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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
What's with this "Red Book of Westmarch" conceit?

noWizardme
Tol Eressea


Jun 5 2014, 5:39pm

Post #1 of 14 (368 views)
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What's with this "Red Book of Westmarch" conceit? Can't Post

Tolkien pretends that TH and LOTR are presentations of material he has compliled from a volume called “The Red Book of Westmarch”, and provides a little history of this fictional work. Why do you think he did this? I have various ideas, but am not sure what to conclude. What do you folks think?

Possible reasons:

He was professionally engaged with historical works; it’s a donnish joke to pretend that he is translating and editing once more, rather than composing fiction.

Or...

At one time, Tolkien says, (letter 153) he wanted to write a mythology for England - as I understand it, he meant the kind of mythology which England might have had (or which JRRT wished it had) if such material had survived. Maybe the “Red Book” conceit is a nice link back to that earlier project (or represents how the project was continuing along in Tolkien’s imagination).

Or...

The device distances the real author (Tolkien) from the one we are to imagine having actually written the work (we are to imagine that these are Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and maybe other contributors/editors/translators). Does this have a literary effect? If so it’s one I’ve been too dense to notice. The Red Book conceit doesn’t seem at all obvious to me once I’m in the text itself. There is a running theme about Bilbo working on a book & being unable to finish it. There is the odd footnote (e.g. why the Sun is referred to as “She”). But the presence of a translator/editor is very easy to miss (for me as a reader, at least).

On the other hand, even while mostly forgetting as a reader that I am supposed to be reading a translated work, I do sense and benefit from this:

Quote
It appears that according to the professor himself, The Lord of the Rings should be read as a feigned history. Most readers are delighted to do so, and a major part of the charm of the book (at least to this reader) lies in its "historic" qualities – the experience of a different world in which these events take place, a sense of events one can strive to understand, the feeling of untold tales overshadowing the borders of the story, only hinted at but actually there.
Sador http://newboards.theonering.net/...i?post=402489#402489


Perhaps Tolkien had to feign it was history to get that “feigned history” feel?


Or...

Returning to the running item about Bilbo trying to finish his book - is this an self-directed joke at Tolkien himself, and his efforts to finish and publish his most beloved work (the material which eventually surfaced posthumously as the Silmarillion)?

Or...

Verilyn Flieger has an essay “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book” (In Green Suns and Faerie, Kent State University Press 2012) in which she wonders whether Tolkien’s “Red Book” idea is based in part upon a real-life contemporary event. This is that in 1934, a manuscript was discovered in a safe in Winchester College which turned out to be the manuscript of Mallory’s Morte ‘Arthur from which Caxton probably worked. The “Winchester Mallory” was edited for modern scholarly publication by Eugene Vinaver, who gave a talk in Oxford about this work in 1935. CS Lewis attended, maybe Tolkien did too, and perhaps this real-life discovery of an English mythology stirred his imagination? .

