Tolkien and the Mystery of Literary Creation
(A full version of this essay has been published in the Journal of Inklings Studies)
Who wrote The Lord of the Rings? And the Hobbit? And the Silmarillion? And in general, who is the author of the large corpus of texts, published or unpublished, which give life to Middle Earth’s imaginarium? To answer ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’ would not only mean to miss a crucial literary feature of these books, but more importantly to overlook an important dimension of Tolkien’s poetics, grounded on his literary convictions, and ultimately rooted in his deep Christian faith. My aim is to try to give a more precise answer to the above questions, and thereby discuss some of the literary sophistication of Tolkien’s works, as well as delve into the depths of his Christian poetics. Before that, however, I need to make an apology to Tolkien himself, as he would not have approved the sort of exercise that I will be carrying out, to disclose what should remain veiled, as an atmosphere to be felt, rather than as an ‘evidence’ to be scrutinised. As Gandalf warns Saruman, “he that breaks a thing in order to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” (LotR 2.2).
1. The hidden ‘meta-textual frame’ of Middle Earth
Tolkien took care to conceal the identity of the authors of Middle earth, and of what I will henceforth refer to as the ‘meta-textual frame’, i.e. the fictional history of composition, transmission and publication of his books. There are however many traces, in external or unpublished sources, as well as in published works. Just before his final journey to the Grey Havens and beyond, the Hobbit Frodo hands over all his possessions to his friend Sam. These include:
“a big book with plain red covers; its tall pages were now almost filled. At the beginning there were many leaves covered with Bilbo’s thin wandering hand; but most of it was written in Frodo’s firm flowing script. It was divided into chapters but Chapter 80 was unfinished, and after that were some blank leaves. The title page had many titles on it, crossed out one after another, so:
My Diary. My Unexpected Journey. There and Back Again. And What Happened After. Adventures of Five Hobbits. The Tale of the Great Ring, compiled by Bilbo Baggins from his own observations and the accounts of his friends. What we did in the War of the Ring. Here Bilbo’s hand ended and Frodo had written:
THE DOWNFALL OF
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
RETURN OF THE KING
(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.)
Together with extracts from Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell.
This passage is a ‘fortunate crack’ giving a glimpse of an elaborate meta-textual frame, which underlies the novel and indeed the whole imaginarium of Middle Earth, pivoting on this ancestral ‘big book with plain red covers’, or more simply ‘Red Book’.
Here we learn that Bilbo Baggins is the first writer of the ‘Red Book’, authoring its opening text; there are few doubts that the ‘many leaves covered with Bilbo’s thin wandering hand’ form the original of what is now known as ‘The Hobbit’. Tolkien confirms that, at the very beginning of the Prologue to LotR
. LotR Prologue: Further information [sc. ‘Concerning Hobbits’] will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again (…)More indirect hints to Bilbo’s authorship of ‘the Hobbit’ (or rather of his ‘diary’), are also scattered across LotR itself
. Cf. LotR 1.5 “I must be the only one in the Shire, besides you Frodo, that has ever seen the old fellow’s secret book (…) I have only had one rapid glance, and that was difficult to get. He never left the book about. I wonder what became of it. I should like another look. (…) Have you got it, Frodo?’ ‘No. It was not at Bag End. He must have taken it away.’There is even a direct quote from The Hobbit, explicitly ascribed to Bilbo
. LotR 2.1 That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. [= Hobbit 3].
One event from ‘Bilbo’s diary’ receives particular attention in the LotR, which is Bilbo’s narrative of the finding of the ring and his escape from Gollum’s cave. Two variants of this narrative existed: a ‘fake’ one told by Bilbo to the dwarves at the time of the event and eventually written down in his book, according to which the ring was given by Gollum to him as a present; a second, accurate one, revealed only to his closest friends and eventually to all members of the Council of Elrond, which is essentially the version one can now read in Chapter 5 of the Hobbit (‘Riddles in the Dark’). According to Tolkien’s meta-textual frame, this second version remained at oral stage for a long time, and was not included in the Red Book. And yet, it was eventually written down
. LotR Prologue This account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account (as an alternative), derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise, both of whom learned the truth, though they seem to have been unwilling to delete anything actually.
What is thus the point of this double version? First, the existence of a ‘fake’ version of the story helps to shroud the ring with a shadow of deception, and to characterize his finder Bilbo as haunted by a morbid obsession to justify his ownership. This is, however, only a post-event exploitation of something that is first of all a real fact. The two aforementioned narratives do exist, and firstly, in the real or ‘primary’ world. In fact, the former narrative is the one found in the first edition of The Hobbit (1937) whereas the second is the one printed from its second edition onwards. We can thus begin to introduce a key feature of Tolkien’s meta-textual frame: real, primary literary events or features (such as the revision of a chapter of The Hobbit’s first edition) are symbolically expressed in the secondary world, as narrative elements (a lie engendered by the ring’s corrupting power resulted in a variance in the fictional transmission of the texts).
