Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Fans and Scholars?

As I was revising my last blog entry on The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrùn, my comments on Tolkien ‘ret-conning’ the old sagas made me remember a discussion we had a few years back in the Tolkien Newsgroups, Tolkien Scholars / Writers (2006-07-12)1

The discussion started with a question on whom were the ‘top 10 of Tolkien scholars’, but the perspective that I remembered in this context was better captured in the question, ‘Would a scholar for example ask whether elves have pointed ears or balrogs wings?’ The central question here is whether this kind of ‘story-internal’ questions are really scholarly? Is it so that there are some topics, some questions, that belong wholly or predominantly in a fan culture and are frowned upon in scholarly circles, and others that belong wholly or predominantly in a scholarly culture that are frowned upon in fan discussions (or somehow out of reach for fans)?

We didn't reach a conclusion back then, but I have occasionally been wondering about this question since then.

It would be easy to point at many of the on-line discussion fora where fans2 discuss Tolkien's works and say that these discussions are predominantly taking the story-internal view (and the perspective they take is very often that of creating the kind of consistent whole: a particular vision of Tolkien's sub-creation that can then be standardised and even canonised), and when you read some of the scholarly work such as e.g. the contents of Tolkien Studies which prides itself with the subtitle, An Annual Scholarly Review, the perspective is predominantly story-external (there are many approaches to this type of view of which the biographical and the source-critical are but two).

I think, however, that the picture is more complex than a superficial scan of the titles and abstracts of these papers, books and discussions would suggest.

First of all it seems to me obvious (and entirely non-controversial) that the portrayal of a dichotomy is too simplistic: at every turn we see the two approaches mixed so that fans may cite biographical or source-critical points in order to argue their own story-internal view, and scholars will argue a story-internal point in order to support their analysis3. Not only that, but while there is certainly a trend to have the main emphasis in different parts of this scale, you can also find fan-discussions where the main emphasis is on what would, in the simple view, be seen as scholarly topics, and scholarly work where the main emphasis is story-internal.4

The other point I'd like to make in this connection is neither new nor not original to me. However, I think it deserves to be highlighted now and again.

A while back (OK, actually it's been more than seven years), Michael Drout posted on his blog on ‘Becoming a “Tolkien Scholar”’ in which his main point is that the scholarly study of Tolkien is still very open and to a large extent dominated by independent scholars, so that it is possible to contribute even without academic tenure or formal education.

Drout goes on to note that
I know for a fact that there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about the internal elements of Middle-earth than I do. These people are enormous resources for Tolkien scholarship, and they should be encouraged and listened to, not mocked or derided. I think that my additional training in literary study, ancient languages and linguistics gives me the opportunity to add value and context to the analysis and discovery by people who work only within the materials of Middle-earth, but I don't ever pretend that I know more about Middle-earth than they do.
This goes right to the heart of what I aiming at here: the interdependence of the two perspectives that I have outlined above.

This interdependence seems to me to be stronger for fiction that is set in a sub-created world because of the nature of the sub-creative process. We know that in Middle-earth, Tolkien's personal views are fully integrated into the fabric of the sub-creation — most careful readers will be able to point out where his Roman Catholic faith is immanent in the nature of causation in Middle-earth. I know that for Tolkien there is a very strong connection between his personal interests, ideas, beliefs etc. and the way that things work in his sub-created universe, and though I cannot say to what extent it applies to other authors in general, I suspect that there is a tendency for this connection to be stronger the more of the world the author sub-creates her- or himself.

Whatever the details, I will claim that this connection is particularly strong in Tolkien's case, and that this linked to the fortuitous situation that Drout describes in the passage quoted above. The story-internal perspective deals with how things work inside Middle-earth, but solving such questions tells us something about what Tolkien thought. On the other hand, knowing what Tolkien thought can often solve the question of how something is supposed to work.

Sometimes a question may come out of hand — the infamous balrog wings is a good example — but even there a kernel of relevant scholarship may possibly be found. I once saw the argument that the reason that angels in Christian imagery are portrayed with wings is because they were thought of as insubstantial. The reasoning, as I recall it, was that insubstantial associated with air, air with flight, and flight was symbolised with wings.5. If this is true, then it could be relevant to know if balrogs had wings, because it might possibly tell us something about Tolkien's view on evil (the balrogs, too, were insubstantial spirits in their origin, but presumably became bound to their shapes in a state that approached incarnation: see ‘Ósanwe-kenta’ for details).

