Friday, April 11, 2014

The Author in the Work

            The works of Tolkien are a body of work which, even more than most, seem in some way inseparable from their creator. While one could easily argue that any author puts something of themselves in their writing, it seems that in some peculiar way Tolkien has gone a step further, and is worked more inextricably into his story than most. On the very first page of The Lord of the Rings, almost the first text in the book, is two lines of Tengwar, which translated read of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth the history of-the War of-the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the hobbits.” While this is by far the most obvious way in which Tolkien has worked himself into his secondary reality, the more one reads of Tolkien’s works (especially those distinct from The Lord of the Rings itself) and private writings the more clear it becomes that Tolkien may have come into his stories in more subtle ways.

            Many elements of Tolkien’s stories seem to bear direct or indirect resemblance to elements of Tolkien’s own life. This is especially true of the opening chapters of The Lost Road, the protagonist of which, a man named Albion, seems to share many characteristics with Tolkien himself. Even at an early age Alboin displays an intense interest in languages, and as a young man studies many of the same languages that Tolkien himself studied at that age, and which proved so formative for the languages that he created throughout his life. These same languages, which Tolkien often refers to as something he has been working on as long as he can remember are also something which connects him to Albion, who spends most of his life developing a language which he refers to as Elf-Latin, or Eressëan. Similarly, the process by which Alboin uncovers this language (and it does seem to be an uncovering, rather than an inventing) resembles quite closely the process which Tolkien describes in many of his letters. He often describes his stories as coming to him as if they already existed, and it was his task simply to put the pieces together—exactly what Alboin is shown to do. Specifically, Alboin draws these stories and languages from his dreams, which are a recurring theme in Tolkien’s works and feature prominently not only in The Lost Road but in The Notion Club Papers as well. Moreover given the frequency with which Tolkien mentions the impact on his stories of his unconscious (again the footnote regarding the creation of the ents comes to mind) it is worth considering that dreams may have had a similar significance for Tolkien. In fact, we know of at least one example from Tolkien’s letters of a recurring dream, the image of a towering wave, which was the initial inspiration for his story of the fall of Númenor.

            Having noted this many similarities between Tolkien and his character Albion, it is difficult not to consider to what extent Tolkien’s works may be autobiographical, or how much he has (either consciously or unconsciously) written himself not only into the outer framework of the stories but into their very substance. While these similarities may be the most obvious based on the material mentioned so far, there are other similarities which have been touched on. For example, one might note the similarity between the father-son relationships of Alboin and Audoin and of JRR Tolkien and his son Christopher, who shared his father’s dream of the great wave and who has continued his father’s work for many years. In the case of Albion, Christopher even notes in his annotations of the story that the character bears a striking, nearly autobiographical resemblance to his father. Elements of Tolkien’s life seem to have worked their way into The Lord of the Rings as well, as Tolkien mentions in his letters giving Faramir the same dream which he and his son shared, and as in one letter that he wrote he describes himself as “a Hobbit (in all but size).” (letter 213, Letters)

            As tempting as it may be, however, to take this approach and examine in what ways Tolkien’s life, experiences, and dispositions have shaped the world or taken on autobiographical tones, one must also consider how appropriate of a reading this is of the works. One the one hand, as we have discussed there seems to be a very real way in which Tolkien himself is an Elf Friend as much as Frodo or Alboin. In this way just like other elf friends of note Tolkien is not merely story teller or medium, but simultaneously the framing device and a crucial part of the story itself. As Verlyn Flieger says in her essay “The Footsteps of Ӕlfwine,” “by this time the ‘book’ as such, and the elf-friend character(s) are no longer a simple frame. Not only are they deeply woven into the fabric of the story, they have in fact become the story.” (p 194, Tolkien’s Legendarium)

            From this perspective then, it is clear that the impact of Tolkien’s “character,” so to speak, is just as significant as that of Frodo or any other elf friend. To ignore it seems frankly ridiculous. However, in a letter to Deborah Webster, written in 1958 Tolkien expresses quite the opposite opinion.

I do not like giving 'facts' about myself other than 'dry' ones (which anyway are quite as relevant to my books as any other more Juicy details). Not simply for personal reasons; but also because I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author's works (if the works are in fact worthy of attention), and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one's guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author's works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called 'psychologists'. (Letter 213, Letters)

Faced with these two opposing ideas about the significance of the author in interpretation of the work, the reader is then left to their own devices and considerations. While reading Tolkien’s writings on languages and dreams, both in his stories and in his own life, it is made excessively clear that there are many connections between Tolkien’s stories and his experiences and tastes. However, it is still unclear what if anything this says about the stories themselves, or how they should be read. The role of the author in their creation is then something which any devoted reader of Tolkien must carefully consider, especially if they intend to follow the path of the sub-creator and become an author in their own right.



