Now for a warning from THE Professor in his own words...

Timdalf

Active Member
The other day, in looking for the famous Tolkien bit on his rejection of overt Christianity in myth and fairy story -- because I noted to someone that Pasternak and Dostoyevsky had no trouble with explicit Orthodox Christianity in their novels -- I was misdirected by good old Wickedpaedia to Letter #144 (the correct letter for the quote is #131 to Milton Waldman) where I stumbled upon this passage. Now, before I get spammelled, tarred and feathered by Prof Corey and his, my fellow, Minions, let me first stoutly emphasise that I have not missed an episode of Exploring, and am devotedly saving the slides and Tony's masterful outlines -- AND I would give me right arm to have a similar detailed close reading (as in word by word!!) course on Zhivago and/or Bratya Karamazovi and/or Byesi.... OK, with that iron-clad shield firmly in place against the slings and arrows of outraged fortune, here is the Tolkien quote:
"There is, of course, a clash between 'literary' technique and the fascination of elaborating in detail an imaginary mythical Age.... As a story, I think it good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much; and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. (Yoiks, do we now know very well what getting lost in that Old Forest is like, no?! ;) but thanks to Master Corey Bombadil we have gotten through it intact!) And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).' [p. 174, Carpenter, Letters]
Now of course, being Tolkien (and this is typically paradoxical of mythmakers,. I believe, at least the ones I know in any detail) in the very preceding paragraph he explicitly has said:
"I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions."
Conclusion. old JRRT wants to have his cake and eat it too.... Enigmas wrapped in riddles wrapped in mystery... but fully dissected, analysed and laid out like a blackboard-filling physics equation. "Measured measured and NOT found wanting!" A Delicate Balance worthy of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf!
 

Rachel Port

Active Member
So our disputes here in this forum echo Tolkien's disputes with himself? Why am I not surprised?

But I think that he was still working things out for the rest of his life, and didn't necessarily intend all those possible explanations to be made public, as Christopher has done. But I claim my reader's right to do the same.
 

Timdalf

Active Member
Frankly, Rachel, -- and this may be a horrifyingly unpopular position -- I find "The Simarillion" to be a failed work -- as a whole. Failed in that it is drastically unfinished and unfinishable as we have it. A work of art has to have some modicum of unity and of consistency. It's all well and good to hide behind the fig leaf of "legendaria are rarely if ever so"... This is not a folk legendarium, but a literary one, so it deserves coherence and unity. But, in his favour, I will say, I don't think even "seventy maids with seventy mops could ever get it clear" -- ie, no matter if JRRT had 10 lifetimes, would such an immense restructuring of reality been finished and consistent. Hopefully, he has continued on it up There... and we will have such enjoyment Then.
 

Beech27

Active Member
I'm not sure that "unfinished and unfinishable" would be an entirely unpopular opinion, here. Corey semi-joked on the Amon Sûl podcast that "The Silmarillion doesn't exist", and I think many posters (myself included) enjoy the "Exploring" project so much because it attempts largely to take LOTR as a discrete literary work, whereas other conversations tend to treat Tolkien's extended writing as a kind of lore-wiki.
 

Timdalf

Active Member
I'm not sure that "unfinished and unfinishable" would be an entirely unpopular opinion, here. Corey semi-joked on the Amon Sûl podcast that "The Silmarillion doesn't exist", and I think many posters (myself included) enjoy the "Exploring" project so much because it attempts largely to take LOTR as a discrete literary work, whereas other conversations tend to treat Tolkien's extended writing as a kind of lore-wiki.
Well, doesn't exist is certainly more drastic than my unfinished was. Assuming Prof Corey did not mean that for the readers of LotR until 1977 it did not exist.... SilmFilm is certainly trying hard to fill up the corners of the Silm!
 

Beech27

Active Member
In context I don't think it's any more drastic than your assertion. Essentially he and the host assert (rather uncontroversially) that the published Silmarillion is a collection of documents, edited together by Christopher, which JRR Tolkien had never composed into a finished book called The Silmarillion.
 
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Rachel Port

Active Member
What if, instead of taking Tokien's attempts as explanation which often contradicts itself, we looked at it as speculation - what if this was the way it was - how would that play out? But what if it was this way instead - how would that play out? Then his world contains endless possibilities. He may have wanted a world complete, but I rather enjoy the endless possibilities. Maybe that's why I like the Unfinished Tales so much. But I too look at LOTR as a self-contained work - until recently, that's the only way I knew it.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
I don't think it's 'having it both ways' at all. I think an author can have a very definitive answer about how and why something has happened in the story...but never share what that answer is with the readers, leaving it a mystery. That's a perfectly legitimate approach to writing! After all, as the author, you have to know the rules and how everything works so that your story has internal consistency...but for your characters, they merely live there and experience concrete events, possibly without any explanation at all. And the reader is, typically, sharing the characters' viewpoint rather than the author's viewpoint.

I once read a story that was a post-apocalyptic scenario. The characters woke up one day, and all the other people were simply...gone. The characters never find out what happened (and are never able to undo it or recover any of the missing people), and so the reader does not find out what caused this mysterious event. There are some curious details - recently dead bodies are also missing (morgue slabs are empty). Machines that were in use at the time are turned off and neatly set aside (ie, cars are parked on the side of the road, not in massive car crashes). Animals (including pets) are all still there. It is clear that the author had envisioned some specific cause for this event, and the author acknowledges that they do indeed know what happened (and that it wasn't aliens). But that explanation is never shared with the reader. I think that's fair - the entire point of the story is how the characters deal with being the only people left, and their uncertainty as to where everyone went and what has happened to the other people is an important element of that experience.

I recognize that, as readers, we typically want to know the answer. I can't think of too many cases where someone would prefer the mystery if they *knew* an explanation were available. There is a certain amount of frustration that is generated when things that really ought to be explained...are not. I am merely pointing out that authors are under no obligation to 'show their work,' and that deciding not to share worldbuilding/backstory/explanations that do exist is a valid choice, though not necessarily a popular one from the readers' viewpoint.
 
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