Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Stuff I Wrote in Class Discussions, Spring 2021… (Part One)


I’ve had a very busy academic year.

So busy I’ve barely had time to write a grocery list, much less a blog post or anything else.

What I have written much of is material for online class discussions, writing back to students about their comments on the topics I set up. Some of that stuff has been interesting – their comments more than mine, but I don’t feel at liberty to reprint their replies to my posts.

And this whole topic in itself is interesting, since these classes have been using a platform that’s in cahoots with the college I teach for in claiming that everything I post on their platform is their property. Of course, that’s illegal, as far as I understand what the word “illegal” means.

So – what if I were to post some of my comments on my own blog and see if said powers-that-be try to claim their “intellectual property” rights?

In the meantime, enjoy some of the nonsense I espouse in my so-called classes.


LITR 277B – Fantasy Literature: Tolkien


Week 1 – Getting Started With Tolkien

One hardly knows where to begin.

Many students enter this class already knowing a great deal about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – as much as I do and very likely more. And many have been introduced to him and his work through the Peter Jackson films made from them. Some had The Hobbit read to them by their parents. Some found the books on their own, on shelves at their homes, or in libraries. Some were introduced to Middle-Earth through gaming.

And some of you may be having your first shot at reading his work here, in this class.

It’s quite a balancing act. I don’t want to bore everyone with stuff they already know, but I don’t want to alienate the students for whom all this work, and the life of the person who produced it, is unknown territory.

To the grizzled scholars among you, be patient with the rest of us.

To start, I come at Tolkien not as a scholar but as a fellow writer, a teller of tales, though hardly the same sort of tales that Tolkien wrote. I have a scholarly side, but I try to hide it, and refer to myself as a “recovering academic.” And yet understanding Tolkien without taking his scholarly side into account risks missing the point of his most vital work. As a scholar, you’ll notice that he wasn’t a critic, and he wasn’t theorizer. He never felt he had to tame the texts he read and somehow “explain” them. Rather, he was a careful reader, an ideal reader in some ways – an appreciative and enthusiastic audience to storytellers who have been gone for centuries.

It all comes back to story, I believe. Tolkien believed in the importance of story as the thing that makes us what we are. He may have believed many other things, but story was at the top of the heap.

Contexts may be important. The stories we tell today in no way resemble the stories that were told a century ago. Nor should they. And yet there are tales from the dawn of history that haunt us to this day. Voices of bards and poets who have been dead a thousand years and whom we can still hear even though the language has changed and the everyday references they used have to be footnoted and looked up in encyclopedias. We can still hear the voices.

At least Tolkien could. 

Why would that be? I ask questions for which no definitive answers can be given. What goes on in the mind of writer most often stays there. Even when the writer scribbles down notes, or proselytizes in a journal, or speaks to an audience after a reading, those are just the words that approximate what goes on in the writer’s mind. Words are merely an imperfect medium to convey what’s in the writer’s mind. Maybe the best we can hope for, but still imperfect. They’ll do. Though it means we’ll never have all the answers.

With any luck, we can stumble upon the right questions.

What are the questions you hope to ask in the course of this class (or the class of this course)?

I have link here (Links to an external site.) to a biographical sketch of Tolkien, by David Doughan of The Tolkien Society. I’m also including a link to a video documentary done in 1996, J.R.R.T.: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien (Links to an external site.). You can also find the urls below.

I’m also including links to two entries in John Clute’s online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the first on Tolkien (Links to an external site.) and the second on fantasy (Links to an external site.). They’re worth taking a look at because Clute is an eminent categorizer, something which I’m a complete failure at doing. Not that I’m very big on categorizing forms and genres of literature (most often one creates a category as a means to file away a whole library of works and never have to think about them again), but sometimes categories serve as a way to distinguish one kind of book or story from another, and provide some useful handles. The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel, but so is John Crowley’s Little, Big, though one could hardly confuse one with the other. Clute, quite far down in his entry, includes Tolkien’s concept of the “Secondary World,” but later in the term we’ll be looking at Tolkien’s own “On Fairy-stories” to explicate that much more successfully. What Clute is good for (allegedly) is finding terms for other kinds of fantasy literature that doesn’t use the Secondary World approach, or uses it in a different way. 

