Maxime Priou - Conclusion


Conclusion : The Conquest of a New Territory


Conclusion : The Conquest of a New Territory

a) Fate, Freedom and Literature : Some Possibilities

This three-fold conclusion is only meant to prolong our questioning and some of our suggestions. First of all, I would like to stress the fact that the novelistic art as a whole necessarily interweaves such notions as fate, freedom, destiny, death and temporality. The putting into plot may be equated with a putting into destiny. The work of art, especially the literary work, is a summoning of Man, by something which goes beyond him, to overcome his doom. “La création littéraire est bien, elle aussi et de façon primordiale – comme toute la geste de l’imaginaire – victoire sur le temps et la mort” [1]. Every literary character undergoes a kind of immortalization process. For Werther, Julien Sorel or Frodo Baggins, death belongs in the realms of fiction, and life is exemplary. “Mais eux, du moins, courent jusqu’au bout de leur destin et il n’est même jamais de si bouleversants héros que ceux qui vont jusqu’à l’extrémité de leur passion, Kirilov et Stavroguine, Julien Sorel ou le Prince de Clèves. C’est ici que nous perdons leur mesure car ils finissent alors ce que nous n’achevons jamais” [2].

In the last analysis, Tolkien’s characters do not have the deeply explored complexity of motivation which we associate with modern psychological novels. Only in the rare case of Frodo and perhaps Sam does Tolkien approximate the kind of character development which we know from realistic fiction. But this single case changes everything ; the meaning of the novel is based on it. And, when all is said and done, we are less interested in the characters in The Lord of the Rings for what they are than for what they do. This is crucial. For Käte Hamburger, the representation of the characters’ inner lives is the touchstone by which, at the same time, fiction can be distinguished from reality and elaborates another reality. “La fiction narrative est le seul exemple épistémologique de la possibilité de dépeindre la spécificité ou subjectivité du je d’une personne tierce en respectant son statut de personne tierce” [3]. All this is perfectly true, but there exists different ways of dealing with the representation of the characters’ psyches. The inner lives of Hemingway’s or of Hawthorne’s characters, for example, have not the same density, the same thickness as those of Henry James’ s or Virginia Woolf’s characters. But this mostly corresponds to the author’s narrative choices. Some novels focus on inner life, some novels rather concentrate on outer life ; the narrative moving forces of some novels are based on identity, subjectivity and interiority, whereas the narrative moving forces of other novels rely on intransitive outer actions, bare physical facts and objectivity. Some characters function as the physical medium through which thoughts are expressed, some characters function as the physical medium through which actions are expressed. That is why we may distinguish two fundamental forms of literary narratives : the psychological narrative and the predicative narrative. T. Todorov has perfectly discussed the point : “le récit psychologique considère chaque action comme une voie qui ouvre l’accès à la personnalité de celui qui agit, comme une expression, sinon comme un symptôme. L’action n’est pas considérée en elle-même, elle est transitive envers son sujet. Le récit a-psychologique, au contraire, se caractérise par ses actions intransitives : l’action importe en elle-même et non comme indice de tel trait de caractère. Les Mille et une nuits relèvent, peut-on dire, d’une littérature prédicative : l’accent tombera toujours sur le prédicat et non sur le sujet de la proposition” [4]. Furthermore, it is possible to assert that the main difference between these two forms of narrative is the kind of causality they generate. Psychological narratives inevitably trigger what we called a freedom effect, their causality is diffuse and discontinuous, whereas predicative narratives trigger a fate effect, their causality is immediate and highly consequential.

Accordingly, we may also distinguish two kinds of characters : the ‘fated’ character and the ‘free’ character, who has been freed from the substructural fate effect (which is common to all narratives) by the emphasized representation of his inner life. The ‘fated’ character belongs to the novelistic staff ; he can often be simplified to a notion, to an idea or to a value. The ‘free’ character is an experimental ego, he is a psychological poem. Aragorn remains a ‘fated’ character, whereas Frodo slowly develops into a ‘free’ one ; Aragorn is an imago virtutis, but Frodo is a literary individual. Of course, it is possible to play with these facts. That is why I think it would be worth studying such intensely psychological works as Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, or such fiercely predicative works as The Decameron or The Odyssey from this particular angle. But above all, some works actually and voluntarily alter or play with these categories. These works are definitely the most interesting from this point of view. In Manon Lescaut, Zadig or Jacques le Fataliste, the existential status of the characters always corresponds to the author’s strategy. Diderot’s novel, for example, is based on a tenfold fate effect which becomes a puppet effect. It would also be interesting to analyze Balzac’s epic fate effect, or Flaubert’s chance effect. Once they are formalized, such notions as doom, fate, destiny or freedom can become essential literary critical tools. For example, it would be particularly relevant to examine P.Auster’s work, which is based upon the notions of connectedness and coincidence, with the help of such tools...

