Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Fragments, Soup, and Rapunzel

Although the idea presented in class of Tolkien’s legendarium as an etymology for specific real-world fragments and fossils, as we called them, is interesting and certainly in many cases accurate, I felt that it was a description too narrow in scope. In many instances, certainly, it applies. It is very difficult to read Frodo’s song as anything other than an attempt to create a past, complete version for the fragments of today. These fragments are by no means uncommon; they appear throughout many of his works. Apart from the story of Sheaf told in the Lost Road, for instance, the Silmarillion presents a reconstruction of the story of Rapunzel, in which Luthien, trapped in a “wooden house” at the top of “the greatest of all the trees,” causes “her hair to grow to a great length,” and “of the strands… twine[s] a rope” and “climb[s] from her prison” (Silmarillion 203). An example more fundamental to his mythos is the character of Earendil, whose name appeared in an Old English poem, Crist, that Tolkien read early in the creation of the legendarium, and whom Tolkein adopted into his mythos. These reconstructions of both well-known tales and more obscure historical records appear throughout Tolkien’s mythos.
But was Tolkien’s intent solely to create an etymology for these fragments? To me, it seems unlikely. It is undeniable that he did so, and a large part of the legendarium is certainly constructing bridges between these etymologies to allow them to coexist in the same reality, while preserving the inner consistency he so prizes. But his process could not have been limited to simply finding specific stories and inventing a history for them, then creating his world based on them. The mythos is simply too big; in many places, he is required to invent, to create something new, not merely to reconstruct. What story does Lord of the Rings descend from, what story does the tale of Beren and Luthien function as an etymology for? One of the first stories Tolkien penned set in this world was the fall of Gondolin—this was not based in any fragment, but simply created. There are elements shared with these tales and modern stories, of course; I mentioned the Rapunzel aspect of Luthien’s story above. But that does not mean that they are the same story, or that the whole tale was invented as an etymology for the story of Rapunzel. Bilbo Baggins, in the same vein, was not created as a fictional creator of the hey-diddle-diddle nursery rhyme; that aspect of his character is small, minute, just a few sentences amid several books’ worth of material.
Consider instead the idea that Tolkien added this kind of material in as a way of blurring the lines between history and his already-existing narratives, instead of creating the world from them. Obviously this is not true in every case—Earendil, for instance was a clear example of Tolkien drawing inspiration from real-world sources. But the Rapunzel moment, Frodo’s song, even Aelfwine’s song of King Sheaf, are small moments in a larger story. They exist to further the fundamental conceit and goal of his legendarium; that this is a mythos for England. Myths require a connection to the Primary Reality, and these small connections do just that. They bridge the gap between these two realities, making the idea that they coexist more plausible.
In the character of Aelfwine this goal is especially apparent. Aelfwine and his story function as a bridge between the modern world and Tolkien’s legendarium. He exists in England, with many recognizable and historically accurate events, but then crosses over to Eressea and is told the story of the elves. As an Elf-Friend, like we discussed in class, he moves between the worlds of men and elves; but unlike Frodo or Elendil, the world of men he exists in is directly and overtly a historical world rather than a mythical one. This is a tangible connection, an attempt to further blur the lines between myth and history. His song of King Sheaf, an example in class of Tolkien’s philological methods, is yet another means, along with the constant references to historical events, of making the character of Aelfwine and thus indirectly all of Tolkien’s mythos seem more plausible and connected to history. Even in smaller instances—the brief mention in the prologue to Fellowship of hobbits “today,” and how they “avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find” (Fellowship 19) , add subtly to the idea that these are stories meant to be half-believed, the forgotten stories of a specific place rather than a wholly invented tale.
            Another interesting example is the Akallabeth, the fall of Numenor. This story parallels the archetypical Atlantean story. It would be easy to say that this is, again, the “real” source behind the fragments of the Atlantis-story that are found today, but that seems to be reading too far into the author’s intentions. Certainly Tolkien wanted to write an Atlantean-style story; that was the whole premise of The Lost Road, and indeed he found that his “real interest was only in… the Akallabeth or Atalantie” (Lost Road, 8). Indeed, the similarity between the Quenya word Atalantie and the legendary Atlantis is at the least improbable chance and at most an intentional parallel drawn by Tolkien. But nevertheless, I don’t think it is fair to say that Tolkien wanted to create a story to be the origin of the Atlantis myth, or a reconstruction of the etymology. They are instead drawn from the same story “soup”, as Tolkien calls it in On Fairy Stories, and attached to the specific cultural and historical situations of the time. I don’t see Tolkien as claiming a specific origin to this story, like he does with Bilbo’s song, but instead as attaching the soup to Numenor and his mythos.
            Even if the framework of Tolkein’s mythos was this reconstructed etymology—something that is certainly true in the case of Earendil, for instance—filling in the gaps requires a massive effort of creativity, separate from the initial philological work. The real world fragments provide inspiration, but it is the invention of the stories that flesh out the world that I find more interesting and meaningful.

-Will Adkisson


  1. Thanks for the comment, Will.

    I think your point is correct as far as it goes, but I think you’ve maybe got the fragments idea backwards. He’s not “solely” setting out to create a history for these bits of historical detritus (I'll call them fossils for reasons I'll explain later), but he is furnishing his historical world with the “etymologies” of these fossils. Moreover, in the discussions of “fragments” in his work, it’s generally referring to the texts he’s constructed to convey partial (i.e., fragmentary) histories of Middle Earth.

    But, you’re right about creativity—it’s well kept in mind that philological reconstruction is a creative act. It’s governed by rules, of course, and there’s a strong deductive element, but our *Proto-Indo-European is as much a work of inspiration and craft as it is science. I think what Tolkien did was in some ways creatively reconstruct—and expand—the fragments and fossils he used, while imagining a lost world with which they were consonant. This is very much what philologists, archaeologists, and historians have to do on a day-to-day basis, though without quite the freedom that the novelist has. I think Tolkien was engaged in a species of historical analysis—of a time and place that never were, but in his mind should have (and on some level must have been, in the sense he felt something ancient and mysterious underlying even the oldest of Old English texts).

    In this sense, you’re right, creating his “fragment” texts, as well as incorporating the “fossils” of things like “Hey Diddle Diddle” allowed Tolkien to creatively anchor his mythos both in time, in the former case, and history in the latter.

    Bill the Heliotrope

  2. I totally agree that the “fragments and fossils” of Tolkien’s world do a great job of grounding his story in our primary reality. I think it’s fascinating how he is able to give both the fragment and the story itself history just from including a version of the fragment in the story- not only does Hey Diddle Diddle have it’s history realized, it is also a part of Middle-earth’s history. By adding these bits and pieces from our primary reality, Tolkien manages to give depth not only to his own stories but to these other stories as well. I think this technique is essential to Tolkien’s goal of writing a fundamentally British story- not only does the story act as Britain’s history, but it manages to fill in the blanks for these other British fragments as well. Tolkien manages to enrich British history through both his own creation and those of others. By enriching different British stories, including his own, he enriches the history and culture of Britain as a whole. The ‘soup’ itself seems to be the best way to do this- by allowing these stories to play off of one another, they are able to enrich one another as well, just like two flavors come together to make the other taste better. -S. Rajan