I hesitate to throw any more reading at you. I am a slow reader myself, and I much prefer to take my time over a few pages than race through fifty chapters of some interminable epic. But here I go.

First, I’m throwing in pdfs of two essays, one by Ursula K. Le Guin, an eminent fantasist in her own right, “Things Not Actually Present,” and “Hobbitry,” by Guy Davenport. The Le Guin essay is on the general topic of fantasy and what we mean when we talk about it – because, to some degree, we all use this word, though I’m not sure we all mean the same thing when we do. Davenport’s essay is a sort of memoir and a meditation; he took a class with Tolkien when he was briefly a student at Oxford (and at the time didn’t know who Tolkien really was), and later was an acquaintance of “Inkling” Hugo Dyson – leading to a somewhat surprising revelation about what may have inspired some of the names found in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings. Both essays point to the significance of Tolkien on our literature in several ways, but also relate them to a much wider presence fantasy takes in our current world.

Finally – yes, finally –

I’ll let you decide. Tell me your questions and tell me what you think.



Read “Leaf by Niggle” in The Tolkien Reader. If you haven’t acquired a copy of that book yet, try here (Links to an external site.)   download (Links to an external site.). And start reading The Hobbit – no hurry. The first chapter or two will be fine. I don’t want you to race through it. Take it in slowly and see what you notice, even – or especially – if you’ve read it (or had it read to you before). We’ll talk about both of these, along with all the other things, next week.

ONE ADDED NOTE: It’s become clear in our Pandemic World that internet accessibility doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Wifis can weaken and Hotspots can grow cold. Hardware can break or malfunction at the worst moments. If you find yourself having trouble maintaining connections, your mic craps out, batteries die, or if everything starts to slow down, DON’T PANIC. I’ve tried to set up this course to accommodate everyone, even those whose tech will betray them at the least fortuitous moments. If you can’t stayed hooked up, let me know. If Zoom dies, you can still participate via Discussions and readings. Let me know if you’re experiencing difficulties. I may not be able to help, but between us we can devise a strategy to get your work (and mine) done. We may not have the best equipment, but we’ll do the best we can.



Week 2 – Tolkien and the Nature of Myth


There are plenty of ways to define “myth,” and I’m not about to go out on a limb and endorse one definition over another. But in nearly every definition (even the one-word definition my psychoanalyst friend uses, for professional reasons: “fantasy”) one encounters the word “story.”

Myths, at bottom, are stories. Where they may differ (depending on whoever is using them) from other kinds of stories is in the way they are used, or considered, or applied. 

We shouldn’t find it odd. Recent neurological research maintains that our brains are geared toward understanding the world through stories. [Take a look here: (Links to an external site.)*]. Reality is too complex to comprehend until we divide it down into story-shaped units. But where does a story become a myth? At one point do we apply that particular term?

We’re familiar with ancient myths of various cultures. But there are ways that mythical thinking still permeate our lives. History, in one respect, can be seen as a succession of myths. Or better: there is history, and then there are myths of history. For many, what we think of as the classical world does not correspond with what archaeologists and historiographers find. What they think of is an idealization of the classical world – simplified, but comprehensible.

Similar idealizations have been performed on the medieval world, the “American West,” the British Empire, “The Roaring Twenties,” “The Swinging Sixties.” Certain important people have an historical persona and perhaps a better-known mythical persona. There’s a kind of mythical thinking that pervades our popular culture. Mythical thinking often encompasses values, some of which we aspire to, some of which we’d rather avoid. Comic books are filled with superheroes, but the super good guys are always pitted against the super bad guys. 