b) The Mythic Mode of Imagination

One of the specificities of The Lord of the Rings lies in the fact that, although it is undoubtedly a predicative narrative, its central character is progressively represented as a ‘free’ character. But Tolkien’s mode of imagination certainly constitutes the most striking feature of the text.

The reactions towards The Lord of the Rings, if we discount complete hostility, have slowly changed, from a mediaeval vogue and a socio-religious English approval of Anglo-Oxford, to a mass response and popularity which has acted as a deterrent to critical activity. As we have seen, Tolkien remains controversial. His focus on action and outer life, his wish to tell a story and his refusal to enter “l’ère du soupçon”, his mediaeval materials and his unfamiliar mode of imagination still constitute a sort of cultural barrier raised against some critics’ full comprehension. Tolkien is an imaginer of worlds free of the strain or despair of the modernists. The relation of The Lord of the Rings to the values and practices of modernism is in many crucial ways antagonistic ; yet it is easy to point to respects which many critics fail to see and in which it participates in the shifts of taste and sensibility which characterise the early twentieth century. Like many modernist texts, for example, it makes creative and adaptive use of myth. I am thinking less of the ironic-parodic transformations of myth in Ulysses than of the serious reconceptions of mythical elements in such works as Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, or as Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Tolkien’s novel may lack a quality universal within modernism – irony. But modernist and post-modernist texts deal with instability of value, uncertainty of knowledge, fragmentation of identity. Tolkien’s aim is rather to sustain the authenticity of an imagined world : the aesthetic force of the work would be severely damaged if any part of it appeared to be inviting an ironic smile at the enterprise itself. “Transparency, not ironic self-reference, is essential to The Lord of the Rings [5].

Tolkien’s novel has an incredible capacity to integrate different and even antagonistic literary elements, which its author borrows from epics, tragedies and myths. But its uniqueness surely lies in its unrivalled ability to integrate, to mix, and to remelt countless mythic elements. Middle-earth is a co-creation, in partnership with some very old and durable cultural materials. The Silmarillion is entirely written in a “half-mythical mode” [6] (“The Ainulindalë” is meant to be a cosmogonical myth) ; The Lord of the Rings is rather written in an “epic mode”, but most of its narrative content remains mythical. Tolkien’s mythopoeic imagination allows him to reach old memories which are still effectively shared by all humanity. As such, it is a powerful stimulus to re-enchantment. But it also allows him to attack and criticize the unchecked modernity of our world. For the very terms of his critique are mythic ; after all, that is ultimately the most (and perhaps even only) effective way to counter a worldview which is rigidly rationalistic and scientistic : “le mythe est le langage de l’engagement, tout comme la science, par son appel à la preuve, à la mesure exacte et à la déduction rationnelle est la langage du désengagement” [7]. As P. Curry suggests, The Lord of the Rings might well be one of the best literary remedies for the modern loss of myth-consciouness. But above all, Tolkien’s mythic mode of imagination allows him both to create a new, credible form of heroism, whereas many critics and writers actually thought heroism and characters were dead or dying, and to tell a story, just when everybody began to think that the art of storytelling was coming to an end.

The Lord of the Rings
both offers us and draws its power from a profound and fresh connection with the specific truth of the mythic.

c) Fantasy

Tolkien might be said to have significantly developed both the visionary tradition, which extends from Spenser through Milton (and, in a somewhat different form, Blake) into the twentieth century, by translating what had been poetic concerns into prose form, and the tradition of the English novel by injecting it with strains of visionary, romantic and mythic literary practice. Tolkien has also become the unhappy father of a new literary genre called the heroic, or epic, fantasy. But in a way, The Lord of the Rings remains closer to Melville’s work than to Terry Pratchett’s writings, for instance. Actually, the trilogy poses the question of the value of invention in our time. That is why it shakes and questions the notions of literary genre, or even of realism.

