The shifting perspective of class reading: Is it deliberate or is it drifting?

Flammifer

Active Member
Hi Professor Olsen,

Earlier in this class, you wanted to keep the perspective from which we studied the text through close reading to be that of the ‘first-time reader’. It is my impression that we have left this perspective far behind for many classes now, and I wonder why?

There are many possible perspectives from which we could study TLOTR. I suggest this classification (though others are possible):

1. The perspective of the first-time reader. I like this perspective, as I think it contains an element of ‘recovery’ in the ‘On Fairy Stories’ sense, and JRRT might well approve. But, we have not paid much attention to it in recent episodes. An example from the last class, is the reading that Saruman (quoted by Gandalf), saying “Long ago…it (the Ring) was rolled down the River to the Sea”, lulled the Wise because they interpreted this as Saruman saying that the Valar had taken the Ring into the Deep to accompany one of the Silmaril until the the End. I do not think that this reading could have been made by a first-time reader. At this stage little is known about the Valar, and almost nothing about Saruman.

2. The perspective of the reader who has finished TLOTR and probably re-read it many times but has read nothing else besides The Hobbit. I like this perspective too. This reader could certainly have come up with this reading of Saruman’s reported words. I know, because this is the reading I came to long before the Silmarillion was published (I went further, and wondered whether Saruman was also insinuating both that he had played a role in the ‘rolling’ of the Ring, and that he was too humble to brag about it). Although the nature of the Valar is still vague, the clues (primarily in the Appendices), such as; “The Valar, the Guardians of the World, granted to the Edain a land to dwell in.” and, “When maybe a thousand years had passed (of the Third Age) the Istari or Wizards appeared in Middle-earth…they came out of the Far West and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron…the two highest of this order …were called… Saruman and Gandalf”, combined with considerably more knowledge of Saruman, are enough to cause a reader to consider this reading.

3. The perspective of a reader who has read TLOTR, the Silmarillion, the History of TLOTR, and the rest of CT’s stuff. The last class got well into this perspective. An example is all the discussion about Ulmo, and his possible role in rolling the Ring. As far as I am aware (perhaps someone with an e-text and word search could check this), Ulmo does not exist in TLOTR. My own preference would be that this perspective should be greatly minimized. TLOTR and the CT material are related, but they are not really set in the same Universe or World. JRRT tried to combine them into the same world, first by trying to set TLOTR into the Silmarillion world, and then by trying to retcon the Silmarillion into TLOTR world. But he failed! JRRT could never forge (cast?) the combination of the two into a form that he was happy with, or ready to publish. When doing a close reading of TLOTR, and considering it as its own story, and its own work of art, I think it best to ignore all the CT material.

4. The perspective of a reader who has read all of the above, and all the commentary by critics and fans about TLOTR. The class has never strayed into this area (other than if we categorized JRRT in letters, and CT, as editor into either critics or fans), which I think is a good thing. But, if we are going to dwell on JRRT’s own later glosses or readings of TLOTR, or CT’s, why not chew over Dr. Tom Shippey’s readings, or those of other commentators?

I am well aware that most of the participants in this class (and certainly the Professor) are category 4 readers. As such, it is quite difficult to keep all that knowledge of CT stuff, and other commentators out of both the close reading, and the discussions about that reading. However, I think that earlier in the history of these classes considerable effort was exerted to try to keep the perspective to category 1, with diversions into category 2. My impression is, that for some time now, the perspective has been shifting more and more into category 3. Also, the category 1 perspective is becoming dimmer and dwindling.

Is this shift in perspective deliberate or a drift?

If deliberate, why?

If a drift, should we get back on course?
 

Beech27

Active Member
For what it’s worth, “Ulmo” doesn’t show when I search my e-text.

There have been hints enough, though, that forces other than present characters are at work, and Saruman’s phrasing is suggestive.

Specifically, we have just been told that the Ring was perhaps meant to be found by Bilbo, and then given to Frodo. We see there that Gandalf is and has been very open to (seemingly) unlikely things happening to/around the Ring, because other powers may be at work. And of course Elrond has put us in that frame of mind, by telling the assembled that they were called, though it may seem by chance that they've arrived together, because it is ordered that they deem this doom. Called by who? Ordered by who? Well, we're never told, of course. But it seems clear that there is an agent, or agents, taking action. That Saruman would have spoken similarly to facilitate his deceit seems not just reasonable, but incredibly clever.

