Wednesday, November 09, 2005

And I seyde his opinion was good

Over at The One Ring, there's a little thread referring to the discussion between Scott Nokes and Horace Jeffery Hodges and me. N. E. Brigand writes:

Nokes’s observation that “a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study” of Tolkien reminded me of something that Curious wrote here last fall in response to LĂșthien Rising’s report on Tom Shippey’s Marquette presentation, History in Words: Tolkien’s Ruling Passion. Curious’s comments begin:

>>While I enjoy Shippey’s perspective I sometimes get the impression that he wouldn't take anything I said about Tolkien seriously unless I, too, were a philologist. I also get the impression that he overemphasizes the influence of philology on LotR because Shippey is, after all, a philologist. Of course, I could just be revealing my own biases, since I have no aptitude for languages or philology. But then Tolkien did not write LotR for an audience of philologists.<<

I think this raises a very interesting literary-theoretical question (one which I tried to deal with in my essay "Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism," which should be out any day now in a collection called Reading The Lord of the Rings): which reader's interepretation is more likely to be correct? I can come up with a number of types of readers, each of whom will have slightly different information with which to interpret. What is the authority of each reader?
For example, we can differentiate between readings generated by the Philologist, the Fanboy/girl, the Modernist, the High-Culture Reader, the Movie-Obssessed Fan, the Film Critic, etc., etc. Each will bring something different to the table, and each will work within a different interpretive community and follow a different set of interpretive practices.

So let's say, arguendo that the meaning of the word "weapontake" has something important to do with the interpretation of the scene in which the word occurs (I don't think we have actually established this, of course). A philologist can then supply additional information that other kinds of readers might not have (that the word was a "Northern" variant, that it had a specific legal meaning in Old English, that it was likely to be subject to folk etymology). Theoretically, then, the philologist's interpretation would be richer and more likely to be correct than that of the fanboy/girl.

This is an attractive argument for several reasons. First, since Tolkien was a philologist, we might think that a similarly-trained critic would have more insight into Tolkien's mind. Second, and most compelling, more information (like that possessed by the philologist in this case) would seem to lead to a better interpretive result than less information. So we would then empower the philologist within the interpretive community by giving more weight to his or her interpretation than to the interpretation of the fanboy/girl.

Although the above argument empowers me, I think it has some logical gaps. If our only goal is to try to figure out 'what Tolkien meant / wanted the passage to mean,' the above works fairly well. But if we do not accept author intent as the only meaningful type of interpretation (and I think the philosophical critiques here by Barthes and Foucault, as annoying as they are, have not been effectively refuted), then we need to look at other kinds of interpretation. And even if we do accept author intent, we have to take into account the very insightful comment by Curious "Tolkien did not write LotR for an audience of philologists."

So, we might reasonably suppose that the other categories of readers might, though their interpretations, help us figure out how LotR works -- what meanings does it create in the minds of its different readers? What kinds of interesting, powerful "mis-readings" can they generate without philological knowledge? If philolgical knowledge is essential, what about knowledge about Roman Catholicism, or about WWI and WWII, or about what was going on at Oxford in terms of philosophy during Tolkien's life?

It's a natural reflex to say "more is better" and say that a good Tolkien critic needs to have all these things, but there is not world enough and time and, (to fall back on cliches) to a man with a hammer, all problems look like a nail. So the person who has invested in philology sees that as the best tool, but so does the person who knows WWI fiction and Tolkien's place within it; likewise the fanboy/girl who knows the History of Middle-earth and can point out errors (such as that I thought Elrond had the Ring of Water until a month ago, and I am, obviously, a huge fanboy).

I think the only solution is for critics to let readers know where they stand and what their backgrounds and assumptions are. If you are interpreting LotR for the naive reader who knows only the films, say so. If you are writing for the philologist, say so (and I'll assert that knowing the philological background greatly enriches your understanding of Tolkien's world). If you are writing for a hard-core Christian audience, say so. Then the other readers who come along can figure out where your interpretations come from.

In the end, then, I think that it takes all kinds to have a successful and living debate and discussion about the works of a dead author. That there are so many people who want to do this, who love to discuss the books so much that they undertake arduous study for its own sake and the sake of their minds, speaks very well for the possible resurgence of literary studies, if only they could be done in such a way as to invite in the intelligent, insightful and enthusiastic people who would love to discuss literature.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I've certainly learned a lot over the past several days from what I thought would be an obscure blogpost on words that I hadn't known before -- I mean the Futhark, Futhorc, and Wapentake ones.

Mostly, I learned that I'm a poor judge of what interests people. I had not expected anybody to respond with comments, yet this one post of mine commenting on a post by Nokes has has been linked to by four blogs and has generated more traffic and comments than any other entry that I've posted.

Perhaps I'll have more to say when I've reflected on the issues that you, Nokes, Squire, and others raise. Until then...

By the way, the One Ring thread has spelled my middle name incorrectly. It should read "Jeffery."

Jeffery Hodges

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Richard Reitz said...

I would like to suggest a corollary to Noke's observation regarding the serious study of Tolkien that implies less academic snobbery and may be more accurate given the comments blogged here.

Nokes’s observed that “a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study” of Tolkien. I believe the interested and energetic reader will seek more information (and is more apt to be rewarded in the Google Age.) Thus, I propose: a serious study of Tolkien promotes a deeper understanding of medieval language and culture.

Certainly (and with kudos to 'Curious') this must be closer to what Tolkien intended with his writings.