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Tolkien and Metafictinon


Sep 9 2013, 12:54pm

Post #1 of 17 (646 views)
Tolkien and Metafictinon Can't Post

I thought I'd start a pretentious thread about Tolkien and the notion of 'meta-fiction'. If anyone follows the journal 'Tolkien Studies' you may have noticed that over the last few years they've been running quite a few papers on the question of Tolkien's meta-fictional conceits. Brljak's article (2011) for instance argued that the overall conceit of the Lord of the Rings - that it is ultimately a translation of an unknown number of 'manuscripts' (only the initial manuscripts in the tradition having been actually written by Bilbo, Frodo and Sam) - is actually its defining characteristics and should be granted far more attention.

For example Brljak argues that we cannot 'view' the story contained within the pages of LoTR without some degree of readerly skepticism, given that Tolkien alerts us to the manuscript conceit in the Prologue (indeed explains it in considerable depth). He therefore argues for a new approach to Tolkien that "problematizes", to use that hideous piece of Po-Mo jargon, the novel's claim to authenticity. Furthermore, he argues that the prevalence of novelistic technique argues against the status of the work as a straightforward translation of 'Frodo's memoir' - instead we should see it as a 'history' that has been 'novelised' by successive generations of scholars.

But if we view the work in this way, what are we to make of its claims to verisimilitude? We treat the LoTR as though it were an unproblematic window into this 'Secondary World' - but what if (just bear with me!) it is nothing of the sort, and instead is an artistic compilation from out of that secondary world, but which represents it only fictionally.

This is perhaps all very ridiculous, but Brljak and Gergely Nagy have been arguing for some years that some kind of meta-fictional approach to Tolkien's work is essential. It both creates, and possibly distorts and undercuts, that familiar sense of 'depth' that Shippey and others have commented on.

Your thoughts about this?

Na Vedui

Sep 9 2013, 2:37pm

Post #2 of 17 (370 views)
An interesting approach [In reply to] Can't Post

which could produce all sorts of interesting speculations. The limitation of course is that they remain just that - speculations - because our only source for Tolkien's world is Tolkien himself. If a historian "problematizes" the narrative in a chronicle or memoir dealing with real-world events, it is often possible to check its reliability, or at least likelihood, against some other contemporary source.

Though admittedly that has its own problems: For example, delving into the archived financial records of Mordor might produce "evidence" of the Ringwraiths' trip to the Shire in the form of expense-claims. This looks like confirmation of that fact in the LOTR narrative, but is somewhat undermined by the discovery of subsequent Mordor News reports about The Great Ringwraith Expenses Scandal. However, given that Frodo and the later adaptor(s) of his MS, which include one JRR Tolkien, are clearly very anti-Mordor, they are unlikely to have any motive for aiding and abetting Ringwraiths in a false expenses claim. So perhaps on balance we should conclude that the Ringwraiths really did visit the Shire...


Sep 9 2013, 8:39pm

Post #3 of 17 (348 views)
Hmm- if you accept the meta fiction idea does it help explain anything which is difficult to explain otherwise? [In reply to] Can't Post

…that's often what makes a theory interesting…

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowimė I am in the West, Furincurunir to the Dwarves (or at least, to their best friend) and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "
Or "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"


Sep 9 2013, 8:53pm

Post #4 of 17 (345 views)
Yeah, to me it seems to make things more disjointed and confusing. // [In reply to] Can't Post



Sep 9 2013, 9:18pm

Post #5 of 17 (340 views)
Yes... it's an interesting idea, but..... [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree, it makes things more complex. I have to confess that it took me a few reads of LOTR and the Appendices to fully determine the POV and who the "narrator" really was. There seem to be layers of it, which you have to peel back like an onion- in the centre is the heart of the tale, but it is largely from a Hobbit view point. Then we stand back a little and see the story as adapted from the Red Book of Westmarch- plus sundry additions from Faramir Took and others, some time after the events. Then there's Tolkien talking about languages and what the true translations should be and how he had "anglicized" the Westron etc
And finally, there's Tolkien outside of the whole sphere, (mostly in the preface ) in real life.
I certainly wouldn't want to make things too complicated, although, as I said, it is an interesting concept

Is there a Tolkien topic that you have wanted to look into more deeply and write about your thoughts on it? If so, we'd like to hear from you for the next TORn Amateur Symposium- coming in November. Happy writing!