The ‘paratext’ of LotR (quoted above) also reveals that it was Frodo who wrote the main text contained in the Red Book (“most of it was written in Frodo’s firm flowing script”), i.e. the account of the War of the Ring, the original of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo’s authorial role in LotR is often foreshadowed or alluded to. In his first visit to Bree, for instance, Frodo introduces himself as a writer
 LotR 1.9 “he was thinking of writing a book (at which there was silent astonishment), and that he and his friends wanted to collect information about hobbits living outside the Shire, especially in the eastern lands.”And this self-presentation is realized on his way back, at the end of the book, where it becomes an allusive reference to the actual writing of his account of the War during his final years in the Shire
. LotR 6.7 Bree memories being retentive, Frodo was asked many times if he had written his book. ‘Not yet,’ he answered. ‘I am going home now to put my notes in order.’ He promised to deal with the amazing events at Bree, and so give a bit of interest to a book that appeared likely to treat mostly of the remote and less important affairs ‘away south’.
One might thus be tempted to conclude that the author of The Hobbit is Bilbo, and that the author of the LotR is Frodo: Tolkien’s meta-textual frame, however, is much more complex.
First, there is plenty of (fictional) evidence that (1) Bilbo never finalised his diary (i.e. the Hobbit’s original) and at the same time (2) that he started to work on its ‘sequel’ (i.e. the LotR’s original). In fact, Bilbo is often described in LotR as the intended ‘recorder’ of the new adventure the hobbits are in
. LotR 2.2 ‘I should say that your part is ended, unless as a recorder. Finish your book, and leave the ending unaltered! There is still hope for it. But get ready to write a sequel, when they come back.’And at the end of the novel, when the victorious Hobbits come back to Rivendell, with the ring destroyed, it is still Bilbo who is supposed to write down the full story of the War of the Ring, ‘compiling’ it from the reports of his friends
. LotR 6.6 Sitting round the fire they told him in turn all that they could remember of their journeys and adventures. At first he pretended to take some notes; but he often fell asleep; and when he woke he would say: ‘How splendid! How wonderful! But where were we?’ Then they went on with the story from the point where he had begun to nod.However, in the end Bilbo did not fulfil his role as recorder and his ‘sequel’ was left uncompleted: he did not edit his notes nor, apparently, finalize his first book. Both tasks were entrusted to Frodo
. LotR 6.6 ‘I don’t think, Mr. Frodo, that he’s done much writing while we’ve been away. He won’t ever write our story now.’ At that Bilbo opened an eye, almost as if he had heard. Then he roused himself. ‘You see, I am getting so sleepy,’ he said. ‘And when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry. I wonder, Frodo my dear fellow, if you would very much mind tidying things up a bit before you go? Collect all my notes and papers, and my diary too, and take them with you, if you will. Get Sam to help, and when you’ve knocked things into shape, come back, and I’ll run over it. I won’t be too critical.’ ‘Of course I’ll do it!’ said Frodo.
Frodo accepts Bilbo’s investiture and will dedicate his last few years in the Shire to writing the account of the war and to ‘tidying up’ Bilbo’s first book. Bilbo’s authorial voice is thus not the only one in The Hobbit, which was presumably polished up by Frodo, nor should it be discounted from LotR, since this was partly compiled from Bilbo’s notes. Frodo’s role in the writing of the Account of the War is firstly intended by Bilbo as an editorial one, aiming to ‘knock things into shape’, i.e. to compile different notes into a coherent narrative: these include Bilbo’s notes, but not just those. As explicitly declared in the paratext, Bilbo and Frodo’s memoirs are ‘supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise’ (see above). Just like Bilbo, Frodo is thus first of all a ‘compiler’, who puts together the reports and accounts of the characters involved in the story, and above all of the other three hobbits (Sam, Merry and Pipin).
The ‘collective’, ‘compiled’ nature of LotR is an important feature of the meta-textual frame, which is evoked in the text by many narrative devices. A most common one is the ‘remembering’ formula, which presents parts of the narrative ‘as memories’
. LotR 1.3 [Tolkien 2004: 82] Pippin afterwards recalled little of either food or drink (…). Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life.Most of the ‘remembering formulas’ belong to passages in which Frodo is not present, and indeed abound in particular in books three and five of the LotR, which are narrated from the perspective of other characters, such as in particular Merry and Pippin. All these ‘memories’ should thus be construed as being recalled at a later stage by one of characters, who is reporting to Frodo (and Sam). There are even some references to such narrative ‘reporting moments’ in the LotR
. LotR 6.4 [Tolkien 2004: 955] ‘Bless me! But I can see there’s more tales to tell than ours’ ‘There are indeed,’ said Pippin turning towards him. ‘And we’ll begin telling them, as soon as this feast is ended. (…) and they talked deep into the night with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf, and after a while Legolas and Gimli joined them. There Frodo and Sam learned much of all that had happened to the Company after their fellowship was broken on the evil day at Parth Galen by Rauros Falls; and still there was always more to ask and more to tell.