Several of these reasons might be true, of course, or there could be other reasons! What do you think?

~~~~~~

"… ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
Arthur Martine

"nowimë 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!"


HeWhoArisesinMight
Rivendell


Jun 5 2014, 7:09pm

Post #2 of 14 (217 views)
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I think you answered your own question.... [In reply to] Can't Post

IMO, it is a combination of these two...


Quote



At one time, Tolkien says, (letter 153) he wanted to write a mythology for England - as I understand it, he meant the kind of mythology which England might have had (or which JRRT wished it had) if such material had survived. Maybe the “Red Book” conceit is a nice link back to that earlier project (or represents how the project was continuing along in Tolkien’s imagination).




AND

Quote
The device distances the real author (Tolkien) from the one we are to imagine having actually written the work (we are to imagine that these are Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and maybe other contributors/editors/translators).




Tolkien wanted to write a mythology that seemed both historic and real in the sense that it actually took place. The Red Book conceit helps him accomplish both goals.


Na Vedui
Rohan


Jun 5 2014, 7:26pm

Post #3 of 14 (215 views)
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Another point to consider [In reply to] Can't Post

is that the writers of medieval epics and romances used to make references to their source, as a kind of authentication that what they are relating is true. I'm not certain how much of this was serious or how much merely a literary convention, but overtly, at least - unlike modern literature where originality is considered the essential virtue - one wasn't supposed to be making things up in a vacuum. Tolkien would be well aware of this tradition.
In his case I think an approach like the "Red Book" was probably overdetermined in the sense that - as a conscientious scholar used to backing his case with documentary evidence, as a Dark Ages/Medieval scholar in particular, as a philologist concerned with the relationship between language and story, and as a self-confessed "niggler" striving to give his secondary world great artistic verisimilitude - several things in his background would push him that way.


Bracegirdle
Tol Eressea


Jun 5 2014, 8:45pm

Post #4 of 14 (191 views)
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Even intellectuals have a sense of humor . . . on occasion! [In reply to] Can't Post

Oh, come come good people! Conceit? Certainly “Beren” is laughing beneath his gravestone, as we, all these years later ponder what in the deuce he means by being the “translator of The Redbook of Westmarch”.
Was Tolkien really trying to distance himself from TH and LOTR (and much of The Silmarillion)? Or was his tongue-in-his-cheek when he called himself “recorder and translator”. Of course!

Personally I find it most fascinating to try and figure who wrote what. Such as Frodo supposedly wrote LOTR. But then he couldn’t have written The Grey Havens, so we must assume that Sam wrote this chapter. But then the actual sailing and arrival so much resembles Frodo’s dream at Tom Bombadil’s house. How could that be? Well, the only answer is that Frodo told Sam of the dream and Sam recalled it quite closely when he wrote The Grey Havens. And on and on . . .

Yes, we can get overly intellectual (as often seems to be the wont on this forum), or we can take it as intended – just a very clever ruse. It’s fun! I love it! Wink

**This space for hire***
Contact Messrs, Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes.
Hole 17, Bywater Pool Road, Bywater,
Westfarthing


noWizardme
Tol Eressea


Jun 5 2014, 9:29pm

Post #5 of 14 (187 views)
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Perhaps I was unwise… [In reply to] Can't Post

...to use the term "conceit". I meant it in the sense of "an artistic effect or device". Which seems a reasonable term: but any confusion with the sense that gives us "conceited" was unintentional.

I agree, it's a perfectly good theory to think the Red Book is a simple ruse or joke & move on. But it also might be interesting to look for more significance: whether this is a foolish enquiry is a matter of opinion, I think.

The question of who is supposed to have written what would of course be the subject of many a PhD if the Red Book were a real volume, whether it was history, historiography, or mythology.

Smile

~~~~~~

"… ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
Arthur Martine

"nowimë 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!"


Escapist
Gondor


Jun 5 2014, 9:45pm

Post #6 of 14 (173 views)
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A context for the use of his invented languages? [In reply to] Can't Post

I think that the device serves many purposes and I like to follow it quite a bit as a layer on the story that is a story of its own of sorts.

But maybe a primary motivator is the language thing since I seem to remember elsewhere that this was a primary inspiration for all of it and especially characters who started from names first that had meaning within an invented language.

If all the world's a stage then who's writing the script?


Meneldor
Tol Eressea


Jun 5 2014, 10:27pm

Post #7 of 14 (172 views)
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Na Vedui made the same point that I thought of. [In reply to] Can't Post

Invented sources have been a literary trope for ages, and I don't believe they'll ever vanish entirely. I believe my first exposure to that convention was in the work of Sir Walter Scott.


They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.


Na Vedui
Rohan


Jun 5 2014, 11:39pm

Post #8 of 14 (161 views)
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Tolkien was having fun all right [In reply to] Can't Post

- I've no doubt of that at all! - but it is very particularly Tolkien's kind of fun, because there were several reasons that all pulled the same way and made it likely his invention would take that sort of turn. It *is* intellectual, as well as fun - what else would one expect from a Oxford don?Sly


Bracegirdle
Tol Eressea


Jun 6 2014, 12:00am

Post #9 of 14 (159 views)
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Oh no, I would never call noWizardme unwise . .. [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
I agree, it's a perfectly good theory to think the Red Book is a simple ruse or joke & move on. But it also might be interesting to look for more significance: whether this is a foolish enquiry is a matter of opinion, I think.

