Tolkien’s use of interlace, sorta

*** West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. An early study of Tolkien’s now well-known use of the “interlace” technique. In West’s lengthy definition,

Interlace … seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us, where everything is happening at once. Its narrative line is digressive and cluttered, dividing our attention among an indefinite number of events, characters, and themes, any one of which may dominate at any given time, and it is often indifferent to cause and effect relationships. The paths of the characters cross, diverge, and recross, and the story passes from one to another and then another but does not follow a single line. Also, the narrator implies that there are innumerable events that he has not had time to tell us about; moreover, no attempt is made to provide a clear-cut beginning or end to the story. We feel that we have interrupted the chaotic activity of the world at a certain point and followed a selection from it for a time, and that after we leave, it continues on it its own random path.

West identifies Tolkien’s use of the interlace structure as a characteristically medieval literary technique, although he suggests that Tolkien’s use of it may have been due less to direct influence than to the inherent exigencies of his fiction: “He may simply have reinvented the interlace to accommodate the story he had to tell: the nature of his material requires just such a form.” (I especially appreciated West’s rehearsal of Tolkien’s own remark that, although “medieval studies fertilized his imagination,… his typical response upon reading a medieval work was to desire not so much to make a philological or critical study of it as to write a modern work in the same tradition.” Would that more scholarship were conducted so!) Perhaps the clearest example of interlace cited by West is Frodo’s dream in the house of Bombadil of Gandalf’s rescue by Gwaihir from Saruman’s imprisonment of him on the top of Tower of Isengard.

West’s definition of interlace is perhaps over-broad, as he comes to include under its rubric virtually any technique used by Tolkien to lend unity and coherence to his narrative. Thus, the complex causal chain leading up to crucial events in the LOTR, the numerous prophecies fulfilled in the course of the story, the mythological background and “untold stories” giving Tolkien’s world its depth, the use of thematic interweave, repetition, foreshadowing, typology, and what West calls narrative “open-endedness”; all of these are hailed as so many instances and varieties of the interlace technique. As a study of the interlace structure in the LOTR, consequently, West’s treatment is somewhat blunted or distracted, but otherwise his analysis of the work is quite accurate and insightful. As Tom Shippey puts it in his foreword to the 2003 reprint of this collection, in terms of the presence of interlace in the LOTR, subsequent scholarship has proven West to be more right than he knows, noting in particular “Tolkien’s deliberate cross-referencing from one area of plot to another, indicated by careful remarks about dates, times, and the phases of the moon, but West’s work is a good place to start.”

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