Even science partakes in its share of mythical thinking. A complex theory about the origins of the universe can be boiled down to something we call the “Big Bang Theory.” The scientific basis for the Big Bang can be examined, parts of it confirmed, parts disputed, parts where the physicists simply have to throw up their hands and wait for further data. Wading through that data can take a long time, it’s cumbersome, and presents the frightening prospect of encountering . . . equations! [shudder] .

But when we talk in terms of the Big Bang, all the complexities are boiled down to a simple image – all of matter pressed into an infinitesimally small (spaceless) space, then . . . BANG!

The Big Bang Theory is an origin myth. Perhaps.

Historical figures are often enlarged to mythical proportions. Events are reduced to certain key details. The rest of the details are smoothed away or forgotten. Our everyday lives are filled with mythical thinking.

Tolkien is perhaps more aware of our tendency to mythologize than most other authors of the last century – or he understood that impulse better, since he didn’t try to analyze it out of existence, as many of his contemporaries attempted.

Where there is a danger in the whole business of myth-making and mythologizing is in mistaking the myth for reality, or trying to pass off the myth as a reality. The myth is a kind of tool, just as language is a tool. The name of a thing is not the thing itself, but a means by which we can understand the thing better, and relate it to other things – to measure it and weigh it. In a similar way, the myth is not reality, but helps us to understand reality in a way we would not be able to without creating the myth.

From “Mythopoeia”:

Yet trees and not ‘trees’, until so named and seen -

and never were so named, till those had been

who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,

faint echo and dim picture of the world,

but neither record nor a photograph,

being divination, judgement, and a laugh,

response of those that felt astir within

by deep monition movements that were kin

to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:

free captives undermining shadowy bars,

digging the foreknown from experience

and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.

Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,

and looking backward they beheld the Elves

that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,

and light and dark on secret looms entwined.


Some questions

·         In what ways, do you think, your reading of Tolkien has added to your understanding of the nature of myth and its conversation with the “real” world? (or the Primary World and the Secondary World)

·         Are there any particular examples in his work you can think of?

·         And what, perhaps, marks the difference between myth and fantasy? Are the lines between fantasy and myth (if and when those lines may exist) determined by the author or the reader?


An added thought: Myth rarely, if ever, sports a single author. Some authors may be known for collecting myths and retelling them in one form or another, but the reality of a myth, such as it is, transcends any individual author. Not even Homer (Links to an external site.). It may be one way of distinguishing the myth from the mythical. (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

·         Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton Mifflin, 2012.

[In reply to comments by Ashton and Ashley]

Thousands of years in the future, whoever looks at our surviving culture is going to have one big headache hashing out what we believed was true, and what we wanted to believe was true.

I’m not sure about most of the extant mythologies other than that of the Classical world (i.e. Greek/Roman), but there’s evidence that most of the myths, by the time they’re recorded, were not believed in as physical realities, but were told much as folk tales were in other cultures. Ovid did not worry about lightning bolts from Olympus striking him down if Zeus didn’t like his depiction in The Metamorphoses. Euripides uses the gods to make points about fate and uncertainty. In essence, they were writing fantasy too, but the myths and stories made it easier for them to make their points and to keep an audience’s attention. Myths can also be a way of encapsulating a concept with reference to a single story or character: Augean Stables, Oedipus Complex, a stare like Medusa’s, etc.

Excellent comments, Ashton. And an excellent response, Ashley.

[In reply to comments by Ashley]

Yes! There’s a whole category of “origin” myths that “The Downfall of Numenor” falls into (if you’ll excuse the expression). It’s a great tale, a great myth, and it is told from a perspective that seems conscious of its “mythic” status, i.e. that it is not a “literal” truth per se, but a story we tell to make an aspect of the world more comprehensible. The myths we embrace, and the myths we reject, help define who we are, where we come from, and very likely where we’re going.

Excellent example, nicely explained.

