Wednesday, April 23, 2014

History, Fantasy and Historical Relativism

            Often history gives us glimpses of a past in which the historical actors themselves are glimpsing a yet more distant past. The effect is powerful in multiple ways; it not only shows us the great depth of history, but also links us in the present day to this chain of historical ruminating, inviting obvious comparisons between past histories and present ones. Tolkien appears to have been quite fond of this device. As noted in Lee and Solopova’s essay on “The Ruin” in The Keys to Middle Earth, there are repeated instances of members of the fellowship reflecting on ancient ruins and the bygone people who built them: Weathertop, Moria, the Argonoth, even the stones in Hollin speak to Legolas of the long-gone elves who built with them. Given Tolkien’s assertion that he is writing history – that his writings “present a kind of legendary and history of a ‘forgotten epoch’” (Letter 151), the reader of the Lord of the Rings experiences the same impression as a modern reader of “The Ruin”: looking back at a forgotten era, only to find people looking back at their own forgotten eras.
            The key difference, of course, would seem to be that the Lord of the Rings (along with its accompanying mythology) is a work of fantasy, whereas the Anglo-Saxon poet of “The Ruin” and the Ancient Romans who he is writing about really did exist. Yet this distinction does not seem to concern Tolkien, who “always preferred history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers” (LotR, xxiv; emphasis mine). According to this view, the veracity of an event or a story is irrelevant to its being historical. What matters is the reader’s experience: the feeling of being grounded in a world with real people who have come and gone, built monuments and then let them decay into ruins waiting to be rediscovered. This makes all the more sense when one considers Tolkien’s singular writing method, which involved creating elaborate backstories and entire languages for the races who would populate his world before he even began writing the stories that would take place in it. In this way, history and fantasy intermingle in the legends that set the stage for the stories Tolkien wants to tell. As Galadriel says in the introduction to Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy: “History became legend. Legend became myth.” But the ring was not gone.
            Yet apart from this greater engagement for readers, Tolkien’s view of history and mythology raises interesting epistemological questions about the nature of historical inquiry. When we look back at historical events, even from the perspective of modernity and all the advantages it affords, do we objectively observe a real historical past? Or do we, as Ramer puts it, find “the story that has the most power and significance for human minds” (Notion Club Papers)? Nietzsche, for one, answered this question in the negative, writing that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Here, once again, the image of looking back on those looking back on their own past has great import. The author of “The Ruin” conceives of the Roman ruin in terms familiar to Anglo-Saxons: it is replete with great armies and a “wealth of horns” and mead-halls. Clearly, this interpretation is the story that has “the most power and significance” for the writer. Interestingly, the writer does not make any clear distinction between history and myth: the ruins must be the “work of giants” – but this certainly seems plausible given that they must date back to “a hundred of the generations of the people departed”.
Today, we might remark on the silliness of such musings – the ruins could not have predated the author by more than a couple dozen generations, and were certainly not built by giants. Yet the fact that we are inherently connected to this chain of history, looking at the ruins of the past, reminds us that eventually time, or wyrd, will overtake all. We have no way of knowing that we will not seem just as wrong to future generations who read our present histories. 

-Amory K.


  1. Dear Amory K,

    I think you've spotted a central motif in Tolkien's historical fantasy in the ruin: the reader looks back on figures looking back.
    In this historical writing, " irrelevant to its being historical." While this is quite counter-intuitive for many of us, Ramer would argue (as you quote) that the applicability of the story remains powerful and significant for human minds. In view of these (your) points, would Tolkien espouse historical relativism? As you say, stories change, come and go, but the Ring remained.

    In this sense, I am surprised at your question: 'do we objectively observe a real historical past?' Many of Tolkien's works are elaborately framed in narrative devices such that they are never objective but always subjective (from a certain viewpoint), e.g. Bilbo's. Yet are not his historical fantasies written and regarded by Tolkien as bearing truth nonetheless? (It is difficult to see if you are agreeing with Nietzsche or not.)


  2. Very interesting read! I'm in complete agreement that The Lord of the Rings is a work of fantasy, a position that some find very problematic. Some claim that the fantasy is more of a mythology of sorts which exempts it from the position of fantasy, but I think the quotation you bring up about the history being feigned clears that up to some extent. One of the biggest problems I find about the imagined histories you bring up is that those looking back on those who look back seem to do so for no other reason than to look back - while it adds depth to the historical world of Tolkien's fiction, it doesn't serve the purpose of illuminating the way forward, which in a sense is why we look backward in the first place. Tolkien's work also doesn't really provide the "interpretation" element of history, where one character from one region tells a story of a historical event, and another character from another reason tells the same story from a different perspective -- in trying to encompass an elaborate, realistic history this seems like a bit of an oversight. Adding perspective also adds depth to the characters and their motives as well and paints things in shades of grey instead of simply the light good guys and the dark bad guys.