Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Actively Engaged Reader

I’d like to expand further on the notion on our discussion of whether the story ever really ends for us.  More specifically, I’d like to focus more on whether we have control over the merge of the Primary and Secondary world, what this means towards how a story ends, and how our knowledge of particular subjects affects our ability to let the Secondary World become part of the Primary World.

We know from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” that an effective fairy story does not require suspension of disbelief but simply belief; that is, we become so devoted to a story that the Primary World and Secondary World merge together.  If a story ends, is it because this merge has separated, or does the merge separate because the story ends?  We have spent so much time discussing the end of the story today as if it is a passive process (as if the ending occurs despite us) even though we have spent the last quarter engaging in active, often tactile projects to contribute to Tolkien’s “majestic whole”.  By engaging actively in this activity, we are continuing the story for ourselves.  We refuse to allow the story to end because we actively ensure that the merge between Primary and Secondary World does not drift apart.  On one hand, this could mean that the ending of the story for the reader is not the responsibility of the author, as the reader chooses whether he or she will continue to engage. On the other hand, this could also mean that the end of a story is the responsibility of the author (Tolkien’s responsibility) in this case, because the author must develop a secondary reality that encourages the reader to engage after the words on the page have ceased.  Maybe the best summary of this statement is that whether the story ends is both the responsibility of the reader and the author simultaneously – the author to initiate and promote continued engagement with the story, and the reader to constantly seek ways to actively participate.

The breadth of the responsibility of the author is arguably a little bit heftier than that of the reader, as people, being people, are incredibly varied interests and desires.  The author must find some way to appeal to a varied group of individuals to engage them all equally, to encourage them to continue the story. This is certainly one of Tolkien’s great successes – that despite how unique people can be in their likes and dislikes, his works have fascinated a vast audience.  Perhaps he has succeeded in this by appealing to what we appreciate commonly.  This further supported by a converse of appeal to commonality; for example, on Monday, some individuals noted that they didn’t completely connect with the Tolkien’s work because his dogmatic involvement of his religion (forgive me if I have incorrectly summarized what anyone has said and please correct me if I have not quite captured the sentiment).  Perhaps it is too heavy a burden on an author to expect them to appeal to everyone, to be able to engage all readers in continued active reading.  And of course, this ignores the fact that authors are human and tend to have a motive in their works; Tolkien’s was to create a “fundamentally religious” work (Letters 142).  If authors suspend their aim in creating the fairy tale, will it still have a strong purpose?  Does there need to be a message in a fairy story that embodies the beliefs of the author if, as Tolkien says, story-telling is a natural human act that will probably occur inevitably?

From this it clearly stands to reason that while there are factors that allow an author to engage all of his audience, there are also factors that are detrimental to this process.  I wonder where an increase of knowledge fits in this spectrum.  Does knowledge increase the likelihood of an individual to merge the Secondary and Primary World?  I think some would argue no, it actually acts as detriment.  The more a person is aware of the world, the less likely they are to accept something that is in a secondary reality; the more a person knows, the more cynical.  However, this argument illustrates a misunderstanding of how Tolkien expects fairy-tales to function; that is, the author cannot create a world outside of natural law, because that would require suspension of disbelief.  It’s correct to say that a more knowledgeable person would be less likely to suspend disbelief, but as that is not the goal of creating a fairy tale, and not the method by which the Primary and Secondary World merges, it is inaccurate to say more knowledge is detrimental to engaging a fairy tale.  I’d prefer to think that more knowledge actually makes it more likely that a reader will believe a good, effective fairy tale, because they better understand the purpose behind it and appreciate a consistency with the Primary World in better detail.  They can better grasp nuanced topics.  If we employ C.S Lewis’s toolshed analogy, more knowledge simply means we have a wider beam of light to help us see even further along and at everything.

Speaking for myself, I know the knowledge I have gained from this class, has allowed me to better believe Tolkien’s story.  Because of what I have learned, particularly because of an active, academic pursuit to expand Tolkien’s universe with the finals projects, the Primary and Secondary Worlds have merged more permanently for me.  I understand what is required for me to prevent the separation of those two realities, and I, for one, have no intention of letting the story end.
- Kariana Weis


  1. “…authors are human and tend to have a motive in their works; Tolkien’s was to create a “fundamentally religious” work (Letters 142). If authors suspend their aim in creating the fairy tale, will it still have a strong purpose? Does there need to be a message in a fairy story that embodies the beliefs of the author if, as Tolkien says, story-telling is a natural human act that will probably occur inevitably?”

    I think this is a really interesting question to be considering. In fact, since Monday’s class, I have also been reflecting on “On Fairy-Stories,” and wondering about the relationship between Tolkien’s religious beliefs and his thoughts on fairy-stories, especially since his notion of sub-creation is so intimately tied to his views on Christian doctrine. Also, I’m a religious studies minor, and I have been considering Tolkien’s own religious background when looking at his works, but have for the most part disregarded how it fits with my own (I’m Jewish). This makes me wonder, how would Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories change if he were coming from a different religious tradition?

    Also, what do you mean by “better believe” Tolkien’s story? Do you mean you agree with his argument about the relationship between Primary and Secondary worlds?

  2. It's hard to set any kind of definitive parameters for what does and doesn't count as the end of a story for us as readers. Is it when we stop thinking about the world, does it persist via the amount of thought we actually give to it? There are no doubt varying degrees of involvement; I think we can all agree that you don't need to be spending entire quarters on large scale projects to qualify as being "engaged" with a particular story world. And for even the most obsessed among us, I can't imagine anyone spends most of or all of their time thinking about Tolkien or his work. What's the cut off? Is there a cut off? I don't know.
    I agree with your point that additional knowledge invites a kind of cynicism about any given topic, fictional or real. I often find myself experiencing the most enjoyment from a work when I first delve into it, when there is still much unknown to me. I don't question the world because I am still waiting on the answers. Once the answers come though, that is ironically when the intense questioning begins.
    James Mackenzie

  3. I agree that story truly never ends for us the readers. However, I think that is what a fairytale is all about, to create a world that is different from ours but still similar enough for us to believe in it and often want to experience it. I remember a discussion from the beginning of the quarter, Style: Poetry vs. Prose, High vs. Low, Western vs. English, where the class agreed that Tolkien could write in a modern style to connect with his readers, but chose not to in order to add depth and texture to his fantastical world and we came to the conclusion that you can’t sit in your own reality and observe another world. Tolkien does not make his story relevant to the reader in order to put the reader in Middle Earth, but rather to set the reader up as an elf friend in this world. The characters of the Lord of the Rings live on in our minds not because they are disconnected with our world, but we feel a connection to theirs through the context and depth provided in the writings of Tolkien.
    -E. Quintero