Thursday, June 5, 2014

Don't the Great Tales Never End?

Such is Sam’s query, and like the (relatively) learned hobbit he’s become, he cites the tales of Beren Erchamion and of Eärendil to support his point—the connecting thread that is the light of the Silmaril shines through all three stories, and many in between. Given the statements about sub-creation and the supposedly abandoned Pan-Anglican legendarium which we’ve encountered in this story, it is, I think, safe to say that The Lord of the Rings has no “ending,” that if Leo were satisfied by the mass departure from Middle-Earth and Sam’s homecoming (I wasn’t, at his age; I suspected a death-allegory), he would be mistakenly so. It’s open-ended, then, and in a much realer sense than are many explicitly “ambiguous” conclusions (the celebrated television dramas of our time come to mind) because there is, not only something left to be done, but everything, a whole life-age of the world’s worth of action; the phial of Galadriel goes west, but Eärendil the brightest of stars persists, presumably, and inspires the Cynewulf quote at the top of our syllabus.

 In class yesterday, I postulated that sub-creation constituted a continuation of the story, and the response that I got—that we ourselves are in some sense living in the same story, our lives parts of it—was interesting, to say the least. In what sense is it true? Well, in a religious one, first of all—a Catholic one, even, although my grandfather would shudder to hear me say it. But I won’t summarize the lecture; this post is not primarily interested in Lewis’s musings on faith, but rather in the somewhat related ideas about “endings” that Byatt has, and their relevance to a discussion of Tolkien’s ending(s).

 In “Old Tales, New Forms,” she discusses stories that consist entirely of series of endings, or series of beginnings, and chief among these is the Arabian Nights, which, for obvious reasons, strives in some sense towards endlessness. One aspect of The Lord of the Rings which I feel was overlooked in class is the multiplicity, not just of the endings that you can ascribe to the story (Arwen’s death, Aragorn’s death, Celeborn’s departure, Sam’s return home) but of the endings which the book actually presents and recounts in full. Its narrative “arc” (a misnomer if ever there was one) is bizarre—March 25th is an end, the completed scouring is an end, Frodo’s departure is an end. It almost seems, when four in the morning is fast approaching and your eyes are starting to ache and the appendices are still thirty pages distant and you cannot stop, as if the denouement of LotR is an Arabian Nights writ small. In addition, then, to being one tale among many, the book is in some sense many tales unto itself.

The publication history which Carpenter chronicles in “A Big Risk” reinforces the idea—of course, we were all aware that the novel was published in three volumes, but the fact that people were meant to be and are still confused about the actual size of the book, that they did and do believe it to be a trilogy, proves that Tolkien’s magnum opus seems to contain multitudes. Its extraordinary fertility, greater by far than that of any other best-seller, provides similar evidence: even if we are to disregard movies, board and video games, and the like, as Christopher would no doubt have us do, that same Christopher is intimately familiar with all the work that was left to do after the typescript was submitted, and indeed after the book was published (reasonably enough, as his livelihood seems to depend on publishing at regular intervals volume after volume after volume of substantial and entirely novel Tolkieniana, while still withholding things like that Taliska grammar and lexicon which I needed for my project THANKS CHRIS).

This Byattian endlessness is interesting for its own sake, but also for the sake of what it tells us about the form of the rest of The Lord of the Rings. Byatt’s discussion of endings is framed by a discussion of the nature of tales and stories (as opposed to novels), and even the contemporary, novelistic examples she gives are in some way responding to or appropriating elements of the older narrative mode. LotR, as we’ve established and discussed in previous classes, is not exactly a novel either; I recall one lecture where Professor Fulton Brown said (or quoted someone as saying) that Tolkien wasn’t interested in any English literature from Chaucer onward, and while that’s undoubtedly an exaggeration, it’s evident from what we’ve read of his correspondence (recall the letter in which he discusses the “heroic” rhetorical register that he slips into in scenes involving the Rohirrim) that he is (to make a dramatic understatement) substantially influenced by archaic styles and ideas. We’re familiar as well with how important fairy tales (which also feature prominently in Byatt’s piece) are to the creation of the new genre in which LotR participates. Perhaps, then, the reason that LotR doesn’t have a novelistic plot structure towards the “end” is because it isn’t, in many ways, a novel—because it combines entirely original elements with the various influences we’ve discussed through out the year (epic poems, &c.) to form a part of what Tolkien might have thought of as a story, a chapter in an infinite whole that includes the Quenta Silmarillion and much else besides.

