Friday, May 9, 2014

When Authors Err

           In an early February, J.K. Rowling admitted that she had made a mistake while writing the final Harry Potter book. In an interview with Emma Watson discussing the Ron & Hermione relationship, Rowling claimed that the Ron & Hermione should not have ended up together, that he couldn’t have made her happy, and that it was only a form of wish fulfillment on Rowling’s part: “I know, I’m sorry, I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.” This is not the first time Rowling has done this. Several years ago, she made a statement claiming Dumbledore was in fact a homosexual, with absolutely no prior connotations within the text. Were these two occasions meaningful attempts to remedy legitimate errors within her initial story or shameless publicity stunts? And in a broader sense, what takes precedent, the text or the commentary?
            I certainly don’t want to compare Tolkien to Rowling (which would be like comparing Gandalf the White to a crippled, half-witted Orc), but I can’t help but thinking Tolkien has done something similar. Several statements he makes in his letters do not seem to line up with the world he established in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. The first of these statements pertains to Gandalf and the Ring: “Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron. He would have remained ‘righteous’, but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great)” (Tolkien, Letter 246).  As discussed in class, power is the ability to bend other wills to your will, and evil (in one sense, there are of course many more) is the intention to do just that. It was also discussed that evil had a malicious component to it, one that Gandalf is undeniably lacking. Why then, should we assume that Gandalf as the Ring-Lord would not only be bad, but would be worse than Sauron? In short, he wouldn’t. The biggest clue here is the parallel between Gandalf and Saruman: “He came and laid his long hand on my arm. “And why not, Gandalf?” he whispered. “Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us. That is in truth why I brought you here. For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe that you know where this precious thing now lies. Is it not so? Or why do the Nine ask for the Shire, and what is your business there?” As he said this a lust which he could not conceal shone suddenly in his eyes” (Tolkien, The Council of Elrond). It’s important to note that Gandalf was given dozens of opportunities to take the ring, and never wanted to. Saruman was given zero opportunities to take it, yet always wanted it. One could argue that Saruman could be worse than Sauron in possession than the one ring, though this can never be determined. Gandalf, on the other hand? Impossible.
            The next statement made by Tolkien seems even less consistent than the previous: “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world” (Tolkien, Letter 183). As an Oxford man, I’m sure Tolkien would appreciate the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word “imaginary” – “existing only in imagination or fancy; having no real existence; not real or actual.” Unless the models built in New Zealand count, Middle Earth is no more imaginary than any other story ever told – it exists solely in our imaginations, and it comes solely from the imagination of JRR Tolkien. I understand Tolkien was attempting to create a mythology for England, comparable to the Norse and Greek mythologies, though that does not make it any less imaginary. More importantly, claiming that Middle-Earth is not imaginary threatens the legitimacy and the internal logic of the world. Attempting to tie it into our world is a daunting task, and I think it’s safe to say it’s one that Tolkien does not achieve. By claiming it is part of our world though not actually tying it in leaves it in an awkward limbo between fiction and non-fiction, one that Tolkien probably wouldn’t want it in.
           Going back to our first example, it seems the most likely that J.K. Rowling was desperate for publicity (apologies if this seems biased, I admit I have a lower opinion of her than most people have of Grima Wormtongue). Tolkien’s motives were most definitely different – these seem to be elaborations (though arguably miscalculations) of a world he had already created. I think it’s fair to say that authors – though more specifically world-builders – have one single shot at creating the world in their image. Once their magnum opus is published, it becomes the gold standard. Everything else is after the fact. The Lord of the Rings created Middle Earth. Any elaborations that add a deeper meaning to the world – from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, are appreciated greatly. Though when contradictions arise, the safest bet is to look back at the original text. Redacting previous statements, claiming the world was not quite as you liked it, and otherwise adding meaning where there was none, is irrelevant. Piling more and more commentary and information that specifically changes the meaning of the initial text can jeopardize the legitimacy of the already established world.

- Luke Morell


Addendum (edited Friday, May 16th)
Monday’s class, Monsters and Critics, adds an interesting take on my post that I would like to touch up on. We briefly discussed what happens when authors as their own critics and the effect that has on their work. 
Here I would like to outline two different types of self-criticism, one being “constructive,” and the other being “destructive.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s criticism of his own work was overwhelmingly constructive: he provided answers to questions that his works, for one reason or another, failed to answer. While this generally serves the purpose of embellishing the world he created, it also runs the risk of killing discussion, intrigue, and mysticism (Dan and I had a nice discussion of this in the comments section).
J.K. Rowling’s criticism, on the other hand, was nothing but destructive. She admitted that she shouldn’t have done one thing or another, causing the audience to question whether or not the other decisions she made in her storytelling were valid. This form of criticism is one that should be avoided, as it does nothing but damage to the original work.

