"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.