All of that having been said, your post is a tremendous breakdown, and I absolutely agree with your fundamental perspective. I do think, though, that if we exclude Ulmo by name, an attentive first time reader could conclude as the Professor did in class. And I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that Tolkien meant for it to be read that way. (Caveats about domination of the author and all.)
 
Last edited:

Flammifer

Active Member
Hi Beech27,

Yes, I certainly think that Tolkien meant Saruman's statement to be interpreted that way. I just don't think he intended it to be interpreted that way by the first-time reader. Once one has read the whole LOTR, that interpretation becomes much more likely.

JRRT often (it seems to me) writes in a way such that what is obscure to the first-time reader will become clearer after one has read the whole book (and perhaps re-read it). A very good example of this is coming in the next chapter, 'The Ring goes South'. There are plenty of JRRT hints about the timing of the Company's departure from Rivendell. But, nothing to confirm the date to the first-time reader. It's not until you get to Appendix B that a careful reader will realize that they leave Rivendell on Christmas Day.

This pretty much has to be a deliberate plant by JRRT. "You couldn't get this when you first read it. But, now that you have reached the Appendices, you have to wonder what this means!"
 

Beech27

Active Member
I agree that Tolkien wrote a text ripe for re-reading, and that additional layers of meaning thus become more clear. And I agree seeing the hand of providence deceitfully implied by Saruman becomes more likely upon repeated readings. But I don't think that makes it unlikely for a first time reader, if they've been alert to the aforementioned framing utilized by Gandalf and Elrond.

The conversation could be glossed as: Gandalf thought the hand of providence solved the problem, because Saruman implied as much. Now he and Elrond see that the hand of providence has indeed been active; but it has given them the problem in order that they may solve it. He believed Saruman, because the most credible figure on the subject presented a plausible theory--so plausible, that it was, in a way, half right.
 
Last edited:

Flammifer

Active Member
Hi Beech,

A very astute first-time reader might have read this passage as 'Saruman said that providence had removed the Ring from the playing field. but we know that Saruman was wrong. We know that Frodo holds the Ring.' (Though I think the first-time reader would need to be an extremely careful reader.)

However, to leap from there to think that Saruman is trying to deceive the Wise, is a big leap. At this point in the book (if we are first-time readers) we know absolutely nothing about Saruman.
 

Beech27

Active Member
We know nothing about him directly. But we trust Gandalf, and have been told, regarding the Ring:

'I might perhaps have consulted Saruman the White, but something always held me back.’

‘Who is he?’ asked Frodo. I have never heard of him before.’

‘Maybe not,’ answered Gandalf. ‘Hobbits are, or were, no concern of his. Yet he is great among the Wise. He is the chief of my order and the head of the Council. His knowledge is deep, but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling. The lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making; but when the Rings were debated in the Council, all that he would reveal to us of his ring-lore told against my fears. So my doubt slept - but uneasily. Still I watched and I waited.'
This is, I think, pretty clear villain flagging.

Later, Gandalf says:

‘But at the western edge of Mirkwood the trail turned away. It wandered off southwards and passed out of the Wood-elves’ ken, and was lost. And then I made a great mistake. Yes, Frodo, and not the first; though I fear it may prove the worst. I let the matter be. I let him go; for I had much else to think of at that time, and I still trusted the lore of Saruman.'
Meaning he now does not trust the lore of Saruman. And now we're being told that lore, which we too should be inclined to distrust immediately.
 
Last edited:

Flammifer

Active Member
Gandalf has good reason not to trust the lore of Saruman, as, when he says the things you quote, he has just pulled the Ring out of the Fire and read the fiery letters that confirmed Frodo's ring is the One. He knows Saruman was wrong. He is irritated, more at himself perhaps, than at Saruman, for not trusting his instinct.

Although Gandalf now knows that Saruman was wrong. He does not suspect him of being deceitful and mendacious.

I think that is made pretty clear almost immediately after the passage in question, as Gandalf, when Radagast brings word that Saruman sent for him, says, "And that message brought me hope. For Saruman the White is the greatest of my order." Gandalf zooms off to Isengard as fast as he can, and waltzes in to see Saruman without any hint of caution or suspicion.