In addition to Bilbo and Frodo, the Hobbit Sam too plays an important authorial part, both as an editor and reviser (as declared by Bilbo), but also as a writer of the final chapters of the book. The passage above indeed reveals that the manuscript handed over by Frodo to Sam is unfinished, with the writing of the few remaining leaves entrusted to Sam to write. There is also a clue to the exact starting point of Sam’s authorial hand, which is the number of his supposedly unfinished chapter (80). Since the Hobbit includes 19 chapters and LotR 62 chapters, one can infer that the final chapter of the novel, i.e. the one including the paratext, is the 81st, of the Red Book and thus that the unfinished 80th chapter is the previous one, ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. More than that cannot be said with certainty, although I am inclined to think that Frodo’s hand is supposed to conclude with the Horn-cry of Buckland, right after Sam’s departure to Cotton’s farm and before the battle properly begins. In fact, in the following part of the chapter, one can notice a lowering of register, with plenty of contractions and analogous colloquial forms, which are characteristically attributed to Sam throughout the book. There is thus a concealed correlation between narrative and stylistic features and the underlying meta-textual frame. This correlation is not only found in these final chapters, but is a widespread feature of the literary fabric of the LoTR, discernible above all in its stylistic diversity.
We can thus sum up the meta-textual narrative in the following way: what are now known as the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings originally formed a single volume of 81 chapters, written by three intermingling hobbit hands: Bilbo Baggins, who drafted the first 19 chapters (The Hobbit’s original), and sketched notes for the following 12 ones (book 1 of LoTR); Frodo Baggins, who presumably polished up Bilbo’s early chapters, and wrote the main bulk of the text, compiling from Bilbo’s and his own notes, and incorporating the (oral) accounts of his friends, especially his fellow hobbits; Sam Gamgee, who completed chapter 80 of the book, left unfinished by Frodo, and wrote the final one.
This account, already quite elaborate, is still only a small part of the meta-textual frame of Tolkien’s works. First of all, the Red Book did not only consist in the above text of 81 chapters, but also included ‘extracts from Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell’. More information about these ‘books of lore’, abridged by Frodo in the ‘appendix’ to his memoirs, are scattered throughout the LotR; from these one learns that Bilbo’s books were three in number and were ‘made at various times’, and they were given by Bilbo to Frodo on his last visit to Rivendell (LotR 6.6). There are also a couple of references to the original Elvish versions of these translated Books of Lore
. LotR 2.3 Aragorn and Gandalf (…) pondered the storied and figured maps and books of lore that were in the house of Elrond.One of these reveals his very author, Elrond himself
. LotR 2.2 Then through all the years that followed he traced the Ring; but since that history is elsewhere recounted, even as Elrond himself set it down in his books of lore, it is not here recalled. For it is a long tale, full of deeds great and terrible, and briefly though Elrond spoke, the sun rode up the sky, and the morning was passing ere he ceased.
These ‘three books of lore’ dealt with the tales from the forging of the ring to the last alliance, and also with the events of the ‘First Age of the World’, that is with what is now the content of the Silmarillion. The Red Book thus also included Silmarillion material, originally authored by Elrond, but abridged, translated, and edited by Bilbo.
We have thus added another important author of the Red Book, the elf Elrond himself, as well as another important facet of Bilbo’s role, that of translator. But the meta-textual frame is not complete yet, since, in Tolkien’s vision, this frame did not only encompass the redaction of the Red Book, but its subsequent textual history. In this case there is no need for reconstructions, as this textual history is sketched out by Tolkien in a detailed note appended to the Prologue of the LotR (the ‘Note on the Shire Records’)
. Tolkien’s account is intricate but clear, and can here be paraphrased as such: Frodo’s original book was later appended by four supplemental volumes, the full three books of Bilbo’s translations from Elves, and a final volume featuring miscellaneous material, written or compiled at different times by a number of authors, which includes Merry Brandibuck and Gimli the Dwarf. The original Red Book was lost, but many copies were made of it, partial or complete, including in particular a full 5-volume edition (‘Thain’s Book’), which was emended, annotated and supplemented in Minas Tirith. The LotR is derived from a copy of this edition, incorporating Frodo and Sam’s chapters from the first volume and ‘selections’ from the fifth volume, including the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, redacted in Gondor by Faramir’s grandson.Just as the early part of the meta-textual frame is evoked by narrative and stylistic changes, also this latter part is duly harmonised in the text through the use of formal features; the appendixes are indeed full of scribal glosses, later notes, and editorial references that are meant to match the elaborate textual history detailed in the Note on the Shire Records.
