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.