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Narrative Tehanu's Fifth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?
So many people have written to say, "Read the Kalevala" and "Read the Volsungr Saga" that I’ll have to say, yes, I’ll get around to it the moment I’m not being sidetracked by anything else, round about the middle of next century that should be. Meanwhile, anyone else who really wants to get to grips with the sources of Tolkien’s inspiration, there you go, read it yourself.


One of the sidetracks this week was started by somebody’s innocent request for a list of other good fantasy to read. Soon it was clear to me that there is a lot of good children’s and teenager’s fantasy around, but it was harder to name many writers for adults that I would call ‘good’. Enjoyable, yes, plenty. Lots of people are inventing interesting worlds where you can read about all kinds of quests and adventures. I read them and then forget them. They pass the time pleasantly whenever I don’t want to be aware of things like buses or income-tax or housework. One day the dust-mice I have failed to clean up will mutate into some kind of fantasy horror that will inject a little action into my life, but meanwhile there is a never-ending supply of imaginary worlds where this can happen to me without exercising me unduly.

But the stuff I read when I was a kid, I cared what happened at the end of the book. I’ve been re-reading some of that stuff and admiring how good some of it is. Writing for kids is no simpler than writing for adults; it is a different craft.

One of the authors I always enjoyed was Diana Wynne Jones, and it turns out that she took some of Tolkien’s courses at Oxford. She’s written an essay on Tolkien’s narrative structure in LOTR. It’s not widely available, and I was lucky enough to have been lent one of a limited edition anthology called "Everard’s last ride" that contains it.

First of all, she says how hard it was to learn anything from Tolkien at all, given that he appeared to hate lecturing and always mumbled, and turned to face he board if there was any chance that anyone had heard what he’d said. The class shrank to a handful, but she stuck it out and became aware that Tolkien knew narrative inside out.

Wynne Jones describes narrative something like this: The plot is what happens. The narrative is how you pace those events. How you make things in the plot foreshadow or echo other things that will happen or have happened, so that as you read the book, the events have a kind of unconscious ‘rightness’ due to the way they have been prepared.


A lot of fantasy writing is a bit like somebody daydreaming. They dream up a world, that’s pretty nice, interesting things happen in it. They think up a plot, they write it down, and with enough imagination and intelligence the writer can husband it into developing its own complexity as the characters and motives start to work against each other. That’s not easy to do, butcrafting a good story into a work of art is even harder.

Narrative is the art of shaping things at a more subtle level…Wynne Jones says she looks and looks at LOTR, and still wonders how Tolkien does what he does. It’s done so well that the artifice is invisible.

She relates it to the way a symphony is constructed and that seems good analogy to me. Music often has an underlying structure which makes its episodes feel " right" and logically inevitable, and that occurs at a deeper level than the things one is aware of like the melodies or rhythms or colours of the instruments.

How can you tell when a symphonic piece is nearly finished? Certain expectations have been set up and then resolved. There are a dozen subconscious cues in the structure of the piece to say that we are reaching a conclusion, not because the composer ran out of tunes at that point, but because of the way the piece is ‘built’, though we don’t really notice it.

You can probably find a structure in anything if you look hard enough, but to Diana Wynne Jones, "The Lord of the Rings" is built in a series of movements, each of which has a ‘coda’ section. The coda gives a foreshadowing of what comes next, and reflects on what has been. She marvels at how this strucure is so hidden in the telling of the story, "which appears to march forward and to unfold with the utmost clarity and regularity." I’m not sure the book segments out as neatly as she implies, but I’ll present her analysis of the first ‘movement’.

The opening scene copies the way some of the Arthurian tales started, like "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," with a feast at which there are present the hero…and then shortly afterwards the mirth is interrupted, and we hear rumours of strangeness, a quest to be undertaken. Magic enters the safe homely world of the party, a quest is begun. This is a tradition of storytelling, the medieval Romance, that Tolkien knew inside-out, but here he’s begins it disguised as a children’s fairy story, with a birthday-party. Very homely.

But as the quest begins, the book opens out from small to large: Tolkien’s hobbits start out innocent and ignorant of the wider world because of their distance from it (as well as a kind of determined complacency). Frodo’s only aim at first is to get to Rivendell. After that, greater ones than he will decide what is to become of the Ring. But on the way there are light premonitions of the wider world: the meeting with Bombadil and the slight mention that he is eldest – he has been there since the beginning of the world – and the encounter with the barrow-wights. Jones describes them as the dead hand of the past reaching to disturb the present. They’re carrying the left-over hatred of the wars of Angmar. This is a foreshadowing of the way the Ring has reached out of distant history, loaded with the weight of an old evil which will flourish in the present. And it’s part of the history of the Ring, but not directly, not in this story. In this first encounter with history, the Hobbits are bumblers and are saved through no efforts of their own. They are still innocents.