The most important feature of the Note, however, is the presence of Tolkien’s authorial voice, which connects the meta-textual frame outlined above with Tolkien’s actual writing of the LotR. In the ‘Notes on the Shire Records’ Tolkien is indeed speaking in his own authorial (hobbit) persona; this is shown for instance by the reference to the publication of the Hobbit, which is said to have been ‘derived from the earlier chapter of the Book’ and above all to have been ‘already published’. What the Note does not say explicitly, but is clearly implied, is that Tolkien is in possession of a manuscript descending from the Red Book. This is the point where the meta-textual frame of the LotR is developed, through Tolkien’s authorial persona, into a full frame narrative, featuring Tolkien himself, where the primary and secondary planes meet. This narrative is never articulated explicitly by Tolkien, but is hinted at in several places.
The most explicit reference is hidden in the dust jacket of The Hobbit and the title pages of LotR, in the friezes of runic letters, which respectively transliterate as:
The hobbit or there and back again being the record of a year’s journey made by Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton, compiled from his memoirs by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
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 Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.
These reveal that Tolkien considered himself as a ‘compiler’ and ‘translator’, not a proper author, and associate him, the writer in the primary world, with the writers of his secondary world, also described as ‘compilers’, ‘recorders’ and ‘translators’. Tolkien’s translating role is constantly emphasised in both the Hobbit and the LotR, as well as in his other writings
. Cf. LotR Appendix F.2 (‘on Translation) and e.g. Letter 144 [to Naomi Mitchison, April 1954] For the story has to be told, and the dialogue conducted in a language; but English cannot have been the language of any people at that time. What I have in fact done is to equate the Westron or wide-spread Common Speech of the Third Age with English; and translate everything, including names such as The Shire, that was in the Westron into English terms, with some differentiation of style to represent dialectal differences. (…) The name [Gamgee] is a ‘translation’ of the real Hobbit name, derived from a village (devoted to rope-making) […].
We can now try to summarise the complex meta-textual frame narrative underlying Tolkien’s works: Tolkien has come into possession of a manuscript copy of an old book in an ancient language (‘the Westron’), consisting of miscellaneous accounts about the first ‘Three Ages of this World’. The book originally focused on the end of the Third Age and was written by three contemporary authors of Hobbit race (Bilbo, Frodo, Sam), but was soon supplemented by a large bulk of miscellaneous material, of different origin, authorship, and content. Tolkien is now translating extracts of this book into English and compiling them into separate volumes. Going back to my opening questions: The Hobbit was originally authored by Bilbo, but was partly emended by Frodo; the LotR was authored by Frodo and Sam, but incorporated accounts of Bilbo and several other characters; the Silmarillion was written by Elrond, and later translated by Bilbo. All three original works were later heavily edited, through a process which included emendation, supplementing, and abridgement, and whose last stage consists in Tolkien’s own compilation and translation.
We still have to deal with several other important questions, no less complex. And the first question is: why? Why did Tolkien develop such an elaborate meta-textual frame?
2. The symbolism of the meta-textual frame
In order to address this question, we need first of all to distinguish between two different levels of possible answers. Indeed, Tolkien’s meta-textual frame can and must be explained from two different perspectives, one internal and the other external to the stories. By this I mean that the meta-textual frame is meaningful on two different planes at the same time, the fictional world of the story (the ‘secondary world’, according to Tolkien’s terminology) and Tolkien’s real world (‘the primary world’). Using a key notion of Tolkien’s poetics, we can affirm that this meta-textual frame is ‘symbolic’, and should be explained as such, i.e. both from a perspective internal to the secondary fictional world, and from one external to it, that is from the ‘real world’ perspective. A symbol, in Tolkien’s terms, may be defined as a piece of truth which is experienced (or experienceable) in the real world and expressed in a transformed form in the fictional world
. Cf. (Letter 66, to Christopher Tolkien, May 1944) I sense (…) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes. (Letter 73, to Christopher Tolkien, June 1944) So I took to ‘escapism’: or really transforming experience into another form and symbol, with Morgoth and Orcs and the Eldalie (representing beauty and grace of life and artefact) and so on. The words ‘experience’ and ‘feeling’, ‘rationalise’ and ‘express’ are critical: Tolkien does not conceive his work as an intellectual act, consisting in the assertion of pre-existing convictions under the veil of literary fiction, but rather as the expression of non-rationalised experiences. The expression is ‘artistic’ in the sense that it involves the transformation or codification of experiences within a specific expressive ‘code’, i.e., in Tolkien’s case, the literary code of his novels, which includes the aesthetical, narrative, and even linguistic features of Middle-Earth universe.