  1. Dear EF,

    Thanks for an engaging and insightful (though ultimately unsatisfying!) post. You nicely raised the theme of Tolkien’s inclusion and role within the framing device (both for LoTR and the Hobbit, actually). In this way, “Tolkien has worked himself into his secondary reality.” (Does “Leaf by Niggle” also hint at Tolkien’s desire to enter his subcreation?)

    To substantiate this theme, you nicely supply the parallels between Alboin and young Tolkien, and the repeated recurrent dream (Tolkien, Alboin, Faramir, Christopher).

    From these parallels you then moved to the question of whether Tolkien’s works might be ‘autobiographical.’ (However, is ‘autobiographical’ really the only way to describe Tolkien’s hints at self-inclusion within his worlds? There is something of “autobiographical resemblance,” but are there no other ways to name this similarity than ‘autobiography?’)

    After building the case for the biographical links to his fiction, you nicely set up the tension: Tolkien himself disavowed such readings (in Letter 213).

    But the lack of (attempts at) resolution, then, is why this reader found your ending unsatisfying. After so nicely building up an (apparent?) conflict between Tolkien’s denials and the evident links to his biography, there is no resolution, suggested or implied. You wrote: “Faced with these two opposing ideas about the significance of the author in interpretation of the work, the reader is then left to their own devices and considerations.”

    I recognize you may not have the answer at hand, or many not have time to develop it. But please come up with ideas, hypotheses, or suggested directions or unlikely directions. Leaving the problem (that you so careful constructed) to the ‘readers’ own devices’ is unsatisfying because it seems to amount to shrugging one’s shoulders and dismissing the question. (Or did I misunderstand something?)

    Commenters! Can you help us?

    ~Robert / Radegundus the Green

  2. Frankly, I agree with the OP's confusion. It seems extremely obvious to me that Alboin IS Tolkien and his son IS Christopher. This is not a matter of inferring metaphors, this is about as clear as it gets. However, in the Letters, Tolkien implies that he generally does not insert himself into his stories--knowing Tolkien's own life story will not help readers understand his works any better. This doesn't make much sense when looking at The Lost Road--it is clearly referencing Tolkien's life. In LOTR, though, and other fairy stories, it does make more sense. He outright states that readers who think he is Gandalf are misguided, and I believe he implies therefore that he is not any character in the story. I argue that all of Tolkien's works cannot be taken as a single work to which all of the same rules apply. Just because he places himself as Alboin, that doesn't mean that he must also insert himself into the Lord of the Rings or Farmer Giles or anything else.

    Anna M

  3. I think you have outlined a most common difficulty one encounters when reading Tolkien not just as a random stroller through his meticulously-constructed and poetic universe but as a careful reader wishing to approach his work the way he wishes one to. Both his literary creative process (In Notion Club Papers, Lowdham repeatedly dreams of Numenor through its language, which is reflective of Tolkien’s own creative attitude--viewing his legendarium as a gradual discovery or revelation, based on language, rather than invention) and his personal life (Beren and Luthien are reminiscent of himself and Edith.) in the primary world are transfered into his secondary world somehow, yet we cannot simplistically call the latter “autobiographical”. I suspect that Tolkien would hate having his work deemed “autobiographical” as much as, if not more than, “allegorical”. Indeed it is a long-standing concern among authors to be considered not for the universal value in one’s works but for the personal experiences that allegedly produced them.

    I think your point on Tolkien being an Elf-friend could be elaborated to address this difficulty. To Tolkien, the relationship between the primary world and the secondary world is not simply that of projection. Their boundary is blurred. For example, the boundary between the secondary world (Lowdham’s works) within a secondary reality (The Notion Club)--shall we call it a tertiary world--and the secondary world is so indefinite that Akallabeth in the first coincides with a storm in the second. The Elf-friends thus serve as a bridge, not by projecting their experiences of one world into the other but by being simultaneously inside both. Therefore his experiences in both worlds must converge. For by projection we imply that one is less real than the other, while to Tolkien this is clearly untrue.

    Sophie Zhuang