14 comments:

  1. Interestingly, Tolkien never (to my knowledge) described what he was writing as "fiction." "Fantasy," yes, but not "fiction." To me, this speaks directly to his concern with the different roles of philology and literature studies: creating an asterisk possibility vs. creating a wholly independent vision. RLFB

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    1. Thank you so much for your feedback. I was always under the impression that "fantasy" was a subset of "fiction" though perhaps I am mistaken - is it not as clear cut as that?
      -LMM

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    2. Well, yes, generically "fantasy" is "fiction," but I think that Tolkien is thinking in more specific terms, along a spectrum from Scripture to Mythology to Fantasy to Literature, with Fantasy closest to Fairy Tales. "Literature" is something critics study (which many critics insist the LotR is not!), whereas exegetes study Scripture and folklorists study Mythology. Tolkien seems to me to be trying to situate his works closer to Mythology than Literature, which is why he doesn't talk about his works as "fiction." RFLB

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    3. Professor - I’m not quite sure I agree with the spectrum you outline above. I see (and please correct me if I’m wrong) literature as an all encompassing umbrella that includes both fiction and non-fiction, and that there’s a spectrum within the fiction sector based on the realism of the work (basically historical-fiction stories being closest to the non-fiction branch and complete fantasies being the furthest).

      That being said I think it’s such a shame some critics don’t consider LotR to be literature - it has more literary merit than anything those close-minded critics could ever hope to write.

      -LMM

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    4. Let me try again: certainly, we can use "literature" to refer to all different kinds of writings (stories, history, myths, poems, scientific writing), but just as we use the word "Scripture" (the capitalization is significant) to refer to a particular group or class of writings that (because they are Scripture) are believed to make certain kinds of demands on the reader, so "Literature" (again, note capitalization) is the word typically used to suggest critically a certain class of writings that we read for the purposes of...well, what? This is the question that the English departments have been arguing for several academic generations now: what belongs in the canon of Literature? What counts in the way that we credit "Literature"? Historians have argued that history partakes of the kinds of story-telling (a.k.a. rhetoric) typically assigned to Literature (see Hayden White, who used Northrop Frye's categories from Anatomy of Criticism that I mentioned in class), but typically Literature has been taken to mean a certain kind of fictional story-telling distinct from History. Mythology (again, note capitalization) exists in a sort of middle-ground between Scripture and Literature in respect to the kinds of demands it is believed to make on its readers. RLFB

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  2. Approaching your post somewhat obliquely, I think assigning blame to authors for retroactively commenting on details of their work may be less productive than considering what about the nature of their creative process could motivate such an impulse. Again, the fact that Tolkien is operating within the genre of fantasy is key. In “The Child and The Shadow,” Le Guin discusses the extent to which “The great fantasies, myths and tales...speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious–symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter” (57). This need not mean that words don’t matter; we’ve already read Le Guin’s impassioned defense of the primacy of style, and Tolkien certainly put extensive thought into the importance of words. It is critical, however, to recognize that fantasy itself is committed to the project of transmitting unconscious thought and feeling from author to reader through the medium of language. Tolkien himself recognized the inherent instability of language–that part of its beauty rests on its capacity for conveying more than discrete, isolable meanings. Language and ideas have no simple, 1:1 relationship. This is not to say that an author’s commentary years after the publication of a written work should obligate a reader to recalibrate entirely her relationship to a beloved and familiar story. Rather, I think such commentary speaks to a reasonable authorial impulse to continue to work with language, turning over new permutations and possibilities. Calling for an artistic gag order seems to stem more from a reader’s potential feelings of frustration or disorientation at being privy to these musings than out of necessity because of their inherently destructive impact on the original work.


    --Ariadne

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    1. Ariadne - thanks so much for your comments. I think an author’s commentary necessarily obligates a reader to recalibrate his or her relationship to a story, but can often compel a reader to do so, which I’m not sure is always the author’s intention.

      And I agree that author’s have an impulse to continue working with language, though I don’t see why this doesn’t cause them to write a new, different story, which seems to be a more fruitful endeavor.

      -LMM

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  3. I worry that in your remarks on Tolkien's insistence that Middle Earth was not imaginary that your criticism rests on the fact that you don't think Tolkien succeeded in his purpose, but does that mean that the impulse behind it was somehow misguided? Along a slightly different tact, Tolkien obviously knew that he was on some level creating the world of the LotR. Given this, might he mean something different by the word imaginary than we might suppose at first glance?

    On your first point, I'm unsure it's as clear cut as you suggest. I think the example of Galadriel is especially illuminating on this point. She seems to recognize that possession of the ring would make her quite terrible, does Gandalf not recognize this himself? Is this not why he refuses to take the ring, because he's aware of the horror that would result?