--Charlie Bullock


  1. I agree with your classification of Lord of the Rings as a story (in Tolkien’s mind), due to its ‘endlessness’. Like you wrote, this endlessness contributes to the sense of continuation of the story. I would argue that this is due to the fact that our own lives are, in a sense, endless. The sense being that I am not anticipating dying any time soon and none of my projects (in the Sartrean sense) are going to end simultaneously. There will always be some other obstacle (of varying size) to overcome. This is something I believe Tolkien is getting at, at least in part, with the finishing (I can’t call it an end) of The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn and Sam and Arwen and Gimli and Legolas and Merry and Pippin and all the other living characters’ lives are not complete with the finish of the book. Even the characters that leave the Grey Havens on their journey to Valinor are not ended. Valinor is not death. It is not the void. Even the deaths that Tolkien does write about are not the ends of the story. Aragorn and Arwen’s death is not the end. Their story is continued on in their son, who passes along some of the influence that the story had on him to his children, and so on and so forth. The story still grows with us because we are the descendants of the story. And because our lives don’t end with the closing of a book or the slaying of a dragon, our projects, our stories, influence our friends, our family, and (eventually, if you’re so inclined) our progeny.

    -- Peter Alexieff

  2. I think it's also interesting to remember how Tolkien's own corpus allowed for this sort of continued engagement. While The Notion Club Papers don't appear to play with the Valar, or the Maiar as coming back in any capacity, this is an example of something written by Tolkien in which we can say the story has not ended. This moment, in a place of "rational" historical thought also contains a religious transcendence of time, even if that moment is completely lost at the moment. The reader, who would no doubt be aware of The Eagles, of Numenor, and the varying other names that occur, would immediately be thrown back into this question of whether the story has ended or not.

    I think in this way it sort of intersects with this question of a story continuing through our experiences of it. Who's to say that, in the almost-religious moments we have in the emotional connections with those characters, there's nothing deeper connecting them? At the very least, they stay with us in a sense that may not be true of every story with which we interact.

    -Marley-Vincent Lindsey

  3. Your assertion that The Lord of the Rings is not a novel but rather a story is very accurate, but I would only make one slight addition. The Lord of the Rings is importantly a history. As Tolkien said (and is frequently quoted in class), he much prefers history to allegory. Here, I don't want to discuss why didn't like allegory (since this has already been given due attention), but rather why history seemed to be so important for Tolkien.

    As Marley pointed out, this 'story/history'-like style lets Tolkien's secondary reality blend into our own primary reality, and it makes room in his legendarium for further sub-creation and engagement which helps to continue to fill the pages and chapters of this 'infinite whole' of which Tolkien laid the groundwork for all of us in our projects to join in. So too, we are necessarily participating in history by our existence in the primary reality, and each of our own 'ends' does not finish the story just as, in The Lord of the Rings, each characters end is merely the end of a single motive that wove through and affected various parts of his history. This great music continues on to this day, and there still remain pieces in its history to uncover.


  4. Your mention of Chaucer excites me to no end. The similarities between the two abound, from Tolkien's reliance upon forms in many ways contemporary to Chaucer to their underrated senses of humor. However, the most notable similarity between the two is their shared interest in creating distinctly English literary monuments. With their respective magnum opuses (The Canterbury Tales and LOTR), the two men created works of literature that were intended to stand as monuments to both the English language and English culture. The Canterbury Tales were written in the vernacular in a time when latin was the standard tongue for writers and used English to tell tales in the Epic genre (admittedly in addition to farces); Chaucer sought to legitimize the English language and by extension the unique culture of England. As we have seen from Tolkien's own writings, the Legendarium (LOTR in particular) was meant to create a truly English mythology, a mythology that would put English culture in the peership of the classical societies such as Greece and Rome. That the two authors had similar goals with their works begs the question "Is Tolkien a modern Chaucer?" It is nice to talk about whether or not Tolkien's tales will end or not, but it is more interesting still to wonder about how Tolkien's legacy as a writer will hold up. Will scholars 500 years from now look to the Lord of the Rings as the height of English literature and a basis for that literary tradition? Or will Tolkien go the way of Christopher Marlowe and be little more than a footnote in the literary history of English? If Tolkien's legacy doesn't end, than he will surely have achieved his goal.
    - BM McGuire