[In reply to comments by Mandi]

Very excellent points. I agree that in many ways we all have own realities, and that these personal realities can encompass secondary worlds – our own, mostly, but they can be the secondary worlds of others, too. In that reality, we can separate and shape parts of it into story-shaped things which make more sense to us than that bigger primary world ever will. But that creates a question: how much of the secondary world is a reflection of the primary world? What’s that quote from Virginia Woolf? ”Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

I’m not sure, though, what you mean when you distinguish “fantasy” from “newer works of literature.” Does that mean what we call fantasy is always set in a “heroic” mode of far-off worlds and settings a la Middle-earth and Game of Thrones? What about books like John Crowley’s Little, Big, or Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, or Samantha Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (historical but still not medieval)? There’s plenty of literature where the secondary world and the primary world coexist, or the primary world is simply camouflage for the secondary. If not, it might not mean Neil Gaiman wouldn’t have a career, just a much less remunerative one.

Perhaps fantasy, like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, is a lot bigger on the inside than it is on the outside (once we figure out which is which). :-) 

[In reply to comments by Arianne]

Very good. This makes sense: “. . . we generally know the author of these stories.” As you say, if there are authors to myths, we generally don’t know who they are. They are often a kind of collective collaboration. They are borrowed from, or borrowed from others, revised, re-cast, annotated and re-arranged. Even after thousands of years, they can be like works-in-progress. 

Also like: “ . . .  fantasy can be used as an umbrella term that myths can be under.” Almost everything can be placed under that umbrella, even a lot of “realistic” fiction.

Indeed, hobbits are very human-like, because they can provide our entre into a world of magic and fantastic beings. We might have a hard time seeing things from an elf’s point of view, or a dwarf (much less a dragon). But we’re close enough to hobbits that what they puzzle over and need explanation of, so do we.

Nicely done.

[In reply to comments by Angel]

I think you’ve hit it right on the head in regard to both books, Angel. When we think of Frodo, or Bilbo (or Gollum or Saruman, for that matter) in terms of what their characters encompass, we’re thinking of them as myths – just as Hercules stands for strength, or Odysseus for slyness (or determination, whether we’re thinking of him in terms of The Iliad or The Odyssey). They represent the qualities (or lack of them) they best express.

[In reply to comments by Daniel L.]

Excellent point, Daniel. Every myth needs at least a small bit of truth, if not more. Otherwise it will quickly be forgotten. And it’s also true that we give the myths power (whether some of them deserve it or not). But it’s a keen insight of Tolkien’s (though others most likely have shared it) that even a “fantasy” world will have its myths, some of which are founded ni some fact, and others not so much.

[In reply to comments by Annabel]

It makes sense. I especially like your point, “Having a built-in history to a fantasy also helps the reader connect with the work through their own history.” One of the things that has attracted readers to Tolkien over the years is not simply the “secondary world” such as it is, but the completeness, or sense of completeness, his Middle-earth has. It’s like a miniature model railroad – but with all the details right. You can scrutinize it with a magnifying glass and every bolt and plank is in place.

[In reply to comments by Samantha]

Great. Very much like your conclusion: “I personally think that the line between myth and fantasy depends on what the author wants to write and what the reader gets out of it, because there is a sense of reality in both, that can only be interpreted by the person.”

In talking about science fiction, I used to tell my students that it wasn’t a “genre,” but a point of view: a way of seeing the world. The same perhaps can be said of fantasy. If you’re walking down the street with someone, and the other person looks at a house, points it out to you and says, “There’s a house,” that’s one thing. And if you answer, “That’s a magic house, that’s another. For the purposes of the walk, you may both be right. It just defines the way one sees things. Two people look up at the night sky. One says, “It’s all cosmological mechanics.” The other person says, “It’s a miracle. It’s a billion miracles all at once.” They’re looking at the same sky, but they see the same things different ways. That’s the amazing thing about great fantasy writing.

[In reply to comments by Marquisa]

Yes. Tolkien makes his world so complete, even down to providing it with its own mythologies. The great thing to note is that any work of fiction, if it’s any good, will contain some degree of truth, whether it’s myth or fantasy or “made up real.” Fiction is truth dressed up for a masquerade. The costumes can be simple or elaborate, just as long as there’s truth underneath it.