Tolkien notoriously disliked allegory
. Cf. (Letter 165, To the Houghton Mifflin Co., June 1955) There is a great deal of linguistic matter (…) included or mythologically expressed in the book. It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’ as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about?’. It is not ‘about’ anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political. (Letter 181, To Michael Straight, January/February 1956) [A story] must succeed just as a tale, excite, please, and even on occasion move, and within its own imagined world be accorded (literary) belief. (…) something of the teller’s own reflections and ‘values’ will inevitably get worked in. This is not the same as allegory.And yet, he was fond of symbols: within Tolkien’s framework a symbol is a narrative element that is perfectly coherent within the secondary world, but which has also a hidden meaning in the primary world, deriving from its being an artistic expression of a ‘real’ experience. To give an example I will refer again to the already-mentioned case of the two versions of the finding of the Ring: within the LotR’s ‘secondary’ world it is perfectly credible (and indeed ‘necessary’) that Bilbo should have given a false version of the story to the dwarves, under the corruptive effects of the Ring. But at the same time, this version of the story actually exists in the ‘real world’, being in fact the one printed in the first edition of The Hobbit. This element of the meta-textual frame is thus ‘true’ and ‘meaningful’ in both the secondary and the primary reality, that is, in Tolkien’s understanding, it is a symbol. What makes a symbol different from an allegory, in Tolkien’s sense, is that its origin is literary-aesthetic rather than intellectual. Thus the symbol’s significance in the secondary world takes priority over its significance in the primary world: in the example quoted, Tolkien does not intentionally and deliberately introduce the concept of a narrative (and textual) variant in order to reveal a piece of the editorial history of The Hobbit, but simply and primarily to justify the existence of a ‘false’ version of the narrative in the original Red Book (on which the first edition of The Hobbit was fictionally based). This meta-textual variance does reflect (and can reveal) in fact a ‘real’ editorial history, but this is not its foremost purpose or starting point, which is rather to add coherence and verisimilitude within the secondary reality.
The difference between a symbol and allegory are thus, paradoxically, at the level of realism: a symbol is an allegory that aspires to be ‘accorded literary belief’, that is, which is fully ‘realistic’ according to the reality of the fictional world. This is also the reason why a symbol, such as indeed the meta-textual frame itself, must be explained first of all from a perspective internal to the secondary reality, as a ‘realistic’ tessera of Middle Earth’s world.
The first explanation for the meta-textual frame is thus its ‘necessity; within the secondary plane. A coherent story, in order to be ‘real’ and accorded belief, needs a ‘textual history’, and especially a story which claims to be set in the same world as ours, in an imagined past. The meta-textual frame thus provides first of all internal realism, both to LotR and to the whole world of Middle Earth. In fact, although most of the meta-textual references are found in the LotR they often allude to other works, integrating them into the same frame narrative. Moreover, although in fewer numbers, meta-textual references are in fact found also in all its other Middle-Earth-related works: apart from the already-discussed cryptic para-text of the Hobbit, there are several meta-textual hints also in The Silmarillion and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, all referring to the same unifying frame
. Cf. e.g. The Silmarillion [Tolkien 1977: 312] But those who saw the things that were done in that time, deeds of valour and wonder, have elsewhere told the tale of the War of the Ring, and how it ended both in victory unlooked for and in sorrow long foreseen. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil[Tolkien 2008b: 7] The Red Book contains a large number of verses. A few are included in the narrative of the Downfall of The Lord of the Rings, or in the attached stories and chronicles; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blanks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments.
The ‘realistic’ function of the meta-textual frame is not only valid at a large scale, but it affects the literary fabric of the text, down to the level of its stylistic and narrative features. For instance, there is an evident contrast between the high-flown and archaising tone of the Silmarillion, the simple, fairy-story-like style of the Hobbit, and the stylistic medley which is used in LotR. These stylistic variations find a ‘realistic’ justification in the meta-textual frame, and in particular in the identities of the author of the different works, an elf for the Silmarillion, the down-to-earth hobbit Bilbo for the Hobbit, and the ennobled, ‘elvenized’ Hobbit Frodo for LotR. Similarly, on the narrative level, the multiple narrative points of view that can be identified in different parts of the LotR match the ‘collectiveness’ of the meta-textual frame, with Frodo compiling from Bilbo’s notes and the memories of his friends, as shown.