Sep 10 2013, 3:40am

Post #6 of 17 (328 views)
Contrast Equals Interest [In reply to] Can't Post

I'd want to read the article before diving into the deep end here, but it sounds from your report like Brljak and others are simply pointing out that Tolkien wanted it both ways. He acknowledged both in his letters and elsewhere, as well as in the style of most of the writing itself, that The Lord of the Rings was simply a fantastic and novelistic fiction with all that implied as far as authenticity was concerned. Yet at various times and places in his authorial apparatus and in his letters he also seems to claim that his work had an underlying reality -- that it was a revelation of a world that existed in some kind of parallel/past universe that was ancestrally, mystically, or otherwise related to our actual earth and its human cultures.

Wha? Well, I think Tolkien was surprised at the depth of his own creativity, and as a believer in a revelatory faith he was more prepared to project an external source for that creativity than some other authors might have been. But he was also a scientist, an artist, a scholar, and a humanist who never lost his grip on reality and always ultimately pulled back from the descent into madness that a real belief in Middle-earth could imply. Conflicted? Sure. But as I was taught in art school: contrast equals interest. Tolkien is, and always has been, an interesting man who wrote interesting books.

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
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= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.

Fredeghar Wayfarer

Sep 10 2013, 8:42am

Post #7 of 17 (323 views)
Mixed thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

If we examine the metafiction, I think we should look at how it can potentially affect a reader's view of the characters and names. The metafictional conceit is something I've always had a mixed response to in Tolkien's work. On the one hand, it lends a greater sense of depth and realism to the stories. It's fun to pretend that Middle-earth was real and these books were merely Tolkien's "translations" of the Westron text. It adds another layer of complexity to the secondary world he created.

On the other hand, I feel that he sometimes went too far with it. This, as I interpret it, was due to his training as a linguist. If we accept the translation conceit, that means that there was no "Frodo Baggins," there was "Maura Labingi." There were no "hobbits," there were "kudukkan." And who knows what Gandalf, the Dwarves, or the Rohirrim's real names would have been, as they were represented in the text with Norse and Old English words.

For Tolkien's peace of mind as a linguist, he had to do this. He recognized the root words of the names he borrowed or invented and knew that, logically, those languages wouldn't exist yet in Middle-earth. But for the layman reader, this aspect can potentially unravel the story to an extent. These characters we know and love weren't actually called what we think of them as. Our gateway into that world is The Hobbit but that word wouldn't have even EXISTED in Middle-earth according to the Appendices.

Personally, I wish Tolkien had relaxed his personal rules a bit. Why couldn't "hobbit" have been a Westron word, unrelated to the later English phrases like "hobgoblin?" Couldn't "Frodo" be a hobbitish name that just happens to sound like a Germanic one? I'm sure there are plenty of homophones in various languages that have nothing to do with each other. Tolkien's metafiction kind of messes with my mind since what we see as the world of the story would not have been the "actual" Middle-earth at all. It makes it feel more real but also a bit more distant.

(This post was edited by Fredeghar Wayfarer on Sep 10 2013, 8:50am)


Sep 10 2013, 4:28pm

Post #8 of 17 (295 views)
I wish I could stop thinking... [In reply to] Can't Post

Yesterday upon a stair
A meta-fiction wasn't there...

Disclaimers: The words of noWizardme may stand on their heads! I'm often wrong about things, and its fun to be taught more....

"nowimė I am in the West, Furincurunir to the Dwarves (or at least, to their best friend) and by other names in other lands. Mostly they just say 'Oh no it's him - look busy!' "
Or "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"


Sep 10 2013, 5:48pm

Post #9 of 17 (290 views)
That's great Fredeghar.. [In reply to] Can't Post

This is sort of what I wanted to say, but wasn't saying very coherently!Smile

Is there a Tolkien topic that you have wanted to look into more deeply and write about your thoughts on it? If so, we'd like to hear from you for the next TORn Amateur Symposium- coming in November. Happy writing!


Sep 10 2013, 5:49pm

Post #10 of 17 (281 views)
You did say it coherently. But in Quenya. // [In reply to] Can't Post



Sep 10 2013, 5:55pm

Post #11 of 17 (284 views)
? Quenya [In reply to] Can't Post

Oh, was that what it was? Crazy That's cool, I can speak a language I don't know. It's kinda like Harry Potter being able to speak Parseltongue. Does that mean I am possessed by a High Elf somewhere along the line?- one of the decent ones, I hope. Now if I was subconsciously speaking Khuzdul, that might be another matterEvil

Is there a Tolkien topic that you have wanted to look into more deeply and write about your thoughts on it? If so, we'd like to hear from you for the next TORn Amateur Symposium- coming in November. Happy writing!

