as close as possible to presenting that concept of looking along the beam when all you can really do is look at it."


  2. I think you certainly came to some conclusions. Thinking about what you've said about the theory of narrative causality, it's really interesting to think of the ways in which Tolkien's stories both challenge and satisfy your concept of the "traditional ending" — an ending in which all of the loose ends are neatly tied up.

    In The Lord of the Rings, there are several moments where, as you've pointed out, the narrative seems to flow a little too smoothly. Gollum conveniently appears when Frodo cannot complete the task of destroying the ring. An eagle rescues Gandalf from the tower. Remnants of the fellowship happen to meet up with Eomer. However, this is a common allowance: generally, we turn a blind eye to this aspect of writing, especially in the realm of fantasy. In fantasy, it the story tends to be necessarily plot-driven, because if the plot weren't affected by the fact that it's set in an alternate or fairy world, and were just a character-driven reflective piece set in an alternate reality, it wouldn't be very good fantasy, would it?

    But Tolkien's "loose ends" certainly exist as well. The "four endings" that Professor Fulton mentioned come to mind. It's a testament to Tolkien's incredible world building that we're able to "believe" those kind of details at all.

    Thinking more broadly, all of LOTR is based on a coincidence. Who would have ever thought that a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins would have left the Shire to go on an adventure?

  3. I really enjoyed your discussion on the ebb and flow of narrative. One could definitely argue that aspects of Tolkien's narrative fall together *just* too perfectly, and that the stream is just a little too purposeful and smooth. As Lyndsey points out, Gollum's appearance was a little too convenient, as was the arrival of the eagle on the tower of Orthanc. But rather than approaching this as a narrative failure, I would suggest that Tolkien was very purposeful in weaving in this theme of fate into the storyline. Gollum was at the Crack of Doom because he was meant to be there; the eagle arrived because he was meant to rescue Gandalf. This can probably be tied back to Tolkien's religious purpose in the text, because fate is an integral aspect of Christianity. To us, it may seem like narrative coincidence, as if that could never happen in real life. But in Tolkien's world, nothing is coincidence, and nothing happens without purpose. Fate drives the narrative.


  4. In conjunction with MEH's point regarding fate driving narrative, I think we have to remember that there is a tacit agreement that writer and reader enter into. 'The willful suspension of disbelief' that a reader indulges in while reading a story whose narrative takes improbable turns can only be stretched so far. Most authors are able to strike a balance that allows us to maintain this 'willful suspension of disbelief'. Tolkien does it very well.
    As a child writing short stories for school I used the 'meteor destroys earth' line to end stories that I had made to convoluted and was now tired of.
    The only place where it seems like Tolkien may have over simplified is the scene where the eagles fly in a rescue Frodo and Sam from the debris of the erupting Mount Doom. But given that Sauron has been destroyed this too can be construed as possible. Tolkien balances our credulity very very well.

  5. But Gandalf most pointedly does *not* show up when he is expected: not when Frodo is waiting for him to set out from the Shire (because he is being held prisoner by Saruman), not when Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas meet him in Fangorn (because they think he is dead). Yes, Tolkien plotted his story with incredible care (Shippey has a good discussion of this in his chapter on "A Cartographic Plot"), but this is only to say that he made sure that he did not leave events unaccounted for or make the characters encounter each other when they couldn't possibly be *here* *now* (because it takes so much time to walk across Middle-earth, because they were said to be elsewhere, and so forth). Likewise, how many times looking back on one's own life do things seem to make a curious sense: that you met so-and-so just when you needed to? that you became who you are because of things that you did or learned at such-and-such a time? This is the difference between looking along the beam and looking at it: looking along it, we cannot tell what kind of story we are in because it is what is for us, but looking at it (e.g. when we are dead, or at somebody else's story) it suddenly can seem to make all kinds of sense. Do our stories therefore inevitably come to an abrupt end--or do we die the deaths that we are "meant" to based on the story that we have lived along? In a way, death never makes sense--but that certainly doesn't stop us trying to find some.

    Okay, you've made me think hard about this. Clearly, a provocative post!