Gandalf knows that Saruman was wrong, but does not suspect him of being a liar or a traitor, nor of seeking to deceive the Wise with his assertion about the fate of the Ring. I don't think the first-time reader can conclude this either when reading the passage in question.

In short, the first time reader knows that Saruman was wrong. He might guess that Saruman's use of the phrase 'was rolled' could indicate 'rolled by some agency other than the natural flow of the River Anduin' (if a particularly careful and alert reader). I don't think a first-time reader knows enough about the Valar to conclude that Saruman is implying Valar agency. The reader might wonder if he is implying providential agency, but a reading as the agency was the river, is more obvious and likely. A very acute reader might even wonder, 'why was Saruman definitive, yet wrong?' But I don't think the first-time reader can conclude that Saruman is speaking to deceive.

However, be that as it may, it is a bit of a diversion from the main question in my post (though perhaps it illustrates some of the fun to be had in wondering and trying to reconstruct just what the first-time reader might have thought when coming across each paragraph and word shiny and new).
 
Last edited:

Beech27

Active Member
It is probably a bit of a diversion—and one we cannot answer for certain. None of us are first time readers, and many—like myself—were raised in an environment where we “read” the books before we could read. We can attempt a Cartesian wiping of the slate, but that can only be so successful. And of course, there are many, many first time readers, who vary endlessly.

Still, I agree that a first time reader doesn’t know what the Valar are, nor their capacity/tendency to intervene. I maintain that providential language is used, and that a reader can—and maybe ought—to read deceit into Saruman’s actions before even Gandalf explicitly does. (We can read the distrust in what Gandalf says, even while his bias blinds him to what he himself begins to suspect.)

This is, I think, especially true when one considers the attention we’re giving each sentence. Even if we could forget all extra-textual information, we’re reading in years what an excited first-timer would devour in days. I don’t think we can wholly reconcile that—nor should we try to.

Your most important point, though, that we ought to seek a kind of recovery, to see the text anew, is a vital one, and an incredibly useful heuristic. I don’t disagree with that at all, and I don’t mean to distract from it.
 
Last edited:

Anthony Lawther

Active Member
During the section of the class that I was able to attend I was attempting to maintain the category 1 perspective. As Corey was asking 'who?', I was offering the only answers a first-time reader could give: 'Someone' or 'Something'.

I see the drift, and I don't think it is intentional, it's just hard for the category 3 & 4 readers to maintain the focus for such a long time. The further we get into the work the harder it will be to clearly state 'But, as a first time reader we wouldn't know that yet'
 

Anthony Lawther

Active Member
Hi Beech,

A very astute first-time reader might have read this passage as 'Saruman said that providence had removed the Ring from the playing field. but we know that Saruman was wrong. We know that Frodo holds the Ring.' (Though I think the first-time reader would need to be an extremely careful reader.)

However, to leap from there to think that Saruman is trying to deceive the Wise, is a big leap. At this point in the book (if we are first-time readers) we know absolutely nothing about Saruman.
I find myself in agreement with both Flammifer and Beech27 here. While we know a little about Saruman, it is all second hand.

My (hazy) recollection of reading this the first time was along the lines of 'Saruman can't be all that wise if he states certainly that the ring is in the deeps, when there's a Hobbit right here holding it.' It smacked somewhat of the stereotypical portrayal of the certain declamations of 19th century scientists talking about things that we now know to be untrue (aether and miasma theories anyone?)

An old piece of wisdom that has become distilled into Hanlon's razor appeared to be relevant:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity
I recognize that calling Saruman stupid is a long bow to draw, but mistaken ideas can persist in the absence of contradictory evidence.

In a pre-scientific world like Middle-Earth the model of authority works differently than what we are used to. In Middle-Earth, experts statements are accepted, largely without challenge.
We are accustomed to the modern scientific situation, where a paper is published by experts, the media report it as established fact, and then the scientific community is forced to explain - again - how it's just an idea at this point and it needs confirmation.
 

Flammifer

Active Member
Hi Anthony,

I agree that it is difficult for most of us to stick to category 1 or category 2 discussion. Not only do we mostly know all the CT stuff, but playing 'Tolkien lore', is quite fun, and many of us have been doing it for a long time.