And I never intended for us to not look for more significance. (A little, very little, jocularity there.) Any investigation into the works of Tolkien is not only “fair game” but for us “intolerable” not to, and far from “foolish enquiry”. We just can’t help it! Hooked on his genius!


In Reply To
The question of who is supposed to have written what would of course be the subject of many a PhD if the Red Book were a real volume…

Yet, we must be cautious. Many a PhD can’t tie his own shoes, but CAN solve Einstein’s field equations.
Too, the internet is a great source of information – but the internet lies, the internet tells the truth. Many books about Tolkien or his works contain inaccuracies, usually trivial, not always. So books, or the internet (includes this site), whether written by a PhD or just an “expert” in the field must always be looked at “through a glass brightly” (with logic).
Always go to the “The Source” for the truth!
“I Bracegirdle the Sophomoric have spoken!”

**This space for hire***
Contact Messrs, Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes.
Hole 17, Bywater Pool Road, Bywater,
Westfarthing


CuriousG
Valinor


Jun 6 2014, 2:01am

Post #10 of 14 (156 views)
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All of them at once! [In reply to] Can't Post

Except for the belief that he was writing a mythology for England. I know that those are his own words, but they never make sense to me when I think about the execution. For starters, is there any direct link between the end of LOTR and England? If the Shire is the most England-like of his places, how did it turn into an island? Or was someone else suppose to fill in the gaps? But those are just too many gaps to live up to someone else.

Then there's the fact that he invented this English mythology in the 20th century. Was everyone really supposed to be duped?

But I think all the other reasons are partly to blame (ha, not really assigning blame), and most of all, his desire to make it an authentic world. The Hobbit does NOT seem like an authentic world with the narrator taking time out to talk to me in asides, but LOTR and The Sil do seem authentic. With suspension of disbelief, I can feel like I'm exploring another world and have jumped through a portal of exploration. While the premise doesn't hold up for me for logical reasons that Bracegirdle points out, the tone of the premise does work.

I'd also say that the much earlier Book of Lost Tales was written in the same style of tales recounted to a scribe who recorded them for posterity, and JRR really seemed to like that approach. Maybe he was emulating the real life style of things he read as part of his profession? Like a good writer, he was "writing about what he knew."

Anyway, great question, Wiz!


Elthir
Gondor

Jun 6 2014, 11:38am

Post #11 of 14 (138 views)
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dedicated to England [In reply to] Can't Post

At one point JRRT said he wanted to write tales that he could dedicate to England.

And that said, I think he was referring to his earlier works like The Book of Lost Tales, in which Tol Eressea actually became England for instance -- in one early Eriol-based conceptions that is -- and there were identifications with 'early English' figures like Hengest and Horsa, or Heorenda, as well as place-names. And the Northern gods [who must have had English counterparts before Christianity arrived in England, especially considering place-names in England], were to be identified by the Fairies with Manwe and Tulkas for example.

That said too, England itself as a place [surviving as an Island after the destruction of Beleriand], and certainly an English translator in Elfwine [and 'Old English figure'], persisted longer than The Book of Lost Tales, and the 'English element', or Englishness, of The Lost Road, and even of The Lord of the Rings, is a complicated subject.

Verlyn Flieger argues [to try to put her argument ridiculously briefly here] that The Lost Road was to be English in its concept of shared memory given to the English descendants of earlier characters who 'time travel' through memory, all the way back to Elendil, for instance.


Quote
The Hobbit does NOT seem like an authentic world with the narrator taking time out to talk to me in asides, but LOTR and The Sil do seem authentic.



To me the modern narrator and translator is just part of the chain: original document not only translated by, but embellished by, the modern tale teller.