[In reply to comments by Daniel A.]

Good points. Tolkien drafted the goblins/orcs, dwarves, and elves from other mythologies. And even though his son Christopher made a good case as to how the Ents were a Tolkienian creation, one has to remember “The Dream of the Rood,” the Old English poem (which Tolkien would have been familiar with, since Old English was his turf), partly narrated by the tree from which Christ’s cross was fashioned. The tree was a significant symbol in pre-Christian beliefs, so the Ents do have their source. Hobbits, however, are pretty much Tolkien’s, and fashioned to behave very much like humans to provide point-of-view characters for the LotR stories.

At times – at least at times – I believe fantasy is what everyone writes, or wants to write. Whether or not it becomes myth depends upon its audience. Did Siegel and Shuster create Superman to become a myth, or just an interesting character for a science fiction comic book? The superhero is merely one of a number of new mythologies that are so prevalent as to be unnoticed in some parts of the culture. One definition of myth involves invoking a character whose name recalls their whole story without our needing to provide all the details. Hercules. Theseus. Atalanta. Odysseus. Et. and etc. And much the same can be done for Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Black Panther. Or John Wayne. Or Greta Garbo. Or Mark Twain. Or Paul Revere. And so on. Some mytholizations are more successful than others. But as you point out, “ . . . if the reader gets it wrong, the same lessons are instilled into us.” Indeed.

I go back to one of my earlier observations: fantasy is more of a point of view than it is a made-up world. We can find fantasy everywhere, if we know how to look for it. 

[In reply to comments by Andrew]

I think you get the gist of it here: “ . . . but Fantasy at large can be completely unconnected to the what we know of as myth.”

Sometimes it can be tricky as to what comprises history. Herodotus is not always the most objective historian to say the least, and a lot of recent research seems to indicate he did his share of fictionalizing. How that weighs on mythology is another matter. Ditto Holinshed, who did a hatchet job on Richard III. But the point is still well taken that myth often has some basis in “this world,” such as it is, i.e. real people and/or real events upon which myths are built. It’s not so much that fantasies can’t be based on history as that fantasy doesn’t have to be based on anything (though more often than not, it is). Not all fantasy aspires to myth. And not all myths need in engage in fantasy (though many fictionalize and/or stretch a truth to its natural limits). :-) 

[In reply to comments by Alexis]

That’s it. Right on the mark. There are aspects of myth in most of our beliefs, even in everyday things. A world without myths is an unreal – or unconvincingly real – world. And so the mythos and mythologies of Middle-earth need to be there if we’re to feel it’s a “real” place.

[In reply to comments by Kevin]

Yes. “By creating such a mysterious character Tolkien left room for myths to grow about him amongst fans.” A very keen observation. The leaving of certain things, or certain characters, unexplained is part of what makes Middle-earth so real.

And further: It may be that what is myth and what is “real” is all a matter of perspective. What we perceive as myth becomes myth. And sometimes vice versa.

“In ways superhero comics can be seen as myths because so many people rely on the stories as a source of life lessons . . . “ The difference between a classical Greek hero like Theseus and a modern hero like Captain America is that each to their own times in their own ways, but they perform similar functions to both societies. As you say, “Comics today for us are what religion and mythology was for those of ancient times. I wouldnt be surprised if centuries from now people thought we worshipped super heroes because in ways we do.” 

That’s it exactly. It goes to the very nature of what we mean by these terms – Myth, religion, worship. They transcend the conventional definitions, and the conventional boundaries. If heroic fantasy performs a valuable function for us, it’s that. It helps us see past the labels, to how we often really think of things,sacred and profane.

[In reply to comments by Devyn]

Excellent points, Devyn. Myth and story are very closely tied together. Sometimes I think: the better the story, the stronger the myth. Someone might come up with a story about where the lightning and thunder come from, and it may make for an okay explanation, but if it isn’t a good story it won’t float. Another story might not make for as good an explanation, but if it’s a better story, it will stick. Sometimes, even when the myth outlives its ability to explain the world to us, we’re hard pressed to give it up . . . if we like the story enough.