I know that I am guilty of it myself. For example, in the last class I commented something about the Ring being rolled down the river to the sea "joining one of the Silmaril". Then I realized that (as far as I know) there is no Silmaril at the bottom of the Sea in TLOTR. It was this thought which prompted this whole post.

I think that sticking to categories 1 and 2 in this class, despite the contrary temptations, would be a good idea, both rationally, because the connection between the CT stuff and TLOTR was never successfully established, but also artistically, as trying to read the book as though through fresh eyes is invigorating and illuminating, and as taking a work of art as its own thing to be admired and interpreted for itself is an excellent mode of appreciation.
 

amysrevenge

Well-Known Member
I think we have the platform here to address both the Cat 1 perspective and the Cat 3/4 perspective (nice breakdown by the way). The Cat 3/4 perspective has more material to draw from and is often a weightier conversation, but I think that we can, and mostly do, make room for Cat 1 discussion as well. Even if it's a tossed in "but we don't really know about that yet" tacked on to the end of a conversation as lip service.

And the farther we get into the work, the more additional relevant Cat 3/4 material there is to pull us in that direction. It's inevitable.

The Cat 1 perspective is amazing and fun, and I think we should make an effort to dip into this well initially upon encountering each passage, but I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice to attempt to expunge the Cat 3/4 discussion from the class.

tl/dr: We should start our discussions as first time readers, but then apply our further knowledge as the discussion advances.
 

Flammifer

Active Member
Hi Amysrevenge,

What do you think about the applicability of the Cat 3 perspective (in particular)? My thought is that CT stuff might be indicative of JRRT thoughts at various points in time, but it cannot be considered canon. Really the Silmarillion and the History of Middle Earth, etc. should be read as their own works of art or scholarship and not conflated with TLOTR. They exist in a different world. A world that JRRT never managed to satisfactorily connect to TLOTR world. All we can say for sure is that JRRT tried to connect the two worlds but failed. We can speculate that had he ever created a merger which satisfied him, and which he published, whatever it was, it would be quite different from anything which we have got.

Also, even if TLOTR and the CT stuff were conceptually connected like say the Narnia Books, or the Wizard of Earthsea books (which, as I have mentioned, they never were), there would still be merit in reading TLOTR as a work of art in itself. The Wizard of Earthsea books might all be set as a 'series' in the same 'world', but the temporal distances between when they were composed are large, as are those between TLOTR and CT stuff. I recall that when the Mythgard Academy read 'The Wizard of Earthsea', we made an effort to look at that book on its own and ignore the later books in the series. Don't you think we should do the same with TLOTR?

I'm not really against referring to CT stuff occasionally, to establish a timeline, or compare some later Tolkien thinking with TLOTR. What I dislike most is using info from CT stuff to attribute readings to TLOTR. Such as the discussion of Ulmo as a possible agency for rolling the Ring, or using the Silmaril that was cast into the sea, as support for a reading that the Wise might have been lulled by Saurman's comment as precedent seemed to exist. Ulmo did not exist in TLOTR! There was no Silmaril at the bottom of the Sea in TLOTR. I think that it is simply impossible to assume that 'facts' from the Silmarillion or other CT stuff are true or relevant in the world of TLOTR.

Of course if we read the passage where Gandalf reports that Saruman said 'long ago it was rolled down to the Sea', thinking that we 'know' that Ulmo is apt to help out in Middle Earth long after the other Valar have mostly given up, and that he is particularly associated with Rivers, and that one of the Silmaril is already resting (presumably safe) at the bottom of the Sea until the end of time, then we are far more likely to come to the reading that Saruman is implying Valar intervention in safeguarding the Ring, and that is why the Wise are so easily lulled, than the first time reader, who does not 'know' these things is.