Other, perhaps more plausible, examples can be found:
  • What is the detailed nature of the agency of the Master Ring? Sentience? Sapience? Free will?
  • Was the Master Ring influencing Isildur to make him reject Círdan and Elrond's advice? And if so, how was it influencing him?
  • What is the nature of the invisibility conveyed by the Rings of Power (except by the Three)?
These questions are some that have been debated in fan fora (as far as I know without reaching consensus), and where the answer might tell us something about Tolkien's thoughts that would be relevant for Tolkien scholarship — but also where scholarly findings might contribute to resolving the questions.

So, my dear fellow Tolkien fans, geeks and enthusiasts, let us not be ashamed of quarrelling over the shape of Elvish ears or Tom Bombadil's place in the taxonomy of Middle-earth. Let us rather work to keep these discussions at a level where we can attract also Tolkien scholars to our discussions to our mutual benefit. Why should it not be considered a legitimate subject of Tolkien scholarship to discuss in detail whether the Master Ring could think and whether it had free will? (Now, there's a paper I'd like to see in Tolkien Studies!)

1^ Also available from Google Groups: Tolkien Scholars / Writers  Back

2^ I actually don't like the word fan all that much and I try to avoid using it of myself, mostly for the association with fanaticism. I prefer to describe myself as a Tolkien enthusiast or geek — possibly obsessed, but not, I think, fanatic. It is, however, a widely used word so that references to an on-line fan community or on-line fandom will be instantly recognised, and therefore use the word here to include also my own activities and the fora where I am active.  Back

3^ To give just a single example, Verlyn Flieger's discussion of the workings of Elvish free will in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World would qualify as using a story-internal question to argue a point in a scholarly work.  Back

4^ An excellent example of this is Vladimir Brljak's paper, ‘The Books of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist’ in Tolkien Studies 7 in which the main points is to argue a specific metafictional, but entirely story-internal, tradition of transmission for the books.  Back

5^ I do not know whether this explanation is correct, or a mistake (possibly a previously held, but now abandoned, explanation) — I offer it here only to exemplify my idea. I also realise that I am stretching credibility by choosing the balrog wings example, but that is interesting as an example precisely because it doesn't get much more absurd than the Balrog Wings Flame Wars.  Back


  1. One comment I'd make (not that it's news to you) is that there's a whole spectrum here, not just "scholars" vs. "fans". Discussions of Tolkien can range from...

    * The story-external extreme like pure biographical or literary criticism, to

    * Examples like Flieger's discussion of free will that use story-internal arguments to make story-external points, to

    * Serious story-internal questions like the nature of Ring-invisibility, to

    * Frivolous questions like "Who would win in a fight"?, to

    * Pure fannish indulgence like lists of favorite scenes and characters (or, heaven help us, squeeing over movie-Legolas).

    So as a rather dedicated but primarily story-internal "Tolkien scholar", it's easy to get frustrated at being lumped together with the more frivolous folks.

    It's true that "story internal" discussions are rarely taken seriously in any context; the only place I've run into them before is the journal "Chaucer Studies". A part of me suspects that relatively few fictional worlds (and certainly very few settings in "serious" fiction) have enough detail to make story-internal discussions at all interesting. Middle-earth clearly does, but whether "interesting" can translate into "worthy of serious scholarly attention" I don't know.

    What exactly is the goal or value of serious literary criticism, anyway? You'd think I'd know that, but it's not obvious to me.

  2. You are correct. The picture I present of story-internal vs. story-external is of course simplistic. Both of these cover a wealth of perspectives, but the only picture I could come up with that sort of covers what I think is a Hilbert space spanned by critical perspectives, but I think that image is unlikely to be meaningful to most people ;)

    There are numerous perspectives that can be applied, and most discussions apply a number of them, mixed or superposed in various constellations. If we were to sit down and attempt an analysis of all these, I think we would find a continuum with no obvious gaps: that there is really no obvious gap in which we might draw our line and call one side the scholarly and the other side fannish.

    Still, my impression is also that the story-internal are not taken as seriously as the story-external view (could it be the more frivolous discussions that give the story-internal view a bad name?), but I think it is a pity: in particular when it comes to Tolkien where the connection is so strong.

    As for goal of serious literary criticism, I don't really know either. I know what is the purpose of my own reading of Tolkien criticism is: I want it to affect (preferably increase or deepen) my appreciation and understanding of Tolkien's work — a grand goal, I think, but nonetheless one that is regularly achieved ;)