If unmistakably a novel, The Lord of the Rings is certainly not a realistic novel as we usually understand the term “realistic”. But it is not a symbolic novel either. And, surprisingly enough, it does not correspond with the broadest definitions of the fantastic. Indeed, as a genre, the fantastic is based on textual ambiguities, the reader’s hesitation and allegory. Now Tolkien strongly disliked allegory and insisted on the necessary credibility of the kind of stories he wished to write : the reader must never doubt, lest he breaks the enchantment of the story [8]. Besides, the fantastic as defined by T. Todorov corresponds to the apparition, or rather the irruption, of the unknown, or of the supernatural, in the midst of our familiar world. “In a world which is indeed our world [...] there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions [...] The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous [...] The possibility of hesitation creates the fantastic effect” [9]. In this light, Théophile Gauthier’s “Le Club des Hachichins” or Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s “A s’y méprendre !” are fantastic tales, but not Tolkien’s trilogy, both since it leaves no room for hesitation, and since its very spatiotemporal frame is supernatural.

The Lord of the Rings is almost autonomous, since it is able to produce its own “reality effects”, but at the same time, it does not pretend to reach autotelism : its referentiality cannot be forgotten, its seeming unworldliness does not eradicate its “Englishness”, for instance. What Tolkien actually sought to obtain was “freedom from the domination of observed ‘fact’” [10]. The fact is that his work does not originate from the mimetic impulse which has generated most of the Western mainstream literature. The Lord of the Rings casts a light on the basic modal duality of prose fiction. Some works primarily attempt to describe or operate within, the ‘real’ world as ‘normally’ perceived ; these works mainly re-present reality, they result from a mimetic impulse. But other works primarily attempt to describe or operate within, a world transformed, distorted or re-created ; a world which departs to a greater or lesser degree from the ‘normally’ perceived ‘real’ or ‘historical’ world in which we live. These works, which Gogol’s “The Nose”, Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings belong to, mainly re-create reality, they result from what we might call a poeic impulse.

The Lord of the Rings is a different response to reality. It invites us to recognize the existence of the poeic impulse, which Tolkien used to call ‘fantasy’. We are curiously blind to its presence because our traditional approaches to literature are based on mimetic assumptions. Philosophy and Christianity have denigrated the non-real on various grounds, with the result that we have never developed an analytic vocabulary for exploring and understanding fantasy. Yet, it is proposed by Kathryn Hume, in her excellent book Fantasy and Mimesis, that “literature is the product of two impulses : mimesis and fantasy” [11]. And indeed, there is a realistic basis in all fantastic narrative, just as fantasy (or poiesis) is an element in nearly all kinds of literature. Nevertheless, mimesis and fantasy never balance each other : one of the two is inevitably dominated by the other. That is why they can both be regarded as antagonistic modes which can assume antagonistic generic forms. Despite its extreme realism, Tolkien’s novel undoubtedly belongs to fantasy. In this light, Tolkien’s novel might be labelled as ‘realistic fantasy’, rather than as ‘creative realism’. Anyway, what truly matters is that The Lord of the Rings is based on a “deliberate departure from the limits of what is usually accepted as real and normal” [12]. This departure, this refusal constitutes the first half of the poeic impulse, the second one being re-creation. Tolkien was right ; fantasy is not “escapism”. The impact and the ontological worth of such novels as The Lord of the Rings lie in their deviation from the norm. Fantasy questions the real and highlights the instability, inconsistency or underlying preposterousness of the normal. Mainstream literature often magnifies disengagement and the withdrawal into oneself. Only the poeic writings can defend us against the silent colonization of our imaginations. Only fantasy can allow us to recover the power of using language creatively, to reassert our human power to overcome the strength of human creations which function to dehumanize us by confining us within reified structures of our own making.

[1G. Durand, 1999, p.19

[2A. Camus, 1985 (b), pp. 328-9

[3K. Hamburger, 1983, pp.75-6

[4T.Todorov, 1978, p. 34

[5B. Rosebury, 1992, p. 143

[6J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981, p. 146

[7N. Frye, 1971, p. 505

[8See J.R.R. Tolkien, 1983, pp. 116-7

[9T.Todorov, 1970, pp. 25-6. My translation

[10J.R.R.Tolkien, 1983, p. 139

[11K. Hume, 1984, p. 20

[12Ibid., p. XII


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