Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

The Freedom To Identify

Because I'm reading Skylar The Lord of the Rings -- we're almost done with the first book right now -- I am finally forcing myself to concentrate on the background material that I had lazily resisted back in my fantasy-loving days. That means The Silmarillion, first and foremost, whose style, at least in the beginning, leaves me rather bored. But if I can use it to convey the sense of historical depth that made The Lord of the Rings so appealing to me as a teenager -- one which Skylar, who is only ten and lacks my youthful fixation on chronology presently lacks -- then the effort will have been worth it. The same goes for Unfinished Tales and its newer equivalents, full of variants, like Return of the Shadow.

I'm also reading some literary criticism of Tolkien's work, which is activating my long dormant affection for medieval romances and my memories of Alain Renoir's instructively droll commentary on the Pearl poet. Today I was paging through Lin Carter's 1969 book Tolkien: A Look Behind "The Lord of the Rings", which does a good job of placing the trilogy in historical context. The fact that it was written years before The Silmarillion was finally published actually makes it more interesting, since Carter has to compensate for the absence of a fleshed out back story with discussion of the literary traditions that Tolkien drew upon.

It is in that capacity that Carter quotes the comments that Tolkien made about allegory in his revised introduction to the trilogy:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (85)
I suppose it would be silly to argue that Tolkien's point here resembles the one that Roland Barthes makes in S/Z in which he articulates the distinction between "structure" and "structuration." Still, it was the first thought that popped into my head and one that I can't really shake.

As someone who works on allegory and is particularly interested in its modern and postmodern permutations, I find Tolkien's take on the subject enormously useful because it doesn't make room for the flexibility I associate with those periods. "Allegory without a key" couldn't even exist, if the reader's hermeneutic bondage is a prerequisite of the form.

The most interesting thing about Tolkien's statement, at least from my perspective, is the implication that the "domination of the author" is secured by forcing the reader to identify different characters according to a script that can't be rewritten. And that, in turn, suggests that freedom in "applicability" arises precisely when it's possible to identify without worrying about matching the author's intentions. I'll be interested to see whether my speculation that Tolkien means to self-consciously thematize the problem of identification bears out.
Tags: literature, theory

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