Despite this collectiveness, however, in one important sense the narrative perspective remains the same throughout the book, and this is that it is a hobbit perspective, a fact which is aptly justified by the hobbit identity of the book’s author(s). This is probably the most important ‘internal’ function of the meta-textual frame: i.e. to emphasise and justify the ‘hobbito-centrism’ of the book. This ‘hobbito-centrism’ is not just a narrative accident, but a fundamental feature of the novel, related to one of its key underlying themes, as Tolkien often repeats in his letters
. (Letter 131 p. 160, to Milton Waldman, late 1951]) (…) But as the earliest Tales are seen through Elvish eyes, as it were, this last great Tale (…) , coming down from myth and legend to the earth, is seen mainly through the eyes of Hobbits: it thus becomes in fact anthropocentric. But (…) through Hobbits, not Men so-called, because the last Tale is to exemplify most clearly a recurrent theme: the place in ‘world politics’ of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great. (Letter 181, to Michael Straight, January/February 1956) [The structure of the narrative] is planned to be ‘hobbito-centric’, that is primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.The LotR is written by a hobbit because the whole book is mainly about hobbits, and more precisely about their ‘ennoblement’ and their contribution to the history of the world. Both these themes were most dear to Tolkien
. Cf. e.g. Letter 165 [to the Houghton Mifflin Co., June 1955] There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The interrelations between the ‘noble’ and the ‘simple’ (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find especially moving.
The ‘hobbito-centrism’ of the book, however, is important not only from a narrative, stylistic and thematic point of view: it also has a crucial literary function, that is, using Tolkien’s words, to ‘merge myth into history’
. (Letter 131 p. 144, to Milton Waldman, late 1951)The Hobbit, which has much more essential life in it, was quite independently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth, and merging into ‘history’. As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view–and the last tale blends them.That is to say, the Hobbits introduce a point of view with which Tolkien and his readers can identify, that is first of all an ‘anthropocentric point of view’, and secondarily the point of view of ‘simple’ human beings living in a non-heroic age, like that of Tolkien’s twentieth century England. The Hobbits are therefore the most symbolic characters of the LotR in the sense that they only have a full life (‘a more essential life’) in both the primary and secondary world; they help the merging of myth and history because they link the secondary with the primary world, that is the mythical universe of Middle Earth, with its elves, gods, and heroes, with Tolkien’s real contemporary world.
3. The ‘real’ meaning of the meta-textual frame
So far I have only discussed ‘internal’ justifications for the meta-textual frame, which are all somehow related to the need for internal realism. But this meta-textual frame is clearly symbolic, and it has a meaning also in the primary, real world, by being a codified expression of real experiences: to put it simply, what sort of ‘real’ experience is expressed by the meta-textual narrative?
The starting point for this de-codification is again the hobbits, or more precisely ‘the Hobbit’. Tolkien considered The Hobbit as ‘an unexpected discovery’, and this point is often repeated in his letters
. (Letter 164, to W.H. Auden, June 1955) The Hobbit was originally quite unconnected, though it inevitably got drawn in to the circumference of the greater construction; and in the event modified it. (…) On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’. I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thor’s Map. (Letter 17, to Stanley Unwin, October 1937) I have only too much to say, and much already written, about the world into which the hobbit intruded. (Letter 257, to Christopher Bretherton, July 1964) The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with it.The origin of the Hobbits and above all their ‘intrusion’ with the world of Middle Earth were unplanned. Tolkien did not consciously invent the hobbits, but the hobbits’ story, suddenly and unexpectedly, ‘happened to him’, like the discovery of a mysterious manuscript from a distant past (indeed written by and about Hobbits). The ‘hobbito-centrism’ of the meta-textual frame of LotR does not simply have narrative, thematic, and literary connotations, but is connected to a fundamental experiential reality related to the writing of his stories: it is not Tolkien who decided to write about Hobbits, but it is, from this perspective, the Hobbits who decided to make him write about them. Tolkien’s self-description as a ‘compiler’ and ‘translator’ is therefore an accurate, symbolic, expression of his experience as a writer of an ‘unplanned’ story, a story that he discovered rather than devised or invented. This is the first, main ‘external’ (or primary) function of the meta-textual frame: it symbolically expresses the actual history of composition of the works.
There are other ‘real’ features of Tolkien’s writing history and practice which are symbolically expressed in the book: the description of Bilbo’s writing room in Rivendell, for instance, could equally describe the real Oxford study where Tolkien drafted his notes and books. Similarly, Bilbo’s tendency to procrastinate his writing and his obsession about the unfinished status of his diary is easily mirrored in real elements of Tolkien’s writing life. However, the most important ‘real’ feature of the meta-textual frame is related to the already-mentioned ‘unexpectedness’ of the stories, their ‘happening’ as unplanned, independent events.
That Tolkien considered his stories unplanned, is indeed true both at the level of the inspiration, and at each stage of the process of writing. Often Tolkien admitted, for instance, that ‘the story unfolded itself’, without sketches or synopses, as ‘given things’
. (Letter 131 p. 145, to Milton Waldman, late 1951) The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. (…): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere; not of ‘inventing’. (Letter 199, to Caroline Everett, June 1957) From time to time I made rough sketches or synopses of what was to follow, immediately or far ahead; but these were seldom of much use: the story unfolded itself, as it were. The tying-up was achieved, so far as it is achieved, by constant re-writing backwards.Similarly, Tolkien declares that he did not have to anticipate knowledge of characters and scenes, before they were actually put in writing
. Cf. Letter 91 [to Christopher Tolkien, November 1944] What happens to the Ents I don’t yet know. It will probably work out very differently from this plan when it gets written, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch.