I like your descriptions and I like your memories. Very nicely expressed.

[In reply to comments by Dulce]

Great summary. I might differ with you only on one point. Fantasies can be fairy tales, but aren’t limited to fairy tales – though they may be stories. Fairy tales are stories, too. But are they fake? Fantasy is “fake” if it presents itself as the truth. Most fantasy stories present themselves as fiction. They’re not meant to be considered as anything but fiction. Fiction can will, if it’s any good, contain truths, but those truths don’t necessarily present themselves as “real.” The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel, so there’s nothing fake in it, though nothing in the novel really happened as depicted and no matter how elaborate the creation of the fictional world. 

Jewish space lasers shot from UFOs starting forest fires in California is “fake,” because you the people foisting this tale on us want us to believe it as true. Not only is it a fake, it’s also a lie. 

That’s why Tolkien said in “On Fairy-tales”: Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

[In reply to comments by Dani]

Good observations. I especially like your last two sentences. I think some myths are real, too. Now all I have to do is figure out what “real” means. :-) 

[In reply to comments by Ryan]

Excellent comments, beautifully expressed. I don’t think I can express them any better. 

There’s a quote that comes to mind when I think of friendship and Lord of the Rings. It comes from another British author, E. M. Forster: ”I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” I’m not sure if I hate the idea of causes, but I understand the importance of friendship. It would have to take a lot before I would betray a friend, and you can see that in the later scenes with Sam, when Frodo has pretty much lost the struggle with the Ring. Sam is really struggling. He cannot go against a friend, and yet he knows the danger, and evil, of the Ring. This is one of the things that makes LotR so vital, even if one isn’t a habitual reader of heroic fantasy. And it’s the role friendship plays throughout the novel, among many characters, displayed in many ways, that launches the story into the realm of myth.

[In reply to comments by Reem]

Good points, and good distinctions between myths and fantasy.

The funny thing (at least I find it funny) about myths is that very often, even after the myth loses its ability to “explain” some aspect of the world, folks remember it and keep it around. I think they do that because they like the story. The story doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be interesting or compelling. There were times when certain diseases were believed to be caused by demons. Modern medicine determined the diseases were more likely caused by infections, bacteria, viruses and the like. No one continues to believe in demons (well, a few do), because it doesn’t make a good story. Odysseus having his crew put wax in their ears so that they aren’t lured to the rocks by the sirens – no one believes in the sirens, but they tell about it because it makes a good story. 


Week 2 – “Leaf by Niggle”: Allegory or Allegorical?

Tolkien famously wrote in the Foreword to the Second Edition of Lord of the Rings that he didn’t like allegory (Links to an external site.), or at least that he didn’t like its use in fantasy stories.

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

And yet, he wrote “Leaf by Niggle” somewhere in the period between finishing The Hobbit and beginning The Lord of the Rings. The story is often interpreted as being an allegory, or at least having strong allegorical elements.

Is this so?

If you think it is, why do you think he would do so?

If you don’t think so, what do you think it is?

Please post your thoughts, observations, or comments in the Replies section below.


You can look up the entire link to the Encyclopedia Britannica definition by clicking on the link in the text above. For the record, the definition begins: “Allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative. Allegory (Links to an external site.), which encompasses (Links to an external site.) such forms as fable (Links to an external site.), parable, and apologue, may have meaning on two or more levels that the reader can understand only through an interpretive process.”

