A Response to Caitlin Eha William James Rankin | Sewanee University
Language enables our own introspection, argument and our discourse on Tolkien’s equipping us with the sense necessary to enchanting fiction, bringing her theories define ourselves, as well as our community. full circle. The power of words dwindles under the vocif- Eha asserts that originality is the key to the erous debates consuming today’s rhetoric. It is appeal of Tolkien’s fiction. She says, “When refreshing to turn to Tolkien’s rhetoric: he writing in the fantasy genre, the writer must built his life around language’s essential role create a story-world that feels unfamiliar to in human understanding. It impassioned him the reader—otherwise, the world would be from a very early age. He revered the power of merely a slight alteration of the world readers words—it was sacred to him, and he upholds experience every day, thereby defeating the this power in his own work. Caitlin Eha’s purpose of the genre” (113). She then argues article “One World to Rule Them All: How for Tolkien’s originality and centers on the J.R.R. Tolkien used Original Intertext to notion of intertextuality, which she sees as Create Middle-earth” (YSW vol. 13, 2016) counter to originality. She theorizes that examines the creative strategies Tolkien Tolkien uses his own system of “intertextual- employs in his fiction. She insightfully ity that is confined to [his] works alone” (114), explores the relationship between our under- calling this concept “original intertext”: standing of the physical world and the “Whereas intertextuality speaks to the rela- manifestation of imaginary worlds, using tionship among the works of various Tolkien’s Middle-earth as the example. In authors… original intertext states that a simi- doing so, she analyzes Tolkien’s stories as sub- lar relationship exists among works by the same ordinate to the development of Middle-earth, author…. To use original intertext is to draw in some ways overlooking the significance of on one’s own creations… to give intertextual the individual stories themselves—Middle- support to another of one’s creations” (114). earth’s existence precisely in a specific mass of From Eha’s perspective outside Tolkien’s words—leading to some shortcomings in her fiction looking inward, that which is “for- analysis. Tolkien himself declares, “It is pre- eign” about Middle-earth is the important cisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the part. But from a perspective grounded in unclassifiable individual details of a story, and Middle-earth, in the stories which take above all the general purport that informs place there, what do we see? Middle-earth with life the undissected bones of the plot, actually participates in its own larger liter- that really count” (“On Fairy-Stories” 119– ary tradition. For his fiction’s material, 120). Incorporating due respect to the Tolkien undeniably pulled from ancient individual story would enhance Eha’s sources such as “The Wanderer,” “The
124 | Young Scholars in Writing Ruin,” “Widsith,” “The Battle of Maldon,” and cloud; their personality they get Beowulf, Norse mythology, The Kalevala— direct from him; the shadow or flicker the list goes on. Much literary scholarship of divinity that is upon them they analyzes the influence such works had on receive through him from the invisible his fiction. But to reuse materials from other world, the Supernatural. (“On Fairy- authors is not to rely on them. Stories” 123) Tolkien envisioned using his knowledge as a philologist to create a mythology for Tolkien’s stories in Middle-earth are, sim- England, his homeland.1 He would do this ply put, fairy-tales given epic, mythological by uncovering the lost mythology of the proportions. That which Tolkien deems region, the stories told there throughout his- “indescribable, though not imperceptible” tory in many languages. A mythology is not (“On Fairy-Stories” 114), that which drives one story, but a collection of stories attempt- our imagination and our sense of virtue, is the ing to explain certain realities in their own Supernatural; the Supernatural manifests as ways. This would mean Tolkien incorporat- the Mystical in fairy-stories and as the Divine ing stories he encountered in his philology, in myth; and in Middle-earth, the Mystical such as those listed above, into a new style precedes our knowledge of the Divine. more compatible with the present civiliza- Though the concerns of the Ainur and the tion. For Tolkien, the sheer wonderment Valar align with the characters of The Lord of and applicability of mythology is inextrica- the Rings, Tolkien tells the battle between bly tied to the human imagination: good and evil from the perspective of the The nearer the so-called ‘nature-myth’, characters, who seem caught up in the celes- or allegory of the large processes of tial battle, always doing things because they nature, is to its supposed archetype [the must—but not necessarily understanding natural element which it symbolizes], why they must or why Sauron wants to per- the less interesting it is, and indeed the petuate suffering. less is it of a myth capable of throwing And in Tolkien’s writings, the deities any illumination whatever on the reflect conditions of morality which deter- world. Let us assume for the moment, mine the natural elements they