Friday, April 11, 2014

Fragments Within the Works of Tolkien

            When writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien strove to build a mythos of England. To do so, Tolkien drew from the fragments in the world around him. Over the course of the past two weeks, we have used our understanding of Tolkien’s fascination with the fragments in our world to better understand where Tolkien’s stories come from; however, The Notion Club Papers have demonstrated to me that we have neglected to consider how the idea of “fragments” has affected the telling of the stories themselves. The Notion Club Papers provide a glimpse of Tolkien’s creating process in the form of Ramer’s ramblings: The act of Creation is one of finding fragments and giving them context. Looking back now at Tolkien’s stories –The Lord of the Rings­ in particular – I find that fragments lie at their very hearts. Through this examination, I hope to achieve better knowledge of Tolkien’s use of fragments so as to better understand the stories themselves.
            First, I will prove a brief account of fragments as we understand them. The fragments that Tolkien was most often interested in were those of language – for example, the remaining snippets of a long lost poem or an oddity in a word’s modern meaning. Being the philologist that he was, Tolkien would take these fragments and try to provide a history, a context, for them. Effectively, Tolkien was using these fragments to work backwards through time by developing for the fragment an etymology of sorts. The class identified a clear example of this in Book I of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo sings a full version of “Hey diddle diddle” and establishes it as a song that was old even when Frodo sang it in Bree. By creating a history for the poem, Tolkien creates a tangible connection between the modern day and his Creation.
            Through examination of Ramer’s ramblings in Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers we can gain insight as to how Tolkien understood and used fragments. In The Notion Club Papers, Ramer expresses the idea that the identity of an object or place is the union of its physical self with its history; fragments preserve this identity even after the subject has lost its physical and historical presence by continuing to tell the story. However, these fragments are meaningless without context, much in the way that a meteorite – a fragment of what was once a large object with a long history – is just another stone if we do not already know its history. Language fragments are unique in this aspect in that the fragment’s history can often be found within the fragment itself. What enables Tolkien to find the story within these fragments is the heredity of language: Human beings have a “native language” which is stored within our “incarnate beings.” By linking modern fragments to the languages that he had been developing since childhood, Tolkien was able to provide a context for the fragments – he was able to move back in time.
            Interestingly, we can find the motif of fragments within Tolkien’s stories themselves and The Lord of the Rings in particular. The One Ring was a powerful artifact of the Second Age, an object of great power – but when Sauron was cast down and the Ring lost, its context was lost with it. When Bilbo found it an Age later, it was nothing more than a ring with interesting capabilities. The Ring was a mere fragment of its dark master, a fragment of an Age, a fragment without context. Nor does it seem that Bilbo was particularly concerned with the history of the Ring, for he had made no progress as to its identity by the time he had passed it on to Frodo. However, it is only when the Ring is passed on to Frodo that the Ring’s true nature is revealed and Frodo can begin to move towards truly understanding the Ring and its history. Frodo completes the history of the Ring by means of a heredity “native language” of adventure shared between him and Bilbo. And when the Ring is finally destroyed, it takes with it the remnants of the Second Age.
            In this way I believe that Frodo has a lot in common with Ramer and Tolkien. At the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin and Sam have successfully reintegrated into hobbit society, but not so Frodo. As bearer of the One Ring, Frodo had pursued its story and completed the tale of the Lord of the Rings, but he had also been exposed to its power. I suspect this exposure to be similar in effect to Ramer’s lucid dreams: His dream-wanderings and the pursuit of fragments through time and space have broadened his perspective in a way that other members of the Notion Club seem unable to really identify with, even if they have some experience in setting their own dreams free. Like Ramer, Frodo has experienced the vastness of the world in the sense of time and space, and his experience has marked him. As a result, Frodo is unable in reintegrate into his old life and is ultimately forced to depart.
            In the above I have attempted to explore the importance of fragments not only as tools of creation but as motifs within the Lord of the Rings. A more complete analysis should give more attention to those stories in which the fragment in question was not given a context outside of the plot, as in The Hobbit or Smith of Wootton Major. I believe it would be interesting to compare elements of both types of stories – those in which context is given to the fragment and those where it is not – to determine how the narrative is affected.

            -N. Malaqai Vasquez


  1. Thanks for taking on the problem of fragments, language, and fragmentary language!

    I quite liked your analysis of Tolkien's inspiration from and application of fragments, and thought this phrase particularly well-observed: “Ramer expresses the idea that the identity of an object or place is the union of its physical self with its history; fragments preserve this identity even after the subject has lost its physical and historical presence by continuing to tell the story.” Thus you note that the process of re-construction becomes an act of history and creation (I particularly like the meteor metaphor—though I might argue that we DO analyze fragments of meteorites such that their history can be “found within the fragment itself” in the form of chemical composition!)

    I'm not quite sure I follow the “Ring-as-fragment” line of thought—I think this is an interesting and creative analysis, but do you think that the Ring functions as the same kind of fragment that “hey diddle diddle” does? I'm not sure that Frodo was more of a philologist than Bilbo, in his willingness to reconstruct the history of that particular fragment, but I do like the thought that the hereditary “native language” of adventure is what links Frodo and Bilbo.


  2. While the concept of the Ring as a fragment is very interesting, I question the parallel between Tolkien and Frodo. It is not Frodo who discovers the true nature of the Ring after Bilbo refinds it, but Gandalf. To me, it seems that it is Gandalf that takes this "fragment" of history as a place to begin (as Tolkien did with fragments of language and song to "discover" the history of Middle Earth) and sought to discover the complete story of the Ring through its history. Is this not closer than the work that Tolkien did with, say, "Hey Diddle Diddle" than Frodo's passive reception of the information Gandalf found in Minas Tirith?
    This question makes me further wonder about agency in both this analogy and in Tolkien's work overall. Is the Tolkien character the one who does the research into the history of the fragment, or does he see his philology work as a kind of "Gandalf" that brings the story to him? In either case, I would be very interested to see what the author himself would have had to say about the idea that the Ring is a fragment.
    --Alex Hale