One more interesting note (at least to me), what Tolkien himself said about the composition of “Leaf by Niggle”: That story was the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all. Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting. I woke up one day (more than 2 years ago) with that odd thing virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out.” (in a letter to Stanley Unwin,18 March 1945)

And this too: ”I should say that, in addition to my tree-love (it was originally called The Tree), it arose from my own pre-occupation with the Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be ‘not at all’. The war had arisen to darken all horizons. But no such analyses are a complete explanation even of a short story...” (in a letter to Caroline Everett, 24 June 1957)

[In reply to comments by Ashley]

Yes, I feel pretty much the same way, though the quote from the letter above (to Caroline Everett) seems to indicate he was thinking of The Lord of the Rings as the tree. But the letter is written more than twenty years after the story, and two years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings. He may be simplifying things for Ms. Everett. There seems to plenty of correspondence to support the notion that the “great work,” the “tree” was The Silmarillion

[In reply to comments by Annabel]

Very good. Yes, I guess it wasn’t Tolkien’s intention to write an allegory, but it came out that way. The strange thing was that it was one of the few pieces he didn’t have to revise or rewrite as much as he did his other work. The unconscious works in strange ways, and even a writer as “deliberate” as Tolkien has to defer to what his unconscious “muse” tells him to do. :-)

[In reply to comments by Mandi]

Great, Mandi. Don’t worry about overanalyzing – scholars have been overanalyzing Tolkien for years. All the points you bring up are valid. Tolkien was often very modest and self-deprecating, so that the narrator (and Niggle) sound an awful lot like Tolkien. Perhaps that’s what made it easier for him to write: he was so familiar with his subject. :-) 

Parish, in the allegorical sense, stands for a lot of things, but one of those things is certainly his friends the Inklings, and especially C. S. Lewis. But in a more general sense, I think Tolkien may be cenceding that the interruptions from Parish, or from anyone else, are a necessary part of the creative process. Niggle, without Parish, would be totally isolated (if he had his way). Tolkien seems to be conceding that any good art, his or anyone else’s, doesn’t spring from a vacuum, even if at times the outside world seems like an intrusion.

[In reply to comments by Samantha]

Good! That’s the neat thing about “Leaf by Niggle.” Allegory or not, it’s a fantasy story – just not the kind of fantasy story one would usually expect from Tolkien. It gets stranger and more unearthly as it goes along. With all due respect to Tolkien’s more famous works set in Middle-earth, this is in some ways the kind of fantasy I like best, where the everyday world is revealed to be not so mundane after all.

[In reply to comments by Kevin]

You’ve got it. See my reply to Marquisa’s comment below. Sometimes we don’t write the story as much as the story writes us. Maybe that’s why it came to Tolkien pretty much in one lump, with no need to revise or re-shape. Tolkien didn’t see it as an allegory, even though that’s how we read it. And there’s nothing he can do about it. :-)  We readers do have a say-so in how a story is read.

I also like how Niggle realizes his neighbor wasn’t necessarily an imposition on his finishing his work, but that in some way he provided something to the process.

[In reply to comments by Marquisa]

Yes. Good responses. I’m thinking this: the heart of this story is that no matter how hard we work (if we do work hard that is), how skilled we become, how determined we are to make our art the equal to our dreams of what we want our art to be, we fall short. We can’t really experience the ideal version of our art until we make that big journey. 

The other thing: all those interruptions and digressions from working on our art: they’re part of the process. 

And one more: some stories turn out to be allegories, whether we want them to or not. :-) The story chooses its own shape. All we can do is hang on for dear life and hope the story doesn’t buck us off. 

[In reply to comments by Santana]

Very good points. 

A lot of how we see “Leaf by Niggle” also has to do with the way we define “allegory” and “fantasy.” Some scholars want to limit the use of the terms “allegory” and “allegorical” to certain specific kinds of narrative. The medieval play “Everyman” is an almost perfect example of allegory. But in some respects, almost every kind of narrative is allegorical in nature. I think it’s Northrop Frye who says that in allegory, everything represents something other than itself.

And often, where fantasy ends and allegory begins, or vice versa, depends a lot on how we read a story and how the teller chose to present it. So you’re right on the mark about different readers having different ways of reading the same story.

