Sunday 28 August 2011

Source Criticism

I am about to embark on reading Jason Fisher's new book, Tolkien and the Study of his Sources, and I thought that I would carry out a little experiment — I am, after all, an experimental physicist by education ;-)

Now, before I start reading, I will record some of my thoughts on source criticism, and when I have finished Jason's book on the practice, I'll post again to note any developments and changes in my position.

First off, what is source criticism? Having decided to do this experiment, I realize that I don't really know the formal definition as such. I know that it involves the identification of more or less probable sources of inspiration for elements in a story — e.g. Kullervo in the Kalevala as the original inspiration for Túrin Turambar — but I don't know if the term is used to cover more than just the identification of the possible source, so here at least there is something for me to learn ;-)  However, for the purpose of this post, I will use ‘source criticism’ to refer to the activity of identifying sources exclusively.

So, source criticism …

Generally my first criterion when evaluating literary criticism is whether it affects my appreciation of the work in question — I like it best if it can heighten my appreciation or deepen my understanding, but I guess that such a positive effect is a luxury one cannot always insist on :-)  Now, in my experience this is very rarely, if ever, achieved by source criticism alone (in the sense given above) — not that it doesn't occur in any study that takes its outset in source criticism, but the effect is then achieved by combining the source criticism with other, often comparative, approaches.

Tolkien discourages source criticism in e.g. his essay On Fairy-Stories, but that is, in my view, not a good reason in itself to abstain from it, even with regards to Tolkien's own writings — he also discourages the study of an author's biographical details, and that at least is a widely accepted and appreciated area also within Tolkien studies, including the study of biographical details as sources of inspiration for his fiction (where source study and biography meet), and I greatly appreciate good biographical studies that give me an increased understanding of the man behind the art.

This also implies one route in which source criticism can be expanded upon: if Tolkien (or some other author — my considerations are not limited to Tolkien, though his work is my focus) knew something and adapted (consciously or not) it into his own art in a given way, does this, then, tell us anything about the man himself? E.g. about his position with respect to the source?

Another route might be to turn the focus to the source itself. The mere fact that Tolkien may have known some other work doesn't necessarily mean that it is interesting to me, but some further description and criticism of the source might make me appreciate the source more (or make me interested in experiencing the source personally).

One can also imagine the route of speculative extrapolation: if indeed Tolkien based some element of his fiction on a certain source, can we then use that assumption to tell us something about this element in Tolkien's fiction, that is not obvious from a study only of Tolkien's work itself?

It should not be too difficult to expand upon this list of routes, but the common characteristic is that even if they do take their outset in source criticism, they all move beyond the mere identification of a possible source and add something that is not, in the sense I use it here, source criticism. When used in such ways, I am all in favour of source criticism as a good and sound basis for critical studies, and I have thoroughly enjoyed many such studies (e.g. by Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey to name a couple of the most prominent scholars in the field).

Unfortunately that is not always the case.

Much of the source criticism that I have seen has been self-congratulatorily satisfied with identifying a source, demonstrating the erudition of the critic rather than attempting to understand Tolkien's work in any greater depth. These are, I realize, quite harsh words, but I must insist that the mere identification of a possible source and noting a number of more or less obvious (and occasionally strained) similarities is, in and of itself, quite uninteresting — it is only when the study is expanded beyond the mere source identification that it has the power to add value for the reader (exceptions can probably be found to this blanket rejection, but I do believe it is true for the vast majority of possible source critical studies).

This also brings me to speak of the problematic elements that mar at least some source critical studies. I will refrain from citing explicit examples of the various types of problematic behaviour, and so you will have to trust me that none of this is my own invention.

My personal background is in the sciences: I hold a master's degree in physics and a bachelor in computer science, and I work with the mathematical and statistical analysis of industrial tests and test results. As such there is often one particular thing that bothers me in source studies: when they ignore to consider alternative hypotheses (including the possibility of an amalgam of different sources, all pointing in roughly the same direction and alloyed in the crucible of the author's creative imagination). It is fine that they identify some source that may have inspired Tolkien, but if they don't consider alternative hypotheses at all, they can only show that a connection is possible, but say nothing about its likelihood: it is actually possible that I will suddenly tunnel a metre into the air, but it is not at all likely. One alternative that should always be considered is that of noise — that any similarities are merely random (I haven't come across a study that tries to quantify the amount of similarities between randomly selected works, but that could surely be interesting).

This is probably tied closely to the idea seems to underlie some source critical studies, namely that everything must have a source. ‘What is the source of this?’ the critic asks rhetorically, implying that they are not willing to consider the idea that there is no source — that we may be dealing with original invention. If we were dealing with original invention, then the similarities would be random, which is why it would be good to know something about this ‘noise-level’ in literature. I should probably add that I do not think that this is intentional — I don't think that any serious source-hunter would deny Tolkien's originality and inventive imagination, but their focus on the sources makes it easy to accidentally alienate some readers by appearing to do so.

A last practice is definitely not unique to source studies, and may not even be more prevalent there than in other critical approaches, but I will include it here because I have seen it in source studies, and I believe it is an example of mild misconduct in scholarship. I am talking of the practice of stating unconnected (and incontrovertible) facts in such a way that the reader is invited to draw the conclusion that they are connected, even though the scholar cannot make this conclusion her- or himself because there is actually no evidence for such a conclusion. The form it takes in source studies is usually to state facts showing that some source (e.g. in the form of a book) was available to Tolkien, for instance by noting that a book was available in a library at a period when Tolkien had access to, or even was using, said library. This invites the reader to conclude that Tolkien not only had access to the book, but also did access it: a conclusion that is completely without basis — in particular since any evidence that Tolkien did access it (e.g. that he took it out from the library) would surely have been given if it existed.

So, this is where I start. Now I look very much forward to reading Jason Fisher's book — I suspect that the definition that I have used of ‘source criticism’ is too narrow, but I have employed it here as a useful way to speak of the source-finding activity alone. It may seem odd, but I hope to be proven wrong, to be able to see the usefulness of source criticism (i.e. the source-hunting alone, as I have defined it above): it is much as with cheese, which I, unfortunately, intensely dislike, but watching friends and family enjoy a good cheese table (with a good red wine, which of course I can share the enjoyment of), I can get the feeling that my tastes prevent me from enjoying something very valuable. I trust, however, that my reason is more easily persuaded by reason than my taste buds ;-)

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