Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Creation as Interaction

One of the parts I found most compelling about the readings for this week was Tolkien’s emphasis on the interactive nature of creation, and how, in his letters, he seems certain that unless he is able to publish an interactive mythology for England, his creation was incomplete. This desire to produce something interactive drives Tolkien’s methodological concerns, distinct from his artistic ones. In order to make this creation, this mythology, as interactive, complex, and meaningful as the outside world, Tolkien scatters fragments of multiple realities throughout his works. Interacting with references to Beowulf and points of English history gives the reader a chance to move through three realities: the reality of human history, the reality presented in secondary literature such as Beowulf, and the reality of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The reality of Middle-earth connects the reader to both his or her own history (the history of humanity) and literary history by claiming it all as one and the same. This method of using elements of multiple “realities” creates consistency between the conflicting worlds of fantasy and reality by claiming that fragments of myths, scattered throughout human and literary history, all in fact point to a larger mythical framework.

Increasing the scope of the mythical framework to include both literary and human-historical elements ultimately makes Tolkien’s world more interactive by giving those journeying into Middle Earth multiple vantage points from which to reference the events that unfold in this world. This framework also invites the reader into the story to interact with it. Sam illustrates this point when he connects his and Frodo’s tale to a larger framework of stories as he realizes that, “Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it - and the Silmaril went and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got - you’ve got some of the light in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?” (697). This is the culmination of Sam’s fascination with stories, beginning with the exposition of the story. He only gets involved with Frodo’s quest due to his desire to hear more about the Elves and the stories that Gandalf was telling Frodo. Through this desire to listen and know more about their story, Sam becomes a part of the story. In other words, his fascination with stories in turn leads him to interact with them, increasing his own understanding of his place, situated in this world of stories. After he becomes aware of his and Frodo’s part in the stories he had been told throughout his life, he additionally notes that, “I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards” (697).

It’s by musing on the significance of their own story within the greater framework of the history of Middle-earth that Sam is able to truly understand the tales that he had learned in childhood, from Gandalf, or even from Tom Bombadil. He muses on good and evil and who will be the heroes and villains in their own story. He separates tales that rely on suspense and the pursuit of danger with tales that “really mattered” (696), which touches on the point we discussed in class about Tolkien’s pursuit of a specific kind of truth, one that speaks to the endurance and resourcefulness of the spirit. Sam ultimately is only able to ponder these questions of what makes a story or hero truly “matter” once he interacts with the story.

Sam and the reader share a similar position in that through joining Frodo’s quest or entering Middle-earth, one must move between one reality, of stories, and their established world: the primary world for the reader and the Shire for Sam. However, in both cases meaning is derived by interactions with the story. Tolkien’s mythology is so complete that the reader is drawn in to continue in the tradition of Frodo and Sam. In the same way that Sam is able to increase his understanding of his own situation after realizing his place in the stories, the reader is invited by the nature of the complexity of Tolkien's mythology to muse on the ways that Middle-earth is connected to the primary world, the forces of good and evil, as well the reader's own role in the story. Who are the heroes in our current story? Who are the villains? Sam presents the difference between stories that truly matter and stories with hollow themes as objective, which is helpful to speculate about, but for the reader, stories are meaningful in their contribution to Tolkien's world as a whole, not just in their themes about resilience. Without these stories and fragments to create a framework of references to different threads of reality, Tolkien's world would lose a large portion of its interactive quality, which would make it all the harder to derive meaning from it.



  1. I definitely agree that a large portion of what makes Middle Earth feel so real is the stories and mythos that exist beyond the pages of LoTR and the Hobbit, and that connecting these to the stories and histories that the reader may already be familiar with helps to increase their immersion in Tolkien's world. However, I'm not sure if Tolkien would agree that stories like Beowulf inhabit another world in the same way he would say LoTR does. While our myths do have elements of fantasy in them, they are still myths of our world, whereas Middle Earth, as familiar as it is in some respects, is very much not our world and has its own myths. This isn't to say that you're wrong to think that they could be (Tolkien isn't always super clear about this side of his thinking), but it seems as though the act of subcreation for something like LoTR and the act of subcreating Beowulf are very different acts. One is a myth in our world, whereas LoTR is debatably an entire mythology of its own.

  2. I like the way you are wrestling with the interactive claims that Tolkien makes for stories, but I am less clear how you think he means for us to interact with the stories ourselves. We know he did not like "allegory," so he must mean some other kind of interaction. Thoughts? RLFB