The asides are sometimes modern ['express train'] as the modern translator is part writer, 'updating' the tale in ways for modern minds.


(This post was edited by Elthir on Jun 6 2014, 11:51am)


Dame Ioreth
Grey Havens


Jun 7 2014, 3:24pm

Post #12 of 14 (116 views)
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I thought it was a bet. [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien was supposed to create a prehistory (time travel) and CS Lewis was supposed to do something with space travel? Didn't it all come from conversations between members of the Inklings? Or was that just a created mythology in itself?

Where there's life there's hope, and need of vittles.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings






Elthir
Gondor

Jun 13 2014, 4:39pm

Post #13 of 14 (59 views)
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The Lost Road [In reply to] Can't Post

The time travel [time travel through memory] tale was The Lost Road specifically, and then The Notion Club Papers had this shared memory element as well.

The conceit in The Notion Club Papers was related to a Mr. Green...

Basically The Notion Club Papers is supposed to be a surviving record of meetings of an Oxford society during 1986 and 1987. Part of the fictional framework includes a book 'Leaves from the Notion Club Papers' edited by a character called Howard Green and published in 2014. Green found the club's papers after Summer Examinations of 2012, which appeared to be incomplete reports of meetings from about 1980 to 1990.

In a note to the second edition, Mr. Green notes the opinions of two other persons (these people having examined the manuscript of the papers) who say that the actual paper used, and style of writing, suggest the materials date to around the 'Six Years War' (The Second World War), further noting that the idiom of the dialogues is old-fashioned and does not represent with any fidelity the colloquial language of the 1980s or present.

Anyway, in the actual entries, under night 67, June 12th 1987, a great storm hits one of the meetings, and a character named Lowdham went up to another named Jeremy 'who was cowering against the wall, and he took his hands.' And...

'Come, Abrazân!' he said. There is work to do. Let us look to our folk and see to our courses, before it is too late!'

'It is too late Nimruzîr,' said Jeremy. The Valar hate us. Only darkness awaits us.'



And they run out, while the rest of the group sat huddled in candle-light for three hours as the storm raged. Christopher Tolkien notes that his father's 'prevision' was only out by four months, as 'the greatest storm in living memory struck southern England, causing vast damage, on October 16th.'

_____

Of course, Tolkien abandoned both this tale, and The Lost Road, although Numenorean elements survive and become part of the legendarium that Bilbo translated [in part], in any case. And not that you said otherwise, but there is a distinction between the external reason for why Tolkien writes a tale [Tolkien and Lewis chatting for example], and the imagined 'internal' framework of the tale [the invented Mr. Green and so on].

Certainly I think Tolkien's Silmarillion was to have some measure of framework, and even Christopher Tolkien seems to have later decided that he should have provided something. But for the larger legendarium, what we are 'missing' in some sense is the answer to: in what way did the modern translator, JRR Tolkien [who reveals he is the fictive translator of The Lord of the Rings in his Elvish letters and runes in the beginning of the book, for example] get his hands on the old tales?

How did Tolkien find the books or texts in order to translate them? And what language were the copies in? And did he have help? After all, the languages and scripts of Frodo and Findegil's day would be new to anyone from Tolkien's time.

In the old scenario the question seems to be answered more easily: Elfwine turned the tales into Old English, but even still we don't know exactly how Tolkien was to get his hands on the Old English versions [do we? at the moment I don't recall this ever being detailed anyway]. In any case, to my mind there is little question that a student of Old English now had an 'easy' way to translate versions of very old tales written in Westron and Sindarin and so on, using Elvish scripts.

But again, once we remove the Elfwine factor, how did the 'book' arrive to we readers, in modern day English?

Although in the future, maybe the English won't seem so modern Wink


(This post was edited by Elthir on Jun 13 2014, 4:45pm)


Elthir
Gondor

Jun 13 2014, 4:41pm

Post #14 of 14 (84 views)
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check your bookstores [In reply to] Can't Post

'... and published in 2014'

I just noticed that!

Smile

 
 

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