Friday, April 11, 2014

Breaching the Secondary Reality

"Perhaps the real danger in picking over 'the bones of the ox' is no more than this: it 
comes as a threat to our general notion of creativity. In our often dimly-perceived 'model' of the author at work, there is a tendency to think of him or her as following a Grand Design to which only the author is privy, and which is both central inspiration and guiding star... Discovering that the author does not have a guiding star, and is trying things out at random, can be a disillusionment; as can the realisation that the Grand Design (the Silmarils, the nature of the Ring) was in fact one of the last things to be noticed" (Shippey 294).

This disillusionment from "picking over the bones of the ox" is definitely something that has struck me in this course; not in a bad way, but attempting to discern Tolkien's creative process has made me feel a little bit uneasy. It wasn't immediately clear to me why- the discomfort wasn't something I could pinpoint or articulate, but it has been ever present nonetheless. It actually hit me during class on Wednesday as we were discussing dreams and the idea of time travel, or at least some of the answer did.

In The Notion Club Papers, Ramer constructs this idea that you can, when writing a story, be in two places at once. "You can see..." he says, "a field with a tree and sheep sheltering from the sun under it, and be looking round your room. You are really seeing both scenes, because you recollect details later" (176). He goes on to explain that "the mind can be in more than one place at a given time; but it is more properly said to be where its attention is" (177).

I think the same can go for reading a story. I'm not going to take this to the same place Ramer did, but I believe it illustrates my thought process well. For Ramer, this "connexion" becomes an accessible link to another world, the way in which Tolkien envisions time-travel taking place. I think, in a similar sense, I spent a great deal of my childhood in two places at once. I was in my room or on the playground or in any number of places, but I was also in Gondor and Mordor and roaming the Shire. And in much the way that Ramer's connection became real, the connections I made became (in a less literal sense) real in my own mind. I knew Middle Earth was from a story, but I was, in many ways, there. Middle Earth was one of the first and most lasting "secondary realities" I ever experienced, I grew up with it existing in my mind as a separate and disconnected yet somehow real land.

I think this is why I found it somewhat unsettling to start "picking over the bones of the ox." While I loved Middle Earth, I was ignorant of a great deal of the back story behind its creation. I'd heard that Middle Earth was representative of the real world before, but I knew little about how deeply important that representation was. I didn't know that the works were intended "to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own," or that the story came from piecing together fragments of the real world (Letters, 231).

On one hand, I think this is incredible. It gives me a new appreciation for Middle Earth and how Tolkien created it - I really am thrilled to have learned all of this - but I think it has also breached my "secondary reality" which coexisted with my primary reality up to this point. It's amazing that Tolkien created so many stories based on words with unknown origins and fragments of stories and poems that have been lost to time, but realizing this has, I think, subconsciously undermined Middle Earth's legitimacy as a distinctly separate secondary reality in my mind. Previously, it had been a distinct entity, a place where I could, like Ramer, go to through the focus of my attention. In a way, confronting all these fragments has suddenly forced me to start accepting Middle Earth into my primarily reality, which is much more difficult than accepting a completely new and separate secondary reality.

I'm not sure that I agree with Shippey that the only threat of picking over the bones of the ox comes from the insecurity that the author has no grand design. I think the creative process that underlies world building is beautiful and that grand design isn't particularly necessary. The greater threat, in my opinion, is that it forces the blending of primary and secondary realities in a way that, perhaps childishly, is hard to reconcile. There's a part of me that wants to remain ignorant, to keep The Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth as a special and completely separate escape from the our own world and the history of our world, because it feels more beautiful that way.

In many ways, I dislike this childish separatism within myself. On an objective level, I think the premise of creating a new mythology based upon fragments of things that have survived into our current reality is astounding. Not to mention, Tolkien does an incredible job weaving together language, geography, history, and countless other elements in order to create this mythology. I have the utmost respect for his work and the Middle Earth which he created through these methods. Nonetheless, I continue to be struck by this nagging sense of loss as my understanding of the cultural and linguistic roots of the world begins to infringe upon my primary reality. I'm curious as to whether other people have had this experience in their own journeys "picking over the bones" of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth or if this more of a singular experience.



  1. I really enjoyed this post. Do you think we see this sense of loss being played out within Tolkien's work itself? I'm particularly thinking of the requirements for the elf-friends to eventually turn back from faery, returning to a single reality (and we might think of many other examples, there's a way in which loss is very central to Tolkien's writings). If so, perhaps the works themselves can be helpful in reconciling these anxieties you bring up.

  2. dyingst’s comment is really interesting. It reminds me of Smith’s “great weariness and bereavement” (Smith of Wootton Major 48) after returning home from his final trip to Faery. So long as he was still in effect blundering into and around Faery, he could go, appreciate it, and return. Memories of Faery remain for him during his village life. More than that, the two worlds are inextricably linked, and he is a kind of center of that link, something that walks in both. (I hesitate to say belongs in both, but I’m comfortable today at least saying that he belongs more in Faery, with his star, than ‘Alf’ belongs in the world of the village, where he is accepted and put up with but never quite ‘fits?’ I admit I may be oversimplifying for this comment.) But once Smith feels he has sort of figured out what’s going on (that kilted maiden is the Queen!), he also begins to feel he shall not come to Faery again (“I do not think that I shall ever return” to Faery!) (Smith 39).

    Again, I'm oversimplifying the story here, and putting aside for a moment the (too important to put aside) links between this story and the creative process for the moment, in order to just link the story for the time being to the process of receiving the world. Can we, in putting together at least enough of a picture to feel we have sufficiently 'figured it out,' make Faery in some way inaccessible to us in the way that it once was?

    I'm also reminded of - spoiler alert! - a reading for the April 16 class, Rosebury's "Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon," where he essentially says that some of the plot points in the Lord of the Rings were better before the backgrounds details were hashed out precisely in some other work. I'm remembering the example of the Black Riders' arrival in the Shire, and Rosebury's point that as a story it's better left from the sort of Hobbits' LotR perspective, and knowing exactly how and through what plans the riders were sent when they were ruins the impact of the unknown which, through their perspective, gives the sense of a terrible and unknowable power far away, but encroaching upon what is safe and home.(My print out is not with me, and from the pdf alone I'm struggling to find the page, but trust me on this.) Rosebury's a little prickly about Tolkien's works on occasion, I think, but I agree with him here, and found it akin to your discomfort, which I've shared at times in this class.

  3. Hmm, that's a really interesting point. I actually do think Tolkien does a wonderful job portraying the sense of loss I've felt, although I'd never before made the connection to how I felt before! Thinking about it that way definitely helps on an intellectual level, it's quite reassuring to know that the discomfort/dilemma was something Tolkien understood and had an interest in exploring. I think another example of this is in the last chapter of the Return of the King, The Grey Havens. I know it's not exactly the same, but it definitely instills in the reader this idea of choosing between worlds. In the end, the heroes and magic sail away into what is, at least for the purposes of the trilogy, the great unknown. At the end of the story, it's leaving behind adventure and returning to home and family. This doesn't really take away the sense of sadness at loss, but it does make me think about the necessity of returning home from adventure and leaving behind the fantastical.

    I love the connection to Smith of Wooton Major. I really do think that this "putting things together" makes it inaccessible to us in a way, but perhaps that mirrors this sense of closing in the trilogy. Putting together Tolkien's world is an incredible journey after all, and maybe "returning home" from it isn't such a bad thing. Perhaps the journey doesn't mean as much unless you can look back on it?

    I may be overstretching this metaphor, but I think those were both really interesting comments. Thanks for bringing them up!