Hamfast Gamgee
Grey Havens

Sep 11 2013, 2:57pm

Post #12 of 17 (270 views)
How much can we trust the narrator then? [In reply to] Can't Post


Grey Havens

Sep 11 2013, 4:37pm

Post #13 of 17 (269 views)
Froda [In reply to] Can't Post

For myself, I very much like the translation conceit and don't think it goes too far. It may add a 'remove' in that I know there was really no Hobbit named 'Samwise' for example, but he is still the same character of course, and it seems more real to me that he was, in fact, not so named.

If it helps any [probably not], since we are 'allowed' Bilba being Bilbo's real name for example, can one not add Froda out of simple determination [turning a blind eye here]? Or does that not work for some author-published reason?

I'm aware of what the draft Appendices say, but 'Maura' comes from a draft of something ultimately published by the author himself in any case [one of the Appendices], so it's possibly 'rejected' at least. It's not in the final form, for whatever reason, let's say.

Although yes, even if 'Maura' specifically was rejected, this surely implies that we are not to think of Froda like we think of Bilba, but Tolkien himself never intended that we see his draft appendices, and if it helps to add even one name... well it wouldn't be the first time that I've heard the argument that Tolkien not publishing something himself 'allowed' that a reader could choose to ignore it.

Again if 'possible' it's only one name, even if one chooses to ignore Maura and the idea behind it!


Sep 12 2013, 2:27am

Post #14 of 17 (273 views)
Games linguists play [In reply to] Can't Post

Given his background, I think all the stuff about the translations and alternative spellings meant a lot to Tolkien. I have to confess it doesn't do as much for me. Citing alternative names, etc., in the text of LotR adds a degree of depth and context for me, but I'm not going anywhere near the language appendices!

Taking the concept metafiction to the extent of worrying about whether the translation is "accurate" or the narrator is lying is a step too far. I really don't see the point.

Registered User

Sep 14 2013, 3:32am

Post #15 of 17 (247 views)
Speculating . . . [In reply to] Can't Post

Haven't read the article, so I can only speculate. It's a cute theory with some rather troubling implications for the characters. If you go full immersion and view it as a novelization of recent history, then the next question is what was the (fictional) author's purpose in writing that particular story? What's their angle? And with LotR, it's fairly transparent. After all, the title of this historical fiction novel would have been "The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King." It would have been written to legitimize and glorify House Telcontar, the new royal family of Gondor.

Taken in that light, every single thing about the characterization of Aragorn, Boromir, Denethor, and Faramir must be called into question. You can make Aragorn's whole ascension to power seem sketchy just by adding some scare quotes. An "heir of Elendil" emerges from the long lost northern kingdom after generations spent "in hiding." He proves his claim largely through possession of a few key heirlooms including a sword "reforged." Those heirlooms were "preserved" not by the "kings in hiding," but by a third party. Aragorn "just happens" to be betrothed to the daughter of said third party. He travels south accompanied by the son and heir of the current ruler of Gondor. That heir dies before reaching his homeland and not only is Aragorn the only witness to his death, he is the only one to hear a "confession" in which the dying man admits to breaking an oath and betraying a friend. Then, the same day Aragorn reaches Minas Tirith, Gondor's current ruler also dies in a flurry of "madness" and attempted murder. Denethor and Boromir are both power hungry, slightly insane, and conveniently dead. Faramir, who becomes Steward by default, has absolutely no desire for power and couldn't be happier to see the king return.

In the real world, if that story was presented by a novelist as true history, we would call it kinda fishy. Actually, the "meta-historical-novel" interpretation is kind of disturbingly plausible, in that it's the kind of historical revisionism that happens after real-world changes of power when the truth is significantly messier.

I think, though, that my spine's not quite strong enough for that much "problematization." I love the characters as they're presented, so I'll stick with the "true window" interpretation.


Sep 15 2013, 7:57am

Post #16 of 17 (223 views)
Mae govannen Brennanspeaks [In reply to] Can't Post

And you are so right. Looked at in a RL context, Aragorn's ascent to the throne could be seen as more of a coup d'etat. I enjoyed reading your speculation, but, like you, prefer the account as written. Look forward to seeing you more in the RRSmile

Is there a Tolkien topic that you have wanted to look into more deeply and write about your thoughts on it? If so, we'd like to hear from you for the next TORn Amateur Symposium- coming in November. Happy writing!


Sep 15 2013, 2:09pm

Post #17 of 17 (217 views)
Fun speculation [In reply to] Can't Post

Welcome to the Reading Room, Brennan!

It was fun to read your speculative history. Who knew Aragorn had a sleazy side, killing off rivals and gaining the throne not through heroism but through treachery? His apparent "luck" in gaining the kingship would be a little too convenient in the real world and hence suspect, wouldn't it? The King Arthur story is more appealing to me than just another story about an unscrupulous politician. (Though people could say having just another King Arthur story is tiresome too.)


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