Friday, June 3, 2011

“This isn't one, This isn't an end... ”

As our course reaches its end, I have discovered to my own fortune that there is no other post more appropriate to blog on than on the Cult created by Tolkien’s works which has so masterfully captivated and enchanted its readers. In order to begin addressing the power of his work, it seems fit first to address A.S Byatt’s novel A Whistling Woman. In particular, we turn to the scene where Agatha finishes reading her story to the children, Leo and her daughter Saskia. The tale of the Prince Artegall, which had so absorbed and immersed the children in their imaginations, thwarts the children’s expectations of an emotionally rewarding ending upon it’s most exhilarating moment - when Artegall finally finds his kinsman and the Kingdom of the North of which he has been looking for throughout his journey. Leo complains to Agatha that “there was no satisfaction in the end of the story.” (Byatt, 12), to which she responds “that is where I always meant it to end” (Byatt, 12). The children, who were looking for an all-encompassing, closed and neat ending were therefore left wanting more out of the story and still questioning themselves over the open-ends left by Agatha. Frederica, Leo’s mother, upon further pondering what constitutes a good ending seems to reach the conclusion that a ‘real ending’ would be one capable of making it’s audience “cry with happiness.” (Byatt, 13). This emotional pay-back expected by Frederica is nothing more, nothing less than what Tolkien himself coined by the “word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).” (Letters, 100) It seems therefore that, had Tolkien been the author of this tale and not Agatha, Leo would have been much more pleased with its ending.

However, we are still left in a position whereby we have not yet understood what it is about this eucathartic ending which is so rewarding to its reader. According to Tolkien, this ending is capable of rendering the reader under this satisfying effect since it provides him with a “sudden glimpse of Truth” (Letters, 100) slipping through this secondary reality which corresponds directly to our experience in our primary reality. The eucatharsis thus involves the reader at an extremely personal level in his experience of the story and we find ourselves looking along the beam of light in C.S Lewis’ Toolshed analogy. We are fully invested in the tale; we experience the narrative, feel along with its characters and genuinely live their story. It is because the story is real and shares in this ‘Truth’ that we are able to discover meaning and value within it once we step back from the story as it finds its ending on the page before us. Tolkien’s initially puzzling affirmation that “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world” (Letters, 239) begins to make much more sense. In fact, provided we are looking along the Toolshed’s beam of light, we are able to fully comprehend what Tolkien meant when he asserted that “the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live [i.e. our primary reality], but the historical period is imaginary.” (Letters, 239)

However, this is not to discredit the second and more objective perspective described by C.S Lewis as of looking at the beam of light. This latter perspective is what allows the reader to effectively see from a certain distance the bigger picture and evaluate the actions described in the context of the narrative. Furthermore, the reader is to be content with what the author has provided him - be it satisfactory or not - and is not in a position to insert his own sub-creations within the gaps left by the author. Therefore, the extent to which the author has revealed the narrative is all that the reader has access to, and thus, he remains dependent on the author to either change those parts which were unsatisfactory, or keep feeding this thirsty reader with more material. This seems to be the case between Agatha and Leo, who continuously demands her to progress further with her story, even when she has not yet written the next section. Agatha then tells him that she cannot continue the story since she doesn’t know the rest - “Anything could happen.” (Byatt, 327) The storyline is therefore out of her control, instead it seems to create itself, unfolding itself as she writes. The narrative contains a power of its own to which the author is merely a vessel translating it into the written word. A solely objective take on such a work is therefore rendered unfeasibly since the narrative is begging its reader for his input - that is, to fill the gaps left with his or her own sub-creations. However, as we have previously seen, this insertion is only possible if we combine the objective lens with that of the personal lens. That is to say, as pointed out by C.S Lewis, the reader must be able to look at as well as along the beam of light coming through the Toolshed.

Finally, one may point out that while the reader’s task (as stated above) is well understood, a certain level of skill is necessary for one to be able to produce and insert such sub-creations. This skill, of which the 8-year-old Leo still lacks comes with education. It is not surprising therefore that upon Byatt’s description of his going to school, Leo’s mother observes that the walls are lined with school projects on the works of none other than J.R.R Tolkien himself. In school, the children will learn the skill of sub-creation, they would have “to consider how trees grow and spider-webs are women, to think about perspective and be inventive with materials.” (Byatt, 371) Thus the children will learn the art of the Ainur when, together with the One, Illúvatar, they composed the themes of the world. The reader no longer finds himself frustrated upon finding at the end of a story a “Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.” (Letters, 412)

- J.Machado


  1. I think the idea that a story 'writes itself,' so to speak, is the way Tolkien would approach his own writing, as well. He mentions this several times in his letters, where he talks about characters he knew existed and ones that just came to him because the story seemed to demand it.
    However, this seems to be slightly at-odds with the idea that storytelling is sub-creation. If the story is coming to Tolkien through dreams and other vehicles of legend-passing (which Tolkien suggests, although its not entirely clear how serious he is) then Tolkien doesn't seem to be sub-creating in the genuine sense of the word, but rather conveying created ideas. A mover instead of a creator, as it were. While I thought that a writer fills both of these roles in their own ways, Lewis' idea that readers (and possibly writers) sub-create by adding their own creations into an already-created story reconciles the two roles quite well.

  2. Wonderful insight on the significance of the frieze that the children have made of the scenes from the Hobbit! Yes, the children are learning to be story-tellers themselves, thus learning the skills that they will need to look along the beams of their own tales. And wonderful insight into what it means for Tolkien's world to be "not imaginary" insofar as we are able to look along it: it is not imaginary, but more real than real when we look along the story-beam. What you describe as the reader's work of sub-creation might be more familiarly termed the experience of the hermeneutic gap: whenever we read, we are constantly filling in, finding meaning in the gaps between what is said and what we understand. No story is complete without an audience, thus it is wholly appropriate for Leo to demand more!