Dec 19 2008 2:53pm

LotR re-read: Flieger, “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book”

cover of The Lord of the RingsIn comments to a prior Lord of the Rings re-read post, we’ve been talking about the narration’s assertion that Tolkien was the translator of a Middle-earth manuscript. Then, last night, I was looking for something else in a collection of criticism* and came across Verlyn Flieger’s “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book,” something I’d skimmed previously but not found relevant. Since it is now, I thought I’d summarize it for your consideration.

Flieger examines Tolkien’s “intentional, interconnected efforts to bridge the fictive world of the story and the outside, real world, to connect inside with outside and fantasy with actuality through the idea of the book.” She starts with a bit of trivia I hadn’t known: in the title-page of LotR, the header and footer translate as: “THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRANSLATED FROM THE RED BOOK OF WESTMARCH BY JOHN RONALD REUEL TOLKIEN(.) HEREIN IS SET FORTH THE HISTORY OF THE WAR OF THE RINGS AND THE RETURN OF THE KING AS SEEN BY THE HOBBITS.”

Something else I hadn’t known: the Red Book of Westmarch was modeled in name after “the great medieval manuscript books whose names sound like an Andrew Lang color series for the Middle Ages . . . most important(ly) . . . the real Red Book of Hergest.” Yet Tolkien’s Red Book is more coherent narratively and more specifically traceable back to earlier manuscripts than most of these. These qualities were not always present: it was not until the second edition of LotR that the Red Book covered history as far back as the First Age, or was given a line of named “author-redactors,” or was said to consist of the hobbits’ personal diaries plus Bilbo’s three annexed volumes.

Why these changes? Flieger “draw(s) the fairly obvious conclusion that Tolkien’s final scheme envisioned the combined set of these three volumes (Bilbo’s ‘Translations’) plus The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as comprising the ‘ideal’ or archetype Red Book of Westmarch. Moreover . . . this archetypal ‘book’ was intended to encompass the entirety of his published fiction.” In other words, the not-yet-published bits of the Red Book would have been “The Silmarillion” (scholarly convention appears to be to distinguish the encompassing mythological work Tolkien never finished from the published posthumous work by putting the former in quotation marks).

Flieger then discusses how Tolkien’s view of Bilbo’s sources changed over time, which I will pass over for the effect of Tolkien’s conception, which was to have an imaginary construct (Bilbo’s “Translations”) that he hoped to make an actual thing (“The Silmarillion”), thereby “buttress(ing) his story.” Flieger argues that Tolkien was influenced by the coincidental discovery in 1934 of a “real-world analogue,” the Winchester College manuscript source of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, another extended mythology.

This, according to Flieger, may have had two effects on Tolkien. One was internal to the story: she proposes that “the Winchester manuscript was the model for the book Sam Gamgee conjures . . . on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” that is, “a great big book with red and black letters” being read “years and years afterwards”—a perfect description of the Winchester manuscript. The other was external: “the successful publication of the Winchester might have suggested to him that there could be an audience for so large a mythological work.” This, Flieger suggests, may be why Tolkien had so hoped to have “The Silmarillion” and The Lord of the Rings published together, which otherwise seems “impractical and unrealistic.” It may also explain another peculiarity of Tolkien’s, the denial that the Matter of Britain was a proper English mythology: he may have been thinking of it, consciously or no, as a rival to his work.

Flieger concludes by noting the irony that, for all that the non-publication of “The Silmarillion” during Tolkien’s life grieved him, the delay actually enhanced its resemblance to its real-world models.

This paper doesn’t give me a lot of guidance in how to read LotR as a translated medieval manuscript (not that that was its goal), but it does give me an additional sense of just how important the conceit was to Tolkien.

* The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, Marquette University Press, 2006.

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meredith temple
1. merryarwen
Clearly, I need to look up this paper! Thank you. :)
William Alexander
2. willalex
There's a Strange Horizons article about Le Guin that addresses similar author-as-fictional-translator stuff. I wrote it. Me. And I shall shamelessly link to it here, but at least it's on topic.

I suspect Tolkien's work on the Beowulf manuscript also influenced his Red Book thinking; it's incomplete, damaged by fire (I love that the bit about the dragon is the burned part), and the only surviving part of a much larger body of lore. Tolkien even put the frustrations of interpreting a damaged manuscript into the story, when Gandalf reads the Book of Mazarbul in Moria.
eric orchard
3. orchard
Yet another angle to approach this work. I wonder if people will be studying George R R Martin or other epic fantasists in the same way or if there really is something special about Tolkien's work. I'm currently reading Danielewski's House of Leaves which takes the author as translator to a whole other place.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
merryarwen, you're welcome.

willalex, thanks for the link. There, you write, "This increases the verisimilitude, but casts certain doubts on the text; if the fictive manuscript passed through so many hands and translators, then it cannot be considered an accurate retelling of events."

I find this very interesting, because of course this makes perfect sense, and yet it is so exactly opposite the effect that Tolkien is trying to convey, of giving the story *more* authority by giving it a manuscript provenance that has been "corrected" over the years. Tolkien couldn't have foreseen postmodernism, I guess.

orchard, I don't know. GRRM is certainly popular enough that his work might inspire critical study. One author that already is: J.K. Rowling.
5. rogerothornhill
Stephen King also comes to mind, especially the extended Dark Tower/Castle Rock mythos that encompasses over half his books. Unfortunately, King inspires such extreme reactions in both directions that very little criticism I've read of him to date has struck the right coolly distant note. Most of it is either snidely dismissive or embarrassingly worshipful.

I do think, though, that King is attempting something like a post-mass culture folk myth, with the same kinds of echoes, enfoldings, and incorporations that you find in the Ramayana or the Song of Roland. They're just translated in a very odd but earnest postmodern way to a post-World War II US culture. That seems antithetical to true epic, of course: epic is always past not present. But with all its easy outs and logorrheic excesses, King's work seen whole presents a suggestive analogue to both Tolkien (who, along with Sergio Leone, was an explicit model for the DT books) and to the authors that Tolkien was trying to emulate.

Orchard, man are you in for a treat, both as a reader and as an artist! Danielzewski's second novel was something of a comedown (as was meeting him at a reading), but that book is such a great great journey.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
King's work is certainly ambitious and I do think that the Dark Tower series would reward critical study--just not by me, since its ending did not just break my heart, but ripped it out, tore it to shreds, and then gleefully stomped on the pieces..
7. rogerothornhill
And then, of course, you just have to go back and do it all over again . . .
Darrell Cale
8. revtoken
@ 4. katenepveu You included the following quote from willalex "This increases the verisimilitude, but casts certain doubts on the text; if the fictive manuscript passed through so many hands and translators, then it cannot be considered an accurate retelling of events." The same can be said about the bible as well, but there are still probably millions of people that beleive what is wrote there. Just something to think about.

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