  5. Endlessness goes in two ways, forwards and backwards. For a good story to immerse the reader, continuity is everything. In fragments of Agatha’s story that are mean to be taken from one continuous words, she often slips in words that lets Byatt’s readers know things they would not know because her book only provides fragments of Agatha’s story, but that listeners of Agatha’s story in Byatt’s world would know, like “Mark was always impetuous” (Babel Tower 315). I could not believe Byatt’s story fully because I did not believe the fragment read to us was truly just a fragment of a larger piece.
    One part of the greatness of the LOTR is that its endlessness does believably go backwards; the mythology and history of Middle Earth that Tolkien had discovered sounds continuous and sound in the LOTR. As LDD points out, the LOTR is meant to be a history, and through the frame of the Red Book of Westmarch Middle Earth is more believable because this makes it endless forwards, we know the world must go on because someone in Middle Earth published the book.
    -Emily Berez

  6. LDD, I like that you brought up that The Lord of the Rings is importantly a history- it reminds me of the famous work by Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History." In Fukuyama's piece, he argued that through the cold war, Westernized liberal democracy basically triumphed as the supreme form of governance and he argued that everything from that point onwards would be progressing towards the established dominant ideology. I think it's a terribly absurd idea that there's any sort of "end" to history. Of course I vastly simplified Fukuyama's point, but I definitely don't think there can be an "end" to history, and our existence within history. I completely agree that it's important to note that Tolkien was in fact treating Lord of the Rings as a work of history, and in that sense I also agree that there can be no end. Sure, America won the Cold War, but on what planet does winning a war mean the rest of the world is going to acquiesce and surrender and become malleable to the winner? I think saying Lord of the Rings has an ending is quite a bit like making this claim. A quick glance at the appendices would say otherwise, and the idea that Tolkien created this to fit into fragments of our own world very much affirms in me the idea that LotR was a piece rather than a whole.


  7. Charlie, thanks for the great post, you treacherous crapweasel. (The Last Alliance picked up the tab for my lembas bill, so because I honor my debts, I address you as they bade me.)

    I think you’re absolutely right about the nature of story, and I was going to bring up the exact point Luke and MBM make: the historicity of Tolkien’s project. It has a lot of the same characteristics real history has, including lacunae and lost works (perhaps including this-worldly De grammaticā Taliscōrum), although perhaps a suspicious consistency that we historians rarely attain in our own attempts to recount wie es eigentlich gewesen.

    Thanks again for the thoughts; I think you’ve got hold of something true. Thanks too for the entertaining drama by plunging the world into Shadow at the Happening…though don’t tell Emma I said that…

  8. Great post, Charlie; this has helped me connect some things throughout the text.

    To continue along the grain of the story not ending, in light of our conversations a line suddenly stood out to me more clearly than ever before. "And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey. Are you coming?", says Bilbo; "Yes, I am coming" responds Frodo, and I say it along with him. Here near on the second to last page, we hear the characters state that they are going on a new journey. I have always wondered, and now more than ever, what are the tales of Frodo upon reaching the "far green country under a swift sunrise." But now I can come to terms with this more. It does not matter what the rest of Frodo's story is, for now it another's turn in the story. Just as Feanor, and Beren, and Earendil, and Gandalf had their part that is now past, and how each of the Ring bearers, Isildur, Smeagol, Bilbo, and Frodo had their part that is now past, it is time for new characters to continue the story.

    "'But the people in them come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later – or sooner" Frodo responds when Sam asks "Don't the great tales never end?" Their part has now ended, and it is our turn to come into the story.

    And yet, in the Christian tradition, we also have comfort in the fact that the entire story will one day be brought to a conclusion and the stories across all time will be able to mingle and create a hole new story.

    ~Brendon M

  9. I think you've hit the nail on the head with this one - essentially, isn't this what the class was about? The endless capacity of Tolkien's world for expansion through sub-creation? I feel like this is an important point - that the story not only progresses linearly, forwards and backward, but also outwards, branching in every direction like a tree; Tolkien's mythology encompasses innumerable fields of thought and theory, and much like the reality of knowledge in our own world, it would be foolish to assume we know, or can know, everything about it. Part of the 'story' of the world is the unknown, and perhaps, unknowable.

    After seeing everyone's projects for this class, the number of angles from which we can explore Lord of the Rings is truly baffling. My own project went down a road I might never have considered for Middle Earth, but yielded a wealth of information, while remaining wide open for new material to be created, or, in a sense, realized.

    I think this is the endlessness of Middle Earth, and of Lord of the Rings - while we can always go back and look at the story laid out before us, a vast number of unopened doors remain, waiting to be explored upon the next reading.