Friday, June 6, 2014

Stories Live On After Us

We have spent a quarter immersed in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, populated by hobbits, orcs, dwarves, elves, and wizards, and now our journey has come to an end. In class, we discussed the meaning of an end to something, and the different ways we can think of the end. Some people said there never is an end - the stories have stayed with them and become a part of who they are and the fabric of their everyday lives. Some said something has ended, but the end is an opportunity to a new beginning - a new reading and a new experience. Still others pointed out that if anything ends, it would be us. The stories are immortal, but we are not. As A.S. Byatt said in "Old Tales, New Forms": "At one point my heroine (who has an Alice-in-Wonderland English empirical stubbornness) realizes that both the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus and the Djinn are more real than she herself, in her mortal and fragile body. More people have known and have believed in the goddess than will ever believe in her....I understood that the tales had power because they were alive everywhere. A myth derives force from its endless repeatability." (132) 

This is the end of our class on hobbits and elves, but it is by no means the end of the tales themselves. They have existed long before us and will exist even when we're gone. As Byatt and Professor Fulton-Brown said in class, it is the young who often feel immortal, while the aging become more and more aware of the fact that we are mortal and in human affairs there is always an end. An end is hard to deal with even for a grown-up. In A Whistling Woman, though the adults acted slightly better than the kids at Agatha's end to the story, they still felt shocked and affronted. Frederica withdrew into her defenses when she thought her love affair was nearing an end. When Leo decries that Agatha's ending isn't a "real end," Frederica replies, "What's a real end? It is always the end that is the most unreal bit..." While stories live on in their infinite repeatability, they do end in the sense that stories do not literally go on forever. What do we do when a story has ended? 

Byatt's title "Old Tales, New Forms" is one answer. To tell and retell a story is to make it immortal. Byatt says, “The pleasure of writing was in...a sense that I was myself partaking in the continuity of the tales by retelling them in a new context in a way old and new.” (131) Stories outlive any single person. They are bigger than anyone, even the author. In contrasting modern novels and stories, the Cardinal in Blixen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” says, “It [the novel] is a noble art, a great earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. The human characters came on the sixth day only and the day of judgment will be the end of the story.” (133) To tell and retell a story is to make it immortal, and it is also to engage in the sub-creation of something bigger than us. Byatt said that storytelling has a lot to do with death and biologic time; perhaps storytelling allows human beings, who are mortal, to be immortal. 

As sub-creators who carry on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in our own projects, then, we are engaging in something important. The readings assigned for our last class are themselves examples of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work being carried out after his death, and into new contexts and wider horizons. A.S. Byatt in Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman writes a story within a story. Frederica reads The Hobbit to her son Leo, and Agatha tells a story within Byatt’s story. They are stories of storytelling. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is also a story about storytelling. Tolkien did not create his stories - he transmitted the stories of the hobbits, of the elves, of Middle Earth. His stories are bigger than us because they are not just about humans. Unlike the modern novel, it’s not about psychology, it’s not even about people. Stories have existed before the individual existed. As the Cardinal says, “‘Madame, I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water. You will see the characters of the true story clearly, as if luminous and on a higher plane, and at the same time they may not look quite human, and you may well be a little afraid of them. That is all in the order of things...” (133) Critics who criticize Tolkien for writing a fairytale, or for not developing the psyche of a character, are not looking at the stories that came before the modern novel and their importance in the world. In the Happening within Babel Tower and in our own Happening as well, we are sub-creators engaging in the creative act through which we have built our world. At the end of our journey we are reminded of the beginning, where we opened up with Tolkien’s Mythopoeia: 

Man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined 
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled 
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build 
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seeds of dragons, ‘twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.



  1. It is fitting that our last discussion is about what happens to a story when you reach its end. As most of our class seemed to agree, stories do not end when we reach the last words of its telling. The story of Middle Earth does not end even though you have read every bit of literature regarding it. What end is there? For the departure of Frodo from Middle Earth is an end but not THE end. Nor is Aragorn's passing or any number of other events recorded in the Silmarillion. The story keeps on going, and it keeps on being retold. Indeed, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is merely a continuation of stories that came before it. The Lord of the Rings is the continuation of the English myths and fables that, though uncommon in their retelling, never ended.

