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Monday, May 29, 2006
Part of an afternoon with Verlyn Flieger

A month or so ago Verlyn Flieger, a widely known Tolkien scholar who teaches at the University of Maryland, gave a talk where I work in the McKeldin library building. I went up and listened to the first part. I found myself unable to immediately write anything about it to the web log. Largely because I am not a Tolkien person. I only grudging read the books (I did read the Hobbit when I was ten) a few years ago after my sisters convinced me the movies would only make sense that way. I was somewhat lost for perspective. Slowly parts of it set me thinking, which I will get to in a moment. Let me provide first a brief gloss of the talk which involved the recent turns of Prof. Flieger's work.

She started out with a quick audience check - (how many folks here have read LOTR, the Silmarillion, History of Middle Earth?) Even among this self selected group it was far from universal. Interrupted Music, her latest book, began in a sense three years ago while she was researching the oral tradition meme in LOTR. Tolkien's self references to "the book" an amalgam of things overheard and recorded salted through out the trilogy were more than caprice; it was the construction of a meta-myth within a [coherent] narrative: Bilbo's book [Bilbo's red book]. The matters in the appendices of the LOTR trilogy are commentary to that purported book, by a further commentator. Tolkien's idea of a book behind the book was his organizing conceit or literary device. The Compiler (Tolkien) of Bilbo's book, the Hobbit and LOTR,  presents it as translations out of runic of a portion of a further book the Red Book of West-march. Early drafts show this was an integral approach from the beginning not the afterthought that it may seem like. The purpose was to create  a mythology to "dedicate to england." (from a Tolkien letter to pulisher Stanley Unwin). The context for this ambition was the Lost England Movement focused on objects in the 18th century and then literature in the 19th. Oral traditions are the antiquarian munitions in a "mythological arms race" (phrase belongs to a Tom Shippey) Rooting nationalism as it exists in Myth  rediscovered or otherwise manufactured. Tolkien's English myth cannot be a British myth, which has Arthur; Celtic and French (Frankish not Norman at that) already. It must be English: Anglo-saxon and pre Christian. Mallory's Arthur is pure Christian allegory. Prof Flieger mused at this point on Tolkien's desire to eradicate [by degree] the overwhelming Frenchness of european mythology.

The model for Tolkien was the Kalevala Kalevala - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Nordic myth reborn. Authenticity depended on complexity, on process: Narrator -> Story -> Survival (of the story/text) -> Translation -> Compilation. A body of coherent lore modeled on a compiled work, i.e. the Kalevala, would allow Tolkiens's work to have the same purpose. The [published] novel would form an extract from this work, the" book". The whole work was to be an act of nation creation. He needed a logical provenance trail for the story from its projected origins to the reader. A whole theatrical cast of transmitters was needed to get it in print, and he was prepared to create them. Initially he desired that LOTR and the Silmarillion be published together; so it would more obviously form this whole. That Stanley Unwin wouldn't do this created a problem. In response his framing became more elaborate - inserting himself ever more into the published novels. In early editions LOTR was literally (by stipulation) a red book. Tolkien was aware of course of the medieval manuscripts that commonly carry the names like the white book of the middle-march and such. All this was basis for scaffolding of actual texts - the ones published, against those postulated.

Here Prof. Flieger turned to the Notion Club tales story (unpublished) and the mother of all story arcs. CS Lewis and Tolkien arranged at early point in the 1930's that one would write a space travel  and the other a time travel story. Lewis's became Out of the Silent Planet. At some point Tolkien conceived of using his as the relation between print story and the full imagined story. How his Red Book would enter this world of England and [not insignificantly] ring up sales and readers in the process. It seems to have involved transcendent breaching consciousness of early ages brought about by some sort of mystical pairing. See Verlyn Flieger - "Do the Atlantis story and abandon Eriol-Saga" - Tolkien Studies 1:1. In the end it fell to Christopher Tolkien: with the publication of the History of Middle Earth to bring about a partial completion of Tolkien's ambition, by at least recording its structure. {this somewhat understated completion to her talk certainly underscores the value of communicating your passion to others, particularly your own kith and kin}. The general discussion here is also covered compactly in a chapter of a brand new anthology I added to U. MD's library only today : Verlyn Flieger -- Tolkien and the Idea of the Book. The Lord of the rings, 1954-2004 : scholarship in honor of Richard E. Blackwelder / edited by Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Scull. Milwaukee, Wis. : Marquette University Press, c2006. 283-299.

"Shippey's concept of the mythological "arms race," the pervasive ambition of European cultures to stake a claim to nationhood through myth." as she terms it in the Tolkien Studies piece linked above, is what stuck with me afterwards. All the variations of the 20th and 21rst century nation state can be read as responses to the demands of mass culture. Fascisms as just one 'solution'. A valid object of historical study only if we regard the problem it was a solution for as being solved or moot. If the problem still wants a solution then Fascisms are not objects of historical study, but live among us and offer themselves to us still. Nationalism seems to me curiously to be a thing and its opposite. Something that can be used to effect the building of smaller cultural entities into a modern nation state, and be used to explain the process by which large nation-states desire to fracture into smaller ones. Either the term nationalism has become so broad in meaning and scope that it has lost its explanatary power, or there is something about the concept that is not captured by its everyday usage. The period of transition to modernism perhaps required an aggregating nationalism to be successful - to survive. With the completion of the initial transition phase to modern, the strategy of non dominant nations may be to become smaller and more focused on selected myth.

Tolkien wanted a work, his work, to serve the psychological purpose of a national mythology. He spent the better part of his life organizing and nursing this English mythology into being. How did he expect it to be received and used - what did he expect it to do? England was largely through its transition to modern mass culture at the point he wrote. Did he fear a collapse, a hollowing out of national identity without a backing mythology. Without a preservation of, at least, the form of traditional modes of thought and feeling. From his perspective did the final outcome of mass culture seem less than certain? An important question to answer is how England got where it did without such a thing. If it did, Tolkiens achievement may have been to manifest in fiction a sensibility that was always present. England propelled itself through the modern and beyond, enveloped in a sense of everydayness that never picked up, or succumbed to a victimhood brought about by the politics of resentment or fear that prevailed in more strident mass cultures. The United States (which has never struck me as strident) has nothing but national mythology endlessly elaborated, relentlessly shared. Our greatest quest as a people, is to seek to find whether we are anything, have any truth, beyond our myths.

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