Welcome, as always. We had intended to go on with our discussion of villains, which looks like it will form a series, but we were distracted for a moment by the following– so more on villains to come.
“This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages, a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from The Red Book of Westmarch, that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit.”
So begins The Lord of the Rings, a novel. But a novel which pretends not to be a novel at all, but, rather, an edited version of a true history of someplace and sometime else: Middle-earth, the Third Age.
It’s hardly a new ploy, to pretend to be only presenting something already written by others. Often, it’s done to deflect attention from the sensitive matter within the novel: de Montesquieu’s criticism of France in Persian Letters or Hawthorne’s use of the theme of adultery in The Scarlet Letter.
The adventures in The Lord of the Rings, or, for that matter, The Hobbit, are hardly controversial, however, so why go through this pretense, we wondered?
As we thought about and discussed this, we came up with a whole series of possible reasons– and none of them necessarily excludes any of the others.
First, and perhaps most obvious, was that being an editor and translator formed a major part of what JRRT did in his academic life. What would seem more natural?
Second, he lived in the academic world of Oxford, among academic friends, who formed a large part of his initial readership, and who themselves could be editors and translators.
Third, based in part on one and two above, it fits into Tolkien’s and the Inklings’ desire to produce more of what they liked to read: an adventure, but in the guise of a “scholarly” work, yet one wholly invented.
Fourth, unlike real scholarly work, this one was not bound– and never would be– by the limits of available knowledge. There is only one Beowulf manuscript, after all. Because the only bounds placed upon the “research” for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were the limits of the author’s imagination, this material was, potentially, endless, and every point within could be infinitely expanded, as we see in the twelve volume edited by Christopher Tolkien. One might imagine that JRRT, frustrated at how little Old English verse there was, felt enormously freed– and, should there be criticism, well, at one level at least, he had no need to respond, not being the author.
This leads, in turn, to a less comfortable idea: suppose JRRT wasn’t completely at ease with his own creation. After all, he was a professor who was spending a great deal of his time and energy fabricating a fictional world rather than doing research and writing about literary/linguistic activities in the actual world of academia. Could this have been a kind of subconscious defense– I am doing scholarship– see?
And then there’s reason five, which one might see as informing, at some level, all of the others. JRRT had been drawn, from childhood, towards stories from Lang’s Fairy Books through the prose and poetry of William Morris. He was also an active literary scholar. By playing editor and creating a second scholarly shell around the primary adventure, he could neatly combine the two halves of his life into one and, in the process, produce works which please reader and scholar alike– and combined.
As always, we ask for your opinion.
Thanks for reading!