Until Bree they’ve been mostly in a Hobbit world. At Bree they meet men and we become aware that people are on the move from distant parts of the world with which the Hobbits have never been concerned. We’ve known that the Elves are passing through the Shire on their Elvish concernes, now it seems that there is a wider disquiet. The world opens out, from our point of view.

The coda is the journey to Rivendell. We meet the trolls – a touch of the past again, Bilbo’s past (remember Bilbo was saved by Gandalf? But where is Gandalf on this journey?) – and then we meet the Black Riders again. But this time they are far more dangerous, and there is the real sense that the hobbits might not survive. The autumn road is harder and more desperate.

The first movement sets up an expectation that the hobbits would be rescued again on Weathertop or on the way to Rivendell, as they were in the Shire by the Elves, or by Tom Bombadil when they were helpless under the Barrow. But instead, after Bree they barely escape the dangers that beset them, even with all the help they can get from Glorfindel, and with their strongest efforts. The ‘first movement’ makes us expect that somebody will always be there to rescue them, the coda gives us the dreadful foreboding that the hobbits are in greater danger than we realised and the help we expected may not come.

Jones points to another thing about the way the book is built: the way the perspective widens from a purely hobbit’s-eye view of the world, very cosy and eating-orientated, to the world of Bree, that has men in it, to the council of Elrond, where we become more aware of the size of Middle-earth and the length of its history, and we are introduced to more of its races

The perspective widens again when we see Gondor, the Rohirrim, the vast intake of peoples going to Mordor….but the view has been prepared in stages. Each step of the way, verses and songs and passing comments give us and the hobbits a growing awareness of the age and size of Middle-earth.

Wynne Jones describes volume II as "the great choral movement." Yes, or hunt out a recording of Mahler 6 and hear that same stucture turned to music: skeined music, each strand different, all conflict and colour and tension, yet finally all drawn to march in the same direction. Suddenly our perspectives are vast and both the friends and enemies of the quest number as a multitude.

But all of that has been foreshadowed by the snatches of songs about past deeds and the meetings with Elves intent on their alien concerns.

"Beowulf" uses the device of having a harper sing to Beowulf about the glorious deeds of the past. The song reflects Beowulf’s own deeds but its tragic end foreshadows Beowulf’s death. Tolkien also uses songs, these ‘insets’ of history, to set the atmosphere of Middle-earth up a little more clearly for us, but also he uses them again and again to make us sense the weight of doom-laden history that is pushing the living characters forward with a terrible necessity to act.

Wynne Jones points out how hard it is to split the narrative strand into two or three ‘braids’ as Tolkien does. Most fantasy novels flick between the various characters and their adventures, chapter by chapter. Tolkien stays with Merry and Pippin and the others for half a volume and then goes back to Frodo and Sam.

Why in that order? Why the glorious battles, the bustling, active, triumphant adventures of Merry and Pippin and the three pursuers, the battle of Helm’s deep, the overthrow of Saruman, first? Shouldn’t a narrative be structured so the quiet stuff happens first and then the more exciting stuff? Like a symphony that ends with a loud fast finale?

Tolkien takes a risk. He is only distracting us with all the chasing and battling. It is not this action that is going to save Middle-earth, but the operation of quiet virtues in Frodo and Sam. Steadfastness, loyalty, determination and love, what Wynne Jones calls ‘negative virtues.’

Wynne Jones points out that volume II is built in two parts which work in contrary motion: At the beginning, Merry and Pippin are captive and pursued. The first half of the volume deals with their adventures and their growing sense of self-reliance, and their involvement with the greater realm of Rohan. The second half of the volume is the antithesis: Sam and Frodo have only a kind of dogged determination and loyalty to get them through their trek away from civilization and into the wilderness. The volume ends with Frodo as a captive and Sam as an ineffective hero who only nearly succeeds when he attacks Shelob.

Both sets of hobbits attack a tower: Merry and Pippin at Orthanc, Sam and Frodo at Cirith Ungol. But Sam and Frodo fail, and set against the successes at Orthanc it only deepens our sense of despair and our belief that the hobbits in Mordor face an impossible task. To write a whole book that is about the quiet virtues of steadfastness and love after the heroic scenes in the first book (of volume II, I mean) is a real risk, and Tolkien carries it off. The scene where Sam attacks Shelob, or much earlier the moment at the crossroads when the setting sun gilds the fallen statue of the King: they are some of the most moving episodes in the book.