  2. “There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending.”
    ― Brandon Sanderson, A Memory of Light

    I really appreciate that Tolkien does not just wrap up all the loose ends and say "that was the story, folks!" That would not do LoTR justice, stripping it from the context of its history and its future. But that does not mean that we must refrain from mourning the closing of the book. Death is still death, though it be succeeded by Life. I sympathize acutely with the children's complaint that they're not satisfied by the ending...because a good ending is almost always a good beginning to something else, and it's a shame that that something else may not exist! This should motivate, in my opinion, further subcreation by engaging the story with the before and the after. Otherwise we only have the one, "mortal" piece of creation which is our life, or LoTR, or any story--when really, the effects of each can be so much more. It takes that effort to make "an" ending not "the" ending.

  3. I though your quote from Blixen was very interesting, but I don’t think I agree with it, and I’m not sure if Tolkien would either. I would like to propose instead C. S. Lewis’s ending of The Last Battle: “All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

    I think that this is not an unreasonable way to think of men in Tolkien’s world. We are told in the Silmarillion that “of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur; whereas Ilúvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World’s end” (The Silmarillion chapter 1). The story does not end for men when they die but rather it will continue with the second music, which we can only suppose will tell an even better story than the first music.

    For elves, though, this might be different. Although we tend to think of men as mortal and elves as immortal, we know that men will live on in the second music. The elves fate, however, we know not. Perhaps, then, the stories of the elves will outlive them, and make them immortal beyond the end of Arda Marred.

    Elaina Wood

  4. I like this post a lot, primarily because of what seems important to you about endings, or rather, not endings. You seem most interested in the idea that stories continue on because we sub-create within them. I think this was very important to Tolkien as well. Beyond just telling a story about storytelling, he said over and over that he wanted to create a mythology for England, a Legendarium. As he says in one of his letters, he is worried that he wasn’t successful, but it seems that he was. As you point out, many authors have directly added to the mythology he created. Christopher has added to the published stories, and has published many notes and drafts. In this way, I think Tolkien was successful, he just never got to see it. Your way of saying endings don’t happen because sub creation continues fits in very well with mythology. In other mythologies, stories are continuously added, and the entire cycle of stories benefits. Therefore for Tolkien’s stories, his goal of a mythology will always be accomplished, and the tales will never end as long as others continue to add to the cycle.

  5. Dear JF,
    Thanks for your post meditating on endings or rather ongoings, for as you point out, the stories live on after us and in a way, are more lasting and real than we. The commenters here have also added to this theme nicely.

    Your post made me wonder then about our role as readers or auditors of the stories. How may we leave our mark on the stories that came before and will live after us? Does our subcreative role within and through the stories entail a certain responsibility? According to motifs of discussion and of your post, can we even say, somehow, that it is with the stories themselves that we must somehow keep faith?

    Your phrase at the end of your post struck a cord with me (‘at the end of the journey…’). Tolkien himself seemed adverse to neat endings, but where ultimately would the ending lie? We have the beginning in the Ainulindale of creation. We get hints and suggestions about the ending of Arda through Tolkien’s work. Aragorn's oath "tenn' Ambar metta" (until the end of the world), Niggle's end into the mountains, Finrod's guess at the re-making (&c) - all point to a definite end/new beginning. What can we surmise about Tolkien’s eschatology, or view of what theologians call ‘end times’ or ‘last things’? Can we find an eschatology in Tolkien and how would this mirror the harmonious beginning?

  6. The talk about stories outlasting the human tellers is quite unsettling. Perhaps it points to the smallness and passing nature of the minor stories of each individual human being, which fall within The Story that began at Creation and will end at the End. Each human act and subcreates and makes in their time, creating their own story within the story, but each of these passes while The Story goes on.