Metafiction and Tolkien’s “Mythology for England”

Flieger, Verlyn. “Do the Atlantis story and abandon Eriol-Saga.” Tolkien Studies 1 (2004): 43-68. An examination of Tolkien’s use of the metafictional device (similar to, but not quite as successful as Vladimir Brljak’s article), focusing on Tolkien’s goal of writing a “mythology for England.” Argues that Tolkien opted to assimilate his early, “Eriol/Aelfwine the Mariner” framework device within the later “inherited memory” method of time travel found in The Notion Club Papers (the “Atlantis story”). This would have the effect of connecting England with the legendarium not only geographically and historically but also psychologically through a kind of collective consciousness and memory. (For a further discussion of Tolkien’s idea of inherited memory, see Flieger, “The Curious Incident of the Dream at the Barrow.”)

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4 thoughts on “Metafiction and Tolkien’s “Mythology for England”

  1. I cannot agree that Flieger’s article is less successful than Brljak’s – in fact I think Brljak is much less successful because he goes too far: he creates what is, in essence, a “fan-metafiction” for Tolkien’s work for which there is no basis in Tolkien’s writings, and which actually in a number of places can be seen as contradicting Tolkien (in particular some of Tolkien’s statements in ‘On Fairy-stories’ about the story needing to be true).

    • Thanks for the pushback, Troelsfo (and for the kind comment about my blog below; I’ve also visited your site and found its list of Tolkien sources quite helpful myself). I’ll need to go back and revisit the Brljak and Flieger articles to remind myself why I thought Brljak’s was the more sophisticated piece. I’m usually pretty sensitive/perceptive to readings of Tolkien that “go too far,” including my own, but you make an excellent point about the “On Fairy-Stories” commitment to the stories being true, and I’m reminded now that similar concerns were running through my head when Michael Drout was talking about Brljak’s thesis in his interview with the Tolkien Professor Corey Olsen. A little too “postmodern” of a reading of Tolkien for Tolkien’s own taste, perhaps? On the other hand, the element of narrative distance and the irretrievable past focused on by Brljak, as you know, are fairly important to his other great essay on “Beowulf,” so perhaps what we have here are two perspectives that must be kept in creative tension with each other (much as Flieger, as I recall, reads these two essays as reflecting two sides of Tolkien’s personality and spiritual sensibility, though I’m generally skeptical of such dualistic readings of Tolkien). A successful fairy-story, in other words, at once constructs distance and “alienation” between itself and its reader, while at the same time eucatastrophically overcoming and healing that self-made breach through the narrative’s appearance of reality and its possibility of truth. Something like that. What do you think?

      • The construction of a narrative distance is, I think, very necessary for the successful story of Faërie — often created by the formula of ‘once upon a time’, which, as Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy-stories’, ‘produces at a stroke the sense of a great uncharted world of time.’. Where Brljak fails for me is when he asserts a distance that is so great as to make the story untrue, or at the very least not entirely true in its own right. His general discussion is, in my opinion, excellent, and I only find fault with his attempt to expand on the story-internal history of transmission (the distance is maintained by the great gap of Time between the text and the reader, not, in my view, by inserting additional multiple layers of transmission).

        An example is his focus on the use of third person narrative in something that is purportedly a diary. Actually this is only a problem in The Hobbit since The Lord of the Rings is, within its own narrative, started by Bilbo writing about Frodo’s quest, and I think it is fairly clear that this history of transmission did not exist when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. At the same time it is clear from the discussion in The Lord of the Rings that Bilbo speaks of himself in his own story in the third person in the dialogue: “I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.”

        If, however, we do take the use of the first person seriously (outside dialogue), then the logical conclusion would be that Tolkien was (again within the narrative conceit) working with a (or the?) copy made by Findegil in Gondor, which would put the actual copy fairly close to the events, though this would also create other problems with regards to Brljak’s analysis of the transmission as it would place the actual text far too close to the events for some of the transformations that he asserts (particularly for a shift from first to third person narrative).

        I am very interested also in your skepticism towards the dualistic readings of Tolkien: while I would certainly agree that it can be, and at times has been, overdone (and occasionally grotesquely so), my impression is that there are certain elements that create a kind of dualistic tension in his work which stem from similar tensions in his own personality or interests (where the classic example would, I think, be the tension — perceived or actual — between his faith and his fascination with pagan, and in particular the Old Norse, myths).

        In The Lord of the Rings I also believe to see a work that stands between the more pagan and less consciously Christian myths of The Book of Lost Tales and the 1930s Quenta and then the far more philosophically advanced and consciously Christian texts that we in from the late fifties (and here I think particularly of the Athrabeth and the Myths Transformed texts from Morgoth’s Ring’). The in-between work of LotR contains elements of both, which also creates another kind of dualism in that work.

  2. Oh, and thank you very, very much for your excellent blog! :)
    I follow quite a few Tolkien-related blog, and discovering your blog has nonetheless been a rare treat. In particular I am very pleased to see you take on some of the philosophical questions in English (as you probably know there is a stronger tradition for this in German Tolkien studies, but I have learned the hard way that my German isn’t quite up to philosophical standard).

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