The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings
In an essay entitled "Time"¹, Barry Langford suggests that the chief appeal to be found in The Lord of the Rings is in its unremarked extension. As he explains, all novels require narrative and temporal extension. The diegetic element of the tale (ie: the manner in which the narrative appears to move through a temporal sequence) is always grounded within a broader set of preconditions. A contemporary novel alludes to those broader preconditions in an unremarked fashion, relying upon the reader's familiarity with the cultural norms of the novel's setting. Books about modern-day New York do not assume that the reader may be unfamiliar with cars, skyscrapers, stock-market crashes or bureaucracy. These backdrop elements to the story, utilised at will by the author, do not require additional narrative explanation. An historical novel, set for example in Victorian England, does require such explanation and can thus be referred to as a remarked novel. The means by which the author remarks upon the novel's extension is entirely up to them.
The Lord of the Rings, taking place in a purely fantastic reality, likewise requires a degree of remarking and, to this end, Tolkein relied to a great extent upon such characters as the Hobbits. By their very unfamiliarity with much of the world in which the story takes place, Tolkein is able to provide explanations of things, presented through the medium of more hardened characters who would explain things for the Hobbits' benefit. Yet, to a great degree, the world remains unremarked altogether. There are places on the provided maps that are never visited, creatures whose motivations are never fully explained, and periods of history that lie in the shadows.
Most fantasy novels eschew these absences yet, for Tolkein (who was, in many ways, the father of the genre) they were the very substance of his world. As he explains,
Part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings, is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed².To achieve this end, Tolkein relied upon both a narrative and a temporal extension. The narrative extension was developed through the usage of language (found in the names of places and beings, as well as the untranslated portions of epic poetry throughout the text), geography and time. This last one is especially interesting for it is not found merely in the references to historical events but also in the extended life spans of some of the protagonists, whose very longevity reminds the reader that they are glimpsing but a passing vignette of Middle-Earth's history.
To what extent may one put together the missing pieces? Is it possible, as many Tolkein fans do, to determine exactly what Denethor saw when he gazed into the palantír? Or the means by which Elrond and Isildur mustered the armies of elves and men against Sauron? Surely there is enough information within the text to provide the keen reader with substantial clues, should the book and the other corresponding writings of its author be appropriately scoured. Is such an approach valid?
Some would certainly think so. With essays entitled "Events Before the Opening of the Action in Hamlet", "Where Was Hamlet at the Time of his Father's Death?" and "Hamlet's Age", A.C. Bradley attempts to do just this. By analysing the extant manuscripts of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, and by assuming a certain degree of consistency within each one, Bradley is able to make various definitive statements concerning that which is not directly related by the play's author. Nonetheless, there are others (myself included) who would disagree with the supposed viability of such a study.
Perhaps Tanner said it best, in his brief commentary on Austen's Pride and Prejudice³. When faced with the issue of locating the period of the text's action in a brief reference to peace with France at the end of the novel, Tanner responds by stating that "where she [Austen] has been content to leave a matter as absolutely peripheral to her particular action and fiction, then so should we". Such a decision, pertinent not only in its warning against over-contextualising the works of Austen (as a dramatic novelist) and Tolkein (as a fantasy author), may be equally enforced in analyses of other texts as well.
The pseudo-historical desire to ground the works of the Hebrew Bible in chronology is likewise destructive in that it may often be seen to ruin the original import of the Biblical stories. Just as academics today are unconcerned with dating the "historical" flood, so too should they be unconcerned with locating the reigns of David and Solomon in history. Whether one concedes that both David and Solomon were historical personages or whether one views them as no more than the Arthurian legends is irrelevant. The text that immortalises them is a work of literary creativity and the analysis of history is a task better left to archaeologists to ponder.
¹ Langford, B. "Time". Pages 29-46 of Robert Eaglestone (ed.), Reading the Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkein's Classic (London: Continuum, 2005).
² Carpenter, H. (ed.) Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981), 333; cited in Langford, 33.
³ Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice (ed. T. Tanner; Middlesex, Penguin: 1972), 399 n4.