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

Grey Havens

Jun 5, 5:39pm

Views: 352
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.


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).


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:

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?


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)?


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!"

Subject User Time
What's with this "Red Book of Westmarch" conceit? noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jun 5, 5:39pm
    I think you answered your own question.... HeWhoArisesinMight Send a private message to HeWhoArisesinMight Jun 5, 7:09pm
    Another point to consider Na Vedui Send a private message to Na Vedui Jun 5, 7:26pm
        Na Vedui made the same point that I thought of. Meneldor Send a private message to Meneldor Jun 5, 10:27pm
    Even intellectuals have a sense of humor . . . on occasion! Bracegirdle Send a private message to Bracegirdle Jun 5, 8:45pm
        Perhaps I was unwise… noWizardme Send a private message to noWizardme Jun 5, 9:29pm
            Oh no, I would never call noWizardme unwise . .. Bracegirdle Send a private message to Bracegirdle Jun 6, 12:00am
        Tolkien was having fun all right Na Vedui Send a private message to Na Vedui Jun 5, 11:39pm
    A context for the use of his invented languages? Escapist Send a private message to Escapist Jun 5, 9:45pm
    All of them at once! CuriousG Send a private message to CuriousG Jun 6, 2:01am
        dedicated to England Elthir Send a private message to Elthir Jun 6, 11:38am
    I thought it was a bet. Dame Ioreth Send a private message to Dame Ioreth Jun 7, 3:24pm
        The Lost Road Elthir Send a private message to Elthir Jun 13, 4:39pm
            check your bookstores Elthir Send a private message to Elthir Jun 13, 4:41pm


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