There is a metaphor in particular which Tolkien uses to express this experience of his work as something ‘other’, that is the metaphor of the Tree
. (Letter 241, to Jane Neave, September 1962) I was anxious about my own internal Tree, The Lord of the Rings. It was growing out of hand, and revealing endless new vistas. (Letter 64, to Christopher Tolkien, April 1944) also I hope to see him [CS Lewis] tomorrow and read some more of ‘the Ring’. It is growing and sprouting again (I did a whole day at it yesterday to the neglect of many matters) and opening out in unexpected ways., This was later developed by Tolkien into the full narrative of ‘Leaf by Niggle’, in Tolkien’s words a ‘symbol’ of Tale-telling. Tolkien thus considered their stories as something ‘other’ from him, something ‘given’, free from the control of his rational mind. This also explains why he refers to his books as a puzzle, as the work of ‘a strange’ hand, written by ‘someone else’, why he often declares a fundamental ‘ignorance’ about many details of the background story, and also why he indulges in an apparently absurd self-exegesis of or research on his own books
. Cf. (Letter 211, to Rhona Beare, October 1958) I do not ‘know’ all the answers. Much of my own book puzzles me; and in any case much of it was written so long ago (…) that I read it now as if it were from a strange hand. (…) I have not named the colours because I do not know them. (Letter 294, to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, February 1967) If it is of interest, the passages that now move me most – written so long ago that I read them now as if they had been written by someone else – are the end of the chapter Lothlórien and the horns of the Rohirrim at cockcrow. (Letter 59, to Christopher Tolkien, April 1944) I have seriously embarked on an effort to finish my book, and have been sitting up rather late: a lot of re-reading and research required.
There is a text in particular in which Tolkien delves into this experience of ‘writing as discovery’, which is a long letter dating to 1955 and written to the poet W.H. Auden, a great admirer of Tolkien’s work. A couple of short extracts deserve to be quoted in full.
(Letter 163, to W. H. Auden, June 1955)
The last two books were written between 1944 and 48. That of course does not mean that the main idea of the story was a war-product. (…) It is really given, and present in germ, from the beginning, though I had no conscious notion of what the Necromances stood for (…) nor of his connexion with the Ring.
(Letter 163 n., to W. H. Auden, June 1955)
I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual, intention in mind at any point. Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on myself (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. (…) that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. (…)
It should be clear by now that Tolkien’s self-representation as a decipherer and translator of someone’s else story has a meaningful correlation with the way Tolkien experienced his real writing experience. In particular, the adverb ‘imperfectly’ in the second passage quoted above is crucial, and helps to introduce another key element of Tolkien’s writing experience, which is symbolically expressed through the meta-textual frame. This is the ‘imperfection’, ‘approximateness’ or ‘incompleteness’ of his writing. As shown, Tolkien conceives his writing as originating in an ‘event’, of which he only presents a ‘report’: Tolkien often points out in his letters that this report is ‘imperfect’ and incomplete, that he has a ‘limited understanding of the things revealed’ to him
. (Letter 187, to H. Cotton Minchin, April 1956) It [the Appendix] will be a big volume, even if I attend only to the things revealed to my limited understanding! (Letter 109, to Sir Stanley Unwin, July 1947) Yet the chief thing is to complete one’s work, as far as completion has any real sense.Similarly, on the linguistic side, Tolkien often remarks that the ‘English’ language of his novels is ‘approximate’, a ‘not very accurate’ rendering of the original (fictional) languages of his texts
. Letter 24 [to the editor of the ‘Observer’, January/February 1938] In any case, elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of not quite the same kinds and functions. Letter 17 [to Stanley Unwin, October 1937] Perhaps my dwarf –since he and the Gnome are only translations into approximate equivalents of creatures with different names and rather different functions in their own world (…). Letter 114 [to Hugh Brogan, April 1948] A history of the Eldalië (or Elves, by a not very accurate translation).
A complex philosophy of language and linguistic aesthetics underlies these beliefs, inspired by Owen Barfield’s works, according to which modern languages of fallen men are no longer able to express the ‘truth’ of reality. This is not the place to delve into these theories, of ancient ancestry: let me only emphasize here how the meta-textual frame, presenting Tolkien as a compiler and translator, is perfectly coherent with his experience of writing as an ‘incomplete’ and ‘linguistically inaccurate’ report of events that remain inherently ‘ineffable’, ‘mysterious’.