[In reply to comments by Angel]

Exactly. And in that ethereality we get the story’s resolution – Niggle seeing himself and his work in a new light. All through the story, Niggle sees himself as either putting off his goal, procrastinating, or getting distracted – or worse: that he’s incapable of achieving that goal. It’s only in the end that Niggle can see that his goal was inevitable, and that he was achieving it all along and not realizing it. Allegorical? Perhaps. But also, in some respects, like a parable.

I’ll bet Tolkien would have grumbled about that interpretation too, but it can easily be made.

[In reply to comments by Daniel A.]

Good observations. I think Tolkien worried that his work – this story, but his work in general – would be reduced to “mere” allegory. That is, that some readers would think the allegorical aspects were all that mattered. To some degree, almost any work of fiction can be reduced to an allegorical interpretation. Fiction, any fiction, can be seen as a secondary world, since it is “fiction,” and therefore not “real.” The key, then to that view of fiction is to match up the fictional parts to the “real” parts, and that’s one of the things Tolkien didn’t want readers to do, with his work or with any work. The secondary world had to have its own integrity, and not be just a stand-in for the real world.

Nevertheless, “Leaf by Niggle” remains one of the most allegorical of his stories. I think that’s why it came together so quickly. It must have seemed so clear – like an extended metaphor. Metaphor and allegory are related, but not the same thing. Even so, that it came together so quickly in Tolkien’s imagination is worth noting. And that it works so perfectly as a representation of how he viewed not only the creative process but life for we humans in itself, is what gives it its power.

[In reply to comments by Alexis]

Very true, Alexis. Tolkien was nothing if not impulsive. And I suspect that what attracted him about “Leaf by Niggle” was how it worked as a story, and not that it could be interpreted as being allegorical. The allegorical elements certainly are there, but he didn’t have to be conscious of them while writing it.

[In reply to comments by Ryan]

Excellent. I couldn’t agree more – nor have expressed it better. Especially the second paragraph. “While it may include some strong allegorical elements in the beginning and middle, the ending seems up to interpretation.” Exactly.

[In reply to comments by Reem]

Excellent comments. I agree that nearly everything can be interpreted as allegory.  I guess that’s what Northrop Frye was complaining about in Anatomy of Criticism. Not that allegorical readings are categorically wrong – just that there are other ways to read a work. Sometimes the allegorical interpretation can be a red herring. 

And you’re right on the mark with another point: Tolkien can’t make us not read “Leaf by Niggle” as an allegory if we want to. There’s a point where every writer has to surrender their work to their readers, and let the readers make of it what they will. This probably rankled Tolkien especially, as his writing was very personal to him. It was his own personal world – his own personal fantasy. And even though he did eventually give it up (thankfully) to share with millions of readers, at another level it was still all his own, and he didn’t want anyone, especially critics and scholars, “messing” with it. I can simultaneously understand the impulse and be grateful that he got past it. :-)

[In reply to comments by Skye]

Yes. My suspicion is the latter part of your comment: unintentionally and subconsciously. The reason is because the story came to him so quickly, and he wrote it down with scarcely a revision. Those stories usually come from deep within the subconscious. The intention has less to do with it than the product – i.e. the work itself. Frankly, I think it’s more than an allegory – thinking of it as an allegory is selling it short. It superficially resembles an allegory, or an allegorical tale, but in a sense it’s a prose poem that’s more of a self portrait. An interior portrait, but a portrait all the same.

[In reply to comments by Audrey]

Great observations. I agree that there’s something very Catholic about Niggle’s situation. And how creativity is woven into the whole process of living and dying can be seen as a kind of Catholic existentialism.



To be continued. This covers discussions for the first two weeks, excluding some contents where I just said “Good,” or “Yes,” or “right.” It also excludes some initial discussions from the first week where we just introduced ourselves to each other.

Looking back on this, I’m surprised that my comments and topics added up to over 6,000 words. I was putting out the equivalent of a short story per week. And that’s just for one of the two classes I taught last term (the other, LITR 201 – English Authors from Beowulf to Blake, I hope to get to, maybe, later)

I can only hope to prove similarly productive with my fiction now that the term has ended.