Wynne Jones says that some things are deliberately presented twice, like the Dead Marshes which are foreshadowed in the Midgewater Marshes, but the later version is twisted into horror by that same entanglement of a futile evil past. It’s like we’re revisiting familiar ground (a marsh) but Tolkien shows us how much worse it can get. Or the Ents, foreshadowed in the Old Forest outside the Shire. The creatures of the Old Forest will not involve themselves in the War of the Ring, but by the time the hobbits encounter the Ents the evil in Mordor has become so pressing that the ents are at last persuaded to fight.

I can see another way that the narrative works in contrary motion: Right near the beginning we are presented with the Shire in autumn and the rumours that the Elves are leaving Middle-earth for good. Hints of this decline of the elder races recur throughout the books, so that the image of autumn at the beginning can be read as an image of the decline of the Third Age and all the noble, wild and magical things in it. The story of the war of the Ring opposes the victory over Mordor against the failing vigour of the Elder Races. Victory costs them their tenure in Middle-earth, though the price would have been higher had they lost.

"The kind of thing the Elves might well sing as they left. Check out Richard Strauss’ version in ‘Four Last Songs’. This is ‘September’, by Hermann Hesse."

Though the Elder races and the great armies of the King continue the war in the beginning of the third volume, once again it’s a red herring. Everything depends instead on two very ordinary and unprotected travellers far off in the wasteland of Mordor. It’s a stomach-turning moment when the battle of the Pelinnor Fields is over and the reader realises that it has availed nothing, Middle-earth is still not safe, and more lives must be lost in the terrible gambit in front of the Black Gate.

Of course that’s been foreshadowed back when Frodo woke in Rivendell, having won his way to safety…but at the council of Elrond we soon learned that even Rivendell cannot stand forever, and the only safetly lies in moving forward.

Strangest of all, then, to return from the triumph in Gondor to the terrible journey across Mordor, and to see the evil defeated by a triple failure of the heroes. I’m going to quote Wynne Jones here because there is no clearer way to put it:

"…despite their courage, and their wholly admirable affection for one another, and Frodo’s near transfiguration, their action is indeed negative. At the last minute, Frodo refuses to throw the Ring into the Cracks of Doom and puts it on instead." She reminds us of the other failures from the past: "Frodo, not lovingly, spared Gollum’s life. Sam, not understanding Gollum’s loneliness in the marshes, threatened him and turned his incipient friendship to hatred. So Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and falls with it and the Ring into the Cracks of Doom." That so many failures can conspire towards a victory is the closest that Tolkien will get to saying that God works in mysterious ways, something that Gandalf suspected but which the events on Mt. Doom confirm.

Tolkien has created a narrative where things work in contrary motion, and it’s the tension of those things pulling in their opposite directions that give the book its tremendous force, I think.

And then just where any other author might have stopped, at the triumphant moment of Sauron’s ovethrow, Tolkien instead lets us see how these ordinary folk, the hobbits, return home and slide back out of History. The scale is shrunk down, as Wynne Jones puts it, back to the Shire. But Frodo…he has become more Elvish, and Tolkien has hinted that the Elves, with their immortality, their never-aging, their bottomless memory, are ‘widowed from history.’ They are forced to withdraw from the world in which the memory of every act must live for ever, every grief over a mortal death is endless. Tolkien hints at the burden that immortality would be through the parallel stories of Arwen and Luthien.

Dammit, I have to quote again. This essay deserves a wider audience than the limited-editon print-run of 1000 copies it got, and there is simply no better way to say it than Diana Wynne Jones said it:

"Tolkien works his final sleight-of-narrative here. He was perfectly aware of the Germanic custom of ship-burial, in which a dead king was floated out to sea. Crossing the Sea is represented as a matter full of sadness….the passing of Frodo is never represented as other than a permanent voyage. So the ending is heart-rendingly equivocal. You can see it as Frodo moving into eternity, or into history – or not. You can see it as a justification – or not – of the negative side."

For Frodo’s story has not been one of splendid deeds and positive heroism, but the negative virtues of patient endurance and the simple steadfast will to do right.

And this is how the Arthurian romances would often end, with a sense that no victory was final, that every gift had its price, that life went on regardless and left the likes of King Arthur enorcelled under his hill, and Frodo forever parted from his Shire.

I’d be quite happy if nobody wrote a soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings movie, and instead they set it to most of Mahler’s Song of the Earth and his Ninth Symphony…and at the end you would hear either of those last "Farewell" movements, which balance between acceptance and yearning and die away as though the music continues elswhere, unheard – or not.

[Im Abendrot/At Gloam]
‘"Im Abendrot/At Gloaming" by Joseph von Eisendorff. The last Last Song.’

Next week: Scary Stuff. So bad it’s good.


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