create in as this theory assumes, that nothing Middle-earth, which echoes mythological actually exists corresponding to the explanations of nature. But in “On Fairy- ‘gods’ of mythology: no personalities, Stories,” Tolkien applies what he deems to only astronomical or meteorological be the most important quality of fairy-sto- objects. Then these natural objects can ries, the Magical, to the mythic sense of only be arrayed with a personal signifi- nature (125). It bestows everything natural cance and glory by a gift, the gift of a independently with a personality, not just person…. Personality can only be the “gods” who represent nature generally. derived from a person. The gods may In Middle-earth, each and everything which derive their colour and beauty from the exists outwardly manifests its own particular high splendours of nature, but it was moral condition (with a few deceptive excep- Man who obtained these for him, tions such as Sauron’s fair form). Both the abstracted them from sun and moon physical form and the personality express a
Rankin | 125 moral state: elves with their physical beauty follow its etymology to unearth things that reflecting their inner grace and aptitude as must have been true about that place and the opposed to warmongering orcs who literally people who lived there. Tolkien’s understand- fell from this grace, or the child-like size of ing of the “tangled skein of language” and the hobbits and their innocent appetites con- “intricately knotted and ramified history of trasting with the massively oversized spiders the branches of the Tree of Tales” shaped the and their murderous insatiability. Humans, history of Middle-earth (“On Fairy-Stories” on the other hand, retain their naturally 120). But it also shaped the stories of Middle- fluid personalities. Tolkien fuses the trivial, earth, and therefore Middle-earth itself. familiar Magic of the fairy-tale with the uni- Many stories are retold multiple times across versal significance of mythology to bestow Tolkien’s fiction. For example, Tolkien’s ren- meaning to the whole of Middle-earth. dition of the book of Genesis appears as the Without each story, the meaning of “Ainulindale” in The Silmarillion, but the Middle-earth’s contents would be solely “Valaquenta” retells the same story, and Supernatural. Their personalities do not another version appears in The Book of Lost exist on their own beyond the pages, but we Tales. In the appendices of The Lord of the understand them by the way they are collec- Rings, the entire history of Middle-earth is tively characterized in each story. How each recounted in a few pages; the events of the personality, with its own natural moral whole trilogy are retold in a paragraph. The state, interacts with others, or how changes Book of Lost Tales features an old bard who occur in each personality, constitutes the recounts tales passed down and translated image in the “Mirror of scorn and pity from old languages. towards man,” one facet of fairy-stories Tapping into the oral tradition in this way, (“On Fairy-Stories” 125). Each particular Tolkien creates for Middle-earth many interaction or change illustrates a certain degrees and filters through which its history portrayal of humanity, all of which is exclu- has passed, capturing the development of a sive to the story in which they take place. story the same as he found it in his philol- Tolkien’s stories cause such a lasting effect ogy—as retellings by different chroniclers in on his readers because of this feeling, seeing different ages and languages. Middle-earth, our own experience reflected in the words as the collective story generated by all the sto- they presently appear, not as they whisk us ries which take place there, becomes about away from the human condition. more than the lives in the civilizations it con- Tolkien understood language as something tains—the story of Middle-earth is one animated. Whereas we tend to understand about humankind and storytelling itself. stories as a construction of words which forms While Eha’s construct of “original intertext” an action, Tolkien found that the reverse is is a useful explanation for this immensely equally true. He would unearth knowledge rich interweaving of stories, it’s a notion that about a culture’s history based on the lan- should be further developed to account for guage they used. He saw that there is no Tolkien’s ideals for telling mythologies as he usage of a word without life, a story, behind describes them, and as his many tellings of it. He would examine the name of a place and Middle-earth’s stories demonstrates.
126 | Young Scholars in Writing Rankin | 127 Note 1As taught by Dr. Alexander Bruce, who gives a course on Tolkien at Sewanee.
Works Cited Eha, Caitlin. “One World to Rule Them All: How Tolkien Used Original Intertext to Create Middle-earth.” Young Scholars in Writing, vol. 13, 2016, pp. 112-24. Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and The Critics And Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1984, pp. 109-61. —. The Book of Lost Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983. —. The Lord of the Rings. Great Britain: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004. —. The Silmarillion. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 2001.
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