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    1. Hey Dan - thanks so much for the feedback.

      Hopefully I’m not stepping on any land-mines here, but I think it’s safe to say that Tolkien did not succeed in his purpose of creating Middle Earth as a non-imaginary world. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean he was misguided in his efforts - I guess it comes down to what he meant by ‘imaginary.' In his published works he always seemed to take great care in his word choice, and I don’t see why that would change in his letters. Any idea what the implications of this might be? Because I think Tolkien would still believe a mythology to be imaginary. Though I could be completely wrong on that point.

      And as for my first point I completely agree that it’s not very clear cut - The Lord of the Rings opens up some interesting questions as to whether or not Gandalf would be worse than Sauron with the ring. I like that these are questions that the book doesn’t answer, so readers can discuss the implications without having a clear cut answer. Tolkien’s commentary essentially kills that discussion by providing an answer to a question that was seemingly open to the interpretation of the reader.

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  4. Yes, we did discuss the malicious component to evil acts, but I think ultimately discarded it following a discussion of Tolkien's very words on Gandalf that you quote. Malice may be present in evil, but I think we eventually concluded it's neither necessary nor sufficient to identify evil. The ultimately evil is in impeding others' free will, in imposing your will onto others and depriving them of the opportunity to choose other than your will.

    This is an act of domination, and so it's maybe reasonable that the examples that come most easily to mind are ones of malice (especially when we're talking about the Lord of the Rings). Sauron and "Sharkey" are not out for the common good, but are dominating for their own ends. It is, as you say, malicious. But Tolkien's point is that "evil" can be concealed in a fair face -- and even in fair intentions. This is not absent from Legendarium, and is not a new revision he introduces only in his letters. Gandalf, too, is a fair face and has fair intentions, but with the Ring he would be made evil because he would dominate. He would grow, from counselor and ally of the peoples of Middle-Earth to their explicit chess master, arranging the pieces. And Gandalf with the Ring is worse perhaps not just because he would be so "self-righteous," but perhaps also because so many might even willingly submit to this domination, since, you know, Gandalf is a pretty smart guy and we trust him. But ultimately he would with the Ring still deprive us of choice, of our capacity to assert that we might know better what is best for ourselves.

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  5. To play devil’s advocate to your argument that Middle-Earth is an imaginary world and is not real, what makes the stories told in our history books real? You may say, well those things really happened. My initial response will be that you have no proof of that any more so than you have proof that Lord of the Rings didn’t happen. I’m sorry if this argument sounds a bit like Luna Lovegood’s defense of bizarre magical creatures and phenomena. (That is a reference to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. You may not have caught such a base reference, but as JK Rowling inspired an entire generation of children to return to reading, I advise you to reconsider her abilities. She may not have the eloquence of other authors, but if she can manage to enchant millions, there must be something she is doing correctly.)
    But let’s jump beyond that. Let’s say that the things being described in the history books really did happen. But history books have been changed over the years. Things that we thought were true, things that we thought were factual history, have been changed. So was that previous history imaginary? It must have been, at least in part. So then, it’s logical that some part about the current story in the history book is nonfactual and thus imaginary, as it is, using your definition found in OED “having no real existence; not real or actual.” We cannot ever truly know history, even if we were present. So if our own history is imaginary, and Tolkien’s world is imaginary, then aren’t they on the same level? I don’t see why Tolkien’s world has to be any less real than the one described in history books. Both are accounts written by men, telling a story of something that happened at some period in the past.
    I’m sure I sound slightly insane here and slightly conspiracy theory-esque, but you just seem to dismiss Tolkien’s creation of a non-imaginary world a little too quickly. There is more to it than a simple cut and dry answer.
    -N. Lurquin

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  6. In your argument, you are quite insistent that The Lord of the Rings forms the primary canonical text for Middle Earth. However, I find I must question what you would consider “the original text.” The Middle-earth presented by The Hobbit is not quite the same as the Middle-earth in The Lord of Rings (even Tolkien notes and regrets the differences in style and tone). Yet The Hobbit was published first and is undeniably the foundational text, since it sets the premise for the entire trilogy. Does that mean that the Middle-earth presented in Lord of the Rings is wrong because it differs from the one presented in The Hobbit? Even more damningly, what do you make of the fact that Tolkien revised The Hobbit (even after it was published), to fit the plot of The Lord of the Rings? You claim that “redacting previous statements, claiming the world was not quite as you liked it, and otherwise adding meaning where there was none, is irrelevant,” yet in stating that “The Lord of the Rings created Middle Earth,” you are implicitly accepting the changes Tolkien has made to his universe. I think, in this respect at least, Tolkien is far more guilty than most authors (including Rowling), of retconning his own writing. Whereas most authors talk about changes they wish they could have made, Tolkien actually made those changes.

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