But what kind of events are we talking about? If for Tolkien writing is just an ‘imperfect report’ of what ‘really happened’, what is the nature of this ‘happening’? What has happened? There is no easy answer to these questions, but, with a degree of simplification, we might say that all these ‘events’ can be grouped together under a single word, Truth: writing, for Tolkien, is an imperfect report or ‘reflection’ of a True event, of Truth
. Cf. (Letter 181, to Michael Straight, January/February 1956) I think that fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism’, and in some ways more powerful.And for Tolkien, a man of deep Christian faith, Truth ultimately has a divine origin. Truth transcends human understanding and is inherently something Other, which cannot be fully expressed in the imperfect language of fallen human beings. This explains both why (human) writing is inherently ‘approximate’ and why Tolkien’s stories felt to him as ‘written by others’, an ‘unexpected adventure’, ‘a given thing’.
In fact, Tolkien would never have claimed to be the origin of the Truth of his stories: as in the meta-textual frame, he was simply a ‘reporter’, ‘a compiler’ a ‘translator’ of a Story that was given to him. In the story ‘Leaf by Niggle’ it is not Niggle who gives life to his wonderful Tree: he is only able to paint lifeless and disconnected leaves, with a longing desire for a vision that he can only imperfectly picture in his mind. The Divine powers who govern his world decide to bless and transfigure this desire, and create a wonderful flourishing Tree out of it. The Tree has thus something divine in it, and yet it also has something of Niggle’s ‘artistic’ ambition.
The birth of the Tree, and by analogy of Tolkien’s literary work, originates thus in a mysterious interplay between human and divine forces. This is the reason why Tolkien always considered literary creation as a ‘mystery’
. Cf. (Letter 180, to Mr Thompson, January 1956) I have long ceased to invent (…) though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my ‘invention’): I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself. (…) I am interested in mythological ‘invention’, and the ‘mystery’ of literary creation (or sub-creation as I have elsewhere called it). (…) I would build on the hobbits. And I saw that I was meant to do it (as Gandalf would say) (…)
Literary creation is a ‘mystery’ because its occurrence and offspring cannot be fully explained, for Tolkien, in rational terms, as purely human activities, performed by individual human beings. In fact, Tolkien never thought himself ‘alone’ in his writing, never considered himself as the only author of his stories. A funny anecdote exemplifies this, in which Tolkien reports his fortuitous encounter with an eccentric old fellow, who, in a ‘Gandalf-like’ fashion, reminded him that he did not write his book by himself, but that he was just a ‘chosen instrument’
. (Letter 328 [to Carole Batten-Phelps, Autumn 1971]) He was struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed to illustrate LotR long before its time (..) Suddenly he said ‘Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?’ Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with Gandalf to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: ‘No, I don’t suppose so any longer’. An alarming conclusion (…) but not one that should puff any one up who considers the imperfections of ‘chosen instruments’ and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.It is important to note that Gandalf is for Tolkien a divine entity, a symbol of divine grace: in this anecdote it is thus God himself, divine ‘Truth’, who claims ‘co-authority’ of Tolkien’s stories and reminds him of his purely ‘instrumental’ role. Tolkien often described himself as an instrument of God, and indeed aspired to be such from his very early years
. (Letter 15 [to G.B. Smith, August 1916]) The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands–a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things.And eventually Tolkien did consider himself (and was grateful for) having become an ‘instrument in His hands’, chosen to provide, through the beauty of his literature, ‘a drop of water on a barren stony ground’ and offer ‘a tribute to the infinity of God’s potential variety’
. (Letter 87, to Christopher Tolkien, October 1944) What thousands of grains of good human corn must fall on barren stony ground, if such a very small drop of water should be so intoxicating! But I suppose one should be grateful for the grace and fortune to have allowed me to provide even the drop. (Letter 153, to Peter Hastings, September 1954) I should have said that liberation ‘from the channels the creator is known to have used already’ is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation’, a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety, one of the ways in which indeed it is exhibited.
For Tolkien literary creation is thus another form of God’s creative power, channelled through the imperfect ‘code’ of a human instrument. Just like Niggle’s Tree, Tolkien considers his own work as the offspring of his artistic, sub-creative aspiration and the vitalising power of God, an offspring which Tolkien ‘delivered’ with ‘labour pains’. Tolkien’s stories are thus not only his own stories, just as a translation belongs to the translator but primarily to its original author. In fact, the true Author of Tolkien’s stories, returning to our starting question, is not Tolkien himself, but rather an Unnamed Person:
(Letter 192 [to Amy Ronald, July 1956])
The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself) ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named’.
Why does this person remain Unnamed? The reason is the same as why Tolkien eventually concealed the meta-textual frame, whose ultimate (perhaps unintended) function, to put it in a nutshell, is to express in symbolic forms the ‘Otherness’ and ‘multi-authoriality’ of his stories. It was not Tolkien’s ambition (or vocation) to articulate truth in the imperfect language of fallen human beings, but rather to express it in a more unfamiliar, and thus more powerful (and perhaps accurate) form, under the cloak of symbols and stories.