Another point is that just because the Silmarillion reports something does not make it reliable fact. The Silmarillion, as published by CT, is presented as almost Biblical and Divine and Authoritative, in its recital of facts and history. This was due to a CT editorial choice to eliminate the frame. If the published Silmarillion had included the frame of a conversation between Pengolodh and Aelfwine, we would be more skeptical than we tend to be about what biases or inaccuracies might have been included. Remember, that Pengolodh was supposed to be a refugee from Gondolin. In that hidden city, he was in the worst place in all of Elvish Beleriand to get reliable first hand accounts of most of the Silmarillion events. Then, he fled to Sirion where he met mostly elves from Doriath. Finally, he ended up in Eressea. There is no evidence that he ever directly interviewed any Valar or Maiar (though some of his sources, such as Rumil, might have had information directly from the Valar, we don't know). His sources did not include those from the house of Feanor (rather more, those who quarreled with them), thus, if we perceive bias against them in Pengolodh's accounts, we might not be surprised. We know that JRRT never resolved how to frame the Silmarillion satisfactorily after TLOTR, however, if a frame had been included, we might be a lot more skeptical about the 'truth' and 'facts' presented in the Silmarillion. Yet another reason why it seems dubious to me to use it much in trying to understand TLOTR.

Anyway, for multiple reasons, I am very skeptical about the utility of using CT stuff very much to inform a reading and an appreciation of TLOTR.

Why do you think it is useful? How do you think it should be used?
 
Last edited:

Kate Neville

Active Member
I tend to do 1, 2 and 3 (if we go to #4 we'll be reduced to half a line a week -- although I wouldn't mind inviting Alan Sisto in to read a few lines in his Tom Shippey voice). It's been decades since my first reading, so trying to put myself back there is very difficult but rewarding. Perspective 2 is easier, as I had only the Appendices as reference on my first dozen re-readings, so it's almost my default memory perspective. I think we should TRY in class to focus on what we know in the moment (as the POV character?), but on the other hand Tolkien himself basically put serious spoilers in the Prologue Concerning Hobbits so I don't think we can fault ourselves for referring forward now and then.
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
I'm not really against referring to CT stuff occasionally, to establish a timeline, or compare some later Tolkien thinking with TLOTR.
A Modest Proposal:

Let's double up, and start doing two episodes a week. The first one, entirely limited to the first-time-reader perspective, would only consider the text in the light of "what we know so far". This episode could conceivably be as little as an hour long, especially near the beginning of the book, and of course would not include a field trip. The second weekly episode would explore all the category 2, 3, and 4 viewpoints for the same text.

Hmmm....categories two, three, and four? ok: four episodes a week, then: one per category. No problem!
 

Flammifer

Active Member
Tolkien's own thoughts which he might have applied to reading TLOTR with perspectives other than Categories 1 and 2:

"Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art." 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics', by J.R.R. Tolkien

In the same lecture JRRT told a parable of a man who had a field full of old stones from older buildings. From those stones he built a tower. Others, perceiving that the tower had been built of older stones, pushed it over, to examine the stones for hidden carvings or inscriptions. "And even the man's own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: 'He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion!' But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea."

Oh Christopher! Did you ever read these words and wonder?

To apply the CT stuff to a reading of TLOTR, JRRT might have thought, similar to quarrying fact and fancy, more than studying TLOTR as a work of art.

The art of TLOTR is rooted in and connected to the deliberate (I think) burying and mystifying of his own 'Silmarillion' stuff by JRRT. He is vague on the theology and history of the world, and much more deliberately vague than needed. We never learn for example that the Valar acted directly in the overthrow of Morgoth at the end of the First Age (though we know he was overthrown, and the Valar gave 'help' of an undetermined nature).

TLOTR has to be one of the books in the English language most re-read (and re-read, and re-read) by its readers. Partly this is due to Tolien's art inducing a sense of discovery and wonder and questioning as the work unfolds. An example is that the first time reader is probably baffled by Aragorn's comment to Bilbo about his Earendil poem, that 'If Bilbo had the cheek to make verses in the House of Elrond, it was Bilbo's affair', One chapter later, Elrond announces, "But my memory reaches back even to the Elder Days. Earendil was my sire, who was born in Gondolin before its fall." At this point, the first-time reader might well have a moment of Aha! That's what Aragorn meant! There are many of these mysteries in TLOTR, resolved later in the work, and many other questions which the completed reader has, that compel going back and reading the whole thing again. This is an important part of the art. But we will not appreciate it if we don't try to shed all of our CT knowledge and recover the perspective of the first-time reader. What is JRRT doing here?

What makes TLOTR so great, and so frequently re-read? How important is the veiled backdrop, the slow reveal, the mysteries and unknowns, to the work of art?
 
Last edited:
Top